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Cover Story + Podcast : Rise Against • “Mission Statement”

| August 28, 2021 | 0 Comments

Rise Against

For the members of Rise Against, the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on the live event industry in 2020 provided something wholly unfamiliar for the band: downtime.

“It’s kinda madness, when you look back on it all and think about what we did, and then managed to create this band and all the albums we made, but still raise families and have some semblance of normalcy,” frontman Tim McIlrath affirms, reflecting on Rise Against’s nonstop schedule of writing, recording, and touring for a solid two decades. “Like there’s a lot of different balls that you’re juggling. And so, yeah, the pandemic was like a good moment to kind of give ourselves permission, to kind of like… I think we needed that year off, and we were never going to give it to ourselves.”

While 2020 offered an unexpected and long-overdue break for McIlrath, bassist and Rise Against co-founder Joe Principe had a different take on the unplanned year off.

“I was definitely panicking ”cause…I’ve never been off at home this long, probably since high school or like before…88 Fingers Louie started touring,” Principe admits, referring to his time in the Chicago punk act during the nineties. “That was probably the last time I was home this long. And it was unnerving. Like I didn’t have a purpose, or I felt like I didn’t have a purpose. I was like walking around my house, pacing, kind of stressing everyone out. Cause I was exuding stress. Like my wife was like, ‘You need to calm down.’”

It’s not surprising that the year away from touring and recording was foreign territory for the band, which is rounded out by guitarist and backing vocalist Zach Blair and drummer Brandon Barnes. Since forming in 1999, Rise Against has written, recorded, and released nine full-length records, starting with the band’s 2001 debut The Unraveling and 2003’s Revolutions Per Minute, both on punk label Fat Wreck Chords. One year later, the group’s major-label debut, 2004’s Siren Song of the Counter Culture, dropped on Geffen, with a marathon of writing, recording, and touring following, leading to The Sufferer & the Witness (2006), Appeal to Reason (2008), Endgame (2011), The Black Market (2014), and 2017’s Wolves. Not to mention 2013’s deep cuts collection Long Forgotten Songs: B-Sides & Covers 2000–2013 and 2018’s orchestral outing The Ghost Note Symphonies, Vol. 1, in addition to several EPs.

That discography doesn’t include Rise Against’s latest full-length, Nowhere Generation, released on June 4th of this year through Loma Vista Recordings. They actually finished the record right around the time the lockdown took effect in America in spring 2020, leaving the band with an unexpectedly free year. For McIlrath, that meant going back to school.

“I feel like it’s something I always wanted to do,” he reveals. “The band kidnapped me when I was a junior in college. So…I’d already sort of done some of it. And I always talked about, ‘One day I’ll go back, and I’ll finish what I started.’ And that moment never came. Obviously, the pandemic provided that moment—all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Oh. Well, I’ve talked about this. Like what better time than now?’”

It’s a warm day in Wicker Park on Friday, June 4th. At 1379 N Milwaukee, Rise Against fans are lined up down the block, waiting to get into an actual indoor, in-store live performance by Tim McIlrath. The frontman will perform three songs (“Talking To Ourselves,” “Nowhere Generation,” and “Prayer of the Refugee”) inside Reckless Records to a crowd of 50 or so socially distanced, passionate fans. And after the in-store, McIlrath steps out onto Milwaukee, acoustic in hand, to perform “Swing Life Away” to the fans who didn’t make it inside. Though it’s a relatively brief set for a select group of fans, after a year without live music, this acoustic event may as well be a Lollapalooza headlining performance, given the excitement from both fans and McIlrath himself.

“It was crazy, and it didn’t hit me until I was sitting right there in front of everybody on that stool in Reckless in front of like 50 people,” the singer revealed, “because there was a time in my life where doing that was a very normal part of my routine. You can kind of put me in front of a crowd, and I’ll figure it out, you know? And when I got there, I was like, ‘Oh, Right. We haven’t done this in a long time.’ So those 50 people felt like 5,000 people. It felt like, ‘Oh right. We’re here. There’s no longer…the screen and the camera.’ Yeah. It was in real life. And so it was one of those moments where it all was happening so fast, I didn’t get a chance to take stock of it, but I could feel like that, ‘Oh, wow.’ Like that electricity of doing something live. That pressure, like in a good way, I don’t know, it reminded me like, ‘Okay, we’re going to reboot this thing, and we’re gonna come back and do this.’ And at the same time, (it was) a little overwhelming, cause we’ve all spent so much time alone, and to do all that, that day…it was a good appetizer for what we’re eventually gonna get back into.”

The in-store performance wasn’t the only noteworthy event that day. To mark the release of Nowhere Generation, the city’s Office of the Mayor declared June 4th to be Rise Against Day In Chicago. It was a surreal honor the band didn’t see coming.

“No way. Insane,” Principe states when asked if he ever thought one of his bands would have their own holiday in Chicago. “It still doesn’t seem real to me. It really hit home when—cause I got the email, like, ‘Oh, they’re going to do Rise Against Day June 4th.’ And I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ And then it didn’t quite set in what that meant. And then I started running into people on my block, like people that have nothing to do with rock music, punk rock, or anything. Just [the] older generation, kind of even grandmas and grandpas that read about it. And I was like, ‘Oh shit. This is like a thing. Like I need to wrap my head around this.’ I mean, what an honor, you know? But now, the catch is, so what do we do year…after year? Like to celebrate it? Like we have to come up with something good.”

The proclamation similarly caught McIlrath off guard.

“I feel like I’m still doing the research to figure out how the heck that came together,” he says when asked about the holiday. “Cause it was a surprise to us. Whoever was working on it was not letting us know. And so…when the call came, and it was like, ‘Wait, what? Like a day?’ Like that’s crazy, seeing the paperwork of (Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s) signature and the formality of the contract. That’s huge because Rise Against has always existed, to me, on the outside of the establishment. Or the outside of what I think about like a giant city like Chicago, you know? I don’t think of our name in a list of names of the incredible things Chicago has produced. And so the day kind of made it like, ‘Oh, wow.’ Like, ‘Yeah, like we have been doing this in this city for a long time, and it’s cool for something as big as the city to recognize it.’ Definitely, nothing we ever anticipated when we started this band.”

On Nowhere Generation, Rise Against hasn’t lost any of the passion found in their previous works. Recorded at the band’s studio of choice, The Blasting Room in Fort Collins, CO, the album was produced by longtime producers Bill Stevenson (Descendents, Black Flag), Jason Livermore and Andrew Berlin, and Chris Beeble. Nowhere Generation is slick but far from soulless, with songs ranging from dire and dangerous (“Rules Of Play”) to blistering and acidic (“Monarch”) to lush and vulnerable (“Forfeit”).

The record’s title track is an immediately inviting anthem laced with pop-punk hooks centered around McIlrath, delivering a rallying cry for gen Z and millennials alike. “We are the nowhere generation / We are the kids that no one wants / We are a credible threat to the rules you set / A cause to be alarmed,” the frontman sings, channeling the voices of so many in a Rise Against crowd.

“The Numbers,” meanwhile, goes hard, fast, and mean, as McIlrath snarls out lines like “These cold nights are almost unbearable / But purpose keeps us warm” and “At this velocity / One wrong move and we go down,” overdriving guitars, ominous bass, and purposeful percussion. The track’s lyric video features footage of activist protests, police brutality, and general unrest and ends with the text “What will we allow?”

As much as anything the band has written, “Nowhere Generation” and “The Numbers” perfectly encapsulate the message of Rise Against, practically serving as mission statements for the band’s ethos.

“Yeah. I think a mission statement is a great way to put it,” McIlrath states. “We’re always trying to double down…on our mission. We’re also always trying to explain who we are to the incoming freshmen class. Like we always want to put our flag down and be like, ‘Alright. Maybe you know who we are. Maybe you don’t. But here’s a reminder of who we are, or if you’re new here, this is what we do and what we sing about. So if you identify with that, come with us. And if you don’t, there’s plenty of other bands out there.’ You know what I mean? But it’s like, if you’re a part of this, we want to be that landing pad when you come in.”

“I think the records and the songs, they’re always like a beacon,” he continues. “They’re always this lighthouse for wayward ships. Like we want to try to see. Like if there’s somebody out there lost, we want to make sure like, ‘Yo, we’re here for you. There’s a community of us here. And if you want to get on board. Come check it out.’”

“I think (the mission statement label) is very accurate,” Principe agrees. “When we wrote the music for (“The Numbers” and “Nowhere Generation”), I never know which direction Tim’s going to go in. If I write a song, I kinda can tell the direction that he might take it into. But when I heard that song, especially “The Numbers,” I was like, ‘Wow, this is the summary.’ If you looked up, yeah, Rise Against summary, like this is fucking it. I want the youth to hear that song. I want the youth to hear “Nowhere Generation.” I was proud to play it for my kids. Like your voice is powerful. Speak up.”

There’s an awareness of the next generation on the record. Two decades ago, McIlrath and Principe were up-and-coming underdogs of the punk scene. Now, they deliver hope and radical anthems from major stages to the kids in the crowd today. They’re a generation facing no shortage of staggeringly exhaustive and seemingly insurmountable crises that seem poised only to get worse. None of which is lost on McIlrath.

“I feel very lucky to have that microphone and be able to—like, if we can help somebody along on their journey with some of the things that we’ve figured out over the last 20 years, some of the things our fans have figured out, then that’s pretty cool,” McIlrath shares. “And then I feel very lucky to have that connection to our younger audience to sort of see the world through their eyes, in a way. There’s this generation has a lot of complaints. You know, they have a lot of fears and anxieties about what tomorrow is going to look like. And they’re looking for someone to listen to them.”

“I don’t think enough people from my generation or older are doing enough listening,” the frontman continues. “We do a lot of dismissing; we do a lot of millennial jokes and that kind of thing. And this record was my way of kind of shutting up and listening, and just like, ‘Let’s hear what they have to say.’ And then realizing like, yeah, this generation is going through something that a lot of previous generations haven’t gone through. We’re not looking at upward mobility anymore. We’re looking at downward mobility. I was raised in a time where a single-income family could live a middle-class lifestyle. Does that still exist now? Concentrated wealth was nothing like it is now. The rise of the 1%. Environmental degradation, social media, school shootings, all of it. They’re going through these things that we didn’t really go through. And to dismiss them is just insult to injury. To say, ‘Yo, (you) just gotta pull yourself up by your bootstraps and figure it out.’ They’re done hearing that. They’re sick of hearing that. So they no longer have a lot of faith and trust in the institutions meant to serve them and help them thrive. They’re losing that faith. And so I feel like the first step is just to start listening.”

The question of whether anyone is listening is a sentiment found front and center on “Talking to Ourselves,” another of Nowhere Generation’s standout tracks. With a chorus of “I never wanted to disturb the peace / But it feels like no one’s listening / Are we talking to ourselves?“McIlrath’s sentiments about the current generations struggling to be heard in a meaningful way are loud and clear. The song also unintentionally brings to mind the lost year so many spent in lockdown due to the pandemic, talking to themselves while isolated from friends and loved ones.

“So many of these songs took on new meanings for me after we finished them, and then the world went through so much, and (“Talking To Ourselves”) was definitely one of them,” McIlrath confirms. “I’m surprised how these lyrics are really talking about what we’re going through. And I think that one of the ways to explain that is to think about Rise Against as a dystopian band or a band that traffics in dystopian lyrics and that kind of thing. And like any good dystopian art, you’re describing a world that might exist if we keep going down the road that we’re going down, right? And that’s what we sing about. And I don’t think any of us anticipated that we would be arriving at those destinations as fast as we did. Things got accelerated a little bit, but when I went back and listened to the songs, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, these cracks in society all…already existed. The pandemic in so many ways just exacerbated them and put pressure on them. These issues were here, but now a lot of them have just been kind of amplified.”

“Tim’s like a prophet or something,” Principe offers. “It’s definitely eerie, the fact that a lot of these songs (were) written pre-pandemic.”

Looking to the near future, Rise Against are set to hit the road with the Descendents and The Menzingers starting July 30th in New York, with the run closing out in Chicago on August 28th at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island. For Principe, the return to writing, recording, and touring—Rise Against’s default mode—is a welcome one.

“I’m ready,” he declares. “We spent this last year sitting at home, so I definitely have like 15 or 20 new Rise Against songs that are waiting to be shown to the rest of the guys. I’m sure Tim has the same. But…I think that taking (that) much time off was unnerving.”

Spoken like a true punk-lifer eager to return to the stage and deliver connection and community to a generation dying to be anywhere but nowhere. For Rise Against, there’s always work left to do.

Appearing August 28, Huntington Bank Pavilion Chicago

– Jaime de’Medici

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