Recently, a pithy message on The Lowest of the Low‘s website announced that original guitarist and vocalist Stephen Stanley was leaving the legendary Toronto indie band. Left unsaid was, a.) what happened, and, b.) what’s next. In order to dig a bit deeper into the demise — or not? — of the band, we spoke with Low lead singer/guitarist/lyricist Ron Hawkins.
Weeping Elvis: So, after 20 plus years with more than a few off in between, Stephen Stanley — with whom you’ve also played many solo shows — has become the second original member to have left The Lowest of the Low…
Ron Hawkins: Well, in 1994 I was the one who pulled the plug. And in the interest of full disclosure, John (Arnott) was asked to leave around 2001. So Stephen is just the latest one to decide to leave. A band is like a fractious family. When things are good it can be the greatest experience of your life, but when things are bad they tend to be very gloomy and frustrating. A band is hard work. I’ve dug ditches, been a contractor, threaded iron pipe for gas line installation …. those are difficult jobs, but a band is emotionally exhausting. There are personalities and egos to deal with, there is the tedium and downtime of touring and there is the constant scrutiny by critics and fans …. I don’t blame anyone for having had enough.
The artistic dynamic is always a bit idiosyncratic to each specific group. What have the biggest internal challenges been for the Low over the years?
I’d say originally it was a drive to be true to our own integrity in the face of an industry that wanted to mold us into something else, then boredom on the road, which led to substance abuse and coping mechanisms, which led to brotherly in-fighting and so on. It’s pretty much the rock n’ roll template for self destruction. And I guess later the challenges would just be the typical ones like “artistic differences” and differing levels of commitment.
There was some indication that you had collectively been working on material for another Low album. Was that full-steam ahead, or was it in fits and starts between everyone’s other projects?
Well, I had written about 20 songs. I’m a songwriter first and foremost so I’m always writing. They weren’t originally Low songs or Do Good Assassins songs or solo songs — they were just songs. Then, our manager suggested the Low make a new album. I was of two minds about it because on one hand there’s a lot to be said for making an album with your buddies and having a great time and going out on the road, but on the other hand I wasn’t sure if the Low fans really wanted/needed a new Low album. There’s already a great legacy with that band and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I think a lot of people’s desires surrounding the Low are based in a certain nostalgia for the 90s.
We did a great 20th anniversary tour for Shakespeare My Butt, sold out shows everywhere, and it culminated in a packed show at Massey Hall, which is one of Toronto’s most prestigious halls. Now, had we decided to do a Hallucigenia 20th anniversary tour in 2013 I’m not so sure the houses would have been as full. That said, we started working on a new Low record with the new songs, but some things weren’t really jelling. I don’t know if it’s the style of the new songs or what but something wasn’t really sitting right with me, and as the proposed producer of the album, as well, that became a problem.
Are the lines of communication open? Has there been any further communication after the split?
There has been no communication with Steve since the split.
Even though the band and its sound have morphed over the years, there is still something of a Lowest of the Low aesthetic, no? It seems somewhat separate and unique from that of your other projects, like The Do Good Assassins, the Rusty Nails, or your various iterations of solo work, no?
Yes, of course. A band is a living breathing organism so whatever separate dynamics are brought to it can’t help but affect the entire thing. Bands are always “greater than the sum of their parts” or at least “different than the sum of their parts.” So, naturally the opinionated, playful folks in The Rusty Nails will create a different sound than the impassioned, ego-rich members of the Lowest of the Low who will create a different sound than myself, hermetically sealed in my basement studio. You just have to listen to the first few bars of a Low song to know it’s us.
It appears that the Low still exists? Are there any solid or formative future plans?
The Low is in a “dust settling” phase right now. Stephen leaving was a surprise and no one in the band is quite certain as to why he left. Further to my comment about Low fans “wanting/needing” a new Low disc — we’re not clear as to whether or not a Lowest of the Low with a new guitarist makes sense. Is it time to let the legacy be what it is? We’re very proud of that story and are very conscious that we don’t want to sully it by continually moving forward whether it makes sense or not. Sometimes it’s right to just stop. And, I have a fantastic new band called the Do Good Assassins which remind me in some ways of my new start with the Rusty Nails in ’96. It’s a super talented band that frees a writer up to attack any and all kinds of music. The DGA are currently in pre-production for the album that I was going to make with the Low.
You’ve mentioned that a lot of life’s lesser pleasures have occurred in this past year. Have you been channeling that creatively?
Well perhaps it’s because there was a “13” in the year but myself, friends and family have survived sickness, flood, break ups, financial straits and all manner of unfortunate events. We’ve come through with a positive attitude and a good spirit, so, I guess that which doesn’t kill you makes you write an entire album about that which makes you stronger. If all else fails there’s still girls and cars, right?