Chuck Ragan: The Cream Interview



Chuck Ragan grew up in Tennessee before moving to Louisiana and discovering punk rock, going on to start the emo-punk band Hot Water Music in the early '90s. In the early Aughts he launched a solo career as the band went on hiatus. In 2008, Ragan started The Revival Tour, bringing along a variety of singer-songwriters and bandleaders and sitting them in the round each night, taking turns playing each other's songs together. HWM later reunited, going on to release their first album in eight years with 2012's Exister. Somewhere in there Ragan also wrote a book of tour stories and anecdotes, The Road Less Traveled, which was released last year. On Sunday, The Revival Tour hits Mercy Lounge, where Ragan will be joined by Rocky Votolato, Dave Hause and Tim McIlrath. We caught up with the ever-busy Ragan in Pensacola, Fla.

You’ve talked about songs being almost journals for you. So the question is why chronicle?

Songwriting has always simply been a form of therapy for me. It’s just something I feel like I have to do. For just myself to simply understand my own reasons, my own paths, and take a step out of what I’m doing at the moment and in a way look at my life from a different perspective. Or tell a story or just decipher my own thoughts in a way. So it’s just kind of always been crucial to lay that stuff down and get it off my chest and out of my head and one way or another take the next step forward.

You come from a conservative family in Chattanooga. Was punk that much more exciting or enticing because of that?

Absolutely. No question. I grew up in an old Southern Baptist household. My folks — it wasn't that they were totally straitlaced or anything, but I guess compared to the way I live my life they were rather conservative. But they were always a lot of fun. But yeah, I got into skateboarding, which got me into punk rock music and more aggressive music, and where I came from, in my family, a lot of the stuff we would hear on the speakers around the house was Cajun music, bluegrass or gospel hymns. Things of that nature. So when I found this group of people and these ramp parties where we would go to our friend's vert ramp and skate vert and all this crazy music was coming out of the stereo, we were just ruining our bodies, really hurting ourselves and loving every minute of it. Some kind of fire ignited at that point in my life. There was something to be said for doing something dangerous to the tune of dangerous music.

Now you’ve completed a whole album and tour cycle with Hot Water Music, after doing a reunion tour before that. How does it feel to blow out your hearing for months on end again?

Yeah. It’s been, honestly, the last two years have been kind of tough, juggling everything we’ve been juggling. It’s hard on me and it’s hard on the body. If you live on the road, it’s always a challenge to try to eat well and sleep well — simply take care of yourself. But it’s nothing compared to what our loved ones put up with in our absence. In a way we’re giving ourselves to the world before we're giving ourselves to the ones we love the most, and that’s what really takes a major toll in this life[style]. It’s never easy for loved ones, and it’s hard especially when the tours stack up and you’re in and out of the house and constantly throwing a monkey wrench in the gears. Our families find their own rhythms and then we come home and empty the bags all over the place, drop the gear and mess up the dog’s feeding and sleeping schedule ...

Why The Revival Tour?

That’s a great question. This tour is just the most special way of touring that I've ever been a part of in my life. There's something that takes over on this bus with all these artists, the crew, the communities that we visit, and it's this simple, infectious camaraderie that kind of just blankets all of us and really is unique. It's something that changes on a regular basis, and that's what makes it so special. There's never the same show. We have artists coming and going constantly. ... I'm witnessing people genuinely enjoying themselves and each other and having a great time doing it, even if they mess up here or there because they learned something backstage five minutes ago and walked onstage and played it. ... To me it really revives my faith in music and restores my energy out here. If it wasn't for this tour I don't know if I'd be on the road at all. It's just that special to me.

Let me clarify: It's not like this is some groundbreaking original idea; this way of sharing music has been around for hundreds of years. It's an age-old, simple concept. It's just a group of people who are coming together — a lot of them as strangers — and sharing music by stripping down all of the kind of useless breaks and kinds of strikes and everything. ... And do away with the egos and the hierarchy and who should be headlining or should be an opener, and sharing music in a completely stripped-down, grassroots fashion. People coming on as strangers and leaving as lifelong friends and collaborators.

Tell me a little about some of the people on the tour. Rocky Votolato?

He’s a kindred spirit. He’s really something else. We literally about 30 minutes ago just stepped off a fishing boat. We hit it off. I’ve been trying to get him out on The Revival Tour for four to five years. We finally got him over to Europe on the last one, and he just was wonderful. He’s always up for collaboration. But besides that, he’s such a peaceful spirit, just a wonderful person to be around.

Dave Hause?

Dave’s been on the revival quite a bit before. He’s an animal. He’s a serious go-getter and is wonderful with the crowd. He’s pure entertainment. Aside from being a great player and fantastic songwriter and vocalist, he’s just wonderful people and hilarious. Like Rocky, he’s a guy who’s always up for it to collaborate and work on something else.

Jenny Owen Youngs?

She’s wonderful. She was on The Revival Tour in '09, and I hit it off with her and just really got along out of the gate. She’s just a wonderful person and brilliant songwriter and pleasant to be around. In the music world — like the sports world — it can be overtaken by testosterone, and it’s not a man’s world. There are so many amazing wonderful musicians that are just above and beyond the call and need to be heard. People like Jenny Owen Youngs. Audra Mae, and the Anderson Family. All just wonderful songwriters.

Jenny O?

That’s John Gaunt [fiddle] and Joel Ginsberg [upright bass, mandolin]. Those guys have been on it since the early Revival Tours, and in it for the long haul. They’re just top notch. They are some of the hardest working guys out here, because they’re backing everybody up.

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