Interview: Dan Hawkins, The Darkness

The Darkness

You may know Dan Hawkins as the axe-wielding, neoprene-sporting frontman of glam-rock hit-makers The Darkness.

During the early 2000s, the outlandish quartet racked up a mantlepiece-full of accolades, from an Ivor Novello Award to BRITs and Kerrang! trophies.

Tracks like I Believe in a Thing Called Love and Love is Only a Feeling help tip them from pastiche-loving alt-rockers to proper chart-botherers, winning them international acclaim to boot.

But over the years, Dan has also been quietly cultivating another career away from the glitterballs and leopard print leotards his band are famed for.

As a composer of kids’ TV music, he’s created the soundworld for the CBeebies hit Catie’s Amazing Machines, finding a new pre-school audience in the process.

We spent some time with him for our Child’s Play feature to learn more about how he got into writing music for children’s programmes and glean his top tips for those who’d like to follow in his wake…

Have you always wanted to make music for children’s TV?

I have always loved it. I remember when my kids were really young, I was into ZingZillas. I used to love the special guest appearances at the end of the show, the musicians they had were so varied and it made it so interesting to watch as a parent. Everyone from Julian Lloyd Webber to Welsh male voice choirs were featured so the variety of musical styles was incredible.

How did you get the gig for Catie’s Amazing Machines?

It was through ZingZillas. Justin and I worked on the show after they phoned us up and asked us to do a rock song. I had two young children at the time and, as I said, I was a fan of the show. I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’ I really felt like I had made it as a parent.

I took my kids along to the show. It was really funny. The actual characters themselves are huge, they have massive heads. As the kids were watching a run through, the producer came over. He’d been trying to usher them away as one of the machines had malfunctioned. The ZingZillas are actually robotic and there was smoke coming out of one of them. Someone ran over to a Zingzilla and ripped its face off to try and fix it. We took the kids away before they were traumatised!

How did you come up with the music for the show?

Rob Jenkinson is the producer of the show at the BBC and I worked very closely with him on detailed briefs. I saw a rough trailer for a pilot and the kind of music they were after. There were reference tracks, for example things like AC/DC’s Back in Black, when a big monster truck was being reviewed. And there was a Led Zepp track for another machine.

The idea was that we’d try and cover as many different genres of rock as we could across the whole series. Rob gave me a list of the types of songs he was after to match the machines that Catie was going to be looking at. It’d be like we need something a bit ZZ Top for this one or for this one we need something uptempo and driving. Or something jovial and playful. But ultimately it was all about covering different types of rock. Something nice and acoustic for when children are on screen talking about their favourite machines.

It meant there was a lot of freedom to write around the brief. I sent all of the music across and they cut it to the visuals. It all came together quite nicely – when they were doing the main edits, they received the music – it was really exciting seeing them together for the first time.

What were the challenges of making it? Did you have to meet some tight deadlines?

I had a couple of months. Some would consider that a luxury but I was on tour in America at the time so I wrote the music there.

When I returned I had a week to complete everything which was a little tight but I was committed. I had to come back, get off the plane and head straight to my studio to start mixing.

In terms of recording, I did it all on the road; so during soundchecks I would throw up mics or take a lead from the front of house desk. I’d record Rufus’ drums from the stage so all the drums you hear on the series were recorded on various stages across America. All the guitars and basses were recorded in dressing rooms and hotel rooms. That’s how we did it.

I bought an SM7 for Justin to sing through as I didn’t have a good enough mic to reject noise. The support band would be soundtracking and that would be our window to get something done. Honestly, the vocals for the main theme, we recorded them while the support band were on. The table in the room was literally shaking. Sure, there were various issues along the way – but I found that fun and exciting. And there’s no pressure there compared to the pressure of producing a Darkness album. You’ve got carte blanche really and that’s what I enjoyed about it.

Is that the appeal of working on a project like this? The musical freedom?

The freedom is amazing. I’ve been asked to do a bit of music for adverts and other songs for supermarket brands. It’s one of those things that once you start doing it, you find it starts snowballing and you get asked to do more and more, especially when brands and companies find out. And for me, there’s no one really doing rock music for this in an authentic kind of way. And doing so is quite a difficult task. I really enjoyed it and I’m excited about doing the next series.

I’m mixing The Darkness album at the moment, then I’ll switch to that. I spend all my time in the studio when I’m not on tour. I have a great studio here at my house. On tour I find it a bit boring just sitting around. I’m a bit of workaholic and would rather be busy doing music than anything else. I’ve got a great touring recording set up, a ProTool rig that comes with me everywhere. It makes things more interesting and you stagnate less by doing different projects. You never stop learning as an engineer, songwriter or producer. Everything is a challenge and you always get something from everything you do.

So it’s good to have another income stream for your music?

It’s fairly lucrative – I’m lucky that these opportunities come to me – I make a good living from The Darkness as we have a very broad, global fan base. I don’t necessarily need to do this for that reason but maybe you’ve got one eye on not being able to tour forever. When I started out in music, I always thought I’d be a sound engineer. So music takes you to some interesting places. Eventually, I’d like to do film soundtracks, spend more time in the studio and less time on the road.

Do you have a favourite children’s TV theme?

There are so many – there’s some brilliant stuff from back in the day. I’m an eighties child so music like Rhubarb and Custard, it’s so aggressive, Bananaman, Ulysses and I was obsessed with Dogtanian. All of these tunes – stick with you. Maybe the people who were writing them were completely insane – that’s why I’m into it – they’re off the charts weird, Bagpuss. They were all so powerful back then but maybe because we were children they go in a bit deeper.

 The Darkness release their new album, Easter is Cancelled, on 4 October. Preorder it here.

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