Chuck Ragan, of Hot Water Music, and now a distinguished solo singer-songwriter of his own merit, is set to play European and UK tour dates this March, then heads to Australia in April. Music Vice’s Scotland based writer Gavin Leech probed Chuck with some questions about his music and the upcoming tour.
The most common epithet I see thrown at your solo albums is “stripped-down.” I get the feeling this is only compared to Hot Water Music’s assaults, since there’s loads of really impressive arrangements – “The Grove” and “Done and Done” spring to mind first – and lots of anthems in all of your recent work.
Thank you. A lot of folks do say stripped down and that’s most likley contributed to either the way this music was presented at first or the fact that most of the time that I’m playing live it’s certainly stripped down and back to basics. To me if I have an idea or a shot to get some of my ridiculously talented friends on a track, I go for it. Especially if the songs feels like that’s what it needs.
Would you say you have any kind of intentional shared theme or “aesthetic”? What is it about a Chuck Ragan song, whether hardcore or folk/country, that makes it a Chuck Ragan song?
To me my songs or songwriting in general have always been a form of therapy in my life. Since I was a kid, I used songwriting to lash out, rebel, speak my mind or just plain cry for help. Over the years it’s become something in my life that I feel is more of a “must do” than a “want to” if that makes any sense to you. For me, my songs are in a way different pages of the book or journal entries of ways, methods, stories or expressions on how I or my loved ones hack life so to speak. So if anything, I’d say that I write to overcome obstacles, tell stories, document this life as I know it or to just put my head straight and get right.
You’ve been prolific in this new mode of songwriting – going from when “Rumbleseat Is Dead” finally came out in 2005 up to now, at least 60 songs released, counting your stuff with Austin Lucas. Does folk -whisper it!- come more naturally to you?
Writing individually comes more naturally of course. Especially since I have no one else to run anything by. Since that’s the case, I’m able to write more freely with less ears and brains to run things by. HWM was always a collective in writing and though we wrote on our own, we’d bring each other our ideas, smash em up and put them back together as a group. Doing it that way is great as far as having a writing group but at the same time you’re limited as far as your individual ideas. Sometimes that’s a good thing though. Sometimes not. With my own writing, I’ve definitely been putting more focus on it but it’s not much different than anything that I’ve always done. To me, it’s all the same. Whatever you care to call it. I love the differences in both my own music as well as the rock and roll stuff with HWM. I love writing solo just as much as I love writing with my buddies. The styles in music may be different but every other aspect are on the same plane.
You’ve talked before about folk and punk sharing “an ethic”, even saying that folk was a kind of clarification of punk’s ideas. But there’s a tension between the very real beauty of, say, “Gold Country” and the brutal sides of reality which punk has always liked to stick to; when folk does it’s tough or political side – like Dylan’s “Hurricane” or Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre” – does it need to horrify, need to avoid aestheticizing things?
I’m not sure exactly what you’re asking there. I’d say that I believe most individuals and especially “free thinkers” have their own interpretation of folk and punk. Mine may not be the same as someone else and vice versa. That’s why I’ve always been drawn to what I’ve been drawn to musically. I prefer music that let’s you be you and me be me. However it gets filed, the parallels between the two I find more often than not. To me folk music is simple. As is punk. At least where I came from. Both forms of these music styles to me is simply music from the people for the people which can be telling the same story by either aestheticizing the topic at hand or horrifying it as you put it. Either way.
In which ways would you name Hot Water Music beautiful or even folksy? Where is the Blank Generation, the No Wave in your “Rotterdam”?
The friendship over anything else to be honest. To me the beauty stands with the bonds of the four of us, the friends and the labels that made HWM what it is today. If it wasn’t for any of that, we’d never had continued. As far as it being folksy.. Well, we started HWM sitting in circles on our porches in Gainesville writing songs on acoustics, telling stories and writing music. Whatever you’d like to call that, call it what you will. As far as your other question, “Rotterdam” is a love song. That’s it. A very simple love song. I’ve never owned a Blank Generation record and was also raised in the south far away from NYC and the “No Wave” scene. So you most likely won’t find any of that anywhere in my songs unless it came from something or someone else.
Are you still working as a carpenter-contractor when not touring? With the increased acclaim and international interest for “Gold Country” – I get 246,000 results for ya on google – do you see this changing or is it more than just an economic concern?
I’m doing work but mostly on my own home which is a dream come true. Slowly but surely and whenever possible. We’re doing the best we can to generate enough to keep our little mom and pop shop record label alive as well as keep the Revival Tour running. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s a tough way to make a living any which way you slice it. I think that goes for anyone who is self employed in most any field. I’m not sure what your asking exactly on your second part of the question. I’m not sure what you mean by changing or if you mean for better or for worse. Either way I can’t complain one bit.
Your cover of [Leatherface’s] “Trenchfoot” on The Blueprint Sessions is charming as all hell. Have you been keeping up with Frankie Stubbs, either as fan or friend? What was it about Leatherface that so sparked your mind way back then?
Thanks. I don’t see em all enough. Just missed them in Canada. For me it was “Cherry Knowle.” What sparked my mind early on was a band and a voice with words that told stories, sang poetry, had a drive that I needed and would horrify and aestheticize everything!
Your first solo album and The Blueprints came out on Gainesville’s No Idea Records. Your solo music is very much about roots; how important is it that you keep the ties to them, or to your other influences and personal ties?
The Blueprint Sessions it was. I have a lot of respect for many friends and folks who we’ve worked with over the years and would love to keep in touch with most of them. As far as working with everyone again, some of them we may, some most likely not. The tough thing about keeping up and in touch with everyone along the way while living a road driven lifestyle, you never stop putting down roots (if you ever put em down to begin with.) You also never stop finding more influences and inspirations. Meeting new friends, new communities, labels, artists, you name it is what keeps me in touch. Keeping ties is just as important to me as keeping our friends and loved ones close. But the older I get and the more I realize how much I’ve sacrificed to live the life that I’ve wanted to live, the more I see how much time has escaped from growing up with my immediate family. There’s a fine line between living free and doing what you want, and being selfish by neglecting (consciously or subconsciously) the ones who truly love and care for you and the ones who you love and care for the most.
Sorry to indict you again with things you’ve said in the past, but you once said that the decision to break up was the best Hot Water Music ever made. (You’ve also rejected the idea of dissolving anything that worked as well as HWM does…)
What I was referring to with HWM, is that breaking up in the beginning solidified our friendship and our own purpose as a group before a band. We came to the realization that it was way more important to stay friends than a band and when that happened, it was no question to let go. It’s what has kept us strong and close as a group. Therefore, to me it was the smartest thing we’d ever done and one of my favourite memories of the old days.
Was this because it gave you a refreshed outlook? The Draft, for all their very real fire and sound, were maybe only keeping the HWM formula warm.
I think you’re referring to the second hiatus here. Not sure. Maybe you were taking what I had said in that interview you referenced as my response to the second hiatus rather than the first break-up. Either way, I’m a little confused by your questions so I’ll do my best! As for our first break up in 98 I believe it was, yes, to me it was the smartest thing we’d ever done as a band and one of my favourite memories with the boys. As for the hiatus in 2004 or 2005, not sure when really, again it was something very nessessary for us to do. I was the one who innitiated it but I felt we were driving ourselves into the ground. You can only run a machine so long before it needs maintennce or before it just plain breaks down for good. I came to a point where I felt like my heart was pulling me elsewhere.
I could go on and on about the whys and the where’s and all that but I’ve said all that over and again. To speak plainly, I felt if I continued on the path that I was on, that I would just be fooling myself and everyone else around me. Our own lyrics started ringing in my head more clearly than ever and it became apparent that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be and that I needed to live my heart and not follow what everyone wanted and expected. We’d all sacrificed more than we could imagine and to me it would have been a lie to continue. I have a trade, so that made it easier to step out after I’d given a year or more notice to the boys. The fellas started the Draft immediately and just kept going on and tearing it up the best they could. As far as the formula, I think we’ve all kept it warm. The four of us always wanted to play again and have been having a blast doing so the past couple years. Again, making those decisions has been what has kept us close as pals and true to each other and our fans as a group. Even if it was a step down. In all honesty, I wouldn’t change anything and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
You’re bringing the Revival Tour to Australia soon. What kind of response did the 2008 shows get? Again, were people open-minded or was the crowd too drawn by “…of Hot Water Music”?
The Revival Tour in 2008 was amazing. That was the first year. The response was unreal and completely open-minded and diverse in so many ways. Last years Revival Tour in 2009 was unreal as well. We had more diverse artists last year and found an even more diverse crowd in terms of age groups as the year before. It just keeps getting better and we’re enjoying bringing music in a grassroots fashion to the people. The Australian Revival Tour will be the first one overseas. We’re all fired up as can be about it and are looking forward to more down the road.
With that, the HWM reunion (that is, proper-end-of-the-break?) and your regular show-treks with Frank Turner and Tim Barry, are you keeping yourself solid? Can’t have the man who wrote “Glory” getting fragmented, now.
I’m as solid as I can be my friend. The day I don’t feel that is the day it’s done.
Good to hear, and on that note, best of luck with the upcoming tour and thanks for your headspace.
Album Review – Chuck Ragan – Gold Country
Live Review – Chuck Ragan with Tom Gabel at Hyde Park Hotel, Perth, Western Australia, 16 May 2009
Chuck Ragan – Official Website
The Revival Tour – Official Website