Since their inception in 1993, Hot Water Music have been one of the few underground bands to consistently inject hope into the punk scene, with optimistic lyrics that resonate with anyone who’s overcome tremendous adversity. With their themes of perseverance, and the notion that “the personal is the political,” songs like “Remedy” and “Turnstile” serve as rallying cries for the weary. “So no regrets, and no looking back to sinking ships,” Ragan screams in the former. Negativity, it seems, just isn’t part of this band’s vocabulary.
Though they’ve never shared the commercial success of some of the genre’s bigger names, like Rise Against and Alkaline Trio, the four-piece band that began in Gainesville, Florida, have become a shining beacon for the DIY punk ethic, always making it clear that their fans belong to the same community that they do. After albums on No Idea and Epitaph, followed by a seven-year hiatus, the band reconvened in 2012 to release Exister, which incorporated elements of the Americana and folk rock that vocalist/guitarists Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard had explored in their solo projects.
Hot Water Music kick off their 20th anniversary tour at Gainesville’s annual Fest, a punk-rock festival that’s currently its 13th year. We talked with Ragan about the group’s history and where the future might take them.
When you think back on the last 20 years of Hot Water Music, what comes to mind?
It’s been a rollercoaster. It’s been a phenomenal life lesson and growing experience in the worldwide community that we found in music. I feel really, really lucky to have found people early on who taught me that music could be more to us than just something to do, or something that could be cool, or to make a lot of money, or see your name in lights, or anything like that. We found a small community of folks that believed music could be used as a tool — a way to help better ourselves, our friendships, our relationships and our surroundings. All of us in Hot Water Music had these same ethics, and that helped us hone what we love to do, which was to use music as a form of therapy, relief and expression. I’m so honored to have been a part of group that held true to those ethics, and have been welcomed into so many music communities worldwide. It still amazes me.
How does it feel to know that your fans react so strongly to your music? You’ve affected a lot of people.
I’ve spoken to many people over the years who have said that something we’ve done has affected them in a positive way, or helped them get out of rough spot and given them hope. It’s an overwhelming thing. It’s a beautiful thing for someone to compliment you that way. But the band can’t take full credit for that because, in all honesty, we feel like we’re just a piece of the puzzle. When we were growing up, there were always people there that gave us hope, and showed us a path. It’s more or less our duty to continue that cycle in a positive way, whenever we can. For some people, this music of ours has been there to help them, and for that we just feel really blessed that we were able to contribute something to our scene, and to the people around us, that did a little bit of good. It’s a beautiful thing and I feel really lucky.
Last time I talked to you, you said you couldn’t really imagine Hot Water Music ever not being a band. Can you elaborate on that?
To us, it’s not a band that [any of us] would quit, you know? It’s hard to imagine any of us saying, “All right, that’s it; we’re never playing again.” Granted, we’re hitting the 20-year milestone here, but there’s no telling what we’re going to be doing a couple years from now. We love each other and we’ve been through a lot together over the years. We’ve had great times, we’ve had really rough times, but it’s all been growth and it’s all been just a part of life, and a life that we’re proud to have lived. Who knows, maybe you and I will be speaking on the 35th anniversary, looking back on this conversation.
I thought your last album, Exister, was your strongest album to date. I don’t know if that’s the result of taking that seven-year break and coming back with more focus, but it’s a landmark album that I’ll be listening to for the rest of my life.
Same here. I agree. I think taking that extended break really did help. But we never stopped playing music. I’ve been doing a ton of stuff, Chris has been doing a ton of stuff, and George, Jason, all of us — no one ever stopped playing. So even though we weren’t playing as Hot Water Music, we were all continuing our own path and career in music, and honing our skills individually. Over time, we just became stronger players and performers. When we came back together we knew we had only a limited amount of time to do this work. We also didn’t know when we were going to do another record — these days, it’s hard to tell, with everyone growing older and living in different states, on these different roads and missions. For Exister, it was definitely a strong time for us to come together in the studio. Everyone’s ears and minds were wide open. There weren’t many hang-ups, and it flowed; everyone was just willing to try anything and give it a shot, and we went after it with the pedal down.
Have you talked about what’s going to happen with the next album?
Sure, yeah. But who knows when that will be? We’d all love to do it; but there’s no telling when. What we’re all enjoying right now is that there isn’t as much pressure as there used to be. There was definitely a timeframe where we felt like there was more pressure. The recordings were done in haste sometimes, and writing was done in haste. Not that we’re not proud of what we did; we love a lot of the stuff that we released, but some of it we probably could have spent more time on [laughs]. But that’s also the beauty of making records; you’re putting a stamp on a timeline documenting your life, whatever gear you’re playing in. So there’s no telling what’s to come down the road right now.
It’s fitting that you’re starting this 20th-anniversary tour at Fest in Gainesville, given your history with the city and No Idea Records. Can you tell me a bit about that?
We’ve always considered No Idea Records our home. Early on, we were familiar with a lot of the local Gainesville bands, and having your record put out by No Idea — that was always the goal. Hot Water Music was always a band that was about short-term goals. The whole point of what we were doing was living in the moment, and hopefully that will always be the case. Never in a million years did I think it was going to become a career. Never did I think it was going to turn into what it has. To us, it was all about getting a show, and then it was about getting a 7-inch, and then it was about getting a record on No Idea. It was just one step at a time, and we would reach those goals and we would rejoice, and sit back and look at each other go, “Now what?” [Laughs] And it just kept going from there. No Idea was always a part of what we were doing, in one form or another, and we’ve always done everything we could to keep them a part of what we’ve done. That’s the beauty of working in a music community with a DIY ethic; everybody helps each other.
And I remember the Fest early, early on when it was just building. We play festivals all over the world, and there are so many that are fantastic, but the Fest is special to us in a lot of ways. It really brings a lot of people from all over the world, to travel to this particular event. And [organizer] Tony [Weinbender]‘s always been a really good friend, so it’s just really cool to still be able to be buddies with somebody that you crossed paths with 20 years ago, and still be fighting the good fight and having a good time doing it.