Chuck Ragan on going from hardcore to country and back again

Chuck Ragan on going from hardcore to country and back again

Embracing a deep discography

In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process. 

The artist:
Chuck Ragan got his start with Florida post-hardcore giants Hot Water Music, a band that broke-up and re-formed a few times, allowing Ragan to indulge his softer side with Rumbleseat and his own solo work. Hot Water’s hiatus in 2006 gave Ragan enough time to fully immerse himself, releasing a series of 7-inches via a No Idea Records subscription series, and offering up a couple albums for SideOneDummy before his old band got back into action in 2008.

Since then Ragan’s put out new music at a prolific clip, offering up full-lengths and singles, and has collaboration albums with those from both a punk and bluegrass background. His latest, Till Midnight, saw him assemble a band of longtime collaborators under the moniker The Camaraderie, bringing a full-band focus to his often meat-and-potatoes offerings. Ragan took the time in advance of his tour with the White Buffalo to walk The A.V. Club through his solo career, from the meager beginnings of playing songs for his wife to assembling a band that can make both country and punk purists lend approving nods.

Rumbleseat, “California Burritos” (from California Burritos 7-inch, 2001)

The A.V. Club: When you first started playing solo shows you often sold CD-Rs of live sets, but you had a handful of Rumbleseat songs that fit stylistically. What made you bring those back?

Chuck Ragan: The Rumbleseat stuff, that happened well before the shows you’re talking about. I think when I started getting a little more active and putting a little more focus on my solo work, there were definitely some old songs that I had written as a younger man that, to me, were just kind of always relevant. I say that because you bring up that “California Burritos” song. I love that song, it’s always meant a lot to me, but there’s a part of it that is really funny and really kind of comical. I sing, “I can’t stand feeling nothing / I can’t stand feeling old,” and I think I was 22 years old when I wrote that song. It’s just funny to look back at however many years that’s been and realize that’s what I was singing about at that age.

AVC: You re-recorded it with a lot more instrumentation on your first album, Feast Or Famine. Was that a way to acknowledge the fact that you weren’t 22 and were in this entirely different place?

CR: I’d love to go back and re-record and re-work a lot of these songs that I wrote as a young man, and just kind of revisit them in a way. Some of them were written off the cuff in a very spontaneous way and then recorded that way. Just written and recorded that quickly. I would love to go back and dig into them more and really kind of find the potential. I’ve always felt songs are never done. You write a song, you write a piece, and there’s a point where you’re comfortable with it, and there’s a point where you put a stamp on it. You release that song, or you burn it, or you set it aside, whatever you do to have closure. There’s that point where you put that stamp on it, but I feel a song’s never finished. There’s always something that you’re able to do to it or to embellish on when you play it live or when you play it with different guests or different accompaniment. I feel like even a tune I wrote and recorded twentysomething years ago, if I want to bring it back and revisit it and lay it down again, as long as it still feels good to me and it feels right and worthy, or as I said earlier, relevant, as long as it feels timeless, than yeah, why not?

To answer your question further, when I started doing a lot of the solo stuff, a lot of it came about when the band [Hot Water Music] went on hiatus, I just kind of went straight back to my trade. I was doing a lot of carpentry work, doing a lot of pick-up work, just digging around for jobs anywhere I could. I found a lot of jobs through word of mouth, mostly doing finish carpentry work, all kinds of stuff from frame to finish, and I would come home from work, just like I’d always done, and either get some dinner going and just kind of sit around and write and play guitar. That had been going on for a while, and I had written a lot of songs. One day, just kind of casually, my wife—she kind of knows how I feel about writing—was making dinner, and at one point I was sitting around playing my tunes. She said—she recalls it when I played her a song I did a long time ago called “For Broken Ears”—I played that song for her and she said, “You should really go and record some of these tunes before you lose them.” And I listened to her. [Laughs.]

“The Boat” / “For Broken Ears” (2006, No Idea Subscription Series #1)

AVC: Your first batch of solo songs came by way of a 7-inch subscription series. Did you think they’d become such staples of your career when you first had No Idea put them out?

CR: No, no. I mean you never really know. I put just as much energy into each and every song. To me there’s no point in writing filler songs. You have to have full conviction; you have to go into each one wholeheartedly. I don’t know how everybody does it, but to me it makes no sense to put any of your time and energy into something you won’t fully get behind for the long haul. In other words, each and every one of those songs, there was no telling if I was going to be playing it and putting it out on a 7-inch once and then that’s it, or if I’d be playing that song live for the rest of my life, or re-recording it or whatever. And that’s the way it is with all these tunes. You never know where they’re going to take you, or how they’re going to affect your life, or how they’re going to affect other people’s lives. You give it all you got, you lay it down, and the songs kind of end up creating their own path. Songs speak differently to different people. I can go and put a song on a record, a thousand people may hear it and have a thousand different inspirations or feelings from it. They almost develop a life of their own.

AVC: Is there truth to the story that your wife just booked you a show without warning and that ended up becoming the live record Los Feliz?

CR: Actually, there were a number of shows before that Los Feliz record, but what you’re probably speaking of is: She booked the first solo acoustic show that I’d played in probably three or four years. I hadn’t been playing live much at all, with myself or with the band. She had a friend’s birthday party coming up, and we were having a party in San Francisco and there were a couple bands that were playing—Samiam was playing, and a band called The Lonely Kings. I came home from work one day and she said, “Get ready, I booked you a show. Hope that’s all right.” [Laughs.] At the time I hadn’t even thought about playing live. I had a bunch of new songs I was messing around with, and that was right around the same time period that she had said, “You need to go record this stuff.” That’s what you’re probably thinking of.

How the Los Feliz show came to be, I had signed with SideOneDummy and I had a bunch of live recordings and I said, “I also have all this live stuff if you guys want to put it out.” We were getting ready to go into the studio for Feast Or Famine. Then the conversation came up that most people put out the live record after their studio records. You kind of want to put your best foot forward with the studio and all that. My whole take on it was, most of the time I’m just out there by myself. It’s just my wife and I in the truck cruising around or in a rental minivan. We hadn’t really started traveling with Jon Gaunt a lot. There were some years right after that where it was just Jon Gaunt, myself, and my wife on the road. The idea behind it was, most of the time I’m out there just by myself. If we’re going to come out of the gate I want people to hear it in its most raw way. I want people to hear what I sound like if I’m standing in front of them playing and singing. If they like that, then they can go get the studio recording with all the bells and whistles. It was backwards from what most people do in terms of releasing music, or releasing records, but I’m glad we did it that way.

“Open Up And Wail” (Los Feliz, 2007)

AVC: There’s a part toward the end of that version where you get into a rougher vocal territory that’s reminiscent of the Hot Water Music stuff. Was it important for you to bring that same energy to those new songs?

CR: Yeah, I think it was incredibly important to me. Those songs, and that song in particular, they’re simple songs. They’re very, very simple. It’s simple storytelling, or just putting music to journal entries, putting music to the diary, so to speak. I didn’t grow up really trained, I didn’t have a lot of lessons. I learned a lot from my friends, and I learned a lot just watching and listening and playing with other people. I never knew how to not just throw it all out on the table. The way that I grew up kind of seeing music, I looked at it more as an outlet, more as a tool for therapeutic reasons. That was why I sat down and picked up a guitar in the first place. Writing wasn’t always a pleasant thing to do. I enjoy playing guitar, I enjoy writing and everything, but when you’re using it as a way to overcome obstacles, or figure out your own problems, or look at indifferences, it’s not always a bed of roses. When you’re coming to terms with your mistakes or where you went wrong, and trying to find those answers to find the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s not always great. [Laughs.] In other words, you’re dealing with things at a very real and personal level. In doing that, the release was everything. Of course growing up, singing in a very high energy, aggressive outfit, that’s just always been instilled in me. Even a lot of the early acoustic stuff that I’ve done, I’ve always written softer ballads and slow songs and intimate stuff, but there was always a point when I was strumming, it felt right to me just to let it go, just throw it all out on the table.

“Do You Pray?” (Feast Or Famine, 2008)

AVC: This was one of the first songs to incorporate traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Was that always the goal?

CR: Well, I’ve always enjoyed playing with people. Even in the Rumbleseat days, we had bass, we had drums, and sometimes banjo. It was actually the first time I had played with Jon Gaunt, and that was years before the Feast Or Famine record where he and I started playing on a regular basis. It was always comfortable for me to embellish songs and find a different texture in the song by adding accompaniment. I think that’s a natural thing for most musicians. Some people take the lone-wolf path and it works for them, and they don’t want anything else getting in the way, which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. I even like it that way sometimes, but for the most part I love hearing that fiddle right next to me, or hearing someone coming in with the mandolin. It just stretches that tune to the limit.

Jon Gaunt, I had known him years before we brought him out to do the Feast record. When we started playing again, I want to say it was at the Gainesville Fest, maybe in 2005. A buddy of ours, Tony Weinbender, mentioned, “Hey, Jon’s been playing a lot more lately, and you’re coming and playing this, you guys should do a song together.” He gave me Jon’s number, and I called him up. When I was there for the show, maybe about half an hour before I went on, he and I went out into the parking lot and ran through a couple tunes. I think we ran through “Symmetry” and maybe “California Burritos” and then walked onstage and did it. Just a few months later we flew him out and we did Los Feliz and Feast Or Famine kind of within the same week.

Pretty much from there on out, Jon expressed that he was down to do whatever and play with me. He’s just been an incredible asset to this music. From there, it was a natural progression. We would go on tour, and at one point we were like, “It’d be great to have an upright bass player.” We ended up finding Digger Barnes through Austin Lucas. Digger’s German, he lives in Hamburg, and we met him when we were doing the Bristle Ridge record and that kind of just played out naturally. We had a European tour coming up and said, “Man, Digger, you should play this tour with us.” And when we came over he jumped on the tour and later he joined us for The Revival Tour in the states. He just kind of became our bass player, which was great, but tough because he lived in Hamburg. But we were traveling so much that it didn’t really matter. Somebody always had to fly. So he came aboard.

The Revival Tour had a lot to do with building the accompaniment and the instrumentation. Not only that, but Ted Hutt as well, I have to give him a lot of credit. When I was recording Feast Or Famine, I went into that record kind of with the intention of just doing it extremely stripped down. Which, it is stripped down compared to this new release, but when we started getting the ball rolling and all of the creative juices started flowing, it was helped by the setting. We were recording in this beautiful studio–which unfortunately isn’t around anymore—in Burbank called Mad Dog Studios. And it was full of all this gorgeous vintage gear, just everywhere, all around you. So we had all these options. Even though we went in to make a stripped-down record, it was hard to just sit there and be like, “Well, here’s a vibraphone made in 1928.” How could we not put that on the record? [Laughs.] It was one of those things where we just started exploring, toying around more, and adding bits and pieces here and there. I was playing lap steel and putting mandolin on songs and just experimenting. It’s always a joy to search for different paths in the song and find those peaks and valleys where you may not notice them if you’re just sitting there playing it in a completely bare bones way.

AVC: So when you made the jump to Gold Country and had a bigger band, how did that change the process of putting the songs together?

CR: When I went in to do Gold Country, I wanted to do a little bit more. I brought in my drummer from Hot Water Music, George Rebelo, Digger Barnes played upright electric bass, we had Jon Gaunt of course, Todd Beene and Rick Steff from Lucero played on it. It was a full band recording, but it wasn’t put together as a full band. I produced that record, and at the time with the way finances and schedules were working, I couldn’t get everybody together. I couldn’t afford it, we didn’t have time to do it. It was one of those things where I started with the songs and I laid down the bare tracks of guitar and voice, and we just built on top of that—which can make for a good record—but for me, Till Midnight is completely different, because I knew what I wanted. I wanted this to be “the band record.”

Covering Ground was a very intentional record, the way that Joe, Jon, and myself were playing mostly as a three-piece: Joe on upright bass, Jon on the fiddle, and myself on guitar. There was just something about these three instruments together, that had been played for years and years and years, and they just sounded wonderful together; very simple, very stripped down. And we had been playing a lot of live shows, but we didn’t have any recordings that really showed what we do and how we do it. So, Covering Ground was important for me to document what it sounds like when three guys get together with these three old traditional instruments.

“Nothing Left To Prove” (Covering Ground, 2011)

AVC: Was it important to open Covering Ground with something that took it back to basics after doing a record that had so many different players and moving parts?

CR: Choosing a track listing can sometimes be just as important as recording the songs. When I think of a record and making records, I don’t just think about the recording, I see it in a big picture way. I think about every single effort that is brought to the table, from the people writing the music, to the producers or engineers, to the graphic artists, down to the manufacturing plant. Our goal is to make something as timeless as possible. Granted, not everybody thinks of it that way. A lot of people they have one job to do, and they do that job to the best of their ability and then they’re done. But for either the artist or the band, those people are relying on this record to represent them in the best way possible. You want to be extremely proud of it, and it’s going to be around forever. Once it’s pressed into that wax and it goes out, that’s it; it’s like carving it into stone. So it’s important to me to just see the big picture.

In doing that, choosing the track listing has always been important. I feel like that sets the tone for the record, it sets the tone for the artist or the band. Being the first track that someone’s going to hear, you always want that to grab your attention. You always want it to reach out and get you. That song always did it for me. When I get to that point where it’s time to choose a track listing, sometimes it just kind of speaks to you and it makes sense. A song will pop out and you’re like, “That’s definitely got to be the first song,” or “That’s got to be the last song.” It kind of shows itself if you’re open to letting it.

“Something May Catch Fire” (Till Midnight, 2014)

AVC: Did putting together The Camaraderie change the process of Till Midnight“Something May Catch Fire” is probably one of the loudest rock songs of your solo career.

CR: I had that song written, then I sat with Joe and Jon and Todd and we changed it around. We rearranged a little bit of it, changed a couple chords. The bones of the song were there, but it wouldn’t have been the same without them. That was the major difference in having this full band, having The Camaraderie on board. I really wanted to make this a more unified process, a more unified recording. Rather than being the guy that went in and recorded to a click-track and then sent the song somewhere for somebody else to play on it, or not being present, I wanted it to really flow from start to finish, from pre-production through to the end. And I let all the guys know that when we sat down for the first time. I said, “Hey, this is a different record, this is a different approach. Anything that you guys have to add—hell, if you’ve got songs that we could do.” I just wanted everybody to be fully invested. I wanted everybody to really feel like they had a strong part in putting these songs together, in recording these songs. Because I wanted that passion, I wanted that energy all of us get when we go and play a live show. 

When we play a live show, you’re invested in it, because you’re standing in front of people. You want to play your best. You want to have a great time. You want to flow with the rest of the people you’re on stage with. There’s that energy that kind of overtakes you, and you tap into something different. When you end up kind of being a “hired gun,” per se, when you’re going into a studio where it’s like, “Hey, here’s your song. This is your part. This is what you’re doing,” and you get in and get out, it can make for great parts, great recordings, great segments, but that player may not tap into that same energy they tap into it when their ass is on the line. I wanted everybody to feel completely connected with these songs and just really feel at one with their parts. That’s why I just wanted everybody there from the beginning. I feel we did it the best that we could. I love the outcome of it. I loved the process of it. I had all the guys out here and I just said, “Hey, come hungry, come ready to play. We’re going to cook. We’re going to eat. We’re going to sit around the fire and we’re going to go fishing,” and that’s what we did. We got up early in the morning, we’d get out on the lake and we’d go fish for a while, we’d come back and we’d get down on the instruments and start digging into stuff. Cook food, sit around the fire and talk about what we did, and get back in and do it again. That to me is music. [Laughs.]

“Old Rules” (A Flight And A Crash, 2001)
“God Deciding” (Hot Water Music / Alkaline Trio split, 2002)
“Drag My Body” (Exister, 2012)

AVC: Hot Water Music has gotten back together since you first started playing solo, but it seems like some of those songs still get brought up in sets. Is it for the same reasons that the Rumbleseat material came back?

CR: There are a lot of songs that I think about from the Hot Water catalog, like when they were written and why they were written. Again, as we were talking before, I’m completely invested in each song, even through all the Hot Water songs, and even a lot of the songs that Chris [Wollard] sang, or lyrics that he wrote. I may not have the same investment as I do with lyrics that I wrote, but I’m still wholeheartedly into it. A lot of those tunes we wrote together, and we used to sit down together and for years we’d just call it “Passing the notebook.” We would sit down and almost go line for line on some songs. Or if he had written some lyrics and I wrote a part of the chorus, or I wrote the bridge, or I wrote this and that, I’d always find a way to connect with what was going on in the song. They still resonate with me. There has always been such a positive outlook in that band when it came to the songs and the songwriting. A lot of that we owe to the people we grew up with playing music and the bands that inspired us. Again, we found music at an early age, where it was more about using it as something to overcome, something to make our lives better before using it as something for popularity, or finance, or getting ahead or whatever. Music didn’t make sense to us in that way. It was our “lifting,” as we used to call it. A lot of those songs still resonate with me. 

I normally don’t do a lot of Hot Water music covers, not always because I don’t want to. I have so many songs as it is, and when I’m going to play a show for our fans, and we’re trying to pick 17 songs out of over a hundred, it’s tough to get them in sometimes. But every once in a while, I’ve done that “God Deciding” song, which is more or less just an anti-war song, an anti-hate song. I’ve done “Old Rules” from time to time, which is just an old working song, “Drag My Body” from time to time. There are a few that I do. I don’t know how to answer that other than if I’m singing it, if I’m doing it, I’m believing in it.

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