Chuck Ragan may be the most humble man in music. He may also be the busiest. His newest release, Till Midnight, is a testament to Ragan’s timeless talent. And the new material is as honest, thoughtful, and raw as any before it. Ragan’s heart spills out on tracks such as “Something May Catch Fire” and “For All We Care.” Staying true to form, Ragan churns out another set of raspy ballads and rollicking hits.
I was able to get a few minutes with Ragan to discuss the new album, a second book, and his ever-expanding musical career. — Jeanne Crump, Editor-At-Large
Pop-Break: To start I wanted to talk about the new album, Till Midnight. Was there an underlying tone or theme on this record?
Chuck Ragan: I normally haven’t ever sat down to write any kind of concept record per se. When it comes to my records, I write continuously and I’m always churning stuff out. Sometimes it gets finished right away, and sometimes it’s bits and pieces that stay that way for years. Then sometimes I throw it in the fire out back. To me all that stuff is just as important as the songs that do see the light of day. That said, whatever is happening when I sit down to write or get stuff off my chest, it’s usually what is affecting me then and there. I think songwriters in a lot of ways are a product of their environment. Whatever they are surrounding themselves with or the way they’re living seems to make its way out of their system and into their songs. When I look back at Covering Ground for instance, the majority of those songs were written on the road. The record was recorded in between tours and we mixed and mastered it while on tour. It ended up being a road record. It wasn’t an intentional thing, it’s just how it came out.
This record, I kind of hit a point awhile ago that I needed to slow down and take a breath; take a step back and evaluate some things. While I was working on Covering Ground full time, I also had Revival Tour, my wife and I were still releasing stuff on our record label — the garage was filling up with that, we were dealing with the book I released awhile ago, The Road Most Traveled, and Hot Water Music again. It just really stacked up quick, and I’m not by any means complaining; I feel so lucky to be surrounded by so many incredible people who genuinely care about our music and who are always willing to do something to contribute to it. But the fact is, it doesn’t matter how much you love something, if you overload yourself, it can definitely take the wind out of your sails. I kind of hit a point where I needed to take a step back. In all honesty I started taking better care of myself. I stopped drinking and started eating a lot better, and tried to somewhat sleep on a normal pattern. I was around my wife a lot, and spent time outdoors. That had a lot to do with the early stages of what went into these songs. When we pulled in all the guys and all that energy, it just became a completely positive experience all around; a very unified and cohesive session all in all. Everyone was open minded and fired up. We were working together well, and I think that energy carried over in the record. There’s a few love songs and songs about friendships and learning from mistakes, which in a lot of ways isn’t a whole lot different than what I normally write, but I just think a lot of great energy was harnessed and put into this record.
PB: You talked a bit about the folks you brought in to help on this record, which included musicians such as Dave Hause and Ben Nichols of Lucero. How did this particular group come to form?
CR: Joe [Ginsberg], Jon [Gaunt], and I were playing together as a three piece mostly, and when it was time to do a new record I started talking with those guys. I always want to do something different to push ourselves, so we started talking about adding in drums. Our shows were getting bigger, and all three of us are percussive players which makes for a lot of fun, but we tend to get lost when all three of us are banging away. I met Dave [Hidalgo] when we did some touring with Social Distortion and we hit it off, and it was just wonderful to watch to him play. I heard his work on Devour, which was an incredible record, and I’ve been a fan of his for awhile. I knew Social D was taking a break and got in touch with him to see if he was available for the record. It started there and then I got in touch with Todd Beeme who plays in Lucero and Glossary — brilliant musician and an old friend. He was also available. Right away it just seemed like that was it. It was five of us looking at each other like “Oh yeah, this is gonna be fun.” That’s kind of where it started. We knew we wanted to do the record with producer Christopher Thorn again, aside from being a great producer and engineer he is a hell of a musician. He plays many instruments, has a lot of great ideas, and is a really forward thinker. He was brought into the mix. When Thorn decided we were gonna do the drums at Fonogenic Studios in LA that’s when Rami [Jaffee] came into the mix. Rami is one of the owners of the studio and we all hit it off with him and next thing we know he was gonna be on the record.
We had all these pieces and incredible musicians that I highly admire and respect. As far as all the backup singers, that stuff just happened randomly. Dave Hause was doing some record release shows for Devour and was playing down the street from where we were recording, and I told him to come by if he wanted to sing. Ben Nichols was kind of the same way, he was passing through town and he popped in and ended up on a song. To me, there was so much man on this record we needed a female voice on there to break down some testosterone, so I called Jenny O who came in to sing on some stuff. It was really cool how it all played out.
PB: Hell of a group of musicians! Aside from the album, I read that you were working on a second volume of your book The Road Most Traveled. Is there a different focus for this one or is it an extension of the first?
CR: This one is going to be an extension of the first, mainly because there were some submissions that never made it into the first one. It’s some beautiful and insightful stuff, and it just got my wheels turning. As you know in the first book we have stories from bus and truck drivers — people not even in the music business who spend time on the road. Everyone has a voice and a story and it can be answered a thousand different ways. We had thousands of submissions and there were people who hit me up a little too late, it prompted me to compile a volume two.
PB: I have to ask about Revival Tour. Is there anything on the horizon that you can talk about yet?
CR: Nothing that we’re going to announce right now, but we have some ideas. We slowed that down as well a bit. We did some one-off showcases that went really well and were really cool. We did one in Calgary that was great; we had Tim Barry and Craig Finn from The Hold Steady. It’s definitely something I really care about, but I slowed it down a bit because my main goal with the tour was to always bring a diverse lineup and a lineup that always changed, which meant that I didn’t always want to be on the tour. The point was to always have different artists and over the course of the tour (we’ve done it for 7 years now), we found ourselves in the situation with management changes, or agencies changes, and it was almost a two steps forward, three steps back thing. Maybe from the outside it looked like it was going well and fine, but it is a tough thing to hold together and organize and roll smooth. It’s incredibly expensive and my wife and I fund the whole thing. It’s one of those things where we’re trying to do it smart, and still keep it genuine while bringing an unforgettable show to folks. To do that I need to give it my full attention and I’m not able to do that right now.
PB: Well, it is unforgettable because I’ve been to a few. I was really in awe.
CR: Aww, thanks. I can explain it to people but you don’t really get it until you’ve been to one. And beyond seeing it, until you feel it. It’s a special thing.
PB: Well changing things up a bit: in your recent biography you said something that really stuck with me: “Every day we’re faced with tons of inspiration, and every step has a way of teaching you something.” I know that can apply to anyone, but as a musician what are some of the major things in your everyday life that inspires you the most?
CG: Oh, well a lot of it is the people around me: my family and my friends that I share music with. Coming together with like-minded musicians, well, there’s nothing like it. When you come together with someone that you’re able to get on the same page with and find that level playing field, you find a language. When we’re on stage and we’re connecting without words through harmony and rhythm, it’s a really special thing and it’s extremely inspiring. Then to get to know these people away from what everyone else knows them as, that to me is what kind of binds it all.
PB: Well to wrap things up, can you tell us a bit about the upcoming tour?
CR: Yeah, well I’m going on tour with The White Buffalo and Jonny Two Bags. Both of them have some incredible records out there that I would highly recommend. Jonny Two Bags released his new record Salvation on April 1st, and Jake Smith who runs The White Buffalo is releasing a record Shadows, Greys, and Evil Ways. Just two great songwriters and salt-of-the-earth gentlemen. We did an impromptu recording session just the other day and did what I was just talking about — just getting on the same page. We all hit it off and I can already tell it’s gonna be one hell of a tour.
Chuck Ragan will be performing at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ on Saturday, April 19th. Click here for tickets.