If you ask the members of Hot Water Music what it’s like to be back, the musicians will tell you that it doesn’t feel like they’ve gone anywhere. And it’s understandable why: The rock foursome, which formed in 1993 in Gainesville, FL, has been a staple of the music scene for years. The band’s new album, Exister, is their eighth in nearly two decades, yet another addition to an already impressive career.
But it’s also understandable why fans see this album as a sudden return: The group, singer/guitarist Chris Wollard, bassist Jason Black, drummer George Rebelo and guitarist/vocalist Chuck Ragan, pressed pause in 2006, electing to pursue individual projects and live their lives for a while. In the long run, that break worked—two years later the four members reconvened to perform live, a few shows evolving into many.
The band’s desire to pen a new album to succeed 2004’s The New What Next rose directly from those live shows. “The more shows we did, the more we felt like a band,” Chris says. “And what do bands do? They write songs. So it was only a matter of time before we started talking about it. The more we talked about it the more we got excited about the idea. A lot of the writing was based around what we wanted to play onstage. It was a natural progression from enjoying playing these shows to making another record.”
Instead of plunging into writing an album, the four musicians first wrote and recorded a new seven-inch called “The Fire, The Steel, The Tread,” which the band released on its own in August of 2011. Working on the two tracks that appear on that disc opened the floodgates and suddenly the members of Hot Water Music were writing together again, quite prolifically. It was around this time that the band signed with Rise Records, a label Chris says was “an obvious right choice for us.”
This meant that a new album was definitely and finally happening, and the musicians, who now live in different parts of the country, wrote whenever they were together during the second half of 2011, testing out new material backstage and during soundchecks at shows. Jason and George spent time in Florida writing with Chris and later flew to California to write with Chuck. These sessions and the passing back and forth of demos was a new method for the band, but it was one that was ultimately to their benefit.
“It was a different approach for us,” Jason notes. “But I think it worked out better in the long run. I think everyone got to write more and got more of their own voice. Once we started writing it just started going. And we probably could have kept going and going and going.”
Instead Hot Water Music headed to Ft. Collins, CO in late January to record with Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore at The Blasting Room, a decision that was enthusiastically unanimous. Hot Water Music spent 21 days in the studio, armed with 20 tracks that they pared down to the 13 that appear on the final album. The focus was on capturing their live energy in a recording, as well as crafting tracks they’d want to perform live. This resulted in Hot Water Music numbers that are, as Jason puts it, “faster, more direct and more aggressive.” The process was void of conflict or hardship, the songs coming out in a surprisingly facile and streamlined manner.
“It was really a perfect experience,” Chris says. “Having taken such a long break from our last record we didn’t really know what we were walking into. But for everybody to come back together and have it go so smoothly without a hitch is really awesome. We needed somebody that understand how we were coming from a lot of different places and who could handle that. Bill did that and it really worked. Everyone was working for a common goal and heading toward a common vision.”
The result of that vision both reflects back on Hot Water Music’s extensive career and embraces a desire to move forward. The tracks on the disc are invigorated and propulsive, driven by a renewed sense of excitement and energy. The lead focus track “State of Grace” is what Jason describes as “three chords and the truth,” showcasing the band’s ability to successfully balance their formative punk-rock grit with an engagingly catchy melody. “Drag My Body,” an early release from the album, reveals a similar sensibility, centered around an undeniable rock chorus (“There’s a complexity in the nature of the music but it doesn’t get in the way of the song,” Jason notes of the track). The album is not so much a comeback as it is a new chapter, the next step for a quintessential rock band as their songwriting expands to encircle a broader audience.
“There was a certain kind of confidence when making it,” Chris says. “The band wasn’t second guessing anything. We weren’t worrying about how it was going to be perceived. We just let it be and helped it be as good as it could be.”
“I think George nailed it during the recording process when he said that it felt like making our first record again,” Jason adds. “It’s been so long. I don’t think any of us cared what anyone thought about the record. When you’re in the middle of being a band and you’re making a new record it’s really easy to get caught up in that idea of whether people are going to like it. We just didn’t worry about it this time because it felt like we had a clean slate. And it came out really well because of that.”