THIRTY YEARS OF GOING PLACES WITH TAVERNS AND PALACES
AN IN-DEPTH CONVERSATION WITH RON HAWKINS OF LOWEST OF THE LOW: PART ONE
It’s been 30 years since the release of the epic 17-song masterpiece Shakespeare My Butt…, the debut album from Toronto’s beloved Lowest Of The Low. The current iteration of “The Low” consisting of Ron Hawkins, David Alexander, Lawrence Nichols, Michael McKenzie and Greg Smith, is ready to commemorate the anniversary of this fabled recording on December 10, with the live album release of Taverns and Palaces. Recorded in 2019 at two Toronto musical landmarks, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace, this double-live album consists of 22 tracks, eleven recorded at each venue. Lead-singer and a founding member, Ron Hawkins, took time from his busy schedule, preparing for upcoming concerts in Buffalo, NY and in Toronto, Ontario, to talk to Spill Magazine about Taverns and Places.
The first Lowest Of The Low full-length live album was the 2001 release Nothing Short Of A Bullet, recorded during the band’s 2000 reunion tour. Taverns and Palaces, which consists mostly of newer material since 2001, blended with some older favourites, perhaps helps to bridge the gap for any listeners not familiar with the newer material from Lowest Of The Low, recorded since this initial live album. Taverns and Palaces is the second release through Warner Music Canada along with Yes Boy Records, the first being the impressive 2019 AGITPOP, produced by Grammy-winner David Bottrill.
“There’s some stuff off AGITPOP because we’re coming off that record and the newest thing is usually one of my faves. I think ‘New Wave Action Plan’ is one of my faves, ‘Night Of A Thousand Guns’ as well. I get on Facebook and I challenge people, I’m like ‘AGITPOP is the Lowest Of The Low’s best album, fight me’, because I feel so good about it. It’s an awesome sort of bookend with Shakespeare. I’m so close to Shakespeare My Butt…, we played it for so long and it’s such a part of our myth that it’s hard, I feel like every other record doesn’t stand a chance, a fair fight, you know? But for me, AGITPOP is as close as we will probably get to making something that I think is as special as that record for people. I think we knocked it out of the park on AGITPOP”.
Taverns and Palaces takes a few diversions from some the studio versions of the band’s songs. Included in the 22 tracks are two covers and a few other pleasant additions to some Lowest Of The Low classics. Also appearing on two covers on the album is Skye Wallace, lead of The Skye Wallace Band, who opened for the Lowest Of The Low on their 2019 tour, in support of AGITPOP. The Legitimizers, a horn section that appears on AGITPOP and plays with the band at some live shows, also contributes on a handful of songs. Ultimately, these additions really inject a great bluesy soul vibe into the recording.
“‘Eternal Fatalist’ has a big diversion in the middle, which we often do that live, to take some songs and kind of take a little spontaneous step. Sometimes it’s just me throwing some spontaneous cover that I start singing and the band just kind of goes “Ok, this is where we’re going (laughs). We’ve got ‘Bankrobber’ dub, which is from a (The) Clash song that we throw into the middle of ‘Eternal Fatalist’. That got recorded, which is great. There’s also a couple of covers on there, there’s a Paul Weller cover from The Style Council (‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’), there’s a Portugal, The Man cover (‘Feel It Still’). There was such a great opportunity for our horn section that we use off and on called The Legitimizers, and I always joke that they’re called The Legitimizers because no matter what we do, if they’re playing behind us, it sounds legitimate.”
“‘Bit’ was a song that I wrote when we recorded Hallucigenia, so like ’93-’94, and it was probably around when were were going to make Hallucigenia, but I could never finish it. I had thirty seconds or something, and I had always intended to make it a full song, and maybe write another chorus, and turn it into a song, but it never came to me. Dave said to me ‘Maybe that’s what it is, maybe it’s just a little bit’. So we called it ‘Bit’. It actually wound up on a single, when Hallucigenia came out, a B-side on a single. We decided to wire those two songs together (with ‘Letter From Bilbao’). There seemed to be a nice flow there.”
Lee’s Palace and The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern are two Toronto music destinations. Great smaller venues that have hosted live music for over one-hundred combined years. Lowest Of The Low have played these concert spots and toured extensively across Canada over their career, preferring the warm closeness of these smaller venues over the larger, less intimate settings.
“We used to do a lot of shows in Vancouver at a place called The Town Pump. It no longer exists, but man. Some of these things are just hard-wired to the romance of our rise when our band was starting out and was taking off. We would play these places. There’s a handful in Toronto, Sneaky Dee’s, Clinton’s and there used to be a place up on Bloor Street called The Blue Moon Saloon, which was just a tiny place, but we would play in the corner and they were crazy shows, people standing on chairs and dancing on the bar. Barrymore’s in Ottawa. We used to play Amigo’s in Saskatoon. So many great venues.”
“There’s a certain limit, and I feel that Lee’s Palace is the biggest stage that we feel that we can do our thing the way we want to do it. Massey Hall was a thrill, and it’s a great hallowed hall. It just doesn’t feel the same as all the clubs we came up in. Much to our agent’s chagrin, we would always choose staying in a town and doing all these nights at a smaller club rather than do the bigger venue and get out of there. They were like, ‘It’s not really efficient.’. We got to choose some things, we worked really hard to get here to choose how to do it.”
That’s the Lowest Of The Low in a nutshell, doing things how they want to. They’ve never been a corporate sellout or conducted themselves to suggest that it’s not all about the music. There’s something inherently special about this mandate of the Lowest Of The Low. After more than thirty years, are there another thirty years of giving their all to give the gift of their music? Another 30 years of playing live music and entertaining could very well be in the cards.
“Lawrence and I are always saying the minute that we feel that the audience isn’t getting the Lowest Of The Low experience is the minute we’ll stop doing it, because, we don’t want to be those guys that are just carting out the old tunes and cramming the jukebox down your throat and just phoning it in. We would never want to do that and I don’t think we’ve don’t that in a single gig yet in our entire career. Steve (former member Stephen Stanley) was a very important part of our band and that chemistry between me and Steve on stage was very important to the band and to a lot of people. I don’t tamper with that shit. I one-hundred-percent understand the magic and that mojo and the witchcraft, whatever it is. But I think we have a new sort of mojo that works as well for those people who want to come with us.”
“We often got in trouble all of our career, we got in trouble for falling on the wrong side of the music industry because we made decisions that were right for us but maybe weren’t the smartest business plan from a record label’s point of view. At my age now, I’m so glad that we stuck to our guns because we have a story that is our story. We didn’t compromise on things we didn’t want to compromise on. It might’ve meant more records, it might’ve meant more money, but I’m quite happy with how things panned out. If we feel like we’re giving people the show they came to see then we’ll probably keep doing it as long as we can do it. The minute it feels like we aren’t doing that, and granted, people aren’t generally good at gauging that themselves, maybe people will have to tell us.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Ron Hawkins of the Lowest Of The Low.