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How The Darkness Got Jimmy Page’s ‘Black Beauty’

Michael Leonard
|
08.23.2012
The Darkness by Scarlet Page

Flamboyant Brit rockers The Darkness return on August 20 with their third album Hot Cakes. It ends a six-year hiatus for the quartet, who had a remarkable run in the 2000s of massive success and even bigger excess. Hot Cakes sees brothers Dan Hawkins (guitar) and Justin Hawkins (guitar/vocals), plus Ed Graham (drums) back together – also returning to the fold is original bandana’d bassman Frankie Poullain.

Hot Cakes ticks all the trademark Darkness boxes – rocking riffs, soaring solos, frenetic falsetto, plus a calming dose of AOR balladry. The foursome have been busy on the festival circuit over the summer as well as playing their own headline shows. And they are soon to play support to Lady Gaga, which could prove to the most over-the-top tour of 2012.

Gibson.com asked affable riff-lord Dan Hawkins about the comeback of The Darkness…

How is it touring with the original band again?

Great fun. There seem to be a lot more young people at the gigs than last time round, there’s a lot of teenagers/early 20s in the audience, college types. It’s funny, because that’s how our audience started. But by 2006 there were lots of 11-year-old girls at the front. With their grandpas at the back.

The gigs are more rock ’n’ roll again. I guess a lot of kids didn’t get to see us first time round. Six years later, they can. It’s encouraging.

The big riffs are back again on Hot Cakes. Was that the plan?

Definitely. There was a conscious effort to cram as many great riffs and solos in as possible, while still fitting the songs. I think that came from the fact this album was highly developed in the rehearsal room before we came to record it. With One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back [2005] it was quite rare we were even all in the same room at the same time. Whereas on Hot Cakes, two or three songs are pretty much the live takes from rehearsal sessions.

This is a much better way to work. When you’re all playing live together in a room, you’re imagining playing live. That makes you realise that every riff, every fill, every solo, needs to be good and make sense.

Looking back, do you think One Way Ticket… was over-produced? Or even that the bombast maybe took something away from the actual songs?

In some cases, I think you’re right. Other times, I thought it made really interesting listening. But that was kind of the objective of that album. We basically went out to… spend as much money as we could [laughs]! We all needed such a rest, that the longer we spent in the studio and not on the road actually suited us.

Is it fair to say that Justin – as well as being singer – is the “showboating” soloist, but you’re the real “engine room” of the band?

Yeah, defo. As far as the songs go, I tend to write the music. Justin writes the lyrics. And then – Prince-like – he takes the big solo. That’s always been fine with me. I think Justin’s one of the best guitar soloists in the world, personally… although I may be biased.

I’ll still take a solo when my style is required. I’ll play the super-tuneful solos or the heavy aggressive ones. The ones that don’t have to be played up the “dusty end,” so to speak. But for example on [Hot Cakes’] “Concrete,” we share the leads.

There’s a bit of [The] Cult influence on “Concrete.” Electric by The Cult is one of the albums Justin and I bonded over as kids. That, and everything by Queen. Everything else he liked, I hated. And he hated everything I liked. We’re brothers, so that happens! But [The Cult’s] Billy Duffy has been a big guitar influence on The Darkness. It doesn’t usually get mentioned, and I don’t know why. The Cult are an awesome British rock band.

Here’s “Every Inch of You” – a Hot Cakes single with more nods to The Cult and Queen.

Hot Cakes sounds like it’s Les Pauls to the wall?

Oh, yeah. I need to hunt down some more Dunes! [Editor’s note: “Dune” is Dan’s nickname for his favored 1998 Gibson Les Paul Standard in Honeyburst finish.] I got a bit frustrated at one point with tones while playing live, so got myself some more Les Pauls. I got so used to playing Dune, but when it’s live you’re always going have to switch for a song or two while it’s being tuned or whatever. I sold a couple of other guitars and found another two Les Pauls, made in the same six months of Gibson production, that sound pretty much the same. I was really happy with that.

So now, I can’t tell the difference between Dune 1 and what is now Dune 2. Dune 3 is slightly lighter. So rather than retiring Dune 1, I am now on a mission to get even more replicates. Bastard Dunes! Test-tube Dunes!

And you have a Gibson Custom Shop “Black Beauty” Les Paul especially made for Jimmy Page – but he returned it because it was too heavy for him? And you got it?

Yep. I call that my “Love is More Than a Feeling” guitar. It wasn’t on that first album track, but it’s on both other albums since and live for the song. I had the Bigsby taken off, and a hardtail put on. I had a Fishman Powerbridge pickup put on so I could switch to an acoustic sound.

It’s had an interesting life already, that Les Paul. I was waiting for delivery of a different humbucker to fit on it, but my then-guitar tech said he had a ‘bucker that he’d taken out of one of Angus Young’s SGs. He fitted Angus’s old pickup, it sounded awesome, so I left it in. It’s become my Page-enstein Les Paul.

The Darkness Hot Cakes

Do you play other guitars in the studio?

Oh yeah. In the studio, there is always a job to be done that suggests another guitar with a different tone or feel. But I really struggle to play anything else but a Les Paul live. I play hollowbodies in the studio, but when I plug them in live they lack “oomph.”

And there’s the practicality. I have a lovely 1964 Epiphone Casino that I used on the album, but I bash guitars very hard – I have terrible technique where I hit the guitar as much as the strings! So I wouldn’t take my Casino on the road – I’d probably punch a hole straight through it. So I’ll always be a Les Paul man, live.

Amid all the power rock, there is one very ’80s power ballad, “Love Is Not the Answer.”

That was very layered. Electric 12-strings, Gibson J-200 acoustics played in four different capo positions, core rhythm ES-335, four Les Paul rhythm tracks, a Strat solo, an outro Les Paul solo… It was a chance just to do anything. It’s our idea of those ’80s power ballads. No-one’s telling us what to do, they never have been, so it was guitar overload. For one track, why not?

You have also covered Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” on Hot Cakes – are you prepared for a backlash from sensitive Radiohead fans?

I don’t know, but people seem to think it’s an ironic statement. Frankly, we love Radiohead. They’re one of the few bands all four of us agree on. We were all into OK Computer when it happened. Remember, this was one of the few records of the time that had anything resembling a guitar solo on it. Or a “guitar hero.” The Bends and OK Computer are both awesome. We wanted a different take on the song, but it’s not an ironic statement.

You saw me wearing a Radiohead t-shirt? Well, I actually own three! On that photo of me in a Radiohead t-shirt, I have two others on underneath. And the one closest to my body is bullet-proof just in case any Radiohead fans dislikes our cover version a little too much. I think it turned out great. It’s also the most “metal” moment on the album… actually, that is quite ironic [laughs].

We have thick skins. We took a battering when we first started, and after that we just didn’t care about criticism. Some people love us, some people hate us, and I’m cool with that.

See, I was a big Cure fan growing up, and I know that Robert Smith absolutely hates our band. But that’s not going to stop me listening to The Cure. And Robert better watch out – or we might cover one of their songs!

Photo credit: Scarlet Page


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