The Toronto haunts that have inspired Lowest of the Low

As they drop their first album in over a decade, the local legends walk us through their version of the city, past and present


LOWEST OF THE LOW with SAM CASH at the Danforth Music Hall (147 Danforth), Saturday (September 9), doors 7 pm. $25-$35. ticketmaster.ca.


Fans of Lowest of the Low’s iconic, Toronto-centric 1991 debut, Shakespeare My Butt, may do a double take when they hear the band’s fourth album, Do The Right Now, their first in 13 years (out September 8 on Pheromone). 

If the melodic, poetic, amphetamine-paced songs sound like they’re in a dialogue with the band’s earliest work, it’s because they are.

“Dylan Parker, our bass player at the time [we started working on it], suggested, ‘What about something kind of like a Shakespeare My Butt 2.0?’” lead singer Ron Hawkins tells NOW. 

“I was either on my way to turning 52 or I’d just turned 52 and I thought it would be awesome to have a conversation through songs with the 25-year-old me, with the same backdrop of the city.” 

Do The Right Now features Hawkins, original LOTL drummer David Alexander, long-time guest Lawrence Nichols and members of Hawkins’s current band Do Good Assassins. The record is a past-meets-present combination of LOTL’s tight, punky arrangements and Do Good Assassins’ wider, more cinematic terrain.

A nice surprise is the inclusion of Something To Believe In and Gerona Train, two songs that preceded Shakespeare by a few years and were never previously recorded. “We were already playing them in [pre-LOTL band] Popular Front,” says Hawkins. “We thought, ‘That’s old!’ back then and the joke is we did [them] 25 years later.”

Hawkins also revived some habits he’d used for Shakespeare, like carrying a journal with him around town and jotting down ideas. The song Powerlines follows LOTL’s response to their rapid early success and adulation of fans. In it, the city is animate, personified, basically a character.

Lowest of the Low’s songs are so intertwined with the geography and history of Toronto that we asked Hawkins to talk about local places that have inspired the band, then and now.

The Carlaw Bridge

(Carlaw and Gerrard)

I’m from Greenwood and Gerrard originally. When Popular Front was dying and Lowest of the Low was ascending out of the ashes, I’d hop on the subway and cross the Bloor Viaduct to go to all the same clubs downtown. I’d think, “Why don’t I just move there?” I come from this very proud Irish family — you do not cross the Don Valley.

Under The Carlaw Bridge [from Shakespeare My Butt] is about the energy I felt being a working-class kid in the east end. Those are the engines that keep me going, the work ethic I have is from that. There’s a strip mall across the street from there [where my old high school band, Social Insecurity] used to have our band meetings back in 83, 84.

The Only Cafe

(972 Danforth)

The Only Cafe is a little beacon in the [Danforth] neighbourhood. I would go there as a working-class person who is also a Marxist. People would be playing chess and talking about communism and art. I spent a lot of the latter half of the 80s in there. Ironically, by the time I wrote about it [in Shakespeare’s Just About “The Only” Blues] and was in the Low, I had moved to the west end and didn’t frequent it so much.

But they told me that people were coming in all the time [because of the band]. The owner said to me, “I want to give you and all your friends an open tab,” and I was like, “Cool, but maybe you should meet my friends before you do that.” Six months later he said, ‘You know, about that tab.…” We were drinking them out of house and home.

Sneaky Dee’s

(431 College)

After I moved to the west end and the Low took off, we spent a lot of time there hanging out, did a lot of shows, and our friends would be there. And again same sort of thing: very punk vibe, very leftist vibe, very student vibe.

We’d walk up the street from Grace and College and Kyle, who worked there, would have a carafe of red house wine. It was the worst wine ever and we used to drink that every night. I don’t know how we’re alive.

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Samuel Engelking

Graffiti’s

(170 Baldwin)

We were calling ourselves the Low UK after Steve [Stanley] left the band in 2013. We felt we couldn’t call ourselves Lowest of the Low cuz we didn’t have all our original members. The Low UK played Graffiti’s a lot. I do a three night thing about twice a year there, [I’d] just go in and play solo shows.

I think what’s kept me coming back to the Market is that 50 per cent of the places that were there in 1985 are still there. It can be gentrified a bit but not as easily as anywhere else. When I lived there, I used to joke that you should need a passport to get in and out.

The Dakota Tavern

(249 Ossington) 

I’ve done lots of stuff at the Dakota for the same reasons we’ve played smaller places in the past: the people running it are music fans and are there for the right reasons. It’s not about how many people are we going to bring in and how much booze are we going to sell. It’s really about [supporting] venues run by music lovers.

Larry’s Hideaway

(121 Carlton)

Playing at Larry’s Hideaway, I had a green mohawk and a note from my mom. I had to pass this note to the promoter to let me in cuz I was underage. Larry’s was a classic punk rock bar and we did tons of shows there. I think the very first show we did there I was maybe 17 or 16 and the owner tried to pay us with hookers. We were children in a Marxist straight edge punk rock band. A lot of my friends would have been like, “That’s awesome.” But we didn’t think it was awesome. They would have to pay us with money eventually.

I was horrified to drive by there one day and see that it was just gone. That’s what happens in Toronto.

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Samuel Engelking

music@nowtoronto.com | @sarahegreene

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