Earth and Sky
by Jonny Whiteside, L.A. Weekly
Cole’s, an old saloon located on deepest Sixth Street, is an ideal setting for the musical dichotomy known as I See Hawks in L.A. With its shadowy barroom atmosphere, novelty signage (florid 1890s calligraphy proclaims “Ladies Please Make Your Solicitations Discreetly”) and a crowd of downtown bohemian patrons sporting studied rumple-hep (one even turns up barefoot), the spot suits this band’s unusual blend of country-rock methodology and beatnik-autonomy themes. Bassist-singer Paul Marshall, a veteran who has worked with everyone from the Strawberry Alarm Clock to hillbilly queen Rose Maddox, sits at the bar, answering a blunt “Just what is this band, anyway?”
“It’s country-based,” he says, “but what drew me to them are the lyrics — they’re very different. I guess the best way to describe it is ‘cosmic cowboy music.'”
Formed three years ago by singer Robert Rex Waller and guitarist Paul Lacques, I See Hawks has an engaging reckless streak that’s complemented by the first-rate musicianship of Lacques, Marshall, guitarist Shawn Norrus, steel man John McDuffie and ubiquitous fiddler-mandolinist Brantley Kearns. While its first album, issued in 2001, was a somewhat haphazard affair, the band is currently sitting on a new 10-track demo that, though lacking a label, is loaded with the kind of idiosyncratic allure that Waller uses to great effect. He’s a big boy with an affable demeanor; his strong, clean singing exhibits a profound relationship with the hard-country style. While this “Americana” thing has done got a bit out of hand, mostly providing context for a clutch of unpersuasive performers who favor droning, amelodic deconstruction of traditional form, I See Hawks manages to wrap up freeform poetics and Southern musical conventions into a convincing package.
“Rob, my brother and I were out in the Mojave,” Lacques says. “And we got kind of high out on this distant peak, and it got tribal, this animalistic running-through-the-scrub ritual — it was a bonding thing. Then we just started talking about the hawks in L.A., and we’re all kind of eco-radicals, so that subtext is in the music. We’re all animals, but we’ve hit our limit and forgotten we’re subject to all the laws of nature. The band is about trying to remain aware of nature while stuck in the city. So we just said, ‘Shoot, let’s have a country band called I See Hawks.’ We didn’t play a gig for a long time, just wrote songs for about year. You are conscious when you’re doing a genre, but we’ll try anything, and it has continued going in a country direction.”
Waller amplifies: “We have three kinds of songs: songs about places, and animals — we have a donkey song, dogs, whales and, of course, hawks — and songs in defiance of death. What we’re writing and playing is connected to the land. Whatever ground you’re standing on influences the way you sound as a musician, and we’ve got the California country tradition that we love and want to be a part of. ‘Defiance of death’ is an important part, one that’s deeply rooted in the country tradition. There’s a sort of apocalyptic vision, and also the wish that all that would go away.
“Everybody in the band plays a huge role, and our experiences are so different,” he continues. “Paul Lacques has played in so many different bands, but he started out playing bluegrass and country when he was a kid. Brantley has all the old-time music in his head, and Paul Marshall has his country experience and the psychedelic world, which is also prominent in our music.”
This particular Cole’s date — the band play here regularly — is the Hawks’ stripped-down acoustic quartet; when in full electrified flight, they add mule-kick drums and Texas Playboys/ Allman Brothers twin-guitar takeoffs, but here, circled around a single microphone, Lacques’ dobro cascades notes with an accuracy and affection worthy of Merle Haggard’s Strangers, and as Kearns’ impeccable fiddle breaks stir the audience to spontaneous cries of glee, the Hawks’ brand of peculiar cleaves to the familiar with striking ardor. The strange combination of Waller and Lacques’ Mojave-fired animist concept and contributions from exceptional musicians seems to feed on itself.
“I See Hawks’ writing does have a sort of life of its own,” Lacques says. “There’s definitely an unseen third person in the room when we’re working on stuff — the songs come out very quickly. We feel extremely fortunate about the people we’ve hooked up with. We have these great pro players, and I always think, ‘Oh, we’ve suckered another one in!'”
“When you first listen to I See Hawks in L.A., you hear the staples of Southern California country rock — sunny harmonies and a Flying Burritos Brothers vibe — with a bit of bluegrass mixed in. But listen closely and you’ll notice that they’re often giving the genre a twist. How else can you describe a group whose lonesome ode “Duty To Our Pod” is a love song about whales? These cosmic cowboys often seek “the beautiful narcotic place” that they sing about. And, not surprising given the band’s name, flying references abound here, from planes to birds to the man who is “100 feet up in a tree.” Despite their somewhat skewed approach, their music is grounded by top-notch playing (particularly from fiddler Brantley Kearns and guitarist/lap steel player Paul Lacques) and strong vocals. Besides the group’s fine harmonies, frontman Robert Rex Waller moves smoothly between a rough-hewn singing style and a sweeter, Parsons-like croon. Whether they’re tweaking country rock, as in the humorous honky-tonker “Don’t Bury Me,” or simply creating the stirring dysfunctional family portrait “To the Snow,” the L.A.-based band acquit themselves quite nicely on their debut.”
— Michael Berick, Country Standard Time
“One more day on the 605,” laments Robert Rex Waller Jr. on the title track of I See Hawks in L.A. the debut album from the band of the same name. “What if this place got buried alive?” he continues. “The biggest quake the world’s ever seen/Let the snakes take over again.” Like the band’s name itself, the song situates I See Hawks’ brand of country music squarely in Southern California, and it does so in front of a musical background lush with steel guitar and fiddle (courtesy of Paul Lacques and Brantley Kearns, respectively), and foregrounded by Waller’s world-weary, expressive vocals. I See Hawks’ landscape is an often forbidding one, bleak and lonely yet deeply human, with the shadow of death never far behind. The chorus of “The Mystery of Life” could be the band’s credo: “In the end, it is each man’s destiny to face the mystery of life alone.” Yet the album closes with two tracks that depart from this somber vision: the up-tempo, humorously defiant “Don’t Bury Me,” which brags, “I’m gonna stay alive when I die,” and the tentative love song “Baby,” which ends the record on a guardedly hopeful note: “I think I’ll hold you close when the cold wind comes.” The members of I See Hawks have performed with the likes of Dwight Yoakam, Dave Alvin and Emmylou Harris, as well as with such outfits as the Magic of Television and Double Naught Spy Car. They’ve created a record that evokes sprawling desert spaces made hospitable by the presence of a few guys singing in gorgeous harmony. Dreamy and offbeat, the album stands up well against the best of country music while also achieving a surprising originality.”
— Gwynne Garfinkle, LA New Times
“Those who prefer their country music back porch style (fiddles and mandolin) rather than Backstreet Boys style (fashion-model arena rock) may want to check out I See Hawks in LA. This, their first CD, is a long way from the first music these cowboys have plucked: The fiddle belongs to Brantley Kearns (Dwight Yoakam); the bassist is David Jackson(Emmylou Harris); the drummer is Anthony Lacques (The Magic of Television); the guitarist, steel player and main co-writer is Paul Lacques (Bonedaddys). Hawks singer Robert Rex Waller Jr., whose plaints of deserts and desolation in a manly low tenor might remind you of Gordon Lightfoot or Delbert McClinton. Hope they play the stomping “Don’t Bury Me (When I Die).”
— Greg Burke, LA Weekly
“I just completed my 4th listening to I See Hawks in LA’s debut recording and I’m here to report that I love it! I knew the playing would be great, of course, but I’m quite smitten with the songwriting too. Great stuff! It has skill, authenticity, soul, irony, and an underlying sadness that I find incredibly compelling. Brilliant work.”
— Barry Smolin, host/producer, The Music Never Stops KPFK 90.7 FM–Los Angeles
” stuff as good as ishila aint easy for me to write about. you know, i never did get that rock critic job at the Deaf Gazette…but anyway….turn the cell phone off…keep your eyes on the road…visit this classic monument of sound and poetry…forget the camera for they have taken the clearest pictures…its american in the best sense of that word…its also my favorite record of the year, if not the last 5 or 10.”
— Stew, from TNP
“On their debut disc, I See Hawks In LA fly high with a breed of country rock that’s blessed with both a sun-baked ease and a gravel road grit. The record boasts some fine harmonizing behind Robert Rex Waller Jr.’s vocals (which are a pleasing blend of Neil Young, John Doe and Gram Parsons). Besides Waller, the band also includes the talents of in-demand session men: fiddler Brantley Kearns and bassist David Jackson, along with the Lacques brothers (drummer Anthony and guitarist Paul). Together they make simple music that soars splendidly.”
— Miles of Music
“Celebrating the release of their extraordinary new Grapevine CD, I See Hawks in L.A. continue to explore artistic territory few others visit. The band’s ambitious vision of psychedelicized California country incorporates themes of such basics as geography and wildlife with a cerebral approach to imagery and ideology, creating songs rooted in an offbeat eco-radical libertarianism. The driving-force duo of singer Rob Waller and guitarist Paul Lacques have cooked up one of the most audacious sounds the Golden State has ever produced. Their songs have an air of both spontaneous immediacy and shrewdly applied musical craftsmanship so unconventional that frequently cited precursors the Flying Burrito Brothers pale to utter irrelevance beneath the band’s high-altitude artistry. A wilder blue yonder.
— Jonny Whiteside, L.A. Weekly
The L.A. Underground
by Zach Selwyn, Campus Circle
I SEE HAWKS IN L.A. Soar Atop Alt-Country World Halfway through our afternoon interview, I See Hawks in L.A. guitar player and vocalist Paul Lacques points out of the window of the Silverlake diner where we are seated towards the resplendent soaring wingspan of a bird in flight, which passes by as if on cue. “There’s a hawk right there,” he says, forcing lead vocalist Robert Rex Waller, Jr. and myself to glance at what seems to be one on the wing, gliding directly above Sunset Boulevard. “We tend to see them as omens when we see them as a band.”
Sure enough, there are hawks in L.A. Not only in the sky, but in the world of alt-alt-country music. I See Hawks in L.A. formed a few years back and has been a mainstay on the re-emerging Los Angeles country scene ever since. Backed by the masterful fiddle playing of Brantley Kearns and the steel guitar of Paul Lacques, lead singer Robert Rex Waller, Jr. serves up a decadent helping of desert country rock that riffs on the pleasures of the soul. His somewhat vivacious range saunters from a Steve Earle-like plea for attention into Gram Parsons-like episodic peacefulness.
Their self-titled debut record was hailed by critics and fans alike as a defining moment in the new country underground that began to take shape around the time that the Beachwood Sparks reminded L.A. why country-rock was once king. Songs like “Bury Me” and “I See Hawks in L.A.” permeated a sad desert landscape that floated as high as the Hawks often claim to be.
Now, as they prepare to release a follow-up album, the Hawks are ascending closer to the sprawling open sky that punctuates their music with freedom. One of their new songs, the finely tuned marijuana love letter “Humboldt,” shows that the Hawks are experimenting with a more rock-like sound, accentuated with the medicinal chanting that opens the song.
“The new album just rocks more, it’s a lot harder,” Waller Jr. expresses. “The first record was very contemplative and a little quieter. The next one is more up and a little more experimental.” With a new record due in early 2003, the Hawks continue to glide along the L.A. skyway. Hopefully, people will look up and recognize that there are not only hawks in L.A., but that they are poised for a musical takeover.
“The twang of a lap guitar travels the length of a western canyon; closer by, a mandolin ornaments the campfire darkness. There is a gorgeous spaciousness to these new songs by “I See Hawks in L.A.,” uncrowded by the usual meaningless pop clutter. In this new spaciousness the ‘Hawks’ fashion for themselves an unapologetically expressive and heartfelt songwriting style. Waller’s voice carries the emotional power of Steve Earle — but funnier, lighter, and more inventive.”
— Oliver Broudy, The Paris Review
— Los Angeles Times
“A local band called I See Hawks In L.A. creates music whose sound and feel is unmistakeably Californian-like sunrise over desert saguaros, and, yes, great winged wonders circling the San Gabriels. There’s an almost timeless quality about it. It’s not quite garage rock, not quite country, folk, gospel or bluegrass, yet it possesses elements of each. Not unlike SoCal’s landscape (and culture), it’s a seemingly incougruous hybrid. But when the disparate parts of I See Hawks In L.A. come together in harmony, on waves of lap steel, the results are plain gorgeous.”
— Bliss, Pasadena Weekly
“This album forces you to think uncomfortable thoughts. It reaches deep inside.” 4 1/2 Stars
–Rhett Ashley, International Country Music Association News July 2002
I SEE HAWKS IN L.A.
***1/2 (out of 5)
“Band di Los Angeles all’esordio. Sonorit roots, belle voci, arrangiamenti intriganti ed una manciata di canzoni di indubbio valore. Una bella sorpresa, per continuare a scandagliare la scena roots alternativa.”
“I See Hawks In L.A. play the finest cosmic cowboy music since the Burrito Brothers–explicitly cannabinoid tunes encompassing expansive desert vistas and dysfunctional Hollywood losers. Dig their unreleased “Humboldt,” the finest marijuana anthem since ‘One Toke Over The Line.’ ”
–Michael Simmons, L.A. Weekly
I See Hawks in L.A. takes a slightly more cerebral approach to country music. This is not to say the genre is overrun with cavemen, but clipped onto the well-worn bootheels of this outfit is a spur of skewed wit, intelligence, and contemplation. The music itself is the very picture of congeniality — accomplished players strum languidly with reverence and grace, conjuring deep-seeded tradition rather than new country (aka, rock music from people in cowboy hats). There’s a grass-roots essence running through the album, but the band sidesteps tradition in the lyrics with tracks like “Nicotine & Vitamin C,” the lovely sunset lullaby of “The Beautiful Narcotic Place I Reside,” and the saddle-shop quartet of “A Dog Can Break Your Heart Too.” Furthermore, “The Mystery of Life” and “Duty to Our Pod” seem downright existentialist in their approach. The modest bari-twang vocals of Robert Rex Waller Jr. and the other contributing voices are all appropriately unpolished.