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Earth and Sky

Photo by Monica Howe

Cole’s, an old saloon located on deepest Sixth Street, is an ideal setting for the musical dichotomy known as I See Hawks in L.A. With its shadowy barroom atmosphere, novelty signage (florid 1890s calligraphy proclaims “Ladies Please Make Your Solicitations Discreetly”) and a crowd of downtown bohemian patrons sporting studied rumple-hep (one even turns up barefoot), the spot suits this band’s unusual blend of country-rock methodology and beatnik-autonomy themes. Bassist-singer Paul Marshall, a veteran who has worked with everyone from the Strawberry Alarm Clock to hillbilly queen Rose Maddox, sits at the bar, answering a blunt “Just what is this band, anyway?”

“It’s country-based,” he says, “but what drew me to them are the lyrics — they’re very different. I guess the best way to describe it is ‘cosmic cowboy music.’”

Formed three years ago by singer Robert Rex Waller and guitarist Paul Lacques, I See Hawks has an engaging reckless streak that’s complemented by the first-rate musicianship of Lacques, Marshall, guitarist Shawn Norrus, steel man John McDuffie and ubiquitous fiddler-mandolinist Brantley Kearns. While its first album, issued in 2001, was a somewhat haphazard affair, the band is currently sitting on a new 10-track demo that, though lacking a label, is loaded with the kind of idiosyncratic allure that Waller uses to great effect. He’s a big boy with an affable demeanor; his strong, clean singing exhibits a profound relationship with the hard-country style. While this “Americana” thing has done got a bit out of hand, mostly providing context for a clutch of unpersuasive performers who favor droning, amelodic deconstruction of traditional form, I See Hawks manages to wrap up freeform poetics and Southern musical conventions into a convincing package.

“Rob, my brother and I were out in the Mojave,” Lacques says. “And we got kind of high out on this distant peak, and it got tribal, this animalistic running-through-the-scrub ritual — it was a bonding thing. Then we just started talking about the hawks in L.A., and we’re all kind of eco-radicals, so that subtext is in the music. We’re all animals, but we’ve hit our limit and forgotten we’re subject to all the laws of nature. The band is about trying to remain aware of nature while stuck in the city. So we just said, ‘Shoot, let’s have a country band called I See Hawks.’ We didn’t play a gig for a long time, just wrote songs for about year. You are conscious when you’re doing a genre, but we’ll try anything, and it has continued going in a country direction.”

Waller amplifies: “We have three kinds of songs: songs about places, and animals — we have a donkey song, dogs, whales and, of course, hawks — and songs in defiance of death. What we’re writing and playing is connected to the land. Whatever ground you’re standing on influences the way you sound as a musician, and we’ve got the California country tradition that we love and want to be a part of. ‘Defiance of death’ is an important part, one that’s deeply rooted in the country tradition. There’s a sort of apocalyptic vision, and also the wish that all that would go away.

“Everybody in the band plays a huge role, and our experiences are so different,” he continues. “Paul Lacques has played in so many different bands, but he started out playing bluegrass and country when he was a kid. Brantley has all the old-time music in his head, and Paul Marshall has his country experience and the psychedelic world, which is also prominent in our music.”

This particular Cole’s date — the band play here regularly — is the Hawks’ stripped-down acoustic quartet; when in full electrified flight, they add mule-kick drums and Texas Playboys/ Allman Brothers twin-guitar takeoffs, but here, circled around a single microphone, Lacques’ dobro cascades notes with an accuracy and affection worthy of Merle Haggard’s Strangers, and as Kearns’ impeccable fiddle breaks stir the audience to spontaneous cries of glee, the Hawks’ brand of peculiar cleaves to the familiar with striking ardor. The strange combination of Waller and Lacques’ Mojave-fired animist concept and contributions from exceptional musicians seems to feed on itself.

“I See Hawks’ writing does have a sort of life of its own,” Lacques says. “There’s definitely an unseen third person in the room when we’re working on stuff — the songs come out very quickly. We feel extremely fortunate about the people we’ve hooked up with. We have these great pro players, and I always think, ‘Oh, we’ve suckered another one in!’”

I See Hawks in L.A. play Cole’s on Wednesday, November 26, and Taix Lounge on Saturday, December 6.