DS Interview: Chuck Ragan on “Till Midnight,” The White Buffalo, and touring ‘smarter not harder’

When last we caught up with Chuck Ragan, he was in the midst of a grueling run of thirty-seven shows in thirty-seven days on last year’s Revival Tour. While things on the tour seemed to be firing on all cylinders, there was at least some amount of trepidation about the amount of constant balancing that needed to be done in order to keep such a hectic schedule going: “I’ve got a ton of plates spinning, and I either need to start carefully taking them off those points, or they’re all gonna start crashing.”

Fast-forward a year, and though still busy, a more-relaxed Ragan was able to carve out some downtime and recharge the batteries. ” I feel it revived me in a lot of ways. I’ve had a lot of time at home the past six, seven months.” As we’ve discussed here previously, that more relaxed, hopeful attitude of gratitude translates loud and clear on Till Midnight (SideOneDummy Records), Ragan’s fourth solo studio album.

Forgoing his typical Revival Tour plans, 2014 finds Ragan and his Camaraderie lineup (longtime collaborators Joe Ginsburg and Jon Gaunt, plus David Hidalgo Jr. on drums and Todd Beene on pedal steel) co-headlining a tour with The White Buffalo (Jake Smith). Touring ” a little smarter rather than harder” is the name of the game this time out. Despite the amount of work that needs to be done before tour kicks off later this week, Ragan was able to carve some time out of his schedule for a chat about his partners (the White Buffalo and Social Distortion‘s Jonny Two Bags) for the upcoming tour, the differences in the writing and recording processes between Covering Ground (Ragan’s last album) and Till Midgnight, and maybe a hint at an acknowledgement of Hot Water Music‘s twenty-year anniversary. Check out our full interview below.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): First and foremost, congrats on Till Midnight. It’s a truly awesome album, and I don’t say that as hyperbole or as blowing smoke. I think someone on one of the social networks, Instagram I think, said that from the first listen, it felt like an old familiar friend. And I agree with that entirely.

Chuck Ragan: Oh man. Yeah, I saw that somebody said that.

I wish I could take credit for that, but it wasn’t me.

What a compliment, you know?

When I reviewed the album a couple weeks ago for our site, what resonated with me, even from the first notes of “Something May Catch Fire” was these running themes that you can almost equate to a claddagh ring, where the claddagh stands for friendship, love and loyalty. I feel like that comes through on this album more than on other stuff that you’ve written. There’s a sense of communal hopefulness, that I don’t know if it’s what you were going for, or that may be just what I hear. But I feel like that’s a real thread through it.

I think it’s just where I’m at in my life. A lot of us who make music or who write songs or whatever, we’re a product of our environment. Whatever’s going on in our lives somehow gets into our system and shows itself in music along the way. I think about Covering Ground and how that record rolled out, and how it was written, when it was recorded and all this, and it was just literally born and bred on the road. We literally were moving around constantly, writing a lot of that stuff on the road. We recorded it in between tours, we were mixing and mastering in the backstage rooms or in alleys or whatever. You know? (*both laugh*) When I think about those tunes and how they come across, a lot of it is … some angst and a little lonesomeness going on.

I kinda hit a moment a while ago where I needed to just kinda take a step back and sit down and take a breath and reevaluate some things. Through Covering Ground, I kinda overloaded myself in a lot of ways, where I was already doing my stuff full steam ahead, Revival Tour was full throttle, I was working on releasing that book (editor’s note: the book The Road Most Traveled is available here), my wife and I were doing a little mom-and-pop –shop record label, TenFour Records, and still do it. It was so many moving pieces. And on top of that, I took on Hot Water Music stuff and we did Exister. And you know, it all kinda looks good in conversation and in letters and on paper, but when it starts stacking up and the reality of all of those positions starts coming together, it can just be overwhelming.

I kinda took a step and said alright, I really need to not get so many plates spinning at once and just focus. And I started taking better care of myself, trying to work out long term plans, and try to tour a little smarter rather than harder. I don’t know, but I feel it revived me in a lot of ways. I’ve had a lot of time at home the past six, seven months. We’ve still been trucking, though. We did the record and some fly-ins and there was still a lot of work to be done, but I wasn’t in and out, in and out, in and out non-stop. I think that has a lot to do with a lot of the energy in those songs and when they were coming together from early stages. And then you cross that with the whole gang we put together and everybody, the village that it takes to even make a record happen, you know? Everybody was nothing but positive and super fired-up, and it just created a perfect storm of good energy. We all kinda found a path and committed and stuck to it and I think it rolled out really well. I think it transferred into those songs that made it onto that wax, and that’s all we could ask for.

Was Till Midnight then written in one place more? Written more from home rather than trying to do it on the road again?

Not necessarily. I write constantly. I’m always documenting in one form or another. I have this thing where I can be doing whatever…I could be out in the yard or out in the boat or working on the house or something, and if I start getting on a train of thought or thinking of a phrase or a story or a melody, I HAVE TO lay it down. (*both laugh*) That may be a reason that I have so many unfinished projects around the house, now that I think about it! (*both laugh*) But I’m always writing or stacking stuff up, and when the time comes where it feels right to start digging in to another project, I’ll always have just a ton of material to sift through, weed through. Some of it’s finished, some of its just early beginnings. And it’s kinda cool to go through that stuff in a lot of ways. I have stuff that I wrote maybe two, three, four, six years ago that’s sitting there that never really clicked. Then I may hear it and something will spark and that song’ll get finished in like thirty minutes or a couple days. Things jump out at you. And I feel like for me, once I start getting that thinking and movement, and going “okay, I need to pull together a group of songs,” there’s something about getting those creative juices flowing where sometimes I’ll write something in the process of weeding through all (of the older stuff).

On Covering Ground, that “Nomad By Fate” song, for instance, we were all sitting in the studio, and I just started playing that beginning riff. And Joe (Ginsburg) was like “that’s cool, we should look into that.” And then, the next day, we recorded that song! (*both laugh*). They don’t all work like that, but every once in a while it just clicks. Some of them were written a long time ago, some of them were written a month or two before we went in the studio. I did a lot of the writing and a lot of the filtering and analyzing here at home, which was great. I spent a lot of time out by my firepit, just hanging with the dogs (laughs) and just digging into stuff. And from there, I started inviting the guys into it, and getting Christopher Thorn up here and digging into it and kept trucking from there.

How democratic a process does it become when Joe and Jon (Gaunt) who you’ve worked a lot with, come up, and then like you said Christopher Thorn and Rami Jaffee and Dave Hidalgo and Todd Beene obviously, how democratic a process is it in the studio? Do you have a blueprint for how you want things to go or do they add their own ideas and change things?

I’m glad you asked that. On a lot of the records in the past, I’ve always written all my stuff and gone in. And I’ve worked with producers and engineers and they always have opinions and this and that, you know. But for the most part, it’s like, here’s my songs, and I go in and record my vocals and my guitar, and then layer on top of that. And it can make for an okay record. But personally, I feel like there are energies that lack in doing it that way, you know? You notice these different moments or these different potential paths that you can take once you get everybody together from note one and just start analyzing it together and feeling it out together, you find different moments and stops and gaps and bells and whistles that normally you wouldn’t find if you were just by yourself.

This record, Till Midnight, I intentionally wanted it to be an open floor. I wanted everybody to feel connected and invested and into it. And when I flew everybody out here for what people would call pre-production, we just call it fishing with buddies and playing music (*both laugh*). But I flew everybody out and had them out here for a week. I’d already sent them all the bare bones of the tracks. Some of them were completely finished and some of them were pretty close, and I let everybody know from the start that, “look, fellas, I just want everybody to know that if you’ve got something to add, if something doesn’t feel right, anything…speak up and let’s put this together and make it feel good.” And they were all in agreeance, and everybody felt good about it. So, the opportunities were there for anybody to add or take away anything that they wanted to.

Joe Ginsburg, for instance, that song “Something May Catch Fire,” I wrote it completely different. The chorus was the same, all the chords were different and the chorus, and there was something about it that was decent, you know, but it just wasn’t there. And Joe was like, “well, what if we play the verse this way?” And we both just bounced ideas around and it completely changed the song to me. It just opened up this whole new energy to the song. Same with “Vagabond.” Todd Beene, thought there was something about the chorus, so one day he was like “man, why don’t we just hit an A-minor at the top of that chorus.” So we did, and that just changed the whole energy of the song. I just wanted everybody to come in and rather than say “this is what I want you to play here” and so on…now granted, I speak up in the same way that I would want them to. Some people may say I do have a lot of opinions (*both laugh*). But it was the same with Christopher Thorn. If we heard something or heard potential in something, we let everybody know. But everybody was welcome to have that same voice.

Is that the same lineup that you’re taking on the road this time out?

It certainly is. Yeah. Well, Christopher Thorn isn’t going to be on the road with us, and Rami, obviously, he’s not going to be on the road with us either. Who knows when we’ll have an opportunity to play as that lineup that’s in that gatefold. One of these days I hope that’ll happen because it’s a beautiful thing. It’s really something else. But we’ve mostly been playing as a five-piece, with Dave Hidalgo Jr. and Todd and Jon and Joe, and man, it’s a whole other animal. It’s a blast. And what I believe is the most diverse and dynamic set that I’ve ever had a part of.

Which came first, really? The idea to forego Revival Tour in favor of putting together a five piece band, or was it because of the way the band came together, you said, well let’s just forego Revival? It’s chicken or the egg, I guess.

Right, right. Well, I mean, that’s a great question. We were actually on that last Revival Tour and me and the fellas were already talking about the next record. There were early conversations about how we were going to do it. I was at a point where I was like, I don’t want to have another two or three years where everything stacks up and I’m just juggling everything. Not to say that I’m completely free of that! (*both laugh*) I’m still working on another book, and Revival Tour is in the scope and it happens to be Hot Water Music’s twentieth anniversary, you know? (*both laugh*) But it’s definitely less than what it was the past few years. But a lot of that had to do with our record label, Sideonedummy. Those guys have been nothing but supportive and gracious and they’ve been such a great label for us because they’ve never been that label to come at me and say “this is when you need to do this” or “we need this by here” or “we need this.” Man, they have just stood by me and let me be the artist that I want to be and, you know what, at times when I’m just like “yeah, sorry, I’m not ready to do another record, I’m gonna go run with my buds in Hot Water Music for a little bit” or “I’m gonna go do this Revival Tour,” they’ve just kinda put two thumbs up and said “go on! Go for it!” I couldn’t ever ask for more in a record label, they’re just incredible. And, to me, it came to a point where I go, you know what, it’s time to do another record. And out of respect for them and all the support that they’ve given us. And then when that kind of thinking came in to play for me it just kept going in that direction and we said, “alright, let’s get on it and do our best and have fun doing it.”

When you hit the road, which starts, what, next week, right?

Yeah, next week! (Editor’s note: Tour starts April 2nd in Grass Valley, CA, and runs through May 9th in Los Angeles. Ticket info is here.)

You’re out with The White Buffalo and Jonny Two Bags obviously. If we’re looking at it from sort of a punk rock perspective, I think most people obviously are familiar with Jonny Two Bags, whether from Social Distortion or US Bombs or wherever. But maybe not a lot of people on this side of the fence know about Jake, the White Buffalo. How do you think you’d best describe him both as a person and as an artist as a musician and what he brings to the package.

We wanted to get White Buffalo on the Revival Tour since 2009, and it never worked out. I’ve been a fan of Jake’s stuff for a while. I’d never met him personally. It had always been like a ‘ships in the night’ kind of thing, you know? And I don’t even know if our requests were getting to him directly or just kinda getting squashed by management. Whatever happened, it just never worked out. And I had the opportunity to meet him just the other day. When I finally heard that they were interested in doing a tour, man, I just jumped at the chance. I love his music, and then after meeting him…to me, I don’t even know that fella that well, but I felt connected with him right away. We have a lot in common. And as far as a songwriter goes, he just seems like an old soul. He seems like the stories that he’s telling and the stuff he’s pulling up are just coming from…somewhere else, you know?

Somewhere deep and dark at times, yeah.

Yeah. Man, I just can’t wait. This is the beautiful thing about touring with people that you respect and that you admire. When it works out and you meet them and they are actually that and more than you would have hoped for, you know what I mean?

Absolutely.

So, after this session we did the other day, Jonny (Two Bags), and Jake and I got together just on a whim and did this kind of impromptu, late night studio session with Joe Ginsburg and Christopher Thorn, and it was just really cool the way it came together and how everybody interacted. I can’t wait to see just…it’s gonna be a special tour.

I hope whatever you guys did is going to see the light of day someday, because that is a mind-blowing collection of talent right there.

Yeah…you know, we did that session and as we left, Christopher Thorn told me “man, you guys just need to come here for a weekend and we’re going to make a record!” (*both laugh*) He was all buzzed about it. I’m excited, man. They’re all incredible. Jonny Two Bags’ record (Salvation Town, due out April 1, stream it here) is something else. It’s gonna be a great tour, we’ve got a bunch of great folks on it.

I know you’ve got a lot of interviews stacked up, so I’ve got like one-and-a-half more questions.

Shoot.

When you’re here in Boston, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re here on a Sunday, Easter Sunday, that happens to be the night before the Boston Marathon. Obviously, it’s the one year anniversary of the bombings, which shook up a lot of people in the country, and certainly changed some things up here. And I have a really weird, maybe not weird but certainly heavy, memory of listening to Covering Ground after that, and the hidden track, “Camaraderie of the Commons,” sort of resonated as I was listening to it. I was at my desk (at work, just north of the city) and the city of Boston was on lockdown while they were chasing the kids a few days later. That song in particular struck me as really poignant when it came on.

Oh man.

And then when I heard “Whistleblowers Song,” I think the theme is a little different but the tone brought me right back to that moment.

Well thank you, man.

That’s going to be a powerful night, I think, for a lot of people, who obviously use music as a way of release and processing what’s going on in their worlds, you know?

That’s kind of one beautiful thing about music. If we choose to open our mind to it, a song may mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people, but how we pick it up and stick it in our pocket and carry it with us for sometimes the rest of our lives makes all the difference in the world. That’s the reason why we all keep looking for it, right? That’s why we gravitate to it. It stirs something in us and in a lot of ways for a lot of people, it helps us become better human beings, you know?

(Editor’s note: the half-question referenced above went unasked due to time constraints. It was penned by my six-year-old daughter, and involved wanting insight on how Chuck is able to sound like a werewolf when he sings, because she wants to be able to sing like him. Next time… next time…)


Add Chuck Ragan to My Radar   Add to My Radar

4 Comments

  1. 4/2/2014 9:29 AM | Permalink

Leave A Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.