Hot and Bothered
We've all been duped at one time or another. At some point, everyone has made a serious error in judgment when purchasing music, whether or not he'll ever admit it. It's a common story: A really cool-sounding song that grabbed you the first three and a half times you half-heard it on the radio starts to wear thin the moment you've plunked down your $17.99. At least you can scavenge the jewel case once you've properly disposed of the Vanilla Ice insert.
Hot Water Music seems to work in just the opposite way. Once you've brought one of the act's discs home, it sinks roots into your CD player; an act of God is almost required to extract it once it's spinning. Known for its blistering but intelligent punk songs, heavy with distortion, and howling, unforgiving vocals, the Gainesville, Florida-based band got started in 1994 and has released six full-length albums since then. After a brief hiatus in 1997, which was called a breakup at the time but lasted less than a year, Hot Water Music returned in 1999 with No Division. That record perforated eardrums in all the right circles, and the band earned itself a spot on last year's Warped Tour, with acts like Snapcase and Alien Ant Farm and that perpetual whipping boy for all punk fans older than fifteen, Green Day.
A Flight and a Crash, Hot Water Music's first release since signing with punk heavyweight Epitaph, has been well received, though some have questioned the album's turn toward slightly more tuneful, less straightahead punk songs.
"A lot of that has to do with the fact that we're better at writing songs now, kind of textbook songs, more along the lines of Bruce Springsteen or something like that -- as opposed to what people were expecting," says bass player Jason Black.
That's not to say that Hot Water Music is starting to put out music that sounds anything like Jersey's most famous son; A Flight and a Crash contains no ballads, nothing about screen doors slamming or being born in the USA. Rather, Black believes that he and the other bandmembers are at a level of songwriting and playing skill where their imaginations are no longer constrained by their abilities. Besides, never changing means never growing, either.
"We've been doing it for over seven years now...I mean, if we keep [making] the same record over and over, it's going to get real boring real fast -- for us, anyway," Black says. "The thing we try to explain to people is that you're allowed to like one [record] more than others, you know? We'll put out other ones you might not like as much as this one, even. They're all a little different, and...it's always going to be that way with us, I think."
The fine line between keeping longtime fans happy and playing from the heart is a difficult one to navigate. But the players' confidence in what they are doing lends them credibility, and it translates into music on the CD; there is nothing calculated about it. The songs still come from a place that is dark, emotional and real. Now as much as ever, Hot Water's music challenges us to look within and confront ideas and feelings most of us routinely shut off or bury under noisy and distracting layers of the modern world: work, television, shopping, Prozac.
On songs like "Sons and Daughters," Hot Water Music cuts through those distractions and addresses the self-delusional nature of life in modern America: "Still we're all under lock and key/Who are we but savages hooked on accessories/Numb and dumb to what else we could do or be."
And truthfully, in the case of Flight, the alarmist cry of "Not the same!" is somewhat overwrought. Some of the tunes are slightly more melodic, but the band has not gone Vegas, by any means. The songs are still hard-edged, centered around the raspy vocals and distorted guitars of Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard and laid on top of a firm and brawny rhythm section anchored by drummer George Rebelo and Black's bass.
"[Flight's] not really that much different, to us," says Black. "It's also hard for us to be super-objective about it, though, since we wrote the songs. It's got better production. We just had a better recording situation; we had time to spend on the record. We probably did a lot of stuff that we would have done on a number of past records had we had the time and the know-how to do it. The differences that people are taken aback by are things that we've wanted to do for a long time."
Touring constantly is also something the band has done for a long time. Hot Water Music is currently on the five-week Plea for Peace/Take Action tour, an annual event designed to raise money for various worthy causes.
"Each year they do a benefit tour and a benefit compilation, and this year it's for the National Hopeline Network, which is a suicide-prevention [organization]," says Black. "They're trying to get a bill through Congress to have suicide-prevention funding be part of the child health-care bill."
But the granddaddy of all punk tours, of course, is the Warped Tour.
"It was pretty insane. It was a lot of fun, but a whole lot of work for a half-hour set every day. You've got to be there at six or seven in the morning most days. Eight hours -- or ten hours or twelve hours -- in the hot sun. It gets a little taxing. It was a good time, though; we made a lot of friends."
In the '90s, relentless touring nearly ended Hot Water Music; while the band actually did call it quits, the members decided a few months later that a simple -- and temporary -- respite from the road and each other was all that was required to recharge their batteries.
"There was just...a lot, a lot, a lot. Too much touring, and we just put too many expectations on ourselves," says Black. "Basically, what we needed to do was take a break, and we didn't know how to do that at that point in time. So we ended up breaking up for a few months and realizing that all we needed to do was take some time off -- no rehearsing, no touring, just spending time off at home not doing band stuff. Now that we know that, we're trying to adjust our schedule by doing [fewer] long tours. When we say, 'We're taking this month off,' we're not even playing a show, we're not practicing -- nothing. It's off, period. We can keep the band going that way."
Mandating rest for themselves is one way the band has been able to stave off burnout, and signing with Epitaph has also helped. Putting the nuts and bolts of record promotion in the hands of competent experts leaves Hot Water free to create and play music. Black is quick to add, however, that he doesn't believe signing has really altered the band in any fundamental way.
"It's easier for us. As far as we know, the record's out everywhere," he says. "The bins are never going to be empty. Other than that, nothing's really changed. We're still doing everything the way we've always done it. It's kind of nice that we don't have to worry about, like, keeping on the label to make sure they're doing what they need to be doing. We kind of know they're going to do it. It makes things easier for us as far as that goes. It gets done."
Black has no fears that signing a deal with Epitaph, arguably the biggest punk label of them all, will send the band careening down the road of the one-hit-wonder sellouts that are so prevalent these days. For one thing, Epitaph has a certain stockpile of punk credibility that is not shared by the giant labels cranking out Blink-182 clones left and right. For another, Hot Water Music is no Johnny-come-lately manufactured money machine.
"A lot of the people getting the attention right now -- they're almost like punk-rock boy bands," says Black. "It's really bleeding over everywhere. Since we've been out on the road in the States, you can see it's really taking off. You can totally see when...we change the cadence on some of our stuff, the look on the kids' faces is like, 'What the hell is this?' There's a whole lot weirder stuff out there, too, kid, you know? It's not all regurgitated Green Day songs."
Black is quick to remind Green Day bashers that at least that group wasn't drawn up in a corporate boardroom.
"I think they just signed and lucked out," he says. "The first band that breaks, it's kind of luck. From there on out it's formula stuff, and they can try to do as well with matching bands' sounds, but they won't.
"Especially in [Green Day's] case, they didn't change at all. They didn't get a new image or anything -- they just kind of lucked out. It had some bad effects for a lot of people, but...it happened with them, it's happening with Blink 182 right now, and I'm sure it'll happen with somebody else around the corner, where it's like, 'Fuck, that band's got a hit -- now we're all screwed.'"
The media attention currently being paid to acts with something of a punk style, if not much substance -- call them punk-lite -- is in some ways good for all punk musicians, in that it draws attention to the whole genre. In other ways, however, the increased ticket sales may not be worth it, according to Black.
"I think [punk] is in kind of a weird place right now with a lot of...kind of Blink 182-esque bands blowing up with their one hit. There's a lot of younger people checking out shows, but at the same time, they don't really know what to expect. So if they come expecting one thing and getting another, they're maybe not super-accepting of some stuff.
"I'm kind of waiting for that to die off," he adds, laughing, "so things can go back to normal."
"Normal" might mean not having a hit on the radio, or even having limited recognition outside a certain fan base. But that's okay with Black. Especially in the upside-down world of the music business, where getting a hit often means creative death, Black would prefer to labor in relative obscurity -- and be able to do so for many years to come.
"I don't want [a hit], because I know we won't have two," he says. "I'd rather never have any and just be able to do this for a much longer period of time.
"I hope we can still be doing this twenty years from now."
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