Hello, We Must Be Going
High Hawk's new album is genius, but your chances of hearing it are slim.
By Miles Raymer
December 8, 2006
WHEN I AGREED to take over this column, the list of local bands I
wanted to profile was pretty short. But High Hawk was on it -- for the
EP they put out this year, which made a messy and occasionally
brilliant coupling of backwoods country and psychedelic rock, and for
the album they were working on, which sounded like it could've been
huge. To my ears, they had the potential to remind the world that
Chicago's lock on alt-country isn't just 90s history. Then they
announced they were playing their last show this Saturday at the
Hideout. There are better ways to get moved to the top of the list,
but breaking up your band works too.
"We're pretty country," says bassist Ryan Boyles, and I'm inclined to
agree. I'm sitting with him and front man Joshua Alford, who writes
the band's songs, in the upstairs room at the Hideout, talking over
cans of PBR, and it feels like a conversation that should be happening
on a porch -- though I'm happy it isn't, since it's sleeting outside.
Boyles talks with an easy twang -- he was raised in southern Illinois
-- and Alford doesn't talk much at all. He has a tendency to sit
quietly with a sardonic grin on his face, then jump in with a punch
line. He's gonna make a great old guy in a few decades.
The two of them started playing together in college in the downstate
town of Charleston. In 2002 they formed a bluegrass band called
Butcher's Legs, and after it broke up in 2004, Boyles and Alford stuck
together, collaborating on the songs that would end up on High Hawk's
EP. Later that year they moved to Chicago and hooked up with guitarist
Joel Shute, who'd been making music with Alford on and off since high
school, and after recruiting drummer Mike McGrath from the Thin Man
they moved slowly away from traditional bluegrass and country. "It was
a little bit acoustic in the beginning, and then it kinda got going.
It was a crescendo of rock 'n' roll," Boyles says. Alford has a
similar take: "We were playing in a bluegrass band and listening to
alt-country music. Then I guess started playing alt-country music and
listening to rock music," he says. "And then started playing rock
music and . . . I'm not listening to speed metal, but . . . hah."
Soon Boyles, who also works as a freelance studio engineer, began
recording High Hawk at his West Town apartment. The six expertly
raw-sounding tunes on the resulting self-released EP -- the band cut
the process short and mastered from rough mixes -- borrow the best
aspects of every style from bluegrass to Bakersfield. Alford calls his
approach to writing "kind of epileptic." "Something kinda comes out.
Or it doesn't. What it does, it does," he says. "I think it's
interesting to try to write a song and then, after it's more or less
complete, putting it in the genre that puts it best."
Sometimes what the band settles on isn't a single genre but an organic
hybrid of two or three. "Ukelele and Lie" begins with Alford's ragged
baritone howl and old-timey uke playing -- he sounds like a
coonskin-coat crooner at the tail end of a gin binge -- but then
Boyles and Shute enter with a dirty 70s hard-funk line, the drums drop
in, and the song explodes into something that manages to feel like a
dramatic rock pileup while hardly involving any rock. "Woman" appears
twice on the EP, first as the kind of tender ballad that Ryan Adams
can still pull off when he's not trying to drive away his remaining
fans with Grateful Dead covers, then as an acid-rock workout colored
with feedback and trippy effects.
In the right hands the EP could've become a sensation among
alt-country freaks and casual Wilco listeners alike, but the band's
own hands weren't the right ones. Except for the songwriting, Boyles
was doing almost all of the work -- not only recording but also
booking and promotion -- and he admits he wasn't cut out for
multitasking. "My brain doesn't work between those things," he says.
"If you asked me to put down a bass line while I'm trying to record
and listen in the headphones, there's a total disconnect there." No
one else in High Hawk took the project too seriously -- asked to sum
up the band, Alford calls it "back porch music" -- and as a result
there wasn't much of an effort to push the CD.
One of the only shows High Hawk actually pursued was an April gig at
Martyrs' with Tinariwen, a Tuareg band from Mali that plays protest
songs in a hypnotic traditional style enhanced with electric guitars.
Boyles begged for a spot on the bill, and after the original opener
canceled, High Hawk got the nod. He calls the show the pinnacle of the
band's existence. It's weird to see him and Alford assume the same
respectful demeanor talking about Malian desert blues that they do
when you bring up Bill Monroe, but their band shares with Tinariwen
not just the appreciation of inherited forms but the willingness to
mess with them. After our interview, I look up Tinariwen's music
online. Their song "Le Chant des Fauves" shares a loping, elastic trot
with a lot of country ballads, and would work perfectly on a mix CD
next to the first version of "Woman."
Only one thing has had a greater influence on High Hawk's trajectory
than the band's own unwillingness to steer it, and that's been
romance. Shute left in April, after his new wife had a baby -- Jeff
Lyman of City Electric now plays lead guitar -- and at the end of the
year Alford is due to decamp to Austin, where he'll live with his
girlfriend, who's now in North Carolina. "I'm moving there for love,"
he says. Boyles adds that his bandmate has a deathly hate for Chicago
winters; Alford just points at the sleet-battered window and shrugs.
Pretty much everyone in the band already has other projects going --
McGrath is still in the Thin Man, Lyman plays with For All the Sweet
Children, and Boyles is in Low Skies plus a second group with their
front man, Chris Salveter. Given his songwriting skill, Alford
shouldn't have any trouble finding bandmates in Austin. But High
Hawk's imminent demise has derailed their plans to release Amor Fati,
the full-length they already have in the can. The album makes the EP's
most daring genre-crossing experiments seem tame and its most elating
highs seem crude. Sad, slow, and romantic, it opens with a four-part
suite that begins in a Spanish classical mode, crashes into creaky,
jazzy blues, and surfaces somewhere in Uncle Tupelo country. Ambition
like that has pushed a lot of other bands into pretentious conceptual
train wrecks, but here the ideas never overshadow the songs. The album
is sprawling and ingenious, sure, but it's also just a great bum-out
record. Right now you can get it only on CD-R directly from the band
-- they'll be giving it away at the Hideout. Longtime High Hawk
boosters Palliard, self-releasing a new full-length of their own,
headline the show; members may also join High Hawk for their set.