Music Interview: The highest of the high and…

By Matt Harris

The tumultuous era of the early ’90s saw the grungy days of Reaganomics transition quietly into George Bush senior’s conservatism. The Cold War rapidly ended with the fall of the USSR, taking the prevailing attitude of fear that dominated the last 70 years down with it. Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the world’s attention turned to the Middle East. This rapid shift into uncertainty and confusion brought with it new threats and new fears, but it birthed a new sound for music.

Numerous bands formed in this shifting and turbulent silent revolution. One such revolutionary band was the Lowest of the Low, rising to fame suddenly, splitting apart just as fast and have recently reunited to rock the new millennium.

Back in ’91, TLOTL plunged into the pseudo-mainstream world of the Canadian music scene when they released their album Shakespeare My Butt. Their lyrics, imbued with a wry sense of irony and coupled with classical folk guitar idioms and the harmonica, created a new genre: sarcastic power folk.

“We started out with that kind of punk rock ethos that we were just gonna do it from the ground up and play wherever we could and we started to build this grassroots audience pretty quickly,” says vocalist and guitarist Ron Hawkins.

Despite a solid beginning, the band members soon grew restless and unhappy. The low point for TLOTL came in ’94 when they decided to split up after releasing their second album Hallucigenia.

“We kind of broke up on the rise,” says Hawkins. “We had done well locally and done well sort of under the radar. We didn’t get a chance to see where the band would go.”

Despite TLOTL apparently biting the dust, the mounting pressure from their former manager and Shakespeare My Butt landing the #6 spot on Chart Magazine’s list of the Top Canadian Albums of All Time swayed the reluctant former members to give it one last hurrah. They did just that in 2000, except this hurrah wouldn’t be their last.

“The culminating thing was about a year later, when we played the amphitheater in Toronto with Billy Bragg and the Weakerthans,” says Hawkins. “When we were finished we kinda said, ‘Okay, well that’s as good as this is going to get, so we either move forward and make a new record or we just pack it in again, because we don’t want to be this song and dance [routine] where we’re on the road as a reunion act.’”

Their latest album Sordid Fiction marks the first time in 10 years they’ve recorded music in a studio. It also represents a shift away from their sarcastic power folk origins. Tracks are lyrically based and tell stories. The shift, Hawkins explains, is due to the band members’ experiences during the interim.

“People have grown up a bit more as musicians, so rather than hammer our way at it constantly, we’re trying to leave more space in the music,” says Hawkins.

Despite the sudden transformation of their music, the band’s influences remain the same­–The Clash and the Specials, alongside a number of other bands from the mid and late ’70s.

“All of the stuff that was happening in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, that’s what we cut our teeth on and we grew up with,” says Hawkins.

The uncertainty of the ’90s slowly fades and the post-Communist world order slowly realigns to create a new international balance. TLOTL dodged that bullet of political change and now introduces a new generation of music listeners to their earlier work. Whether they’ll be successful is still unknown, but the future looks promising for a band willing to face today’s heaping of uncertainty. Though they may not be fighting the good fight on the political front, they bring their fresh brand of rock and roll to prevent the return of Cold War era grunge.

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