THE HIGHS AND THE LOWS WITH LOWEST OF THE LOW
AN IN-DEPTH CONVERSATION WITH RON HAWKINS: PART TWO
An anomaly, that’s what the Toronto-based band Lowest Of The Low is. They conducted their business in a fiercely independent manner running for the first 27 years of their existence, only to recently join forces with Warner Music Canada.
Their roots began in the early ‘80s when, as teens, Ron Hawkins and David Alexander got their beginning in the punk band Social Insecurity. Popular Front was next, where Hawkins and Alexander met guitarist Stephen Stanley. Popular Front then evolved into Lowest Of The Low, and soon after John Arnott joined as bass player. The band remained vigilantly independent, by choice, and in 1991 they released the musical and lyrical masterpiece Shakespeare My Butt, which received great support from Toronto’s CFNY (102.1 The Edge) radio station and excellent sales at local record shops. The band held on to the steadfast mistrust of the music industry and blissfully went about their business on their own terms. Hallucigenia was released in early 1994, recorded by LSD (London Smith Discs) and distributed by A&M records. Hallucigenia was a distinctively grittier, heavier recording which perpetuated their status as a band that is a must to hear and see. Unfortunately, later that year, the band took a hiatus for a plethora of reasons. The adoring fans from across the country, and notably in Toronto and nearby Buffalo, NY, drowned their disappointment and sorrows with Lowest Of The Low’s two studio albums.
In 2000, after six years of going about their own individual careers, Lowest Of The Low triumphantly reunited for a number of gigs, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, to the joy of their faithful following. This resulted in the 2001 double album Nothing Short Of A Bullet (a line coined from the song “For The Hand Of Magdalena” from Shakespeare My Butt), with a CD of live music and a CD with three new recordings. Subsequently, the next full-length release was Sordid Fiction produced by Ian Blurton in 2004. From there, the band continued touring and performing until 2007.
As a tipping point that year, Shakespeare My Butt was listed as number 84 in Bob Mersereau’s book The Top 100 Canadian Albums. Pretty spectacular for an album that was released independently to be celebrated in such a way, alongside Canadian classics such as Neil Young’s Harvest, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and The Band’s Music from Big Pink.
The 20th anniversary of Shakespeare My Butt was celebrated in 2010 with a remastered CD, accompanied by a 45-minute long DVD and a double gatefold double vinyl. The band released a new album in 2017 titled Do The Right Now. In 2001 John Arnott was relieved from his bass duties, and in 2013 Stephen Stanley also departed to focus on his solo career. Nevertheless, the band has continued on through the years with original principal songwriter and vocalist Ron Hawkins and drummer David Alexander.
The first release under Warner Music Canada in November 2018 was the career-spanning, vinyl crown jewel, Shakespeare My Box. The box set consists of 72 songs on seven pieces of vinyl, a 24-page long color lyric and photo compendium booklet, stickers, a poster, and pages of handwritten lyrics. Included with the vinyl in this box set are all four studio albums, comprising
1994’s Hallucigenia (double gatefold double vinyl) and 2004’s Sordid Fiction, both on vinyl for the first time ever – everything a fan of Lowest Of The Low could possibly want, in order to celebrate their existence.
May 31, 2019, is the release date for their sixth full-length album, the first with Warmer Music Canada. Agitpop will be released on double gatefold double vinyl, CD and music streaming services. The lineup consists of Ron Hawkins and David Alexander, with Lawrence Nichols (full-time member since 2004, involved since 1991), Michael McKenzie (formerly of Universal Honey), and Greg Smith (of The Weakerthans).
In preparation of the release, we spoke to Ron Hawkins about the past, present and future of Lowest Of The Low, including the upcoming album Agitpop. This is Part 2 of our chat with Ron Hawkins.
Winning over the Grammy award-winning producer Dave Bottrill as a fan of Lowest Of The Low was a huge coup for Lowest Of The Low. “He hooked up with Daniel Lanois back in the ‘80s, and so, in the late ‘80s he got the call to go over with Lanois to make So (Peter Gabriel). So he went over there to do that as a second engineer or something, he was just a kid, right. He got this gig with Gabriel and then apparently Gabriel liked him so much that he hired him on Real World, which is Gabriel’s studio complex. He was there for something like 12 or 15 years in England, so he wasn’t here for any of us. He had no idea who we were and he got the story from us, we had a meeting with him, and we told him, I think he had heard, I mean there’s a bit of a legend especially around Toronto and Ontario about The Low being sort of like freedom fighters and they did this and they shot themselves in the foot and they made enemies, and blah blah blah. So he had heard all of these stories and then he came and saw us live and was like “Holy shit”. In his words he was like “I can’t believe you guys aren’t a household name.” I said we’re kind of a household name, in the households that are important to us, but I get what you mean. We made decisions that made sense to us musically, and they’re no different than the decisions that I make every day in my life, living in a society that I don’t think I quite fit into. I have to constantly compromise and do things that aren’t in my interest in the way that society is set-up. So why would it be any different in the music industry.”
Hawkins has lots to share regarding the future sounds and energy of his music. “I’ve been super prolific in the past decade, for some reason I’ve felt like I’ve always written a lot, I mean, really really prolific in the past 10 years, and it doesn’t seem to stop. I have about two thirds of the next record kinda ready to go, with the band, demoed and ready to go. So I’d love to be in the studio again next January, and we did this one this January. I’d love to go back in with Dave Bottrill and I’d love it to be on Warner, but we haven’t talked about any of this stuff yet, but, you know, if it was an option I would sign that piece of paper right now, you know, I’m excited. The intention is for the band, because the band feels like we’re firing on all cylinders, everybody’s getting along, you know, the intention is to just keep the machine going. With that being said I also have my other band, The Do Good Assassins, and I’m currently making a record on a 4-track cassette machine, a Taskam 246. I had one in 1985, and I just bought one on reverb.com, which is a site for vintage gear and stuff. So we’re making a record on a 4-track cassette machine which is the polar opposite from what we just did with The Low, but it’s also a cool thing. So if anything I’ve got almost too many things in the pipeline but the energy is there and certainly the energy is there with The Low to continue this. I don’t know if the next record is going to be as political as this one. We found a real groove on a couple of songs in this one too, which we’re trying to exploit a bit more and sort of investigate cause it’s not, the dance side of the Lowest Of The Low isn’t the most famous part of the Lowest Of The Low, you know, we have a really groove side on a couple of songs. Maybe the next one will be really going down that rabbit hole and seeing how groovy we can get. When I say groovy I’m talking Sandinista! Clash kind of mash-ups of funkier, bottom-end stuff, and drum machine stuff and still punky overlays.” “We have some latin percussion and horns on it. (the new album Agitpop). A lot of people who don’t know the longer history of my stuff or me and Dave working together are like “That’s amazing that you guys are introducing latin percussion.” and it’s like, well, Popular Front, the band before the Lowest Of The Low, was a seven-piece band and we had a full-time latin percussionist, and horns and all of this kind of stuff. There was lots of two-tone and world-beat stuff. We kind of are coming full-circle with some of that and that might be the stuff we experiment with on the next one. As you can tell, I’m super pumped to just keep going.”
Hawkins had a lot to say on the new album, Agitpop, and the re-ignition of the political fuse.
“It’s a play on a phrase called Agitprop, which is a short-form for Agitational Propaganda. It’s a Bolshevik term from the Russian revolution. It was sort of a catch all for any kind of catchy propaganda, art that was meant to move people to revolution. I grew up as a communist punk rocker and have been in a bunch of bands with David, who’s the drummer for the Low, the first one being Social Insecurity and the second being Popular Front. Both of those bands kinda had a lot of capital “P” politics tunes, and for whatever reason, it was like, back then it would have been Reagan and nuclear disarmament that was the real driving force for me to write political songs and then in the ‘90s we sort of ran our course as Popular Front and changed our name to the Lowest Of The Low and then I started writing songs that were much more kind of…the politics were there but it was buried in the personal stories of people and then that took off and it was sort of my thing. I got into that for now quite a few records, and over the last two years, since basically Trump was elected and the rightward move of Europe and North America, with fascism being on the rise again, which I cannot believe, set the fuse to kind of rewrite in a more capital ‘P’ way. All of that pushed me as a songwriter and then often my energy becomes the band’s energy because it gets contagious and the band picks it up, and we are all varying stripes of left, from Liberal to Far Left, but everybody in the band is on the right side of the barricade. When I get worked up like that they tend to get worked-up too.”
Lowest Of The Low have a new working relationship with Warner Music Canada and the president, Steve Kane. “For us, the most awesome thing about it is the President, Steve Kane, as I was just on The Strombo Show last week and Strombo said “Oh yeah, he’s the only punk rock President left.” Steve Kane is an awesome guy, he totally gets us. We’ve had a very long, sort of antagonistic relationship with major labels in Canada for decades and decades and we’re known for it and when we signed with Warner. Steve Kane asked me “Can you write a little blurb, that says that you guys are now a part of the Warner family?” So as a joke, I thought I was joking, I wrote this thing that said that after 20 years of bloody warfare with record labels in Canada, Lowest Of The Low has accepted Warner’s unconditional surrender. I wrote that and I sent it to them and I thought, you know, they’ll go “haha” or “lol” or whatever and then I’ll send a real one, right. But they loved it and Steve Kane said “Ah fuck, this is awesome.” and he said I think you should keep this up, that you’re the indie freedom fighters and that you hate the labels and we’re the guys who’ve locked you down. I think we should keep this up because it’s a cool story. So, when you get a president of a record label, like that, you know.”
“Here’s a funny story too, on the new record there’s a song called “The Barricade”, the general gist of it is, you know, when I vote I feel like I’m being swindled because I feel like voting is a bit of a con, and that the real change happens in the street and voting is set up in a way that is just keeping the rich richer and keeping corporations in control of politics and blah blah blah. So there’s a line in it “Let me tell you this for free/My next vote’s with a brick/From somewhere beyond the barricade.”. There were a few guys in the band who are staunch voters who were like “I don’t know, I’m not sure I like the implied violence of it. So we had this back and forth and it was actually Steve Kane, the president of Warner, he was like “Oh fuck, that song’s gotta go on the record, man. That’s one of the best songs on the record.” So when you have the president of the label, you know, putting possibly one of the pointiest songs that you have, he’s fighting for it, then you know you’re in the right place, right.”
“So they’ve been cool. They’ve been nothing but cool. A lot of my friends go ‘You’re on a major label, that’s awesome!’ I’m like, yeah we’ll see. We’ll see what it means in 2019 to be on a major label. I don’t know if they have any more clout than your average millennial on the internet these days, but we’ll see.” “They (Warner Music Canada) were quick to step up and help us pay for Dave Bottrill, the producer. Working with a world-class producer is another thing we’ve never really done, we’ve done it once with Hallucigenia, with Don Smith, who I would say is in the same kind of universe as Dave Bottrill, but we had a horrible time working with him. We had some major political differences with him. I called our manager and said “What happens if I punch the producer in the face? They were like “We just paid him seventy-thousand dollars so you’re with him for another 30 days.” So we’d never done it again and we didn’t really have a good time and it was a combination of self-producing or working with much smaller producers that we knew. So working with Bottrill was our first step backing into that world and on a major label. It was a lot of things that we don’t usually do and we felt so good about this mix, as I said, the only punk rock president left, and Dave Bottrill being such a cool guy that I’m so gung ho.” “He produced Tool and Smashing Pumpkins, he actually was the second engineer, I think, on Peter Gabriel’s solo So record, so a long, amazing career. We totally hit it off with him. He’s been amazing and totally gets the band. We had a great time working with him, but at the beginning I said ‘Okay, I booked fourteen days in the studio, we’re going to do fourteen songs’ and he was like ‘Ahhhh, that’s fucking crazy dude, you know, that’s really ambitious.” So I just kept pushing everybody, like ‘We’re shootin’ for that bunker at the top of the hill, that’s what we’re shooting for’ and if we don’t get there, fine, but I wanted everybody to have my back and we’re going to try to storm the castle, right.’ We wound up doing it in, I think, 19 days, we recorded 14 songs in 19 days which he was super impressed with and he was like ‘You fuckin’ cracked the whip man.’ We got it done right, so that was exciting, but at first they were like ‘Yeah, man, double gatefold vinyl, that’s expensive man, think about the overhead and think about your price point and blah blah blah and it was like, you know, how often do we get to do this, let’s make it a celebration. With vinyl back, I just find vinyl a beautiful iteration. Maybe because I’m old enough that that’s what it was when I grew up, but the artwork and the size of it and there’s something about the fragility of it even, you just want to protect your vinyl collection and you’ve gotta get up and you’ve gotta flip it over, like you have to interact with it, right.”
It was interesting signing with Warner Music Canada after so many years of being independent. “A close friend of mine (Rudy Rempel) used to own a studio in Toronto called Chemical Sound, we made Sordid Fiction and some (Ron Hawkins and the) Rusty Nails records there, I was visiting him back in Winnipeg. We were sitting around a campfire and it was one of those things where I know him well enough that I knew something was on his mind and it was like ‘What, spit it out,’ and he was like ‘I’m having a hard time finding a way to ask you this without it sounding insulting, but how does a 52-year-old man get Warner Canada to sign him to a two record deal?’ I said ‘Yeah, I know, it’s unusual, but you know, everything in our entire career trajectory has been unusual. I guess maybe they just thought ‘he’s not going to go away, we may as well get this out of our system. We’ll sign him to a couple of records, he’ll make his records and we’ll see where it goes.’ ”
“You probably know the classic problem with getting signed to a major label is often it’s an A&R person who loves your band and saw you in a bar and brings you to the label and then everything is great and you’re telling everybody how you’re telling your family to pick out what colour of Cadillac they want to drive, and then five weeks later you find out that person has left or got fired and they’ve put another person on your thing and they’re like ‘Yeah, what are we going to do?’ They’re snapping their gum and could not care less. Suddenly you just go into the toilet. To have Steve Kane, the president (of Warner Music Canada) be a fan and you know, after our first meeting there we’re shaking hands and I’m getting ready to leave and Steve goes ‘Hey Ron, come into my office.’ I go into his office and he’s got this thing that came today for him, and he’s unwrapping it, and it’s this signed picture of Joe Strummer. Somebody from the Strummer foundation had sent him this signed photograph. But the fact that he was 16 years old, in my eyes, when he was opening this, he was just so excited, and I’m like, that means something that the president got excited about this signed Joe Strummer picture, you know, I think this bodes well for us.”
“Dave Bottrill started a thing, aside from Warner, started this thing in Africa, I think it’s in West Africa, in these countries that are torn by civil war. Women and girls, victims of rape from civil war in their country. He’s gone there and built studios, sort of jerry-rigged studios together and got these women together to write songs and then teach them how to record these songs as a way to sort of re-focus their energy. Then he got together with Steve Kane at Warner, and Warner agreed to release all of these records for free. All of the money goes back to these villages in West Africa. It’s just such an amazing, selfless thing that both of those guys have done. It’s like, these are the people we need to be working with because that’s the way we think and this is a team, it’s not really about branding the band and how can we get more market share. They don’t talk like that, at all, ever.”
“I’m a person who comes from a very organized political left doctrine, sort of dogmatic political background, but at this point of my life I just really love anything that I think is on the right side of the equation that’s doing things on the ground. I’m just so used to political organizations of every stripe talking and talking and talking and you really get the impression at some point that wow, we’re really good at talking (laughs). But it’s nice to just see, you know I’m not saying that that’s a little thing, Dave’s thing in Africa, it’s a huge thing, even just every little thing that happens on the street, acts of kindness and organized acts of community, you know, I’m just so much more into that. We just need to add all of that stuff up and when it adds up to more that the shitty stuff, we’ll be in the right place.”
“I have enough balance that I also know that when I was in a very organized left, there’s a lot of backstabbing and nonsense that goes on and you go ‘well fuck, no wonder we can’t get anything done, because everybody’s busy stabbing each other (laughs).’ So I just like to see when people are like, ‘you know what, I don’t know what’s going on in Hungary and I don’t know what’s going on in Brazil, but I know what’s going on in my neighbourhood and I’m going to take care of my neighbourhood and we’re going to build that and we’re going to stick two neighbourhoods together and we’re going to work on the real stuff, you know. He won Grammys with Tool. It’s funny, when we met him (Dave Bottrill), he said ‘I don’t know what you guys think about Tool or what you don’t think about Tool, but I just want you to know, right off the bat, it’s not like I spend a lot of time listening to that kind of music. What happened to me is that I made some very successful records with Tool and won Grammys and then my phone rang off the hook with calls from bands that sound like Tool. So I’ve got this huge catalogue of people who sound like that that I’ve worked with, but I also love all kinds of other music, just in case you don’t think I’m well-rounded or I only know how to make this music.’ He was a victim of his own success, in a sense.”
Ron’s energy and optimism can be felt, not only in the sound of the new music and in speaking with him. The energy is real and he’s excited about it. “I don’t consider myself a textbook case of somebody my age doing what I do. I don’t know what it is, but I just feel super energized right now and super connected to when I was 16 years old, right down to buying a 4-track cassette machine to make a record. I just feel that I still have access to that vibe and I’m trying to take advantage of it while it’s here, because I’m not positive that I’ll always have it, that’s where I am right now. When I’m done making music, I’m like ‘More music! Let’s go see some!’ or I’ll write some, I still have energy for it.”
Lowest Of The Low’s new album, Agitpop, will be dropping on May 31, 2019. Watch for an upcoming Canada-wide tour to support the new Warner Music Canada album.