Chuck Ragan: “If something moves you, in a positive or negative way, it’s worth getting it off your chest and telling a story about”

As they release 10th album Vows, Hot Water Music frontman Chuck Ragan looks back on the punk rock legends’ 30-year legacy, grief, changing priorities, fatherhood, and life as a fly-fishing instructor…

Chuck Ragan: “If something moves you, in a positive or negative way, it’s worth getting it off your chest and telling a story about”
David McLaughlin
Jesse Korman and George Rebelo

You’ve inevitably read Chuck Ragan’s voice being described as ‘gravelly’ before. Today, it is excruciatingly so, as the Hot Water Music frontman is battling an unknown illness that has ravaged his throat only a few days into the band’s North American tour promoting their 10th studio album, Vows.

It’s not the only reason interviewing him for over an hour feels somewhat harsh, however, as midway through he opens up about how his mother passed away just a fortnight before, a seismic event by anyone’s reckoning. The inherent vulnerability of grief hardly seems like an ideal headspace from which to speak with clarity and composure about the past 30 years of his life and work, but it’s testament to his resilience that he insists on forging forward and manages just that.

Alongside fellow vocalist and guitarists Chris Wollard, Chris Cresswell, drummer George Rebello and bassist Jason Black, Chuck’s distinctive rasp has helped Hot Water Music redefine punk rock in the modern era. His celebrated solo career helped a whole generation of punks unplug along the way too.

Away from the spotlight, Chuck is a doting husband and father who works as a fly-fishing instructor, happily living a quiet rural life in Gold Country, California. His eyes light up as he talks about how the neighbourhood collectively pulls together to share in a sustainable lifestyle that’s kinder to the planet. The guilt of travelling the world in his other life evidently weighs heavy on his conscience.

At the heart of it all is community and connection. Across a remarkably frank, enlightening and heartfelt conversation the punk rock icon goes deep on three decades of service to the cause, the lifelong search for a place to call home and the legacy he hopes to leave behind, one he’s still very much in the process of building…

If you weren’t on tour promoting Vows, what would you be doing today?
“Probably in my boat, working. I’m a fly-fishing instructor and typically on the water around 180 days a year, which is more than I’m onstage these days. The property we’re in is a fixer [upper], so I’m always working on that too. We have a pond, we’re growing fish for sustenance and we just put down an orchard. That kind of work is never really finished.”

You seem perennially busy. Do you struggle to switch off or is there a meditative quality in physical work that helps you recharge creatively?
“Great question. My wife always says I fill the space. But I have to. With all the things we have to do to the house, for our son, it seems like I couldn’t work enough. So, I’m always grinding. Unfortunately, the two types of work that I do aren’t really clock-in and clock-out jobs. They fill the calendar.”

Even outside of touring, you’ve lived a nomadic lifestyle. Have you always been searching for a place to call home?
“I’ve always been looking for this. I can honestly say now that if I die on that piece of property back home I’m good. I’ve found it. I feel incredibly lucky to have my wife, our son and our destructive Labrador in my life. For years I’ve always dreamt of this. It took everything we had to get it and it’s a non-stop struggle to hang onto, but we’re making it work.”

What makes Gold Country feel like home?
We just fell in love with our neighbours and the ethics of how people live there. Everyone grows, raises or builds something, contributing to the community. It’s important to us to play a part in that. We wanted to raise our son in a healthy environment. It’s a little bit tough and scary, because I know he lives in this beautiful nature bubble and it breaks my heart to know that one day he'll witness the true ugliness of the world. But it’s important to me to shed as much positive light onto the planet and show this way of life to him at a young age.”

That must make leaving for tour difficult…
“It’s getting harder and harder, and the hardest bit is leaving the boy. I’ll be honest, I battle with whether I’m doing the right thing a lot. I love the band, what we’ve done and I’m thrilled to be out here. I don’t mean to make this a dark interview, but I truly believe that I’m not the best dad. If I were a better dad, I would not be sitting in Toronto right now. We’ve been doing it for 30 years now and somehow we’re still making sacrifices.”

After all this time together, has Hot Water Music become a kind of surrogate family?
“Oh, absolutely, man. We have developed a real family bond. You live next to each other in small vans and spaces, travelling and seeing each other at your very best and your worst. There’s special connections within that. But it takes a village for that to last 30 years. We have so many people to thank for helping, from our wives, partners, dogs (laughs) and promoters to all our supporters. We couldn’t have done it if the support wasn’t there.”

Vows is a milestone release, being the band’s 10th album and released as part of your 30-year celebrations. How do you approach a new record this far into the game?
“By trusting each other. We had all the right team members and we’ve used this formula before: us, Ryan Williams engineering and Brian McTernan producing. As long as communication is open and honest, the songs get to where they need to be. There’s only a handful of topics that the entire world writes about. To make a song your own, you have to believe in it and you have to believe in each other. There was a lot of talk around the fire. We’d come back from writing sessions and speak of old times, tell stories and get nostalgic. There were a lot of emotions throughout the process and it was wonderful, because it ended up transferring onto the record. It took a long time for us to be able to communicate like that. We truly are family, just kind of a dysfunctional one. We all love each other like brothers, but dammit, we’ve literally fought like brothers as well.”

What inspires you to write a Hot Water Music song now compared to 10, 20 or 30 years ago?
“A lot of the inspiration hasn’t changed much at all. We’ve always felt that if something moves you, in a positive or negative way, it’s worth getting it off your chest and telling a story about. But we definitely have a lot less angst now. In the early days, I couldn’t really picture my life past the age of 25. Nor did I bother. That kept me living in the moment, which I still try not to stray too far from. In the end, not a lot has changed. That’s the perks of using music as therapy, to help us become better individuals, partners, dads (laughs).”

When other people connect with it does it become something else entirely?
“It’s very spiritual. I grew up having religion shoved down my throat and I always clashed with it. But there were aspects of that way of life and values that I’ve hung onto and dragged into the punk rock community. Honestly, it’s just really simple stuff like treating someone how you want to be treated. It’s cathartic to have a vehicle like music to express what you need to stay sane. Especially for those of us filled with anger, anxiety and deep-rooted issues. Even at this age we’re still working through and figuring it out.

“I lost my mother Monday before last. There have been some wild things finding their way into my thoughts and my dreams, about my family and my upbringing. There’s a lot of stuff that I possibly suppressed and never truly dealt with there. I never really saw it as clearly as I do now since she died. So, it seems like every time you think you have it licked you get your ass kicked again. It’s important to recognise that there’s always time for reflection and room for improvement. To me, the fact that other people have gravitated to these songs and get something from them is a blessing. It’s beautiful. I’ve had people tell me our music saved their life and my only response to them is that it saved mine too. We’re all in this together.”

That’s a heavy burden to place on an artist. Does it ever feel overwhelming?
“It can be overwhelming, but if I have something to do with helping someone get through another day, get out of a dark headspace or keep somebody from jumping off a bridge, that’s a beautiful thing. I’m proud and honoured to be a piece of that puzzle.”

What’s the secret to sticking around without hating each other or growing apart?
“That is a great question. And I’m kind of stumped. Maybe it’s just communication. We’ve broken up a couple of times [in 1998 and 2006] and we were completely fine with it because it was more important to stay friends. That, to me, is a testament to our loyalty to one another. That first time we broke up was the best thing we’ve ever done. It proved to me how we were willing to let the band die in exchange for continuing being friends. In reality, all we needed was a break, we just didn’t realise it. We’ve all decided there’s no point in us breaking up again and I don’t believe we ever will. We’ve already tried it twice!”

That second split prompted you to launch a solo sideline plying your trade folk-rock style. Some people might even primarily know you for that stuff. Is that something you have a sense of?
“In a way. The shows are definitely different. The crowds are a little different. At my shows, a lot of people bring their grandmas, grandpas and kids. It’s lovely. In the end to me, it’s all one and the same.”

What do you make of The Revival Tour era looking back on it all now?
“Those were some of the most amazing tours. It was a very exciting time in music for me. In a lot of ways, the shows were outlined but not scripted, so you never really knew what was going to happen. The combinations of collaborations and versions of songs was just so special. It would still be going now, but I couldn’t afford to take any more hits. My wife and I more or less funded it and we just couldn’t afford it anymore, so it kind of fell apart.”

Could it return?
“There’s a few loose plans in place. I guess you are now officially the first to know that. We’ll see how it goes. We’re not exactly sure on the when and where just yet but we’ve got some wheels turning.”

Do you have any goals left to achieve?
“Many, but they mostly involve my wife and son. I would love to travel and bring him along, flipping a coin to determine where the road takes us. I’ve always dreamt of hiking the Pacific Crest trail. I’ve done about 280 miles, but there’s close to 3,000 miles of it. That’s been on my mind lately. It would be life-changing for sure.”

Is legacy on your mind these days?
“Absolutely. To live where we live, to see what it takes to grow food, raise chickens, milk dairy cows, mill lumber and that going into the community, seems to me to be very sustainable. It’s a beautiful way of life. That can last a long time if it’s done right. But I’m extremely conflicted. Right now, I’m sitting on a tour bus speaking as a true hypocrite. And I believe that we’re some of the good guys, yet we’re still making a negative impact on our planet by just being here. That doesn’t seem all that sustainable.”

When do you feel most at peace, onstage or out on the water?
“Probably on the water. But truly, it’s when I’m in bed reading to my son. That’s everything.”

Hot Water Music’s Vows is out now on End Hits Records.

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