Published Mar 24, 2014Chuck Ragan is the kind of person where everything he touches turns golden, so it's no surprise that his fourth solo album, Till Midnight, is a down-home slice of Americana that is perhaps his strongest effort yet. Known for his role in long-time melodic punk rock band Hot Water Music, as well as spearheading the popular Revival Tour, Ragan's latest album is the culmination of finding true happiness and surrounding himself with supportive people who share in his musical vision. Ragan recently spoke to Exclaim! about the power of collaborating with musicians he respects, and the future of his other projects. He even took time to tell us his version of the now-infamous Dave Hause mugger story.
It sounds like you are having a lot of fun on this new album.
Yeah man, it's a lot different than my previous stuff. It was a real strong group effort and out of all of my releases it's definitely the most together sounding, with a fuller, bigger sound. Lyrically, it seems to be a lot more optimistic and it's just a super positive record. We had a blast doing it and it came through on the recording and it was just a lot of fun.
Did you go in thinking it might be more of a happy record?
Yeah, my songs have always documented where I am at that moment in time. That's just how I write. I write off-the-cuff and wearing my heart on my sleeve, so to speak, so in doing that I'm writing about what's happening in my life, right then and there. I feel like I'm in a wonderful place, man. I couldn't be happier and I just feel really comfortable. I'm surrounded by incredible people, positive people, forward-thinking people, progressive people and I just feel really lucky. I'm happily married to an incredibly strong woman who has inspired me to no end and that's a huge part of it. My wife is the greatest inspiration I could ever ask for. I don't know, man, I'm just pumped to be playing music and to have an opportunity to have songs I care about heard. It still blows me away that people care about this stuff that goes down on a recorder, or in a notebook, or written on a napkin, and it gets to people and every once in awhile it may make a difference in somebody's life. That, to me, is everything and more that I could ever dream of doing in music. I'm really lucky.
Well, it's clear that you care, so I think that's why people care. It's a symbiotic relationship.
I agree. I feel that with artists that I love, too. When I see someone who plays with conviction and really believes in what they are doing, it radiates even further to me. I'm inspired and I walk away with something and hang onto it, and somehow use it in my life. That's just one of those beauties of music. Everybody can find some comfort, or some fire, in a song. And it could be the same song for a thousand different people with a thousand different reasons. It's a beautiful thing to make it work and watch it work. But I've gotta say, this record and what I do, it truly is a group effort. I couldn't do it without my family and friends and the label, just the whole team involved. Everybody has good intentions and we all love working together and I just can't see it working any other way.
Is this record a culmination of having all of these people working with you on the Revival Tour?
We're in our seventh year on the Revival Tour and we've played together for years. We've all kind of lived and breathed this natural collaboration and this intense joy and spontaneous vibe that we all get playing together, and just kind of going for it. It definitely happened in a very natural way. For those who have followed what I've done, this record makes complete sense. If someone listened to three records back and then listened to this, it might seem like a big departure but in reality it's not; it's just us being a little more organized and together and just doing it right.
How much do your songs change from when you first write them, and then these guys all get involved? How do you feel about the finished versions?
Oh, I'm just thrilled about it, man. I respect all of these players so much and I admire them so much. Not just as musicians, but as people. They're my friends. They're my brothers. The songs were pretty solid structurally; the bare bones of them didn't change other than a couple of them that were written together with the guys. But when you strip down the songs I'm just kind of hanging back, just strumming. They're really simple, straightforward folks songs, but when you stack up the talent of all of these guys that had a part in this album, it really just coloured the atmosphere completely and just broadened everything. I'm thrilled. I love playing with people that I respect and when these guys aren't on stage with me and on stage with someone else, I'm in the crowd as a fan. I love them. To have them care enough to really play with that conviction on my songs is just a massive honour and I couldn't be more grateful.
How do you feel about putting the name Chuck Ragan on the albums?
That was kind of an issue that came up. I want to define what we're doing here a little more clearly, just out of respect for the people coming to see these shows. There's a difference when I play by myself and the tour we're about to do, which is going to be a completely different animal with this whole group. I want people to know what they are coming to see, so we've decided to call this band, these guys, whenever they are a part of the show, we want to call them the Camaraderie. So we'll be billed as Chuck Ragan and the Camaraderie. It does get strange when your name is on there and t-shirts come into play, or records come into play, and you see your name plastered on all of this stuff. It's awkward because your name is becoming a brand. There's that fine line of wanting to be true to people, so we decided to bill it as Chuck Ragan and the Camaraderie and if I'm playing by myself it will just be Chuck Ragan.
Are a lot of songs on this album love songs about your wife?
Yeah. Oh yeah [chuckles]. Sure enough. Like I said before, she's the greatest inspiration I could ask for. She's my muse. She's everything. The songs have been about her for years and hopefully will be for years to come.
Do you write with anybody else in mind?
I try to explore all over the place when it comes to writing and anything and everything that affects me in a positive, or even negative, way. If it moves me and gets the wheels turning, it's most likely worth exploring and putting into a song.
Will you be doing the Revival Tour again next year?
We're working on some stuff. It's kind of hard because the Revival Tour was always meant to be a revolving showcase. I didn't feel it would be right if I was on the tour all of the time. I didn't want it that way. It was something that I wanted to organize and produce and see it always changing and revolving. To showcase artists that people were familiar with, but also root for the underdogs and bring on songwriters and musicians that people had never heard of. They may come to see that one person that they're familiar with, but they are going to get exposed to all of this other music that they normally wouldn't find. It's been this revolving machine with so many moving pieces in that tour, and so many things that change, or go wrong, or fall through, so it's always been a constant battle. I was trying to create this thing that when people thought about the Revival Tour, it was a show they couldn't miss. They didn't know who was going to be there, it was just something they knew felt good and right and was shared with true passion and conviction. So certain artists would fall through and my team would come to me and say that I needed to be on the bill, and my response was, "But that's not the point. It's a group effort. We need to always have it changing." It's always been something that I just wanted to see it live and breathe on its own without any one person's name completely identifying the tour.
The last time I talked to Jason Black he was telling me that he thought Hot Water Music would always be a band. How do you feel about that and what's happening with the band these days?
Well, this year is our 20-year anniversary, so that's happening, and we've got some stuff in the works. Everybody's so spread out, we have been for over a decade. Not only that, but everyone has their own stuff going on. But it's true. I can't ever see Hot Water Music not being a band, unless somebody drops out of it, and that ain't happening. It's one of those things where years ago we made a decision that we weren't going to be the band that everyone knew us as, which was just this touring machine. We all had different agendas and goals and passions and when we all came together we had that music in common, and of course our history. We're family, you know. It's just something that I'm proud that we love what we built and I feel the community that we had a part in building with our fan base and our supporters. It's just unreal. It's so widespread and we're so lucky to have people that care about the music worldwide. I love them, and we all appreciate and respect the fact that these supporters have changed our lives for the better. We'll always be doing something, as long as the four of us are able to take the stage together, or get into the studio together, we'll be doing something.
That last record you guys did [2012's Exister] was your best, I thought.
I definitely think it was the best thing we'd ever done. We all came into it so open-minded and everybody had limited time, which worked in our favour because us being older and knowing we had little time, we just let it out and it all came together so well. Everybody flowed and was just fired up.
I need to ask you about an urban legend, of sorts. It's a story that Dave Hause told me recently, about you and him having a little altercation with a mugger in Toronto. Can you tell me your version of the story?
I think I would say that the mugger had an altercation with us [laughs]. I'd be touring a lot and one of my saving graces on the road is Epsom salt baths. You just soak in a tub and it helps the muscles, it helps the bones, it helps draw out any poisons that I've put into my system and it works! How I remember all of that is I was soaking in the tub after a long run. I think I was flying home the next day. I was half in and half out, just soaking in the tub and I heard this banging on the door. I jumped out and I grabbed a towel because I just heard a muffled yelling and this banging on the door. I opened the door and I saw this mugger holding onto Dave, and Dave holding onto the mugger, and I just yelled at him and the dude took off down the hall. I wanted to chase him down and Dave just said, "No, no, just let it go," which is probably a good thing because if I'd chased him down I probably would have lost my towel. And who knows what would have happened? But if someone is messing with my friends… I always prefer a peaceful path, but when it comes to assaulting people that I love, just stay out of my way and forget about it.
You're always full of positivity. Do you have a motto for life?
I believe what goes around, comes around. If we all choose to put positive energy out there, it's going to come back to us. I'm proud to just be a piece of the puzzle.