Steel Panther stride onstage around 1 A.M. at La Zona Rosa on the second night of Austin, Texas' annual South by Southwest music festival. The mock-metal band's joke isn't subtle: four guys with poodle hair and spandex pants performing foul-mouthed odes to fat girls, Asian hookers, and the primacy of heavy metal.
Justin Hawkins first encountered Steel Panther last year when he was in Los Angeles mastering Red Light Fever, the debut album by his new band, Hot Leg. That Steel Panther would appeal to him is both obvious and a little surprising. His previous group, the Darkness, also toyed with rock clichés, though never so blatantly. The Darkness' 2003 debut, Permission to Land, matched big riffs with Hawkins' outlandish falsetto on songs about genital warts and ping-pong.
Live, Hawkins dressed in flashy catsuits and played guitar while riding a stuffed white tiger. Back then, the band's insistence that rock was meant to be, you know, fun felt like welcome counterprogramming amid a landscape populated with self-serious mooks like Linkin Park and Staind. The album eventually sold nearly 3.5 million copies. The 2005 follow-up, One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back, hewed closely to the Behind the Musicready script by being bloated, drug-addled, and unreasonably expensive to make. It also fueled a backlash that seemed to center on a meta-textual conundrum: Was the Darkness' indulgence in rock's musical, visual, and chemical excesses indicative of their sincere enthusiasm for said excesses or an ironic comment on them? More simply: Was Justin Hawkins just fucking with us all along?
Steel Panther present no such conundrum. As they launch into their first song, Hawkins weaves through the crowd until he's right up front, hanging his tattooed arms over the barrier at the foot of the stage. With his frizzy bleached-blond mop, faded Aerosmith tee, skintight tiger-print pants, and purple scarf, Hawkins looks like somebodyyououghttorecognize, though it's not clear many in the half-empty club do -- at least until Steel Panther's frontman pulls him up to sing the Darkness' biggest hit, "I Believe in a Thing Called Love." Hawkins does so with gusto, wrapping the mic cord around his hand and shredding on an imaginary guitar.
Since leaving the Darkness after a rehab stint in 2006, Hawkins' only U.S. performances have been guesting with Steel Panther. But here at SXSW, his prancing around with a hair-metal comedy troupe could be considered a strange way to build momentum for his new band, Hot Leg. "I don't care," he says afterward. "The whole thing about being taken seriously has never mattered to me. Those Steel Panther guys are fucking awesome. I see someone doing that and I just want to join in."
After the show, Hawkins is besieged by fans. He greets every curiosity seeker like an old friend, and every camera phone with an outstretched tongue and devil horns. When a bearded guy invites him to "do a whole bunch of blow and party" -- he responds with a polite smile.
The 34-year-old Hawkins is a man at a surreal crossroads. Less than five years after he headlined British festivals with the Darkness in front of 50,000 people, Hot Leg -- which he formed last year with guitarist Pete Rinaldi, bassist Samuel "SJ" Stokes, and drummer Darby Todd -- has toured the U.K., opening for '90s hard-rock footnotes Extreme as well as Creed castoffs Alter Bridge. Hawkins has spent much of what he made in the Darkness and has yet to secure distribution for Red Light Fever outside of the U.K., Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. (It can, however, be purchased online.) Their SXSW jaunt is being financed on a shoestring -- they're bumming rides to shows, borrowing other bands' drums, and participating in the festival's International Housing program, which arranges for foreign bands to bunk with local families for free. As Sue Whitehouse, Hawkins' longtime manager and on-again, off-again (currently off- again) girlfriend puts it, "He's at a really weird place right now. He's got fame without money. He gets mobbed by fans, then goes back to sleep on someone's floor."
Although 2009's SXSW featured private gigs by superstars like Metallica and Kanye West, at its heart the festival is still a showcase for up-and-comers. Hawkins first came in 2002 with the Darkness. At the time, the band -- which included his younger brother Dan on guitar, a Scotsman named Frankie Poullain on bass, and childhood friend Ed Graham on drums -- had been playing their winking version of stadium rock to half-filled pubs throughout Britain for a couple of years. "The momentum had stopped," Hawkins says. "So there was a lot riding on that gig. We sort of bottled the show -- we weren't great and had a few problems with the sound." Nonetheless, Atlantic Records began making noises about signing them. "The fact they were interested sparked more of a roar in the U.K."
Atlantic did sign the Darkness and the following year released Permission to Land, which the band had already recorded for a British indie label. The album only went gold in the U.S., but in the U.K. the Darkness became A-list rock stars. Hawkins in particular seemed hell-bent on justifying that status, frequently mouthing off about other musicians in interviews and upping his intake of booze and cocaine so it remained commensurate with his rising income.
"It got completely ridiculous," he admits. "I remember walking through the airport on the way back from Europe, completely wired. This was when I was in my really belligerent phase, so I was like, 'Search me, go ahead, search me,' to the customs officer. Mind you, I had a gram of coke on me at the time. I don't know why I wanted them to search me -- maybe to prove I could get away with it. But they were like, 'We know who you are. We don't want to search you. Just go.' I could've ended up in prison, but I didn't care."
The chemically fueled circus began to aggravate other problems within the band. Although Justin was the frontman, Dan had been the de facto leader, and the two were very different personalities. As Poullain wrote in his 2008 memoir, Dancing in the Darkness: "Justin had a delightful childlike way about him and refused to take anything seriously, but Dan took things very seriously indeed." The brothers' writing partnership grew strained, and Justin soon began working on solo material under the name British Whale.
According to Justin, the Darkness' other members also grew increasingly uneasy with the band's more outrageous aspects. "I think there was always a desire on their part to be taken seriously," he says. Poullain, Graham, and Dan Hawkins all take issue with that characterization, but it's clear the Darkness were pulling in several different directions. Justin's relationship with Whitehouse also became a problem. As Graham saw it, "It wasn't ideal to have the manager as the singer's partner. It can cause conflicts of interest. Their relationship could be rocky at times, which affected how Justin performed."
Poullain takes it further. "The fact Justin's partner was the manager and more concerned with feathering their nest than the interests of the band was very uncomfortable," he says.
Whitehouse admits that when she and Justin first got together in 2002, "the others were naturally concerned." "Justin was so upset by their reaction, he wanted to leave the band," she says. "In fact, many of the songs on the Hot Leg album were written at that time, in preparation for his departure. I had to convince him to stay."
Poullain, she says, was "bitter," "ungrateful," and "complained constantly." "Anything I ever did for the Darkness was completely selfless," she says. "Many occasions, I had to make decisions in favor of the band to the detriment of my and Justin's relationship. My aim was to make us all very successful."
Nevertheless, Poullain hired his own accountant to audit the band's finances. When Poullain reported that he'd found nothing improper, he was fired and replaced by the band's guitar tech, Richie Edwards. "When somebody says, 'You're thieving from me,' " Justin says, "it kind of ruins the relationship."
Poullain says by the time he left, the Darkness had serious foundational problems. "Justin was in a setup that was too comfortable. The manager's job is to knock people into shape. But people were too reluctant to challenge Justin."
Still, there was a second album to make. The band hired Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, then spent a year and nearly $2 million on One Way Ticket to Hell...and Back. "We had serious problems when we recorded it," says Dan Hawkins. "Justin wasn't really there for the recording of the backing tracks. He turned up after about two and a half months playing his solo stuff, saying he'd got a publishing deal we didn't even know about. There were personal issues, drug issues -- that record shouldn't have even happened."
Justin acknowledges the circumstances but puts them into context. "You only get one opportunity to do a big, expensive record," he says, "so you have to just throw everything at it. It was recorded in five different countries, there were pan pipes on it, we were working with the best. We wanted to document where the band was at, and at that time we weren't writing good songs."
The album -- which opens, fittingly, with the sound of a line being snorted -- sold about a million copies worldwide but didn't halt the Darkness' decline. Justin was feeling particularly frustrated. "Whenever you're in a band, you become an exaggeration of yourself, but it got to the point where I was pretty much clowning all the time," he says. "There's more to me than that, but I didn't feel like I was allowed to do anything else. It was probably me that wasn't allowing me, but I had definitely had enough of it."
Not coincidentally, his drinking and drugging were getting even worse. "I got very worried about him," says Dan. "But it was hard to talk about it without it turning into an argument, especially when I was going for it as well. If I blame anything for the Darkness' demise, it was drugs, especially cocaine."
Whitehouse eventually quit and Justin checked himself into London's Priory clinic. He emerged a month later and soon announced his departure from the band. "It had run its course creatively," he says. "It was becoming a parody of itself, which for the Darkness is quite a long way into the parody world -- a bit too far for me."
His brother immediately formed a new band with Graham and Edwards, which they christened Stone Gods. After releasing a debut album of comparatively earnest hard rock in 2008, Graham left the band, hobbled by a blood disorder called osteonecrosis, which has necessitated upcoming surgeries to replace both his hips and which he admits may have been caused, or at least exacerbated, by excessive drinking. He recently started a new band called Karaoke for Beginners. Meanwhile, Poullain decamped to France and started his own band. The Hawkins brothers are back on friendly terms, and for the most part the antipathy between the band's original members has cooled, though the chance of a reunion anytime soon appears remote.
"What's funny is that the band managed to live out all the Spinal Tap clichés, all crammed into about two years," says Poullain. "We started off having fun with the clichés, but then the clichés came and bit us on the ass."
Read the entire Hot Leg feature in the June 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.