People probably imagine all kinds of things about us," says Frankie Poullain, the bass player and, at 32, the elder statesmen in a big little band from England called the Darkness. "They probably think that we’re all junkies or that we’re always trying to shag models. But I think we’re down-to-earth people . . . at least, we used to be."
"Down to earth" aren’t the initial words the Darkness’s over-the-top video for "I Believe in a Thing Called Love," the first of what promise to be several Top 10 singles from the band’s Atlantic debut, Permission To Land, bring to mind. Brash, bold, in-your-face, and unabashedly retro in a way that wasn’t particularly cool in the grungified ’90s is more like it. And it’s a little hard to figure out how "down to earth" might fit between singer Justin Hawkins’s Freddie Mercury falsettoizing (does the phrase "thing called love" ring a bell?) and the harmonized guitar heroics of him and his brother Dan. Both have help contribute to the popular sentiment that the Darkness have escaped new-metal angst by taking a swan dive into the deep end of the Poisonous pool of spandex-clad theatrics from the hair-metal ’80s. And yet, Poullain is nothing but reserved, matter-of-fact, and, well, even down-to-earth over the phone from the Warner offices in London as the band prepare for their first American tour, one that brings them for sold-out shows to Avalon in Boston this Saturday and Lupo’s in Providence the following night. He’s also particularly good at articulating the band’s position on what’s become the big question about the Darkness: are they for real, or are they spinal-tapping their way through what amounts to a joke?
The answer isn’t as black-and-white as it may at first appear. A quick look at the video or even just the prog-rock spaceship hovering over a naked woman on the cover of Permission To Land, not to mention song titles like "Get Your Hands off My Woman" (the chorus adds "you motherfucker" to the end off that warning) and "Love on the Rocks with No Ice," would suggest that the Darkness are at least in part making fun of classic hard rock/metal. But Poullain suggests that though the Darkness might not take themselves too seriously, they take what they do very seriously. In fact, he’s a little surprised that questions about the band’s intentions have taken such firm root in the US.
"We always thought that in the UK and especially Germany, people were going to debate whether we were being ironic, but that surely in the States, they were just going to ask themselves, ‘Do these guys rock?’ At least, that’s what we hoped would happen. It seems like some people do say that, but an awful lot of people are over-analyzing it and asking, ‘Are you allowed to do this?’, and, ‘Are you guys for real?’ We’re used to that by now because we’ve been answering the same questions for the last year in the limelight, and before that for two years just to personal friends and record companies who were interested in signing us but felt we needed to tone it down."
Indeed, the reception the Darkness received upon their conception four years ago was far from warm. The story of the decision that brought the band’s four members together has become a rock-and-roll legend of sorts as they’ve exploded across Europe and now the US. As Poullain recounts it, "Dan and Justin are brothers who went to school with [drummer] Ed [Graham]. They played in a few bands, Dan and Justin especially. They grew up in a very small town on the most easterly point in the UK [Lowestoft, in Norfolk] — a place where there’s nothing to do. So they played in different bands. Then Dan moved to London when he was 17 and I moved to London from Scotland at the same time, when I was 25. We played in four or five bands, including Empire, where Justin was the keyboard player. We encouraged him to be a singer, but he didn’t want to do it properly. Then he and Dan had a chat on millennium eve 1999, and it was one of those kinds of chats where they said, ‘Let’s stop wasting our time.’ Dan was doing session stuff — he’s technically a very good guitar player. And Justin was doing work for adverts. I was in South America. And Ed was playing in a punk band. So after that chat, they called me and Ed about putting a band together. And that became the Darkness."
It would, however, be three long years before Dan & Justin’s New Year’s resolution would pay off by landing the Darkness at the top of the British charts. In spite of its crisp, anthemic sound, Permission To Land was recorded on a tight budget with no major-label support. "We did the CD ourselves in two weeks," says Poullain. "It’s kind of nice because I think we and White Stripes have put out the two most important rock albums of the past year, in terms of taking things out on a limb and just having a really strong identity. And they were both done on small budgets. The White Stripes’ cost about 10,000 pounds, and ours cost 20,000."
Although Poullain is the first to admit that the band encountered resistance, he makes no apologies. "We may have made mistakes early on. There were lots of times when we did things we shouldn’t have done, or at least that other people thought we shouldn’t have done. From our point of view, it was just the way we organically developed. I mean, people always told us to tone it down, and we were very contrary. That’s the one thing we all have in common as people. We’re all quite willful and contrary. So we were inspired to be more obtuse and less palatable. We could have smoothed our edges, but we went ever farther out on a limb. People said, ‘What the hell are you doing with that name? You can’t be called the Darkness if you’re not a goth band.’ In a way, I think we like to make things hard for ourselves. Also, the kind of band we are, things aren’t quite what they seem. And it gets people thinking when you have a name that’s not appropriate. We want people to reassess things. We like the idea of breaking the rules and changing the status quo in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable."page 1 page 2
Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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