"Do you guys want a beer?"
We’re winging it to Brighton to see Chuck Ragan and The Camaraderie at The Haunt. It’s damn-near the perfect venue to create gut-stirring volume and power, yet still be intimate enough for the crowd to get a close-up sense of what this genial songsmith and his mates are all about.
At first glance, Ragan is quite the musical chameleon, spanning punk rock in on-off-on band, Hot Water Music, all the way through to acoustic Americana via the folk-inspired Revival Tour.
Tonight, we’ll hear pedal steel and fiddle cut through the bass, drums and acoustic guitar, all driven by that broken, gravelled voice and heart-on-the-sleeve writing style that binds the whole thing together seamlessly.
So, with latest album Till Midnight released earlier this year – his fullest-sounding and most ‘band-like’ solo album to date – it seems we have a lot to cover.
The first question is from Chuck, however: “Do you guys want a beer?” Um, okay.
Punk roots and acoustics
How did you get into punk rock?
“I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock ’n’ roll. I wasn’t allowed to go buy records and if I did, I’d have to hide ’em. I grew up in a somewhat conservative, Southern Baptist family, so I was surrounded by Cajun music, old gospel hymns; this Christian, spirit-driven music, bluegrass and a little bit of country… as long as it wasn’t secular country, [laughs].
“At the same time, I found skateboarding, which just spun my head around and I started finding bands; Bad Brains, GBH, Germs, Metallica, Public Enemy… just a wide and strange range of different cultures in music.
"We used to skateboard at a friend’s house, and we played all these tapes – all this crazy stuff that excited me and scared me! Then, every once in a while, my friend’s dad would say, ‘Alright boys, I’ll put my music on now!’ and he’d put on CCR [Creedence Clearwater Revival], Woody Guthrie, Townes Van Zandt, old Dylan stuff, a lot of Cajun music, too, because we were in Lafayette, Louisiana.
"All the music we were listening to kind of became seamless: Townes Van Zandt one minute, early Metallica the next!”
So the guitar was the obvious next move?
“I was 12 years old or so when I begged for my first guitar; an electric. They finally broke down and bought me the package… And I didn’t even know the first thing! I didn’t even know you had to press down on the frets. I took it home, turned all the knobs all the way up and just started wailin’ on the thing.
"They gave me about 20 minutes of fun with it, then the door swings open and my father scoops it up, and I never saw it again: gone! But the cool thing is that the following day when I came home from school, there was an acoustic guitar laying up against my bed.
"So they were supportive… in a sense [laughs].”
How does acoustic music square with punk rock for you?
“People aren’t always aware how long I’ve been doing [acoustic music]. I think I first played with an acoustic guitar by myself in front of people about 27 years ago, so way before Hot Water…
"I’ve always played solo stuff, and recorded a little bit, although I never had the resources that I had through the band… and definitely nobody cared as much [laughs].
“I’ve always seen a lot of parallels between [the genres]. You could probably say the same things about many genres, but those genres can be very personal, they can be very forthright, very political, angry or sentimental. And all of them can be used as a vehicle to help raise awareness towards social causes.
"I guess a lot of it stems from those memories from my friends’ house. It became a seamless soundtrack to our lives.”
"It was a beautiful way to begin and it was about just finding that bond."
It feels as though there’s more of a band approach on the new record...
“I never want to write the same record twice, or have the same feel on a record twice. The last record we did, and the last tour, we were mostly travelling as a three-piece with Joe [Ginsberg] on bass and Jon [Gaunt] on fiddle. We loved doing it, but our shows started getting bigger.
"A drummer was an easy choice; David Hidalgo [Jr, Social Distortion] became available, then Todd [Beene, steel guitar, Lucero] became available too, and instantly we have this five-piece. This is it: that band vibe was what we wanted.”
How did you go about recordingTill Midnight?
“Christopher Thorn [producer] and me, luckily, we’ve become real good friends and we’ve developed this language that comes when you make records with someone. You get on the same wavelength and understand each other.
I did a lot of work writing tunes, then I cut a big list down in half. I try to start with twice as many, or three times as many as we need for the record.
"So I cut the list down, then brought Chris in to help me cut it further. Then we brought the guys in to my house.
“We did a week of pre-production, where we set up in the house. Every morning, we’d wake up crazy early, get out on the lake and go fishing, then just dive into the songs until we were exhausted.
"Then we’d cook some dinner, sit out back around the fire and talk about what we were doing. It was a beautiful way to begin and it was about just finding that bond.”
"I have kind of a lifelong dream of making guitars and making rocking chairs."
What are the main guitars on the record?
“I mostly played an old Gibson, a ’67 little parlour that a friend of mine gave me, Lenny Lashley is his name. And it was broken! Truly – it’s cracked! But for some reason it stayed in tune and it had a great tone to it. So there was that one, and I also used one of Chris Thorn’s old Martin guitars, a 1948 parlour, all mahogany, a wonderful guitar! I used that a lot on Covering Ground, the record before this one, too.
“Todd played his pedal steel, and a little bit of electric guitar; Joe bounced back and forth between electric and upright bass, but for me it’s all acoustic guitar.”
What guitars are you playing on this tour?
“I’ve been honoured to be taken in to the Martin Guitars family as an Ambassador – it’s pretty incredible! Exploring all the different body styles, types of wood, I chose a few models that are my dream guitars.
" One was the D-28 of course, which is just a classic workhorse; also a D-18. Actually while I’m on the road I usually have four different models; a D-28, D-18, 000-17M and also this beauty that I’m cradling, which is the most enjoyable instrument I’ve ever held in my hands. It’s a 00-28 VS with the V neck. A super old design, it’s just tried and true – a beautiful thing to explore music on. The first time I pulled it out of the case I felt an immediate connection.”
How do you explain that connection?
“Musicians will understand that; you understand it: we connect with our instruments. Guitars are made from materials that move and absorb sound, and even though they’re cut into pieces and glued together, it still moves and breathes.
"In that way, I believe that they can kind of accept and repel energies, sound and tone. Whatever is put into this guitar will stay in it, somehow… I don’t know, I could go deeper into that.
"The really important thing is that this guitar is rarely further than 50 feet away!”
Given your carpentry skills, have you ever been tempted to make a guitar?
“I started one and I never finished it. I have kind of a lifelong dream of making guitars and making rocking chairs. What a rewarding thing as an old man, to make a chair, then sit my old ass in it and play that guitar! Then watch the sun go down around the peopleI love. What could be better than that?”
Chuck Ragan’s latest album Till Midnight is out now on SideOneDummy Records. For much more from Chuck, check out Episode Three of The Gear Show and this acoustic performance for Total Guitar: