By Bill Locey
Posted January 29, 2010 at 12:01 a.m.
I See Hawks in L.A. may still be flying under the popular music radar, but they’ve hooked some very high-profile fans. Roots-rock pioneer Dave Alvin, for one, calls the band “one of California’s unique treasures.”
I See Hawks in L.A. are heading north to play a Thursday night show for the jittery clientele at Muddy Waters, a coffeehouse that rocks in Santa Barbara. I See Hawks in L.A. are a bunch of pros (or semipros, but more on that later) who have been around for a decade playing country music, good for a bunch of albums, including their latest collection of woulda shoulda coulda hits, “Shoulda Been Gold: 2001-2009.’’ The 17-track collection was released this month on Collectors’ Choice Music.
The band probably won’t see too many hawks in Santa Barbara, just those inland sea gulls too dumb to find the dump or the beach, but probably quite a few fans wearing pointy shoes, as the band has been up here before. They used to play Zoey’s in Ventura quite often.
Guitar player Paul Lacques, who used to live in Blythe and even Somis, discussed the latest during a recent phoner.
How’s the band biz?
The biz? The band is great but the biz, well, we’re in the free download age, so the biz is a little sketchy. The band’s doing good.
Don’t stop playing those gigs then.
Yeah. The gigs are our life’s blood, definitely.
Are you guys still under the radar, on the radar or country-rock stars now?
You know, we’re right at the edge. We’re just flirting with the radar thing all the time. Sometimes I think we’re well-known. We just got this review that said we were like in the past and put out these obscure records that you can’t find anywhere, you know?
Where was that from, far away? Californians should know better.
Let’s see, far away, I guess. Oh, here it is, Portland, Ore. I think it’s a blog. We’ve played there about four times. He must be a younger guy.
I don’t think most people think of L.A. as a country town. How does that work out for you guys?
The L.A. country scene is definitely under the radar, but it’s pretty driving. There’s probably a couple of hundred bands, believe it or not, and quite a few places to play.
Ten-plus years is an eternity for a band. How do you account for your longevity?
I would say it’s because we’re good friends and we figured out what each person in the band needs, you know? Some people — and I won’t mention any names — are overly ambitious while other people are underly ambitious. We kind of found the balance and we all decided, “OK, this other guy’s insane, but he needs this, and I’ll give him as much of that as I can.’’ I think it’s about balance and friendship. It feels like we’re going to put out another five albums over the next 10 years.
What’s your take on the new one?
The new one is different. It’s a compilation which, obviously, we’ve never done before. That really shaped the whole thing. The label wanted 12 songs off our earlier records and three new ones. We came up with the three new ones plus a few we’d never released but really liked. So we came up with 17 songs and they said, “OK.” They didn’t squawk about it at all. Ten years. That’s a lot of tracks.
There was a funny line in one of your bios about playing all over California, as in you’ve been to all the Sans and Santas. You’ve had numerous 805 adventures.
We played Zoey’s a bunch until they changed owners. The new people evidently don’t realize how great we are. We’d love to come back. We love that spot.
What was your strangest gig?
You know, we did a rodeo in Banning where the wind was blowing so hard that it was blowing our amps over. You could see for about 20 miles. It was just one of those flat desert valleys, and we were the first thing the wind hit coming from Blythe. Another time, we played a roadhouse in Mississippi where they wanted to hear all cover songs.
What’s your brand of country music?
Oh boy, let’s see. You know, we pretty much steal from everybody. We’re fans of old time bluegrass and of course, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, Waylon Jennings in his 1970s period — a lot of influences, you know? There’s some pop and some avant-garde influences that creep in once in a while.
At your gigs, do they do that weird line-dancing thing?
You know, at the state fairs, yeah. At Banning or the Mariposa County Fair they do. Our drummer has played a lot of line-dance gigs. The bass player, too. There’s a certain beat you play and you get people out on the dance floor. We’ll do it if it’s required.
How did the band go over in Europe?
You know what? I might be generalizing, but I would say the average country music fan over there is almost like a scholar. I mean, they’ll name your influences for you and they’ll say, “So you must know about this band and this band and this band” and we’ll say, “Nope, sorry.” And they stay up on it, too. They’re very into alt-country, mainstream country. We felt a real good connection in both the U.K. and Ireland as well as Norway. It felt like kind of a homecoming.
So how does it go over in the South besides the covers gig in Mississippi? What about Nashville?
We’ve actually played in Nashville about five times. We call it the Death Star because we’re never going to break in. I mean, people are real polite there. We’ll do our set, sandwiched between five really hard country writers, and we’ll do our kind of oddball desert stuff and, you know, it’s polite. They’re like, “Thank you. Move on. Go back to California, but y’all come back.’’ It’s an interesting experience, but we will never crack the Nashville shell. It’s not going to happen.
So California country doesn’t fit into Tennessee?
It’s cool. They’re there and we’re here and there’s a lot of miles between us. That might be a good thing, you know? We’re definitely a California band. All the lyrics are rooted here, and we believe in the spirit of the land. We’ve spent a lot of time in the desert. I actually grew up in the desert out in Blythe and it influences the way you sing and play. Three of us are California natives. Later, I lived outside of Victorville in Apple Valley. Last time I went through Apple Valley, I didn’t recognize it. I thought I was in Van Nuys or something. It’s scary how fast the high desert is getting built up. I hope it stops.
How does an indie band make it in an indie world?
I think the Internet has leveled the playing field. We’re all kind of semipro now. There’s the big semipro people, like the “American Idol” people, then there’s the more marginal semipros, like ourselves. Formerly, we probably would’ve been earning a comfortable living. Now it’s sort of a marginal living. But, yeah, it’s all one big fairly happy family.
This is supposed to be fun, right?
Well, it is. We have fun. All our shows are fun. We like getting together and singing and writing songs. It’s all fun. That’s why we’re together after 10 years.