By Brad Sanders October 25, 2021
Alfonso Kolb was only 18 when he first met Nik Alexander. It was 1978, and Kolb was an aspiring drummer whose only real experience playing with other musicians was in his local “ground floor band” on the Rincon Indian Reservation in San Diego County. . At the request of his brother, Kolb traveled to Escondido to audition a guy who was looking for Native American drummers. This guy turned out to be Alexander, a Cree activist and musician who led a new all-Native rock band called Winterhawk. âThere weren’t a lot of Native American rock drummers,â Kolb recalled dryly. He got the job.
âI had just dropped out of my last year of high school, and my parents weren’t too happy with it,â Kolb recalls. âBut I said, ‘I’m going to find something, I’m going to bounce back.’ I hadn’t realized the decision I’d just made to drop out of high school, but coincidentally, meeting Nik and joining Winterhawk took me on a whole new adventure.
With Alexander on lead guitar and vocals, Kolb behind the kit, Frank Diaz de Leon on bass, and Kolb’s cousin Frankie Joe on rhythm guitar, Winterhawk’s lineup fell into place. After about a month and a half of rehearsals in Escondido, Alexander one day showed up to the training space and told his band mates that they were going to Albuquerque to record a record with engineer John Wagner in his studio, Mother Earth. Visions of glory swirled through Kolb’s adolescent mind. âIt was pretty much the highlight of my life at the time,â he says. “All I could think of was, literally, ‘Wow I’m going to be a rockstar, I’m going to be rich!'”
The sessions of Mother Earth gave Electric warriors, a fiery slab of hard rock with strident politics which doubles as a mission statement for the young group. The album was the first major sign that Alexander’s ambitions for Winterhawk went far beyond songwriting and performing. His lyrics were sharp rebuke of the environmental destruction and alcoholism that ravaged his community, and his powerful chords were backed up by traditional chants and drumbeats. As “Fight,” the album’s powerful closing track, rolled to its conclusion, Alexander invoked people whose influence on him was far greater than that of Thin Lizzy and Black Sabbath: “Crazy Horse is coming / Sitting Bull is coming / They are all coming / It’s a good day to die / My people are still here and alive / I have spoken.
Electric warriors was released in 1979 by Mother Earth’s in-house label, and while it didn’t have a massive commercial impact, it was enough to kick Winterhawk into full swing. A handful of high profile shows, all booked by Alexander, quickly followed. In June, they crossed the Canadian border for a concert in Alberta alongside XIT, another indigenous rock band, whose frontman Tom Bee had helped produce. Electric warriors in Albuquerque. After a short break and a second album, 1980’s soldier dog, the band moved to San Francisco, where they performed with artists like Johnny Winter, Y&T and, on one memorable occasion, Metallica.
âWhen we were in Frisco, we were playing with Metallica, and Metallica was nobody back then,â Kolb recalls. “We kind of fought with them, because they said we were in the wrong locker room, and me and Lars [Ulrich] almost walked into it. They called security.
The shows that were dearest to Kolb’s heart, however, were the ones that Winterhawk performed at reserved schools across the American West. For Alexander, these concerts were the key to everything the band did. “[Nik] was very concerned about what the future held for our people, especially our young children, âKolb said. âWe would go to boarding schools and do pre-show seminars, and we would talk to these Indian kids from all over, from different tribes, and the common thread that they ran through in their lives was domestic violence, alcoholism, adolescence. pregnancies, suicide, lack of education. He would always say to me, ‘We are here right now, and when we are gone, what will be tomorrow for those we love and respect? What are we going to do? How can we have a lasting effect on them? “
âThe way we could get into these residential schools – and it would take a while for the faculty to understand the idea – was [that] we used the tool of music, mainly heavy metal, because at the time, it was the music of choice, âcontinues Kolb. âWith this key, we opened the door to access the children so that they can open up to us. And [Nik] would say to me, ‘You have to be good at your job. You have to practice, because when we go, they’re going to be amazed at the way you play the drums and the way I play the guitar. That’s what’s going to bring down the walls, and they’ll want to talk to us, and that’s when we can hear their issues, because no one else is listening to them.
By the mid-1980s, Winterhawk had fizzled out and its members turned to other musical and activist avenues. Kolb began acting with Jim Boyd, traveling the world with the legendary Indigenous singer-songwriter and appearing on the soundtrack of the 1998 film. Smoke signals. Alexander remained active in the Indigenous anti-drug movement, pioneering a platform of abstinence through music parallel to Ian MacKaye’s hardcore straight edge. Decades passed and Winterhawk’s long out of print albums fell into obscurity. Don Giovanni Records co-founder Joe Steinhardt found a copy of Electric warriors in a record store around 2010, and when he brought it home and put it on the turntable, something immediately caught his eye.
âMy first thought when I find a record like Winterhawk and can’t find anything else about it is, ‘Can I find these people and talk to them?’ Says Steinhardt. “It’s not like ‘Can I do a reissue?’ It’s more that I want to know all I can about this record because I’m more and more obsessed with it.
Steinhardt eventually reunited with Kolb, and the more he learned about the history of Winterhawk, the more he wanted to help put their music in front of a new generation of fans. âYou have to get it out or else it just just disappears, and these are really important records,â he says. âThey were very early in so many things both politically and musically. And at the end of the day, it’s just a fucking tight knit band, and they have some really good songs. (For his part, Kolb was amazed to hear from a record company: âI always thought that nobody noticed it and that we weren’t that important, and everything he said was like: “Wow, really? ‘”)
When the pandemic interrupted the touring and recording programs of Don Giovanni’s active roster, Steinhardt finally had enough time to devote himself to Project Winterhawk. The two Electric warriors and soldier dog now receive luxury reissues, and Steinhardt even managed to recreate a classic Winterhawk t-shirt design from the era. The reissue campaign feels like a long overdue reassessment of a large group that time has almost forgotten. The only tragedy is that Alexander is not there to see it.
âThe last time I spoke to Nik I was in Escondido,â Kolb recalls. “It was September 9th, my birthday, and he called me out of the blue and we talked about a reunion, coming back and maybe doing another Winterhawk album.” Alexander died of cancer in 2017, and that reunion album never came to fruition. Today, Kolb is the last surviving member of the classic Winterhawk range.
“I miss them,” Kolb said, choking. âI miss them a lot, and I wish we never got old, and we could still be rock and rollin forever. It would have been nice if people saw Winterhawk live and heard the energy and the sound. It would have been so cool. But things are what they are.
A phrase that comes up over and over in conversations with Kolb and Steinhardt is “ahead of their time”. Winterhawk infused heavy metal with native sounds, wrote lyrics that lambasted the white man, and wore traditional clothing on their record covers. Their very existence in the late 1970s was a provocation. In retrospect, that’s just Electric warriors and soldier dog even cooler.
âI think back when Winterhawk came out, the company wasn’t ready for us,â Kolb says. “We had our plans, but I just don’t think they were ready for a Native American-looking group to sound like we did.”