Chuck Ragan: My life in 10 songs

Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan talks family, survival, brotherhood and “crummy homemade tattoos” as he looks back over almost 30 years of punk rock brilliance.

Chuck Ragan: My life in 10 songs
Mischa Pearlman

For almost three decades now – give or take their few years on hiatus – Hot Water Music have been at the top of the gruff-punk game, and have influenced countless bands along the way. That’s mainly because of the gravelly vocals of co-frontmen Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard. But beneath that coarse exterior, as Chuck explains, they’re just vulnerable people just trying to find their way in life and hoping to inspire others as they do. With stunning new album Feel The Void (quite possibly the best of their career), Hot Water Music have managed to capture the quintessential essence that has defined them for so long while also breathing new life into it. These are the songs that got them – or Chuck, at any rate – there…

1Hot Water Music – Turnstile (Fuel For The Hate Game, 1997)

The second song on Hot Water Music’s debut is a ragged tale of survival and self-belief.

“Hot Water Music has always been more a vehicle for healing and overcoming obstacles than just about being in a band. I recall a show that happened on Siesta Key Beach when I was living in Sarasota. I had just recently met [co-vocalist / guitarist] Chris Wollard. I had known George [Rebello, drums] and Jason Black [bass]. Chris kind of lived on the other side of the tracks in a neighbouring town and we hadn’t hung out too much just yet, but there was a show some local bands were playing. There were probably 30 of us there and I realised it wasn’t so much about the music as it was about the overall vibe and energy and the realness. It was a moment I’ll always remember, because I realised music didn’t have to be about being famous or getting the girl or travelling the world, but about just wrecking your body and playing hard and sweating and just bleeding and ripping it. It was therapy. That moment is exactly what Turnstile is about – that there is no point in surrendering, there’s no point in ever giving up, but instead believing in ourselves and using this music as a vehicle to become a better person.”

2Hot Water Music – No Division (No Division, 1999)

The title track of HWM’s No Division captures the sense of brotherhood and togetherness that’s always driven the band.

“Hot Water Music never really set out to be anything in particular. We just let it unfold. Sometimes it would come out as just pure gibberish trying to find a melody and tap into whatever was moving us to play at that point in time. And every once in a while, a word or phrase would pop out and it would make us realise what that song was meant to become, and we would find that path. One word that was very important around the time No Division came together was ‘unity’. I was really thankful to be a part of a community that felt truly genuine.”

3Hot Water Music – Old Rules (A Flight And A Crash, 2001)

Few songs better capture the tug-of-war between working life and dreams beyond it than this.

“In the early days, we toured so much that none of us could really go to school or even hold down a solid job, but at the same time we weren’t making enough money to live off making music. And it’s kind of funny. I’ll be 48 this year, and not much changes if you’re a punk musician. Most of the time it’s hand-to-mouth. But back then we had to make a lot of sacrifices. Often we’d work jobs that were just brutal, and we have a wild history of coming home, literally homeless. There were many years where it was far from easy, where we’d be pooling our money to buy a couple of loaves of bread and a gigantic jar of peanut butter and a couple of gallons of water, and that’s what we lived on. If we were lucky, we would have a little bit of money to get some food, but we would have to get right back to work. Old Rules is a working song, and realising there’s nothing wrong with work. I need to do it work, and I feel good when I do. It’s rewarding, it’s exhausting, it’s hard on the body, but it’s what we have to do to survive until we’re done.”

4Hot Water Music – Remedy (Caution, 2002)

Look away now if you’re squeamish. Seriously. Don’t say we didn’t warn you…

“Remedy is about a time that was pretty insane when I was a young kid. I was just a little scoundrel and pretty brutal to my parents. I was very angry and fought everything, but I look back now and I was just terrified – very insecure, depressed, and suicidal, just in a dark, dark place. Friends and I used to sit around and give each other homemade tattoos at a very young age. I went through a rough time where my parents had put me away – it wasn’t jail or prison, but a treatment centre for kids anywhere from 12 years old up to young adults. There were extremely violent individuals, drug addicts, prostitutes and people with suicidal tendencies throughout the whole programme. They tried to break you down and strip you of everything that you knew up to that point in your life to clean your own slate and rebuild your life and learn how to heal yourself. I was there for almost three years, from about 14 maybe up to 17.

“When I got in there, I came in with all these really crummy homemade tattoos, and one of the first things when I was allowed to go home for a couple of days a week, my parents – being the somewhat conservative, Southern, proper lady and gentleman that they were – wanted me to have the tattoos removed. Back in those days, it was very medieval. The guy that worked on me literally cut around these tattoos, almost filleted my skin away from the muscles, pulled it together tight and sewed it up. And I was a young kid, I wasn’t done growing yet. I was supposed to have three surgeries, but at the first one he took way too much skin out. And then the second surgery he did too early. I hadn’t healed enough, so the scars got worse, and after that I just I said, ‘The hell with it. I’m done.’

“Anyway, one of the things we had to do in the programme once a week was write an RSA, which stands for Rational Self-Analysis. You’d basically write out three major problems that were troubling you that week, and then three goals on how to overcome those obstacles. That was a game-changer. It was how I started expressing things. It started out where I was more or less forced to do it, but once I realised that I felt better for doing it, I started doing it on my own accord. Anyhow, Remedy is about that healing process, what it takes and what it feels like going through it and what it feels like overcoming it. It wasn’t pleasant revisiting that and writing that. It kind of messed me up.”

5Chuck Ragan – The Boat (Feast Or Famine, 2007)

When Chuck went solo, he managed to maintain the intensity of sound and meaning in his songs.

“This is a dark-sounding song and there’s some dark lyrics, but it’s positive! It’s important to connect with those dark subjects and understand why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling, but the majority of our songs have always had a light at the end of the tunnel. The Boat summed up a lot of everything that I had lived and breathed and done up until that point in music. It’s about believing in music and letting it save and heal you. Hot Water Music had gone on an indefinite hiatus and I was asked to write a public statement to let people know. I didn’t want the band to end; I was just tired of playing the game. We had this whole new team and new management who were wanting to push us to the next level, and it became everything that I had sung against for the longest time. I ended up going back to my trade in carpentry, but I didn’t want to quit playing music. I just wanted to quit the music business. I was sick of it. I’d moved to California at this point and I’d come home from work and just write songs, and one day my wife said, ‘You should record some of these songs before you lose them.’ There’s so many songs that get worked on, that all this time and energy and thought goes into, and then they just fizzle and evaporate and whatever it was is gone for forever. The Boat is just about believing that music has that power to bring us to a place when we need it most.”

6Chuck Ragan – Vagabond (Till Midnight, 2014)

Being in a band is a dream for many, but here Chuck explains the dark side…

“A lot of my solo stuff is written about the love I have for my wife, my friends, and now my son. Vagabond is a travelling song about the love-hate relationship I have with touring. I’m honoured and feel very blessed to have the opportunity to play music and to travel and have people who live a long ways away from me care about what we’re doing. It’s a wonderful thing when I see friends that I’ve basically grown up with in the almost 28 years now that I’ve been doing this. But even though I love seeing them, I’d rather be home. I have a son now that I feel really needs me here and it’s getting harder to leave home. So this is a travelling song about waking up alone and sleeping alone way too much, and being in love, but at the same time being so far away from that person that I love.”

7Chuck Ragan – Gathering Wood (The Flame In The Flood OST, 2016)

Written for a computer game (yes, really), this is a lovely, lilting ode to compassion and community

“This song really puts an emphasis on how important it is to help one another. I’d written it right after my son was born, and it’s about how we have to be there for one another. None of us can do it on our own. We may be able to do some things for a short time on our own, but eventually we need each other. We need each other to survive, to feel connected with the world. This a feel-good song, and any time we play it, I don’t think about me, I think of the people that I need to help.”

8Chuck Ragan – What We Leave Behind (The Flame In The Flood OST, 2016)

In which Chuck poignantly points out the important things in life.

“I wrote this when my son was still in a crib. Having children is both absolutely glorious and terrifying, all at the same time. There’s a part of me that feels very lucky to have such a beautiful person in our life, but at the same time, I almost have some guilt that I’ve brought this child into a world that can be extremely ugly and brutal. The song is trying to explain to this young one that all we are is what we leave behind, and that we don’t need to put too much importance on material things or on status or wealth – that what seems to give us fulfilment is just love and togetherness with the people that we connect with.”

9Hot Water Music – Drag My Body (Exister, 2012)

If there’s a more upbeat and inspiring song about depression, please show us…

“Depression and insecurity are things I’ve struggled with, and things I may struggle with, forever. A lot of that stuff I battled through as a young kid is still there. What really makes a difference is realising it, understanding where it stems from, and understanding enough about how it affects you and how to release yourself from it. I struggle with it, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that, and it’s important to feel okay about letting someone else know that. It feels good telling you that right now. To me, where it becomes dangerous is when you bottle it up and push it down. That’s when I’ve noticed I do very irresponsible things. Drag My Body is just about realising that, and doing my damnedest to pull myself off the floor and find and focus on the reason for putting my boots on again in the morning.”

10Hot Water Music – Habitual (Feel The Void, 2022)

This song’s subject matter is incredibly bleak, but you can also feel defiance course through it.

“A lot of my family and friends have dealt with a lot of loss, especially through cancer. It seems like we’ve just been surrounded by it for years. And I’ve noticed that there are two mentalities. Some people are made aware of this sickness and they completely fold, give up mentally, and just get taken over by it. But I’ve seen people take that information and use it as fuel to beat that cancer. And when I say beat that cancer, I no longer even think about the ones who beat the cancer in a literal sense and become a survivor, but just making the most of the life you have. This song is about igniting a spirit within yourself to not only fight the sickness, but fight the downtrodden negativity that can come with it. When it comes to anyone having cancer, we immediately think of the worst – of the sadness and hardship. What we don’t think about enough is the triumph that some people find in overcoming it – whether they die from it or not.”

Feel The Void is due out on March 18 via End Hits Records.

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