Growing up, Will Hawkins recognized himself in his rock ‘n’ roll heroes and their anthems about American girls, musical blood brothers, going their own way and being born to run. With his guitar as his wingman, he chased his own rock ‘n’ roll dream from Hudson Valley to New York City to London and then the palm-dotted mecca of L.A. But by 2008, with aspirations colliding with responsibilities, he’d stopped making music. Not until 2018 did he write another song, after burying his mother and losing his business and a relationship; unmoored in the bleakest time he’d known, music became his lifeline.
“Having lost all connection with what I once knew to be true, I needed to find a way find myself again” he says now. “I just started strumming my guitar and new songs started to fall out.” The first of those songs was the cathartic breakup rocker “Caught in the Rain,” and it anchors Santa Ana Winds, due Sept. 27 from Nine Mile Station: frontman Will Hawkins, drummer Nick Moran, guitarist Fernando Perdomo, violinist Scarlet Rivera and bassist Brendan Vasquez. After discovering each other through serendipity and mutual friends, they found their collective sound in the studio during 2020’s pandemic shutdown. Co-produced by Perdomo and Hawkins, the EP expresses the artistry of everyone in the multigenerational tribe and the hope that led Hawkins “out of darkness and into a community I didn’t know was right in front of me.” The five-track release is a teaser for their full-length album Open Highways, due in 2022.
The effusive Moran (“Two Take Nick”) was the first to back Hawkins at venues around Venice Beach, boosting Will’s confidence; Nick soon recruited longtime collaborator Vasquez, who became a defining voice within the band. When Hawkins saw Perdomo in Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, about past and present generations of Laurel Canyon’s music scene, he swore: “Dammit, if I’d met him 15 years ago, he could have been my Mike Campbell.” Connecting through mutual friends on Facebook, the two Tom Petty fans became fast friends. When his guitarist bailed two days before a bar gig, Hawkins texted an SOS and Perdomo stepped up, without rehearsal, to elevate what Hawkins calls “the best show I ever played in my life.”
“We started out with the room maybe a quarter full; by the third song, people smoking cigarettes outside had come in,” he adds, savoring the memory. “By the fifth song, the place was shoulder-to-shoulder packed and you could feel the floor move.” “The crowd was enthralled by us throwing so much sound,” agrees Perdomo, who says they projected “absolute power” from the stage even then. “And we were just a four-piece; we didn’t have a violin player. It really came alive. We can totally jam and the songs have room for explosions and special effects.” He joined the band that night.Fast-forward to March 2020: Four weeks after Nine Mile Station entered the studio, the world shut down. With creative momentum stalled, no work and no money coming in, Hawkins threw a Hail Mary pass to an old mentor: the late great Grammy-winning producer Al Schmitt who passed away in April 2021, leaving this world with the Nine Mile Station project being on of his last projects before he died.
“Al texted back, ‘Hey, I’m in the studio with Neil Young, I’ll definitely listen to the tracks but it might take a couple weeks,’” Hawkins recounts. “I said, ‘Hey, man, I’m happy with whatever input you have to offer whenever you have the time to offer it.’ An hour later, Al called: ‘I’m driving home with my wife, we’re listening to the songs and they’re great. Send me the files — I’ll start mixing tomorrow.’ Al and Niko Bolas came in as partners to mix the record and those experienced voices really helped elevate our game. This project became like the light at the end of the tunnel; the band not only survived Covid, it flourished during the lockdown and we became a family.”
Rejuvenated by the legendary Schmitt’s vote of confidence, Nine Mile Station kept working and Hawkins, freed from day job distractions, kept writing. Generations of classic rock ring through their chords and melodies: Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, REM, Replacements, and Nick Cave. Their first batch of songs was led by “Caught in the Rain,” which audiences had been singing along to at shows. “That became the foundation of this project, and this philosophy of looking for life’s open doors,” Hawkins says, referencing a live-in-the-moment Stoic belief. “Every single time I tried to find a marketing job after selling my agency, the door would shut — but on the other side of the hallway, a door would open that brought me to Al Schmitt or Fernando Perdomo and then to Scarlet Rivera. Every single time the door shut, I was presented with a gift of something I didn’t even know I could have. Nine Mile Station gave me reasons to get up in the morning.”
A few songs were resurrected from his two solo albums whose storylines resonate differently now. “Fall into the Sea,” which scans the future through a prog-rock lens, allowed Perdomo to incorporate his ’70s production influences. He treated Rivera’s solos as their own sonic landscape, with her violin cascading downward like California tumbling into the Pacific.“I love producing great songs and Will is a great songwriter,” he says. “This band has more in common with older music but we’re not coattail riding. We have a lot to offer. The music’s still modern and real deep.“Brendan and Nick are Angelenos, but the rest of us are all transients,” he adds. “I came from Miami Beach, Will's from New York, Scarlet’s from Chicago. One thing about L.A. is that everybody’s out here with their eyes on the prize. That type of passion is something you don’t find in other cities because we’re all away from home. We’re here to bring it, and I hope people feel that passion in the music.”
Last October, they attracted new fans with a frequently viewed a viral video showing band members performing Petty’s “The Waiting” outside iconic L.A. nightclubs shuttered by Covid. With the country chest deep in the pandemic, it reflected widespread fears and supported Save Our Stages and MusiCares. November’s release of “Caught in the Rain” was followed by a Christmastime cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” For their recent take on Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” they tapped Rivera, a respected studio and tour musician (A Call 2 Peace, Tracy Chapman, Keb’ Mo’) whose solos electrified Dylan’s 1975 recording and Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Their singles received radio airplay on tastemaker stations like KCSN, KCRW and WFUV and soon after Scarlet also joined the band and violin rises and falls in harmony with Hawkins’ burly baritone throughout Santa Ana Winds, whether evoking the title track’s mercurial namesake or Perdomo’s dreamy “California Moon.”
“What a joy — it’s like jamming with a Beatle on a Beatles song,” Perdomo enthuses. “Scarlet created a style duplicated by pretty much every violinist in the Americana genre, and she plays with the same energy she did when she was in her 20s. She is an amazing solo foil.” Rivera, who calls her bandmates “grounded, wise souls,” reciprocates that admiration. “We have a power duo, as far as soloing; Fernando is a masterful musician, guitarist, producer and arranger and Will’s lead singing and songwriting carries the band. They’re all such great musicians, super professional, driven and smart. And the original music Will is writing is, I think, tremendous — it has great potential.”
“Just being among the last songs mixed by Al Schmitt makes them deserving of being heard,” Hawkins declares, referencing his late friend, mentor and collaborator, who died in April 2021. “He worked with Duke Ellington on his first recording date and later worked with Elvis, Sinatra, McCartney and Dylan.” Soberly assessing the industry landscape, he lists immediate band goals: release Santa Ana Winds plus vinyl singles; play live shows; develop their fan community; secure investors for 2022 tours. They have enough material for another album beyond the EP and Open Highways, but right now they’re focused on how their music makes people feel. (“If there’s any word that describes Nine Mile Station,” Perdomo notes, “it’s ‘emotion.’”) For Hawkins, “Theme From Nine Mile Station” celebrates not only his personal transformation but also the band’s mission:
“I’m free and I’ve got the windows rolled down
Music’s on blast, I’m finally leavin’ this town
Headin’ to the only place where my true self can be found
The rain has cleared a path for me, now I see my true destiny
And those things in life that were meant for me have finally found me.”
“Everyone’s got their own struggles or a destination in the distance where they want to be. To embrace the journey there wholeheartedly, without regret, is what that song’s about. It’s about freedom and reinvention. The unending gratitude I have for this band and this opportunity to share music again, and the people that have been brought into my life because of it, does not escape me. If there’s anything I want people to feel when they listen to our music, it’s that sense of freedom, and the hope and optimism I feel when I play it.”
Written by Bliss Bowen