It’s been a while, but fans of one of Canada’s most popular and most well-respected independent rock bands will be happy to know that The Lowest of the Low have released their first album in more than a dozen years.
Do The Right Now was released on Sept. 8 through Pheromone Recordings, with the first single, Powerlines, already creating a buzz on indie radio. The album was recorded at Revolution Recording in Toronto with band co-founder and chief songwriter Ron Hawkins at the helm, ably assisted by the studio’s co-owner Joe Dunphy as co-producer.
Hawkins has carved out a reputation as a talented songwriter who is both prolific and diverse, writing, recording and releasing music under his own name, putting out five albums with The Lowest of the Low and a handful as Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails, The Leisure Demons as well as the Do-Good Assassins. A new Lowest of the Low album had been pondered starting in 2012, but circumstances intervened, meaning it took another five years before Do The Right Now would be launched.
Besides vocalist/guitarist Hawkins, Lowest of the Low is comprised of keyboardist Lawrence Nichols, drummer David Alexander, bassist Dylan Parker and guitarist Brian MacMillan.
“It’s been a bit of a long journey for sure. We were originally asked by Kim Cooke from Pheromone Records and he approached Steve [Stanley] in about 2012 asking if I could write some more songs for a Low record. Because I was doing solo stuff at the time and Steve was doing solo stuff, we were both busy. But we got together and kind of kicked the idea around and it seemed enough time had gone by that maybe it was a good idea, since the previous album [Sordid Fiction] had come out in 2004. Although even at the time I remember asking if anyone even wanted a new Lowest of the Low record. Had we already written our story and shouldn’t that be it?” Hawkins said.
“We decided to move forward, but then a few life things got in the way and it wasn’t quite working with the band at a certain point, so I released another solo record and then when we were just about to do the Low record, Steve left the band. Then we were left in a position of thinking whether we should even bother because Steve was a founding member. So I made another solo record. But then it just came around to the fact that, by 2016 or so there were enough people, audience members and people in the industry, asking us to do it, that we decided hey let’s take a crack at it, even without Steve. We will move forward and make another chapter, and here we are.”
Lowest of the Low was a leading light on the independent alternative music scene in Toronto in the early 1990s, with their unique melange of traditional, politically-charged punk, but with an almost folkie and acoustic vibe to their sound. Eschewing anything resembling the corporate side of the music industry, Hawkins and Lowest of the Low still managed to garner a significant amount of mainstream press, acclaim, and airplay with the release of their 1991 debut album, Shakespeare My Butt, which is still considered to be one of the best-selling independent albums in Canadian history.
A second album, Hallucigenia came out in 1994 – the same year the band broke up. That hiatus lasted for a little over six years and the band reassembled early in the new millennium for the Nothing Short of a Bullet album, with 2004’s Sordid Fiction being the band’s last studio album until Do The Right Now. Lowest of the Low, again, broke up in 2007, but that scenario lasted only until 2010 when the band got back, seemingly for good.
“I think there was a bit of a dark cloud hanging over the band towards the fall of 1994. And the real end to it sort of came on the road. I remember London and Kingston were a couple of the last shows booked for that tour – one of them we almost didn’t make and the other one got canceled because the band broke up. There have been people I have met since then who said they never had a chance to see us because when they were finally able to be old enough to buy a ticket for our show but then the show got cancelled. I kind of remember it being about a two or three month period where the plane was going down and we were trying to pull the nose up, but it still crashed,” he said.
“2007 was a bit of a joke, that’s our fault, that one is on us. We now joke that whatever you do, if you’re thinking of breaking up your band, just don’t feel the need to make a public statement. I think on three occasions we made a public statement about the band breaking up and the most embarrassing one might have been 2007 where we put this thing out on social media where we thanked everyone and said it really does feel like the end. But then two days later I got a call saying we were going into the Canadian Indies Hall of Fame and they said we’ve got to play at the ceremony at the Royal York Hotel. It never got more embarrassing that putting out a break-up statement and two day later having to say, ‘except we’re playing next week at this thing.’ So we decided to never say that again. If we disappear into the ether again for a little while, then we will just let it sit there.”
Had the nature of the music industry been different and had they been a little wiser in the ways of the world, it’s possible that Lowest of the Low might never have broken up back in the day.
“It actually never occurred to us in 1994 that we could just take six months off and let the air out of the compression tubes a bit and let things be less crazy. Because we lived it 24 hours a day, and some of us developed certain substance abuse issues to cope with all this nonsense of being in a metal tube going back and forth across the country all the time. If anybody had told me, ‘hey why don’t you guys take a few months off and not see each other for a bit and come back energized,’ the band never would have broken up,” Hawkins asserted.
On the other hand, Hawkins does believe there is something about creating a powerful legacy over a short period of time as a band, and then going out on top, never getting back together for fear of tarnishing that legacy.
“When I got into music and wanted to form a band, groups like The Beatles and The Clash were in my mind, where you come out of nowhere, you’re this force alongside these people you’ve met and you’ve created this passionate thing that you love. You live inside that and you’re gang and you’re in the gang for a handful of records and then it breaks up and no-one ever sees you again as that unit. That’s the perfect way to have a band, because that’s all of the romance that I admired for the bands I loved. They are like army platoons that are storming over the hills. There’s a bond there and no one else can be in that platoon or that band,” he said.
“You hear all the stories about the Beatles and meeting George Martin and the other people they later collaborated with. They were so charismatic but it was clear that you had to fight your way into that circle; they were not just going to let you in. But I love that, I love that thing about rock and roll and about bands in general. I made some bad decisions in my life and just the way history and my own personal history have gone, where I couldn’t fulfill that pinnacle of what my dream band is, it felt unfinished. Of course I had a career that I feel truly blessed to have had, but had I carved out that dream scenario, the Lowest of the Low would have broken up in 1994 and never returned.”
Do The Right Now saw Hawkins, as the band’s primary songwriter, take a very unique approach to writing new material. He essentially chose to use Shakespeare My Butt as the launching point and inspiration, creating new songs that contained the sort of insistent essence and frenetic energy of the now 26-year-old debut recording.
“I am always writing and I had some material that sounded like Lowest of the Low songs, which doesn’t mean that they can’t wind up on solo records. But if a Low album is impending, then I will have them sitting there ready. But then our bass player Dylan [Parker] said ‘I am not telling you to do this, but what about the idea of Shakespeare 2.0, and try to see if you can get yourself in the mindset of how you wrote that record and see if we can do an update on it.’ I got a kick out of that idea, which sort of morphed into my mind of the notion of what if a 52-year-old musician, much further along his career, had an artistic conversation with the 25-year-old version of himself who wrote this seminal album that kind of summarizes his career. And as I thought about it, it would end up not being any one of these things but kind of a combination of a few of those ideas,” he said.
“And to add to that sort of theme, we’ve got two songs on the new album, one that was supposed to be on Shakespeare My Butt that for some reason we didn’t put on the record. It was a song called Something to Believe in and there was another one, Gerona Train, which was about the Spanish Civil War. There are two songs on Shakespeare about the Spanish Civil War so it was kind of meant to be a trilogy of songs but for whatever reason we decided to leave the third one off the album.
“It’s kind of fun now that there’s a bunch of brand new songs, there’s some songs I had written in the mindset of talking to the person who made that old record and then there are actually a couple of songs from that era. I think of Do The Right Now as being a perfect storm of a Lowest of the Low record because of that.”
What bridges the gap between the two records, which are both truly definitive of the band’s sound and vibe, is both the lyrical depth and the aforementioned combination of music that combines the best elements of the punk ferocity with folk music’s heart and social conscience.
“There is a certain punky spirit to it, there is a certain kind of mixing of jangly rock and punk and folk music. There are the sort of journalistic lyric writing that I didn’t do as much of later, and those things in my mind really defines the Lowest of the Low. And there’s that ragged sense, because of the nature of the personalities of all the guys in the band, that the wheels might come of it at any time,” he said.
One of the standout tracks on Do The Right Now is the scintillating The Hard Way.
“That’s a good example of a song where I started playing with a riff and almost immediately I knew this was a Low song. It’s going to be fast and it’s going to be ragged and it’s going to be about two minutes long and it’s going to say something. In a way this was kind of low-hanging fruit for me where I am going to talk about the 99 per cent in society versus the one per cent. And the Low audience especially has heard me talk about that stuff before on stage. But I wanted to do it again and this time make it current because of Trump and Bernie Sanders and all that kind of stuff,” Hawkins said, explaining that while he is still very political, he has refined his approach over the years.
“David [Alexander] the drummer from The Low and I were in a band called Social Insecurity in the 1980s and it was a three-piece, straight-edged Marxist punk band and we were much more into beating people over the head and writing capital ‘P’ political stuff. I grew up as a Marxist and was in a bunch of different left groups and my politics sort of lies in that area.
“It got more nuanced as I got older, but it certainly informs my outlook on the world. There’s a sense of social justice and group support. That first band didn’t really make any headway so about six months after it broke up, I took the big P and made it a little ‘p’ and realized that I am always going to talk about these things because they are a part of me, but I am going to talk about them through my life. Basically, I turned the binoculars around the other way. And the minute we did that in The Low, it became incredibly resonant with people and we started to take off. I think it’s more about the politics of everyday life now, than me preaching at you.”
As for touring, Hawkins said the band already has a western Canadian swing planned for the early fall, with dates in the rest of the country still being firmed up.
“We’re doing some cool stuff out west. And further to our conversation about bands disappearing and coming back, we’re actually playing a lot of our prairie shows with Junior Gone Wild; they have kind of come back and risen out of the ashes. They were a band that was really influential for me when we were starting out. To me, they were one of the first bands in Canada that was putting the punk and the roots thing together and that really opened up a door for me. It taught me that a punk band doesn’t have to sound like the Sex Pistols,” he said.
For more information on Lowest of the Low, on the new album Do The Right Now and on the band’s forthcoming tour, visit http://lowestofthelow.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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