It may be hard to believe, but 18 years have passed since The Darkness released its debut album, 2003’s Permission to Land, complete with rousing hit single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” which reached No. 9 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart. During that time, the British rock band has put out five more studio albums, with its seventh, Motorheart, due Nov. 19 via Cooking Vinyl.
Motorheart, which singer-guitarist Justin Hawkins describes as “good-time rock’n’roll,” is filled with what one would hope to find on a Darkness album: blazing guitar riffs, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and Hawkins’ signature soaring falsetto. Some things missing this time around, though, are a full-blown ballad — a standard trait that Hawkins says was starting to annoy him — and blatant sociopolitical commentary.
“I didn’t want Motorheart to be another Easter Is Canceled, our  album where we’re sort of talking about the state of the world,” Hawkins exclusively tells Billboard via Zoom while seated at a Thai restaurant in St. Gallen, Switzerland. “After having had a year and a half of torment and uncertainty and suffering [with the COVID-19 pandemic], I thought our fans deserved to hear us having a good time again, like we did on our first record.”
Even so, Hawkins admits the album gets “a bit quasi-political” in a couple of places. But, for the most part, it revolves around relationships. “I’m not going soul-searching or anything, though,” he says.
Take, for example, the title track — an ode to a sex robot purchased by a man hoping to find the perfect match, which includes the lyrics “I never have to listen to ridiculous opinions/ She never tries to make me into one of her minions/ The touch of a button, a steely caress/ You need a Phillips screwdriver to get her undressed.” To anyone familiar with The Darkness, the words are obviously sung in jest, but to the uninitiated, they may raise some eyebrows.
Hawkins explains, “I would hope people recognize that there’s a bit more to us than that. The Darkness isn’t Steel Panther. I’m not singing from my own point of view. I’m singing from the point of view of a character who’s obviously an idiot that thinks of his partners in that way, and is never willing to recognize that the relationship problems stem from himself.”
Beyond “Motorheart” being a rip-roaring lead single that reminds fans of what The Darkness is capable of, album helps solidify the band’s legacy as one of the United Kingdom’s preeminent rock acts of the past two decades. In fact, when asked which bands have influenced The Darkness the most, Hawkins turns the tables to point out how he and his bandmates — his brother Dan Hawkins on guitar, Frankie Poullain on bass and Rufus Taylor (son of Queen’s Roger Taylor) on drums — have impacted the rock world.
“I think you can hear The Darkness in other people’s music now,” he says before mentioning The Struts and Walk the Moon as bands who would name The Darkness as an influence. “There are guitar solos in rock songs again. There weren’t for a little while, and we were probably the only band doing those for a minute there. Shows that if you stick around long enough, that’s what you start to see — and that’s one of the things that makes it worthwhile.”
However, Hawkins peppers the conversation with bands he’s interested in emulating — Queen, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy. And when it comes to creating Motorheart, he drew lyrical inspiration from late AC/DC singer-songwriter Bon Scott and, perhaps surprisingly, musical leadership from Guns N’ Roses.
“There’s definitely a little more Guns N’ Roses on this record,” he says. “I’ve always listened to Guns N’ Roses — quite a lot of Guns N’ Roses actually — but that seems to have crept into the music a bit more this time around. You can tell we’ve referenced it and used them as a touchstone in places, especially my guitar sound. I really went for the Slash vibe.”
Two songs where AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses can be heard collide are the pulsating opener, “Welcome tae Glasgae,” and the melodic “The Power and Glory of Love,” both of which Hawkins pinpoints as favorites. He refers to them as “higher concept” and specifically chooses the latter as the song that best represents The Darkness’ current sound.
“On the surface, it’s like a really simple AC/DC-type song … not to dismiss AC/DC in any way,” he says. “In fact, that kind of simple rock’n’roll is one of the most difficult things that a band can do, to get the groove exactly right… We’ve achieved that sort of magic on that song. There’s a lot of harmonic content in it, but it’s not just a blues song. It’s a love song locked in the body of an AC/DC song. And that’s where we’re at right now. We’re making rock music with heart and meaning.”
But despite making “magic” on Motorheart, Hawkins seemingly knows that The Darkness will forever be trying to catch lightening in a bottle the way it did with “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” which charted across the globe and reached No. 1 in its native United Kingdom. In the United States, it has sold 990,000 downloads and been streamed 93.4 million times, according to MRC Data.
“People still compare everything that we do with that first album; we’re never going to hear the last of it,” he says. “Because, like a lot of bands, we spent a lot of time refining that material and gigging those songs before we recorded them, and it turned out really great. That’s probably part of the reason why it’s such a protein-rich recording: We shaved off all the bits we didn’t need.”
But that doesn’t mean Hawkins and his bandmates are sick of their signature song. “I still love performing it live,” he says. “The crowd loves it when it happens, everyone gets their phones out… and it’s just a great moment in the set for everybody in the room. So it’s never a chore to play that song.”
So expect to hear a rousing rendition of “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” when The Darkness hits the road in support of Motorheart, with an extensive European tour set to kick off Nov. 17. Then the band hopes to make it to the States in 2022, assuming COVID-19 travel restrictions have eased. (A six-week North American tour was canceled back in the spring of 2020 due to the pandemic.)
“Once the U.S. is ready for us, we’ll be there with bells on because it’s always a thrill to play there,” enthuses Hawkins. “There’s a real appreciation of the kind of rock that we do in America, but if anyone is still on the fence about The Darkness, come see us live. That’s what we are, a live band… We have one job to do, and that’s to make uplifting rock music and put a smile on our audience’s faces, which was the whole idea with this new album. Nothing heavy in terms of themes and concepts. Just great rock’n’roll.”