Hot Water Music came together in Gainesville, Florida when four friends moved there in 1993. Fueled by youthful exuberance and inspired in part by the music that surrounding the skateboarding culture of the time, Chuck Ragan, Chris Wollard, Jason Black and George Rebelo created a band that had that punk edge informing songs that were melodic and emotionally-charged. While loud and aggressive, there was and still is an undeniable vulnerability built into the band's sound that had a broader appeal than its component parts could alone.
The band split in 2006 on good terms and all the members explored various musical pursuits, but in 2008 the yen to play the Hot Water Music material again proved strong enough to bring the group back together. Since then, Hot Water has toured extensively, and early last year, the foursome took its new songs into The Blasting Room in Fort Collins. The result was Exister, Hot Water's first studio release in nearly a decade. We recently spoke with the incredibly gracious and affable Chuck Ragan about the early history of the band, his recent book and the fulfillment of a dream for him of recording at the Blasting Room.
Westword: How did you become exposed to punk growing up?
Chuck Ragan: Skateboarding. I grew up skating and got into skateboarding from free style bikes. From where I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where free-styling was everything, I moved to Louisiana where free-styling was out and skateboarding was in. Man, it was just this whole new awakening of culture and music and attitude and energy that blew my mind.
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So I got heavy into skating, and in those days the majority of the music that revolved around skateboarding was punk rock, rock and roll, metal and all kinds of highly energetic and aggressive music. Coming from the household I came from that was rather conservative, it woke me up and got me fired up, and it scared the hell out of me at the same time. I was just drawn to it.
What was one of the earliest punk shows you got to see?
We're kicking off the tour here in Tampa, and it was actually here right down the road where I snuck away from home and got with my friends. I lived about an hour from here, maybe 45 minutes, at the time. I told me parents that I was spending the night somewhere and ran up here to the city to a venue that I don't know if it's still around anymore, even though the structure is, called the Cuban Club. I saw D.R.I., Nasty Savage and Sick of it All. That was one of my first intros to a live music scene. Back then, shows around here were super rough, super violent, totally insane. At the same time, for a kid into what I was doing back then, it was attractive. It was crazy, chaos.
Where did Hot Water Music get its start?
The band originated in Gainesville, but we all moved to Gainesville more or less together. We all came from two little towns south of Gainesville on the gulf side of Florida called Sarasota and Bradenton. Chris [Wollard] lived in Bradenton. George [Rebelo], Jason [Black] and myself lived in Sarasota. We were all in completely different scenes when we were younger. Chris was definitely into this kind of hardcore, straight edge scene in Bradenton. George was way into death metal and all kinds of metal really. Jason was into punk and funk music and independent music -- Jason was across the board. I was just into the skateboarding, punk rock, rock and roll scene.
George and Jason ended up going to school together and met each other in jazz combos. That's how their relationship began. They were smokin' jazz players back then, if I remember. This is totally random, but I ended up meeting George because he worked in a Zack's Frozen Yogurt right next to the Subway I was working in. I'd hear from my buddies that, "Oh yeah, that guy that works in there is just an incredible drummer." We got to talking, and we used to trade food. Our corner became this hangout where our friends into music would come in and hang out.
Then we got to know each other's bands. I used to go watch him practice, and he used to come watch us. Those were the days when we would literally go to each other's houses or warehouse spaces and watch our friends just jam and practice. My band back then was called Yellow Section, and he was in this insane death metal band from this area called Burial. They were pretty underground, but looking back on it now, I think they were way ahead of their time. He played drums for that band, and him and Jason were in a band called Kelly Green.
Chris came along later on in the picture. Even though Bradenton was only about twenty miles away, it was a whole other scene. There was this common ground I remember we found in this storage facility called Oneco Mini Storage. I remember that being one of the places where Bradenton bands rehearsed and Sarasota bands rehearsed. A lot of the storage units were kind of taken over by various bands. You would go pull in there and there was death metal, blues, punk and rock and roll and a cover band. You name it. That's how we initially all met.
Jason and Chris started this band called Thread. As George and I got closer, him and I started a band called Fossil. So we were these two bands and we kind of knew each other, though I didn't know Chris as well, as I had just me him, and something kind of clicked. All of us, at one point, realized, "There's just nothing here." In Sarasota and Bradenton, it was hard to get shows. We were constantly renting out VFW halls, or friends would rent it out, and we would do shows there. There just weren't a whole lot of places to play. And we always heard of this punk rock Mecca called Gainesville, Florida.
We started looking into it and Jason told us about it [because he went there for college] and had been there a year before we moved up there. In a very short period of time, literally within a month, we decided and took off. We pooled all the money that we had, and the rest of us moved up with some other friends from the Sarasota-Bradenton area. So we moved up to Gainesville as two bands.
Right at the same time we did that, the singer for Fossil decided to stay for some reason, and so did the singer of Thread. When we moved up there, Jason played bass filling in, and our plan was to move to Gainesville to find a bass player. George was filling in with Thread, and their plan was to move up to find a drummer. So the last four people standing were the four of us.
Originally they just wanted me to sing. I wasn't that good a guitar player. But I loved playing guitar, so I decided to stick with guitar, and then Chris and I both decided to sing. In a nutshell, that's how it all kicked off.
What inspired you to put together The Road Most Traveled? Why was it important for it to be more than just a collection of anecdotes?
I explain it in the forward a bit, but I was being interviewed by the Kalamazoo Gazette at one point, and the interviewer relayed a question posed by a buddy of mine, Travis Dopp, from that band Small Brown Bike, "What's your most memorable experience or most important thing you learned on the road?" That's a tough question for anybody that has traveled for a long time. I answered the question as best I could at that point -- I don't recall how, and I'd like to find that interview and see.
However, as soon as the interview was over, I ended up thinking about the question again and thinking about what I could have said. The day went on, and I kept thinking about it. I woke up the next day thinking about it. It remained on my mind for quite a while afterward. I realized you could ask me that question every day, and I could answer it in a different way every single day. Everything that affects us from day to day on the road is an awakening experience in one way or another. Those experiences are just non-stop. It's fast living. It's fast moving. It's sensory overload. If you open your eyes and ears, there's quite a lot to learn while you're out here.
It got me to thinking about how the majority of the people that I know and love and work with I've known through music. I've had the opportunity to just be invited into so many incredible communities. Not just the artists that people know of or see on the stage, under the lights, on the marquees or whatever; there's a whole community that makes this machine work. The bus drivers, the crew people, the cooks and the venue owners, bartenders and the staff, the bouncers, the agents -- it's so vast. It got me to thinking how much knowledge each person holds and how many collective years all of us hold, when you think about all the traveling that's been done and the lessons learned and the mistakes made.
I did it for quite a few reasons, but one that was really important was not only to put together a book of lessons and stories and words of advice from people that have been out there cutting their teeth doing what they do. To me, what I thought it would be great to have, even just for myself, are bits of, like, that old phrase, "What's obvious isn't always what's seen." The whole time I was putting that book together, I received submissions from all these people; it was blowing my mind and it was constantly inspiring. I also shook my head, thinking, "You remember that?"
It's just like anything else. If you do something enough and quite often, it can become stagnant. Anybody can become jaded in a lot of ways, and they can forget what truly makes the gears spin. They can forget the reason why we even have the opportunity to have a job and share music that we love with people. So it was important for me to collect a bunch of advice for not only the seasoned road dogs that have been running out there for twenty to thirty years but also to put together a collection of these words of advice for the younger generation and kids who feel like they want to take a stab at life on the road and hopefully help them avoid making the same mistakes that we've all made.
You recorded Exister at The Blasting Room in Fort Collins. What do you appreciate about that place and perhaps the staff, including Jason Livermore and Bill Stevenson?
The Blasting Room was this studio that we had wanted to record at for years. Obviously, we grew up as fans in a lot of ways of what those gentlemen have done and the bands that they've been a part of and the bands that they've recorded. We've respected a lot of the records that have come out of that place. Those fellows just churn out incredible work.
At the time we all lived in Florida, and the Blasting Room -- even though we came through Denver quite often -- when it came to recording, it just felt like it was a million miles away. It felt out of reach. We always wanted to record there, but we were tied in with Brian McTernan for a while, and we stayed on the train with him recording those records. It never worked out.
When we decided to put out a new record, when that idea even came up, there wasn't a doubt in anybody's mind. Everybody was full on. It was like, can that happen? How do we make that happen? Once we knew it was going on, man everybody was just fired up and besides themselves.
Working with that whole gang there was a sheer joy. When we went in, they knew how to capture the best of the band. They kind of set us up in a room, and the first thing Bill said was, "Alright, I just want you guys to set up just like you would be playing live. Face this wall, everybody get your gear dialed in, get into your comfort zone." Then he just let us go, and said, "Just rock."
Once we decided on a handful of songs we were going to take a stab at, we were just burning through them and working out any kinks and doing tempo maps. But he wanted to just let us be the band that we've always been. He wanted us to get comfortable working in that studio and working with him. It was just an incredible way to begin that session.
We had a lot of help from a lot of friends in Denver, like Jon Snodgrass. He helped us out when we flew in, and he loaned us his van. The guys from Teenage Bottlerocket loaned us their rehearsal space to work out the songs, and that was pretty insane because that was the first time the four of us had been in a rehearsal space together for the first time in eight years or whatever it was. It was a big team effort.
The whole gang at The Blasting Room was incredible. The momentum carried on and stayed up, and so did the energy. Every day was positive. There were no hang-ups or lulls. Everybody was open-minded, and, man, we just burned through it, cooked through it. It was, by far, my favorite recording session with Hot Water Music ever.
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