(photo by Robert Ciolfi)
After several years of solo records you decided to be a part of the band again with the Do Good Assassins? Was it the songs that demanded a group presence or was there something you missed about the dynamic of working with others?
Well, originally I put the band together simply to back me up live on the Straitjacket Love release. I’d intended to do a few full band shows then go on about my business as a happy solo performer. As the rehearsals were coming together and then the shows happened I realized what a powerful and flexible entity this new unit was and it also started sinking in that though I love the immediacy of the “one man and a guitar” delivery, I was also missing the power and the awesome movement of air that happens with amps and guitars and a full band. Of course when I went home and told my partner Jill that I’d started a new band she said something like, “You fool! You just got out... you were out. Now they’ve pulled you back in again.” It was a very Godfather/ Sopranos moment.
“Rome”, the double-disc debut from the DGA, is an embarrassment of riches. At what point did you realize it was going to be a double album?
Right off the bat, there were alot of songs. I was very inspired by the new band and already had a handful of songs ready to go. The inspiration of the band drove me to write a bunch more. I also started to collaborate on a couple with Steve Singh (the DGA guitarist) and was a fan of Steve’s writing so we put some of his songs on as well. Then it became this thing where it was like “how big can our balls be? We’ll release a double debut disc and there will also be a “making of” documentary of the band and the disc”.
It was also a bit of a fuck you to the direction the whole industry and culture is going in, wherein singles are the big thing again (like the ’50’s). We spend alot of time and energy writing and sequencing the disc to take people on a journey with the album, but people don’t listen like that anymore. It’s shuffle and play lists and what have you. That doesn’t mean we have to like it or accept it or play by the rules. So there was a little “bird flipping” involved in the double disc idea as well. And then add to that that some of my favourite bands released classic double discs in the past - The Clash with London Calling and The Beatles White Album for instance.
Like many of my favorite songwriters, you utilize an economy of language and specificity of detail that creates a specific “world” that draws the listener into the song. Who are some of your influences as a writer?
I didn’t always write like that, and I guess I’d say it was a long journey to come to the realization that the most profound things I could say with my lyrics were wrapped up in the most quotidian images. In the 80’s I used to write capital “P” political songs about big issues that occurred far away. Alot of people were doing that and the radio was full of The Clash and U2 and folks who wrote earnest songs about big issues. Well, either it’s not genuine at the best of times or at the very least I’m not good at it.
Around 1990. I started writing about myself and my friends and the streets and bars and places I hung out in growing up in Toronto. I used proper names and street names and very local specific imagery. As it turns out that was a more universal way to write because it rung truer to me and was a deeper representation of who I was and what I’d learned. And that resonated with people - everyone has a favourite bar that’s more like a headquarters, or a set of streets that are imbued with an almost mythical importance to them. And almost everyone has friends who seem like characters in the fiction of their lives or the movie of their lives. So ironically, the smaller and more specific the imagery was the greater and more universal was the effect on people who heard the songs. A great lesson to learn.
It’s obvious from both a songwriting and production standpoint that you put a lot of craft into your work. What is your songwriting process like? Do you start with a riff and build from there or do the lyrics come first? How do you know when a song is “done”?
I’ve learned through trial and error to let things take time and develop. I tend to sculpt the songs out of humble beginnings. Being a visual artist has helped this process a lot as well. When I’m painting I have the sense that I can erase, scrape the paint off, paint over it - whatever it takes to solve the problem of the painting. get from point A to point Z however you need to get there. And with songs it’s the same. I sometimes start with a chord progression I like, but just as often it’s a title, or a set of lyrics that may be half gibberish, but I like the juxtaposition. Then it’s a matter of finding the song inside all that. Keep chipping away and adding and subtracting until you like what you’re left with. I produce the same way. I’m very much about putting everything down that sounds good and make sure it’s spontaneous, don’t do too much thinking. Then you’ve got a bloated arrangement with too many parts, riffs, what have you. And then the merciless process of deleting and making room for what’s important begins, and erasing what’s not. Subtractive mixing. And I’m remorseless about it. There are no left over files with alternate takes or parts. If it’s not in the arrangement it’s deleted... FOREVER. I’ve heard alot of younger producers get mired in the swamp of not being able to commit because they have always been able to keep folders and folders of alternate takes. Well, I come from tape (4 track cassette and 8 tracks and 16 tracks) so I’m used to making decisions and just going with them. The way that all applies to writing is that I’ve learned not to second guess too much. Make decisions and don’t torture yourself over them.
How has your painting and fiction writing influenced your songwriting? (or has it simply scratched a different artistic “itch”?)
I consider them all extensions of the same thing. I’ve also been into design and building modernist furniture. Painting, songwriting, fiction and furniture. It’s all the same thing in a way. There’s a problem, and you find a way to solve it. The other similarity in the way I paint and write songs is that I’m almost exclusively committed to people, to humans. I’m interested in them and what makes them tick. So I paint portraiture and I write songs about characters that reflect experiences I’ve had or have heard about.
What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? Who inspires you musically?
Well, no matter how far away I get from The Beatles they always come back. That may sound boring on the surface because obviously they’re the most famous pop band ever, but they got almost all of it right. They crafted things well, they pushed the limits of pop arranging and were instrumental in a huge percentage of the recording breakthroughs we take for granted today. So even when I pass through punk and folk and swing and heavier rock sounds and more cinematic sounding arrangements I always come back to what I learned from the Beatles wearing my puffy white headphones in the rec room of my parents’ house. On a commitment and inspirational level Billy Bragg was a huge influence. I love his early music most, but more than that I was always inspired by his energy and his generosity as a performer. He gives of himself and like a true folk performer is very interested in building community and creating art that will inspire people, not to go and cultishly follow him and his every thought, but to leave the concert hall and go and apply the energy he helped imbue them with to their own lives and their own undertakings. Very, very powerful stuff. And more important than art in my opinion.
You have been lucky to share stages with folks like Billy Bragg and Mick Thomas, people who have influenced and consequently been influenced by you? Is there any particular songwriter, artist or producer that you would like to work with and haven’t had the opportunity?
I’d have to say no. There are plenty of people who have inspired me and who perhaps ideally I’d like to meet, but I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I’ve worked with alot of fantastic people and everyone brings something to the table that surprises you and makes you grow as an artist. And really I know as well as anyone that a great artist may not be a particularly great person so I’m satisfied to get that inspiration where it counts, from their work.
As an artist you seem to constantly push yourself to find new ways of musical expression – given that, what was the experience like revisiting “Shakespeare” for the 20th anniversary? Was the nostalgia of looking back at that part of your career something that you had to fight when it came to producing new material?
I’ve always looked at Shakespeare My Butt as a blessing and a curse. I’m blessed to have written something that still seems relevant to so many people and am very proud of that work. But I’ve also spent 20 years climbing out from under that record. I truly believe that I’ve written much better records than SMB - more sophisticated, more astute lyrically and definitely better sonically. But I’m fighting a nostalgia for that record that is almost insurmountable. SMB was the first chance people ever got to hear my writing on a large scale and to hear Lowest of the Low sweep into town and launch our live circus on stage. And for alot of people you can never regain that surprise and spontaneity of the first experience. That said I’ve also been blessed with a legion of loyal fans who have gone on the long (14 album) journey with me and have stayed with me as a songwriter.
So I spent alot of years resenting the Low a bit and that record specifically, but by the time we did the SMB 20th anniversary reunion I was able to see it in context and actually got to immerse myself and be a fan of the band and the record even while I was on stage playing it with them. This is a conundrum almost every artist suffers who becomes known for one band then embarks on a solo career. If Joe Strummer and John Lennon had to try to live down their old bands, who am I to expect to not have to.
You have dates this summer with the DGA, the Low and solo – what’s on tap next for you musically?
Songwriting is always on tap. I’m about 16 new songs in since the Do Good Assassins released Rome last November. I’m very inspired these days and can’t wait to get back into the studio. There are some summer shows with The Low - the TURF festival on July 6th and an outdoor festival show in Buffalo with Flogging Molly on August 2nd.
There are shows with the DGA in Hamilton (Supercrawl September 14th) and Toronto opening for The Weeks at the Horseshoe on August 1st.
As well, both the Low and the DGA will be playing the Hillside festival July 27th/28th. A full schedule of dates is posted at ronhawkins.com. You can visit the Do Good Assassins on Facebook and the Lowest of the Low at Lowestofthelow.com.
(self portrait painting by Ron Hawkins)