Give us a D! Give us an Arkness! Yes, British rock titans the Darkness have been saving rock ’n’ roll for nearly 15 years, and now they’re back with a fifth album of guitar-shreddery and Bic-flicking badassery, Pinewood Smile. They also have a new member, and a bona fide member of rock royalty: Rufus Tiger Taylor, son of none other than legendary Queen timekeeper Roger Taylor.
Considering Justin Hawkins and company’s penchant for stacked-to-the-heavens high harmonies, indulgent guitar solos, and Zandra Rhodes-inspired catsuits, it makes sense that when a vacancy opened up on their drummer’s throne, they’d appoint a direct descendant of Queen. (They’d had a bit of a Spinal Tap-esque personnel problem lately, with the exits of both original drummer Ed Graham and Graham’s brief replacement, Emily Dolan Davies.) The Darkness just hoped Rufus wouldn’t freak when he got a look at Hawkins’s left-hand knuckle tattoos, of the iconic Hot Space album-cover likenesses of all four Queen members — including Roger on his ring finger.
“I needed to get it out of the way, because I didn’t want it be something that came up later,” laughs Hawkins, recalling their first meeting. “I thought I’d address it head-on. I said, ‘Is it going to be a problem for you that I’ve got your dad’s face tattooed on my hand?’”
“It was one of the first things he said to me, actually,” Taylor tells Yahoo Music. “I said, ‘It’s a little bit weird. But I’m sure we can get past it!’”
Taylor was originally referred to the band by Pete Malandrone, the guitar tech for Queen legend Brian May, right around the time the Darkness hired Davies in 2014. “He said to us, ‘Are you still looking for a drummer?’ We’re like, ‘No, we’ve got somebody now.’ He says, ‘Aw, I should’ve said you could’ve tried Rufus, because he’s young, brilliant, he’s always shagging supermodels, and living the dream — Pete’s words,” says Hawkins. Eventually they followed up on the invitation, and they now say Taylor is a perfect fit.
Hawkins may be an unabashedly inked Queen fan, but he insists that the younger Taylor — who’s also played on the Queen + Adam Lambert tours — “would be the correct choice on merit, just because of the way he plays. I don’t think he sounds like his dad when he’s playing, and he doesn’t sound like his dad when he’s singing, but he’s still a brilliant drummer, and a brilliant singer, in his own right. I think he’s Darkness, 100 percent, top to bottom.”
Hawkins says Taylor, out of all the drummers the Darkness has worked with, is “definitely the most proactive in terms of making contributions to the writing.” It was in fact Taylor who came up with the genius chorus to the Darkness’s latest Pinewood Smile single, “Solid Gold,” which proudly declares: “We’re never gonna stop s***ting out solid gold.” It’s the ultimate battle cry for a band that has always believed in a thing called rock (there’s a reason why their previous album was called Last of Our Kind), their way of promising to stick around with this invigorated lineup.
“We’ve done more albums since we stopped doing albums than we had done before we stopped,” quips Hawkins. (The Darkness broke up after their 2005 sophomore album, One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, reconvened for 2012’s Hot Cakes, and have released three albums total since their reunion.) “I think it was time to acknowledge that, and say that we aren’t going to do any more stopping!”
Another standout Taylor contribution on Pinewood Smile is the weepy but cheeky soft-rock serenade “Stampede of Love,” a Hawkins-Taylor vocal duet about a romance “between two morbidly obese people who can scarcely leave the house without some sort of industrial machinery to lift them out.” It’s odd subject matter, for sure. (Hawkins is prone to that, having once written a song called “Cupboard Love” about his missing Bengal cat, not to mention Pinewood Smile’s “working-class hero” anthem “Southern Trains,” which viciously bashes Britain’s notoriously unreliable Southern Rail transit system.) But Hawkins insists “Stampede of Love” comes from a positive place, with no fat-shaming intended.
“I don’t think we’re shaming anybody that’s fat. … It’s all about the gluttony and celebrating it. At no point do either of those characters say in the song, ‘I wish I wasn’t like this.’ In fact, it’s talking about love under what are extreme circumstances. I think when you’re at that weight, your life could be a fleeting existence, and if it can be enriched by somebody else, who’s in exactly the same position, then all the better for it. So it’s a love song. A love ballad, sung by two morbidly obese characters.”
Overall, however, Pinewood Smile is light on the balladry, comprising mostly thrillingly hard-charging riff rock — from the speed-metal blitzkriegs “Japanese Prisoner of Love” and “Buccaneers of Hispaniola” to the power-pop fist-pumpers “All the Pretty Girls” and “Happiness” — expertly produced by Adrian Bushby (Muse, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, Placebo). “We wanted to have something that sounded super-aggressive, and a bit more now. We’re definitely not an ’80s retrospective group,” Hawkins clarifies.
As for the sound of rock music today — which isn’t exactly super-aggressive — Hawkins has plenty to say.
“Can I tell you what my theory about it is? If you listen to Coldplay or Maroon 5, the first Coldplay album, first Maroon 5 album, the guitars are quite loud. You can hear them. And then as they maintain their success … the guitars are becoming quieter and quieter. It feels like in order to maintain success, you need to turn the guitars down progressively over the course of your career. … There’s less spiky, jarring, human elements to it. I hate that! I really hate it. And I think that eventually, everybody will hate it. Because guitars have been around since the Middle Ages. When it was minstrels traveling around, you didn’t see minstrels traveling around in the Dark Ages with synthesizers.”
The Darkness’s appeal goes beyond diehard rock fans, however. Hawkins sang on De La Soul’s 2016 comeback album, And the Anonymous Nobody; the Darkness toured with Lady Gaga in 2012; and last year, Taylor Swift danced like a wild woman to the group’s poppiest single, the surprise Top 40 crossover smash “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” (“Our only involvement in [ad placements] like that is they say, ‘Will you allow them to do this for this much money?’ To which we reply, ‘They’ve got more than that, surely!’ And then they go, ‘All right, how about this much money?’ And then we go, “Yeeaaaah, all right,’” says Hawkins with a grin.)
Hawkins has also penned tunes for two American Idols — “Music Again,” the effervescent opening track on Adam Lambert’s debut album, and “As Long as You Love Me,” the underrated coronation song by Season 13 winner Caleb Johnson, which was actually originally intended for Kelly Clarkson. “I think it would have been — dare I say it, should I say it? — more successful [if Clarkson had recorded it],” says Hawkins. “I broke a record, though, with that one. It was the first American Idol coronation song not to chart!”
That being said, Hawkins’s Idol connections, otherworldly voice (“I try and keep my smoking to a minimum of 20 a day,” he jokes when asked about his pro vocal tips), and sarcastic personality would make him a perfect reality show judge. He promises if he ever had that opportunity, he’d “get to the kernel of truth in any performance, and tell [contestants] they’re talentless wastes of skin — or not, perhaps! I think honesty is the best policy, because I respect Simon Cowell. Because a lot of the time, when he says that to them, they can then rebuild their lives and go about their actual calling — which is to garden, or do the bins, or whatever it is they end up doing afterwards. Singing isn’t for everybody. I mean, let’s face it: I think if you’re wasting precious bin-taking-out time and pursuing a singing career that’s never going to happen, somebody like Simon Cowell telling you that it’s never going to happen is probably hard to hear, but sometimes I reckon it’s what you need to hear.”
Clearly rocking out is the Darkness’s calling. And now with Taylor onboard, they’re prepared to follow their rock ’n’ roll destiny on their spring 2018 U.S. trek, “Tour de Prance.” “Every one of us is really enjoying every second of recording, and writing, and especially touring,” says Taylor. “There isn’t ever a dull moment. And I think that’s vital.”