THE LOWEST OF THE LOW at the Warehouse (1 Jarvis), Friday and Saturday (November 17 and 18). Sold out. 869-0789. Rating: NNNNN
The November sunshine is unseasonably warm outside teeny eatery Aunties and Uncles, where singer/guitarist Ron Hawkins and bassist/vocalist John Arnott are scarfing down a late breakfast.Looking at them, relaxed as they talk about the reformation of Lowest of the Low, it's hard to believe that on their last tour just a few years ago, things were so tense that the band drove from Winnipeg to New Brunswick without anyone uttering a word.
"Quite literally, we didn't speak," says drummer David Alexander the next day, reminiscing over coffee with guitarist/ singer Stephen Stanley, now a father of two.
"Maybe 10 minutes before a gig someone would finally say, 'So, are we playing tonight?'"
In an effort to reduce the acrimony, the band's madcap road manager, Jon Brooks, put on a clown face, a baseball cap with fake shit on top and a T-shirt with the word F-U-C-T written across the front. And he wore it into every truck stop and diner they hit on that two-day drive from the Prairies to the Maritimes.
But apart from wanting to rack up more insane rock moments to tell to the grandkids, why the reunion? The band's articulate, frequently lovelorn pop/rock has aged well, true, but toying with the gauzy memories of fans can be a dangerous thing.
Besides, long-term togetherness seems unlikely. Stanley and Alexander have good day jobs (creative director and computer animator, respectively) as does Arnott -- though as a sound engineer his is more of a night job -- while Hawkins, who has been the most active songwriter and performer post-Low, has a great new disc, Crackstatic, with his current band, the Rusty Nails. It's not for nothing that Hawkins bagged this year's NOW Readers Poll vote as best local songwriter.
Is this a cash grab? Well, certainly there's money to be made. But it's worth recalling that even in their heyday the band would always choose to play a smaller, acoustically superior venue over a larger, more profitable one.
As was true of their original breakup -- which came six years ago, at the height of the band's fame amid the abovementioned tension -- the logic behind their reformation is both understandable and weird. They want their swan song to be a high, yet they want to recapture some of the magic without having to tear up the floorboards of their current lives.
They also want to see who comes to the gigs -- people who were with them the first time round, or younger listeners who discovered them posthumously?
Clearly, having sold out the 2,000-capacity Warehouse twice in a heartbeat indicates there's still an eager market for their stuff. If you're at the reunion shows, make noise -- they're taping them for possible release on a live record.
"This has become a Zen thing for me," explains Hawkins, echoing a sentiment shared by all. "Right after the band broke up, I'd do acoustic shows, and people were screaming for Low stuff. Same with my next band, the Leisure Demons, and same with early Rusty Nails shows. At that point, I didn't want to touch the material.
"Then, about a year ago, the Nails seemed entrenched enough in their own identity, and I knew we had fans all our own. So it was just at the point where people stopped yelling for Low songs that I felt all right about doing them again."
Which is not to say Hawkins's focus is shifting away from the Rusty Nails. The Low reunion gigs were strategically planned to happen after Crackstatic was released, and Hawkins sizes down to play the NOW Lounge November 23 for an open-to-the-public Webcast (www.virtuenow.com).
"There were a lot of reasons we broke up," Hawkins continues. "Everybody had their own issues. Plus, we all lived excessively, especially me, and I courted a lot of really dangerous things that took years to undo."
For the benefit of latecomers, here's the lowdown on the Lowest of the Low. The quartet emerged with an independent disc, the rowdy, beer-soaked Shakespeare My Butt, in late 91, just as the Barenaked Ladies were shattering preconceptions of what indie artists could achieve.
After a sluggish start, the disc began connecting with radio, print journalists and especially fans. The shows got bigger, Buffalo fell head over heels, and suddenly every label in the land was interested.
A&M won, and the deal produced Hallucigenia, a disc produced, more or less, by a passionately uninterested Don Smith (Travelling Wilburys, Cracker, the Tragically Hip).
"He was a racist, homophobic misogynist," Arnott reveals of Smith. "The whole time we were recording, he'd be up in this loft watching tennis on TV and talking on the phone trying to negotiate a deal to engineer the next Rolling Stones record. It was just ridiculous."
The band finished mixing Hallucigenia with what they dubbed a "Don Smith voodoo doll," because by the time they returned to the studio in Vancouver after a trip home, Smith had mixed the thing his way and split. Since they weren't allowed to actually fudge with his console, the Low and their engineer let the doll "push" the knobs. "So, in essence," Arnott cracks, "Don made the changes."
With the essentially self-produced record done -- and hearing its crisp sonics and sharp playing, you'd never know there was turmoil behind its creation -- the label put the screws to the Low to play the promo game. They balked, inviting speculation that they were precious and thereby sabotaging their own success. Yet tours ground on until one day in the fall of 94, when Alexander innocently walked into the Cafe Diplomatico for lunch.
"Ron and Stephen were sitting there and they told me they'd decided to stop the band. Before I'd even had my coffee."
With a reunion in the works, the band is keeping an open mind. So far, they want to keep it local, but if all goes well, spring shows elsewhere in the country are possible.
"It doesn't make sense to do this unless there's a forward motion, which is why we've decided to record these shows," says Alexander. That way, at least if they're playing old stuff, they're playing old stuff that's newly recorded, more accurately reflecting where they're at now as musicians.
"We've had three, four months to build up to this, which is a lot of rehearsal time, and even back in the day we never rehearsed, because we gigged every week," Stanley says. "But we're not going to keep popping up all the time. We will not turn into Steppenwolf."
WELCOME TO NOW's Readers Poll 2000 BEST OF TORONTO, where WE invite YOU to choose the best of the city. Some things haven't changed since last year. Best cold-day activity? Sex, as always for seven years running. But this year the number of ballots was almost double that of 1999, so the poll results are more comprehensive than ever. So, NOW readers have spoken, and here's what you had to say. now Readers poll 2000
where WE invite YOU to choose the best of the city. Some things haven't changed since last year. Best cold-day activity? Sex.So the poll results are more comprehensive than ever. And here's what you had to say.