Chuck Ragan looks back on his life in music and his new album, Till Midnight
Sometimes a trash-laden parking lot behind a music venue can feel just like home – at least it does for Chuck Ragan.
The co-founder of popular Florida-based post-hardcore punk band Hot Water Music has seen his fair share of parking lots, highways and cheap motels while touring for two decades. His band celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, finishing a cross-country tour in November.
Hot Water’s anniversary is not the only milestone Ragan has experienced in 2014. He’s finishing up the soundtrack for a video game called “The Flame in the Flood” – created by Hot Water’s longtime collaborative album artist Scott Sinclair. He also tried his hand at producing another band’s music, working with the young bluegrass family band Paige Anderson & the Fearless Kin on their album Foxes in June, which comes out this month. (They just happen to be his neighbors in picturesque Grass Valley, CA.) And as for his age, Ragan turned 40 at the end of October.
But of all his accomplishments this year, it’s the release of Ragan’s fourth solo album – Till Midnight – that may stand as his biggest achievement. Consisting of 10 folk-rock tracks featuring the most heartfelt and honest lyrics of his career, Till Midnight highlights the musical talents of Ragan’s backing band, The Camaraderie, which includes Todd Beene on guitar and pedal steel, Jon Gaunt on fiddle, Joe Gingberg on bass and it’s newest member, Social Distortion drummer David Hidalgo Jr.
Produced by York County native and Blind Melon guitarist Christopher Thorn, Till Midnight also enlists the help of other musicians like Jenny Owen Youngs, Dave Hause of The Loved Ones and Ben Nichols of Lucero.
And if there’s one quality where Ragan shines, it’s his ability to bring musicians of different genres to a wider audience – whether it’s his own albums or his acclaimed Revival Tour, which began in 2008 and has featured everyone from Frank Turner and Ben Kweller to Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! and Cory Branan.
Ragan returns to the region on Friday with The Cameraderie at the Chameleon Club in Lancaster. We caught up with him before one of Hot Water’s shows last month, speaking on the phone in a dirty parking lot in Tempe, AZ where we talked about his new album, his appreciation of music and his love affair with fishing.
Fly Magazine: What’s it been like to get back out on the road with Hot Water Music for the 20th anniversary tour?
Chuck Ragan: It’s been a great time. This past October, we’ll have been a band for 20 years, which is just intense to say out loud. We’ve had a lot of people come out of the woodwork that we haven’t seen in years. It’s been fantastic. We didn’t do a huge campaign around it, which we probably should have. I’m sore [laughs]. There’s just something about playing those songs that gets me back into that mind frame. Then the next morning, my knees, my feet and my back are just killing me from stomping and rocking – playing like I was 18 years old.
FM: What’s the secret to keeping a band together for 20 years when most don’t last more than a few years?
CR: Communication. Most bands will know this. When we’re all young, you have that really strong bond and brotherhood – just a full family vibe that is there 24/7. A lot of times you’re either living together, you’re on the road 24/7 or you’re working in the same construction yard or restaurant together. That’s where those strong bonds normally form. As we all grow older, life comes into play and relationships form and families form and kids come into the picture and responsibilities and mortgages – all the things that constantly make you take a step back and reevaluate everything that you’re doing. That’s when people start to think more for themselves. And that’s where it’s important to continue with strong communication bond. We all kind of spread out across the country more than a decade ago. It gets harder to get back to that initial bond that we started with. The love is there and the admiration and respect, but just general simple communication can completely disrupt an entire agenda overnight. The key is communication and to be open-minded to your friends and your bandmates’ personal lives and changes that come into play that weren’t there when we were all paying $60 in rent, cleaning up the construction yard, framing houses and working just to get back out on the road.
FM: Is there any difficulty for you transitioning from a Hot Water Music tour into your solo tour?
CR: Not necessarily. I’ve been doing both aspects of what I do – obviously in different calibers and different levels – since I was a kid. I played my first solo show 28 years ago before I ever met the Hot Water guys. When Hot Water started, we were all playing together at the ages of 16, 17 and 18 years old – just in different forms and different groups, but we would all cross paths and play together. Nowadays, the transitioning is very much the same mindset when I hit the road – especially when I bring a group like The Camaraderie. There’s a little more pressure when I’m doing my gig just because most of the time I’m more in the forefront or doing all the press. When it’s the band, it’s spread out a little bit more. But the road is the road [laughs]. The crowds are definitely different. There are similarities and differences here and there.
FM: How cohesive does the band feel now that the lineup of The Camaraderie has been solidified with the addition of David Hidalgo?
CR: I have so much respect for what these guys do and what they’ve brought to the table. Before we did Till Midnight, I booked a European tour before we went into the studio because we had never really played together as this ensemble – Dave, Todd, Joe, John and myself. I booked the tour just to find out what we were and what we were doing and what we could do. And man, it made a hell of a difference. We came off of that tour with a strong sense of our potential as this group and what we could do with these instruments. I think it made the entire project and everything we’ve done since then completely cohesive. It just gelled.
FM: What was the recording process like for Till Midnight?
CR: I’ve made a lot of records where I’ve kind of gone in and started with a guitar and vocals and just layered stuff on there. It can make for a good record, but there’s nothing like taking all the elements and everything you want to have as a part of the record and pulling it all together – just grinding the gears and making the mistakes you’re going to make before you get in front of a microphone and finding your own rhythm as that group. It just makes for a smoother session and a more enjoyable session. We got into the studio as a well-oiled machine. And it wasn’t even that we were working through the songs when we were on that tour – we just knew each other. We knew where to push and where to sink back and let somebody else take the floor. That’s an important outlook to have any time you’re playing with other people. But boy, I love charging with those guys. They’re really something else. They always inspire me and push me and make me think of the songs in a completely different manner than when I’m playing them by myself. Those guys are so pro that you can give them a bare bones simple song they never heard before and just kind of sit down, find their zone in the tune and completely color the atmosphere of the track and really bring it to life.
FM: So it enhanced the songs on the album?
CR: Absolutely – the same with the live shows. It’s a completely different animal when The Camaraderie is on board.
“There are so many incredible songwriters out here pounding the pavement that unfortunately won’t be heard, and that’s just a fact of life. The ones of us who do get heard, we’re the lucky ones. But it doesn’t mean we’re any better or any worse than anybody else.” – Chuck Ragan
FM: Where does Till Midnight rank with your other musical projects in terms of the organic nature of how it came together?
CR: It’s been by far the most enjoyable session that I’ve ever done and the smoothest session I’ve ever done. I was probably the most prepared that I’d ever been on any record. A lot of time in the past, I’ve gone into the studio where maybe the songs were finished, but maybe all the melodies weren’t there or the lyrics, the bridges and bits and pieces were missing all over the place. This one was pretty tight when we went in. I had been writing a lot and had stacked up a lot of material and started with a big batch of songs. Then I cut that batch in half and then cut it in half again and just kept whittling it down until we had about 15 songs. Then we said, “That’s it – unless something pops out at us while we’re there,” which sometimes that happens. I decided to put the breaks on and focus on those tunes and got them to where I was about as comfortable as I could be with them. And then I brought Christopher Thorn into the mix, who helped me cut that list down as well – trimming it where we could. And when we had a good idea of what we were shooting for, we brought all the guys in the mix. I kind of put it out to them and said, “Hey, do what you do. Here’s the bare bones of it – let’s make it better.” If anybody had some ideas or if something’s not gelling, I went into it wanting those guys to know they were more than welcome to have any input or no input or just to do whatever they wanted to do. It just flowed really well, and everything just fell into place.
FM: How did you end up working with Thorn?
CR: This is the second record I’ve done with him. I met him for the first time in the late ’90s when he was with Blind Melon, but it was just in passing. I had been a fan for a long time, but there were a lot of years where I had no idea what he was doing as a producer and engineer. It wasn’t until after I did the Gold Country record that I was getting ready to do another record with SideOneDummy – that became the Covering Ground record. [SideOneDummy owner] Bill Armstrong said, “I’ve got a buddy of mine – a great guy, great producer named Christopher Thorn.” Just as an old fan and intrigued as to what kind of record he was making, I was excited to meet him. I went down to his studio in Silver Lake, CA, and I can honestly say from the first two or three minutes of the conversation, I was like, “This is the guy. This is going to be it.” It was just one of those introductions where we just locked in right off the bat, and it was all smiles and warmth and good energy. That’s exactly what I wanted and what I needed.
FM: Do you think you’ll work with Christopher again?
CR: I would love to continue working with him for the rest of my life in some way or another [laughs]. It started out as just someone I had admired years ago and someone I had grown to admire with his current work, but then at the same time someone I had grown to admire as a friend. I didn’t just gain a new coworker or collaborating artist. I got a friend out of the deal – a really good friend. It was pretty incredible, and I count my blessings. He’s a really special guy to work with.
FM: Could you ever have imagined scoring the soundtrack to a video game when you were starting your career?
CR: No [laughs]. But if you would have asked me if I thought I would ever be on tour in Arizona, I would have said “no” as well. I’m really honored to be doing this project with The Molasses Flood. I’m fired up and so inspired by the idea and this whole group’s work ethic and the energy they’ve been putting behind this project for a lot longer than most people understand. I’m just thrilled to be a part of it. When they came to me and told me what they were looking for, it’s exactly what I had been doing anyway on my own – even aside from The Camaraderie and the Revival Tour and all this other stuff I’ve been doing. The more we started talking about it, the more it completely made sense. I’ll be finishing it all up over winter, and we’ve been working on it a lot in different ways. Over the past decade, I’ve done a couple different soundtracks. I did some music for a surfing documentary called Between the Lines some years ago, and I did a soundtrack for a short film called It’s Better in the Wind. I love writing – period. I enjoy writing on my own, but I really love to write for folks when they come to me and have a vision or an outlook. For one, it’s a huge honor that they even thought about my music to attach to their idea that they’re passionate about. Even aside from that, just to be able to sit down and look through the eyes of someone else and create a story, a melody and a movement that revolves and brings to life this image or idea that these people are trying to get across, it’s a glorious challenge. It’s cool.
FM: The graphics for “The Flame in the Flood” look awesome.
CR: It’s incredible. A lot of that has to do with the artwork of Scott Sinclair, who was a dear friend. I met him for the first time maybe in 1990 or ’91. He was down in school at Ringling School of Art in Sarasota. I wasn’t in school there – we all lived down in the Sarasota and Bradenton area. I was in bands, and he was in bands. The art school would have different events on campus where bands would play. We ended up having mutual friends, and that turned into our bands playing together and that eventually turned into Scott doing art for us on different platforms and different bands we were in. Later on, he became the fellow who did all of the art on all the Hot Water Music releases over the years. That was part of the connection with this group of people.
FM: Many artists have talked about your ability to bring musicians from different backgrounds together. Do you ever feel you’re playing the role of a mentor or an elder statesman in music?
CR: I’ve never really looked at it like that [laughs]. I’m definitely all for rooting for the underdog. If there’s one thing that gets under my skin, it’s when I’m standing there hearing somebody play a song that just cuts me deep and makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I’m hearing something where I’m beating my head against the wall wondering why the rest of the world isn’t rejoicing around this creation. At the same time, I’m standing there witnessing this with four other people [laughs]. But that’s just part of what we do. There are so many incredible songwriters out here pounding the pavement that unfortunately won’t be heard, and that’s just a fact of life. The ones of us who do get heard, we’re the lucky ones. But it doesn’t mean we’re any better or any worse than anybody else.
FM: What does it take to find success in the music business?
CR: There are so many elements and factors in this business that move people from point A to point B – to take them from the coffee house to the local venue, and from the local venue to the arts festival and on up to the main stage of Leeds and Reading festivals. In some ways and some times, there’s no rhyme or reason for it. It could just be timing, dumb luck – just being in the right place at the right time. For some people, if you want something bad enough, you’re going to sacrifice everything and keep on trucking until you get to that point that you once envisioned yourself.
FM: What keeps you motivated as an artist?
CR: I love finding music – I have a passion for finding music. I love finding songwriters that make me want to be a better songwriter. I love finding tunes that make me wonder why I never thought of that [laughs]. That’s one of the glories and part of being a music lover for any of us – whether we play it or just listen to it. In one way or another, as human beings we’re all searching. We’re always continually looking for more reasons to get up and keep putting our boots on in the morning. Songs have always had a huge part of that in my life.
FM: So introducing songs or songwriters you’ve discovered to an audience that may never have heard it before is a motivation?
CR: The Revival Tour that we do is a huge reason for that platform – not only bringing familiar artists or songwriters that people have heard of that when they see their name on the marquee, they go, “Oh, yea. Absolutely I’m going to go check that out.” But at the same time, it’s just as important to me to throw somebody on that stage that nobody has heard of – those people that we find in the coffee shops or on the street corner or some hole-in-the-wall venue that are out there right now as we speak playing to two or three people that have just as much passion and just as much gusto and energy as some people who are out there playing for 40,000.
FM: Any chance to get Paige Anderson & the Fearless Kin out on the next Revival Tour?
CR: I would love to. They’re dear friends. They live right up the road from me [laughs]. I just did some work with them. They called me up and asked me to produce their record. As much as I wanted to do that, I felt like I couldn’t completely take all that weight on just because I couldn’t give it the full attention that it deserved. But I did what I could. I was going over to their house a bunch and working on some tunes with them – sitting down to dinner with them and running through songs and listening to what they had and helping wherever I could. Man, their new stuff is just getting better and better. They’re young, they’ve got a ton of fire and they’re somebody to definitely keep our eyes on for years to come, because they’re just getting started.
FM: I was really impressed with the few songs I heard by them.
CR: They’re a special family. I really don’t know any families like them. They’re a true grit family band. They live on the outskirts of Grass Valley, they’re all homeschooled and they just live and breathe music. They live in a gorgeous setting on top of a mountain. They grow food, they take care of critters in the yard and play music [laughs]. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s their hunger that I admire more than anything. Obviously they’re raw talent – they’re incredibly talented, especially for their age. They just want to do it all – they want to get out there, they want to write and record and write with other people and tour. It’s all they want to do, and I believe it’s all they will do for their lives. They’ve got the right stuff.
FM: You recently turned 40. Have you had any great insights into hitting a new decade of life?
CR: [laughs] Yeah. I need to slow down. But then again, I said that when I was 30. I probably said that when I turned 25, too. As I grow older and living a life like this on the road, it’s amazing how fast things pass on by you. We have Dave Hause on the road with us, and Dave brought his younger brother Tim, who plays with him. He’s 21 years old, and the talent this kid has is unbelievable. The fact that he’s out here doing what he’s doing at 21, I kind of sit back and think about what I was doing when I was 21 [laughs]. I kind of shake my head and go, “Man.” He’s in a great spot, and what’s really cool to notice and watch is that he’s just really eager to learn from everybody. He listens well and learns really fast. I was sitting down with him the other day and was like, “Man, you’re paying attention, aren’t you?” He said, “Oh yeah.” I told him to just listen closely, because you get a bunch of us at the age we’re in when we’re on the road and everybody starts gabbing about all these war stories and all these mistakes we’ve made and all the could-have-would-have-should-haves [laughs]. I just said, “Pay attention, man, and hopefully you won’t make the mistakes we’ve all made. And hopefully you find all the glories – and then some that we’ve found, too.” But it really puts it in perspective when I look at this young man out here putting his heart and soul in his music and his brother’s music. I think about the age that I’m at. I’m still playing a lot of the same venues that I was playing 20 years ago. When you end up in that same parking lot, that same laundry mat or that same hotel or gas station, everything could feel like it just happened yesterday or could feel like a million years ago. It’s made me realize it’s really important to slow down wherever I can and not forget to smell the roses and pay my respects and show my gratitude to the folks who helped get us here to begin with, because who knows? This could be the last time I’m standing in this parking lot, which I hope somebody comes and cleans this trash up soon [laughs]. This might be some of the same trash that was here 20 years ago, too.
FM: You’re an avid fisherman. What’s your tallest fishermen’s tale?
CR: [laughs] Wow. There’s a many. I don’t even know where to begin with that question. There was a day where we were grouper fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. We were on our spot, and we were just winching grouper and doing real well. We were catching big ones – they’ll test you with every ounce of energy you have and about rip your arms off. We’re catching these big grouper, and a pair of cobia came along. We weren’t really set up to catch these cobia – especially the size that they were. We just gave it a shot on some light line with a little wire leader and a light rig and ended up hooking into this fish. It was probably 80 to 90 pounds, which is a big, big cobia for down there. My buddies were a little bit sore at first because we knew if we wanted to catch this fish, we had to pull anchor and leave this spot that we were already catching the fish we went there to catch [laughs]. But we all agreed to try and catch it. We ended up fighting that fish for a little over two hours, and it drug us a little over a mile and a half. We would get it close to the boat. It was a smaller boat and was pretty crowded in there, and if we would have pulled the fish into the boat, it could have hurt somebody. Our plan was to get it close and shoot it and bring it in. Every time we got it close, it would head to the bottom. Anyhow, we fought that fish for a couple of hours and ended up losing it. It turned and spit the hook. And by the time we got back to the grouper hole, those fish had pushed on. A big storm was coming in, and we about capsized [laughs]. It was just one of those lessons of “be careful what you wish for.” You’ve got to pick and choose your battles.
Chuck Ragan plays the Chameleon Club (223 N. Water St., Lancaster) on Friday, December 5. Adam Faucett opens. 7pm. 21+. $15 adv./$17 door. Click here for tickets.