TORONTO — Even within the ranks of his own longtime Canadian indie-rock outfit, the Lowest of the Low, co-founder Ron Hawkins occasionally finds himself in battle for what he believes is right.
It happened when the singer-songwriter first showed his new protest anthem “The Barricade” to his fellow band members, in hopes they’d warm to lyrics that hinted at a social uprising.
The song dismisses all politicians as self-interested jerks, and declares: “My next vote’s with a brick.”
Some members of the Toronto act bristled at the notion they’d be encouraging people to cast a literal stone for change, Hawkins says. They wanted their feisty album “Agitpop,” due May 31, to shake up the status quo — but do so in a thoughtful and hopeful way.
“They had a little problem with what they considered to be the implied violence,” Hawkins says, pointing to a couple of his band members and producer Dave Boterill, who’s worked with Tool, Muse and the Smashing Pumpkins.
“I’m not hopeful that we have to get together and throw bricks, but I recognize the establishment as it stands has never historically just handed over the keys because it’s the right thing to do,” he added.
With a federal election looming, Hawkins says the band affectionately known as “the Low” wasn’t convinced that even implied violence was an appropriate message to send in an already tumultuous political climate.
“We’ve got some very strong vote supporters in the band, and people were like, ‘We’ve got to get the kids out voting.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s cool, as long as voting isn’t a swindle, like Justin,'” Hawkins said, pointing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“A lot of people voted him in on the idea of reconciliation… and then he gets in there and you have this long process of learning that he’s not going to do anything about it. And then… the next person is similar, worse or doesn’t even talk about reconciliation.”
Hawkins sounds pessimistic, but he insists his feelings are more nuanced.
The 54-year-old musician’s frustration is tempered with an optimism that shines on the band’s dichromatic new songs, which balance rebellious titles like “The Ballad of Late-Era Capitalism” and “Permanent Revolution” with infectiously upbeat melodies.
The sound will be familiar to fans who’ve learned the inside and out of the Low’s acclaimed 1991 debut “Shakespeare My Butt,” which united punk, folk and rock, and helped kickstart the Canadian indie rock revolution.
“Agitpop” carries echoes of that era with lively melodies that could be sung at the pub before taking to the streets.
“There’s hope, there’s energy in there, and really I’m not pointing fingers as much as I’m saying hey, we’ve got to get together and fix this thing because it’s a mess,” he says of the political climate.
“Agitpop” arrives two years after the Lowest of the Low broke a 13-year hiatus with an album inspired by the disconnect of the social media era. Since then, Hawkins describes a political reawakening he experienced as he watched the world slide into familiar conflicts of the past.
“I can’t believe I’m even saying it out loud, but the rise of that extreme part of the right wing — and so much hate coming out — I just got moved back politically to where I started,” he says.
“My first punk rock bands were sort of Marxist.”
Hawkins says seeing the election of Donald Trump and hearing the right-wing ideologies coming from some Canadian leaders “exploded like a grenade” in his consciousness, and he began to write down his feelings in lyrical form. But making protest music carries its own creative challenges.
“It’s a very, very difficult dance you have to do,” he says.
“You could just bludgeon somebody lyrically. And I think the trap is if you get too abstract about it, the point doesn’t get made either.”
With “The Barricade,” Hawkins doesn’t mince words, but he also isn’t making demands on his listeners. It’s a rallying cry of comradery, which could be why his band mates chose not only to include the song on “Agitpop,” but make it the first single. It was a democratic call, he said.
“Where I come from… most of the things you cherish about those societies we live in, an awful lot of those things were achieved extra-parliamentarily — like in the street,” Hawkins said.
“And were achieved by either force or implied force — by numbers, by striking and putting pressure on people… I’m not saying let’s just all go out and get violent in the streets. I’m saying organized pressure is what we need to do.”
Hawkins says he remains hopeful for the future direction of Canada.
“I come from that punk rock left and I feel like I’ve been fighting Nazis since 1982. Literally that was in the street back then and at shows,” he said.
“I feel like none of what’s going on really scares me too much right now, because I know there’s an army of people out there to take it on.”
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David Friend, The Canadian Press