|Simon Katz, Sam Martin, Nik Hughes, Tasso Smith and Alice Katz of Youngblood Hawke at El Chavo
4441 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (Silver Lake)
El Chavo is one of the most colorful establishments in Silver Lake. Brightly hued streamers, sombreros, piñatas and Christmas lights adorn the Mexican restaurant, yet the decor pales in comparison to the vibrant patrons who frequent the dining room for tacos and green corn tamales or perch on barstools for a shot of tequila. El Chavo attracts everyone from blue-collar workers downing an after-work beer to platinum blonde Dolly Parton (whose portrait hangs in the bar) and a red-hot band of local musicians known as Youngblood Hawke.
"We meet here with our manager and a bunch of our other musician friends on Thursdays," shares group co-founder, multi-instrumentalist Simon Katz. "They're all super creative, involved in all facets of the music industry around here. It's really interesting to have everyone gather together each week."
"We've probably come here every Thursday for the last year," continues vocalist Sam Martin. "We come to discuss the week: what's going on, what we need to do. That's the main reason we come together, and to have some margaritas."
We take a seat in the small cantina area of the restaurant known as El Chavito with the rest of their bandmates – drummer Nik Hughes, vocalist/percussionist Alice Katz and guitarist Tasso Smith – during Happy Hour. Tasso gets a Michelada, while the other guys settle for some cervezas. Alice and I decide on margaritas: a Chavo Margarita for me and a Tropical Margarita for her.
"It's a mango margarita," she says. "I've never had it before with this chili salt around the rim."
"They have a Natural Margarita [with organic agave nectar], which I think is a little less sweet," says Sam. "On Cinco de Mayo they have $3-$4 margaritas, which is so dangerous. It's the one day when you can just embarrass yourself, when everybody's like, 'At least I'm not as bad as that guy over there!'"
El Chavo's name translates to 'the kid' in Spanish, which perfectly encapsulates the jovial atmosphere of the restaurant, as well as the relaxed vibe that surrounds this group of five longtime friends who just released a self-titled EP, their debut on Universal Republic. Youngblood Hawke's youthful spirit shines in the EP's anthemic lead single, "We Come Running," which has been charting on radio nationwide and features the West Los Angeles Children's Choir.
"We were always trying to figure out a way to incorporate a children's choir into one of our songs. Every time you hear one sing, it evokes a feeling of happiness. It's unavoidable," shares Simon. "We were at the studio watching them sing, and we just had smiles plastered on our faces like a bunch of idiots. We felt that it was really appropriate for this song because of its message, which is essentially, to follow your dreams and even when things are bad, know that they will get better."
"Kids are filled with a sense of wonder and curiosity. It was cool to have them on the track because that's kind of the point of the song too: Don't ever lose that part of you," adds Sam.
The band is rehearsing for upcoming shows in support of the EP, kicking off at this Saturday's Echo Park Rising, a festival celebrating the dynamic scene in the community that Simon and Alice call home.
"I love the area around where I live in Echo Park. I've been in Los Angeles for almost 10 years, and I've lived in Echo Park for about two years. Just being in this area inspires me and makes me feel like I've found my nook," says Alice. "I love taking walks in the neighborhood, sitting at Fix Coffee and going to restaurants like Sage. I'm a vegetarian, and there are so many great restaurants to choose from here."
While Alice stays healthy by eating good food, the guys counterbalance days of working in the studio with pick-up games of basketball.
"We play at Bellevue Park. It's close to our rehearsal space, so we'll practice then go play some hoops and get our asses kicked by ninth graders. They're just a bunch of little kids, and they literally run circles around us," Sam laughs.
Tasso also likes to unwind with a surf session.
"I usually go surf Zuma Beach, anywhere in that area north of Malibu," he says. "Sometimes I go to El Porto, which is south of the airport."
"Is it at the port?" asks Simon.
|El Chavo's Toltec warrior mural
Tasso replies, "No, the beach is just called El Porto."
"You better look it up, because it could be like a 'Do not swim here!' area," laughs Simon.
"It is right next to a surf break commonly known as Shitpipe," smiles Tasso, evoking a collective "eww" from everyone at the table.
This kind of joking banter is a frequent occurrence between the two childhood friends, who knew that music would be their common path from a young age growing up in San Antonio, Texas.
"Music was part of our whole childhood growing up. We met when we were 13 years old, and what do you do when you're 13 but play electric guitar or some instrument and skateboard around the neighborhood? That's all we did for 10 years: play music," recalls Simon.
"His family had a basement that they basically gave us. It was a storage room," says Tasso. "I think that room was it for me. We would hang out there all day, we would go in with nothing and come out with three great songs. It made us feel like we could definitely do this."
"We played in four different bands together, evolving with all of our friends. It became a part of our life. In college, it was still a part of our life. We just knew what made us happy. I tried other things. I went to college for filmmaking initially, but music was still the biggest thing in my life," continues Simon. "People always say, 'Follow your dreams,' but it's hard with music because you don't know what's going to happen, even if you really push it."
Nik also began his love affair with music in his youth.
"My dad played in bands – he's a guitarist/piano player. When my parents had me, they moved into a house, and my dad had to sell a lot of his equipment. For some reason, he decided not to sell the drums, so I had a drum kit when I was really little," he shares. "My grandmother was a professional singer in New York. She sang with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Nat King Cole in the '30s. She was great; I have some records of her singing. My mom sings as well. There's a lot of music in my family. I'm the only child, or else we would have a band of brothers or something like that."
Instead, Nic is content to be in a group with great friends whom he sees as siblings who have weathered a lot together. It seems fitting that the restaurant they hang out at the most has one exterior wall that boasts a huge mural of a strong Toltec warrior. While Youngblood Hawke and their music are definitely about fun, there is a passionate determination that simmers at the band's core. Their name, taken from the title of a Herman Wouk novel, relates to events surrounding their formation.
"The story is about a guy who moves from the mountains of Kentucky to New York, and I feel like we could relate to that because we got in the car and moved from Boulder to L.A. – Simon and I moved out here together in 2006. We were going to school in Boulder, and we wanted to make the move to try and do music out here," explains Sam. "In the novel, when the character moves to New York, he is immersed in a totally different world. It's almost an entirely different world that we've been exposed to, just like the character in the book."
"The whole story is very reflective of things that we've all been through. Us in particular [indicates Sam and himself] having success with our last band [Iglu & Hartly] – doing all this crazy stuff, coming from nowhere, not knowing anybody in L.A., craziness in the U.K. – and coming right back down again the next year," says Simon. "I think people will take away the metaphor that it was just the beginning of where we're going with this new project."
After the members of Iglu & Hartly parted ways, the duo poured its emotions into new material, with Simon's wife, Alice, contributing to songwriting sessions. The addition of Nik and Tasso rounded out the lineup, and Youngblood Hawke took flight last year playing the Sunset Strip Music Festival, a residency at the Satellite and South by Southwest. And the band shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.
"When we were writing those [first] songs, we were at the lowest we've ever felt. We were trying to inspire ourselves," says Simon. "It was like writing a letter to ourselves, to pick ourselves up even though we were starting over completely at ground zero after years of work with the last band. It was about the possibility. You just have to really believe in it; you just have to really want it. I was like, 'I don't care what happens, this has to work. There's no other option. It's do or die.'"
Youngblood Hawke performs May 22 at the Avalon. For more information, visit youngbloodhawke.com.