I SEE HAWKS IN L.A. BRINGS ITS TWANGING SOUND AND POETIC LYRICS TO SOHO
By Josef Woodard
Santa Barbara News-Press
July 3rd, 2005
What’s in a band name? Plenty, in the case of the oddly monikered, critically acclaimed alt-country band I See Hawks in L.A. They will make their Santa Barbara debut Wednesday at SOhO, with former Santa Barbaran Gina Villalobos opening. If the name evokes a mystical, natural atmosphere mixed with the built-in cultural references associated with the abbreviation L.A., it has done its job.
Like a hawk over the metropolis, the band creates a unique twanging musical palette, part country and part rock. It’s a perfect local brew for a city where hawks and showbiz hacks coexist. Musically, the band operates in the long shadow of country-rock legends like the late Gram Parsons, and his early 1970s band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and is a focus of the current neocountry-rock sound out of Los Angeles.
Of the name, pedal steel guitarist Paul Lacques explains, “The band formed, at least conceptually, on a trek through East Mojave desert preserve, and we do write about the desert and other surrounding vistas with great regularity. We were talking about all the hawks we’d seen over the skies of L.A. recently, and decided that would be the band name.
“The hawk is our informal bearer of omens,” Lacques notes, “and they show up at key moments in our lives. When we were recording our first album, they popped up all the time, even in movies we were watching. One landed near my feet in San Francisco when we were mixing the record.”
When the band formed a few years ago, a country music leaning came naturally, but members weren’t sure how that instinct would manifest itself.
“We knew we were forming a country band,” singer-songwriterguitarist Rob Waller recalls. “In that sense there was a mandate. But, hopefully, our sound is always developing organically. It would take the fun and spontaneity out of it if it wasn’t.” Adds Lacques, “We knew we wanted to form a country band, and we weren’t fond of what was coming out of Nashville, but beyond that, it’s been blind instinct.”
The band’s musicians have played in a variety of groups and in a variety of musical directions. Country music was a common interest, though they don’t pretend to have come up from C&W soil. “My family didn’t listen to much country music,” says Lacques of his musical background, “but we had a Glenn Campbell record and a Roger Miller record that we wore out. I got into country via bluegrass guitar and The Grateful Dead.”
For his part, Waller was weaned on classic rock, beaming in on the only decent radio station in his hometown of Rochester, Minn. He grew up on a musical diet of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and “came to country and folk music later on when I got serious about songwriting, because that’s where the really good songs lived. I love Zeppelin. They rock. But the lyrics are pretty cartoonish. The country and folk guys — Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard — they’re really talking to you very intimately about their immediate experience and, ultimately, that’s what I’m most interested in doing as a songwriter.”
Coming west to L.A., Waller found himself naturally attracted to the older tradition of country-flavored rockers in the areas, especially Parsons and The Byrds.
“Gram just wrote so many good songs and The Byrds experimented with adding psychedelic sounds to country and folk,” he says. “The Byrds’ harmonies are also just so devastatingly good and that’s something we work very hard on in our band.”
Waller believes that there is a definite link between music and the environment out of which it grows. That idea is particularly relevant to the sound and imagery in I See Hawks in L.A.
“I believe that the ground has a sound,” he says. “We all know what New Orleans music sounds like. There’s a sound that creeps up through musicians’ feet when they stand on that soil. Why fight it? If I lived in New Orleans I’d make a different kind of music than I’d make in New York or Memphis or L.A.
“We’re all just plants after all. Certain kinds of sounds grow better in this Los Angeles soil, this Los Angeles climate. We’re just trying to grow native plants here, musically.”
I See Hawks in L.A. made an impressive splash with its debut, eponymous album from 2001, and has continued a gradual upward course with its fine second album, “Grapevine,” released a year ago.
From the beginning, the music press came courting.
Richard Gehr wrote in the Village Voice that “their music, driven by the fine steel guitarist Paul Lacques, is sinewy yet poetic — more nihilistic than decadent, with an urban-desert poetry all its own.”
In the L.A. Weekly, Johnny Whiteside stated plainly that “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.”
What’s the fuss about? It has to do with the unusual sonic-poetic chemistry between the songs and the sound. Sweet down-home vocal harmonies, fiddle and other country touches are part of the story. Also, the searing, surreal texture of the pedal steel in the band adds greatly to the overall band sound.
What is about the pedal steel that so magically colors whatever music it touches?
“The fact that it’s never actually in tune,” Waller deadpans.
Lacques says half-jokingly, “You have to be obsessive-compulsive to even attempt pedal steel, so the insanity of the player is the most important element.”
Alt-country is a thriving, if semiunderground, subculture within music. I See Hawks in L.A. is one example of a band which may have little hope of having an impact on the standard, Nashville-governed country scene, but it’s not that they intentionally cling to life in the margins. “We certainly seek a wider audience,” Lacques says, “and we’re not trying to be deliberately obscure or ‘alternative’ in our music or lyrics. If we could write a Nashville hit, we just might do it, but I think our DNA is missing a few strands for that.” In the modern parlance, they may be “off-the-radar,” in terms of any mainstream attention or airplay. But Waller clarifies that, in the current multifaceted musical cosmos: “There are a lot of radars these days. We’re very present on some, completely absent on others. “I suppose we’d like to make more money and feel we deserve it, but I imagine most people probably feel about their careers. There’s something very satisfying and enduring about the grass-roots development of a band — or any artistic, political or religious movement. The convictions that drive true believers are the most powerful of all. “People come to hear us because they’ve heard our songs and connected with them. Sometimes very deeply. That’s plenty satisfying for me.”