Online Exclusive Interview: Chuck Ragan

Posted May 4, 2009 in

For the better part of the 1990s and the early 2000s, Chuck Ragan was one of the gruff-voiced, impassioned and intense frontmen for Hot Water Music, one of the greatest bands to ever come out of the punk rock mecca of Gainesville, Florida. When the band went on hiatus in 2005, Ragan ducked out of the spotlight, but the touring bug bit him again, and he started up a folk and country inspired solo project. Between a 7” series released by No Idea Records, a live album and studio album released by SideOneDummy, a collaborative album with Austin Lucas, a slew of 7”s and a whole lot of touring, Chuck has become even more prolific than he was in his days with Hot Water Music. I recently got the chance to speak with Ragan about his past, his present and his future.

SLUG:  In other interviews I’ve read and heard, you talk about how your wife encouraged you to start your solo acoustic product, but I’ve never really heard about what drew you to this kind of music in the first place. Obviously there was an interest before Hot Water Music broke up because you played in Rumbleseat for a while, but could you talk about how you first became interested in this kind of music?
Chuck: I think back to a lot of the music I heard growing up in my household and where I came from. I was born and raised in the southeast and I grew up in a somewhat conservative good ol’ southern Baptist household, so I grew up hearing a lot of gospel and bluegrass and some country. My mother’s side of the family is all Cajun folk, so on that side of the family we heard a lot of Creole music, sitting around and watching my grandma and grandpa singing Cajun songs and playing the accordion and tambourine. I think a lot of that has really been instilled in me since I was a baby. One of my all time favorite bands is Creedence Clearwater Revival. I’ve always enjoyed playing acoustic guitar. Even when I got older and started listening to bands like Bad Brains and The Germs and Minor Threat, I still listened to CCR along the way. It kinda made me feel the same way as all the punk rock music I was listening to. Even through Hot Water Music, the majority of the first songs we ever wrote were written acoustic. That wasn’t necessarily by choice, because we lived in an apartment complex where we really couldn’t plug in, so a lot of the times we were just sitting around on the porches, playing acoustic guitar. I think part of it is that it all feels natural to  me, and the other part of it is the independence of it all. There’s really not a whole lot to hide behind when you’re standing up there with an acoustic guitar. You’re really cutting yourself open. It’s intimidating and it’s scary, which I think is what drives a lot of people to do it, because if you’re able to get up and go for it and pull it off, it feels good.

SLUG: Why do you think fans of Hot Water Music and fans of punk rock in general are attracted to you and people like Tim Barry and Austin Lucas and all of these other punk-gone-folk artists that are so prominent?
Chuck: For one, I think it’s amazing that people have been so receptive, and that I’ve gotta see first and foremost. I certainly feel blessed that people have been so supportive. I think that this kind of music isn’t really anything that different from what we’ve been doing, we’re just doing it a bit more full-on right now because people are noticing it a little bit and it’s being supported a little bit more. Ideally, it’s not any different than any of the other stuff I’ve ever done. As far as writing goes, it’s not any different for me. Ethically, lyrically it’s all for the same cause and the same idea. The only thing different is it isn’t all distorted and it doesn’t have the massive drums and the whole rock and roll aspect. Other than that, it feels the same.

SLUG: Kind of going along those same lines, lately there’s been some criticism leveled against these acoustic/punk artists. A lot of people are accusing them and what they’re doing as insincere and cashing in on a trend. What is your reaction to that?
Chuck: I think the people who are doing it who aren’t sincere, it’s gonna show, and they’re gonna get tired of it and move on. The fact that there is criticism, I mean, what’s knew? Anything and everything that has ever happened in music at anytime or another is gonna be criticized. Fads are gonna come and go and artists are gonna come and go. That’s just the way it is, and honestly I could care less. It’s not gonna stop me from planting some tomatoes next week or going and catching a bass tomorrow morning or sitting down and writing a country song as opposed to sitting down and writing a Hot Water Music song. Some people do it for the right reasons and they do it from their heart and soul, and that’s not gonna change. I think part of the responsibility falls on the artist, to find within them their intentions, and then the other responsibility is on the listener to be able to decide what is true and real. If someone doesn’t like what I’m doing, I don’t let it bother me in any way. When Hot Water Music fist came out it felt like everybody in our town absolutely hated us because the biggest band in our town was Crimpshrine, and we didn’t sound like Crimpshrine. The four or five friends who showed up to watch us play were only there because they were our friends, but that didn’t stop us then and we don’t let it stop us now.

SLUG: I’ve heard you say in other interviews that the people interested in what you’re doing now wouldn’t be interested if not for Hot Water Music. Do you want people to look at the  music you’re making now as something wholly removed from your Hot Water Music, or as a continuation of what you were doing with them?
Chuck: I never try to distance myself from Hot Water Music. When I started doing this, it was never about me being done with the band thing and wanting everyone to focus on me. I’m extremely, extremely proud of all the years we put in as a band. I think what I’m most proud of is all the friends and fans who supported us over the years. When I started doing the acoustic stuff, in all honestly, I had a whole bunch of songs, and SideOneDummy and No Idea were interested in putting it out and it made sense. I was really proud that I could go out and play a show and have all these old friends and fans come out and support this stuff. I never tried to separate myself in the sense that I didn’t want anybody to know where I came from.

SLUG: Speaking of Hot Water Music, are there any plans for any more shows or even a new record sometime down the line?
Chuck: We all really wanna do a new record, and honestly it’s just a matter of time. I would love to do it, but Chris Wollard just recorded an amazing new solo record. I just had George Rebelo out here to play drums on my new record, and Jason Black is playing bass for Sense Fail right now. We’re all just trucking on and doing our own thing. We have a few shows planned in the future, and we’re all excited to write again, it’s just a matter of finding the time to do it. One of these days.

SLUG: What can fans expect from the new Chuck Ragan album?
Chuck: Oh man, where do I begin? I’m pretty fired up on this one. I produced this record myself, which is the first time I’ve taken something like that on. It’s been a little stressful, mainly because we’re trying to work on a budget and within a timeframe. I had a whole group of songs that I could go either way with – I could’ve gone really simple and stripped down, or I could just go for it and get a bunch of friends and just make the songs really full. I brought George Rebelo down. Jon Gaunt, my fiddle player, he’s on it. I flew Digger Barnes over from Germany to play electric bass and stand-up bass, and I got Todd Beene, who played with Lucero and on Ben Nichols’ solo stuff, to play pedal steel. I had some great local kids called the Anderson Family Bluegrass Band sing a bunch of backup and put on some mandolin. Austin Lucas was just in the other day. Man, it’s been amazing. The songs have definitely filled in a whole lot more than the live record and Bristle Ridge and even Feast or Famine. We’re just having a good time making good sounds and seeing what comes out. I’m anxious to get it over with, though! Summer’s here, and I wanna fish until my arms fall off, but I’m still in the studio for hours on end, but I can’t complain.

SLUG: What do you have planned for the tour with Lucero?
Chuck: It’s just gonna be me and Jon Gaunt on that tour, we’ll probably just stack up in a truck and camp and fish along the way. I think Lucero dumps us off in Minnesota and we’re gonna play our way down to Florida. My brother just had his second baby, so we’re gonna see some family while we’re down there. We’ll be playing some new stuff and try to have some fun with it.

SLUG: Could you talk about what fans can expect for this year’s edition of The Revival Tour?
Chuck: We’re really excited about it. It was a real leap of faith last year. We weren’t sure how it was gonna go. It was really, really expensive the way that we did it, but we didn’t have a choice with the amount of people and with the timeframe we were using. Halfway through it was kinda scary, looking at the finances and the expenses versus the money that was comin in. We were all biting our nails, but having a blast at the same time. At that point it didn’t matter - whether we were losing money or making money, we were all having the time of our life. To me, it was one of the most special tours I’ve ever been on in my entire life. The response was what I was most worried about and whether or not people would have the attention span to hang with a show that went on for three and a half hours or so. Everybody was way into it, so we’re doing it again this year.

SLUG: Is that gonna be this fall?
Chuck: It is, the dates are probably gonna be October 14 to November 20 or so. We’re really excited. It’s gonna be a different lineup. There might be a few of the guys who were on it last year, but we’re really trying to expand it in terms of getting a really wide range of acoustic artists. One thing I’m really concerned with this year is getting more female artists on the tour. Last year it was very male oriented, as most tours seems to be, and my wife and I are out to break that mold. There are so many great female artists out there that need to be heard, and we’re gonna try to pull them out of the woodwork. We’re so grateful that people have been interested and supportive enough to allow us to keep doing this, and it really means the world to us.

We talked even more about the Revival Tour, but it’s probably stuff that should be kept under wraps for now. Rest assured that it’s gonna be a whole lot bigger and ambitious than last year’s already awesome iteration, though. Chuck’s new album will be released late this summer by SideOneDummy, but before that, he’ll be playing with Lucero at The Urban Lounge on May 27th. 

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