British rockers The Darkness — known for their flamboyant style, songs with big hooks and choruses, and a singer with a falsetto that rivals Barry Gibb’s — first broke through in 2003 with their smash debut, Permission to Land (Atlantic). Although their 2005 follow-up, One Way Ticket to Hell …and Back, failed to live up to the success of Permission to Land and they soon broke up, they returned in 2012 with Hot Cakes and have been rocking steadily ever since.
On Oct. 4, singer-guitarist Justin Hawkins, his brother Dan Hawkins (rhythm guitar), bassist Frankie Poullain and drummer Rufus Tiger Taylor will deliver their first album in two years, Easter Is Cancelled, on Cooking Vinyl. The record is a concept album — although Justin admits, “It’s hard to say why we did a concept album. There’s lots of reasons why we shouldn’t have done that, but we just heard a theme emerging in the songs.”
Easter Is Cancelled imagines a universe in which Jesus did not die, but fought back against the Romans. A somewhat controversial album cover depicting the Crucifixion (it was banned on streaming platforms in some countries overseas) features the band, with Justin as Jesus, making such a stand. The idea sprung from The Darkness having conversations about the multiverse theory, which is the concept that there are alternative universes that all exist concurrently.
In one of those realities, Justin explains that on the day of the Crucifixion, Jesus declares, “‘Fuck that! I’m going to use my supernatural abilities to stop this from happening!’ And then from that point, what kind of world is it? Is there global warming? Is there war? There’s a whole realm of possibilities just in that one reality, so it’s an intimate and wonderful thing to explore.”
He did an Internet search for “buff Jesus” and found a painting by fantasy artist Boris Vallejo that inspired the album cover that he describes as “Buff Jesus and the three Marys defeating the Romans.” “Of course, there’s going to be people saying, ‘Blasphemy!’” concedes Justin. “But nobody’s denying the existence of Christ or using his name in vain. We’re talking about multiverse theories. Science fiction. We’re allowed to do that…” He pauses. “I think. Actually, I don’t know what the rules are. But the thing is, if you do anything, somebody’s going to get upset about it. So you might as well do what you want.”
The title of Easter Is Cancelled’s first single, “Rock and Roll Deserves to Die,” might come as a shock from a hard-rock band, but it had an inauspicious beginning. Justin recalls, laughing, “We were looking at a video of some new rock band, and it was just formulaic. There was nothing original going on — nothing boundary-challenging in it — so they were pretty annoying to watch. So my brother was looking at it, and he said, ‘Well, you know what? Rock ’n’ roll deserves to die!’”
But considering how Justin feels about the state of the genre today, that attitude isn’t so far-fetched, either. “I do love music, and I long for it to be better,” he says. “But in a lot of cases, it isn’t. I always want rock to be better because when I was growing up, it was fucking awesome. It was the most exciting genre, the most challenging — there was androgyny, there was bawdiness in the lyrics, there was emotions, there was makeup, there was all that stuff going on, and it was really exciting.”
He continues, “Nothing new has happened within my cherished genre for a long time, and that makes me sad. And angry. Sometimes you hear a retro band come along and they sound great because they’re doing what we’ve all grown up loving, and it’s difficult to be excited about it because it has superficial charm and it’s nostalgic, and there’s nothing underneath it to make it really sing to your heart, you know? The way you want it to and the way it used to. So what we’re saying is, ‘We’re throwing down the gauntlet,’ and the biggest irony is that The Darkness is the band that’s doing it!”
The video for “Rock and Roll Deserves to Die” features The Darkness performing for an uptight audience, rocking so hard it blows the tops of the musicians’ hair off. At one point, the band is asked to lower the volume, which sets it off to rock louder. Watch the video below:
Justin says, “I just love the idea that sound creates enough force to remove a wig. Anything that involves baldness really appeals to me. When we had the bald caps on, I questioned why I had done so many things to stimulate my hair follicles, because it’s really liberating. When the video came out, I have a friend who called up and said, ‘The bald brethren thanks you for your support.’ I was more worried that it might offend bald people than religious types; but there’s a whole group of men out there who have chosen virility over follicles.”
Although it’s a concept album, each of the songs on Easter Is Cancelled stands well on its own. From the first single to the ballad “Heart Explodes,” and on through songs like “Heavy Metal Lover, “Choke On It” and “We Are the Guitar Men,” the album crosses sounds familiar to classic-rock listeners (Deep Purple, Electric Light Orchestra, Aerosmith) and blends them with the band’s trademark squealing leads and high-pitched choruses, with great results.
Justin explains, “Some of the writing was instant because I was so focused on this album that even if it was a case of having to sit down and write something, it came really quickly. One of the challenges for us is with the arrangements and keeping them short, because we spend a lot of time working on the songs to bring them to their natural conclusion and then we spend a long time cutting it back. So whole sections and whole songs were deleted, to be recycled later for… Easter Is Back On!” he says, laughing.
For instance, the song “Deck Chair” came about when Poullain was playing a riff he had sitting around for a while on a nylon string guitar, and Justin started singing along to it. “I was channeling being on a boat with my brother and my sister and my dad and my granddad, and I was just pissing about and annoying my granddad, and my deck chair fell in the water, and I had nothing to sit on,” he says. “I think that’s a really good metaphor for a relationship that you think is disposable, but then you realize after you’ve disposed of it how much you needed it.”
Justin thinks album closer “We Are the Guitar Men” should be considered “the big song on the record. [But] not everybody agrees with me, even in the band, actually.” He describes it as starting with “dramatic mandolins into a Bee Gees verse into an ELO chorus into ABBA into Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens doing the ‘Top Gun Anthem’ for the middle eight into Whitesnake for the outro.”
Justin adds, “The reason why it happens like that is because that’s what the song needed. We really explored every avenue, and that’s what we arrived at. It was really difficult and challenging, but I’m really proud of it and it’s something that I will always stand by. So that’s my favorite song on the album and my favorite song we’ve ever done, probably. Definitely the most original. If that was the song that people used to define us, I’d be over the moon.”