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.