An exclusive chat with the frontman of renowned Canadian folk punkers, Lowest of the Low
Canadian band The Lowest Of The Low burst forth from the fertile Toronto music scene of the early 1990s and quickly made a name for themselves as melodic chroniclers of life as an artistic, Lefty twenty-somethings struggling with the personal and political travails of everyday life.
Blending punk and folk and armed with the sharply-observed slices of life penned by singer/guitarist Ron Hawkins, The Low’s (as their fans would dub them) 1991 debut, Shakespeare, My Butt…, went on to become the biggest selling Canadian independent album of all-time. On the eve of cracking the U.S. music scene with 1994’s Hallucigenia, the band imploded. They reconvened several times over the next two decades, but seemed left for dead when original guitarist/sometime-singer Stephen Stanley abruptly left the band. Rebounding with 2017’s cracking Do The Right Now, the Lowest of the Low returned and are arguably at not only the top of their musical game, but also enjoying an almost-unheard-of late career renaissance.
With the release of their fifth album – the fiery, political Agitpop, Hawkins was kind enough to discuss the state of the Low, balancing nostalgia and creativity and the new album.
Agitpop has an obvious political bent, which is not surprising given what’s going on in Canada and the U.S. (I apologize for your country catching our populo-Conservative pox!). What’s interesting, however, is not that it’s a call to arms, but that it’s even more poignantly a call to collective action. It rebukes the idea that self-interest should be the center of our civic life, and that seems especially important right now.
Well, that’s the thing isn’t it. People have the power. And people sort of know, even if just instinctually, that they have the power. But only if they act collectively. It’s frustratingly simple to me. The vast majority of people on this planet have similar interests (even considering our differences and our regional specificities) but we’re conned and swindled by the very few who control things for their own greed and avarice. Conned to believe that we are at war with each other over land, over jobs – that race, or sexual orientation or nationality divide us. But in truth we all pretty much want the same things – to raise our families, to find love, to feed and shelter ourselves, to be free to love whom we choose, read what we want, and support each other through these hostile environments.
You were an independent band for most of your life before signing a two-album deal with Warner Music Canada (for 2018’s vinyl-only boxset Shakespeare My Box and Agitpop) – what made that a particularly attractive proposition now? It’s odd for a band in their 50s to finally make a brass-ring grab.
We’ve always been an independent band, not because it’s a manifesto we adhere to but because given the nature of who we are and what we feel is important we’ve always found it easier to work on the outskirts of the industry. Ducking in and out, bobbing and weaving – floating like a butterfly and stinging like the B-52s. That said I don’t glorify independent labels either, because they’re run by humans and have all the foibles humans are saddled with. Some Indies are great and have the artists’ best interests in mind and will go to the wall for them, and others are just slackers and malcontents who couldn’t get a job anywhere else. You need to take it on a label to label basis. Often indies have the best intentions and no money to back it up. Sometimes majors have lots of money and are just heinous individuals who care more about branding and the market than they do about art. So buyer beware in both worlds. You need to find a label that fits.
That said, the reason Warner became our home is because, if I can quote (Canadian radio personality) Strombo, “Steve Kane is the last punk rock president!” I stand behind that statement. Steve Kane is a confidante, a rabble rouser and a punk… and he just also happens to be the prez of Warner Canada.
The Low have worked with some pretty heavy hitting producers in the past – Ian Blurton, Joao Carvalho, the late Don Smith – and you recorded this record with famed producer David Botrill (Tool, Peter Gabriel). What did he bring to the recording experience?
I doubt we have space in this article for me to explain all that David brought to the album. First off he is a fellow traveler. By that I mean we are all very politically well suited. He has a very compassionate worldview and puts his time and money where his mouth is in regards to helping others. I admire him greatly for that… it’s a rare trait. Artistically I’d say he sees right through to the core of the song and brings that perfect unbiased ear and mind to the process. He doesn’t care if that guitar part is “super cool” or that drum fill is “rad” – if it’s not serving the greater good it hits the cutting room floor. Which in a way is synchronous to what we were talking about politically. It’s not about the singer, or the guitarists or the timbale player… it’s about the unit, the village, the community. I think he brought the best out of the Low as a band which is ideally the producer’s job. Not to change the band to fit a mould, not to stamp his own vibe on the project, but to make us the best “us” we can be. And the Low are famous for a certain ragged charm and David had the good sense not to completely iron that out in service to a “perfect” record. And lastly he’s just a great guy to be around. Great stories, great insights and a great work ethic. He’s a perfect storm.
You’ve played with Dave Alexander for over 30 years and Lawrence Nichols has been in the band’s orbit for almost as long. What do newer players like Michael and Greg bring to the table?
It’s always a dangerous time when you bring new people into the fold. The loss of former members is usually saddening and disorienting. You’re not sure if the band is still “the band”. What is the recipe for a great band? Usually it’s more than the sum of it’s parts so if you mess with that you’re tampering with what made it work in the first place. Stephen Stanley’s departure was one of those moments. Not only as a musical guerrilla in our little band of rebels but as a friend and as another dumbass cracking jokes in the van.
That said, like all major upheavals, the dust settles… and if you decide to move forward there are benefits to that as well. Greg and Michael have been a huge breath of fresh air and an inspiring new energy in the unit. They’re both stellar players and characters in their own right so that brings a new perspective to the proceedings. I consider myself to be pretty prolific but I’ve been even more so with the Low over the last three years or so and perhaps that’s got something to do with it.
You’ve been very open about the influence of artists like Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer on your own writing. What’s the first memory you have of music calling you to something bigger than yourself?
It’s a long time ago but I’d say musically and sonically you can’t do better than the Beatles as a songwriting primer or music school. I don’t read or write music so I never took official lessons but I did pour over the LPs I had when I was a kid, headphones on in my bedroom just trying to figure out how mortal people could possibly do this. As you spend some time it becomes more clear that there is an internal logic to it all. And the Beatles kinda wrote the book on sonic experimentation and melodic craftsmanship. On the lyrical and inspirational side, I discovered The Clash when I was about 15 and then saw them live and it changed my life. I was a burgeoning political creature and suddenly I saw the fork in the road wasn’t a fork at all. I could do both at once – make music my life and also try to hitch it to some form of social justice. I spent the next three decades trying to perfect that concoction to greater and lesser success.
Shakespeare, My Butt remains a touchstone for so many Canadians and U.S. border-city 40-somethings. On the one hand, it’s a sort of golden albatross that the rest of your newer (and frankly, better) work is always going to be judged against, but there is a real and palpable power standing in a room of a thousand-strong voices singing along with “Rosy and Grey” or “Bleed A Little While Tonight”. That’s got to be gratifying as a songwriter.
Of course! I can’t think of anything more gratifying as a songwriter than to hear a sold-out room full of people singing your words. I’ve had some very touching examples of this. For instance, I had a two night stand in Buffalo one time and developed strep-throat the night before I was to go down for the first show. I come from a (possibly absurdly diligent) culture of “the show must go on” so I went down anyway. I could barely speak, let alone sing, so that first night I offered a refund to anyone who felt shortchanged by the Tom Waits versions of my songs. There wasn’t a single taker and what’s more the crowd had my back by singing every word louder than I did. So that’s the kind of loyalty some of those songs have garnered. And that’s obviously beyond touching and inspiring, but that said, a songwriter who has an early success with a career defining record spends the rest of their career, as you pointed out, competing with themselves. Or more accurately competing with the nostalgia that the early work incites. The new songs don’t stand a chance against that combined history and nostalgia – they can’t make you 18 again, can’t put you in your favourite dive bar altered by substances and the abandon of ABSOLUTELY NO RESPONSIBILITIES!!! Can’t be the opening salvo of the band you’ve just discovered. My catalogue has a fighting chance in places like Australia or China where there was no honeymoon with Shakespeare My Butt so all the songs are taken at face value and measured against each other on a level playing field.
But these are just the whinings of an “artist” who is spoiled by the fact that he’s had a 30 year career and is lucky enough to even have a career defining album. So I’ll shut up now.
Agitpop is your first real foray into the U.S. record market and your albums are finally available on streaming services here. What Low songs would you recommend to a budding fan?
This is always a lost cause isn’t it – the writer suggests the songs? I am habitually the one who suggests leaving the “best song” off the album. I have been proven to have a very distorted view of my own work so I’m always kept on a short leash when those decisions are made.
Is there any chance that Thrifty, Thrifty, Thrifty (the odds n’ sods collection included in the box set) will be released as a standalone?
I think so. My understanding is that the career spanning box set Shakespeare My Box was released as a special completists project. Every original song before Agitpop is in the box set. So we intended to do that for the completist and to celebrate a 27 year career (to that point). But the intention was always to break them out at some point and make the separate albums available as “one offs”. I can’t give you a date on that but sometime before the next box set for sure.
So many of the bands you came up with in the Toronto scene of the early 90s have disbanded or only get together sporadically to play the old hits. How have the Low managed to stay creatively relevant for you?
It’s not easy to keep a band together for 30 minutes let alone 30 years so all you can do is try to respect each other, keep the band’s ethos in mind at all times and then hold on like hell. Don’t get me wrong – all those other bands are quitters – but I can empathize with anyone who decides it’s time to nurse the wounds, get an honourable discharge and go home to your loved ones. I feel like there are a lot of uphill battles to fight in the music industry as one ages. Staying curious and staying relevant are two of them, but there is also a certain ageism that is baked into pop culture in every form. Somehow, unlike the higher arts, you are meant to have less to say the more experience you acquire. That math doesn’t really add up to me but it’s an undeniable truth. And there’s nothing you can do about it. But I also realize that it’s more than likely instilled from outside, as a way to keep pop artists talking about consumer brands and lifestyles. And writers like myself have more to say than that so we have a barricade we can stand behind and we can throw vinyl molotov cocktails at the enemy and those who believe in our cause can join us and fight the good fight. If that sounds dramatic or self important… good. I take what we do very seriously and luckily for us we have a small army of other folks who do too. And that’s all the inspiration I need.