Hot Water Music: Caution

Adam Dlugacz

Hot Water Music


Label: Epitaph
US Release Date: 2002-10-08
UK Release Date: 2002-10-07

As musical genres go, few are more limiting than hardcore punk rock. After all, there's only so much that you can do with three chords and a breakdown. Given its limitations, the style works best when crammed into 90 second spasms of fury, thrashing about like a fish clinging for life on a cutting board. When done properly, a good hardcore band can make those 90 seconds seem like the most vital you've ever experienced. Ninety beautiful seconds when, as the listener, you believe anything is possible and that you are not alone in the world. However, hardcores stylistic limitations are also their own worst enemy. Most hardcore bands flame out after a record or two simply because they find themselves writing the same song over and over again. There are some variations: add a little melody to pop punk and you've got emo, add some double bass and D chords and you've got metal-core -- unfortunately both seem to do little more than drain hardcore of its vitality. When hardcore bands eschew those paths, it is usually because they are attempting to expand their sound, but often end up playing bad alternative rock. There are some exceptions, Fugazi and Quicksand being two, when bands are able to expand upon their hardcore foundation with a sound that is both innovative and invigorating. However, too often bands cannot escape hardcore's trappings and once the sense of purpose is gone, so is the flame that once kept the bands burning.

Hailing from Gainesville, Florida, Hot Water Music seemed poised to join the ranks of bands able to successfully transition hardcore into something else. It has been nearly 10 years since Hot Water Music first ventured out of Florida, like bootleggers running hooch up North, spreading their secret hardcore brew. Being one of the first bands to come from Florida there was something about them that made them seem more precious than your average suburban hardcore band. Between the gruff, pirate vocals and the driving guitars that managed to combine the emotive riffs of Jawbreaker with the fury and energy of Dag Nasty, Hot Water Music rose to the top of the hardcore pyramid. In 1996, Fuel for the Hate Game was delivered with an exclamation point, and the word about Florida's burgeoning punk scene was out. However, thanks to limited distribution, Hot Water Music was still a mystery to most of the scene. They were the band that all the zines raved about and all the cool kids at the shows wore their patches, yet judging by record sales, it was impossible for more than a couple thousand to have actually heard them. All that changed in 1997 when the band released Forever and Counting on Doghouse Records. The record was somewhat lost amidst the emo explosion led by labelmates The Get Up Kids, however those who were paying attention witnessed HWM expand on their sound,delivering classics like "Just Don't Say You Lost It" and "Three Summers Strong". With Doghouse behind them, the word was out and HWM was no longer just for the "in-kids" but a band whose cathartic live shows were enjoyed by many.

And then they broke up. Right after No Idea released Live at the Hardback, a testament to the band's incredible live show, Hot Water Music called it quits. Unfortunately, most people involved in the punk/hardcore scene were used to the best bands breaking up just as they were reaching the heights of their prowess. Furthermore, while Forever and Counting was a fantastic record, it was more an extension of Fuel for the Hate Game than anything else. The band had perfected their sound, but they had failed to take it to any new heights, fenced by the limitations of the thrash and burn of punk rock. Then, before the string of posthumous releases could seize the market, Hot Water Music did something few bands do, they reformed and started writing an album that would exceed all previous efforts. No Division, released by Some Records, was a magnificent testament to what a punk rock band could do if they kept both ears on expanding their sound, but both feet planted in their roots. The songs were longer, more thought out, and, under the careful guidance of producer Walter Schreiffels, the quartet of Chuck Ragan, Chris Wollard, George Rebelo, and Jason Black had finally escaped hardcore's limitations. On "At the End of Gun", the band used a steel guitar, further flexing their newfound music muscle. While most hardcore albums swirl together into 20 minute bursts, every track on No Division stood out. For one album, Hot Water Music managed to pull off the rare feat of maintaining the energy and politics of punk while embracing a thoroughly rock and roll sound.

Unfortunately, Hot Water Music, having touched the summit, do not seem fated to stay there. The year 2001 brought about a new label, Epitaph, and a new album, A Flight and a Crash. And, although the band would now benefit from never-seen before (at least by them) label support, the record was flat as HWM seemed to regress to pre-No Division form. Gone were the experimentation and intracite songwriting, in its place were songs that failed to distinguish themselves from each other. Recently, HWM produced their follow up, and second album on Epitaph, Caution. The band seems to still be spinning their tires, not heading forward and in danger of slipping backwards.

"Remedy" starts Caution off with a shot of adrenalin that burns like whiskey on an empty stomach. The seared vocals, choppy guitars, and pounding rhythm section are prime mosh pit material that few bands can pull off with such ease. "Trusty Chords" follows with a look at the life of the punk rock band always on the road, but fails to deliver the gut punch that older songs like "Our Own Way" or "Alchua" had. After that, the band chugs along like an old locomotive that knows it route all too well, that is to say there's little variation until the ninth track "All Right For Now". On No Division the band confidently soared above the trappings of hardcore, on Caution they seem suddenly unsure of how to proceed. Will they continue down the more daring path, at the chance that they may completely leave hardcore in their dirty rearview mirror? Or will they play it safe by playing mid-tempo hardcore tracks that come complete with a built in audience? Hot Water Music were once a band capable of displaying all that a dedicated underground hardcore punk band could do. It is about time they did it again.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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