"We are but wayfarers with a wish to stay alive/For a cause and for a dream/There’s much to move in a moving sea," sing Gainesville punks Hot Water Music in "Wayfarer." Tucked away near the end of the band’s sixth and latest album, Caution (Epitaph), it’s a song they’ve earned the right to sing after eight years in the van. It also boasts one of the sharpest hooks they’ve ever written: the track’s big "oh-oh-oh" sing-along secures it a place in the group’s songbook as their ultimate punk-rock road-warrior cry.
"It’s a little bit more straight-ahead pop than we usually do," admits bassist Jason Black when I talk to him on the phone a few days before the band take off on a six-week tour that hits the Palladium in Worcester this Sunday. "But at the same time, we all love Naked Raygun, so we didn’t have any problem sounding like that. It’s a fun song."
The rest of Caution picks up where "Wayfarer" leaves off — it’s the most accessible album Hot Water Music have made. It’s also been a long time coming: the band first established their signature amalgam of gruff melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and heavy guitars in the mid ’90s, when the word emo had nothing to do with platinum discs and major-label record deals. Since then, they’ve built a huge grassroots following and recorded for a rash of different indie labels, including No Idea, Doghouse, Some, and now Epitaph, which signed them prior to last year’s A Flight and a Crash. Somewhere along the way, they also learned an important lesson: a little professionalism never hurt the punk cause.
"With Flight, we just did what we usually did and hoped it all would come out in the wash somewhere down the line," says Black. "This time, we actually got some plans together with Epitaph, like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna release it on this day, so we should be on tour in the States then.’ Little things that we would have never done years ago for no reason at all. We kinda realized this is no different from anything we’ve ever done, it’s just better planning. Epitaph has definitely helped us as far as doing the best job of getting the word out."
The band recorded Caution with producer Brian McTernan (Cave In, Thrice), who first worked with them on Flight. According to Black, McTernan deserves some of the credit for whipping the band into shape. "He’s the first person who ever walked in and told us to eat shit. Not in a bad way, but like, ‘You’re not doing this right.’ Making Flight was hard, but now it’s a thousand times easier for us. He’s got a really good sense for arranging songs."
Like all great emo albums, Caution is the sound of a band overcoming hardship with disarming sincerity and a thick backbeat. On "Trusty Chords," they make it through a nasty break-up with a bottle of Jameson and a chorus that’s almost as poignant as the OMD song it borrows its melody from: "I hate this place but I love these chords/An empty fate just means an even score." The title of the album comes from "I Was on a Mountain," a dark, sophisticated rocker that again finds the band wiser for their romantic misadventures. "We’ve had a hard year," says Black. "Flight was a big growing-pains record for the band, and it was a big growing-pains year for all of us personally, with relationships falling apart and that kind of thing. While we were touring and writing these songs, we pretty much worked those problems out."
Throughout the disc, Hot Water Music imbue their bittersweet punk anthems with a sense of urgency that recalls another long-suffering emo band who recently hit commercial paydirt: Jimmy Eat World. With the best batch of hooks they’ve ever written and Epitaph’s marketing muscle behind them, could Hot Water Music be in for a similar breakthrough?
"I think all of us would love to see this record do really well," Black allows. "But I know I don’t want a hit at all, because then you have to have another." Offered the Jimmy Eat World analogy, he softens a bit. "I love that album. I hear ‘The Middle’ in the grocery store and I’m like, ‘This is weird, we played in a warehouse with them, like, three years ago.’ They’ve managed to have two or three hits, so if we can do that, that’s fine. One hit I don’t want. Because if we have one, all the kids that like us now will stop coming, and then six months later, all the people that bought the record from the radio won’t come either."
Hot Water Music perform this Sunday, October 13, at the Palladium in Worcester. Call (508) 797-9696.