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Cover Story: Rise Against

| May 31, 2017 | 1 Comment

More than any other time in the band’s 18-year career, the cultural and political climate of 2017 is the perfect environment for Rise Against. Buoyed by singer-songwriter Tim McIlrath, bassist Joe Principe, drummer Brandon Barnes, and guitarist Zach Blair, it’s bittersweet for McIlrath, frontman and guitarist for the socio-political melodic punk act. The band’s leader makes as much clear a few weeks out from the act’s busy summer season, which will see the release of the group’s adrenaline-fueled eighth record, Wolves, as well as a co-headlining summer tour with Deftones, and Thrice.

“I remember I was listening to an interview with Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who people will know a lot from the Whale Wars shows,” McIlrath recalls. “And he was talking about his mission and someone was asking him, ‘What if you finally solve the problem of killing whales?’ He said, ‘Listen, I’m the only person in reality TV trying to put myself out of a job. I would love that, I would love if we ended commercial whaling and the cameras went away, and I was no longer famous and nobody cared about what we’re doing. It’s ‘mission accomplished.’ I would love that for Rise Against,” the singer continues. “I would love to wake up one day, or one year, with a record and say, ‘Listen, we’ve eradicated injustice, it no longer exists.’”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that year is this year. If anything, 2017 is seemingly made for Rise Against. And vice versa. “Years like this, there’s a lot of low hanging fruit for a band like Rise Against. And a lot of reasons for our band to exist,” McIlrath confirms. “And we’re a band, for all intents and purposes, we’ve been saying that the sky is falling for 18 years. People either listened, and that message resonates, or they don’t listen and say, ‘What’s this band complaining about? Like, how are they so angry?’ When you watch an election like Trump’s election, there’s some validation to what you’ve been singing about. There’s some sort of [sense that] this is what we’ve been talking about. These are the monsters that everyone thinks we put away in cages years and years ago, but someone was always there waiting to let them out.”’

Those monsters, which, according to McIlrath, include “racism, and sexism, and xenophobia,” help drive the righteous opposition of Rise Against’s eighth album, Wolves. Recorded in Nashville, TN with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Deftones), the record finds the band recharged and raring to get back into action. The group’s renewed energy is especially apparent on the breakneck “Welcome To The Breakdown” and the album-opening title track. The former defiantly declares “It’s not much / but this is home,” while the latter growls, “Are you ready to explode / like a tiger in a circus?” And if there was any ambiguity in the band’s stance on the current political climate, Wolves’ crystal clear and battle-ready “Bullshit” and “How Many Walls” leave no room for misinterpretation. “Starting this record in like a pre-Donald Trump world was different than continuing in a post-Donald Trump world,” McIlrath remembers. “It was something that was unexpected, and it kind of made me take a second look at the songs, at what we were creating. We woke up in Nashville, Tennessee, with Nick Raskulinecz at his studio on Election Day, sort of looking at each other and being like, ‘Holy shit. This is happening, and where do we fit into this, and what is our mission here?’ It was like a shot of adrenaline into the record, that kind of took all the soft edges and made them harder. It took all the vague ideas and made them more direct. It took our mission, that was kind of groping around in the dark to a much more honed-in, laser-focused [place]. This is who we are, this is the kind of era that Rise Against was built for,” the frontman continues. “And in a lot of ways our songs are the exact antidote to the entire injustice that is a Trump administration. And when I say a Trump administration, I mean more broadly the rise of racism and the rise of sexism and the rise of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. And I thought, ‘This is what this band was built for.’”

Listening to Wolves solely as a response to current POTUS Donald Trump is an oversimplification, and far from the whole truth, as McIlrath explains. “As the band was creating this record, and certainly after Trump was elected, I got a lot of phone calls and messages from people saying like, ‘I bet you got a lot of material to write about.’ Or, ‘Are you going to write about Donald Trump? Are you going to write about what’s happening?’ My answer to people was, ‘I’m trying to resist the urge to write all of these songs about Donald Trump.’ That’s my only conflict here. I don’t want to make this entirely one-sided. Rise Against got away with writing songs through eight years of the Bush administration, which was a real tumultuous administration. Somehow, I avoided writing songs directly about Bush. My thinking in there was that I saw someone like Bush as the symptom of a much bigger disease. And so, I didn’t want to write songs that were simply triggering the symptoms, because Bush was going to come and go. We all knew that was going to happen. But the ideas and the ideologies that put someone like him in office, those were going to stay. And certainly, [what] we’re realizing now with this election, is that those ideas never went away.”

For all the activist anthems and combative messaging of Wolves, the record actually ends on a hopeful note. Album closer “Miracle” offers a more uplifting perspective than might be expected from Rise Against, especially at this point in time. Lyrics like “We don’t need miracles / to tumble from the sky” and “Every road to recovery /starts at the breakdown” find McIlrath offering a more hopeful view for tomorrow, if not today. “I’m kind of an eternal optimist,” the singer reveals. “So I will, in the interest of full disclosure, I will out myself as that. But I really do see hope, even with what’s happening nowadays. When I see tens of thousands of people on the streets of Chicago for the Women’s March, I think to myself, ‘Maybe Donald Trump is making America great again. Just not the kind of great he’s thinking.’ Like when I see this resistance that’s building. When I, as like this punk rock singer for this political punk rock band, I’m finding common ground with just every man on the street, because they’re so enraged with what’s happening. I look at myself and I’m like ‘This place is becoming great. It’s becoming great because people are getting angry, and they’re getting activated, and they want change.’ And that is something that is so encouraging to me because bands like us are trying –  are always trying – to get people to care, always trying to prod people into thinking about the world around them. And now I feel like everywhere I go, like, people are thinking about the world around them. In some ways, it had to get this bad for people to finally get prodded into action. But now it’s gotten this bad, people are activated, and that shit is really exciting to me. These ideas that we were once condemned for [as] being too radical are now just commonplace. That’s something that’s exciting. That to me shows that there’s a silver lining to what’s happening.”

Elsewhere on the record, another side of Rise Against is fully exposed. Moments like the yearning “House On Fire” and the remorseful “Politics Of Love” rank among the band’s finest power ballads, with an emphasis on melody and emotional vulnerability. It’s a more personal side of the band that, despite being consistent across the group’s library, is often overlooked and seldom given the same consideration as the band’s louder, more message-heavy moments. It’s a point McIlrath is all too aware of. “We’ll accept some of the blame for that. We are the guys that decided to name our band Rise Against,” he laughs. “So right away you’re kind of, you’re flashing a neon sign that’s kind of giving you really quickly what we’re trying to sell. But the name – it came first in the band. It’s kind of like, we’re kind of living up to that name. But at the same time, we were always writing personal songs, even from our very first record. I would like to think that Rise Against is kind of, lyrically speaking, is sort of a reflection of the human condition, which is far more complex than just simply personal or just simply political. As human beings and as people, we are complicated. And the things we care about change from day to day, from hour to hour sometimes.”

One factor McIlrath doesn’t seem to care for is getting sucked into any sort of music industry marketing machine. He’s the first to reveal that there’s a strong philosophical through-line regarding the inner workings of Rise Against that carries across the band’s two-decade career. While the venues the group performs in have increased in size and the audience has grown exponentially since the band’s Fireside Bowl days, the one-time Chicago underground staple isn’t one to get too lost in any kind of master plan. “I think that the secret behind the Rise Against mission is that there’s never been a mission,” McIlrath admits. “There’s never been – like – an agenda. I mean, everything came to us as a surprise. The whole band has been a snowball, going down the hill and gathering size and speed that we never really expected. And now, to be at this point where you have young kids that are opening up for your band, you get to meet this generation of people that grew up on your band, and you start to accept that sort of veteran status, where it’s like, ‘Holy shit, we’ve been a band for a long time.’ It’s freeing in the sense that we put out this record, Wolves, and like, not that we ever give a shit about like radio and videos and chart positions and all that. But if we ever did, we really don’t now.”

“I feel like we’ve just sort of had this great career,” the singer continues, “and now we’ve built our name and our trust with our fans, that I no longer look at it as something with any kind of pressure. We’ve never been very careerist about this band. We still do things the same way we did it 18 years ago. We go into our basement and turn on our equipment, and someone looks at each other and goes, ‘What do you got?’ And we start playing songs. There’s really no think tank behind it. We don’t make any marketing moves or publicity stunts or anything like that. We’ve been really been lucky that we’ve avoided a lot of the bullshit of the industry. Nobody has ever sent our band back in the studio to write a single. Nobody has ever shut down a song. The record that you hear is pretty much the same thing that we’ve delivered every label we’ve been on. This is what it is. Take it or leave it. I feel like we’ve gotten away with a lot as a band, being able to do it exactly the way we want to do it. Rise Against is exactly the band I want to be. Rise Against sounds exactly like the band I want it to sound like. It’s been a really rewarding experience, and I know that it isn’t for every single band out there. So I know how lucky we are to have it, and it’s something I appreciate.”
Appearing 6/9 at Huntington Bank Pavillion, Chicago with Deftones and Thrice.

– Jaime Black

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  1. kevin says:

    After reading this magnificent article what i can say it’s that Rise Against it’s what this generation needs. Young people like me needs to spread the word that are bands worth listen and follow and get into real issues that the world it’s involved, try to be part of the solution

    I can say that i met personally the band and they are just great and humble they don’t let that fame gets in their minds are simply genuine

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