The rise and fall of indie

By James Keller

From a cell phone in a Queen’s Street Italian restaurant, Toronto-native and Canadian indie-rock legend Ron Hawkins is at times difficult to hear. His voice tends to get lost under the bustle of waiters, other patrons and a very subtle irony.

“I live in Kensington Market in Toronto which is a very cool and artistic neighbourhood,” says the frontman of Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails. As he points out, his neighbourhood’s atmosphere of community coffee shops and clothing stores is a quickly fading concept. “I’m just concerned that it will get gentrified like Queen’s Street West in Toronto and it’s going to be all designer shops and Starbucks.”

For Hawkins, this a concern not only on the homefront, but as a musician as well. Eating in Toronto’s hippest avenue of consumerism, Hawkins is in a living metaphor of the conditions in the music industry that brought his old band, the Lowest of the Low, to a crashing halt over half a decade ago in 1994.

“I’m not in this to make one-off pop records or to be in a boy band,” says Hawkins about his motivations for becoming a musician. “Any of those kind of things, trying to write challenging, thoughtful pop music or rock music has always been against the grain of being looked at as a commodity.”

In the past, Hawkins has blamed the Low’s break-up on the constant push for fame by the industry and fans. As they became more successful and the spotlight became brighter, the connection between making music and making a career was lost.

However, seven years later, things are different.

The music industry hasn’t changed; Queen’s Street is only getting more branded. Instead, Hawkins set a new direction with the Rusty Nails and, fresh off his reunion tour with the Lowest of the Low, things are more under control.

“It’s been an experiement for the last 18 years to try and find a way to make my life as a songwriter and a performer in a way that I respect,” says Hawkins. As the Rusty Nails have self-produced all their CDs and videos without the backing of a major label, Hawkins is in the right place.

Athough, doing things on his own terms hasn’t been easy, either.

“It’s not all sunshine being in control of your own future,” he explains, pointing out that even though their latest record, Crackstatic, cost under $20,000 to produce–which is unheard of on a big label–they still struggled finding the money to make it happen.

“That’s one thing that gets in the way when you’re completely indie. You have to take on all those responsibilities yourself.”

Fortunately, these restraints haven’t kept Hawkins from making quality music.

Crackstatic is a powerfully effe ctive mix of fast-paced tunes which border on punk as demonstrated by their first single “Bite Down Hard,” to atmospheric ballads like “Rumours and Whispers.” His music has been compared to the likes of the Clash and Elvis Costello which, according to Hawkins, isn’t a coincidence.

“The Clash and Elvis Costello were people that when I first started, I really respected,” begins Hawkins of his musical roots. “Also, I think that Elvis, as a lyricist, what we have in common is that we’re fairly literate and really like to play with words.”

Through these lyrics, Hawkins sees himself commenting on “the politics of daily life” in songs like “Small Victories.”

Lyrics like “Small steps in the right direction make more sense than / A thousand big ones in the wrong” still speak to things that affect us daily, like the transformation of small communities into strip malls. Once again, this always leads back to Hawkins’ experiences in the past.

“I think it’s an exact metaphor for what’s going on in the music industry.”

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