Words by Arye Dworken
To give you a sense of how the times have changed, 12 years ago, I spent three days on the road with the hardcore band Hot Water Music. Back then, the Florida-based foursome–consisting of Chuck Ragan (guitar, vocals), Chris Wollard (guitar, vocals), Jason Black (bass), and George Rebelo (drums)–were touring as openers for Walter Schreifels’ first post-Quicksand band Rival Schools. Schreifels and his backing musicians were traveling on a cushy coach bus courtesy of his then-label Island Records. Hot Water, on the other hand, were tagging along in a Ryder truck (for the merch and gear) and a van (for the people). They were sharing hotel rooms, sleeping on floors, and struggling with the notion that one of the band’s peers and colleagues had somehow “made it” while their grind continued.
Now, years later, Wollard is sitting backstage at the Gramercy Theater after a decade’s absence as an elder of the punk scene. His band is headlining sold-out shows across the country, and while there is no cushy coach bus, there is a palpable sense of contentment. The raspy-throated songwriter plows through Bud Light after Bud Light as he revels in Hot Water Music’s return, and having done so on its own terms. There was no pressure to reform. Rather, as Wollard admits, it’s kind of like a bromance. Four guys who love one another and love making music with one another. But in order to have sustained that sense of brotherhood, for this band to still be here today making some of the best material of its career, sometimes you have to go away.
But the comeback, as Wollard suggests, made those years of grinding worthwhile…
I have to ask some obvious questions like, I know what you were doing solo stuff and side projects during the break of the band, but what was the impetus to do the Hot Water thing again?
There’s no mystery to it. All of us are total fucking bros. That’s never changed. Everybody kept asking what we were doing–did we break up? We were in a transitory state. We as individuals…you don’t have an answer for everybody and nobody is okay with you not having an answer. It pushed a couple of us to the point where we told people we broke up. Personally, though, it didn’t bother me. It did bother some of the other guys. I don’t get on the Internet much and read what reactions were. I sit at home and write songs with my lady.
The whole time, we really felt we needed a break. I didn’t want to always look at my life and always see yet again another year of touring in front of me. You fight your whole life when you get to a position when you can put out records, go out on tour, and make a living out of that. But you also don’t want to not recognize how lucky you are. As a band you keep pushing yourself because you don’t want to be the guy to say, well, i’m tired. let’s take a break. But man, we were tired. The machine of being a band starts eating at you, and it makes everything out of focus. I don’t want to get bitter about this. I’m doing it because I love it. I’m doing it because I love the guys in the band. I just need to go home, I was thinking. I don’t know for how long. We needed to take a step back.
But that was a long step back–eight years, nearly.
Yeah. I mean, it was more like five years with all told, but when we did this one-off here and there, we didn’t want to make it like, okay, we did one show as a band together, now let’s book six months of shows. It was about easing into it.
What was it like coming back to the “scene” and being an elder.
That was weird. Yeah. That’s weird. It’s so strange.
I was talking to some people in line outside the venue and they have never seen you guys play live before. These are kids who got into Hot Water after you started the break.
The struggle with us is to stay relevant and to continue. Modest goals. Other bands want to fly higher no matter how long they last for. We wanted to keep playing as a band, write songs, and be in this thing for as long as we can. Head down and keep working. That was the attitude. I haven’t really thought about being away for so long. I’m writing a record with my three friends. Everyone else can go to hell. And now the record came out, and people are paying more attention to it. There are more interviews now, more press. Some new people in the audience.
I feel like I was talking about it earlier that some of our friends are showing up to shows with their kids and they’re not babies. They’re punk kids like we were. It’s, again, a weird feeling.
Punk, for the most part, is a genre that belongs to the pissed-off youth. I’m wondering at this age…what are you guys feeling? And is that feeling as urgent?
When I let myself vent, it is burning. At the same time, I’m not an angry person. I’m a goofball. When you’re writing though, the frustrations are still there. No, it’s not teen angst. It’s more important because I’m fighting for my family. There’s more at stake. My anger then was misdirected. Half the time I didn’t know what I was angry about. At least now I know what to be angry about. I was an angry kid. Now, I try to allow myself to recognize it and face it and vent it in an appropriate way.
When you guys started writing again, what do you think about?
We don’t think about sound and genre. We go on the road and we work hard. We’re constantly throwing ideas into the pot. It’s an organic chemistry that we have. There’s been twice as many songs that no one’s ever heard.
I loved when you guys covered Alkaline Trio’s â€œRadio.â€ It was so tender, but so unlike your sound and I think it stood out because of that. Do you have a mission statement to not be tender?
We don’t think like that. It’s all in the moment–what feels right. We get really off on finding these different grooves, and new ways to attack our sound. We try not to think of anyone else’s sound. We try not to give credence to other people’s opinions. Unless they’re standing right in front of me at a show.
You’re not curious about the reviews for your first new record in 10 years?
I read the one in the Boston Globe and forwarded that to my mom. I was blown away that we were in it. Then I read two more, looked at my girlfriend and realized how unconstructive it was for me to be doing that. And they were good reviews! But hold on a minute…it’s good to read that stuff…but I like it better when I’m in my own little world.
Does reading a review make you second guess your intentions? Like the suppositions of journalists confuse your own true inspirations?
That’s exactly my point! That’s exactly it. It’s four people making stuff. We’re not factoring in what other people want to hear. Pleasing the kids and the old people. That sort of thing. To do it myself, and to go home and hang out with the family, I need to not read that stuff.
I’ve got to ask about Tom Grabel being that (a) the punk scene is small, and (b) the Gainesville punk scene where Hot Water and Against Me! both come from is even smaller. Were you surprised by his announcement?
George Rebelo [current HWM drummer who once drummed in Against Me! during his band's hiatus]: Of course we were surprised. It explains a lot of things. He could come across as a jerk sometimes and he was probably just dealing with a lot of shit.
It was huge news in a small insular punk community. But Chris, it seems you don’t want to talk about it.
It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it. That has nothing to do with anything. As a songwriter, to me, I don’t want anyone talking about my personal life. I’m here to talk about my record. That’s all I want to do. That’s what I spent so many hours slaving away on. I never had any friends in which…whatever it is…a lifestyle choice is not the kind of thing to make a big deal about.
Tom’s a songwriter. And a great one. If I try to empathize with him, I would be wondering, why isn’t anybody talking about my music? This is what I do for a living. Who cares what I’m wearing? I guess I’m saying is that it’s not my business. It’s not anyone’s business. Will his next record be amazing? That’s what I want to know.
Are you averse to be getting personal in songs?
When I was younger, I wanted to put every ounce of myself into the songs. They weighed 100 pounds. Now, I want to have more fun with the songs. I want to write about things I read in the news, people I know, make up characters. Is the Old Man and the Sea about Hemmingway? No. Is it personal and inspired by who he was? Yeah, probably.
So, would you say this record was more fun to record after all these years of waxing nostalgic about how awesome the good ole days were?
Well, I didn’t walk into the studio burnt out from a year of touring. When we walked into the studio, it was when we wanted to. I was super-charged and ready to work. That was very different from some of the older ones. We were blown out. It was hard for Chuck and me to sing any song after years and years of tearing our throats apart for months at a time.
You can’t do it like you did it back in the day.
Fuck, no. I can’t visit all the places we once did in eight months. No. But I can do it over a span of a year-and-a-half.
You have a teenage kid now. What happens if he says to you he wants to start a band. Would you discourage him?
No. But funnily enough, he plays football now and it’s pretty demanding on his time. When you play team sports, you have to sacrifice most else.
[Pointing] How old is that Black Flag tattoo?
I got it 12 years ago. It’s inspiration to me. When I look down at it, I think of Greg Ginn doing all these jazz chords over punk rock. Black Flag is a huge landmark to me. Still to me, it’s the fury and the balls. As I was touring years after I first heard them, I figured I’d get the bars. First song I heard from them was â€œWasted.â€ 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, Black Flag. These are the first punk bands I listened to. I still think of them as the source.
You’ve surely seen Hot Water Music tattoos on fans.
Yeah. It’s surreal. It’s really, really wild. It’s a heavy moment. It’s stuck there and they’re carrying it for life. All four of us have the Hot Water tat. Mine’s on my back. The other three, it’s on their legs. And to me, seeing the tat means we’re all family now. I mean, I’ve met one or two raging assholes who have the tattoo [laughs], but when I see one…it gets me, man.
I read a story about one of the inspirations on Exister, a friend of yours that has a band but still works retail in a TJ Maxx. It really bummed me out.
Why? Really? That’s the song, man. Me and him talked about it. He didn’t want it to be a sad story. He wanted it to be about a guy just trying to get by and that being the shit he had to deal with. Had it been a longer song, it could have been clear that it wasn’t about sadness. He’s doing his thing but he loves music so he tries to do that, too. That’s not sad. That’s practical and real.
Generally, though, I try not to tell people what the song is about. All the writers I’ve loved are straight talkers not hiding behind big vocabularies. It’s not impossible to find what I’m saying, but I don’t want to be explicit.
I’ve seen in interviews that you keep emphasizing humor in your music. But I wonder if you can tell me an example of where that humor exists.
On this record, I was spitting venom. But I definitely hid some elements of humor in-between very serious parts. For example…take the Draft song, â€œNew Eyes Open.â€ That’s about Darth Vader. And no one would ever know. I do it fairly often. If I’m watching a movie and I connect with a character–like I felt Darth Vader was misunderstood–and the whole fucking time I’m writing the song, I’m laughing. Because it’s silly. But I take it seriously as a character study.
You seem to me to be an empathetic person…the way you pick up on people’s source of conflict.
Kinda. I’m also kind of guilty of being, on the wrong day, I don’t give a fuck about what you say. I try to be empathetic. When I read a news story, I’ll try to research the area and try to visualize it as it unfolds.
I want to get back to being misunderstood. Do you relate to that?
Yes, for sure. Although, that’s a pretty big question to answer. I think people…it’s very easy for me to listen to Bruce Springsteen my whole life and have an image of what he’s like based on his music. Is he like that? Probably not. I’m the same way.
But he’s also appropriating the public personae and nurturing it, isn’t he?
Totally. Look, growing up, I was an angry kid. I was lucky the ways I was raised. Unlucky in other ways. I never really fit it. Had to go to therapy as a kid. And that stuck with me. Not knowing how to explain myself to where I’m understood. I don’t know how to do it. That’s what kept me writing songs. It helps me sort out my own thoughts.
It almost sounds to me that music is your catharsis. It’s your therapy.
Yeah. I would have been in a lot of trouble without music. I have no idea what I would have done or where I would be, for that matter. But I’m also happy that I didn’t have to find out.