What do you use to hug people with? Arms. Cool.
What do you use to hug people with? Arms. Cool. That’s track eight on the Lowest of the Low’s newest album Agit Pop: “Night of a Thousand Guns.” The entire album is a call to arms in the most rocking, melodic, solidarity fisting kind of way. With fascism on the rise – again – and Neo-liberalism having a devil of a time liberating the world’s 99 percent, it’s no surprise that front man to the Low, Ron Hawkins is releasing these 14 new tracks.
Ron Hawkins has been at it for over 30 years. He grew up on Billy Bragg concerts with plenty of punk influence. Agit Pop is his 17th album and the fifth Lowest of the Low offering. There are many threads of love, justice and the “p” word – this time around with “caps lock” on Politics. It holds the same urgency and spirit of Steve Earle’s The Revolution Starts…Now. That one was written to stop the second Bush administration from being elected. It didn’t stop Bush, but it did win a Grammy for Earle.
Urged by hardcore Lowest of the Low fan friends to take in the band when I returned to Ontario from 10 years in BC, I first saw Hawkins solo at a small venue in Kitchener. Wow! Friends were right and Hawkins’ music was right up my alley. Rockin’, smart – and he clearly gives a shit. I’ve seen him at Hillside Music Festival with another of his bands, The Do Good Assassins and most recently in Hamilton, with the Low. What a show. Lots of songs – anthems to more than one generation – chanted at the top the crowd’s collective lungs, and a few from Agit Pop, released May 31.
Agit Pop has a winning diversity of tracks that deserves recognition for the artistic contribution to current dialogue on “what are we gonna do now?” I had the good fortune to interview Hawkins and the album’s producer David Bottrill as the tracks were being laid. Bottrill is a three-time Grammy winner and has produced the likes of I Mother Earth, Smashing Pumpkins, and back in the day, King Crimson.
We talked about hope, change and lots of music, with plenty of stories in between.
The Lowest of the Low’s new album AgitPop is now available!
* * *
Alternatives Journal: How did you two decide to work together?
Ron Hawkins: Well, we went through a little journey of people. We were trying to get Mick Jones from the Clash to produce our record because we all grew up being big Clash fans. So, you know, there were a lot of negatives about the idea. A lot of people were saying, “You’re going to have to buy him a huge bag of pot,” you know, “it’s going to be hard to find him,” and I kept saying, I’ll take a chance that maybe some of these roadblocks will be worth traversing, and we went down that road a little bit and couldn’t get to him.
And then we were going to work with someone on the West Coast, and then Catherine, our mutual friend said to me, “Don’t do anything until you speak to my friend David. He’s right up your alley, I think he’d be perfect for you guys. Just the way you are, and the way he is, I think you’d be a perfect match.” And then we met David and had coffee and chatted and I think in about half an hour I realized, this guy seems to be the perfect guy for us and it’s been reinforced every since we’ve been working together.
David Bottrill: Catherine was on me as well, saying “just keep this time free because these guys are great, you’ve got to work with them, it’s going to be fantastic, you’re perfect for it, they’re perfect for you.” So, she forced me to keep my schedule free during this time.
A\J: What do you hope for the album?
DB: Ron sent me a lot of the demos early on, and when I got to know the songs, and the message he was trying to say, my hope was we could reach as many people as possible. The message, both globally and personally, was very important. The goal of any recording and any project is to sell it well, but I just thought that the information we wanted to convey is important. The more you can reach, the better.
RH: Yeah, as a band, we’ve always run into roadblocks because the things that concern us don’t concern the punk music world very often. Once in awhile a little door opens and there’s a period of time where socialism or just community interest or saving each other on this crazy planet is important. Then the door closes again and it’s more about clubbing. We’re always ready to run up against the wall when we talk about stuff like this, but this is about 17 records in for me and I still have the optimism I had when I was 17. I don’t know how I’ve maintained it or will continue to maintain it. But, every record, I feel like we’re going to do something important. I always say I want to change the world with this record and my friends go “Yeah, yeah, I know.” But I mean it. I’m not actually joking.
It’s not really different from my life. I feel like I’m on crazy pills most days because my worldview doesn’t jive with that I see. I watch the State of the Union address, and the fact that that guy is the president, it’s like everyday, I must be slightly insane because all of this stuff is going on. So, to me, and in my personal life, meeting people that are as crazy as I am, or don’t think that things as they are make sense – is like having one more person on the life raft.
A\J: For sure. There’s a certain kind of crazy that I’ve been doomed to working with Alternatives for 30 years. Facing those who don’t think renewables will work, or that we can’t get off the fossil fuels – you just can’t listen to that.
DB: The people who change the world are the people who take those statements as a challenge. Not as a deterrent.
A\J: And keep the eye on the prize.
DB: There are people out there who do change the world and they make things different. When others say that it can’t be done, they say, “Yes it can, you just have to find a way.”
RH: You can never know how far ideas will go or, or how they’ll resonate with people. Witness International Clash Day. In the huge pantheon of bands, not the most massively successful band in history. I’m not sure how many times they broke the top 10, and maybe not at all. And, they’re certainly not rich or anything but there’s an International Clash Day for a reason. It inspired hundreds of hundreds of thousands of people – and some political activists. The fact that we even have to discuss whether climate change is real with some people – those are the days I think that I’m on crazy pills.
RH: Scientists are roundly deciding that the globe is round.
DB: That’s a direct result of the 30 year attack on the education system in North America. You have a stupid electorate who don’t have enough knowledge to know that when smart people or scientists say something, they’re not doing it for conspiracy, they’re telling you what they learned from observation and experimentation. There’s been a 30-plus year attack on the education system across, certainly most of North America, and it’s led people to be willfully ignorant.
A\J: Saying that you’re making a record to change the world is not always a big selling point. How will you get people to pay attention?
DB: Here’s the thing. The lyrics and the story are the important thing. Sometimes the way you can get that message through to people is to excite them and entertain them musically. The first time you listen to a song, you’re probably not getting the entire story. But if you’re really digging the music, or you can dance to it, or you can feel some sort of emotional message in there – the more you listen to it, the more you will absorb. It’s like any art. You’re not going to take in Guernica and look at it the first time and go, “Oh, that’s an amazing piece about the Spanish Civil War.” You’re going to look at it and it’s going to take you a while to absorb the entire thing. So, with music, if you can viscerally appeal to people, the more that they listen to it, the more of the message they’ll absorb. So, all I’m trying to do is help the band present their vision they way they see it and hear it in their mind, but also to make it so that other people will hear it and want to play again and again and again. The best albums out there are the ones that once you finish playing them, you just put it on repeat to hear it again. So, the more that you can work towards that, the message surreptitiously seeps in.
With music, if you can viscerally appeal to people, the more that they listen to it, the more of the message they’ll absorb.
A\J: Have you noticed that, Ron? Do you have people telling you that your songs changed their thinking?
RH: Yeah, I think maybe the reason that I’m a 54-year-old man who can access the excitement he had when he was 17 is because I’ve had my fair share of those situations. I can tell you about one. I’d been blusteringly pretending to be following the footsteps of all the artists that I love, but it was the first time I thought maybe I’m actually doing something.
We were in Ithaca, NY or something. We had a song on our second Lowest of the Low record that had just come out, called “7th birthday,” which was about child abuse in the house and sexual child abuse. We finished the gig, and I was talking to this woman after the show. And we were having this chat, and this song came up. And I said, yeah, you know, it’s been really hard because the band has been having this ongoing debate whether we should play it or not because it’s a pretty traumatic song. I just read some statistic that one in four women have been victim of sexual assault, and I said, so, of those 300 people in our crowd, at least 150 of them are women, so around 40 people are coming to a show to see maybe their favourite band to maybe get triggered by this traumatic, hopefully well-written song. So we had this conversation back and forth and then we became pen pals and it was maybe five or six months later that she said, “I just wanted to tell you that I’m a survivor and I think that it’s important for you guys to play things like that.” The biggest problem for her had been the sense of silence around it. Without talking about it, you start to feel like, “Did it happen? You start to feel crazy.”
I was so blown away. I could move this person and then have a conversation and then the song actually have an effect, or to her, having such a visceral response was to me, the payoff – to make real contact with people, and feel like you’re a part of it in a way.
A\J: How intentional is this new album?
RH: I used to write a lot of political songs in the 80s. I was in two bands with the drummer from Lowest of the Low – we were in a band called Social Insecurity, which was like a Marxist straight-edge punk rock band and that band morphed into a band called Popular Front. Those two bands were very political and they had a sort of epiphany in the late 80s, just six months before Lowest of the Low started. We were spinning our wheels and didn’t seem to be getting where we wanted to get. Then [the bands] sort of took the big picture and brought it closer home. And it was the classic, I broke up with my girlfriend and moved into a new apartment.
I noticed when I started writing the politics in a much more microcosmic way, it started to resonate more quickly with people. So that’s the way I’ve mostly written since then. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve been raising the key a bit. I’ve probably been more angry in the past two years, politically, than I’ve been in a long time – enough so that I’m not dressing songs up in metaphors Sometimes I don’t want to dress it up and sell it from the side. I want to say, this is what it is. The album is split between songs like that, and close-ups, mostly on people who are having a hard time in their skin.
A\J: Are songs going to change the world?
DB: I think music has a great power to change the world. What you have to do is not necessarily change the world but change people’s attitudes toward the world. Right now I think there’s a deep sense of both apathy and complacency in the, “Well, nothing I can do can make a difference,” or, ”Everything’s okay, what are you complaining about? It’s the best time to be alive ever in the history of the world.” But what’s wrong with striving to make it even better? What are the consequences of not recognizing the problems that can have a drastic effect on the world – climate change being one of them, for example. If you look at two sides of the argument, the consequences of cleaning up the planet a little bit and suffering some economic hardship along the way, is probably better than everybody dying.
RH: I have to wonder too, who suffers from cleaning up the planet? Maybe some billionaires who don’t make more millions of dollars? Some of it is just complacency in general, and some of it is out-and-out sinister self-interest. Who the hell is investing in fossil fuels? If you’re a smart capitalist, you would think, this is gone in 20 or 30 years regardless.
DB: Music can change the world, but it has to get through to people. It’s great that there’s a lot of content out there, musically, now. There’s music being written everywhere. What’s hard to do is to get your message through the great wealth of stuff that’s out there. The internet did a service to musicians in that it allowed them to connect with their fans directly. But it also took away the filters that were there that only allowed quality to get through. They would get it wrong sometimes, no question – the guy who didn’t sign the Beatles, the guy who didn’t sign U2.
RH: The guy that did sign Milli Vanilli.
DB: Right – that stuff happens, nobody’s perfect. I’ve spoken to record executives all my life, and they’ll tell you that their hit ratio – what they think is going to be successful – is probably about 30 per cent and that’s pretty good. But, they were very good at knowing what isn’t good. So, trying to change the world, or trying to get your message out there, is just a little bit harder because the delivery mechanisms are all different and there’s a lot more to fight through. We just have to do the things that we can to try and push that message through.
RH: I have a friend who refers to music as being revolutionary, whether it’s Bob Marley or this or that. And I say, the music isn’t revolutionary; revolution happens on the ground. But it’s the oxygen. The good music and good art makes having a revolution worthwhile. It gives you something to fight for.
I would go see Billy Bragg all the time when I was younger. I always felt like he was doing jumping jacks backstage or something because he would just come out, get his guitar, and he was at 180. When everybody left, it was like, Billy doesn’t want you to go home and become a songwriter or a socialist necessarily – he wants you to leave here and be the best cobbler you can be, be the best charcuterie plate maker – whatever it is that you do. He has just given you all this energy to go out and do good things in the world. I always felt just power – so empowered when I left. So, to me, it recharges your batteries. When you get up and feel like this is a ridiculous, crazy world, you can put on some music or a film that speaks to you, and you go, “I have the energy. I want to change stuff. I want to save the planet so we can make more of this.”
The Lowest of the Low is Ron Hawkins, David Alexander, Lawrence Nichols, Greg Smith and Michael Mackenzie.
A\J: Is there anyone else who changed you; put fire in your belly?
RH: First, the Beatles, like everyone. It’s always the Beatles. The revolution in art, for them, the audacity of what they tried to do. Almost every single thing in songwriting, in recording technology – yeah, they did that, or they brought that to us – and then people expanded on it.
Then I became very political around 14, 15, 16. I got very involved in politics and the first band to speak to me after that was the Clash. I thought, maybe I have to put this away, because it’s frivolous and petty bourgeois. Of course, that’s a stupid thing to think, but I was in an organization that came to me and said “You know, even Dylan had to choose between socialist working party and being a proper musician, right?” I chose being a proper musician, so they had the wrong effect. But, when I saw the Clash, I was like “You can have your cake and eat it too. You can do both.”
The Clash to me are an emblem. I don’t think they were laser-sharp politically. I think they were grasping at something and they weren’t the most sophisticated political people in the world, but the whole package to me is just so energizing, and so in the right direction.
A\J: I didn’t know anyone that was infusing social justice into songs like Joe Strummer did.
RH: Somebody asked me recently to write about politics and music and everyone was talking about Public Enemy and Billy Bragg. I said, “What about this song by Phil Ochs, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” which I love. Liberalism is a danger that has no teeth and it’s not really going to change – take Hillary Clinton. Partially the reason we’re in this boat is because of the stupid idiot who’s the president, but also because of the failed programs of the Liberals and the Democrats because they didn’t really offer anything to real people.
DB: But they again, were beholden to their donors.
RH: Yeah. So this Phil Ochs song is about being a Liberal on your face, but really protecting your interests in a capitalist society and not putting yourself out there. It has great lines:
“I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a Liberal.”
I brought that up. That song’s probably from ’62 or something like that, and I feel like [Phil Ochs] is sort of in danger of becoming forgotten. Songs are like guns. It depends who’s wielding them. Change happens a lot in history because of violence or because of the threat of violence. I’m not a violent person and I don’t like violence, but if you’re not willing to go there – if that’s the last-ditch effort, then you’re not really willing to change anything. Nobody’s going to hand you the keys.
A\J: When you’re crafting a song, how do you balance being really angry and not being too earnest? Or do you even have that problem? Do you just get mad and write it out whatever it is?
RH: I don’t know, I’m not sure. I have to tell you this, which is embarrassing, but, as committed to that as I am, I’m also equally committed to the rock-and-roll show. And I do spend some part of my time thinking about how I will look, how I will stand, when I play this song.
DB: But why is that embarrassing? You’re presenting the message. Why not present it in the best possible light you can?
RH: No, no, I know. But it seems the performative aspect naturally makes me think it’s artificial or some kind of artifice, which I know it’s not. You are brave to put those words down in songs. You’re putting yourself on the line writing those songs and you do have to put on a show and you do want people to hear you. There are some who mock – and worse – threaten songwriters. Both Steve Earle and Eliza Gilkyson have shared in live shows that they received harsh threats after releasing The Revolution Starts Now and Paradise Hotel respectively. I’ve watched Steve Earle shows where people shouted boo when he’s talked about food programs for young children.
DB: “Shut up and sing.” But that’s the very audience that he needs to be saying this to. Otherwise you are preaching to the choir.
A\J: Lots of people just want to rock and don’t care about the lyrics. So you notice a difference in how people consume your music?
RH: We have some fans too, mostly Americans, but not all Americans, who are Trump supporters. And it blows my mind. They like the energy. So I engage a lot. And sometimes it’s not good and sometimes it’s good. “So you come to our shows and I find your politics kind of heinous, and you probably find mine heinous, so why are we in the same room together?” So I find that interesting to engage with people and find out.
AgitPop Cover Art.
A\J: What’s next?
RH: Well, there’s already another record that’s 80 percent compiled. I’m going to book some time in August to get the new one going. So that, for whatever reason, that tap hasn’t turned off. I still feel pretty prolific about more stuff.
People have been sort of on me for the better part of 10 or 15 years to write a book about all this history, extrapolating on life and my other bands. The thing that’s stopped me up until now has just been the sheer immensity of it. If I start, it’s going to be the Encyclopedia Britannica because there are so many stories. Everybody I know who’s actually a writer says that if you think that way, you’ll never ever get it started. So that’s a thing I’ve thought, maybe this summer, if I have a bit of time. My parents have a cottage, sort of northeast. Maybe I could take a week and try to chop away at it.
David had to run off near the end of the interview, but I caught this last question for him before he escaped.
A\J: David, tell us about your charity.
DB: I’m involved in a charity called Make Music Matter, and we use the creation of music as a therapeutic tool to empower marginalized people in communities. Our flagship site is in this place called Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was set up by the Dr. Mukwege who just won the Nobel Peace Price. He’s a surgeon and built it for sufferers of rape in the Democratic of Republic Congo conflict that’s going on.
We set up small recording studios, a couple of the artists come in – we call them artists, not patients or victims. They work with a producer and a therapist. They do a session, write a bunch of songs and we bring them back, I have a team of volunteer producers who also work with us to mix the songs. We release them to the Congo and Warner Brothers Records releases them on Spotify and all the digital platforms, Apple Music. The stories get out and the women are empowered. We have funding and partnerships around the world. We’re growing, but we’re small.
I sit on the board of directors. I’m kind of the music industry show pony, although I do work. I organize a lot of the music stuff, I organized all the mixers that got worked on and do the post-production on it and liaise with the people with it, get it over here, help do talks with it, we’re trying to get SOCAN to do a publish and performance royalty deal so that the artists can get something back for it.
Lowest of the Low started touring Agit Pop on May 31, 2019 https://lowestofthelow.com/tour/
You can find the band’s newest songs on their youtube channel:
I opened the story referencing “Night of a Thousand Guns”
“Bottle Rockets” is a reflection of where the band is today, and their history
Marcia Ruby has designed and produced Alternatives Journal for over 30 years. She interviewed Ron Hawkins and David Bottrill in a small, busy Toronto café in February 2019. She is a miner of stories and projects that help this deal along. She often hangs out at the intersections of art and environment.
Marcia Ruby is the publisher emerita and creative director of Alternatives Journal.