LIFE LESSONS WITH FRANKIE POULLAIN
The Darkness have been banging out rock anthems since the noughties, but bassist Frankie Poullain would rather discuss religious art and vintage sportswear than Brit awards with Veronica Simpson.
The Darkness (brothers Justin and Dan Hawkins, Rufus Tiger Taylor and Frankie Poullain) have been banging out rock anthems with a subversive twist since their 2003 debut album Permission to Land went quadruple platinum in the UK, selling over 1.3m copies. They went on to win three Brit Awards in 2004.
But this meteoric rise took its toll, and there was a hiaitus from 2006 until 2011, when the original group reformed. They are still going strong, recording and performing steadily – even managing a live one-off show in 2020 titled ‘Streaming of a White Christmas’. Their seventh studio album Motorheart was released in October 2021. We catch up with bassist Frankie Poullain on a jaunt into London to meet a friend at the National Gallery.
You’ve gone through some big changes in the last couple of years: you moved to Somerset, seemed to be relishing the country life but you’re now back in London – albeit the leafiest part of London, in Richmond. But you got to shoot some very cool videos for the band while you were there, how was that?
Yes, we worked with Alberto Bona (he goes under the title of Arepo Films). He’s a very old fashioned Renaissance man. He has quite an art collection and uses really old school equipment. He’s extremely passionate about art.
I heard you took on a much more directorial role. Are you something of a film buff? What’s the most obscure movie you’ve ever watched?
I’m a fan of (Argentinian director) Gaspar Noé. I actually screen tested for Into the Void (his 2009 movie), and it was for the main character because he was looking for a musician with no acting ability. Needless to say I didn’t get it. I like a lot of what he’s trying to do.
So visual culture is something you’d definitely like to explore further?
Oh yes. Funnily enough I was just last night joining up with the Chelsea Arts Club. It’s quite hard to become a member if you’re a musician. They want painters. But my two grandparents were both painters. As I get older I’m tuning in more to visual mediums, in terms of visiting galleries all the time when I’m on tour. And watching obscure movies.
Or directing them?
I would definitely like to get more into that. Alberto told me I’d have all the qualities to be a producer, after we’d shot the videos. One of them is down for a prize from an American film festival, for the song It’s Love Jim.
The Darkness has a very particular visual aesthetic on the album covers. Where does that come from, who drives that?
It comes with all of us arguing and throwing stuff at the wall until something sticks. Normally when it sticks is when we’re confused by it. If it doesn’t make sense but we all instinctively think, ‘we don’t know why it works but it’s great’, then we’re onto something. When something feels a bit wrong we like it. What unifies us is that, collectively, we’re not on board with sophistication and coffee table chic and trying to be cool. What we do is quite garish and quite raw, not to everyone’s taste, and it’s not meant to be. It’s a bit childish
Which of your album covers do you like best?
Easter is Cancelled is my favourite piece of album art work, with Justin being Jesus, breaking free from the crucifix, and the rest of us being Marys. We gave it a bit of gravitas by studying some religious iconography. We decided that the Romans represented the establishment and Jesus was a bit of a badass.
I’ve always wondered how Millennials might see those religious paintings if they’ve never had religion drubbed into them in their youth. I took my daughter to the Prado in Madrid and I realised most of these paintings and narratives – all that doom and gloom, fire and brimstone, angels and demons – won’t resonate with her in the same way at all compared to those of us forced to go to church every Sunday through our entire childhood.
I love those paintings in the Prado, the Goyas and the Bosch (Garden of Earthly Delights). I was brought up Catholic, and that religious thing that you rub up against, even if you hate it, sometimes you’re left bewitched by the beauty of it, especially Catholicism. Where I grew up, on the Scottish East Coast, it was very Presbyterian, very grey, not much of an aesthetic to it at all. School was all about assembly and so dull. I wanted to find a job where I could be as lazy as I wanted to be.
And have you succeeded?
Come on, lots of people would say it’s harder work than it looks!
Maybe it’s easier work than it looks.
You guys certainly make it look fun – humour is a big part of your vibe in videos. You have talked about being inspired by the whole Vaudeville era, of music hall, comedy and slapstick.
I really think that’s a big part of it, especially when you see Justin. He’s an entertainer. Especially in the period where we got big, there was a feeling like you had to get dark to get cool. A lot of that just comes out as whining. You can artfully do anything. I do accept that there are a million different ways to be dark, and only one way to be happy. Which in a way makes it harder.
Managing to express euphoria in music is gold dust and it’s the hardest thing to do. We’ve managed to do it once or twice.
Where do you go for songwriting or musical inspiration?
I try to avoid being told what to listen to by the algorithms. Sometimes when you’re listening to Spotify you get into some interesting spaces through algorithms. But the meaningful discoveries are through friends with an ear – I get a lot of tips from my women friends. I do enjoy the way women respond to music in a different kind of way, more intuitive.
I still discover a lot of music through my favourite radio shows – especially BBC Radio 6. Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour – and Jarvis Cocker, when he was doing the Sunday Service – just keeps coming up with such good new stuff.
I have a huge respect for Jarvis Cocker and Guy Garvey, they both stuck at it for years, they were both late developers.
Listening to his show, you feel like Guy especially has a lot of love for all the musicians he plays.
Love is the word. That’s what makes the difference between the ones that make it and the ones that don’t. Italians, they get that. They understand that food and drink as well as music has to be made with love. In this country I think they understand this with music, not so much with consumer culture.
How do you keep things interesting creatively? You seem like someone who doesn’t like to get complacent.
By following my instinct. You have to be wary when you become a middle aged guy that the second half of your life isn’t spent doing the same things you did in your first half.
And how do you avoid that?
By following my nose rather than my mind. Getting back to instinct. At the moment it’s creating a chaotic life. But you see patterns emerge. And if you follow your nose you might get into trouble but you’ll find your way.
What is your off-duty style?
I like to go informal or formal, I don’t do all the stuff in-between. I like Adidas track suits. I got the idea of wearing those silk Boogie Nights style shirts – polyester silk with patterns – after I found three of them in a charity shop in Brooklyn. I started wearing those with track suits. I never felt so relaxed. I wear them with a pair of flip flops or high tops.
That sounds self-expressive but not too ‘try hard’.
I find it hard to fit into things because I’m gawky and lanky and skinny. The things that are supposed to fit never fit, but there’s one Adidas tracksuit – the Firebird – that fits me.
And where do glasses fit into your wardrobe – are you a long time glasses wearer?
Yes, I’m short sighted, long sighted. I vary between three different frames now.
Speaking as a long term glasses wearer, when you find the right frames it’s so good – you can ditch the geek aesthetic and feel more like yourself.
There’s a particular frame of Laura’s I’ve been wearing for a while. There’s a couple more that I wear from time to time. This is what I do instead of shoes. I’m not a shoe person.
Laura has great taste in everything. I turned up for the photo shoot (pictured) in the wrong clothes, then there was a stylist there who lent me her black cashmere turtle neck and Laura lent me her dark green Italian blazer and both just fitted like a glove. The green blazer is divine. And I made her promise to send me a link so I can find it. I’m still waiting to find one in the right size!