Even by the standards of a band that has defined its near quarter-century career by charting its own course and never seeming to duplicate itself, it’s safe to mark Hot Water Music‘s 2017 as one of the band’s most atypical calendar years yet. The pioneering post-hardcore outfit wrote, recorded and released Light It Up, their eighth studio album, back on September 15th. The album is stellar, prompting even old school fans to note that it’s the band’s most inspired and cohesive project in recent memory. They also played a high-profile gig at Riot Fest in Chicago, a place that has shown enough love to the band over the years that its been something of an adopted second home (their live 2012 triple LP was recorded in the Windy City).
That said, the road has been a little bumpier of late. The iconic quartet’s lineup of Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard on vocals and guitars, Jason Black on bass and George Rebelo on drums has remained constant — albeit interrupted by the occasional hiatus — since their beginning. Recently, however, they’ve had to play down a man; beginning at Fest last month in their hometown of Gainesville, Wollard has had to take a step back from performing live in order to take care of some self-reported anxiety and stress-related issues. Given the amount of moving parts (day jobs and spouses and babies and pets and so on) that need to line up for Hot Water Music to play live these days, the other three members — with Wollard’s blessing and encouragement — chose to fulfill their long-scheduled tour obligations, including a recent three-day run through Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia, and an upcoming date in Brazil.
And they are doing it with a little help from a few friends; The Flatliners’ Chris Cresswell filled in for Wollard at Fest on fairly short notice and played the three Northeast US shows, while Less Than Jake’s Chris DeMakes, a fellow Gainesvillian and longtime friend of the band, will cover the Brazil show (with any luck, Wollard will be back in fighting shape by the time the band’s January dates in California come around). Not only was Dying Scene on hand to shoot the band’s recent Boston date, but we were lucky enough to sit down with Jason Black back stage just moments before the show got under way. We talked about the lead up to recording Light It Up, looked back at some of the changes over the band’s two-plus decades in the business, and about adding the decade-and-a-half younger Cresswell to the mix; we also got cut off near the end by Ragan and Cresswell joining the conversation, the latter accompanied by a Les Paul and seeking clarification as to his part on the new Wollard-fronted Hot Water Music track “Vultures.” Head below to read our full interview!
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So yeah, thanks for taking the time before the show. This has been sort of a work in progress trying to line up between the band’s schedule and my schedule and hurricanes and all that, so I’m glad it worked out.
Jason Black (Hot Water Music): Yeah, absolutely!
Congrats on the new album! I love it!
I feel like — I know you’re not supposed to read the comment sections on message boards and shit like that, but people seem to like it. People seem to think it’s like a return to more of the roots of the band. I don’t know if that was in mind when you were writing the album, but that seems to be the gist of the feedback that’s out there, that this is a throwback album.
I don’t know if it was necessarily super high priority or high concept, as far as that goes. But it definitely is kind of why we recorded it in Gainesville with Ryan (Williams), our front-of-house engineer. We said, “let’s just do it normal. Let’s just write what we write,” and then we really just had to set the time to record, whether we were ready or not. Like “this is what’s happening, this is how long we have to do it.” We should know how to make a record by now! (*both laugh*) I think probably a lot of that came out of us just not really working with a producer. Ryan definitely had input and everything, we used him as sort of a tie-breaker. But we kind of left it up to ourselves to get it done. I don’t think we’ve been super into changing songs around. I wouldn’t say that with Bill (Stevenson, Exister) or with Brian (McTernan, A Fight and a Crash, Caution, The New What Next) or with any of the other people we’ve worked with. There’s always, like “change this, but don’t change this to my idea,” you know?
Yeah, like just “try something different here.”
Yeah, right. This time we were kind of on our own for that, so I think our hope was that it would sort of be our version of twenty years ago now, that sort of thing? So I agree. When I listen to it, I think that’s a pretty fair representation of what we do.
Yeah, of who Hot Water Music was twenty years ago except fast-forwarded to 2017. There’s a couple of different sounds again on the album, which I’m always intrigued by. The title track, “Light It Up,” has a total old-school Bad Religion feel to it. That one sounds like it came from out of left field and is totally a rad song.
Yeah, thanks! I think we’ve always kind of messed with the idea of doing stuff like that, and Chris is good at writing those kinds of songs. Since George has been playing with the (Bouncing) Souls for a while now, he’s a lot less apprehensive to do that sort of drum beat and he’s gotten comfortable with it and can do his thing. That made that whole thing a lot easier.
I talked to Greg (Attonito) after the last Souls album came out, and they were talking about bringing George into the fold and about how great a drummer George is but that it’s a different style of playing. I think that if you’re a listener or you don’t really have that sort of rhythm section background, you don’t necessarily realize that. So it’s cool that he’s now sort of adapted both bands.
Yeah, it’s awesome. And I think it’s the same for all of us. The more we play in other things, the more it benefits all of us. I notice it in Chuck’s guitar playing; it isn’t at all like it was before. It’s much more steeped in how he plays solo now, because that’s what he does mostly. It’s still different when he plays with us, and I’ll pick up on something and it’s like, “oh, that’s how you play guitar now, cool!”
Does that change how you have to approach things? Does it change the feel of older songs?
Ummm…no, I don’t think so as much. We’re pretty weird in that once we record it, we kind of flush it and just play it however we play it. We’ve been relearning songs along the way for these shows, so then you kind of stick to how it was actually recorded. But stuff that we’ve had in the set for a long time just kind of goes its own way after a while. I don’t think it informs how everyone else plays, but I think as a whole it ends up shaping a song, for sure.
Especially on newer songs? Like, knowing how the other guys play now, does that influence how you balance that when you’re writing?
Yeah, depending on the song, for sure. I think on the last song on the new record, “Take You Away,” we’ve had that song kicking around, and the way it used to sound is entirely different than it sounds now. We finally figured out a way to play it that made sense. So that’s something where I don’t feel like it’s a giant departure for us, but it is more laid back and simplified than stuff we’ve done in the past. So things like that, and things like George playing with the Souls and playing with Against Me! too, we kind of now have the repertoire to try new things and not be bored and not fuck it up! (*both laugh*) So yeah, it does to some extent!
How long did this album take to put together? I know things with Hot Water have been kind of in and out and off and on over the years.
Yeah, we had been talking about making this record since we finished making the last one. We had a time frame set up for it that all went to shit. We had to hash a lot of stuff out and kind of figure out where we were band wise for about a year or two.
I feel like that’s been kind of the thing periodically.
Oh, absolutely! It’s funny, I think that’s mostly because this isn’t what we do for a living. Everyone’s getting older, so it’s not that it isn’t a priority, but it has to fit with everyone. And kinda the thing we did starting with getting ready to record and getting ready to book shows and everything is make it a basic rule that anyone can say no to anything and they do not need to really have a reason. Like “I do not want to play a show on that day because I don’t want to” and drop it and that’s it. And, you know, at the same time people have to feel free to say “no, I really think we should because this is an insane offer” or “we’ve never been here” or whatever. But overall, if that dude doesn’t want to do it…
We’re moving on!
Yeah! And that’s helped a lot. From writing to getting into the studio, I think it was about a year of sending demos back and forth.
Is that how you guys operate? Trading emails and stuff?
Yeah. Like, I would do stuff on a crappy drum machine and send it to George. He would put drums on it, then we would send those ideas to Chris and Chuck to see if they wanted to sing any of them. And then a lot of things on this one, Chris flew out and he and Chuck wrote like six or eight acoustic ideas, so George would lay down drums, I’d lay down electric guitar or bass and then it was kind of a flip back and forth like “how ‘bout this” or “how ‘bout we change this?” So it was really collaborative for not spending a lot of time together.
Has that been a weird thing to get used to over twenty or twenty-five years working together as a band?
Well, we haven’t really written together…I think Caution was the last record that we wrote together where we would go and practice live and play all the songs. I think now that everyone’s comfortable with the technology, this is the first record where everyone has like sent a demo over the computer. Everyone’s at different levels of proficiency as far as what they can do. So Chris and Chuck can kinda send me and George anything and between the two of us we can figure out what kind of drumbeat we’ll use or what kind of vibe it should have or I’ll throw some guitars and bass on it and they’ll make it their own parts. I’m comfortable with it now with us. I think it worked really well because it gives everyone a chance to respond and you don’t have to do it immediately. Like you can listen to a song for three weeks and be like “I don’t think I like this, but I’ve listened to it for a long time, here’s what I think isn’t doing it for me about it.” So that aspect is a lot better.
Did you have a date in mind where you told yourselves you had to get started on the album? I’m assuming Rise Records, from what I’ve heard over the years, doesn’t put that sort of pressure on you to work on any sort of timeline.
They just let you do whatever. Even to the point where we’re like “what song should we make a video for?” and they’re like “we like these two songs” and we say “nah, we don’t want to do that.” And they’re like “why do you guys even ask?!?” (*both laugh*) They just let us do our thing. But we had to set a date for us, where it’s like, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it, because we’re just going to drag it out forever. So we got a few weeks of recording set aside where we said “we’ll start here and end here and that’s it.”
Why was there a decision to go back and produce the album yourselves like the old days, rather than work with somebody else?
I think we just wanted to make it a little bit easier, because it was one less thing we had to schedule. With Chris and George living in Gainesville, that’s two people that don’t have to leave home. My wife and I live in Florida now — we didn’t know that when we scheduled the recording —
You were in New York before, right?
Yeah. We live about an hour-and-a-half from Gainesville, so that made that easier too. So it started to seem like it would work out pretty well. And I think we would do it that way again anyway, because we rehearse at Ryan’s studio, it’s where we’re comfortable, it’s not like (a situation where) if we don’t finish, there’s a giant eight-week project coming in after us. He’s got other stuff and we can get in a few weeks or a month and just tack stuff together. It seemed like the least daunting way to do it, you know? I mean the longest stretch of shows we can even do as a band is like five or six days.
Based on schedules and priorities and all that?
That makes things a lot harder than the old days, but like you said, nobody is doing it for a living.
Yeah, I mean it really does. Like booking shows, for example, we’ve had these shows booked since…March probably?
And that’s without necessarily having an album timeline at that point.
Yeah. Like, “we’re thinking about here, so let’s go ahead and get holds here, here and here, everyone clear your calendars” and this, that and the other. It’s not easy to do anything quick. I don’t think…I don’t personally care to go on tour with my job…
What do you do outside of Hot Water?
I do office managing for a property management company out of New York still.
Yeah, I was able to keep that job when we moved. My wife works crazy, crazy hours all the time, and we have dogs, so my mom’s dog-sitting right now. That’s what it takes to go play three shows. I have to fly her down to stay with the dogs because there’s just no other way to do it. (*both laugh*) It’s that kind of thing. It does make things harder, but the last two week tour we did, at the end of it, we were just, like, “we don’t need to do that ever again.” We know where we want to play…
When was the last two week tour? Was that the anniversary shows a few years ago?
Yeah, 2014 or whatever. And it’s hard to say this without it sounding shitty, but we really want to play where the shows are going to be really good. And it sucks that that’s pretty much just major cities on the coasts, but that’s where our fans happen to live.
And Chicago, I’m sure.
Yeah! It’s not any slight to Lawrence, Kansas, or whatever, but we just don’t have a lot of fans there. For us to take the time now to try to do something like that…
Yeah, or to try to build a fanbase in places like that…
Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. So we go to where the shows are going to be good. We want to enjoy it too, you know? And like you said, we’re comfortable with where we’re at. This is how big we are, and that’s fine.
Right, you’re almost a quarter-century in to this…
Yeah, we’re not, like, building for the future now.
And I wonder how bands even do that nowadays; bands that have been around for a while and try to bring in new fans. I feel like unless you’re Green Day, that probably doesn’t happen.
Yeah, it’s so much work. And it’s not that I don’t like working at all. But it’s so much work not at home. I wouldn’t even know how to start a new band now and what to do, unless it was just for fun. It’s one thing if you want to just go play some shows and not have any expectations. But to actually try to build a career at it now, A) because I’m older but B), I don’t even know…
I don’t either. And I can’t figure out how some bands become big bands and some work their asses off and just maintain a sort of low level.
Yeah, it’s super random. I think it’s kinda always been random, but I feel like before streaming and all that really kicked in, there was at least kind of a program that the label could plug you in to, where they’d promote the shit out of it, and you’d make a video, this, that and the other. There were some things that you could get in place that would happen. But there’s so many bands now that get radio play that draw less than we do. I don’t really know that there’s a good formula anymore. And the bands that I think should be huge are playing to two hundred people. Not that that’s bad…
Right! Swingin’ Utters were just here last weekend, and I’ve been a fan of theirs for twenty years, and I went to a show and it was a lot of people that have been going to see them forever, and that were at the show they played in the same spot almost twenty-one years ago to the day. Everybody still enjoys it, but it seems like the same 250 people.
At some level there’s got to be a bit of comfort in it for them, but all of us are late thirties or forties or fifty. That’s gotta be a weird thing.
Yeah, and we tried for a little while, we’d go support this band or that band. Some of them worked. I think supporting Bad Religion was awesome for us. We’re friends with them, they’re a killer band. Now we know those dudes, and I would do it again. I think that…I don’t know if supporting AFI worked for us.
Boy, I forgot about that.
They’re really good friends of ours, but I don’t know if I would swing that one again. That sounds like fun, but it’s not going to help those guys, and it’s not going to help us.
Those are different markets and clientele…
Yeah, and that’s the other thing. Everyone we’re friends with…there are a lot of bands that have the same fans, but a lot that don’t have any of the same fans. We like to play with our friends, and we don’t play enough to play with people we don’t know.
This is just a three-day run in the Northeast for now. Was there thought after Chris backed out of tabling these shows or putting them off?
The whole thing happened in such a way that it wasn’t (rapid fire) boom-boom-boom-boom, it was (slower, methodical) boom…boom…boom…boom… up until we played Fest. George and Chris and I had rehearsed a few days before Fest and we thought it seemed like we were going to be alright to do it. And then the morning of, (Chris) was like “no, I can’t do it.” And I was like “okay. I get it. No problem at all.” I had spoken to Chris Cresswell the night before and I said “hey, why don’t you sing “Trusty Chords” with us tomorrow?” And then George ran into him at load-in and he said “hey, can you learn some songs?” He went and learned eight in two hours and killed it.
We played the night show and then we played the next show, and (Wollard) couldn’t make it to that one either,we all kinda talked and I said “dude, having this (three-day tour) on your plate too isn’t going to help anything.” And he said “no, absolutely, I need to focus on me and do my thing.” So, Chris (Cresswell) was able to do these shows, because there isn’t really a reschedule. I don’t know when that would be.
Right, especially if you had this lined up in March!
Yeah. Not just for plane tickets and hotels and all that, but Chuck and his wife have figured out that she’s going to stay home with Grady, my mom’s watching my dogs…there’s too many moving parts, so it’s either they happen or they don’t. They’re not going to maybe happen again later. Before Fest even, Chris was saying that we should start trying to find someone to fill in for him on these shows, and we were like “nah, man, you got this, you’ll be fine!” And he’s like “I’m not fine.” And then it’s time to scramble. Luckily enough, Cresswell fucking killed it! It is definitely lemonade from lemons! We got super lucky. And we go to Brazil next month and Chris (DeMakes) from Less Than Jake is going with us because The Flatliners have shows. We’re really lucky he was open to it because we’re friends with him. We’ve just kinda been lucky to have people that want to do it that we’re friends with already.
Does it change what you want to do in terms of setlists? Obviously you can only play what they’ve learned…
Yeah. It does, but now instead of four people that have to agree, we only really have to have three people agree…
…and you can say “here, you have to learn that!”
Yeah! And at the same time, like we did with (Cresswell), we were like “figure out what you want to play! Don’t make it feel like some hired gun thing, we’re friends! Act like you’re in the band for three days or however many shows you’re doing and help pick songs!” We’ve been picking the same fucking songs for forty years… (*both laugh*) We need some help!
I’m curious to try to talk to him later on about what that experience is like for him…A) getting the call to jump on for one show, but then to jump on for three shows. Plus, he’s a generation younger than you guys. He grew up loving you guys…
Yeah, he sent me his birthday and stuff to book his plane tickets and I was like…
Yeah, he turned thirty like a week ago!
Yeah! (Thirty) feels like so long ago! It’s definitely a different stage dynamic. If there is a positive about it, it’s like we’ve kind of had to step up our game a little bit. Like, this dude’s fifteen years younger than us or whatever, and he’s coming out here on his A game. He’s learned all this shit in two weeks, like, get it together dudes! That has been a little bit of an energy bump. It’s less like punching the clock and like “we’re here doing this same thing again” and now it’s like “Woo! We’re doing this whole new thing!”