A Well-Oiled Machine
Recording, Touring, and Fishing with Chuck Ragan
Words by Brett Bodner
Photo by Lisa Johnson
Chuck Ragan and his band the Camaraderie are back and bigger than ever with an album unlike any they’ve recorded together before. With Till Midnight, his fourth solo album, Ragan decided to go for a larger sound this time around, thanks in part to a solid cast of characters.
Till Midnight features production by multi-instrumentalist and Blind Melon/AWOL Nation member Christopher Thorn, and backup by his band The Camaraderie made up of guitarist/pedal steel player Todd Beene, fiddler Jon Gaunt and bassist Joe Ginsberg, plus new drummer David Hidalgo Jr., a member of Social Distortion, and son of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. The album also features Rami Jaffee of Wallflowers/Foo Fighters, Ben Nichols of Lucero, Dave Hause, Jenny O., Chad Price and Jon Snodgrass of Drag the River.
Recorded at his home in Northern California where there was lots of fishing, good energy, and plenty of gumbo to go around, the album features some of his catchiest material to date, including the songs “Something May Catch Fire,” “Till Midnight,” and “Gave My Heart Out.”
We recently had the opportunity to speak with the Ragan about what went into Till Midnight, his upcoming spring tour, and what the future might hold.
What was your goal going into writing and recording this album?
Chuck: “When we were talking about the record we (Chuck, Joe Ginsberg and Jon Gaunt) we were mostly playing as a three piece coming off the Covering Ground cycle. As a writer in recording records, I don’t ever want to do the same thing twice – I just want to always search and find different ways of presenting my songs and the music.
So we started talking about what we wanted to do different and where we wanted to take it. The conversation was back and forth and we asked, ‘should we make it more stripped down or should we go big with it?’ We were playing bigger and longer shows, different festivals and one thing that registered with us was that we are all extremely percussive players as it is, which is cool because it can add a lot of power to playing with an upright bass, fiddle and guitar but at the same time there’s been times where we tend to get lost being so percussive. So the first thought that came in was that maybe we should add a drummer. I’ve played with drummers before but I’ve never really had anyone in the group so to speak. I’ve done tours and recordings with drummers but never something where it was like, ‘ok we’re going to do this together’.
We heard Dave Hildago was available, who had just finished up recording Devour with Dave Hause, which is an incredible record. I met Hildago on the Social Distortion tour back in 2011 and from there we just really hit it off and when we heard he was available and he was up for doing it, we locked him in and then Todd Beene became available and it seemed like all of a sudden we had the five of us and we were all super stoked to play together.
It just kind of made sense right then and there. Right away we kind of had a vision of how the record was going to go. We had no idea we were all going to gel so well and it was going to be as fun as it was and it ended up being a really special session with Christopher Thorn and Rami Jaffee and all the guests that kind of showed up randomly throughout the session and it played out really cool. A lot of good energy went into and we just wanted to go big with it and get that energy across and just document what it sounded like when this particular group of musicians played together.”
What was the recording process like for Till Midnight? Based on Instagram it looked like it involved a lot of fishing.
CHUCK: “Yeah that happens, in this camp that’s a given (laughs). I write a lot and I’m always kind of recording stuff. Early on I had a ton of demos and then I cut the list in half and finally starting sending out 15, 16, 17 tracks to the boys and said, ‘alright this is what I got going on’, and then I wanted to fly them out and have a week at my place where we just went through the songs and dug into everything.
When I flew them out, yeah we might’ve done a little more fishing than the average band. I was waking them up at 4:30 in the morning and sometimes some of them wouldn’t turn but for the most part I’d always get somebody to get up and go fishing with me. We’d go out and go fishing in the morning and then come back and make some lunch, eat some food, dig into the songs and then put some gumbo on the stove, go outside by the fire and keep on working on the songs. It was a special thing.
I wasn’t so worried about the songs and I can honestly say that. All those guys are just so professional in their own way that I just had a good feeling that it was just going to work itself out. I was more concerned about getting everyone together and bonding. I just wanted everyone on the same page and feeling good together and we hit that tour right after that which led right into the recording session, which was booked intentionally to just get us out on the road and playing together as this group of people. By doing that we went into the studio as a well-oiled machine.”
What inspires you when you begin to write lyrics? On this album it seemed that love came into play a lot.
CHUCK: “I’m in love and I write about a lot of things. There’s so many things that inspire me and stir me up and drive me. Whatever it is that I’m feeling or going through at that time somehow transfers into the songs. I think on this record, I’ve just been in a comfortable place.
After the Revival Tour and the Hot Water Exister cycle, I was pretty worn out honestly. I took a lot of stuff on all at once and was doing my work full steam ahead working on the record label, releasing that book (The Road Most Traveled), and just getting a lot of plates spinning. I hit a point where I knew I needed to take a step back, reevaluate and take better care of myself. I think a lot of that had to do with the energy that went into the songs. I stopped drinking for about a year and started eating better and just tried to somewhat sleep on a regular schedule. I had about six months where I wasn’t doing any heavy touring and it was a lot of time at home, working on the house, being with my wife and my dogs, being in the outdoors and it was all very healing in a lot of ways.”
What’s different when you write a solo album compared to when you do with Hot Water Music?
CHUCK: “There’s a few little differences. When I write, I write everything on acoustic, no matter if it’s my stuff or Hot Water and I have for years. When I’m writing most the time it’s whatever comes out. I don’t try to fit anything into a box and just kind of let it go and songs kind of take their own shape and they come out as they’re going to come out. When they do sometimes I’ll look at it and I’ll hear and think that can really be a cool Hot Water song or this would definitely not fit Hot Water. It’s not intentional, it comes out the way it wants to come out. Going into writing with the guys, the way Hot Water writes, I write a lot of stuff and we all write, but it’s mostly Chris [Wollard] or I and every once in a while Jason [Black] or George [Rebelo], but when we write something we bring it to the group and collectively tear it apart and put it together.
As far as recording goes, the Exister session went down at The Blasting Room (studio in Fort Collins, Colorado) and that was a pretty wild experience. When they record there, they have a lot of things going on at once. So drums go down and then tracks get flown over to another studio where the bass is going down and then everything is getting flown back to another studio where it’s edited and flown back to another studio where drums are done and then guitars start going down, then once bass is done that gets flown to where vocals are being done and it’s a constant motion kind of deal, which was a wild way to record a record. It was super cool and kept everything moving fast and everyone was in motion constantly.
On Till Midnight, we did it in a way where we wanted to capture what it sounded like with the five of us playing and we recorded it as live as we possibly could. We were all plugged in and going at the same time. Our goal was to get drums down first, but Todd Beene and Joe Ginsberg played so well that we ended up keeping all the bass and pedal steel tracks in that part of the session. All those three guys were in one room, Jon Gaunt was in a room next to them and I was in another room but we all had glass and sight lines. So we kind of had that live experience where we were just running through the songs until everybody was stoked and we tapped into that energy we were looking for. And if it felt good to everybody where we’d all look at each other and give ‘the nod’ and say, ‘ok, next one, let’s go’.”
How do you feel you’ve changed musically since your first solo debut?
CHUCK: I‘ve grown a lot in my playing, singing, and writing. All through it I’ve made a massive amount of mistakes to learn from, but we don’t learn from doing things right. I can find hundreds of answers to this question, but I feel extremely lucky I’ve had the opportunities I’ve had and the truth is, we never know what’s around the corner and our lives change and shift on a dime. I feel like I can really see say that if for some reason something happened and this was all gone and I wasn’t able to play anymore I can put a stamp on it and thank everybody because I’ve fulfilled so much more than I’ve ever dreamed and I just feel I’m the luckiest fella in the world to have had the opportunities and to have met and played with and learned from so many incredible musicians.”
What can fans expect when they come out to the spring tour?
CHUCK: “This tour I’m coming with the full band that people hear on the record minus Rami and Chris Thorn. Rami was a special guest on the record and we’d love for him to play with us, but I’m sure he’s pretty busy with the Foo Fighters. Christopher Thorn is an animal and is just making incredible records and is constantly playing and he’s a really developed family man and has a lot going on, but it will be the five of us (Hildalgo, Gaunt, Ginsberg, Ragan, and Todd Beene).
They can expect a pretty power packed show and not to mention probably the most dynamic and diverse set I’ve ever had the opportunity to put together. The one thing that’s so cool to me right now about playing with these guys is that we have this ability that we’re all kind of tapped into each other where we’re just able to put the pedal down and just full throttle through some songs and then just strip it down to where it’s next to nothing and just a voice and guitar, which is super intimate and soft. We’re keen on creating a roller coaster of a set and we’re just fired up and really stoked to be sharing the stage with the White Buffalo, who’s an incredible song writer, and Jonny Two Bags, who I can say the same thing about.
It’s going to be a great evening of music and we may have a few surprises along the way. I know we’re all going to get out there with a great attitude and give the best show possible, but I got a feeling it’s going to evolve and a lot of things are going to happen along the way that we had no idea would.”
What are the future plans for you after this current tour concludes?
CHUCK: “Honestly, there’s no telling. There are a few things in the scope but right now I’m trying to be in the present as much as possible and focus on this release and the tour coming up and pace myself for the cycle. Give it everything I got but pace myself in between. This year is actually Hot Water Music’s 20th Anniversary, which is incredible that we’ve made it this far and we’ll be doing something later on in the year. We’re kind of figuring that out right now. I can say the same with the Revival Tour. There’s a few things in the scope but nothing that we’re announcing just yet.
We’re pretty amazed at the response for the record. When you’re writing and recording the way we do, you never really think about how people are going to take it because you don’t really worry about that because that’s not our place. We’re just there to do our job and do what we do, get it down, and then throw it out there for the world to enjoy and for us that’s good enough as it is to make a record that we love and that feels good to us from start to finish. If people enjoy it that’s just kind of icing on the cake to us and it really feels good. I’m so thankful and appreciative to be part of such a supportive music community and I’m looking forward to getting out there and giving it back the best I can.”
The tour kicks off in San Francisco at the Great American Music Hall and will run until May 9th, before he heads out to Europe later in May.
TheWaster.com | Till Midnight