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Embracing the indie ethic It's hard work, but Ron Hawkins prefers to be in total control

YYou won't miss what you've never had. So perhaps the collapse of the record biz will only hurt those artists who hitched their wagon to its fast-burning star. Maybe the indies will be able to proceed ahead as planned, to continue fiddling while Rome meets its well-earned end all around them.

Ron Hawkins, of Lowest of the Low and Rusty Nails fame, seems to be enjoying the indie route just fine, thanks. In fact, he's flourishing. A new album, "Chemical Sounds," is the finest, most actualized collection of songs the man has produced to date. The record has been well-received in Hawkins' native Canada, and he's hoping to repeat that success on this side of the border. All without the "help" of a major record label, mind you.

Releasing "Chemical Sounds" independently seems like a natural thing for Hawkins, since the Low was always a band that built on a grass-roots, word-of-mouth basis. Perhaps that indie ethic, honed in the previous decade, helped prepare Hawkins for the collapse of the recording industry infrastructure we're seeing right now.

"On top of the fact that the Low was always an independent unit, one that flirted with the majors, I released four records -- one a solo disc on a small punk-indie label called Shake, and three completely label-free with my band the Rusty Nails -- with no real label support," says Hawkins, who arrives in Buffalo at 8 p.m. Saturday for a gig in the Tralf Music Hall.

Hawkins notes that the upside of "total DIY" is "full control of the art you make and bring to your audience -- this can't be underestimated, in that it makes up for a lot of sweat and hard work expended on its behalf." He's aware, though, that complete control requires complete commitment. "The downside is that every aspect of your career, from licking envelopes to delivering the discs, is your responsibility," he says. "At times, it can be an exhausting and daunting task."

Surely. "Chemical Sounds," however, sounds more like the work of a man busy being born than it does the last gasp of a world-weary indie artist. Hawkins cites his love for Beach Boy Brian Wilson's masterstroke of orchestrated, post-Phil Spector pop, "Pet Sounds," as a record that served to inspire him. Certainly, the lush, well-developed arrangements that add to the impact of his own album pay a bit of a tribute to Wilson. But Hawkins also managed to look beyond his own musical horizons for inspiration. He has an incredibly full plate right now, with a new baby, a new record and a deeper commitment to the painting he has been honing for years, all occupying him simultaneously.

Perhaps part of the sea-change in the industry will involve an increase in artists like Hawkins diversifying, making their own records on their own time (and dime), while living lives that don't necessarily revolve solely around the whole industry machinery -- record, promote, tour, repeat -- that has been the norm in the past.

"I feel like certain types of artists have always done things this way," says Hawkins, referring to "multi-tasking/multi-idiom" approach to art.

"Chemical Sounds" immediately strikes the listener as Hawkins' most assured work. In terms of arrangements, it's sophisticated and multi-layered. From the outside, it's a bit of a shock, initially, to hear Hawkins arriving at such a radical deepening of his art. Was a more orchestrated, fully arranged record sleeping in the back of Hawkins' psyche all these years?

"I stumbled toward co-producing ['Chemical Sounds'] by having a lot of spare time after the last Low record," Hawkins recalls. "The other guys in the band had day jobs, so I spent a lot of time alone in the rehearsal space, with a lot of gear and an eight-track recorder. Demo-ing the songs begat more writing, and then more inspiration, and then more demo-ing, and so forth. This process went on all summer, until I had almost a full album worth of fully demoed tunes, with me playing all the instruments."

"Chemical Sounds" doesn't sound like a solo effort, though. It's as close to grandiose -- in the positive sense of the word -- as Hawkins has gotten. Yet, even with the lush arrangements, the record is intimate -- often startlingly so. That's a tough line to walk: the high-wire between intricate writing and arranging, and the intimate, personal nature of the core songs themselves.

As far-reaching as the record is, it also feels like Hawkins' most personal music yet. His life on tape, so to speak.

"My partner, Jill, was pregnant during the writing of the disc, so I thought a lot about my impending fatherhood and what it meant to have a child. I was beset by conflicting feelings: 'I'm about to experience more joy than I've ever known thus far' on one hand, and 'I'll never be truly free again' on the other. Excitement vs. terror -- totally bipolar. I feel like that bittersweet, liminal feeling runs through the whole disc."


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