Interview: Hot Water Music’s Jason Black, Chris Wollard on Triumphant Ninth Record

Hot Water Music have always been a band to count on when times get tough. The band’s fist-in-the-air anthems are the bedrock of their 29-year trajectory from young Gainesville, Florida punks pouring their hearts out, to, well, older Florida/California/Canada punks pouring their hearts out. 

On Kill the Void, the band’s ninth album since forming in 1993, the dark times of the past two years show the band more contemplative and punchier. Transforming struggle into triumph has been Hot Water Music’s modus operando since the beginning. Why stop now? 

Hot Water Music is guitarist and vocalist Chris Wollard, guitarist and vocalist Chuck Ragan, bass player Jason Black, drummer George Rebelo, and new addition Chris Creswell from Toronto melodic punks The Flatliners. 

As countless bands try to adjust to recording in different places, Hot Water Music are no strangers to recording remotely. Twenty-twelve’s Exister, 2017’s Light It Up, and parts of 2004’s The New What Next were the product of using email, phone, and video to finish the albums. 

This time, with Black, Wollard, and Rebelos all within two hours of each other, the three were able to lay down the song foundations before all five members and McTernan hit Williams’ Black Bear Studios in Gainesville to record. Leading up to the studio sessions, they tried to avoid Zoom fatigue while hammering out arrangements for songs that alternate between the all-pistons-firing Caution and the sombreness of The New What Next. 

Wollard is particularly stoked on the collaborative approach of the new album and being able to work with the band again after dealing with mental health issues. He’s spent the past several years in therapy and taking medication and has decided to stay away from touring for the foreseeable future. 

Hot Water Music fans who thought Wollard wouldn’t return to the band will be relieved to hear he hasn’t missed a step in his song writing. Feel the Void has as many of his steam-engine guitar lines and gruffly delivered melodies as ever. Think the title track to A Flight and a Crash and “The End” from Caution. On the new album, “Newtown Sugar” and album closer “Lock Up” are classic Wollard, with his unmistakable frenetic guitar lines and higher-register growl backed by Ragan’s rugged roar.  

The album’s 12 songs cover a lot of ground. Opener “Another Breath” sets the tone with the heaviest groove the band has ever locked into. Meanwhile, “Ride High” verges into power ballad territory. 

Kill the Void may not exist without a chance encounter at Gainesville punk festival The Fest in 2017. Just hours after Wollard had to pull out of the band’s headlining spot, drummer Rebelos ran into Creswell, a massive Hot Water Music fan, and told him the band was going onstage as a three-piece. Rebelos’ next question changed Creswell’s life. Would he like to play couple songs with the band? Five years later, Creswell’s still playing with them. He’s now a full-time fifth member who tours with the band in Wollard’s place. It’s the first time in the band’s history that it’s not just Ragan, Wollard, Black, and Rebelos. 

The band also encouraged Creswell to be part of Kill the Void’s writing process. He stamps his unmistakable vocal imprint on “Turn the Dial.” With lilting vocals smoother than the band’s fans will be used to, it’s one of the punchiest songs on the album, a spark igniting when impassioned gang vocals punctuate Creswell’s harmonies. 

The best part of Kill the Void is that it’s not a throwback album, but it adds new depth to the band’s signature sound. As a result, its 12 songs hit all the sweets spots. Then find more. 

Wollard and Black had a lot to say about the new album’s recording process, recording together again, and the addition of Creswell, while Wollard opened up about his mental health issues.  

This album feels similar to (2004’s) The New What Next, especially in the heavier tone. It’s a real grower and there’s a lot to digest here.
Chris Wollard: Yeah, there’s a lot going on here. With the mix that Brian McTernan did, there’s still stuff when I’m listening to it where I’m like, “Oh, that’s tucked over here,” or if I listen to it on a different stereo, I hear something different. We went all out, working hard in the whole recording session so you’re never stopping to listen to what you did. You’re constantly working on different ideas, so it’s not until the end where you really get to sit down and go, “OK, what do we have here”? Especially when you’re working that fast. 

Jason Black: For me, and I don’t want this to come off as dismissive of other records we’ve done, this is the first record we’ve written where nobody came and said (sings) “I’ve gotta song, and it’s goes like this, and the chords change here, and here comes the bridge … ” This was a lot more where [drummer] George Rebellos and I said, “Let’s make up a groove,” and then Wollard’s got this guitar part, and the instrumental music took the driver’s seat in getting this record to where it’s at.   

Chris Wollard: We’ve always had singer/songwriter songs where we come in with a verse and a chorus, and we’ve always had band songs where we write the music together and figure out vocals later. We have a lot those band songs this time, including a lot of songs that didn’t even make the record.  

You’ve been writing remotely for a while with band members living in different places. Exister and Light It Up were both done like that. What was it like having three of you in the same place this time?
Wollard: The vast majority was written where we’d start with the smallest idea where me, Jason, and George would just get together and take little ideas, or grooves, or riffs, and then work on it together. We were basically writing instrumentals in all-day long sessions once or twice a month and kept sending out our ideas to Chuck and Creswell.  

What came of it was a lot more freedom in our playing. If you have multiple people working on songs remotely you can end up spinning your wheels and it gets confusing. Even if the three of us are working on a song that Chuck wrote and we’re still following his rhythm guitar and vocals, it’s a lot easier to decide where we need to fill space. And where do I need to take space away; where do I need to shut up? It changes the song, maybe not the vocals, and we still have to do emails and lots of Zoom stuff, but at least every few weeks, the three of us can get together and make sure we’re still working on the foundation of the song.  

I can hear that warmth of the three of you guys writing together on this album, and it sounds like everyone came to Gainesville to record.
Wollard: We did as much as we could with everyone available. I’m glad you can hear it. That’s what we were trying to do. 

Black: The rest of those guys, Chuck, Creswell, and McTernan, were all in town, and we did it all together here in June (2021). 

Wollard: We started the year before, and for the next nine months we figured how to communicate and stay focused on our writing. And then we said, “Now we’re ready to record.” 

Black: It’s funny you mentioned The New What Next because that’s the last record where three of us wrote in the same place. Chuck had just moved to California right before that. Everything before that we practiced four, five times a week for a couple hours and we were always writing songs. Obviously, we’re older and like to think we’re better at writing songs, but you lose that spontaneity when you’re not in real time, and maybe you lose cool ideas. 

Well, you’re doing a good job both ways because Exister is my favorite Hot Water Music album, and that was one where you had the most separation. So whatever way you’re doing it, it’s working for me.
Black: Awesome. Thank you.  

You guys have always been a very positive, fist-in-the-air band, and there’s been a lot of adversity, but you’ve always come over that hump. How have you been keeping your music uplifting and positive as the years go on? Most of us are having lots of struggles right now, and I know Chris you’ve been having some struggles personally. How do you keep the positivity rolling?
Wollard: Well … I’m going to be totally honest. I don’t think I’m a very positive writer. I really don’t. I try to be very positive as a person. I try to be a thoughtful person. But the songs, I don’t know if I’ve ever sat down and said, “I’m going to write a song about this awesome day I just had.” I don’t think I’ve ever done that. It’s always been me telling stories or something, but when I get into that positivity, it’s usually because I’m actively trying to sort out some negativity or issues I’m having, or my friends are having, or the world is having.  

Sometimes I am writing positive songs, like “Our Own Way” (from 1999’s No Division). Sometimes what people think is “fuck yeah,” I’m like, “fuck off” or “fuck you” or “you can’t fucking tell me what to do.” (laughs) I don’t know; I’m a little chippy sometimes. I write like who I am. Sometimes I’m kind of ornery, and I try to keep it in check. I try to be curious and not judgement and, yeah, sometimes I get pissed off, and it forces me to write a song where I don’t have to carry this around in my life. 

We all need that expression and an outlet to work things out and that’s positive in of itself. We’re all trying to get past our own adversity of ourselves and what’s around us. Having a creative outlet in music, especially punk rock, that has a “fuck the system” element to it—that sounds like The Exploited or something, but you know what I mean. We’re outsiders; we want to be heard. Do you feel like you were drawn to the punk scene for a specific reason?
Wollard: Yeah. I was a pissed-off kid. 

Black: Yeah, for sure. I can’t speak for Creswell because that guy’s been in The Flatliners since he was like 13 or 14, but the four of us ended up in the same place. Having Dischord and more academic stuff like that was really awesome because that was the first stuff I could really latch onto. That and 7 Seconds.  

The music and lyrics were interesting, but then I’m like, “Oh, look, these guys have haircuts; oh look, they have nice clothes.” I’d go and see Jawbox and go, “Oh, look at these respectable young people playing really cool music, and everyone’s going to go to the hotel, and brush their teeth, and go to sleep afterwards. That sounds awesome.” If there was a guy in our band who didn’t want to do the dirty punk thing, it was me … or George. [laughs] 

Wollard: Those early days … 

Black: The early days were the early days. You got peanut butter; you got peanut butter. 

Wollard: Yeah, it was like guerrilla warfare. 

Black: When bands like Fugazi started happening, it became apparent to me that you could do whatever the fuck you wanted to in punk. Mike Watt always says, “Punk rock is what you want it to be,” which is true. That’s how we ended up operating as a band in that universe. We didn’t even fit in here in Gainesville when we started, and we didn’t fit in anywhere, so we just kept pushing until everyone let us in. We all found punk by being outcasts, but even being outcasts within the punk scene. When we started playing here, people said, “You guys aren’t punk. What is this shit?”  

How do those early days inform what you’re doing now?
Black: Touching back on the song writing for this new record, we always used to say that there wasn’t anything we didn’t want to play. There wasn’t a style that didn’t fit the band, as long as it worked out as a good song and felt okay once we were done with it. We came full circle back to that on this record. Yeah, fine, maybe we haven’t done a song like this in 15 years, but we definitely would have done it then, so let’s loosen the collar and let some of that stuff back in. 

Wollard: It doesn’t matter where the song starts; you have to adapt and have fun with it. But I’m telling you, Hot Water has a vibe that happens. And it’s not when we’re playing a fast song, or a heavy song, or any kind of song. It could be a slow, groovy song, but there’s a tangible vibe in the room where we’re all moving together, and you feel it, and nothing’s figured out yet, but you can feel the song. 

Black: On this album, there were definitely a few songs that flew together, that weren’t a lot of work compared to others. And others we would build on it, and build on it, and build on it … 

Wollard: I know how much work we did, but there wasn’t a whole lot of struggling with the songs. You have to work through it, and some took us extra time to figure out, but there was a good energy in this recording. I can remember a couple of songs where I brought in a riff and Jason and George turned the beat upside down, and then I wanted to follow them.Hot Water MusicI’m curious about the song “Ride High,” which I’m assuming Chuck brought in. It’s almost your ballad, one of the mellowest, let’s call it prettiest songs you’ve ever done.
Wollard: Well, let’s flip the script on that one. [laughs] That is a leftover song by The Draft (Jason, Chris, and George’s other band) that never had vocals. McTernan found it because we had recorded the music for it at his old studio in DC. He kept pushing it, saying he really wanted to do it, that it’s really going to be good. Eventually, Chuck just sang over stuff that we had tracked over at McTernan’s in 2005 or 2006We re-cut the music in the studio and added a bridge to the song. 

A lot of the songs on this record talk about how we’re dealing with our lives right now, and that’s what Hot Water’s always done, like, let’s find a way to battle through. Is this album a commentary on where the world is right now or is it an album people can listen to in 10 years and still get the same meaning? 
Wollard: I would say it’s timeless … Jesus, that really giving us a lot of credit [laughs]. I would hope that it’s not specific to now, but things are so wild right now so that’s a tough one. 

Black: I don’t usually do a lot of current affairs because that tends to get date, so I try not to be too specific. I mean I’m already anxious and nervous and cooped up, so it’s coming out of me, but it’s pretty rare when someone can guess what the hell I’m writing about.  

It’s usually not what people think. It’s one of those times when everyone is all anxious, so this record might feel more of the moment. For me, that’s not by design. I tend to let my brain go wherever the hell it wants when I’m writing. I don’t have such linear thoughts most of the time. But it’s an anxious world right now and hopefully that stops. It’s a vicious cycle of anxiety. It’s strange days.  

How have you been doing with your mental health, Chris? I know it’s been a battle for you for a long time.
Wollard: Yeah, I’m dealing with it all the time. Today, I had to go to friggin’ Wal-Mart. 

Black: Yep, you’ve already got me. Triggered. (laughs) 

Wollard: So, I’m driving to Wal-Mart to get bloodwork done. Before I got in the truck, I got a cup of water, and said, “I’ll drive slow,” you know? But I’ll say it, I think I’m doing great. 

Black: I think you’re doing great. 

Wollard: I have two therapists; I take my meds; I look after my health, I don’t put myself in situations … What did Bill Stevenson say? “I’m just a person on the planet, man!” [laughs] I try to be easier on myself. It’s OK to have limits. But I paint houses, and I find that to be meditative. I’m still able to write music with my friends, and I’ve had a lot of changes over the past few years.  

Is touring off the table for the future? 
Wollard: I don’t think too much about the future. That’s part of what I have to do these days. It got to the point where we were booking shows a year or two out. I was already dreading it before it started. It brought on my anxiety. It’s not about what am I going to be doing in the future, it’s about having the opportunity to write records with my friends and have a really good time.  

Luckily, I’m in a band where we can still make it work, and they can still tour. I miss hanging out with the dudes and the community feeling, but I don’t miss the tour lifestyle. I’m very thankful with where I’m at and I feel better than I’ve felt in my whole life. And I can recognize it now when there are anxious times in my life. There’s no way I could have done this without my friends and family.  

How has doing this record been for your health?
Wollard: We started talking about doing the album and I was getting terrified. I was, like, “I don’t have any idea if this is going to work for me.” We all got on the phone one day and had a very, very, long, intense talk. A very honest, important talk, and it’s exactly what we needed. After that, we were in it; let’s do it, and since then I’ve been having a fucking blast, especially being able to have a few of us, and all of us whenever we can, being together instead of doing all of our communication by email. This album was just an absolute fucking blast.  

Jason, your bass playing is amazing on this album. Do you have a song or two that stand out?
Black: On “Feel the Void,” the title track, the bass line is a little Fugazi and a little The Cure for me. I really dig that. “Collect Your Things and Run,” I love the bass stuff on that, it’s kind of hyperactive. I’m real pumped about the bass stuff I got to play on the record. It sounds rad, and it’s super loud, which is awesome. I try to make every song we have as close to a hip-hop song as possible. So, that’s where my brain always is. When we’re working on something, I always think, “How would I make people that hate punk rock dance if they heard this?” 

How much impact did Chris Creswell have on you guys being able to recalibrate for this album?
Wollard: A lot.  

Black: A lot. The song that he sings lead on, “Turn the Dial,” is one of the first songs we came up with for the record. We were jamming that backstage at a show in Boston before lockdown. Once things started moving, he found his groove, and then him and Wollard found their groove together after that, and that’s when shit started happening.  

It’s cool. There are definitely things that are on the record that would not be on the record without him. He thinks about things differently than any of the four of us do when it comes to song writing. Everyone has their go-to bag of tricks and that changes over time, but his bag of tricks come with things that some of us never use. There are some more dramatic chord progressions that remind me of Queen, but I know it’s because Creswell likes Weezer. It was cool because it’s not something any of us would have thrown out there.   

Black: He had a way of finding extra ambience. 

How does this record make you feel?
Black: I’m pumped. I haven’t felt as good about a record in a long time, probably since [2002’s] Caution. And I know every time someone puts out a record, they say, “It’s our best record yet.” If someone tells me that this record isn’t in the top three of our records, then I don’t care. I will just very politely tell them that they’re wrong, and I know better because I’m in the band, and that’s the end of the discussion. (laughs)  

Part of McTernan’s game plan was, “I love your band, not as a friend or producer, and I want to make the record that I want to hear.” And we ticked all the boxes from all the eras of the band. No matter what your favorite thing is that we do, it’s on here. And some new stuff, too. I feel satisfied, that’s what I’ll say. 

Wollard: Oh, I feel super satisfied. It’s probably my favorite mix on any record I’ve done. Very, very artistic mix. I’m really impressed by what McTernan did and what Ryan Willams did as an engineer. It felt comfortable and natural. It’s not every album where you wake up and say, “Cool, I’m going to go into the studio and do another 10 hours.” The energy was just great. I love the songs where I’m really making a fucking racket on the guitar but with Hot Water some of my favorite stuff is the rhythm-focused songs and this album was a fucking pleasure. 

Watch the video for “Collect Your Things And Run” here:

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Photos courtesy of Hot Water Music and Alan Snodgrass

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