Hammer and Tongs: An Interview with Frankie Poullain
Nearly three years after their last release, over-the-top rock band The Darkness has announced that their fourth album, Last of Our Kind, will be dropping on June 1st. The record sees the band return in epic fashion with ten new songs filled with tales of battle, love, and struggle. Of course, the whole album is tied together by the massive, rumbling bass of Frankie Poullain.
Poullain is joined by frontman Justin Hawkins, guitarist Dan Hawkins, and drummer Emily Dolan Davies, who replaced founding drummer Ed Graham last year. Each member’s chemistry combines on the new album to create a huge wall of indulgent glam rock.
The quartet wrote the album on Ireland’s Valentia Island, which lent material to the group by way of its history. Their first single, “Barbarian,” tells the story of Edmund the Martyr’s ninth century defeat at the hands of Viking Ivar the Boneless. Needless to say, the style meshes their anthemic tendencies with a brutal twist.
We caught up with Poullain to get the scoop on the new album, his playing style, and his tips for touring bassists.
What was the writing process like for you on the new album?
It was quite intense. It started out with Ed on drums and then it was just me, Justin, and Dan because Ed had his issues. [He had] physical problems but also had problems with his “refueling habits.” The writing process ended with us with Emily Dolan Davies, the new drummer.
How has it been adjusting to a new drummer?
The original lineup had a real mixture of things there… it was always a kind of struggle. I guess you could say that Dan is technically the most proficient, but myself and Ed were quite limited to begin with. Some of the choices we made musically were defined by limitations, but then again, you can argue that a lot of great things creatively happen because of limitations.
It’s definitely been a different thing not having Ed there. We’ve got more choices. Emily has got quite a lot of swing in the way she plays, but we definitely chose someone who plays the song rather than a virtuoso. You know, we’re not Motley Crue. We’ve got Justin, obviously who takes the limelight, and I guess it’s just kind of balanced right. We wanted someone who played the song and not be flashy. Basically like an egoless drummer, and Emily is definitely a proper musician. She trained herself by playing along with big songs on the radio as opposed to getting too hung up on technical stuff.
When the band broke up, it was about indulgence and pride and ego. Is that still an issue now or is that all worked out?
That’s been worked out for sure. I think we’re a bit older and more reflective and learned from our mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes and hopefully good people learn from those mistakes. If you keep making the same mistakes again, I think it shows a lack of character. So I don’t think we have that problem anymore. I guess it generated some bad publicity for us in some ways.
But when you do that kind of music and you’re young, it’s obvious that you’re going to go for the whole thing. You want the whole thing, the whole experience. It’s hard to know when to stop. Also, back in 2003 and 2004, that was when it was still the music industry in the sense that you could shift plenty of units and be massively overpaid and overindulged. Every night there would champagne in your dressing room with something to celebrate. We had a great time, basically, but when you have a great time there’s a comedown.
Our comedown happened throughout that second album. That’s why it’s quite a strange album. I was involved in the recording of it and then we kind of fell out in that process. I think there are some good songs on there but I’m not sure about the way it’s recorded, personally. I know that’s crazy when it’s [produced by] Roy Thomas Baker, but I don’t think that any vibes really come through there. It has some great songs, like “English Country Garden,” which could and should have been a classic. It’s a really fun song and Justin is in top form on it. Somehow the recordings came out quite lifeless, I think. We’re going to introduce it into our set now and bring back what was great about that song when we played it live before we recorded it. I think the process of the second album was so long winded that all the life got sucked out of the songs.
I’m sure you’ve also been warming up the new material on your tour.
Yeah, we’re working out everything new. There’s definitely a different on-stage dynamic with Emily. It’s great to be in a band with a woman. It just adds another dimension. You don’t give in to all the lazy things if it was all guys, like the lazy, obvious stuff and the crude stuff. It just becomes something more fully rounded and gets a balance. I think it’s going to push us in a good direction.
We’re trying to freshen everything up and move on from the whole idea of living off of past reputations. We put everything into this album. There’s a lot of heart and passion in this album.
The album as a whole seems to have a running theme or concept. Is that right, or are these just a collection of songs?
I think you’re right. It wasn’t completely contrived, but all of us felt like… I kind of think the album theme is defiance. It’s a labor of love. Initially we were going to call it something else. We have an expression in England of “hammer and tongs,” as in creating something with lots of energy. We were going to call the album “Amour and Tongs” as a play on words so it would be like saying a labor of love. Then an American friend of ours told me that Americans would understand it [laughs]. Not to mention European people, but we thought it would be a bit obscure.
You’ve got this rock solid feel and sound throughout the whole album. Can you tell me a bit about the recording process?
Well, I use a Gibson Thunderbird and Hiwatt amps for pretty much everything. That’s why it’s got that quite bloated sound, but you can tell on the last song of the album that it’s not the same thing. That’s because it’s Justing playing bass and I’m singing it. That’s “Conquerors.” He deliberately chose one of those headless basses that was a copy of a Steinberger. It was a Hohner. He just chose it because of the way it looked, you know? Apart from that it’s all my trusty brown Gibson Thunderbird, I think from the early ‘90s. It guess that’s almost vintage now.
As you know with my style, I don’t get fancy. I like to keep it so it sounds almost punky and there’s more focus on the energy and attitude. I could have brought in different basses to go for different sounds, but I like that thing where it’s got an identity and a bit of character in the sound. [That way] people can hear it and say, “Okay, that’s him playing” [laughs].
You’re pretty humble about your playing, but there’s a lot of subtlety in the stuff you do. People see pedaling eighth notes as easy, but it’s takes work to focus all of your energy on just that bit.
Sure, it’s hard to do that with attitude. If you do it too neatly [it doesn’t work]. Like a lot of session guys when they are pedaling, it just sounds like there’s no balls in it. That’s what I like about the combination of the Hiwatt and the T-bird. There’s just something there that sounds almost primitive.
It sounds like you have an affinity to climb up the lower strings to keep a beefier sound, too.
Exactly. I don’t know what it is. You know, the Gibson Thunderbird is not great when you start going to the D and G strings. You just lose all the beef, but it’s super beefy up there higher on the E string. I just like that tone. It’s overbearing and it’s almost too much, but I just kind of like it because it keeps the heaviness up there. Especially on “Open Fire,” I think it’s all on the E string. I tried doing some of it on the A string and the D string, but it lost that thing. I wanted it to sound a bit like Hawkwind, you know?
“Roaring Waters” has another great line that climbs and follows the vocal line.
That’s one of the few times where I actually used more than two strings [laughs]. It’s quite slim up there on the Thunderbird. I think most bassists would switch basses, since different basses have different sweet spots, but I’m just stubborn about sticking to the T-bird. I almost pretend it’s the ‘70s and I can’t afford another bass. I kind of like giving yourself limitations.
For me, it’s all about the struggle and that bass is such a struggle anyway. Anyone that has played a Gibson Thunderbird knows that it’s just such a struggle to play and to balance and to hold. That’s what I like.
That song was based on a historical episode in Ireland in Baltimore. The Moors came up and ransacked the villages in Baltimore and Ireland and took all these people with them. The women were sex slaves and the men were slaves, basically. They took them back to Morocco. So Justin imagined that he was an observer of this episode. I think he captured it really well. A lot of people who I talk to might think this is a joke and I was mimicking Spinal Tap or something, but I think Justin did it very well. A lot of heavy metal bands do that now, especially in Europe. The storytelling thing has always been big, but I think we did it well on that song.
The mandolins throughout the song sound almost like a Led Zeppelin throwback.
There are mandolins throughout the album, but we put them on that track to make it more organic and also sound English old. Like, “Ye Olde,” you know? In some ways we wanted it to sound medieval. Some of the language that Justin uses is old-fashioned.
Do you have any tour tips for bass players?
A good one is to get the hotel to send up a heater, because then you can open your hotel window. That sounds a bit irresponsible against the environment, but these hotel chains make so much money. Then if you’ve got problems with laundry from moving around all the time, you can rinse off your stuff in the shower and stick it on the heater so it’s dry in the morning. That sounds a bit effeminate, I guess, but it’s important for bands that wear costumes on stage like we do. It’s not always easy to get things cleaned properly, you know?
Sometimes you’ve got to do gigs guerrilla-style when you’ve got bad backstage facilities. Tonight we’re going straight [to the gig] in a taxi with our stage outfits on ten minutes before. We’ll go straight on then straight to the taxi afterwards. Some people don’t really treat you well or look up to you properly. So don’t get angry: just deal with it in a professional way. Rise above when people treat you badly. Don’t take it out on the crowd or put on a shit gig. Just be clever about it.