Talkin’ Trash With Ron Hawkins About The Revolution And His New EP
The Canadian songwriter is back with new music and the same righteous politics
Ron Hawkins is one of Canada’s finest songwriters – the wit of Nick Lowe, the craft of Elvis Costello and the soulful irascibility of Shane MacGowan all wrapped in the strident humanist garb of Saint Joe Strummer.
As a pillar of the Canadian alt-rock scene for over 30 years, Hawkins has plied his trade in the beloved Lowest of the Low (whose debut record was the largest selling independent release in Canada until some gits named the Barenaked Ladies came and swiped the title), the lower-profile Do Good Assassins, and as a respected solo artist. His solo jam “Peace and Quiet” was played before every Toronto Maple Leafs game and became the de facto theme song for the CBC’s long-running Hockey Night In Canada – is there anything more fucking Canadian than that? Hawkins’ latest, a 6-song EP titled Trash Talkin’ At The Speed Of Sound, finds him embracing the studio-as-instrument in a new way to weave his perfectly crafted pop and punk-indebted missives.
We corresponded via e-mail to discuss the new tunes, his relationship to his past work, and the jump back to the indie world after several years amongst the wilds of the majors.
You’ve described Trash Talkin’ At The Speed Of Sound as “a twisted short film put to vinyl”. Were the songs written with that concept in mind or did the songs dictate that arc?
No, what I love about songwriting is that I usually find out about a year later, after sequencing a record, what my preoccupations have been for the last 365 days or so. You start to see a thread, or a design in the things you’ve been obsessing over, right down to the fact that usually on each album I’ll see a couple words that get used several times. These may be words I seldom use in the rest of my life, or that didn’t come up much on the last album or something. It makes me realize that most of the work is going on under the hood, in my subconscious when I’m just living my life, or dreaming or whatever. Then they come out when I sit down and focus on the songwriting. And sometimes a tag line like that comes out just because your press agent asks for one and you have to reverse engineer a sentence or two that sums up the work. But you haven’t usually been thinking in those terms while you’re writing.
The EP embraces technology in a way that past releases have only teased at. I assume that Devon Lougheed influenced the sonic palette and because of that this feels like the most “widescreen” release of yours because of it. How did that collaboration germinate?
I was on that journey already, really. A lot of the sonic choices were made in my basement studio when I bought a Roland Re-201 Space Echo. It’s an old school tape delay unit which runs on analogue tape and imparts the signal with a very dark and old school sounding delay/reverb. That and the bank of synths I have. I was starting to experiment with those and demoed all the songs beforehand, with the intention of re- recording everything with Devon at his place. But Covid happened and so the work-around was that I would just send Devon the tracks I’d recorded and he would mix them. He added some tracks himself but the sonic fingerprint was already established. Then of course Devon went to town on the mix as he is a magical wizard with the tones and textures, and he took it to Pluto sonically. I love the sometimes subtle and then sometimes heavy-handed choices he made to really bring out the raw emotion of the songs. I was blown away when I heard the mixes.
As your work with Lowest of the Low and the Do Good Assassins has become increasingly political, do your solo releases offer a release valve for the smaller, slice of life songs?
Well it’s funny, the first two serious bands I was in (Social Insecurity in the early 80s and Popular Front in the late 80s) were both very “large P” political bands. S.I. was a Marxist straight edge punk outfit and P.F. more a worldbeat, multi-textured kind of thing (with horns and Latin percussion) so Lowest of the Low was actually the band wherein I learned to kind of bring it all back home and make the specific universal. I learned that early on in the Low – the more I wrote about very local autobiographical events the more universal reach they seemed to have and the more they resonated, which is a counterintuitive kind of idea and one that took me a while to get my head around. But I’m a political person by nature and I find I can’t look away, especially in this era of division and runaway capitalist cruelty. So, the last few records have seen me kind of steering back into the more “capital P” political ideas. Those ideas are in my work no matter which suit of clothes I decide to wrap them up in, it’s just the difference between me yelling with a smirk on my face or smiling… with a smirk on my face.
I am always fascinated by musical artists who have several outlets for their craft – do you work on songs with the knowledge that this one is for the Lowest of the Low, while this would work better as a solo joint? Or is it more pragmatic – you have 12 songs and it’s been a few years without a Low/DGA/solo album?
Oddly, though I’m the principal writer and lead singer in all of the outfits you mentioned, each one has its own specific style and set of strengths. “More than the sum of their parts” is a worn out cliche but it’s also true, so in the Low there are a set of strengths that everyone brings to the table and the same with the DGA and even when I’m doing solo work. And the Low as a unit has always managed to keep its volatility and ragged energy throughout the years, where we feel it could implode or explode at any time on stage. So that said, now and again I’ll write a song that’s clearly a Low song, or maybe an obvious choice for the DGA, but most times it’s just that I’m always writing so as you say if there is a space coming up for a DGA record it may go there, or if a solo EP is on tap then maybe I need it to round out that record. But more often than not the songs tell me who should perform them.
I think we’ve spoken for every release since the Do Good Assassins’ Rome in 2012, and I’ve been impressed with both your restless creativity while also crafting a body of work that clings together with a very strong and consistent set of values. Does legacy or the canon you’ve created influence your creative process when you approach a new work?
I don’t think so. One thing I feel proud of (and maybe I shouldn’t be) is that I have ready access to the same kind of excitement and drive I had when I was sixteen and just starting out. I love writing songs and maybe even more so I LOVE singing them. I’m not overstating it when I say it’s the closest thing I have to a religion. I don’t believe in god, but I believe in music. And I feel like I’ve maintained a healthy irreverence I picked up as a young punk starting out. And that irreverence extends to the guy who wrote “Rosy and Grey” and “Eternal Fatalist” (two popular early Low hits) as well. I’m not impressed by that guy. I want to look forward and keep creating the best work of my life. I feel like the most important thing for an artist (or a human for that matter) is to stay curious and to keep learning and I apply that to my art first and foremost. So looking back, quantifying, reminiscing and getting romantically nostalgic is not for me. Let the dead bury the dead…there’s little enough time as it is to make the kind of things I want to make.
VIDEO: Ron Hawkins “Ambulance Chaser”
You’ve also survived a stint with a major label relatively unscathed and are back on an indie (Sonic Envy). Did you retain your masters for the work you brought with you and released while on Warner Music Canada? What, if anything, did you take away from the experience?
Ha ha, yes. Warner asked us to write a blurb when they signed us as a kind of “Welcome to Warner… here we go” kinda thing. I wrote up something that said “After 30 long years of bloody warfare, Warner Music Canada has unconditionally surrendered and signed Lowest of the Low to a two record deal”… something like that. It was kind of a joke between me and the president Steve Kane, who George Strombo (the late Canadian radio legend) referred to as the “last punk rock president” – and the moniker is rightly earned. I thought I’d send that as a joke and then send a “real” one. But Steve Kane loved it and away we went. So I don’t think our experience there may have been as arm’s length as a lot of bands may feel when they sign to a major. That plus the fact that we were a known entity with a long and respected legacy in Canada made our relationship a little easier. That said, it wasn’t all wine and roses. We had the same issues we have with a lot of labels (major and indie) – that no one seems to really know how to navigate this relatively “new” terrain of social media promotion and streaming. Getting your work up and above all the white noise of 10 million releases a minute is a very challenging portfolio. And the majors are floundering. We did maintain, as we always do, our masters and went in with a certain amount of healthy skepticism. And the relationship ran its course. I don’t think Lowest of the Low is built for the majors. We jokingly refer to ourselves as “unmanageable” and that applies to labels as well. It’s only partly a joke as we have a very hard time finding a way to square the circle of strident defenders of our art and compliant promoters of consumerism and being considered a commodity. It’s been a career-long struggle and one I doubt I will ever find a way to reconcile. So we do our best, stay true to our beliefs, and try to find likeminded lunatics in the industry to work with. Sonic Envy has fit the bill nicely as Brian Hetherman (SE’s prez) seems to get us and be on board for a little rough weather.
You recently released a new Lowest of the Low double A-side single (the brilliant “Landslide” backed with the reworked and retitled “Last Last Lost Generation”) and have commented that a new album is in the offing. Any updates you can give on that? Is It still being titled Welcome To The Plunderdome?
Yeah, that was a blast. “Last Last Lost Generation” was a recording of a reworked arrangement we’ve had for a while of the song “Last Lost Generation” (from second album Hallucigenia). We were kicking around a title for this new one (Last Lost Generation (Dub)? Last Lost Generation (Version)? Etc.) but nothing felt right until we landed on the very “us” (and kinda confusing) “Last Last Lost Generation” – hinting that we would not be recording any other alternative versions of this tune. And “Landslide” was reverse engineered from a chorus I always loved from our old band Popular Front. The original was written in 1988 but never got a release on vinyl or cassette. I loved the chorus so much that I was hell bent on getting it into something new and thus the recent version of Landslide came to be. Originally it was meant to be a standalone single (backed by “Last Last Lost Generation”) but once we were finished we decided it was a perfect fit for the new studio album, Welcome To The Plunderdome. That one will be released in October with a release show at the Danforth Music Hall and a tour to coincide. Plunderdome is a 12-song offering of rock, punk, ska and soul inspired tunes that live ideologically in a similar place as our 2019 release AGITPOP. The new one was fully arranged, produced and recorded by the band and was mixed by our guitarist Michael McKenzie. It’s stripped down and direct and I feel like it’s as close to the soul of Lowest of the Low as we’ve ever gotten on record.
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