March 7 2012 11:02 AM

Local one-man band makes timeless tunes with raw power

Tim Lowman, aka Low Volts, wants his music to be timeless.
Photo by Ian Kasnoff

Tim Lowman has big plans for Low Volts, his one-man band. Think bottom-heavy riffs tearing out of a stack of amplifiers. Pounding drums with the power to crack sternums. An enormous structure of two lightning bolts positioned in a “V” shape, their lights pulsating to the rhythm.

He wants to put on a rock ’n’ roll spectacle like no other.

“If you’re not taking someone out of their reality and bringing them into something they’ve never seen and totally fucking blowing their minds, then you’re not doing your job,” he says. “When I go out, man, I wanna see someone blow my mind.”

Right now, though, he’s still paying his dues. A tireless local musician, Lowman is known to play as many as four shows in a single weekend. Lately, he’s played a two-hour weekly gig at the Hard Rock Hotel, which helps pay the bills and makes for good practice. But the lobby where he performs has mucky, echoing acoustics, so he has to keep the volume down. And the P.A. system can be testy; recently, his microphone jolted him with a painful electric shock.

“Full low volts to my mouth,” he says. “I don’t want to live out the name. Shit.”

In the year-and-a-half since he first launched Low Volts, Lowman has rocketed to local fame. His debut album, Twist Shake Grind Break, was a hit after he released it in mid-2011. In August, he bagged trophies for Best New Artist and Best Blues Album at the San Diego Music Awards. Blackout Party, a band he plays in, won Best Americana.

He’s played in Nashville and, in January, spent nearly two weeks in Austin, where he played at the Continental Club, a well-known venue comparable to The Casbah. He wants to play more major cities and land a European tour.

“I need booking agents and management bad,” he says. “I can’t last through all this shit anymore.”

Soft-spoken, physically fit and popular with the ladies, Lowman comes from folksy stock—his great-grandfather, J. Warren Lowman, was a gospel singer and evangelist who grew up in a rough-and-tumble Missouri mining town. Raised in California and Colorado, Lowman’s been riding Harley Davidson motorcycles since he was 14. But he’s also a talented flute player who’s studied Buddhism in Japan and charmed a cobra in Morocco.

“I think probably everyone would agree that he’s the most laid-back, mellow sweetheart of a dude,” says Brian Holwerda, his bandmate in Blackout Party. “Not to make him sound like a wuss or anything—he’s definitely, like, a Harley-riding badass. But as a person—no ego.”

Though he looks like he could be in his 30s, Lowman refuses to give his age, insisting that he is “ageless.” Disdainful of music trends, he aims to develop a timeless sound and image with the help of customized vintage gear and his own handcrafted logos.

“I like stuff that is from the ’50s, and I like stuff that’s from 2050,” he says. “When you hear it, you don’t know what it came from. Is it old? Is it new? Is it future?” 

Lowman doesn’t consider himself a blues musician, but the gnarled slide-guitar riffs, pounding four-to-the-floor beats and manic tempo shifts of Twist Shake Grind Break contain all the fury and anguish of real-deal blues. Indeed, he’d written some of the songs shortly after his fiancée canceled their upcoming wedding and dumped him for another man.

But while he owes much to bluesmen like R.L. burnside and T-Model Ford, Lowman also takes inspiration from a musician he encountered on a trip to Marrakech, Morocco, in the ’90s: In the city square, the man was plucking licks on an oud, a teardrop-shaped stringed instrument, with a pickup hooked to a stereo and car battery.

“It was the dirtiest sound I’ve ever heard,” he says. “That’s what I search for in my guitar tone—this dude’s oud.”

On a Friday night last month, Lowman played a casual set at Hard Rock Hotel, then packed his gear into his Subaru station wagon and hauled ass to The Loft at UCSD to play an opening set for The Heavy Guilt. Onstage, rocking a beaten-up leather jacket, Ray-Bans and a red bandana, Lowman resembled a sinister Elvis as he came up close to the microphone, practically kissing it while he sang.

The volume was cranked up. His riffs were big and mean. The kick drum thumped you in the gut. For two songs, he was joined by two shimmying backup dancers, the Hi-Watts, who kept the beat by clanking chains against the tops of kegs.

With his dancers on either side of him, Lowman’s rock ’n’ roll dreams edged closer to reality.

“In the future, when there’s a budget, it’s a legit show, I’m gonna have fuckin’ three on each side, easy,” he said later. “I can always be a one-man-band if there’s only women in the band with me.”

Low Volts plays with Maren Parusel, Italian Japanese and The Darrows at The Casbah on Thursday, March 8, for CityBeat’s Music Issue Party. Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.