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Philip Van Vleck, Durham Herald-Sun: Band Follows in Footsteps of “Cosmic Country” Ancestors

By Philip Van Vleck, Special to The Herald-Sun (Durham, NC)
June 15, 2006

RALEIGH — One of the genuinely interesting country bands on the scene nowadays is I See Hawks in L.A. The group is on the road in support of their latest album, “California Country,” and they’ll be making a stop at Raleigh’s Pour House Sunday evening.

I See Hawks is, as the title of their new album suggests, a California-based group. They’ve released three albums, with their self-titled debut disc coming in 2001. Each album has raised the ante in terms of what we might expect from this band. The mentality behind their vibe is expansive and still developing.

I See Hawks’ second record, “Grapevine,” was one of the best albums of 2004. The mood of the disc was somber, even cerebral, and the sound was a beautifully resonant evocation of California country music, albeit spun to suit the I See Hawks personality.

“California Country,” on the other hand, is long on wit and shrewd observation. The sound is often described by music critics as “cosmic country,” which is a reasonably coherent allusion to I See Hawks predecessors such as The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Gram Parsons.

The cosmic country label for I See Hawks’ music is “pretty close,” founding member Rob Waller, a Minnesota native who graduated from Duke in 1994, said. “I like the term surrealist folk.”

Some of the “California Country” tunes, however, are more topical than surrealistic. One of the most unexpected songs on the album is definitely “Byrd From West Virginia.”

Waller said he finds Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia a complex and inspiring figure.

“In the lead-up to the Iraq war, he was the one guy who really got up there and not only spoke against the whole idea — and did so eloquently — but also reminded Americans of our values and what the Constitution means, and the danger of going out on this foreign military adventure,” Waller said. “And nobody listened to him.

“This guy has some wisdom in his years and he’s definitely got a complicated life story. By no means has he been a pure example of righteousness and we tried to include as much of his biography as we could, both the dark and the light.”

“California Country” also features a very dramatic, amusing song about Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.

“That song’s based on some true facts,” Waller said. “There was a Slash impersonator going around Los Angeles, getting all the benefits of being Slash at the peak of his career without having to actually be Slash.”

The song envisions a Hollywood party at which the real Slash confronts the fake Slash.

“California Country” is a different album, conceptually, from “Grapevine.” It asks us once again to revise what we think we know about I See Hawks.

“Our pursuit is to get more imaginative,” Waller said of the new recording. “The songs that we’re working on for our fourth record show that our vision is getting even more clear. I mean, we’re not at a loss in terms of where we want to go musically. Whether or not people will come with us, I have no idea,” he laughed.

“We want to make more vivid pictures that are more imaginative, even more surreal, or dreamlike. There’s a liberating thing that happens when you pursue that, when you pursue your strangest vision. From the beginning we’ve not wanted to write clichéd country lyrics. We wanted to see what it was like to write country songs and folk songs that had nontraditional lyrics. And at this point we’ve arrived at ‘Slash From Guns N’ Roses.’ “

I See Hawks in L.A. is definitely a band in an interesting creative situation. Their music is often evocative of the other California — the Buck Owens-Roy Clark California beyond the frantic glitz of L.A. On the other hand, they’re very much a part of what’s up in Los Angeles today. It’s a best-of-both-worlds scenario that’s generating outstanding music.