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Spree Music: An interview with Ron Hawkins

Lowest of the Low

Nostalgia tends to play a part in summer concert events, with reunion tours and hair bands and has beens appearing at every smalltime festival or fair near you.

With 1991 twenty years behind us, there is a strong pull to revisit the halcyon days of indie rock and the birth of grunge. Alongside those reminders come the inevitable (and perhaps unnecessary) re-release of seminal albums that defined the sound of the time, such as the rebirth of Nirvana’s Nevermind due out in September.

Amongst that herd are the Lowest of the Low, a band from that generation who may not rank alongside Cobain and crew in the annals of rock history, but who were influential just the same. This Canadian indie band shaped the conversation and landscape of independent music in their home country and here, in the Northern reaches of the U.S., with the release of first album in 1991, Shakespeare My Butt..., an album that catapulted the band into unlikely popularity. In their hometown, The Low became legends for their romanticized view of Toronto (which also spoke to the those of us living in early 90s northeastern neighborhoods), and all the drinking, heartache, and sing-a-long choruses found within. After breaking up in 1994 they left a legacy of success and passion, which influenced the Toronto-area music scene, including bands such as The Weakerthans.

Last November, after a decade of start and stop production (that saw the release of a live album and 2004’s Sordid Fiction), Lowest of the Low released a 20th anniversary edition of their debut record. Re-mastered in an artful way which allows the listener to hear the whistling on “So Long Bernie” and the bass lines which throb and pulse under the delightfully crisp treble, the album also comes with a 45-minute documentary about the band.

The Low last played Buffalo in April and are returning again to headline a show at the Erie Canal Harbor tomorrow. I had an opportunity to speak with lead singer Ron Hawkins about the reissue, the documentary, their influence on other bands, and what Buffalo has to look forward to at tomorrow’s show.

Joseph DiDomizio: What should fans expect on Thursday? Will you be playing SMB all the way through again, or will there be a mix of songs?
Ron Hawkins: I think it’s going to be a little broader in scope. Definitely the Shakespeare record will be [played], considering it’s a celebration year for us and we’re really celebrating this record. So the lion’s share will be from Shakespeare, but instead of going through it in sequence as we have on our previous tour, we’re going to change it up and mix in some of the stuff from Hallucigenia and Sordid Fiction, plus we’ll play some songs from Stephen’s solo stuff and my solo stuff as well.

I think this is the best version of this band, and certainly there [are] no corners being cut, so [Buffalo] should be prepared for a good energetic show.

JD: Are there differences between playing in Buffalo and playing in Canada?
RH: As silly as it might sound, I noticed that when I play a lot of people come to see the band. [I think] there’s a certain exoticism about crossing the border, about being Canadian. We [notice] a difference between Torontonians and Buffalonians, but there’s also enough binding us that we feel comradely, you know, brotherly. [Because of] the exoticism of coming across the border—and because The Edge (102.1 FM CFNY) came across the lake to Buffalo allowing people in Buffalo to hear a lot of Canadian bands—I think there’s a certain love affair between Toronto and Buffalo.

JD: Why do you think your debut album means so much to fans 20 years later?
RH: My guess would be that it struck a chord with them; I think I can say that of Buffalo, but it is true for Toronto. The way I wrote the songs on that record was as a sort of love song to Toronto … to the city and to the places I hung out in. Not big, famous sites, but also the sites for me and my friends, [where] we hung out, and that meant a lot to us in Toronto. I think that had a resounding effect on Torontonians, because in 1991 it wasn’t like there were a ton of people writing about Toronto as an artistic center.

Since then there have been a lot more people writing about Toronto as city worthy of the written word. And I think Buffalonians feel the same way about Buffalo, and we have our haunts in Buffalo as well. The good thing about the Shakespeare record is that even though I’m writing about specific places in Toronto, they really resonate with people in other cities because they each have their Only Cafe or Carlaw Bridge, and they have places in their city that resonates for them in the same way.

JD: The DVD disc that accompanies the reissue is a 45-minute documentary of the band. How did that film come together?
RH: That was Dave’s idea (David Alexander, drummer). He was an Ontario College of Art grad, and he was always a painter and a video artist. On the road he was the guy who was, taking photos or hanging out the window of the van with a camera, you know documenting everything. If it weren’t for Dave, we would have no evidence that we even had a band in the early 90s. He was the guy who saved all the posters and took all the photos. In Winnipeg in 2008, he was sitting outside a radio station in a van while Steve and I were inside doing an interview. The interviewer was leading us through a conversation about our career that was almost as a roadmap from beginning to end chronologically.

That’s where Dave got the idea for the movie. He didn’t know what he was going to do with it, so he started to assemble the footage and when we decided to rerelease this record, he thought the DVD would be a nice bonus. As it turns out, it has become quite a beautiful companion piece.

JD: How do you feel about being cited as an inspiration for other bands?
RH: It’s very gratifying, especially if you like the bands. When you love the bands that are saying that, of course it’s incredibly gratifying. And lately it’s like we’re being put into a sort of historical frame of reference—in Toronto and Ontario at least. Literally right now there’s a contest in the Toronto Star that started about a month and a half ago to choose Toronto’s greatest live band ever. And its included everybody from Rush to Blue Rodeo—everybody you can think of—and we’ve made it down to the top four. Literally over the next 3 weeks or so, we could be wind up being elected the best live band in Toronto ever. [It is] surreal enough to have bands citing you as an influence, but to have enough people voting for you to win the best band in Toronto, that kind stuff is staggering, and I really don’t know how to address it.

I could deflect it with some kind of humor, like a friend of mine did. She said it’s really like, “What do you like better: carburetors or cantaloupes? Rush or The Four Lads?” The Four Lads is a vocal quartet from the 50s. So just to be in a contest where people are talking about Rush, Lowest of the Low, and Blue Rodeo as being the greatest, well, it is just pretty good to be there. I feel a little bit like Lowest of the Low is being put into a historic frame of reference, and yet I also feel like we’re still these guys playing [terrible] bars in 1991 and just making a lot of noise.


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