“We’re a cool party for misfits” — I See Hawks In L.A. talk music and up-coming shows
Southern California-based band I See Hawks In L.A. is adventurously omnivorous. Powered by soaring three-part harmonies, expressive instrumentation and evocative lyrics, their blend of rock, country, bluegrass and psychedelia simultaneously wins them fans and stumps mainstream radio.
While it’s easy to recognize a song as being by the Hawks, what exactly defines that sound?
“I have no idea,” admitted lead singer and acoustic guitarist Rob Waller. “I have a vague idea of the limits of the property. But I’ve never had the stamina to hike all the way out there to try and find the fence.”
Lead guitarist Paul Lacques said, “I like to think we’re David Bowie as interpreted by the Eagles. Bowie said, hey, we’re all messed up, we’re all misfits. The Eagles said, hey, come on over to our cool party. At our best, we’re a cool party for misfits.”
The Hawks have been throwing that party since 1999, releasing seven albums and touring the US and Europe. Waller, Lacques and bassist Paul Marshall are the group’s long-time core, joined by Victoria Jacobs or Shawn Nourse on drums and a tribe of talented guests.
The Hawks are a soulful band. Their ability to convey a range of emotions partially explains their lasting appeal and provides a very human core to their music. The alchemy starts with the songs themselves, most of which are co-written by Waller and Lacques.
The songwriters give themselves free rein, tackling topics as varied as a hippie childhood, good dogs, bad drivers and the solemn joy of an open-air desert wedding, and moods across the spectrum from exuberance to wistfulness and from impassioned indignation to love.
“There is no pattern to how a song materializes or evolves, truly,” said Lacques. “There’s a fair amount of chaos, but Rob and I have a deep sharing of what works and what doesn’t. So the result shows evidence of what could be called rigor. We’re not going to rest until the song is right. The beginning is an intoxicated moment, the end is cold-blooded editing.”
“I wish it were as simple as word guy/music guy,” Waller said. “I really do. Okay, no I don’t. We fight our way through the woods using every available weapon. Much blood is spilled. Mostly we just try to come to an agreement on what’s a good song. And you have to find that out every single time. It’s never a comfortable process.”
“And,” said Lacques, “Paul M’s contributions always bump up the quality and musicality of a tune when we all three collaborate.”
“By the time a song is written,” Lacques continued, “Rob and I have a pretty good sense of what the guitars are going to be doing, and I usually have a harmony vocal going. Paul M is an instant harmonizer and session bass player, and our drummers just want to groove, so arranging happens pretty fast.”
Marshall said that, while there’s a certain amount of respectful “pushing and shoving,” arranging the songs is “a highly collaborative process.”
“Usually,” said Waller, “everybody knows just what to do.”
Waller’s lead vocals carry the songs’ emotions most directly to listeners’ hearts. Being emotive but not overly emotional is a difficult balance, but he uses his resonant baritone to walk that fine line with skill.
“Plus,” said Lacques, “Rob has a gigantic range. He’ll make you think he’s a tenor if he needs to.”
Waller described the vocals as a “tricky game” that takes a lot of work.
“It might be the craziest, stickiest glue of it all. It’s so hard to find singers you blend with. I treasure singing with Paul and Paul.”
All three men are baritones, Marshall noted, so “we move around a lot, find alternate harmonies, switch who’s singing high and low from song to song, and often switch the high and low voices within songs.”
Lacques added that they “try to split the singing-above-our-range duties, and pray that the spirit of Bill Monroe visits once again. We’re both quite happy doing the bottom harmony, which can be an elusive part, but when we get the blend there’s nothing more satisfying.”
The Hawks’ instrumentation supports the vocals. Marshall’s foundational bass bubbles and weaves through songs, providing understated complexity. Lacques’ lead electric, acoustic and slide guitar lines are as explosive or delicate as needed, with Waller’s rhythm acoustic as counterpoint.
Lacques said that Victoria Jacobs, who has been the primary drummer for the last several years, has “made a dramatic transition from a Ginger Baker-influenced rocker to smooth country two-beat drummer. I think that’s rare. And she rocks when it’s time. Very groovy.”
After 17 years, the Hawks’ music is still vibrant.
“It’s crazy that it still feels fresh to me after all this time,” said Lacques. “Our show at Pappy & Harriet’s the other night was as good as any I can remember.”
The key may be that they all still truly enjoy making music together.
Marshall said that “almost everything” gets him excited about the Hawks, and cited “the commitment that we all have on stage and in the studio to do our level best to breathe life into the songs” as well as the “continually striking, distinctive lyrics and the a cappella ending of ‘Hippies’” as specific examples. Quoting “Yolo County Airport,” he said the “love from the crowd” is a big part of it as well.
“I’m the youngest Hawk,” said Waller, “and really, the most inexperienced and green in so many ways. I’m lucky to be in this band. I’ve learned so much from all the Hawks. It’s a gas, man.”
The Hawks head north this weekend, starting with a show Friday at The Palms Playhouse in Winters, Calif. Lacques said they especially “feel the love of the crowd” there.
“The Palms is such a beautiful, venerable room,” he said, “sonically pleasing and run by the coolest people. It’s a treasure.”
Saturday finds them in the “strange and very cool space” of the Make Out Room in San Francisco with Red Meat. They’ll wrap up the weekend with an outdoor performance at Marin’s Folkish Festival.
For more information, visit iseehawks.com and the venues’ websites.
I See Hawks In L.A.’s up-coming shows:
Fri. 2/5/16, 8 p.m.: The Palms Playhouse, 13 Main St., Winters, CA
Sun. 2/7/16, 12-2 p.m.: The Marin Folkish Festival, 2257 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur, CA
Fri. 3/4/16, 7:30 p.m.: Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake, Altadena, CA