“Expectation-Shattering: Tom and Rob From DARKO” is an interview that you are reading whilst DARKO are gallivanting across Canada with a host of names I truly wish I was there to see, all in one place, twisting fast Punk beyond itself and ever forward, whilst indomitably maintaining the right reasons why we stick with it. Or rather something to that effect.
With long-time vocalist Dan Smith departing the band and Tom West of Almeida (and Kerrbang, obviously) taking the vocal helm, have DARKO entered a new phase. This DARKO is determined to honour the irrevocable ties to their past and sparkle in their new motion, illuminating, looking forward and drawing eyes and minds to perpetuate cognizance of the issues at the forefront of their minds. Their minds and the very locale of the scene they are an underpinning part of.
The band’s new 12″ EP release, entitled Sparkle, is set to be unveiled in October via the dynamic duo known as Lockjaw Records and Thousand Islands Records.
“Expectation-Shattering: Tom and Rob From DARKO” – They’ve been gone for a minute (yup) DARKO vibes bounce to the finish. Shall we?
Right, the pair of you, to start, introduce yourselves and what you do in the manner of:
Tom: Fred Durst/Limp Bizkit.
Rob: By telling me of whatever is currently nearest to you on your right and how important it is to whatever it is you do.
Tom: “Yeah! Yeah! Check. One, two. Bring it on!
Now I know you be loving this shit right here… “Tom” A.K.A “Wes-ty” is right here.
I just rhymed “right here” with “right here”. Stick THAT up your YEAH!”
Hello, I’m Tom, I play in DARKO – I’m a lyricist and singer like Fred Durst only a bit less self-aware and way less homophobic.
Rob: I’m literally sitting in a room cluttered with merch, thousands of records and mess but a watering can is closest.
This is super important as I am due to leave for Belgium for a long weekend to visit Joelle and Cedric of Lockjaw Records fame and also catch The JB Conspiracy along the way. That being said, I need to keep my plant babies hydrated for the weekend!
I think that has to be up there with the weirder retorts I’ve had to questions like that!
Let’s start-proper with the cliche I’m told we Punks love so much, how are you feeling about the impending release now it’s edging closer? Especially as you’ve aired some of the new songs live.
Tom: Can I stop being Fred Durst now?
I’m dead excited. Sitting on the songs is like bottling an idea up, so releasing them into the wild has been incredibly cathartic for me personally so far. Each one helped me figure out how I felt about issues that were causing me massive distress, and contain comforting words I now try to live my life by. I’m thrilled to share my personal growth. Telling everyone about it in these songs makes it real and holds me accountable.
I didn’t write the music so I can probably get away with saying how much it rules too.
Rob: Well shucks Tom that’s kind, the vocals are pretty brill too mate. Yes, it’s been some time now since we’ve been waiting to release this EP but it’s cool giving each track its own space to be heard. We wrote a bunch and workshopped on zoom with Tom and it feels good to get some feedback from the fans, old and new, as well as actually performing the tunes live.
It’s been a bit of a weird feeling of not really knowing how people will react as the music has definitely evolved pre-Tom being involved and some more so since. I’m glad we could come back with some fresh sounds and something unexpected to keep listeners on their toes.
Yes, Tom, I’m sure we can bounce with a different franchise.
Looking over ‘Sparkle’ as a whole, band wide or perhaps just yourselves, is there anything on there that has been sat at the side for a while or locked away in your creativity banks so to speak, that has contributed to this version of DARKO?
Rob: Musically some of these ideas have been brewing since not long after ‘Bonsai Mammoth’ was released in 2017 so even though it has come five years later it wasn’t a totally new start in 2021. We had lots of cool pre-existing ideas to pull apart and rework and having Tom join gave us focus to complete them to showcase the new line-up. I enjoyed having Will Duff (Goliath Studios) involved as he was involved from fairly early in the pre-production as well so helped us experiment with sounds and how we would present the tones, rather than defaulting to the standard.
Tom, you’ve already said that you’ve connected with yourself with these songs, had you been ruminating on these issues for a while before you found the words?
Tom: Absolutely yeah. And it’s not just a case of finding the words, it’s therapeutic – choosing the words can help you figure out how you feel. It’s so cathartic to simultaneously acknowledge your trauma and turn it into art. It’s empowering. There were a lot of tangled wires in my brain around the time I joined DARKO and these four songs in particular really helped me find some balance. In ‘Sparkle’, I’ve basically written myself an instruction manual on looking out for others while also being kinder to myself. Some of the things I learned from writing it shape my day-to-day life, and I’m so grateful that DARKO had enough belief in me to put my stamp on these songs they’d been working on for so long.
As you’ve both spent quite some time in the UK and European Punk scene and the fast melodic Punk circuit, I was going to ask you, Rob, what catalysed this more “progressive” and considerably nuanced DARKO but you’re a fret ahead of me. So, in more detail then and to both of you.
Are there any direct influences that have led to this deviation? Or rather, the more recent attributions to the DARKO ensemble. I know we have all previously discussed the “Post-Hardcore” elements of the new work, for example.
Rob: I think I can speak for the whole band when I say we all enjoy a bunch of Prog, Metal and Post-Hardcore alongside Rock and Punk, some more than others perhaps. I think it was more about building the confidence of incorporating it into the writing and making it seem authentic to what DARKO was about at the time. I feel like we have always had nuances perhaps more subtle, that diverted away from the classic Skate Punk sound but having such a change as new vocals I feel maybe accentuated the progression. Maybe becoming old and slow is a thing haha!
For me as well as with the past DARKO records I feel a lot of my writing influences come from the bands we have toured or gigged with in the past and struck a chord with me at a live show anybody from The JB Conspiracy to Trails, Burnt Tapes, Fair Do’s, La Armada and Petrol Girls.
Tom: I did some online gigs during lockdown and sang (…sung?) everything from Celine Dion to Rage Against The Machine to Robbie Williams, so I had recently enjoyed belting out songs and exploring parts of my vocal repertoire that hadn’t been visited much previously.
Damn, I should have asked you to introduce yourself in the style of Robbie Williams!
Moving on. We’ve touched on what this era of DARKO is “about” and perhaps to state the obvious, what we’ve heard as listeners thus far is persistently pertinent lyrically and bold regarding the new direction sonically, so, how did you decide on ‘The Ladder’ and ‘Aux’ as singles? Was it a tough decision?
Tom: We’re releasing the singles in the order they’re presented on the ‘Sparkle’ record, but there was certainly some intent in what order the tracks were in. With regards to ‘The Ladder’ coming first, I think we really thought it would be creatively exciting to answer the question “What would DARKO be like with a new vocalist?” with “Here’s an eight-minute Prog song about the embedded misogyny within the Skate Punk scene”. Really catch people off-guard. Just start with the most ambitious, expectation-shattering shit possible and see who comes along for the ride. I think we’ve managed to pick up a fair amount of new listeners, and only encountered a small handful of negative Nellies.
Rob: Haha yeah, I remember thinking ‘The Ladder’ or at least its earlier form under a demo title would be a little side dish and may sit on the back burner due to its length, however, when we presented the work we had ready Tom seemed eager to get this one going and its come out beyond any expectations. I really love what it became and how Tom added to the initial ideas. To finally ask Katz from Follow Your Dreams to add the last finishing touch was really cool as well and I’m so happy she was a part of it.
For both of you, tell me about ‘Cruel To Be’, from its creation to curation amongst the rest of the EP. And, crucially, please do say what inspired “that” interlude.
Rob: Musically ‘Cruel To Be’ got taken through the works more so I think than some of the others. It was a result of a cool idea that took a while to develop and was bounced around between Chris and I with various permutations until a flow started.
By the time Tom started working with it we had something killer and the last tweak took it to where it was today. The funky interlude is very Bill Withers and I can’t really think how it came to make sense to “go there” but it just seemed to work as an awesome juxtaposition to the metallic riffs after.
Tom: “That” interlude almost had rapping over it… I could have been like Fred Durst after all!
I like that this song has a groovier vibe. It allows the lyrics to breathe – and it’s a message I feel really strongly about.
When you’re outspoken about standing up to bullies, you often get told to “be kind”, and sometimes even told by own-fart-sniffing centrist bystanders that you’re as bad as the arsehole in question because you’re being rude to them. The insinuation is that by being cruel to the cruel, you’re empowering and emboldening them; that being compassionate and talking to them on their level is the only way to change someone’s mind. I actually do agree to some extent – but that’s not to say you shouldn’t call someone a cunt if they’re being a cunt. I think both methods are important.
You know who ACTUALLY empowers bullies? The people who normalise their behaviour. The people who are too cowardly to speak up. The hypocrites who tell people to “Be more kind” and then allow injustice and alienation to win.
‘Cruel To Be’ is dedicated to anyone who has ever been tone-policed when standing up for themselves or their friends.
Do each of you have a favourite track from the new release?
Tom: That’s kind of like choosing your favourite baby. Out of your own babies, I mean. That’d just be weird otherwise.
I think ‘Quite’ holds the most spiritual significance for me and is the most cathartic to play live. The others are a bit more for the listener, but ‘Quite’ is more for me.
Rob: Ooosh, good question or is it a good question?! haha. I feel like I go through stages, ‘Cruel To Be’ probably is the most consistent as that chorus gets me every time but I really like ‘AUX’, I feel like its different from anything we have ever released but still has the DARKO vibes, Chris wrote some killer nice riffs in that one too. ‘The Ladder’ is just balls to the wall and a workout to play but super cool and ‘Quite’ most people at this point might not have even heard but it’s been in the set for a bit now and is a great tune.
That’s the thing with EPs you can keep them concise but they end up a selection of what you consider the finest work you have at the time.
Lyrically, Tom, tell me about ‘Quite’.
Tom: In some ways, it’s a personal response to the horrendous events that led to me writing ‘The Ladder’. I’d cut people out of my life due to their sexual misconduct or misogynistic behaviour, and as a result, cherished memories and art I’d proudly shed years worth of blood, sweat, and tears over now just make me sad and angry.
I was really feeling quite lost and hollow – like my entire past had had a big ‘ol dump taken on it. ‘Quite’ is me coming to terms with the trauma in real-time. It’s me accepting that while what I went through isn’t comparable to many others’ experiences, it’s not irrelevant. “Quite traumatised” is still traumatised.
“The past can’t be undone but my present is future-proof” is a reminder to stay in the “now”. Life’s about living in the moment, and I’m trying to do that more. It’s great being onstage and getting to repeat that mantra.
The song’s been a huge part of my recovery, I’m beyond thankful that DARKO picked me up when I was down and out. I don’t know if I’d have been able to untangle all my thoughts without this partnership giving me such creative freedom.
Rob, sticking with ‘Quite’ for now. Having heard the EP and having had to play it through a number of times prepping for this interview, I’d go as far to say it’s perhaps the strongest genealogical link instrumentally to the previous version of DARKO. You know the band better than most, is that a fair interpretation? Be as kind or rude as you like!
Rob: LOL not sure how I can answer that rudely, thought about it and gave up, you’re not worth the effort!
But seriously I’d agree with you there Mr Speer, I think if ‘The Ladder’ was a third of its length then that would be a close competitor but it then ends up “Prog” due to its length. No doubt about it ‘Quite’ is a Skate Punk song but with our sound and some new vibes.
Tom, cast your mind back to the Tom that first met DARKO back in the day. If you could go back in time and tell “that” Tom that they would eventually offer their voice box to the band. How would you go about it and how would he react?
Tom: I’d wonder how the hell the pieces fell into place, but I’d be pretty stoked. Even way back in what, 2010? DARKO were always super fast, super tekkers, and super hard working. Most importantly I’ve always found them fun to be around so there was never really any doubt when they asked me to join.
I’ve always wondered on the processes of a vocalist replacing another in a band, how has that been for you, Tom? And Rob, having been in the band as long as you have, how does it feel to still be in DARKO and amidst this transformative phase?
Tom: I don’t think Dan gets the credit he deserves for his range. I tend to be recognised as the “high-pitched guy”, but now I’ve had to sing his songs, I definitely reckon he could have filled in for Almeida if we’d needed him to. He hit notes every bit as high as I do. I’ve hammered this line ad nauseum, so my apologies to him, but he’s a small chap with enormous shoes to fill. The DARKO faithful have been super kind to me though, it’s been a real honour hearing people say I’m doing a good job, especially from the people who were worried about the direction when Dan left.
Rob: It was a tough decision whether to continue under the same name. Dan was a super important part of the band and always will be. I’m glad we parted on good terms and it feels good to know we have a new member that knew us from 2010 and understood the dynamics of the band, as well as the importance of Dan but is now taking us in a different direction that we welcome, rather than trying to replicate previous DARKO efforts.
What are your top five “fast Punk” releases of the past five or so years?
Tom: The latest Propagandhi and A Wilhelm Scream records, obviously. Basic as fuck answers but they’re the big players for a reason. If I’m picking five from the last five years, I’d have to throw ‘Sleepville’ by F.O.D, ‘Clarion Call’ by The Human Project, and ‘Entropic’ by Hit The Switch in there too.
Rob: Do Protest The Hero count as Punk? If so, their latest album. The latest Belvedere record is close to my heart and I’ve listened to it to death ha! New Fair Do’s tracks are killing it. Oh, wait am I just listing Lockjaw Releases?
Now, the same question outside of this “faster” space.
God, this is much harder. My faves change all the time. The first ones that come to mind are MEER – ‘Playing House’, Rivers Of Nihil – ‘Where Owls Know My Name’, Lizzo – ‘Cuz I Love You’ and The JB Conspiracy – Beginnings’.
Together, are you TOB or ROM? Asinine reasoning only.
Tom: TOB could stand for “Two Obnoxious Bellends”, I kinda dig that.
Rob: Asinine I had to look up. TOB sounds like a drum and ROM is like a strum of a guitar we could keep both and become a beatbox band that uses our name for performances with all nine of our Asses.
The timelines collapse and Skate Punk never existed but you’re the only ones aware of the past. In this alternate universe, you have the option to rebuild it, but you can only pick five bands to bring back into existence, who would they be? You may pick two of the “big names” and three smaller from the last ten years.
Tom: In ‘The Ladder’ I referred to the Skate Punk scene as a “drab, cis-het boys club”, so I think it’d be responsible to shuffle the deck a bit! I think given the right time and place, the likes of Coral Springs (Netherlands), Hightime (Australia) and Motion Sickness (Canada) would be smashing it everywhere.
I think at least 9 out of 10 people you ask this will whack Propagandhi in there. A world without them would be pretty shit, so they can certainly come along for the ride too. We need their shred, wisdom, and conviction.
One more left? I think PEARS would be sick ambassadors for the genre. One of the best live bands I’ve seen, and just about melodic enough to be allowed in a list of Skate Punk bands. Plus the public really seems to love blokes who strut around intensely without a top on. He’d fill that gap in the market perfectly.
Rob: Tom’s answer is well thought if we talking just Skate punk would need a Propagandhi.
Are we just talking Fast punk here, so Hardcore and Pop-Punk still exist?
I’d use this as an excuse to bring back Anchors from Melbourne, the two albums and the EP from them were massive inspo for DARKO over the years.
The Venomous Pinks are a great-sounding band with a classic sound, caught them for the first time at Brakrock this year.
Or it can be like that film ‘Yesterday’ where The Beatles didn’t exist and the dude knows all the songs and gets famous. Maybe DARKO could then be original and cool and meet and song write with Ed Sheeran! haha
Also…. why doesn’t anybody talk about Pridebowl anymore?
Adjacent to that and genre non-specific, what are your current “go-tos”?
Tom: The new Soul Glo album on Epitaph Records is fucking gnarly. Definitely have a go on that if you’re into noisy, experimental Hardcore with lots of good politics. The same goes for new Petrol Girls record ‘Baby’. They’ve been a fave and big inspiration of mine for ages but they’ve really upped their game with this one.
Ok, one more. If you’re into Jeff Buckley or Bjork definitely check out ‘Land Animal’ by Bent Knee. I could listen to that every day, it’s incredible from start to finish.
Tom, how many times have you passed out on the river at Punk Rock Holiday?
Tom: I think what looks like passing out is just good old-fashioned “nodding off and frying in the hot sun”. I’m not a big drinker really. I don’t get so fucked I pass out. My relatively sober self is still stupid enough to do it by choice, though!
Rob: But how many times, TOM?!
How do you both feel about your set at Manchester Punk Festival this past April?
Tom: Before going on it felt like the most important show I’d ever played – because it was such a statement of intent coming back to somewhere as welcoming as MPF with my new band. Always hard opening a big stage but I thought it was a right banger!
Rob: Incredible feeling, very humbled to be invited to play many times and really stoked to be able to open the union with the new line-up.
As a token closer, what are your messages for the people reading?
Tom: Happiness is a human right – make time and room for yours. Treat yourself like your best friend, and sparkle however the fuck you want.
Rob: AND Thanks for reading, you are great.
Well, that was “Expectation-Shattering: Tom and Rob From DARKO”. I think we all learned something up in our YEAH there. Sparkle, the next release from DARKO will release on October 21st via Lockjaw Records and Thousand Island Records and you can find all you need below.