Let's get the full disclosure out of the way right off the bat.
I was skeptical about the reunion of Canadian punk-folk-rock outfit Lowest of the Low, following its demise in a cloud of interband battles, road fatigue and substance abuse back in 1994.
When the band reformed a few years back and started making a habit of coming to Buffalo -- even recording its live album, "Nothing Short of a Bullet," during a sold-out gig at the Tralf -- I smelled a rat, justly or otherwise.
Without new material to perform, I got the impression that the band was content to play "oldies" for adoring regional fans, make a cash-grab and head back home to make mortgage payments, buy new studio equipment and the like. The whole thing reeked of nostalgia, and when I'd see Buffalo bands on the same artistic level as the Low struggling to make a few bucks at thinly-populated local clubs, it irked me. Just as the Who got up my nose by trotting the hits around the world without bothering to record any new material, despite the fact that the band remained a scorching live act.
But the Low proved me wrong.
The band has made a new studio record, "Sordid Fiction" (Maple Music), and it's a corker. And when they come back to Buffalo this weekend for two shows in Club Infinity -- one tonight and one Saturday, both beginning at 7 p.m. -- and an in-store appearance at New World Record at 3 p.m. Saturday, they will be a band performing very much in the present tense.
"That's exactly right," says Low guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Ron Hawkins, speaking by phone from Toronto earlier this week. "Without new material, we'd be rehashing the past. And I think there's a segment of our audience that would be perfectly happy with that. But for it to go forward, in our minds, there had to be new music, a new reason to be, so to speak."
Skeptical of reunion
Initially upon reuniting with his band mates, Hawkins was skeptical, worried that the band would fall into the nostalgia trap, or that old demons would return to haunt the group. He remained vigilant, he says.
"I've been real protective of the perspective being apart for so long has granted me. Part of the thing that destroyed the band was the way egos ran out of control -- perhaps mine most of all. It was unnecessary, but it happened. Traveling that much, working that hard and beating ourselves up physically made a real mess out of what we were about in the first place."
I ask Hawkins if he's talking about substance abuse as a contributing factor in that "mess."
"Oh, yeah. Definitely."
Following the band's split, Hawkins went solo, formed the Rusty Nails, released some incredibly vibrant music, toured and learned "a helluva lot." He brought the benefits of all that experience with him when he returned to the Low.
"It helped me immeasurably," he says. "Not just in terms of scratching the itch -- you know, seeing if I could do it on my own, outside the confines and restrictions of the band, that dynamic and format -- but in terms of growing up and realizing what it was we did have."
The band's initial reunion shows culminated in a blistering live disc set laid to tape inside the Tralf. Still, Hawkins had no clear vision of where to go next. He and his band mates were only sure of the fact that they had no intention of becoming "a Guess Who, touring and playing the old stuff every night."
But the answer to the dilemma suggested itself when the band got back together and started preproduction for a new album with producer Ian Blurton, who'd worked the Rusty Nails' "Quickly," they realized that there was no real danger of falling into a creative rut. A window opened, and Hawkins caught a sunbeam.
Initial meetings between Blurton and the band yielded a common goal: to avoid remaking "Shakespeare My Butt," the now-legendary 1991 release, to go somewhere else.
Hawkins recalls a meeting with Blurton where the producer scribbled a phrase on his notebook without the band members' knowledge.
Breaking the mold
Someone in the band responded to Blurton's query of, "What do you guys really want to do with this record?" by stating simply, "Break the mold." According to Hawkins, Blurton smiled; then he turned his notebook around so that the band could see that he'd written "Break the mold" in block letters across the otherwise blank sheet.
A synergistic relationship had been born, and its power is borne out by "Sordid Fiction," easily the strongest, most actualized of the band's recorded works.
So does Hawkins feel that, in some fashion, all the agony of splitting up has been worth it?
"Yeah, absolutely, because in a sense, we're really fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to go back and fix the messy breakup. You don't get too many chances in life like that. I mean, as cliche as it might sound, these guys are my brothers. In the grand scheme of things, the time apart will seem like just a detour or a bump in the road."
Hawkins is fully committed to the Low for the foreseeable future, but will he record outside the band once again?
"Right now, it's on the back burner," he says. "But I'd love to do a stripped-down protest record, like early Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs or Billy Bragg. Something about the election, about the current state of things, that doesn't dance around the issues and speaks plainly, for once. We were in Chicago on the night of the election. We had to drive all the way from there to Winnipeg the next day. It was incredibly depressing! (laughs) So I'd like to take the opportunity to get some of those feelings out."
In the meantime, Low fans have plenty to be psyched about. Hawkins calls Buffalo fans "the coolest grass-roots type of music fan, in that if they really love something, they'll tell all of their friends about it; it's very sort of punk rock/DIY, which is incredibly cool from our perspective. It's not like that everywhere, even in Canada."