by Bryan Thomas
When You Awake: I wanted to start off by asking you about the new album, of course, which is a mostly all-acoustic collection of songs, the first one you’ve released in your long history as a band. Was there a particular reason for doing it now?
Paul: Several of our earlier recordings started off acoustic, but we could never resist the lure of the pedal steel and Telecaster. This time we took a vow of no electricity, and managed to go cold turkey. Scary at first, then quite rewarding.
WYA: I remember the first time one of our mutual friends, Doran, told me about you guys playing a longtime residency in the basement of Cole’s Bar, 6th and Main, east of downtown L.A., often with fiddle player Brantley Kearns (ex-Dave Alvin’s and Dwight Yoakum’s bands) sitting in on a regular basis. Is this new album in any way an attempt to recreate or recapture those Wednesday night shows?
Paul: Not consciously, but quite likely. We played once a week at Cole’s, for three years, unless we were on tour, and that honed our acoustic sound. There’s an immediacy to the lyrics and the emotion of the song when it’s stripped down, and the notes die out more quickly.
WYA: You’ve said that the songs you recorded for A New Kind Of Lonely were “recorded old school, sitting in a circle around some fancy microphones.” In the video for your successful Kickstarter crowdsourcing campaign, singer Rob Waller says it’s “kind of an old-fashioned way to make a record,” and goes on to say that one of his favorite records, growing up, was Will The Circle Be Unbroken, and that’s how the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded that album. Can you elaborate on the way the songs came together and how they were recorded?
Paul: The commitment to live acoustic really made us focus on a mood or style, first of all in the songwriting. We had about six songs finished from the previous year, and when we sat down to write more for the new recording, we steered the ship towards the Folk Shore. Mary Austin Sky, Bohemian Highway, River Run, and New Kind Of Lonely were the last four songs we finished, and they get folkier and folkier. Rob, Paul Marshall and myself were all involved on the writing, and so we knew the songs fairly well by the time they were finished. We did four days of rehearsing, and cut the record in three days, with Cliff Wagner on banjo and Dave Raven, all live. No click track, either, so the tempo floats, which to me makes it groove harder. All the instruments and Rob’s lead vocals were live, and we added harmonies, dobro, and some great fiddle by Gabe Witcher later. Marc Doten did a wonderful job recording, he’s got great gear and ears. Paul Dugre did his usual bold and adventurous mix, and Joe Gastwirt did a sweet sounding mastering. We were in good hands.
WYA: NKOL begins with “Bohemian Highway,” which I understand takes its name from the one of the two highways that intersect near the little town of Freestone, California, up in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. It sounds like a nice little place to start a journey off from, a good jumping-off point. Was that the idea?
Paul: Exactly. It felt like the beginning of a journey. The song is very impressionistic. I did a tour as sub guitarist for Old Californio last summer, and Victoria and I stayed on in Sonoma County, lazed around on the lawn at the Green Apple Inn with Mr. D’Arcy, the cat, kayaked on the Russian River, and stared at the stars. The Hawks have spent a fair amount of time up there, so Rob jumped in with his impressions.
WYA: What’s the significance of this northern part of California for you, and for Rob Waller? We know you’ve got one song about “Humboldt,” and another that name-checks the “Yolo County Airport” and local surroundings, which isn’t too far away.
Paul: California’s landscape has a powerful presence, anywhere in the state. Heavy emanations of endless variety. A lot of our songs are a bit haunted by the ruination of Southern California, which we humans have accomplished with breathtaking speed. If you’re in a sour mood you can really feel dark about the rich farmland that is now a sea of Forever 21′s and McMansions in Orange County. Northern California has been much smarter, or luckier, about its growth patterns. So much of it is still unspoiled, with that sweetness that endless rolling hills have.
WYA: The next track is one we’ve heard you guys play live before, “Dear Flash,” and the liner notes say it’s inspired by the tough old codger in Gurney Norman’s counter-culture novel Divine Right’s Trip, which was first published in installments in the Whole Earth Catalog, back in the early ’70s. Care to elaborate on that, or the influence of counter-culture literature in general on the Hawks lyrics?
Paul: If you take away 1960s and ’70s counterculture influences, I think our lyrics would evaporate. Paul Marshall was a part of the California folk psychedelic scene, had a recording deal while still in high school, toured and recorded as lead singer of Strawberry Alarm Clock. I missed the ’60s by a few years and was painfully aware of it, but I immersed myself in psychedelic country rock, learned the Burrito Brothers canon for my first folk duo, devoured the Whole Earth Catalog, built a geodesic dome, read all the Kesey and Kerouac stuff, and tried hard to be a hippie in the early ’70s. By 1975, I knew it was over. I hitchhiked to New York and got a ride from a guy who described this new kind of Manhattan music scene that was going to take over: “It’s called . . . disco!” Rob’s younger than Paul Marshall and myself, has very broad tastes, but instinctively sought out the California counterculture. By the time I met him in 1997, his band The Magic Of Television had made the plunge into country rock.
WYA: There are some elegiac songs about losing friends along the way, as we all do, especially as we get further down that ol’ highway of life. “Big Old Hypodermic Needle” contemplates the loss of two friends who overdose together to get “one last time for the memory of the sunset turning gold.” And, “The Spirit Of Death” is a beautiful, poignantly-penned song that pays tribute to singer-songwriter and fiddle-player Amy Farris, who passed away back in November 2009. It’s so nice that you guys would remember her this way, with such a wonderful song (“When I was a younger man, the good times eased the way / But now the stars are falling every other day / The dreams of childhood are returning to say, your dance is coming, better pick a tune and play”). I remember the Hawks playing at her tribute show at McCabe’s along with Dave Alvin, Peter Case and Rick Shea among others.
Paul: We were devastated when Amy passed on, and we still think about her all the time. Rick Shea and I went down to the Santa Monica pier and saw Dave Alvin’s kickass Guilty Women show, and Amy was tearing it up, and we had a nice long talk. A few weeks later she was dead. It still doesn’t seem real. We did so many shows with her, she was really part of the band for a few years. For our Kickstarter rewards, we gave away some live show downloads with Amy, and we’re going to make them available to the public later this year.
WYA: “I Fell In Love With The Grateful Dead” is a lot of fun, like a lot of the songs that find their way into your catalog. There’s even a line in this one that says, “What, may you ask, is this song about? It’s a cry for the tribes of peace to come out / We got the numbers, we’re fast and we’re strong, consult your Whole Earth Catalogs.” So, are you guys trying to start a revolution? The hippie spirit lives on! Is that yours or Rob’s memory of seeing the New Riders of the Purple Sage and the Dead in the summer of ’72 at the Santa Barbara Bowl?
Paul: It’s really funny for the audience (and us) when we do the song live and Rob sings “what, may you ask, is this song about?” because it’s a very long song. We do indeed wish to further the revolution in thought, spirit, and deed that was the ’60s. It’s alive in people like my nephew, who was a student activist at UCLA. He jumped into the Occupy movement, and is now teaching organizing and activism in South Los Angeles. Reagan ushered in an era of willful stupidity and greed that has only gained momentum in the last 30 years, and we say ‘fight it.’ We are unreconstructed hippies. Stop driving your car and get on a bicycle. The Palladium show and Santa Barbara Bowl lyrics are my experiences in the 70′s, Hampton Sydney is Rob’s in the 90′s, and the backstage moment is, of course, Paul Marshall’s, whose career was way ahead of ours. He actually recorded with Brent Mydland, one of the Dead’s exploding keyboardists.
WYA: Lyrically, this album continues in the vein of much of the Hawks’ past recordings. Longtime MOJO scribe Michael Simmons called you guys “the finest country-rock band currently flying the freak flag of freedom, eco-peace and psychedelic transcendence on planet Earth.” There are songs on New Kind Of Lonely with Steinbeck-ian naturalism themes, ecologically-minded songs about being respectful and simply awestruck at the beauty to be found in nature, and songs that talk about the destruction we’re all doing to Mother Earth. There are also songs that pin-point memorable places to be found along the highways we travel, and some even close to home. For instance, “Highland Park Serenade,” your home town, wistfully name-checks Mr. T’s Bowling Alley, where Rob Waller’s wife once ran her own award-winning restaurant, The Gutter.
Paul: I miss The Gutter! I was their part-time prep cook, and it was much fun. When I got a job at History Channel, Katie’s twin sister Lecie said, “So you’re going for the big bucks, eh?” We used to write songs about Echo Park, now we write about Highland Park. The band was named into existence on a high desert hike, and it seems like it’s our assignment to write about the land. None of us have ever been so geography-specific in our writing before.
WYA: The Hawks don’t shy away from their political side, although there’s nothing too political, I suppose, on NKOL, even though the country seems to be needing to hear something political from bands like yours right about now. I remember reading this excerpt in the liner notes that you and Rob penned for your greatest hits collection Shoulda Been Gold: “We politicized our music, bitterly and reluctantly and sometimes unconsciously, our awareness blindsided by the collapse of a large chunk of America’s psyche. Our song ‘Humboldt,’ written as the bombs fell on caravans in Afghanistan, is a small fist shaken at a new American government we feared was invincible and sinister.” Care to elaborate?
Paul: My Mom is somewhere to the left of Noam Chomsky, and all nine of her children are right in step with her. Rob’s pretty lefty, and Paul Marshall’s a Libertarian, so you can imagine the sparks flying on long road trips. The Bush years were a stunning assault on what were considered unshakeable American, or human, values, and the Hawks really got caught up in it, with many overt or implied political songs. I think it made us a bit demented for a while, and we had to step back a bit to get some peace of mind. New Kind Of Lonely might be a letting go of trying to sing about things political. America needs to relearn some recently forgotten lessons, and its downward spiral seems to be an unavoidable part of the learning process. Let’s hope the bottoming out isn’t too painful, and that we diminish gracefully. The Hawks are staying out of the way, and trying to keep our values and sense of joy alive in dark times. River Run addresses this pretty specifically.
WYA: Your Kickstarter campaign had so many great premiums, like an afternoon of “weapons training and target shooting” (guns and ammo provided) with Paul Marshall at a bucolic San Gabriel foothills shooting range or an afternoon trip to an Echo Park stable for free horse manure and leaf mulch with you showing the person who selected this how to terrace their garden and make fantastic soil using the sheet mulch method. What do you think of Kickstarter in general? Is it going to become a normal way for independent bands are artists to be able to put out albums and fund tours?
Paul: Kickstarter not only paid for our recording, it was an opportunity for our friends to show the love, and they really did. It was quite moving and humbling, the money just poured in. Several of the premiums involved unreleased live and studio tracks, and it was great fun to weed through hundreds of performances to find the cool stuff. We just hosted a dinner for the higher paying donors, and just did a live concert, and they were very personal. Our fans are friends, and our friends are fans. We really have a tribe going here. Our Kickstarter experience was totally positive, and in the era of free music as a Constitutional right, I think patronage from fans is one of the few options left for indie recording artists, film makers, etc.
WYA: I know this is probably a longer conversation for another time, but do you think you could sum up your strong feelings about piracy and the recent congressional bill that failed. You’ve started a Facebook group for all musicians, artists, filmmakers, authors, and concerned friends who want to take a stand against file sharing, unauthorized downloading, bit torrent, MegaDownload, i.e. stealing another artist’s work. What do you think will happen next? Will the next version of the SOPA bill succeed?
Paul: I may sound like a crank and a contrarian, but that’s because I am. I think the concerns over SOPA were totally exaggerated. The goal was simply to shut down sites giving away content they didn’t own. When the increasingly Stalinesque Google juggernaut is putting on Occupy airs and screaming about censorship, I say ’beware. ’ All recording artists and film makers are still totally exposed to online theft. Three weeks ago our new CD wasn’t even up on Amazon, and we found pirate sites offering the whole album for free! With Congress cowed by internet giants, I think the only thing to do is spread the message: please don’t download our songs for free, unless we’re giving them away ourselves. It’s simple.
WYA: I wanted to ask you about your past experiences working as a researcher for The History Channel, which sounds to me like a really wonderful job. One of your Kickstarter premiums was a never-before-seen DVD of your very own ill-fated History Channel mini-show, Logger Paul, which I understand were short episodes of you introducing very odd clips from the National Archives vaults, such as, quoting here, “Mussolini’s son’s appearance on The Little Rascals after dropping bombs on Ethiopian rebels, Nixon getting attacked by mobs in Venezuela, a 1939 Hitler claymation, of course–with lots of acerbic commentary by our host.” Tell me more.
Paul: I worked for Actuality Productions, which produced hundreds of Modern Marvels shows for the History Channel, and a number of longer documentaries for Discovery, National Geographic, etc. My brother Anthony, the first Hawks drummer and still active songwriter, got me the job. He’s a full-on documentary producer now. I started out as a tape logger and moved up pretty quickly to researcher, got to interview archaeologists, cold fusion nuclear physicists, solar panel inventors, coffee roasters, quite a variety. I have a pretty good background in science from UCLA, so I could ask questions and not sound too Hollywood. They actually submitted my research for Emmy consideration.
The last year I was there, I submitted an idea to present strange historical clips from the National Archives vaults. They said great, and you’ll be the host. So we filmed fifteen episodes of oddities, including Nixon and Mussolini’s stranger moments, and also solar panel inventors from the 1930s, Vietnam War flyovers of the Ho Chi Minh Trail with so many bomb craters that your jaw drops, tens of thousands of factory workers streaming out of the Ford munitions factories during World War II, etc., kind of a patchwork quilt of historical impressions, followed by my acerbic asides. It was going to air once an hour around the clock on History Channel, and I would have been a minor celebrity people might recognize in line at Trader Joe’s. Alas, some high executive in New York City saw the clips, no doubt declared ‘that hippie’s not going to be on this channel!’ and that was that. I kind of don’t blame them. Dan Rather I’m not.
New Kind Of Lonely comes out March 6th, on Western Seeds Records, in the U.S., and March 23rd in Europe on Blue Rose Records. The Hawks play McCabe’s this Friday, Feb. 24th. Old Californio opens the show with a special acoustic set, with Paul Lacques joining in on Dobro for some tunes, at 8pm, and Cliff Wagner will be sitting in with the Hawks on fiddle and banjo, and Richie Lawrence on accordian (both also make an appearance on the new album, along with fiddle player Gabe Witcher and drummer Dave Raven). They’ll return to Yolie’s in Ventura for two electric sets on March 9th, and on Saturday, March 10th, the band will be out at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown. Future dates include The Palms in Winters (April 14), and Rancho Nicasio in Marin County (April 15). Later this spring, the Hawks will touring North Carolina, where you’ll find them on the bill at the Albino Skunkfest (5/4) and the French Broad River Festival (5/5), before returning to California to play at the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest (5/20) and the Strawberry Festival, up in the High Sierras (5/25). Over the summer they will hit the road to places new and familiar. Go see ‘em!