Birds of California soar with fourth release.
BY MICHAEL SIMMONS
“This is Rob Waller of I See Hawks in L.A. on May 30, 2008. It’s approximately 73 degrees outside. Western breeze is blowing in off the ocean. We are all currently alive.”
“Barely,” I mutter, as I snatch the tape recorder from Waller’s bearlike paws and replace it with a beer. Lead singer Waller, lead guitarist Paul Lacques and bassist Paul Marshall — three-fourths of the Hawks (drummer Shawn Nourse couldn’t show) — are sitting in my Palms crib and yapping about Hallowed Ground, the band’s latest album. Like the others, it’s filled with songs of wit and vision about the absurdist horror show that is 21st-century America.
“One of the things that trips me out about this record is, Holy shit, we’ve really made a lot of music!” laughs Waller. “This being the fourth record, I hear the good times, the bad times. We are this funny brotherhood who’ve done this crazy shit together and then were able to come back and tell the story.”
I See Hawks in L.A. have made another Southern California masterpiece. Waller’s baritone — a voice as aged and smooth as the Maker’s Mark we’re also drinking — is up front, with Lacques’ and Marshall’s harmonies stacked on top. The former is an extraordinary guitarist: that rare lead man whose lines leave trails. The songs, mostly co-written by Waller and Lacques, confirm the Hawks’ towering perch. Many are environmentally themed, topically — and angrily — referencing a planet abused by humans. Others are whimsical yarns that have a tall-tale ring, yet most are true. “Rob and Paul have the knack of writing lyrics that are way, way out of the mainstream,” compliments Marshall. “Literary, intriguing, vivid, ironic.”
“Yolo County Airport” is a rocker so charged, it feels like it’s going to lift off out of the CD player and fly away. The story is based on patrons in said county who invited the band to their posh home, with ducks and egrets and the airport next door. “Most of it is real,” explains Lacques. “Being on Ibiza with Mick and Keith is not real.” Waller picks up: “It’s a metaphor for confronting your rock & roll dreams. But really you’re chugging down the highway in your Suburban that costs too much to fill up with gas.”
“For us, it’s about the music,” Lacques clarifies. “There’s the whole economic hierarchy, but if the Stones have a bad gig, it’s a bad gig. If the Hawks have a great gig, I wouldn’t trade it for anything on Earth.”
The lyrics are quality lit (Waller is an assistant professor of writing at USC) and the melodies finely crafted. The minor/major chordal shift in “Keep It in a Bottle,” which begins as a plaint but becomes a prayer, is an example of the Waller/Lacques team’s alchemical magic. “My 3-year-old daughter Zola listens to that song,” says Waller, “and she waits and waits and it hits those changes and she says, ‘This is the pretty part.'” [Laughter.] “I think we all like consonance,” Lacques concurs.
“But what the fuck do you guys like about L.A.?” the homesick New York writer inquires, shifting gears. “L.A.’s been strip-mauled and you guys see hawks.”
“We’re looking up!” quips Waller, then continues: “L.A. is the rock-star dream, the California dream, the dream of freedom, the dream of it being sunny every day.” Lacques adds: “Yesterday, a hawk flew four feet in front of my windshield. That’s happened about five times in the last year.”
The frequent ornithological references suit the band. Their three-part vocal harmonies indeed soar, a skill most pop bands lost interest in 30 years ago that is making a casual resurgence of late. The Hawks share that sonic krssshhh with the Byrds, the auditory sensation of flight. “It’s a challenge to live here and remain connected to nature,” philosophizes Marshall, “but it’s actually easily done if you’re paying attention. The ocean’s right here. The ocean!”
“I can go to my grave knowing I tried to express my concerns about the human future in an artistic way,” says Lacques. One song off the new disc, “Ever Since the Grid Went Down,” a dark-humored postapocalyptic scenario, is balanced with “Environmental Children of the Future.” The latter has elicited both strong positive and negative responses from Hawks fans. It’s about an architect friend of the band, and goes, in part: “With recycled materials she built towers filled with dreams/Based on the pattern of a spinning, falling leaf.” Marshall swears “it goes right up to ‘corny’ and kisses it on the mouth.” While they confront the nightmares of the past decade, part of the Hawks’ appeal is their unapologetic insistence that daylight will break.
Zola Waller (as well as the newborn Henry) has influenced her father’s lyrics. “I suspect that her life in terms of material comfort will be more difficult. There’s more competition for less resources, whether you’re talking environmental stuff or capital. But she’s well suited to deal with it. Her generation will solve lots of problems.
“Whenever something’s totally fucked, somewhere else something good is happening. I don’t mind being poor as long as I get to play good music and jam in my living room.”
“The friendship is why we’re together,” adds Lacques with a smile.