We had a chat with Hot Water Music’s Chuck Ragan…
Wednesday, 9:45pm – A time where we’d normally be slobbing it out on our sofa, flicking through our social media and half paying attention to our latest Netflix series obsession yet instead, we’re couch-bound but ready to chat to Chuck Ragan – The Hot Water Music frontman talks all things LIGHT IT UP (the bands upcoming release due out September 15th), to their fans (and you’ll see pretty quickly this man doesn’t half value them).
Inspired by their latest music video for the song ‘Vultures’, in which we see various clips taken from some of their first live shows, we got straight down to the first question, a thought which was on our mind from having watched their latest video…
After all these years as a band, are there any shows that you particularly remember as the best of all time?
(Pause). Oh. Wow…
I know, a hard question to start…
That’s a really tough question. You know we had so many great shows and so many shows that were turning points in our lives I feel. The first one that kind of sticks out in my mind is the show at the Hardback Café. We actually recorded this show and it became LIVE AT THE HARDBACK (1999). Right before that show we’d done a big tour for FOREVER AND COUNTING (1997) maybe… and we broke up as a band, maybe ’98 or something – you might have to do the homework there because I get the years mixed up. The reason that it was so important is because I think breaking up as a band was maybe the most important thing we’ve ever done as a band. At the time we were beat up, we didn’t wanna be around each other and there was some conflict going on. Together as a group we sat down and had a long conversation, I think it was like in a stairwell somewhere in Munich and we decided that it was way more important to be friends than it was to be in a band. Afterwards we got home, we finished the tour, I think we maybe had a week of shows left. NO IDEA RECORDS wanted us to do one last show and they wanted to record it.
THE HARDBACK was like our home away from home so we decided to do the show there and that was gonna be it. It ended up probably being one of the biggest shows we’ve ever played in Gainesville there. We had a break afterwards, there was a few months when we were just doing our thing. Then we decided to go out, shoot some pool and drink some beers together and we went out, sitting around, talking about doing that last show and said: Oh well, let’s get together and rehearse. So we went to go rehearse for this show and ended up writing a couple of songs. All of a sudden this last show became the new beginning of the band.
You talked about this one defining moment in your bands career – Can you also tell me the saddest and darkest moment you remember with the band?
Well we’ve all been very lucky to meet very wonderful people along the way, people in our own music community and people in communities all over the world. And I can’t even begin to express how much it has changed our lives for the better. When we were young kids, starting this band we never realized that we would have that opportunity. And over the years just like anyone else we’ve lost friends. Either by accidental death or unfortunately by suicide. It’s happened more than once so I can’t say there’s one particular moment that’s worse than any other.
So you talked about meeting some other musicians and bands – Was there maybe one encounter that you remember as very important and influential for you and the band?
In the early days we were heavily heavily influenced by a band called Avail. We were fans of the band before we became friends of the band. We fell in love with the music and their whole scene, their town. In a lot of ways Richmond, Virginia turned into a “sister city“ of Gainesville, Florida, at least in our eyes, right? The band Avail was in a way kind of our big brothers, kind of guiding us and teaching us how to tour. They’re all a little bit older than us and on it a little bit longer so they had some things to teach us young grasshoppers.
Do you remember how it felt when you met them for the first time?
Oh I mean it was pretty surreal. Even though we were fans they always felt approachable and like peers from the get go. They were always completely down to earth and that’s probably what drew us all together as it was. They would come and play the Hardback and if we weren’t working at the Hardback which some of us actually did, we were there hanging out. After a while we also did some shows together.
Besides talking to fellow musicians I guess you also got to talk to a lot of fans on tour and nowadays on social media – Is there a story of a fan that you particularly remember?
Oh man…. countless. I had a friend who’s not with us anymore, he’s one of the guys I was talking about and before we lost him his family invited me to their home to come and just meet them and see him out so to speak in his last hours. And luckily I made it there before he went. At the time he could barely talk anymore but I could understand him, he made it clear to me (tears up) – sorry, that’s pretty heavy duty – made it very clear to me how important the music was to him. Made it very clear how important it was that he had a chance to discover the band and how the songs for years saved his life. And I got to sit with him for a while, I played some songs for him. And it just… when I left there, knowing that I would never see him again, that I would never see him in the front row again, I’d seen him many times, singing in the crowd. It just made me realize how important these people are to us as a band you know. What people need to understand is: We wouldn’t be the people that we are now, if it wasn’t for the fans and it wasn’t for the people who believed in music, believed in us and believed in what we’re doing.
Oh man, it feels really stupid to head to the next question now… which feels really irrelevant after what you just said. But: You’ve released a lot of records over the last years, was any of it particularly hard in terms of the recording process?
Yeah…uhm… (long pause). I remember CAUTION being very tough. I remember… or was it FLIGHT & A CRASH. I’m trying to remember the year and I am trying to remember what was so tough that I am talking about, relating it to what songs we’re happening and then trying to remember on which record those songs are on…
You have SO many…
I think we had difficulties in recording some of those… oh yeah you know what, it was CAUTION, sorry I just remembered. We had just signed to Epitaph, this was a label that hosted a lot of bands that we grew up with. And it was so important to do a great job, it was a big deal to us. And when it came to my time and start recording vocals, I sang one song, it was okay. I sang another song, not so good. I tried a third one that I thought was gonna be a little easier – and I completely lost my voice. Completely. Here I had a whole record of songs to sing, we’re paying for it, the band, the label, the producer – all these people were waiting on me, depending on me. And it was so much pressure. And I just fell like I let everyone down. It was kind of a pretty tough moment. We took a break and our producer sent me to Boston to go see this vocal coach and therapist to somehow try to heal up my voice and get back to finish this record. I met with this guy Mark Baxter in Boston and yeah I don’t know what it was but I learned a couple of things from him and I came back and sang all of my songs in a couple of days.
And comparing it to the upcoming release, how was it recording & producing LIGHT IT UP?
It was absolutely the best recording experience we ever had. Over the years we matured a lot. We used to push each others buttons a lot more, some of us were pretty persistent of having our own way – it made recording sessions kind of a headache sometimes. When we did the last two records, we kind of matured from that, we worked through that and it seems that we really work quick and we’re a lot more open minded and excited to just try anything. We pay attention to each other more. We do our best individually but our main concern is whatever is going to be best for the band. It took over 20 years to get to that point (laughs) but we finally made it there and this last session for LIGHT IT UP was just a blast. We didn’t have a whole lot of time all playing together – I mean I live in California, Jason was in New York, George and Chris were in Florida and we were trading songs, George and Chris would play together, Jason and George would play together, Jason, George and Chris, and then at one point Chris flew out here to California, we wrote songs together and even got out on my boat one day and wrote a song just sitting out on the boat. I don’t know, it was just good vibes, a good feeling. And when we all finally came together and were in the same room, everything just really rolled smooth and we had a great time.
Okay, so we have a little time left and I have one last question: When bands are out on tour they often complain about terrible conditions, regarding the food, the transportation or accommodation – Could you share your worst tour experience with me?
(Laughs). Oh. Wow.
Yeah. So so many. So so many. Yeah we’ve slept in a lot of undesirable places. And we’ve played many undesirable venues… where to even begin, I don’t even know. It’s almost endless… I mean the food is never a bad thing, none of us are very picky eaters for the most part. We’re thankful that anybody even cares to offer food. Especially when we started playing overseas and touring Germany, the hospitality there is just incredible. It always has been. Like nothing else that we had found anywhere in the world. Even if the food hasn’t been that great we were always very thankful for it. But yeah I mean we’ve… wow… I mean we’ve played places… I could think of one show that we were playing, it might have been in New York. And there was a massive black out, power loss across big parts of the city. It completely shut the show down, it was a big show that completely went black, pitch black in the middle of the show. Everybody got out safe and I think Chris and I ended up playing on the side walk somewhere… But I don’t even know, I can’t think of any one particular time but I guess what I would say is: No matter what was thrown our way and I think any band who’s out there probably feels the same way, you gotta keep the wheels rolling. Even though we would face rotten things either with venues, venue managers or the police or bullies or people, violence at shows, we would always find a light at the end of the tunnel and try to turn it into something positive. Sometimes the only thing we could do was just leave town (laughs) and go to the next one, which would happen.
Thanks to Chuck for the interview – Pre-orders for LIGHT IT UP can be found here.