Bona fide, non-hyphenated rock ’n’ roll is not something you pump out after learning just a couple of chords, though, yes, lots of bands (looking at you, AC/DC) have made a mint off spinning G, C, and D (and maybe two or three others, maybe) into gold. No, rock ’n’ roll — the Chuck Berry/Led Zeppelin kind — is as much bombast and skill as heart and fury. And if a band combines just the right amount of swagger with sweet, subtle emotion — workshopping rhythms and mastering the art of the riff — a few dudes who’ve run through the pentatonic scale thousands of times and practiced paradiddles ’til the blisters burst can achieve no-nonsense rock ’n’ rolldom.
Quaker City Night Hawks are the real deal: four dudes who make rock look easy. Over their scant few years together, guitarist/co-lead vocalist Sam Anderson, lead guitarist/co-lead vocalist David Matsler, bassist/backup vocalist Patrick Adams, and drummer/backup vocalist Matt Mabe have become masters of soulful loudness. In addition to playing tons of shows, the Night Hawks have had their music aired on FX’s popular drama Sons of Anarchy and have released a live EP (2011’s Live at Magnolia Motor Lounge) and two albums: 2011’s ¡Torquila Torquila! and the brand new Honcho.
Recorded last spring in Dallas at January Sound with co-producers (and brothers) Matt Smith and Grayland Smith, Honcho is familiar-sounding but unique. Of course, rock ’n’ roll and its many variations are not anathema in the Fort, but with Honcho, you have a document of some of the most badass non-classical, non-jazz musicians in North Texas that is both anvil-heavy and diamond-sharp. There aren’t any buffers. No waves of reverb. No layers of overdubs. Just balls-to-the-wall rawk, recorded mostly live in a span of five days and fueled by caffeine. “There was hardly any time to get any drinking done at night,” Anderson quipped at a band meeting recently.
Not long after the Night Hawks formed –– with one claw in the roadhouse and the other in the swamp –– they pretty much took over the scene, no doubt helped by the band members’ enviable pedigrees. Anderson and Matsler were successful solo artists, and everybody knew Mabe (Jefferson Colby, Stella Rose, Big Mike’s Box of Rock). The Night Hawks had been together for only about six months before deciding to go into Fusion Project Studios in Fort Worth with producer Zaq Bell and pound out ¡Torquila Torquila! “We paid for that record in change,” Adams said, prompting Anderson to suggest that executive-producer credit should have gone to Coinstar. “We had 12 songs” to record, Anderson said, “and we had to book six more shows to pay for them.”
Over the course of the million shows that followed, the songs changed shape. The band still plays a handful of them onstage, but if you’ve heard them only on ¡Torquila Torquila!, you probably wouldn’t recognize them now.
Or recognize them from Live at Magnolia Motor Lounge, a recording that was not the band’s idea. The Night Hawks had no clue they were being recorded when they played a pre-Thanksgiving Day gig at the titular West 7th corridor venue/restaurant co-owned by Matt Smith. Why the subterfuge? The Smith brothers, Mabe said, “wanted an honest show.” Luckily, he continued with a smirk, “six of the 20 songs we played were good.”
Last winter, a bunch of variables conspired to force the Night Hawks back into the studio. ¡Torquila Torquila! was two years old and no longer an honest reflection of the Night Hawks’ sound. “Just as a progression, the band had transformed into its own beast,” Adams added.
Another factor was engineer Grant Jackson Wilborn’s impending relocation from North Texas to Los Angeles. “We met with [the Smith brothers], and they were, like, ‘If you guys want to do this, we need to do it now,’ ” Mabe recalled. “ ‘Mark off five days,’ and we were, like, ‘All right.’ ”
Despite the breakneck pace, the Night Hawks say nothing was forced or hurried. “It was like camp and a road trip mixed together,” Matsler recalled. (The album was mixed at the California abode of Jon Gries, a.k.a. Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite and Ben’s dad from Lost –– the actor also played clavinet on a track, “Crack at the Bottle.”)
Honcho will be the second release from Magnolia Records, the Smith brothers’ new label whose only other release is Fort Worth singer-songwriter Scott Copeland’s self-titled 2011 album. Matt Smith, who formerly played drums for Austin-based Grammy and Oscar winner Ryan Bingham, fell in love with the Night Hawks after catching one of their first shows, at The Grotto. “I was blown away,” he said.
Though he didn’t know exactly how, he knew he wanted to help. The music, he said, had a singular quality that immediately won him over: “There’s no bullshit,” he said. “A lot of rock ’n’ roll today is bullshit, and these guys are really honest. They’re playing music and enjoying themselves.”
That no-bullsh quality comes through every track on Honcho, especially “Stable Hand.” Built around a strong, skipping beat and bouncy, staccato riff, the song, sung by Anderson in his smoky tenor, has classic-rock DNA (thinking Bad Company here) but an R&B heart that conjures up visions of the shadowy dive bar around the corner from Stax Records in early-’60s Memphis.
Honcho is actually loaded with early R&B. Not only do Anderson and Matsler sound like old black dudes, but bassist Adams and drummer Mabe are just as often in each other’s pockets as dancing around each other: like Booker T. & The M.G.’s racing “Mustang Sally” for some “Respect.”
In an ever-changing media landscape, some rock bands have chosen to release steady streams of EPs or singles rather than huge long-playing slabs of tuneage. Not the Night Hawks. “Since the history of rock ’n’ roll, bands have been putting out this length of music,” Adams said. “My personal sentiment is: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
“We’re not a very faddy band,” he continued. “We don’t try to do anything new. We’re just trying to do something real good.”
Along with vinyl copies of Honcho, the band will release Texas Heavy, a 7-inch recording of two songs deemed too heavy for the album.
The goal now is to get out on the road. In addition to a sanctioned showcase in Austin in mid-March as part of South By Southwest, the Night Hawks will play the Midwest, the South, and other Texas venues over the coming months, with Andrew Skates (Telegraph Canyon, EPIC RUINS) on keys. Touring, Mabe said, is “the best way to get your music out there. The internet’s cool, but it’s impersonal, and the radio gets less and less important as the years go by.”
Adams added, “We cut our teeth as a live band. People come to watch us play probably more enthusiastically than they spin the record in their car, so I think the easiest way for us to win them over quickly is to get right in front of them.”
Quaker City Night Hawks album release
W/Uncle Lucius Fri at Magnolia Motor Lounge, 3005 Morton St, FW.