Sometimes the coolest guy is the guy who doesn’t even bother to try. This applies to bands as well. Just write some good tunes and forget the pretensions. This seems to be the modus operandi of Hawk and Steel, a nerd herd in the best possible meaning. The scruffy and sleepy-eyed quartet would squirm with embarrassment if they ever realized just how dynamic they are.
Let’s keep that on the down low. Why ruin their good thing?
On a warm Victoria afternoon in March, I met up with Hawk and Steel, a formidable band that is about to head out on a brief jaunt through British Columbia and Alberta.
In the informal setting of Habit Coffee, in the astoundingly serene Atrium building, the interview and subsequent photo shoot revealed four young men for whom playing in a band is elemental.
Hawk and Steel are not aping The Strokes (thank you, Jebus) in either sound or fashion. (Although one member wore a tie to the interview, it was cancelled out by his choice in literature: a Star Wars graphic novel.) Hawk and Steel is not a band chasing this week’s definition of cool; these dudes are just happy to plug in and jam.
The band’s sound can best be described thusly: a glorious racket of Crazy Horse and Ryan Adams, with not a lick of pretension or fussiness to be heard. Their Facebook page says it more succinctly: “We get told to turn down our amps a lot.” The band veers from acoustic to electric and back again with a deadly grace and the maturity of hardened session players twice their age.
Hawk and Steel’s 2012 debut, Danger Road, recalls the salad years of the country-rock era: nine songs clock in at 42 minutes. Raw, weepy, and ragged like a buzz cut from a broken whisky bottle.
The two longest-serving members in Hawk and Steel are Peter Gardner, (not yet 25, but he already made his mark on the Victoria scene with Forestry, now defunct), and Ian Johnson (an electrician by trade, always a useful guy to have in tow).
Gardner is the principal songwriter and vocalist (and according to Ian, the fourth best guitar player in the band); Ian, the self-described third-best guitar player in the band, leads the band in shaping Gardner’s words into a musical template. The band, rounded out by bassist Rob Walsh, (the quiet, studious one) and drummer Jon Baglo, (according to Ian, the best guitarist of the band), then jams the numbers into shape.
What began as a solo project after Forestry disbanded, Hawk and Steel quickly materialized into a formal unit, albeit one that has had more drummers than a bus stop bench has had asses. Of the inner-workings and bureaucracy of Hawk and Steel, Johnson is quick to spell it out: “(Hawk and Steel is Peter’s) baby,” Johnson says, “we’re just there to help make it grow.”
“It’s not even a sense of, ‘Oh, I’m a control freak.’ It’s more like, let’s just do this now,’” Gardner interjects.
Johnson adds: “I wouldn’t say he is not a control freak, [Peter] just takes charge and [Johnson snaps his fingers] – you get it done. I’ve been in a lot of bands where it’s super, super stagnant because no one has the initiative to do anything.”
Only a few minutes into the conversation and it becomes clear: Hawk and Steel is a functioning democracy, a rare bird in rock and roll (Rockracy?). Opinions are divided, divergent thoughts expressed, and the ribbing is reciprocated. And despite the moody flourishes and textures that the band creates, humour dominates our conversation.
For example, the discussion Ian and Peter have about what to do with Tour Virgin Rob. Ian: “I want to get him really drunk. Every night.” Peter: “I want to leave him in Salmon Arm.”
Their jamming sessions are rarely caught on tape so the band often tries to recapture lost magic; but you wouldn’t know this from Danger Road. The album hangs together like the best produced moments of Neil and Crazy Horse. (No shitting either, I like this record more than Zuma!). And in a live setting they are prone to experimentation.
Not surprising, Hawk and Steel is not the first band for anyone involved. All are cagey veterans of the growing Victoria scene. (Which includes contemporaries Aidan Knight, Mike Edel, Bonehoof, to name but a few of my favourites).
Hawk and Steel aren’t too concerned about the other bands in Victoria. Never have I met a band so young that was so singularly focused on their own deal. Not that these four are unaware of their peers, but their determination and motivation is that purest of all rock and roll philosophies: jam, gig and record.
In the lead-up to the tour, the band is loose and good-spirited, and with Merlin Vann, a new to them tour van all gassed up, the boys are ready to roll out for a tight schedule of 8 gigs in 9 days, not including radio spots and in-store appearances.
As I watched them during a photo shoot, they stood and goofed with each other, self-conscious in the way that average people are when a camera is forced in their face. They seem uninterested, even unaware, of the idea of stardom.
These fuckers are going to be huge.
The Danger Road Spring tour kicks off on April 12 in Victoria, winds through Vancouver, Kelowna, makes five stops in Alberta before coming back to Vancouver for a gig at Lanalou’s.