David Hawkins and Aaron Bakker enlist Ken Stringfellow, Pete Thomas, and Gary Louris to craft one of the year’s brightest records. Hawkins and Stringfellow sit down to fill us in.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Full disclosure: I’d never heard of HAWK until earlier this year when a press release about the band landed in my inbox. It was one of the few that stood out among the hundreds of emails I get each week, if for no other reason than the impressive resume of the band members. In addition to lead singer and songwriter David Hawkins and longtime guitarist Aaron Bakker, the lineup on their latest album, Bomb Pop, includes Posies co-leader Ken Stringfellow on bass, keyboards and additional guitar; Pete Thomas (original members of Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Graham Parker, Elliot Smith) on drums; and Jayhawks leader Gary Louris on additional vocals.
Though I was expecting a straight power pop disc, Bomb Pop is actually more diverse than that. Admittedly, “Allison’s Gone” (the opening track) starts things off on that note and sounds like it should be a classic. It’s a tight, catchy tune that echoes both the sunshine pop of the ’60s and the garage rock revival of the ‘80s. But the album goes in various directions from there. “I Lied,” among other songs, incorporates psychedelia while the final track, “Dry Your Eyes,” is a country lament of the Velvet Underground variety. But pop fans won’t be disappointed; if no other song on Bomb Pop is an instant classic on the level of “Allison’s Gone,” then “Around the Sun” and “Mrs. Anderson” come close.
The members of HAWK are — literally — all over the map! David Hawkins himself hails from the Midwest but is based in California these days. Fellow Midwesterner Gary Louris currently makes his home in North Carolina. Pete Thomas is an Englishman but has been based in LA for years. And Ken Stringfellow grew up in various parts of America (notably Seattle, where he and Jon Auer formed The Posies) but now lives in France! So most of this album was recorded in different places, at different times, and then pieced together by Hawkins in his studio.
While this was my first exposure to HAWK, they are not a new band; this is actually their fourth studio effort. And though that initial press release described Hawkins — who also has his side project, Be — as “enigmatic,” that wasn’t my impression of him from our conversation. He was a friendly guy and I enjoyed speaking with him and Stringfellow for this piece.
BLURT: This CD was really my introduction to your music even though I was familiar with some of the other players. When and how did you you start putting Bomb Pop together?
DH: Well, it all kinda happened naturally. Ken and I were already making a lot of music together… We really kind of clicked. Since we started, he’s played on over 60 of my songs at this point. We’ve been super productive, just working through a lot of material which will come out in different projects.
So we had been in the midst of that, and one of our sessions in Seattle, at his studio, he mentioned that he was going to be doing a session with Pete [Thomas]. He was really excited about it and so was I– one of my favorite drummers. After he did that session, i [asked how it went] and he said, “Great.” I said, “Do you think there’s any chance he would join us on one of the things we’re working on, on a pop record?” And he goes, “Ask him!” So I reached out to [Pete] and sent him some of my music — two HAWK records and two Be Records. He liked it and said, “Yeah!” So I was really excited.
Meanwhile, I had been thinking of Gary a lot. [The Jayhawks] had released Paging Mr. Proust, which I just thought was fantastic. Such a great record. I’ve known him for years, so I reached out to him to see if he’d [mind] singing on some songs. And he agreed too! It’s such an honor to have these guys.
It really is like a dream band.
DH: It is! It’s been a real thrill working with these guys.
Ken, I wanted to ask more about your specific contributions. It seems like you played a lot of different instruments on this album.
KS: Yeah. Basically, [David would] kind of send me tracks and instruct me to play whatever I felt like playing. There were so many sessions with him that I never knew which record we were working on! There’s still a whole other [album] that’s been recorded. And we’re doing another session next month. So there’s been a lot.
But basically, I play all the bass. Pretty much all the lead guitar. A lotta keyboards, backing vocals and you know — percussion, bells, whistles, sleigh bells and whatnot.
So a lot of it was put together in different phases. You guys weren’t always in the studio at the same time?
KS: I’ve never been in the studio with anyone [besides David] — and even that only happened once. He came to my studio in Seattle three years ago. All the other stuff that I’ve worked on was done at my studio in France, just remotely. I do have a session coming up in Seattle next month, but he won’t be there! It’s all fine, in a way. I have really come to enjoy being left to my own devices. You know, then it’s a surprise track at the end of the day.
What was it like working with Pete Thomas? If I understand, you kind of brought Pete into the project.
KS: Well, kind of. Pete played on this record; that happened without me being there. I worked on a record for another artist that Pete played on. And I was like, “You can just hire this guy? Really?!?” I didn’t really have anything on my own that was coming up but I wanted to work with him. I was producing a record for this artist named Holly Munoz. I did an album of country duets with Holly and now I was producing her next solo album, which has actually never come out. But we did cut a session with me and Pete, where I was the bass player, and that’s pretty fucking dreamy. To be a great drummer’s bass player, to walk in and figure out how they do what they do, is a wonderful experience.
So, you know, I had something posted on my Instagram of me and Pete. That’s when David [said] ‘Hey, I wanna work with him!’ I was like, “Well, here he is, he’s looking for stuff to do.”
The first song is fantastic. I’m definitely a power pop guy anyway — but “Alison’s Gone” just hooked me right away. I was wondering if you could tell me anything about the inspiration for that or why you chose to put it first on the album.
DH: Thanks. That’s one of my favorites too. It’s funny; it was always first because alphabetically, in that group of songs, it happened to be first. So even at that stage, before I had sequenced it, it was first. And it seems like it should be first. It’s that kinda song, you know? Really powerful and concise.
The sense of loss in the song “Allison’s Gone”? I think everything comes indirectly or directly from an experience I had in ’95. My longtime girlfriend died suddenly.
Oh man, I’m sorry.
DH: Yeah, it was devastating to say the least. And I came home to find her dead. So it was a pretty traumatic experience.
That said, it’s been a long time so the emotions — I’ve worked through them. But it still sometimes comes up — that sense of unexpected loss. I think you can read the song, though, as we broke up. Or a lot of people respond to the music. And I hope that it’s true — that it becomes their song. But that’s where it came from originally.
Who were some of your [musical] influences? You grew up in the Chicago area, from what I read.
DH: I grew up down the state. I did move up to Chicago after school but I actually grew up in the Bloomington—Normal area. In the town of Normal, of all places, right in the middle of the cornfields. There’s a college there but otherwise, it’s just all farms. Not far from where Jeff Tweedy grew up. And Michael Stipe actually went to high school in the St. Louis area for awhile… Which is funny because they both ended up being huge influences on me.
But in general, I’m a Dylan disciple. At a certain point, I found Dylan — probably in college — and just immersed myself in his songs. And then started tracing the lineage back — you know, Woody [Guthrie] and Leadbelly. It was a fascinating journey. My process was peeling the onion, you know, going back [to] all the stuff that came down from Dylan. Simultaneously, coming back from Dylan — who he influenced were like The Byrds, Tom Petty, that lineage. REM and Wilco and those guys. Naturally, they’re still my favorite bands.
Ken, You’re living in France these days. That’s a long way from Seattle. What is French life like from an American’s point of view?
KS: Perhaps I’m the wrong guy to ask — the wrong American anyway. I don’t feel like an American living in France, and I don’t feel like a Frenchman either. But for all the emphasis on “family values” in the US, and all the hubbub of the sanctity of marriage, France is hundreds of times more supportive of families. The whole of French society is built around how to make modern working life possible for people with families. Medical care. Education. Social welfare. Vacation. Yes, it’s inefficient. Yes, it’s not as productive or competitive as working 100+ hours a week in a sweatshop. But it’s showing a commitment to life and living as opposed to the US, which all about work and having stuff. I can also say this: French people drink more delicious wine and eat more wholesome food, they live longer, and [they] divorce less than Americans. If I get any more “love it or leave it” emails [at] my website after this, my answer is: “I LEFT.”
David, not being familiar with Be, let me ask you real quick — how does that band compare to HAWK? How are the two bands different?
DH: Good question. In the beginning, HAWK held all of my songs. But as the music evolved, HAWK became more of a rock band. The soft songs started becoming more complex and more orchestrated. And there was a point where they just didn’t fit together anymore. I started Be so that I could develop and release the more introverted, melancholy songs.
You know the sacred and profane? That duality? I guess I would say that HAWK is profane and Be is sacred. HAWK is extroverted and Be is introverted.
On a separate note, Ken — tell me about what’s happening with The Posies now, with you and Jon and [drummer] Mike Musberger and [bassist] Dave Fox. How has it been playing with the old rhythm section?
KS: Yeah! Well, we’re scouring around the country for our 30th anniversary. The tour kicked off last month in Victoria, Canada [and] we wrap up in Seattle on July 7th. Then at the end of September, we kick it off in Europe for the club tour in Spain and wrap [that] up mid-November in Sweden. So it’s a lot of dates.
It’s been great. I mean, the passage of time has been very kind to all of us. Everybody’s in good mental and physical shape. Their chops are all good. Dave Fox is the one member of the band who’s not a full-time musician — but, you know, he’s right there with us. This is the first time he’s been on the road significantly in 25 years! So it’s great to see that we’re all holding up well and the attitude is good.
That’s something that was always difficult with a bunch of hard partying 20-somethings. You know, we were all immature. The mood was not always very good back in the day. [Now] everybody’s got their shit together — and that just makes going from Point A to Point B so much smoother. It’s like night and day.