THE HIGHS AND THE LOWS WITH LOWEST OF THE LOW
AN IN-DEPTH CONVERSATION WITH RON HAWKINS: PART ONE
An anomaly, that’s what Toronto-based band Lowest Of The Low is. They conducted their business in a fiercely independent manner for the first 27 years of their existence, only to recently join forces with Warner Music Canada.
The first release under Warner Music Canada in November of 2018 was the career spanning, vinyl crown jewel, Shakespeare… My Box!!, which consists of 72 songs on seven pieces of vinyl, a 24-page colour 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, including 1994’s Hallucigenia (double-gate-fold 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 to celebrate their existence.
May 31, 2019, is the release date for their sixth full-length album, the first with Warner Music Canada. Agitpop will be released on double-gate-fold, double-vinyl, CD format, and on 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). The album was produced by three-time Grammy award-winning producer Dave Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, Muse, Silverchair).
Stoked about the release of Shakespeare… My Box, the Lowest Of The Low’s new epic box set, Ron Hawkins was eager to offer some background on the project. “We also understand that you thought about buying the box set or you thought about maybe paying your mortgage on your house because, you know, box sets are fucking expensive. I do get that that version is for the total completist superfan, but we’re going to break them out. We decided we would set a period of time that the box set would be the box set and after that we would break them out into separately available pieces so that people could either complete a collection or just not spend a fortune (laughs) all at once.”
Nothing Short Of A Bullet is not available in the box set. “I think it was one of these things where we considered it a momentous occasion and a mountain of work, and already as I said, a very big ask for our fans and then adding another piece of vinyl that wasn’t a studio record just felt to us like maybe we don’t need to do that. But we will definitely consider it (becoming vinyl in the future) because we’re delighted, that we, as I say, all of the studio albums are out now on vinyl as well, so I think we’d love to sort of complete that.”
Hawkins has a large back catalogue, including new music released after the solid foundation that was Shakespeare My Butt. “For me, personally, I think this will be my 17th record. It’s not right up front for me to prove to you that I can break out or break away from the Lowest Of The Low, I don’t have to prove anything. I’m releasing records and making records because I love doing it and I think I have something to say. I’m trying to improve every record. So I don’t have the same kind of thing I would have had when The Rusty Nails started after the Lowest Of The Low, it was really irritating and I got prickly about people yelling out for Low songs. But then the funny thing is we had a Low reunion in 2000 and there were a few people in the crowd yelling out for Rusty Nails songs. I was like, touché. At this point we just want to put on the best show that we can. For this Agitpop release we will probably try to put in, it’s a 14-song record, we’ll try to slip in eight songs if we can, into the set, which will be about a 20-song set. We’ll still put in lots of stuff from Shakespeare. We’ll put in lots of stuff people consider classic Shakespeare stuff, like “Rosy” (“Rosy and Grey”) and “Salesmen” (“Salesmen, Cheats and Liars”). We also try to slip in “Letter from Bilbao” or “Kinda the Lonely One”, even some deeper cuts from those records. Maybe there will be three from Sordid Fiction, three or four from Hallucigenia, just try to keep everybody happy. I understand that totally, of course you want them to hear your new stuff but if they don’t know any of it, and your set is 15 songs out of 20 are brand new and nobody’s ever heard them, then of course, how can they possibly get super-jazzed. They might when they learn to love these songs but they don’t love them right off the bat. You have to make a setlist like a fan. You have to think of yourself as a fan and not an artist, because that’s who’s paying to see you. I can see me anytime.”
Lowest of the Low have graced many stages over the years, most notably the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern and disappearing old haunts in Toronto and Vancouver.
“That’s a very storied, legendary place in Toronto. I couldn’t possibly tell you what the count is (number of times played there) but I can put it to you this way, which would tell the story, I think we’ve played the 50th, the 60th and the 70th anniversaries, so that’s how long we’ve been playing there. I would hazard to say hundreds or so, I don’t know, maybe that’s overstepping it, but an awful lot of shows. What I love about it too is that it really doesn’t look different than it did in 1983. I wouldn’t want to say it’s a shithole, because it’s not a shithole, but it’s not fancy in any way. I tend to love those kind of bars where it’s like they’re not putting on airs, it’s a functioning historic music venue.”
“All of this wraps into a lot of the themes on the record, which is that we pay the price, the penalty, for living in a society or structuring as a society that really puts ninety percent of its priorities behind money and behind making money and very seldom does it make choices based on the soul of the country, the soul of the people that live in the country and the morality of it. I look at Vancouver, back to the Smilin’ Buddha (Cabaret) and stuff like that, you couldn’t talk anybody into making a Smilin’ Buddha or The Town Pump a world heritage site but, I mean, you know, you need to fuckin’ keep these places around, they’re a part of the soul of the city.”
Toronto’s recently renovated El Mocambo is not on that list of venues he has played, but Hawkins has memories of the way it was.“I haven’t been there yet, no. But it’s quite the complex. They got a new sign, they didn’t refurbish the old sign, apparently it was going to be more expensive to refurbish the old sign than to completely make a brand new one from scratch. But it’s identical to the other one, and there’s a recording studio on the roof I think, on the top floor so they can record all the shows live if they want. It’s quite an undertaking. It comes around once in a while, someone who’s putting their money where it should go maybe or behind their heart instead of just their pocket book. They say he’s (owner Michael Wekerle) not planning to change it, he wants to kind of maintain, I mean, you know, replace the carpets and stuff because, holy shit, when I was in there you’d stick to the carpet so bad and I’ve played shows in there where there were buckets on the floor because there was stuff coming through the roof. That would be nice to get that all fixed up.”
Lowest Of The Low received great support from radio stations in their hometown back in the early to mid-1990s. Modern day radio is a perplexing challenge, to say the least. “The Edge for us, I’ve joked about this with Dave Bookman and Alan Cross, both guys who were there, about how it seemed like 10 minutes before 1991 we couldn’t get arrested. Bands couldn’t get arrested on The Edge and it seemed like 10 minutes after 1995 you couldn’t either. It’s like there was a little window that opened and we just happened to be around at the time it opened. You know, us and The Barenaked Ladies, The Headstones, and all of these bands from here that got played and then certainly by the end of the ’90s but even into the mid-’90s it was sort of like that window closed and they started to become like all radio stations now which is programmed from somewhere else. Nobody has the kind of authority like Dave Bookman to just go “Hey, this band is awesome and they are from here, I’m going to play them on the radio and introduce them to you.”, that’s not a thing, at all, anymore. We have Indie 88 which when it first started we were all excited like “fuck, finally, there’s another 102.1” they’re talking about how “we are the alternative, we are independent”, no they’re not. They’re almost the same playlist as Virgin FM which is full-on pop radio. Everyone is putting on the punk clothes and talking about alternative but none of the radio stations are like The Edge was. We are as much a victim of it as anyone else and we don’t get played, none of our new stuff. There might be the odd chance if they’re feeling nostalgic or somebody is talking about Toronto, they might play “Salesmen, Cheats and Liars” or “Rosy and Grey”, but they aren’t going to play anything off a record we’ve made in the last 25 years. It’s a part of a bigger math equation where corporations own everything including something that’s expensive to run as a radio station and of course you could be an altruist pirate and decide “fuck it, I’m going to do it my way” and more than likely you’re going to be bankrupt in a year because sponsors and all the stuff it takes to run a radio station. It’s not necessarily because they’re making a bad choice, it’s probably just because there isn’t a business model that works, you know, it’s frustrating.”
“I think people get used to things and they take for granted the CBC or they took for granted those years when The Edge was giving you the band from two neighbourhoods away. I guess it’s human nature to get used to it and expect that it happens. I’ll talk to my friend John Samson from The Weakerthans, lives in Winnipeg, I’ll talk to him even about an independent movie, and I’ll go “Are you going to see blah blah blah?” and he goes “It’s not going to come here.” It’s not going to show in Winnipeg? At all? There’s not a movie theatre in Winnipeg that’ll show it? And he’s like “No.” Or shows that won’t go there. And Winnipeg is a big city. It’s not like a small rural Ontario town. Growing up in Toronto I’m used to the availability of things.”
Streaming services are the ultra convenience amongst music lovers, at a relatively low cost. How does this affect the artist and the low pay-per-play award they receive? The choice was never ours. “I was really dragging my feet, then I got a Spotify trial and I just used it for, you know, pumping kickass women rock stars, and then there’s three-hundred people I’ve never heard of. It’s great for research and for finding people. I think I’m like everybody, I have a completely complex contradictory attitude about it because, for sure it sucks, if you’re looking at it in an old-school manner like you sell a song you get this much money, obviously it sucks. There are so many stories of like 70 million streams and somebody getting $1,200 bucks, it just doesn’t make any sense, if that was your living, you’re screwed. But to look at it the way millennials look at it or people who didn’t live through the other version of it are just like that’s not what it is, what it is is spreading the word in a way you could never ever have, you would have to hire the greatest publicist in the world to spread the word like this will do. If you look at it that way then it’s not really about selling music, it’s about getting people to know your music to either come to your shows, buy stuff from you live or just come to your shows. Live is the way you’re going to make a living nowadays and if you’re not geared that way or that isn’t your favourite part or you don’t have that part of your shit together and you’re not a great live act then maybe it sucks to be you, at that point. For a band like us who’ve been doing it for a long time and we love that communion with our audience and think we still, I mean, I’m in my almost mid-50s now and I still feel like we, I’ve told the boys the minute we don’t feel like we’re delivering live is the minute we should just pull the plug on it. But, so far, so good, you know. We still get rooms full of people singing all the words.”
“I think streaming services aren’t just one thing, they are a bunch of things and I think in some ways they’re the worst girlfriend you could ever have and then in some ways they’re the best girlfriend you could ever have. It depends on what part of it you’re, what you’re expecting from what part of it, you know.”
“We don’t have to worry about you or me, we don’t have to worry about people like us (music lovers), because there are millions of people out there who no matter what format it’s on, if they get a chance to help the artist survive they will because they know that we need music in our lives, we need artists to make it and if artists are going to starve to death, for sure, then people are going to stop doing it. We know that they have to do it so we support the whole culture of making music, right, and anybody nowadays who isn’t going to pay for it, just because they don’t have to, would’ve been a person who is going to shoplift your record anyway, back in the day. Either you understand the equation of making music and how artists live or you don’t. If you do then you’re going to support it probably because it feels right in your heart. I don’t think we ever have to worry about it. Is it getting harder, probably, I think if I was 22 years old I’d have a different story than I do now because my retrorockets are still riding something I did when it was a different model, so maybe I’m spoiled and I don’t know it but, yeah, if I was 22, I know lots of amazing bands in Toronto that, in my mind, had everything together and couldn’t even get arrested and couldn’t get an agent and I was like “fuck, am I on crazy pills?”, like Rival Boys, they’re amazing, and they end up breaking up after a couple of records because the pressure is too big or they can’t do it, I get that it’s gotten harder in a lot of ways.”
“I think we need to support it, culturally in a different way that we do, but as I say, it’s not just a music or an art problem, I think it’s a world problem that corporations have gobbled everything up and turned people into algorithms anyway, so if we live in that type of a culture then of course they don’t care about poetry.”
People in Canada’s western provinces at times refer to Toronto as the “Centre Of The Universe”. There is an underlying love/hate relationship that isn’t lost on many artists who venture to the West. “I tell this story all the time, when I had my band The Rusty Nails, we opened for Spirit Of The West out at The Commodore. As the opener, people were really–Lowest Of The Low fans can be this way as well–kinda ignoring the opener and were waiting for their headliner band, the band they’ve actually paid to see play. I notice that people were not really paying attention, so my tactic is always, I developed this from when I used to busk, it’s better to get negative attention than to get no attention at all, I said “Hey Vancouver, don’t hate us because we’re from Toronto and we’re beautiful.”. People started yelling “Fuck you!” and throwing things at the band and I look at Lawrence and he’s like “What?” and I’m like, they’re listening now, they weren’t listening before.”
Canadian music is consistently top-notch, in all genres. It’s worthwhile to keep an open ear to hear and support burgeoning artists of The Great White North. “Some that people do know about, The Arkells. I think their political focus is a little less directed than ours, they’re generally talking about people doing the right thing. But I see it in them, this energy in them. Music is a powerful thing and we need to put it to using it as a tool to changing things for the better. That’s what drew me to The Weakerthans as well. We did a show one time at the Molson Amphitheatre. It was The Weakerthans and the Lowest Of The Low and Billy Bragg and I think the Globe & Mail had deemed it “Commu-night at the Amphitheatre”. We were just drawn to people like that, that were singing about change and singing about things they wanted to see happen in the world. These days I’m seeing a lot of amazing women artists, I’m a huge fan of Sky Wallace, if you haven’t heard of her you will soon. She’s an amazing artist who is very young and she’s a great songwriter and from what I know her last album she jumped on a train and did a tour of Canada, all over the place and as far up as Whitehorse. She wrote a song about a woman from every town that she was in. There was an amazing song called Swing Batter, it was about a woman from, I believe, North Bay or Sudbury, who in the ‘20s had been beaten by her husband, basically all through their marriage, and at some point she had enough and beat him to death with a bat. So it’s called “Swing Batter”. She was charged with murder but they found out that she was pregnant so they stayed the execution long enough for her to have the baby and then execute her, but then apparently word got out and the burgeoning feminist movement in the world and local celebrities and everybody got involved and they had a stay of execution and she still spent, apparently, her life in prison. That’s a powerful, powerful song for anyone to ever write but a super powerful song for a woman as young as her to write, in my mind, and just the idea that she traveled around Canada with this incredible idea of I’m going to write a song about a woman in all of these towns. She’s amazing.”
“There’s a band called Ace Of Wands, whom I’m a big fan of. Who are, I don’t even know what you’d call it, space punk? Really sort of trippy but, not angry so much as intense, real intense songs about emotional stability and there’s a lot of, as you would imagine from Ace Of Wands, a lot of tarot sort of stuff and a lot of witchy sort of things going on, but they’re amazing.”
“I try to keep my ear to the ground on some degree and it’s like, being a 54 year-old man now I have a lot of friends. I’m at that age where I do get to hear a lot of grumpy old men going “There’s no good music anymore, the best music was made in the ‘90s.” You know, when you’re in your twenties. I always say to them, look, any night you want, go on YouTube and pull up NPR Tiny Desk concerts, or any of the number of sites like this and you’ll see two-hundred bands you’ve never heard of that are all amazing. There’s always amazing music being made and there always will be. It’s as close to as a click on your computer.”
“We need this stuff. Humans need other humans to communicate with them. It’s great to see when that happens because people get cynical and go “I don’t know, man” and stay home and watch Netflix, and I do that enough too, I get the seduction of that, but people are still doing it, going out and supporting.”
Then there is “Beer, Graffiti Walls” and the spoken word by Canadian punk legend Art Bergmann, which is a bombshell, near the end of the song, from the album Hallucigenia. Wait for it! “I became very good friends with Art. You know, it’s funny because we became friends because of the sort of story in that song is that we saw him on the side of the road for the Big, Bad & Groovy (tour), they finally got so sick of Art they kicked him off the bus, so he was hitchhiking from show to show and we kind of passed him on the highway and I was like “I think that was Art Bergmann.”. How could he be hitchhiking? That can’t be Art Bergmann. So I wrote that song and then our manager was from Vancouver, at the time, so he said “Well, you know, I can hook you up with Art.” and we were like, hey, maybe we can get Art to do this thing. So we met Art when he came in to do that with Hallucigenia and we just became friends. We’re still close, he just lives outside of Calgary and we just don’t have a chance to see each other much.”
“That song was partially about this place called Sneaky Dee’s (Toronto). That’s where the Lowest Of The Low used to hang out til all hours of the night, all the time, so I pulled most of the stuff that’s in that spoken word off the graffiti in the bathroom there. We wanted to get him to just spew it out. I thought Art’s perfect for that, he’ll give it a nasty turn.”
Not all songs are performed live anymore, including “Dogs Of February“, which was written by Stephen Stanley, who left the band in 2013 to focus on his solo career. “We don’t with Steve not there, no, ‘cause that would feel sort of weird. A good turn on that is that Steve and I recently started patching that up and becoming friends again. There’s been a bit of a history of us, on and off, like that. Things are in a very good spot with us. We don’t really play Steve’s songs in the set. If I was singing, it meant that I wrote it and if Steve was singing, it meant that he wrote it. Now that he’s doing a solo thing, he’s writing all of the songs on his record. Low records usually had one or two.”
Stephen Page’s (formerly of The Barenaked Ladies) father, Victor Page and his Page Publications had a hand in the production of the album. “They distributed (Shakespeare My Butt…). No label in town would take us. He said, “Hey, we’ll release your record.” As those usual capitalist situations go, I think we sold something like 7,000 CDs with him, and he was doing that out of his basement. It wasn’t like he had a shop or anything. Then of course, our phones were ringing off the hook from all of the same people who said go away we don’t want to deal with you. That’s how it always goes .”
The outlook for a Canada-wide, Lowest Of The Low tour is a positive one. “We’re putting the finishing polishes (on tour plans). We had some great anchor dates for out west and then it just become a reality, I think for a lot of touring bands and especially us who used to cross the country six times a year. Live is a different beast than it used to be. We opened up for the 54-40 show (when last in Vancouver in 2017I l). I look out and everybody is singing all of our songs as well, so it’s like, you know, certainly we know that the fans are out there but it’s letting them know that we are coming, because we do it so seldom, it’s been a while since we’ve been there. We’re putting the finishing polishes to that and trying to add the secondary dates to make it all make sense to that we can put gas in the van and get around. So that’s definitely going to happen, I’m hoping for late summer or early fall.”
“We’re super pumped about this record and want to get out and get across (Canada). We’re working on all of it. Even with Warner we’re still pretty much a Mom and Pop Shop, we do most of the stuff in-house with the band. Getting all of that stuff organized, we’re still working on all of it. We’ll definitely get it all polished up and get the van on the road. We’re planning to make it three (albums) in three (years), we are two thirds of the way there already.”
The new album, Agitpop drops on May 31, 2019. Keep your ear to the ground for singles.