Chuck Ragan

After more than 20 years of brotherly love, disagreement and songs, Hot Water Music seems to be more unshakable than ever with its individual members going off on their separate ways only to return home with new tales to share at the family table.

Chuck Ragan went off in several different directions after the band's break and has since returned a little older, revived and a shade more haggard. Whether it's toe-tapping folk songs or customized window frames, the jack of all trades has a big passion for life that's only matched by his gigantic, contagious laugh.

Briefly leaving a tour with Social Distortion, Chuck brought his solo show north of the border to Vancouver, BC where he played the passionate, unbridled show that people come to see him for. Literally minutes before he stepped onto the tiny Media Club stage, he sat down with Punknews interviewer Gen Handley to talk about the music, the band and the bright future.

Can you please state your full name?
My full official name is Charles Allan Ragan.

And for the one or two people at Punknews who don’t know, can you please describe what you do?
I’m a musician. I’m a songwriter. I’ve done it well over half of my life and it’s just what I do - it’s what I live and breathe. For me, songwriting and playing music is more of a therapy than anything else. Through my Hot Water days, my solo stuff and any other projects I’ve ever done, I’ve never thought about or cared about fitting into any genres. I never thought about Hot Water as a punk band - it just comes out and it feels right. If it feels good, I’m moving in the right direction.

First and foremost, I’m just doing my damndest to be honest with myself. I feel like writing songs is moreso something I need to do rather than something I want to do. I mean, I want to do it and I love it and totally enjoy it, but if I feel there’s something boiling and something happening, I’ve got to get it out. After I get it out, put it on paper and turn it into chords and all that, I’ve got to record it. Once I do that, put it on wax or stick it on a CD or whatever, then I feel like I can take the next step forward and move on - it’s the same thing as keeping a journal.

So you’re currently on tour with Social D How’s that going?
Oh man, it’s insane, absolutely insane. It’s going great.

What’s your earliest memory of Social Distortion?
Well I’ve been listening to that band for about 25 years. I had a good buddy, Jeremiah Grover, he was my skateboarding buddy and we watched all of their old videos together and started listening to Mommy’s Little Monster - I had that on a cassette tape. We used to pull out the launch ramps and blast that music and tear up our knees and backs (laughs). So yeah, those are some of the first memories. Out of all of the bands I’ve listened to, it’s them, Bad Religion, All and Creedence Clearwater Revival - I’ve listened to those bands more than anything I’ve ever listened to in my whole life.

So is this a little surreal then?
Every day man, every day. The crazy thing is that the whole Social D crew has been amazing . I mean, the band, everybody, the energy - everybody’s been super hospitable and super kind and welcoming. They’ve taken us in with open arms.

But yeah, every once in a while I sit back and look around and I’m talking to Jonny "Two Bags" and Mike Ness and it’s just like, "Wow, this is happening right now." It is surreal man - it’s really something.

I understand that you’re working on the follow up to Gold Country, which was a great, great album…
Thank you. Yeah, right now we’ve got a couple-dozen songs and just got to get them down - it’s time and we’ve got songs to put out. Next month, we’ll be recording the record with Christopher Thorn, from Blind Melon, and he’s a fantastic producer and engineer.

We’re just going to hammer it out and have a great time doing it. It’ll be the three of us - Jon Gaunt (violin player) and Joe Ginsberg (bass player) - and also a couple of our buddies from Lucero. We’re doing it in Silver Lake (Los Angeles) so who knows who’ll be in town and who’s going to pop in and join in on the record - Audra Mae will be there for sure.

How is this record going to be different from the last one?
For the next one we want to do it in a much more old school, old fashioned way and strip it down - really strip it down. Basically, it’s going to happen like what you’re going to see tonight. I mean, we’ve been playing as a three-piece - just a guitar, bass and fiddle - for a while now and every once in a while the Lucero guys will join in with a pedal steel and an accordion. We just want to make a very stripped down, grassroots record where the songs can just stand for themselves.

I had a great time recording Feast [or Famine] and I had a great time recording Gold Country - I loved it. But it was more of piling stuff in there and seeing what happened and I loved doing it that way. With the songs we have now, we just want to do it in a very straightforward, very simple fashion.

Any guest appearances on the new album that you can tell us about?
(smiles) You’re just going to have to wait and see.

Come on Chuck…
You’re just going to have to wait and see man (laughs).

Ok, fair enough, fair enough…
Like I said, being where we’re doing it (L.A.), there’s no telling. I’ve got a few friends who may be in town who would be pretty awesome…

So who have you been hanging out with these days?
That guy. (Laughs and points at Jon Gaunt who’s sitting across from us quietly. Jon gives a salute with his pint of Guinness)

. I hear you’re working on something with Brian Fallon. Is that true?
Yeah, Jon and I just did a massive tour with Gaslight Anthem across Europe. It was a huge honour and it was amazing. It was lots of big shows and the whole Gaslight camp was amazing - we love them to death and they’re family to us. So Brian and I had done a split seven inch together (Gospel Songs) and we started talking about writing some songs together. It was kind of the plan to write a record on that tour, but all of us were so busy in our own way that we decided that we need to make time for it - sit down and really dig into it. So something will happen, but right now, there’s nothing in the scope.

He’s on the Revival Tour in the UK and Europe and most likely we’ll do a Revival Tour comp, like we usually do, or we’ll do some seven inches together.

Regarding the Revival Tour, what’s going on with that?
Well, it’s coming to Canada.

Right on.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s starting in May in Victoria - about May 26, I think. Yeah, Dave Hause from the Loved Ones will be on it, Cory Branan and I’m going to try to pop in on some shows, but not the whole thing though. I need to be home more - I’m not home enough. That’s the thing about the road that it definitely takes a toll. But stay tuned for the announcement of some more artists and I think it’s going to be a great tour.

Well it’s certainly built up a good reputation over the past few years. Are you having a good time with it?
Well, it’s tough work and we’ve lost a lot of money along the way, but that’s not what it’s about to us. It’s more about doing something that we want to last a long time. We’re bringing in artists that people are familiar with and they’re like, "Oh, that’s that person from that band," and that gets them there. But we have the opportunity to put some people on the bill that nobody has ever heard of and expose music that we believe in and expose music that we feel is completely worthy to be heard by the people - it’s a pretty simple concept.

There’s a very noble, honest cause behind it all…
Yeah man. It’s a community thing. We all believe in it and we all absolutely have our heart and souls in it. For that reason alone, I feel like I can say that this tour will be around for years.

How’s the new Hot Water Music album coming along?
We’re writing and yeah, we plan on doing a new record. But I don’t know when it’s going to happen and that’s all I can say right now.

No idea?
Yeah, no idea. We’re going to be playing a few shows here and there and plan on writing more this summer - we’ll start recording when it feels honest and good to go.

How many songs have you written so far?
We’ve got a boat-load of songs.

Are they going to be a little slower? Faster?
You’re just going to have to wait and see man (laughs).

(laughs) You’re killing me Chuck!
(laughs) You know how in Hot Water we’d have the straightforward, just rocking songs and then we always had kind of the weird ones that were a little different? Well, we noticed that when we’d go out and play shows that all we’d want to play is the straightforward rocking stuff. So a lot of the newer stuff is really simple, four-on-the-floor fast songs. But that’s now and we’ve still got a lot of writing to do. You never know.

I spoke to Chris (Wollard) over a year ago about his Ship Thieves album…
That’s such an awesome album…

Oh, I agree man - it’s so good. But he was saying that as good as it was making that album as well as doing other projects, there’s something about Hot Water that can’t be replaced. Like, there’s a dialogue between you guys that’s totally unique. What’s your take on that?
I don’t know man. I mean, Hot Water Music is the band that we all grew up in. It’s the band that made us the people we are today. We went through a lot of turmoil, hard times and tragic stuff, but we also had a lot of glorious time - a lot of wonderful things happened to us while heading down that road. From, basically, when we were kids to young adults to older adults, and the opportunities we were given, the opportunities that we had and the opportunities that we just took, that defined us as a band and at the same time, it also made us who we are as individuals. I wouldn’t trade it for anything - those guys are my brothers and I love them to death. I mean, we love each other like brothers and we fight each other like brothers.

Yeah, we were the band up there and we were the ones writing and playing the songs, but what truly made us who we were, was the friends, the fans and the family who supported us. Hot Water wouldn’t be Hot Water Music without the devoted and intense fans that we have.

Aside from Hot Water Music of course, what other bands would you like to see reunited, playing music again?
(smiles) Creedence Clearwater Revival.

What is it about the solo shows like tonight’s that you don’t get when you’re playing with a band?
I’ve always done acoustic music, even before I was ever in Hot Water Music. Through Hot Water, I did do other stuff like Rumbleseat but Hot Water was always the main focus. But I never stopped writing songs like this though - it’s just what I’ve done since I was kid, really. There’s a huge difference in writing with Hot Water and writing with me - there’s pros and cons for both. When writing for Hot Water, we write as a collective. So we all write, then we’ll come together, we’ll rip the songs apart and then put them back together - that’s a Hot Water song. It’s amazing, but the fact that you have these three other friends with you, ideas get shot down sometimes for whatever reason. But at the same time, you have this support group, you have these people helping you police your ideas - it puts you in check (laughs).

(laughs) Are the other guys honest during the process?
Oh yeah buddy, brutally honest. So with the solo stuff, it’s the same thing, but just flipped. I love writing my own stuff because I’m completely uninhibited and can do whatever I want - I don’t have any boundaries. It’s a very free feeling and it’s very liberating, but at the same time, it’s a heck of a lot more intimidating. Granted, these days, I have Jon Gaunt, Joe and these guys who I would love to think that they would be like, "Hey buddy, that’s just a bad song - don’t do that." (laughs) So it’s kind of changed.

Have you found that with the solo career, your audience has broadened into different areas?
Absolutely. When I first started doing it, obviously, everyone was coming out because, "Oh, it’s the guy who’s in Hot Water Music." Otherwise, I was this over-30-year-old-kind-of-overweight-bearded-carpenter guy up there playing a guitar. I’ve found that over the years, it seems that a majority of the audience at the shows are people who have maybe heard of Hot Water Music - and it seems like a lot of them haven’t even heard the band, which is crazy.

Well, I gave Feast or Famine to my dad and he described you as "intergenerational" and I’ve never heard him say that before about a singer.
Well, thank you - that’s huge. I’ve had nothing but positive support from friends and from family. It’s been nothing but good energy.

Because an acoustic set is stripped down and more vulnerable in a way, is it intimidating in a way because you’re more exposed?
Absolutely. I think that anybody who stands up with an acoustic guitar doesn’t have much to hide behind - you either make it work or you don’t. It’s different when you’ve got a whole raging band behind you and there’s distortion and you can just flail and get all crazy-eyed (laughs). You can’t really do that on an acoustic guitar - it’s only a wooden box and your voice. (laughs) But that’s what I love about it most is that it still scares the hell out of me and I get nervous still. It’s not fear, it’s just like, "Alright, I’ve got to do this and just let it go and let it out." That to me is definitely a high point and a fire that keeps it all going.

So vice-versa, what is it about being in the band that you miss while playing solo.
(shrugs his shoulders) Hey, sometimes you’ve just got to turn it up (laughs). I haven’t ever in my life felt so blessed because people are into the solo stuff and I love it and I thank them for it. And then we have such an awesome fan base and a history with Hot Water Music - we’re able to go out to play shows while people give us this energy and we can give it back, keeping that cycle going.

I mean, as an older fellow like me, Les Pauls are getting really heavy, and jumping around like a mad man is hard on the knees, on the back and on the voice. But, I feel like I get the best of both worlds.

There’s some balance there then…
Well that’s the trick - finding balance and hanging onto that medium.

With the recent split with the Bouncing Souls, did each band pick the songs they covered?
Yeah, but I didn’t know they were going to pick "Wayfarers" as the song.

Where did the idea come from for the split?
It was pretty much like, "Hey, you guys want to do a split? Yeah! Lets do it." (laughs)

Do you know if that’s being released digitally?
I’m sure it will be soon man.

I need to get the old record player hooked up so I can I listen to it…
Yeah man, get that fixed. (laughs)

Are still doing carpentry?
Just on my own home, which has been a dream come true. I miss it and I still have a massive shop of tools. I’m a worker - I love getting up at 4:30 or 5 a.m., having my coffee, taking my dog out, kissing my wife and then looking at a set of prints before I head out onto the job site and make it happen. It’s fulfilling, it feels good and it revives me, truly. I miss it but to me, carpentry and music have always been one and the same. It’s all these things I love - fishing, cooking, carpentry, music, my life, my wife, my dog. They’re all one and the same.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve built with wood?
Man, probably some custom window frames that I built on site, which was crazy because they had to be just perfect and not leak (laughs). It was my first time doing it so I was kind of learning as I went. I’m not a bad craftsman, but I know how to cut a big stick into a little stick. (laughs)

Where do you get all of the energy to stay so busy, so productive most of the time?
Right here man. Honestly, it’s everything I come in contact with and the people I come in contact with from the moment I wake up to the moment I lay down. My wife, my family, my friends, the folks who come to these shows, the bands we meet on tour - that’s where it comes from. It’s whatever that touches you or inspires you - or shot you down or put you down. Whether it’s positive or negative, or if it affects you and shakes your bones, to me, it’s worth telling a story about and getting off your chest.