20 DISARMing Questions for Ron Hawkins of Lowest of the Low

In this “pajamas and bunny slippers” time of unplanned hiatus from public life, we’ve been so happy to get a few minutes to chat with one of our truest Toronto troubadours, prolific musician, painter and activist Ron Hawkins of Lowest of the Low. As we all commit to self-isolation and social distancing for the greater good, it’s ever-important to maintain our community, connections, and turn to music, that precious jewel we carry in our hearts through tough times, and the very thing that will see us dance again, when this is past. The Low’s lastest album Agitpop has galvanized the fans with its urgent message of conscience-driven, driving anthems, which finds the Low still acutely in touch with activism for today and catchy lyrics we’ve come to expect (demand) from one of our most quotable bands. They also have a delectable, lovingly assembled box set: Shakespeare….My Box.

Now, the songwriter shares with us his thoughts on the hug-a-bility of album covers and what vinyl can teach us, the wisdom learned on the gravest of graveyard shifts, and what sets (us) East-Enders apart in this great city we call home. Be advised readers and future interview subjects, the gauntlet has been dropped. It’s unlikely anyone can top Hawkins’ selection for favourite hero of fiction! We heartily agree.

DISARM: What are you listening to right now?

Ron: I’ve been taking a deep dive into some old Rocksteady and Blue Beat stuff. And the Trojan Records catalogue. There’s been a lot of SKA going on. Also listening to Op Ivy and lots of current friends like Ace of Wands and Skye Wallace. Altered by Mom are doing a “song a week” project over the next 52 weeks. Even I’m not crazy enough to try that. Also, just surfing Spotify for Afro Cuban stuff or typing things like “women who kick ass!” into the search engine to see what pops up. Oh also the Blasters and Robert Gordon have had a spin on the ol’ vinyl this week. I got the Prince 1999 box set as well.

What was the first LP/tape/CD/MP3 you can remember owning, buying, or obsessing over?

First single I ever bought was Earth Wind & Fire doing a version of the Beatles tune “Got To Get You Into My Life”. I obsessed over almost everything I bought back then – Whodini, Prince- Dirty Mind, The Undertones, all of the Beatles, Blondie, Gang of Four… but it was The Clash that sealed the deal. The first Clash album and London Calling changed my life.

Are you loyal to vinyl or CD/Digital formats?

Vinyl all the fuckin’ way!! When I sold all my vinyl back in about 1990 because I was moving into a little punk rock shithole, I thought vinyl was never coming back. So I squinted at the small and underwhelming art work on the covers of CDs, I pressed shitty little earbuds into my ears and thought “Well, who needs a bass player I guess” and I found stuff on line with no artwork and no credits for producers and artists and designers. That became the new normal… so when vinyl came back I was thrilled. I embraced it wholeheartedly. I have been known to hug a vinyl album cover. I just love the full-sized art work, and probably most of all the relationship you have to maintain with it. You have to take care of it. It’s fragile. You have to engage with it… be attentive. Vinyl is surreptitiously teaching you how to be a good person, a good partner, a good son… a good human.

What bands are hardwired into your musical DNA?

The Clash, the Clash, the Clash… oh and I guess Billy Bragg, The Specials, Phil Ochs, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Prince, The Beach Boys, The Shirelles, Squeeze, Elvis Costello and Amy Winehouse.

Why do you live where you do? What is your favourite journey?

I was born in Toronto. I grew up an East-Ender (which like a lot of cities is/was one of the working class neighbourhoods of the town). I associate heavily with those working class roots. I feel like they taught me about community, about ambition – but not selfish ambition – the kind of ambition that makes you strong so you can fight for your comrades and you can have the wherewithal to take on tough challenges. And East-Enders have a very well-tuned bullshit meter. They see through it, they point it out and they don’t suffer it easily.

My favourite intellectual journey is to try to remain curious about everything – life, art, people… till the day they put me in a box. I love that quote “he who is not busy being born is busy dying” because it is 150% true. My favourite emotional journey is to see my friends and family flourish. To watch my daughter achieve things and learn things so much faster than I did at her age. To see what an amazing person she’s becoming. Physical journey would be almost anywhere – but specifically Barcelona, Mexico City, Rome, NYC, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Melbourne and on and on…

Have you traveled much? What is your dream trip if budget wasn’t a factor?

Oops, I jumped the gun on this one. Yeah I’ve travelled a bunch. When I had no money, when I had some money and when I had no money again. What I love about travelling is that you are getting the utmost of any experience no matter how much money you have. When I could barely afford to be in Spain, I travelled on the cheap, in shitty broken down hostels but met amazing people and had surreal, once in a lifetime experiences. It allows you to see the world as if you were the protagonist in the movie of your life (which of course you are, but we seldom get to feel that down in the very core of our being). I’ve been robbed, I’ve been saved, I’ve been loved, I’ve been chased, I’ve been sad, I’ve been elated, I’ve been hungry and I’ve been high. But it’s always an experience. Mexico City is a wild, inspirational, dizzying place. Everywhere you turn there is something so much bigger than life that it can barely be contained. There’s a vibrating sense of danger and violence and a sensuality from the food and the colossal works of art and history. The things I like to do when I travel don’t seem to cost a lot of money, so I get a kind of free pass.

What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?

Time IS a concept right? Isn’t that all it is really? I find as I get older that things that have happened in my life can seem simultaneously to be a long time ago and at the same time just like yesterday. So Sunday is a lot like any other day for me. Have a killer coffee in the morning, listen to some music. have a great chat with someone I love, try to write a song, fail, have a great lunch, try to write a song, fail, go see a friend, get a talking to by my daughter Ruby B, have another killer coffee, try to write a song… succeed! watch Transparent, try to make Jill laugh, go to bed.

What is essential for your go-bag (plane/train/automobile/tour bus)?

Gary Shteyngart novel, pork pie hat, Bowie knife.

What do you do with 4 hours of free time in a new city?

Barber, bakery, modern art gallery.

Who/what got you into playing music?

I would say probably the Pet Sounds record and the Beatles, musically. Those records mesmerized me. Then my close friend Ken and I started a band in high school and it was politics and The Clash that got me really psyched to try and do something meaningful with it all. Oh, and girls.

What was your most memorable (or scarring) day job?

I was a window cleaner for a while and had a couple close calls. That got my class analysis sharpened – to have a sometimes dangerous job be so poorly recompensed. I also killed rats on the graveyard shift for a while at a factory whose name I will spare out of common decency. Although doing that for a while made me want to become a better songwriter really quickly.

What advice should you have taken but didn’t?

Don’t become a window cleaner. Don’t kill rats with a shovel on a factory floor at 5 AM.

What should everyone shut up about?

The death of music. Believe it or not I am old enough to have acquaintances who say “There’s no good music anymore. There hasn’t been since…” I usually try to cut them off there and interject “the 80s”, “the 90s” or whatever era I imagine they were 20 in. It’s such a boooooring sentence. I can spend all day on Spotify or YouTube and would never run out of astounding work that was released in the last 12 months. That’s almost the problem now – there is so much amazing stuff that it’s daunting and seems impossible to get to it all.

What is getting under your skin at the moment?

Capitalism, Coronavirus (in that order).

Who are your perfect dinner guests, living or dead? What’s on the menu?

Joe Strummer, Dorothy Parker, Alice Neel, Hannah Gadsby, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, John Lennon, Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, Henry Miller, Robert Mitchum, Louise Brooks and Jesus. The menu is fishes and loaves. And water…

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?

Why can’t I answer this question? I wanna say Chewbacca but I doubt that’s very helpful.

Tell us about one of the best live gigs you’ve ever attended.

The Clash in Toronto, countless Billy Bragg shows at The Concert Hall – every summer from about 1983 to 1990 or so. Fishbone. So many it’s impossible to pick one. Any great concert is similar in that it sends you out into the street afterward ready to take on the world in whatever way you do.

What are your must-reads? (magazines, news, websites, blogs, Twitter feeds, podcasts…)

I’m really into a magazine called The Baffler right now. It’s an American socio-political journal. I like Tape Op magazine for stuff about music and production. It’s a real art driven audio magazine – the quirks and quarks of the really cool stuff. And I have a crush on Larry Crane, the guy who started it. He seems like an awesome character. The 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine is a stunning and saddening and still inspiring project about slavery in America. I have a subscription to Women In Sound which is a magazine that shines a light on great women in audio production. And The New Yorker but who can keep up. I still prefer analogue to digital reading. I don’t know why particularly, but it just seems less fleeting to me.

What’s something that you consider a mind-altering/reality-reframing work of art?

The Diego Rivera murals at the Ministry of Education in Mexico City are astounding to stand in front of. Just the Herculean effort of creating that much work and the focus of the through line of the history in them is staggering to me. I consider myself a very prolific artist and even I felt shamed by the sheer output. When did he find time to do all that womanizing!

I would say however that the most mind altering work of art I’ve ever experienced was in Central Park by a Canadian sound installation artist named Janet Cardiff. It was a living breathing work. You were given a Walkman on entering the park and there was a narration. There was a kind of metronomic click, like footsteps that you were meant to match with your stride, as you were being guided through Central Park following the narration on the disc. The narration covered everything from flora and fauna (the oak trees that were planted after the civil war) to stories about the Dakota building and John and Yoko. When you reached the zoo there were a series of chants on the tape and the narrator says “Look at that polar bear. In the wild a polar bear’s range is (I can’t remember the kilometres)”. As she’s saying this you are staring at this poor bear in a closed environment walking small circles in a very neurotic and agitated way. As your attention is captured by the chants you suddenly realize they are old work songs from slaves in the field. And on and on it goes, with too many amazing analogies and wonders to explain. Funny, tragic, inspiring. I’ve never since seen such an ambitious and amazing work.

What does the next six months look like for you?

Some social isolation due to COVID-19. I’m finishing up an album for my band the Do Good Assassins that we recorded on a 1985 Tascam 246 4-track cassette recorder. I wanted to do it as a challenge. To keep the decision making to a minimum and just focus on four humans playing music together without any bells and whistles. Turns out it sounds fantastic. Who knew. After making and recording 17 or 18 records I’ve been looking for new ways to challenge my perception of how I make them. Any fun idea is on the table at this point. I’ve made records in my house, in a barn, in studios and live. The Lowest of the Low is working on a possible live record and we’re already rehearsing songs for a new studio album as well. Being a dad is always a blast and a challenge, though with a 14-year old daughter you start to become a bit irrelevant. There’ll be some touring, some painting and some just slacking off as well.

It’s been said about musical or film icons: “Never meet your heroes.” Agree or disagree?

Disagree. This is it. This is all we have.This time here on earth. What are you waiting for? And what’s the risk? You find out they’re horrible people and you never see their work through the same lenses again? Get over it! There is plenty of art in the sea.

Our deepest thanks to Ron Hawkins for this insightful and energizing interview at a time when we really need it.

Lowest of the Low – AGITPOP Release Party at The Danforth Music Hall

Lowest of the Low AGITPOP Record Release party, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, May 31.

It’s a spring Friday night in Toronto and the Music Hall is packed full of Lowest of the Low fans. People who know this band’s 1991 debut record word for word. We’ve grown up with it. It holds a very special place in our Toronto memories (and beyond) and it has the power of great, singular music to transport its fans back to our younger selves. Not a few of us are here with the same ones we’ve been listening with since the 1990s, when bands had lots of time to bake, albums were played until they became our own anthems, and time moved slower.

Shakespeare My Butt, is, as the irreverent title suggests, an energetic twenty-something that’s equal parts bookworm and upstart. It was not common at the time for Toronto bands to take pride and ownership in this city, still then, deep in its insecurity complex and far too susceptible to American and British media, music, and notions of what cool was. But Lowest of the Low did that. They sang about making out late at night on Bathurst Street. The simple drunken joy of a tin of beer at the east end’s Only Café (a legend, already, back then and an institution by now). The Carlaw bridge appears. These are not references for the tourists, they do not pander to the American radio market, and they mean nothing to people unfamiliar with our neighbourhoods. They are community references, and references now belonging to fans of this band.

The album is Canada’s own George Best, the much-lauded classic Indie British record by The Wedding Present from the same period which documents, in sometimes excruciating detail, the cycle of first love through open-hearted, ripped from a diary verses. Both albums took hold of their respective cultures.  Shakespeare My Butt is an edgy album, featuring a then very bold use of profanity and frank talk of sex, both things that fuel young lives.

Bands with iconic albums slow-brewed over our formative years have an uphill climb when releasing new music today. There will always be the nostalgists, the “play the hits” louts. But the release of new music for our important 1990s (Canadian) bands is a big milestone today, and one well worth celebrating. The set weaves old and new rather seamlessly, with a lot of thought given to the set list and where to place the sure fire hits. But the Low needn’t worry. The new material is wholly their sound, still full of activism, boldness and the gritty love of those in need that their band name speaks to, with a well done accompanying video display that weaves historic civil rights march footage with the contemporary and the local, as seen as a backdrop on “The Barricade”.

Friends are brought out, filling the stage with a horn section and a bongo drum player. Guitars are swapped madly as the band runs through songs with the same energy as the records, and with Ron Hawkins in the rarest of voices, one ever-clear and unchanged across 25 years. A wonderful moment comes when Hawkins places his microphone in front of a woman in the crowd to ask her to tell us a story. She doesn’t hesitate. She’s ready. She mentions back in the day, CFNY 102.1 The Edge, hearing the song they are kicking into, having gone through a rough time and how it helped her through it. It’s a perfect soundbite of a story we all can relate to. Ron lays back on the stage, the microphone above his head, like he’s at home on his bed in that time travel world of last century on a long distance call over a cord stretched from one room to another. He looks utterly at home. He says speaking of CFNY…

Dave Bookman’s death of last week is still right under the surface of this city’s skin. Hawkins says some perfect words up to the rafters and beyond about Bookie, that he’s here, that “we’re just gonna keep on doing what he would do until he tells us to stop”.

The Low demonstrates that they still have their finger on the urgent pulse of what matters. Tonight the front row (in our end of the room) is solely comprised of petite, devoted women, who get to see and hear a rallying cry from one of our clearest voices for their rights, which are being challenged as we speak, even in 2019, half a century after the civil rights movement.

And it’s a fight that needs to be fought at every corner, even in rooms as friendly and warm as this one.

All standing room rock shows bring out the possible tension being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, in an unregulated area which relies almost totally on non-dickish behavior. Here, as in past Lowest of the Low shows, the room is quite an even gender mix (more than in many rock shows). One complete star of a fan is at the barrier on crutches. You gotta love music fans with all your heart. But one man emerges, looking to “good-naturedly” push and bully his way to the front. He is large, and uses his size to get his way, along with an uncomfortable jocularity. For we are not all jocks. We all have the right to enjoy a show in our own way. Majority rules, I guess, and in this part of the room (which happens to be the front row, stage right) there are quiet couples and women giving each other reasonable space. Until one man elbows, high fives and points his way to the front during, predictably, one of the hits. He even pats a stranger on the head. He’s alright when people go along with his ploy to push in front of others, the oldest trick in the book to the seasoned gig goer, but when he meets any resistance (even being ignored) he turns ugly. He disappears halfway through the show, a relief.

Tonight’s show closer is the melodic, honest sing along, “Rosy and Grey”, which talks about the simple pleasures of life on the margins / for the young. The fleeting freedom of the EI check (Unemployment benefits / “the dole”) meaning one can pay for a round of drinks. Regrets and reminiscences. The cheeky line about oral sex which is part of a couplet that is actually one of the most romantic in Canadian music history. This is The Lowest of the Low. The album became a phenomenon because their punk sensibility and fearlessness about their content broke through and said what everyone was thinking, told the truth about what young people (and hell, older people too) were doing and how we were living. And it holds up today, is enshrined as a classic album, as much as contemporary music ever can be in this country, these days, by a bands’ own bootstraps and the goodwill of fans willing to buy a box set.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

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