The Lowest of The Low's Ron Hawkins
Published Dec 02, 2010It is one of the most fascinating success stories in Canadian indie rock history. 20 years ago, Toronto's punk-fuelled folk-rockers the Lowest of The Low put out their debut album, Shakespeare My Butt, to little initial fanfare. The record's infectious energy and the eloquence of chief singer/songwriter Ron Hawkins' lyrics eventually proved irresistible, however. After two decades, it stands as a genuinely timeless album, and The Lowest Of The Low are celebrating its milestone anniversary by reissuing the disc (with a bonus documentary DVD) and reuniting (for a second time) for a select few shows built around it. On the day of its release, Ron Hawkins (Shakespeare's bard) sat down for coffee and a chat. Topics ranged from the inspirational example of Billy Bragg to being huge in Buffalo and, of course, the longevity of Shakespeare My Butt.
Congratulations on the album. It's one I enjoyed 20 years ago and am enjoying again. If I'd come up to you at a Toronto club gig in 1991, and said in 20 years time you'll be playing these songs again at two sold-out Lee's Palace shows, would you have laughed me out of the room?
I think so, or I might just have scratched my head and looked perplexed at you. We always had records in our canon growing up, records that stood the test of time. London Calling was a big one for us, in terms of aspiring to something that is real and full of integrity and punk rock, yet in a sort of classy way. I'm not sure if you ever heard The Vanilla Tapes, of the demo tapes the Clash had jammed out in their rehearsal space of those songs. A lot of that tasty stuff was brought in by their producer, Guy Stevens. It was interesting to see that our big idols didn't spring forward fully-formed. They developed as they were in the studio. With Shakespeare, we went in without any money, to do demos really. A friend of ours worked at Sound By Deluxe, a film post-production house. We recorded a lot of it in Foley booths. It was by no means a professional undertaking. We'd meant to just stop it and see if we could get a record deal. that wasn't progressing very well, and we got tired of that. We thought "well, maybe we'll just press some copies for our friends." That got bigger, and then we could consider pressing some CDs. we did that, and things just took off. Once the Edge [Toronto modern rock station CFNY] picked it up, it was like "well we can't go back and make the record we wanted to make. The demos are out there."
Looking back, was that a good thing? You didn't have the luxury of time and money, or a major label dictating things.
It's a double-edged sword. Now that I'm making my own records and perhaps have better ears, I'm frustrated with the sound of Shakespeare My Butt. We have remastered it, so it sounds as good as it ever sounded, but there are things that, short of a time machine in which I could go back with different amps and mics and putting lots of reverb back, it can't be fixed. That is just an audio guy focusing on things that really don't matter to the public. The vibe of it seems to work, and the songs, As a producer, you want to make all these sound choices you think are important, but if people are spending so much time checking those out, then really the songwriter probably hasn't done his job. Hopefully they are lost in the songs.
Were there many songs left over from the sessions?
Yes, there were quite a few. We had a cassette tape that in our minds had become legendary because we hadn't heard it for nearly 20 years. We had done it in my kitchen on a four track cassette deck. we thought we'd find it and put them out as B sides, but when we got a copy of it and listened, we went, "wow, this is horrible. We can't possibly put this out!" Just really poor sound quality. What we plan to do after all the sweat with this record, we might go into my studio and record some of those songs, maybe for download content on our website. They're not on the actual reissue, but they may be available at some point. They are interesting. A lot of them are like, "how did that not make it on the record?" We have a lot of distance from there now.
Did the idea of the reissue come from the band or the label, Pheromone?
Like almost everything that happens with the band, it was like 50 percent accident, 50 percent intuition. I think Universal had run out of copies, and the rights reverted back to us, all at the same time. Plus the record had gone gold. All those things came together, and Steve [Stanley] said "well instead of just reprinting it, why not celebrate it and reissue with some extra stuff?"
So it went gold just recently?
It was weird. It came out at a time before Soundscan, I believe. I think we sold 4,000 records off the stage before Victor Page got involved with us. I think they sold in the vicinity of 13,000 copies, but they weren't recognised as being documentable. I think in reality it probably went gold in the late '90s, but was just certified about two years ago. Yes, we have plaques. My mum has mine. It is impressive, and as you were asking, the fact that it has legs and we now have the children of people who originally bought it, or little brothers. The fact that it has become that kind of record is a massive ego stroke, and we are really charmed and touched by that. We never in a million years would have expected that. You can't expect those things to happen, but it's nice when they do.
And it found success on its own terms, without major label backing.
Yes, and some weird things happened. Like in Buffalo, a bizarre world where we are super rock stars. We have no real explanation for that. Yes, they get Canadian radio, and perhaps it is that there's not that big a scene here. Not as vibrant a scene as in Toronto, so they were always hungry for bands to come down. Even the accent thing is a little bit exotic for them. In New World Records there, an indie store, on their indie charts Shakespeare My Butt was No. 1 for all the '90s. That was weird. We'll go in the spring and do some similar kind of celebration shows there. That may involve a tour at least out east and maybe Vancouver. we're going to bring Mick Thomas from Weddings, Parties, Anything over as a little wink back to them. His schedule has pushed those other shows into the New Year, as we really wanted him to come over as well. People ask if we're going to get together and make another record. Stephen and I just say it has been embarrassing in the past when we say no we're not, and then we do, so we're just saying we don't really know. He's been very busy with his own solo thing, and I've been busy.
I see you have some gigs billed as you and Stephen too. How does that work?
It tends to be long two and a half hour sets, so there is solo stuff and Lowest Of The Low stuff too. We do it every year at [small Toronto club] Graffiti's, three or four shows before Christmas. The club works really well for us.
With your upcoming Lee's Palace gigs in Toronto, will you do Shakespeare in its entirety?
Yes, the major part of the show will be the record, in order, and they'll also be the versions that are on the record. ironically, the freshest way to do these tunes is the very first way they were done. Later we'd mess with them and extend them, change arrangements. This time we wanted to deliver them as they were. Then we'll come back and do another eight or ten songs as an encore set.
Those gigs sold out instantly it seemed.
Yes, they were halfway there without even an email blast from the band. I guess word of mouth is still pretty strong.
I enjoyed the DVD. Were you involved in putting that together?
That was mostly Dave Alexander, our drummer. I think it was in 2004. He was sitting in the car while Steve and I were inside on college radio in Winnipeg doing an interview. Dave said that the interviewer rather walked us through our career up to that date, and he thought about all the archival footage he had. He's the guy who had a video camera, and he sketches. He is actually a graduate of Ontario College of Art, and he had the idea then of taking the interview and building something of a chronology from it for a documentary, and that's what he did. He had so much material it was hard to get your head around, but he whittled it down into bite size pieces of history. The extension of that was he originally had songs from Shakespeare for the soundtrack, but he found the vocals and the lyrics made it hard to get a balance. So he said "what if you guys went into your basement and recorded like an acoustic soundtrack of the record so we can use that without vocals?" We started to do that, and we took some off into very different directions that Dave loved. So now people can get sort of a de facto different version of Shakespeare.
Having people like Mick Thomas and the English novelist John Donoghue write eloquent liner notes must be gratifying.
Very much so, but it was frustrating to hear Mick say later that because Weddings had come over to Canada so much by 1994 and bought so many copies of Shakespeare back to Melbourne that he said there was a hardcore group of people who loved the Low but had never seen us. He told us about a bar in North Melbourne where they would close the doors at the end of the night and the staff and a few regulars would stay and listen to that album, every Saturday night. If we'd known that, we'd have worked harder to get over there. So there are some things that are heart-warming but also frustrating.
Then John wrote that he found your music via Weddings, Parties, Anything.
Yes, and that's how I used to find music, the word of mouth thing. We'd all go down to Sam the Record Man and go through the import bins, looking for Billy Bragg. It was very experimental and searching. I think its sad in a way that there's now a generation that doesn't have that experience of getting on a streetcar and going downtown and working a bit for the art they find, that treasure hunt aspect to it.
Did you get to Australia to play solo?
Yes. In 2008, I went down to open for the reunion tour of the Weddings. They put my record Chemical Sounds out on Mick's label there, and they invited me to support on an all-Australian tour. They were unbelievable really, like bringing me into their family. Their tour was a big deal there. I really solidified my relationship with Mick and the band then. It was fantastic. I went back to Australia this year, and China, touring with just my acoustic guitar. That was a trip. Again, that was word of mouth, getting to China, through a Low fan who was now teaching English in China.
Was China eye-opening, in terms of politics and culture?
It was both what I expected and not. At this stage in their history, communism in China seems to be most apparent in the bureaucracy, like trying to get a liquor license for a bar. That'll be a six month nightmare, but then I'd have this guy showing me around, going "don't you want to go shopping?" It has really opened there. It is in a really weird nether region of bureaucracy yet they want this Western consumer culture. And there was obvious surveillance of emails while I was there.
Getting back to Shakespeare, on the DVD it quotes you talking about not wanting to be seen as a reunion band, but wanting to progress. Yet now you are going back to the beginning of the band. Find that limiting at all?
I feel that if Stephen and I were not so busy on our solo stuff as well and getting some attention for it, it would be much harder, thinking that our best years might be behind us. But things are going so well on other fronts I feel that this is exactly what it should be, which is a celebration of this thing we did a long time ago. The fact that people still care about it is wonderful. We are just considering it a big party to celebrate that. As I said before, there are no plans to do anything else, but we don't want to embarrass ourselves by saying nothing else will ever happen. we've embarrassed ourselves before with that! It was important to us when we did Sordid Fiction [their 2004 album] that we didn't want to be a constantly touring reunion band. That was rather a disappointing exercise. We're quite proud of that record as well, but it slipped through the cracks. There were a few balls dropped with the distribution. The industry was just coming to terms with the fact then that things were going into the shitter. You'd be touring out West and there'd be no records in the stores. You'd think "why are we here?"
On the DVD documentary, you talk about how each band member had older songs they'd prefer not to play. Was that easy to resolve for this?
The band works in a very contagious way. If we're on the road 24 hours a day for 300 shows a year, we start to get on each other's throats and those kinds of things start to seem bigger than they really are. When we are in a situation like this where it's 99 percent positive and everyone is feeling good, those things really diminish. Suddenly people are willing to play whatever and be willing to compromise and actually have fun doing it. There has been a very contagious energy in the band space. Everybody is really high and excited about this. We're feeling like children, being so excited about this.
Do you flash back to the time and place of writing these songs?
Of course. When I saw the footage on the DVD of us playing Lee's Palace on the first reunion tour, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. They were fantastic shows. I'm hoping these next ones will be the same way. It was nice they sold out the way they did. We are not egomaniacs about the band. every time we do this, we wonder "Is this the time that nobody buys tickets? When will the press and the crowd stop caring?" I think that's a healthy way for us to be. My aunt emailed me that there are tickets on Craigslist for $100 apiece. You feel like a real band then.
When did you go from being Toronto's favourite local band to having a national following?
I think it was the touring. The one big one was when we got to open for the Jazz Butcher across Canada. We were pretty cocky at the time. Felt we'd paid our dues, and were well-oiled and ready to take on the world. We went out with those guys and made some fantastic friends in the band. Pat Fish, their leader, is a character. Quite dark, and according to his manager depressed and suicidal on that tour. we wouldn't leave him alone, winding him up. The very last show of the tour was at the Town Pump in Vancouver. I stole his suit jacket and played the last show as Pat Fish. He had some mannered ways of talking about the songs, so I did my best impression. everyone in his band thought it was hilarious, but he freaked. That tour gave us sold-out shows wherever went, and we really kicked ass. We were into our most punk-fuelled mayhem then. Our manager had the sense to send us back out three weeks later, and I think that single-handedly built our crowd. Then we just kept going back and building on that. I saw Andy Maize last night, from the Skydiggers. They just had a reissue too. I don't think we were as well-represented all over the country as that band. We had pockets, and other areas that were quite dry for us.
You get cited by other bands as an inspiration in the way you scored success. Is that gratifying?
It is. I feel I'm just passing on the torch. Growing up with people like Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer had a real effect on the way we saw things. I saw Chuck Angus [punk rocker turned MP] last night, as I played his fundraiser. I was talking to Andrew Cash about my first punk rock band, Social Insecurity. One of our ambitions was to get a gig opening for L'Etranger [Cash and Angus' band]. We got to do that, so I sort of came into this looking at these people that I emulated as much for their politics as their music. The way they had. And last year when I got to cross Canada with Billy Bragg, I was thrilled to say he didn't let me down. He's the real deal. He'd line up every night to talk to 120 people at the merch table, talking about what is going on in their communities. I call him the Gordie Howe of socialism, as he'd sign every autograph until everybody left. It is good to see that. He's older than us, and still not cynical. Whenever I get cynical, I think about that tour. Back in the '80s, I saw him just about every year at the Concert Hall and what I took away from that was that I want to be in a band where the people that come to see us don't just buy the records, but in whatever they do, they may feel energized.
Are you still active as a painter?
Yes. It is now something of half and half in terms of a living, art and music. Painting is on an equal level to music. I tend to go through these obsessive bouts. Now I'm making another record, so I'm not painting as much. I'm very happy with how my solo music career is going. I toured Australia and China. I'm pretty comfortable that I can make records in my basement and know I can be pretty convinced of selling two or three thousand copies on my own. No label, no manager. From what I've heard, that's pretty good. I feel I'm writing well and regularly and I'm happy with the records I'm making. I've just been recording my new solo album. I have another rock'n'roll album lined up, but this will be a country record, like the last one. After that, I'll have another one in the wings waiting to get started. I'm not sure what's going on! Having gear in my basement and just getting at it once in a while seems to accomplish the mission. It seems if I sit down and putter, something will come out.
So you have a home recording setup.
Yes. It's a rather embarrassingly obsolete rig. People ask "is it a ProTools thing?" but it's a digital thing. A hard drive machine that looks like a little suitcase. An old Roland I don't think they've made since 2002. It looks a bit like an old-school four-track, so I feel comfortable with it. The ProTools thing freaks me out a little bit, the learning curve. It seems massively steep, when I just want to get to recording songs. I have lots of analog outboard gear, like preamps, so I can get that warmth of sound there. To be honest, all that talk about how cold digital can be, I think for 98 percent of the audience, that doesn't register. They're just listening to songs.