My theory goes a little like this: The saplings that sprout out of the modern emo/punk/whatever scene are seldom more than little boys, with soft skin, softer hands, girls' jeans, emo bangs (I can keep going)—and the understanding that substance takes a backseat to presentation. It's a music scene without a backbone, an empty gesture set to sound. Then there is Hot Water Music. Older than all their peers—unless you count the fueled-by-Guinness runaway train that is their drunken forefathers, British rough-punk icons Leatherface—HWM have the same devotion to melody and showmanship as their contemporaries, but they also have spine and a work ethic so powerful that it should be worshipped, bronzed, and mounted as a glorious statue for all to see. In short: There are boys in bands, and then there is Hot Water Music.
While the fickle push and pull of musical trends might be primed to bury HWM's legacy as a fleeting moment in time, the group's influence still resonates. The short story is that the band—dual guitarist/vocalists Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard, bassist Jason Black, and drummer George Rebelo—materialized in the sweltering surrounding area of Alachua County, Florida, a dozen years back, eventually establishing themselves as the flagship act of the Gainesville punk rock scene. What followed was a global appreciation of their underdog punk rock, 10 full-lengths (if you count the obligatory live album, Live at the Hardback, and the recently released B-sides compilation Till the Wheels Fall Off), an average of eight months a year spent in cramped vans, and too many breakups and indefinite hiatuses to even bother counting. To say that Hot Water Music is back is to assume they once left.
"We never broke up," explains Ragan, the talkative mouthpiece of the band. "It's kind of a big misconception. We were on indefinite hiatus but it wasn't that we didn't want to play together; it was more so that we had different agendas, different callings on our own. We really needed a break." That break has stretched for close to three years now, with three-quarters of the members performing as the Draft, and Ragan—who now lives on the West Coast—swinging a hammer as a contractor and moonlighting as a solo performer.
HWM's gruff sound (Americanized from the aforementioned Leatherface) of thick guitars, overlapping layers of gravelly vocals, and their penchant for hardcore breakdowns is still felt in the working class bar-rock of Gaslight Anthems and major label political punks Against Me. And their influence doesn't end in sound: The band roared upon the scene with a look that, in crude fashion terms, could only be described as "Gainesville Summer," a carefree style consisting of shorts onstage and those infamous neck beards. (Oh, the neck beards.) Even their classic band logo (flames, water, and the single word "music") has found its way to the end of a tattoo gun for countless fans (one of whom works here at the paper), ranking on the punk rock symbol chart somewhere above Rocket from the Crypt's "free shows for life" logo and below Raymond Pettibon's four-black-bar design for Black Flag. If anything cements a legacy, it's ink to skin—and, of course, records.
The early days of HWM recordings were a barren affair, with thick slabs of distorted guitars bookending the screaming/singing dual vocals of Ragan and Wollard—neither bothering with pitch, key, or organized song structure. Those first few HWM albums peddled in emotion and energy, acting as handy stopgaps to tide the listener over until the live show blazed through town, sweating and bleeding on the stage of whatever small all-age venue would house the four grizzled boys from Florida. So much performing sharpened the band's once blunt instrument into a mighty weapon of volume, massive hooks, and (gasp) song structure. They subsequently label-hopped, gained a reputation for their proud commitment to excellence, toured with the deceased Murder City Devils—and the should-be-deceased Alkaline Trio—and never stopped moving, despite the strain of the touring lifestyle dragging them down.
"We have been through thick and thin together," says Ragan. "When I look back on it we were conscious at the time to say, 'Hey, we need to take a step back and reflect.' I'm so appreciative that we were able to do that. That's what kept us to be true friends, and that's what kept the music real to us. We could have just as easily said, 'To hell with it,' and just kept going, not caring, and watched it all fizzle out in front of us."
Credit the bands' emphasis on friendship over career, coupled with their enthusiastic devotion to the loyal fan base that has followed them for the past decade-plus. "Hot Water Music fans are the most passionate, energetic, amazing fans there can ever be," exclaims Ragan. "It's amazing to look back at what we all have gone through over the years because we feel that the people that come to these shows, and have over the years, are just as much a part of Hot Water Music as we are." Now that's a band worth getting inked for.