Darren Hayes reflects on Savage Garden: “It was an era of glam, excess and super popstars”

The band's frontman opens up about the music, the dodgy outfits and "more hairstyles than Madonna".

Between the years of 1997 and 2001, you could barely flick past a music video channel or major radio station without bumping into one of Savage Garden’s songs.

For four years, the duo – founded by singer Darren Hayes instrumentalist Daniel Jones 20 years ago this year – dominated the pop landscape with a string of hits including To The Moon And Back, I Knew I Loved You and, of course, Truly Madly Deeply – the song that took them from small time band to international stars. Their music soundtracks a short but significant time in the music landscape between the late '90s and early '00s, when rock was in the decline on commercial radio and the charts in favour of shiny packaged-up pop. 

“Honestly, I’ll always be so grateful for it all,” Hayes told Official Charts when we called him up at his L.A home. “For better or for worse, it’s been 20 years of my life and I’m very proud of the songs. It must be weird for the general public, because the most famous thing I did was Savage Garden, but it was only two records – four of the 20 years I’ve been a performer.”

In that short space of time, they turned out an impressive 10 UK Top 40 hits and a pair of Top 10 albums, following up their 1998 self-titled debut with their final album Affirmation the following year (check out their full UK chart history here). “I don’t feel like I’ve ever rejected those years at all,” he insists. “I came crashing down to earth when it was over, but in a good way. Everything I’ve done since then has been out of pure passion and enjoyment. I accepted that the stuff I did with Savage Garden hit the zeitgeist, and it was brilliant for what it was.”

Formed in 1996 after Jones placed an ad in a magazine for a vocalist to join a band he was putting together, the pair toured the Gold Coast bar circuit, eventually signed to small Australian label Roadshow Music and released their debut single I Want You. The song’s success garnered interest from major labels and they signed with Sony less than a year later. But while they wrote and composed all the songs themselves, it wasn't an angle the label were keen to push.

“People weren’t really aware we were writing the songs at all,” he recalls. “It was part Machiavellian but also perhaps a move of brilliance on Sony’s part. We made our first record when pop music was not being played on radio, and then Max Martin happened and suddenly labels wanted to sign us. I remember [then-President of Arista Records] Clive Davis flying us over to America to audition for the label, and I’ll never forget what our first product manager – her name was Bridgette Roy – said. She came up to us and announced, ‘I hate pop music, I’m more of a rock chick, but pop is really selling right now, so I’m going to make you the biggest band in the world.’ That was our introduction to the music industry! We weren’t really taking any of it too seriously at that point.”

But shortly after, things got serious: Truly Madly Deeply topped the US chart and was Top 5 hit in the UK. Despite its success, Hayes insists they were never chasing hits after their big break. “Are you kidding? I find it so crazy that I’ve had hits!” He says. “I remember that I wanted Truly Madly Deeply to be a hidden bonus track – I thought it was too personal to be properly out there and on the album. I remember writing I Knew I Loved You in about 40 minutes out of spite towards the record company, although I quickly came to love the song. I had no clue what was a Number 1 single and what wasn’t. Suddenly we were making 1-2 million dollar music videos. It was an era of excess, glam, super popstars and we were in amongst it.”

What, in Darren’s opinion, was Savage Garden's best song? “The only song I really f**king hate is one called Promises. It was a B-side originally but the US label made us put it on our first album. You’ll notice it doesn’t appear wherever I have a chance. Aside from that, I’m really forgiving of it all; the dodgy outfits, the more hairstyles than Madonna… I was 22 when I started writing some of those songs and I’m 43 now. I was married to a woman and trying to become a kindergarten teacher, now I’m married to hot salt n’ pepper dude!

“The songs I’m most proud of are probably ones that weren’t the hits: I Don’t Know You Anymore is a song about realising I was gay and not wanting to be, and being heartbroken about ending things with my wife. I remember towards the end of our marriage we went to a Christian therapist and she told me to suppress those ‘urges’. It was definitely an important song for me."

Savage Garden’s second and final album Affirmation is a record Hayes still describes as one of his “proudest moments.” Trailed by I Knew I Loved You,  the album deals with the breakdown of Hayes’ marriage and coming to terms with being gay (“before then it was known but never discussed”) as well as the end of Savage Garden, which had been decided before the album's release.

He recalls: “A song called The Lover After Me is about the fact that I’d ask my wife to take me back and my friends telling me what I was doing was unfair. There’s a song on there called Two Beds And A Coffee Machine that’s about an alcoholic, wife-beating dad and how me and my mum travelled from motel to motel with me with a black eye. This was coming out in a period when Spice Girls, N*Sync and MTV’s TRL were huge. I’m proud that in the midst of it all – manufactured and often contrived pop music – we were allowed to write songs like that which were wise beyond our years.”

Like the end of most pop bands, the details surrounding Savage Garden’s split are messy. According to Hayes, Jones announced that he wanted to leave the band a week before Affirmation’s release, but agreed to promote and tour the record with Hayes first. When the 80-date world tour was over, Hayes gave an interview to a magazine about the duo’s split and his impending solo career, though when Jones was asked separately to comment on this shortly after, he said he knew nothing about it, believing the information was still meant to be a secret. The result left Hayes looking like his ego had got the better of him.

"I totally understand and sympathise with his reasons – I was just disappointed in the way it was handled, because ultimately it was all his decision, and I would have  stayed in that band forever" he says. Have the pair since buried the hatchet? “Of course we’re still in touch, though we’re not in each other’s lives at all. Honestly, there’s no animosity. It took me a while to realise that we were never really proper friends at the time, and I think that was a conscious decision on Daniel’s part. Once he became famous, he didn’t like it and became a recluse. I still couldn’t really tell you who he is as a person.”

For Hayes, a successful solo career followed, notching up four Top 40 albums in the UK, including his solo debut Spin, which hit Number 2 in 2002 and includes the Top 10 hit Insatiable. After being dropped from his label after 2004’s less successful The Tension And The Spark, he delved deeper into electronic music on 2007’s time travel-themed double album This Delicate Thing We’ve Made, before returning to big pop choruses on 2011’s Secret Codes And Battle Ships – a record that looks set to be his last for now.

“I was 17 when I started, and every time I was in the public eye I was performing music, and every time I was out of the public eye I was working on music,” he says. “Particularly on my solo albums, I poured every penny and every last ounce of energy into them and happily lost money on some of them. I made a whole double album to which my husband animated a full feature length film and I went on tour with an animatronic bird – this stuff is not cheap!"

Now writing a musical and studying comedy improv in Los Angeles, is this really the end of Darren’s pop career for good? “When I came off the stage at my last show Brighton, I was ready to maybe never come back again – I was so burned out. I still have no desire to be a recording artist, particularly given the state of music industry at the moment. You can’t make records today for an income, you have to do it because it’s an obsession. I’ve been in that place before and if I find myself in it again, I’ll make another record.

“We’re lucky enough to be in the position where we now own the Savage Garden masters again. For an artist to own their master recordings is extraordinary, so now I feel responsible for the legacy of that - the music videos, the pictures we took, all the dodgy wardrobe choices … I came out, grew up, androgenised - whatever. I did it all in front of a lens and microphone, so it will always be a massive part of my life."

Savage Garden - The Singles 20th Anniversary is out now.