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Curiocity Interview: ‘Hot Water Music’ Dominating Punk Since ’93

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(credit: Marco Krenn)

( right to left: George Rebelo, Chris Wollard, Chuck Ragan, Jason Black – credit: Marco Krenn)

“I’m hardly feeling human anymore … enough to drag my body from the floor. Stand to hold steady. Now take a breath and somehow take a step to begin again. After all, we can only do our best.” – Hot Water Music’s “Drag My Body”

Like their new hit song implies, Hot Water Music is back. The multi-talented, angst-filled punk rock band from Gainsville, Fla. recently announced that they will begin a two-month headline tour in January – their first in eight years.

Not only are they back headlining tours, they recently released a full-length studio album, “Exister,” which reached the band’s highest charting position to date (No. 33 on Billboard Top 200). It’s an impressive feat, considering the band members all live in different areas of the country.

On Feb. 1, 2013, Hot Water will be playing in downtown Minneapolis. It’s a show they are looking forward to – except the cold, of course.

Recently, Hot Water’s bassist Jason Black (pictured above on far right) took some time to chat with us about the band’s background, their experience recording the new album, his dominating bass sound and more.

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The new album has been called by critics, as well as Chuck and Chris in interviews I’ve seen, a back-to-the-basics kind of album, a simple yet carefully crafted collection of songs. But in what ways does the album set itself apart from the others, what ways does it progress?

We spent a long period of time getting ready for the record and writing for it, but we didn’t spend a lot of time as a band getting ready for it. We were like, ‘here’s the song, let’s go.’ We kind of let the songs do their thing – if they work, they work, if they don’t, they don’t. What makes this record different – at least from our standpoint – is that we didn’t write it over the course of three months or whatever in the warehouse hashing out ideas … It was more trading tapes and working on stuff when we were on the road together. Because of all those factors, we’ve just kind of eventually picked a day and said ‘we start recording on this day.’ All of those logistical factors really played into making it a super direct record, although that’s what we wanted to do also … but the actual reality of the situation kind of helped us along that way.

After three albums with Brian McTernan at Salad Days Studio, what made you guys choose The Blasting Room over Salad Days studios? What did/didn’t you like about the experience in a new recording environment?

I think to just do something different – pretty much what you said. I mean, we’ve done three records with Brian, we’re all really good friends with him and I still talk to him on a pretty regular basis. We did The Draft record there and I had done two records with Senses Fail as well. We were trying to a different record, a different thing on a different label – so we tried something different all around. It’s not like we didn’t have faith or didn’t like working with Brian or how those records come out, but I think to try something different you have to change everything.

Why did you guys decide not to put out “Exister” on Epitaph records? How is Rise Records treating you at this point in your career?

They’re treating us really well. That figures into the same reason we used a different producer and studio. We’ve always kind of done different stuff as much as possible. After three records with Epitaph, we had a pretty good idea about how that was going to play out – at least on some level. I think for anything to play out differently would have been a stroke of luck for both of us.

When you play with a band for a long time, it’s really easy to feel like you’re doing the same things over and over again. It’s nice to be in a position where you can sort of change things up, to freshen things up for youself and everyone else.

Some of the most influential punk records have come out of the Blasting Room. Did Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore’s production styles affect the direction of your songwriting for “Exister?”

It definitely affected the direction of the performance. Songwriting, yes and no. Bill was pretty hands off as far as songwriting production goes. It was more so like, ‘that songs not done yet, this part sucks or this part’s boring.’ He wasn’t like, ‘try this.’ He was much better at getting us to perform better than telling us how to or what to perform.

How has George’s jazz background affected you as a bassist? Did it have any influence on you choosing to play with your fingers instead of a pick, or did you already develop that playing style prior to HWM?

Yeah, I started by playing upright (bass) and playing jazz with George in high school so it’s kind of been a dual development kind of thing. That’s how I started and that’s how I do it. I mean, I can play with a pick – I’ve tracked both of the Senses Fail records with a pick, but it’s not my natural thing to do, but I try to be good enough at it at least to get the job done.

You have such a dominating bass sound in “Exister” (especially in the song “Drag My Body” shown below) – how was your experience recording that with Jason Livermore?

Actually, Bill recorded the bass, which is strange enough. Bill pretty much dialed the bass in. I have a preferred sound, but I like to be really open to that. As far as performance goes, he definitely had a big hand in it. He was riding me for a week straight to get the bass performances done, so it was a lot of fun to record with him – for sure.

I hear you’re not a fan of answering questions of whether or not you like Chuck or Chris’ solo projects , but how do you feel those solo projects influenced the sound and feel of “Exister?”

I think they’ve both had a positive influence for sure. They’ve gotten better as songwriters because they’ve been working on their own — to some extent. Chris has worked in more of a band environment—as far as writing goes – then Chuck does.

They come with much more full realized ideas, which is easier for me. I’m much more prone to help someone finish a song than to start one. So, that’s really helpful for George and I to at least have the skeletal melody to work off of. When you’re working from ground zero there’s an unending amount of possibilities. It’s awesome but it can also be as debilitating as only having one direction to go. So, as much as you can narrow down the field for me is a little more easy.

You guys have many die-hard fans and the HWM logo is a very commonly seen tattoo within the punk community. Do you ever get used to seeing fans with your band’s logo permanently embedded onto themselves, or is it still something that makes you realize the impact your music has had?

I think it depends on the situation. It’s one of those weird questions like ‘what’s it like meeting fans?’ or whatever. It depends on the situation. But overall it’s awesome. It’s super rad and I don’t think any of us take it lightly by any stretch of the imagination. It’s definitely an honor — for lack of a less cheesy term to use about someone who cares that much about something we do — to have that be on them forever.

On Jan. 16, you guys kick off a 23-show tour that lasts less than a month – at least from what I can see – how do you guys prepare for such ridiculously condensed schedules? Yoga — haha?
Ha, no. That’s how we’ve had to work things out with as busy as everyone’s been. We’ve been doing this long enough – I’d rather play less shows and have them be all good than play everywhere everyone wants us to play and sit through five shows that aren’t necessarily awesome. We’re getting old, so long tours aren’t rad (laughs).

How much say do you guys get in playing specific venues?

A lot, really. We’re pretty hyper-involved in that kind of thing. We have management and a booking agent, obviously, and at some point, you want to refer to them because that’s sort of their job to tell you when you’re dumb and wrong – and then you hope they’re not dumb and wrong. We try to work with people that we’ve worked with over the years, but sometimes they run a club that’s too small for the show. Obviously, in Minneapolis, we’d love to play at the Triple Rock, but that’s not the right venue for the bill we’re bring through this time. So, we’ll just go there afterwards and hang out (laughs).

Do you guys have a collective place you guys love playing?

There’s a lot. I love going to Australia. I think everyone does. Just because it’s great. The shows down there are amazing, the people are great. I don’t even know if the shows were bad we’d still not like it (laughs). Germany has always been super supportive of us … Chicago … Big cities where there are a lot of people who go to shows is definitely cool (laughs).

The Metro in Chicago is definitely one of my favorite venues in the country. I love that place. I’ve never really had a bad time or a bad show there. Overall, that’s my favorite venue for sure.

Are there any shows you remember standing above all the rest?

It varies from stage to stage in our history I suppose. Most recently, the “reunion” shows we played a few years ago were really crazy. Those were, without a doubt, the biggest shows we’ve ever headlined and I don’t think anybody expected them to do as well as they did. We were all really pleasantly surprised. That definitely nudged things up a notch. I mean, we’re doing bigger venues than we’ve ever headlined before – hopefully we don’t look like fools.

You hear of musicians being very politically outspoken at shows, i.e. telling people who to vote for and such. Is this something you guys have been known to do? If not, why?

No, not really. I can tell you that, without a doubt, none of us thought about voting for Romney. But it’s just not our band, you know. We’ve always tried to be more about the music. There are definitely a few causes that we’ve aligned ourselves with over the years, but I think for us, much of it’s common sense. They are real milk toast political topics like racism and violence against woman, like, yeah, no shit those are bad! For us, it’s never really been a really comfortable outfit to wear. I’m sure there are plenty of people that come to our shows that completely disagree with our political views – and that’s fine, you know? That’s no skin off my teeth one way or the other. (The band) is four different people and we don’t have a unified view that we feel is more important than our music.

A lot of what I see describing the message of the band’s lyrics includes phrases like, “following your instincts, your heart, being yourself, being true to friends and family” — what other subjects does Hot Water bring up?

I feel that’s what it always is, too (laughs). I think that is probably accurate. It’s just life experience stuff. At some basic level, it always boils down to (those points). It’s a pretty simple vibe that the dude’s go for lyrically. Many of the songs are about specific instances, but you can sort of take the lyrics and do what you want with them.

How have you guys dealt with the changing music market?

This is the first record that we’ve done since it really flipped. It’s funny, when we were getting ready to do this record and everything, we were like, “wait a minute, we’ve never done a record where you release an mp3 first.” So, I think you have to embrace it. It’s not going away.

Everyone wishes people weren’t stealing music and that the industry was in a better state than it is. As dumb as it is to say on some level, we’ve never really made much money from royalties in the first place, so it honestly really hasn’t affected us that much. It’s more affected the labels than bands our size. We’re lucky enough to have fans that aren’t too deceiving. They still buy a lot of vinyl. So, we’ve gotten through it pretty well for the most part. At the same time, I don’t really feel bad for all the labels (laughs) at all. They’ve spent a long time ripping off bands, so I’m kind of OK with them getting ripped off. The sad thing is that they’re just passing it along to the bands, again.

When the CEO of every major label making however much money every year and is like “oh, we’re losing money” and doesn’t ever think about maybe getting paid less … I have a hard time feeling sorry for someone like that.

You guys are playing Mill City Nights in Minneapolis on Feb. 1 – what should the fans expect from the show?

It’s gonna be cold as hell is what it’s gonna be (laughs)! But yeah, it’ll be a pretty good mix across the board of everything. It’ll be skewed a bit toward the new record, but not too much. I think we’ve got a pretty handle on how to mix the set up.

I’m a big fan of “The Sense” off the Caution album, so you guys should definitely play that one.

It does make a play into the set pretty regularly, so I can see that happening for sure.

That’s awesome. What do you think you guys would be doing if you didn’t do music?

You know, it’s a weird question. I think about it a lot. I don’t know. I really don’t know because it’s so far down that rabbit hole (laughs). I would probably have ended up being a teacher straight out of college and just done that, but I was playing music the whole time, so it didn’t figured in to anything, which I think is the same for everyone else. We’ve all been playing since middle school or high school on some level. So, I feel like a lot of our decisions have been informed by playing.

Lastly, do any of you guys have any weird habits or anything?

I actually kinda think that I need to find one. For a while, playing music used to be my hobby. And it hasn’t been for a long time. I just keep playing with different people (laughs). At some point, I’m going to have to find something I’m into besides baseball and music. Chuck does a lot of fishing and outdoorsy stuff … I think George and I are on the same page where we’re like “I think we’re good with just playing and relaxing when I’m not playing.”

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Hot Water Music is plays at Mill City Nights on Feb. 1, 2013. Doors open at 8 p.m. For information on tickets, click here.

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