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Interview with Tim McIlrath from Rise Against: Prophesying A Favorable ‘Endgame’

Interview with Tim McIlrath from Rise Against: Prophesying A Favorable ‘Endgame’

—by , May 4, 2011

A government by and for the people cannot perish unless profiteering government-sponsored corporate entities destroy the infrastructure, dissuade the entrepreneurial spirit, endanger the environment, puppeteer unsolicited foreign wars or impose stringent rules handcuffing its own citizens. But take a look at what’s happened lately. Even the cheeriest forecasters must admit America is in distress and these are dangerous times we live in.

That is, unless individuals take back the government, stop paying for Republicrat lobbyists, vote for responsible independents and rescue their collective futures. Furthermore, if you believe music could save your mortal soul then you know the future belongs only to the youth of today.

Teeming with righteous dignity, Rise Against front man Tim McIlrath uses hardcore punk as an instrument of war against interfering governmental machines and apathetic tyrannical monarchs. Maintaining a disciplined straightedge lifestyle reinforced by legendary D.C.-based post-punk antecedents Minor Threat and Fugazi, the combative sermonic activist fights the good fight versus sniveling oppressive scum of all stripes.

Originally from Chicago, Rise Against remarkably broke through mainstream America’s glass ceiling. They reached previously unattainable aboveground success (at least in terms of CD and concert sales) while inexplicably escaping the combative subterranean jungle heroic progenitors such as Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Bad Brains and Jawbreaker were eternally stuck inside.

Growing up in the sheltered northwest suburbs of Chicago, McIlrath sought relief early on from his sinisterly protective confines, gaining exposure to the ranting, rabble rousing raiders that would forever inform his muse. A true-to-life infuriated rebel with a cause, McIlrath and his mighty Midwest marvels (rounded out by co-founding bassist Joe Principe, long-time drummer Brandon Barnes and fourth-year guitarist Zach Blair), want nothing less than a full-scale revolution overthrowing ineffectual ruling powers. Barking back at fascist bureaucrats, environmental ruination and senseless war-mongering since 1999’s formative debut, The Unraveling, McIlrath’s crew moved forward a bit with each subsequent long-player, and more than a decade hence, 2011’s ominously foreboding prophesy, Endgame, may be their grandest emancipated proclamation thus far.

This time around, Rise Against takes on post-Katrina outrage, gay bashing, global warming and dead soldiers as well as the usual pungent political practicalities. ‘Bending rules back into place’ works well as Endgame’s audacious adage, an unapologetic, non-conformist blueprint, bolstering blisteringly bloodied barrage “Architects” and menacingly anthemic, phlegm-clearing diatribe “Help Is On The Way.” If that’s not poignantly penetrating enough, fist-pounding mantra “Satellite” grieves for deceitfully misinformed foot soldiers becoming ‘orphans of the Amerikkan dream.’

Employing his commandingly forceful baritone to pour his heart out, McIlrath screams intermittently, shouts relentlessly and implores frequently, flaunting passionately inspirational rallying cries such as ‘won’t back down’ and ‘out with the old’ with compulsory urgency. On 2008’s Appeal To Reason, his superlatively piercing manic screech got put to the test best plundering belligerently caustic omen “Entertainment.” For Endgame, he exerts just as much emphatic vigor and lyrical severity on walloping metal-edged headbanger, “Midnight Hands,” a radical, working class, pilgrimage saluting hard-won freedom.

Armed to the teeth with the same incendiary agro-rock intensity Ian MacKaye spit out in Fugazi, McIlrath’s catchiest set of tunes contain firmer declarative positivism, crisper guitar riffs and resoundingly clearer percussion, reaffirming Rise Against once more despite any suspected shortcomings its major label affiliation might bring. Besides, 2004’s more melodiously festive Siren Song Of The Counterculture never compromised integrity and 2006’s snarling The Sufferer & The Witness proved to be even grittier than their early Fat Wreck Chords material.

Although McIlrath’s eminently straightedge, he shows compassion for those who wish to drink liquor responsibly or partake in the herbal delights of cannabis. He even admits to being for the decriminalization of marijuana. A member of PETA and faithful extoller of common folk, this virtuous punk may abstain from drugs and alcohol, but he’s always ready and willing to battle it out with divisively fraudulent authoritative bigwigs ‘hell-bent on survival’ at the cost of every man’s inalienable rights.

So raise the flag for his courageous Chicago tribunal!

How did punk change your life?

It taught us raw, untraditional music is reliant less on image and technical proficiency than the emotion behind it. That unlocked potential for me. It seemed dangerous. That’s when I first got addicted. I saw it as more than just entertainment. Following that, the local Chicago hardcore scene in the mid-‘90s became more politicized.

Obviously novel punk enthusiasts, Screeching Weasel, weren’t politically charged Chicago natives. Though they sure were aggressive. Who were these Chi-town politicos you speak of?

There was a lot of stuff falling below the national radar. Los Crudos made Spanish hardcore from the Chicago ghetto. Explaining each song before playing it took longer than the actual song itself. Bands outside the area like Refused and Earth Crisis plus Victory Records’ By The Grace Of God were engaged in political music, turning shows into more of an education. I’d walk away from these shows with literate about animal rights and the environmental movement. This was before people were talking about these subjects and ‘sweatshop’ wasn’t yet a household word. It was cutting edge stuff that affected me.

You preach positivism and see a light at the end of the tunnel, despite our disgustingly ineffectual government.

It’d be irresponsible of me to leave the listeners with a totally hopeless, desolate feeling that there’s nothing to hope or work for. I’m in a fortunate position to be in this band seeing kids in the front row giving a shit for the planet. Grant it, they might not know what to do with that knowledge yet, but at least they’ll get the urge. It’s a cure-all for my own jadedness as a 32-year-old punk. I need to share the thought we’re all connected and not alone. If you have fire in your belly maybe you could connect with our music.

You take a swipe at cynical homophobia on “Make It Stop.”

Too often we put water where the fire is and too often that fire is the male-dominated, testosterone-driven rock scene people feel a part of. To think some of the problem with gay bashing happened in our audience was unacceptable condemning of peoples’ lifestyles. I decided it was time to stand up and take the microphone and put out my own thoughts. If you think you’re at our show and believe someone doesn’t belong because of their lifestyle, maybe that means you don’t belong. It should be a sanctuary away from the bullshit of the outside world. I didn’t feel there was a definitive message being sent from the rock scene. Other genres made it perfectly clear. We play to a young, sometimes confused crowd. They’re trying to see where they fit in the world and if they’re gay that’s one more hurdle to climb. “Make It Stop” is a reaction to the gay teen suicides, many of which took place in September 2010.

Though you’re happily married with children, you still manage to write about romantic discontentment and broken relationships on “Letting Go.” Did you grasp these feelings from past affairs or are they pulp fiction?

It’s a bit of both. Some is drawn from real experiences my friends lived through. I can’t write an entirely truthful breakup song, but I do find parallels in the romanticism of a breakup song and other parts of life. “Letting Go” played on that romantic relationship theme, but I also had another character in mind. The kid who’s following his parents dream of going to college and working this specific job to become a success and rejecting that dream and saying, ‘It’s not mine, it’s yours.’ A lot of kids go through that in adolescence—letting go of a preconceived direction to carve out their own path. But there’s a difference between giving up and getting the weight off your shoulders.

The title song, “Endgame,” invokes post-apocalyptic amnesty from multinational corporations and the governments supporting them.

Maybe the world we currently designed isn’t sustainable. Everything from our political framework to the toll the environment takes and our appetites towards war and religion. We’re hell-bent on survival, but it’s only when these problems collapse and get dismantled that we can learn from these mistakes. The civilization born out of this worlds’ ashes will hopefully be attainable. Our whole record is trying to paint that picture.

As a gung-ho Italian-American, my combative military stance seems to fly in the face of Rise Against. I believe if the Middle East was democratized by taking out the scumbag tyrants, we’d have a much safer world.

In terms of Iraq and Afghanistan, we made serious blunders in a war that wasn’t properly proposed to the American people. Saving people from a dictator is great. But it was proposed that these people had something to do with 9/11. Instead, we exacted some sort of revenge with oil factoring in. Look, if the military could be used to protect innocent civilians from crazy dictators, that’d be a noble cause. In Rwanda, if we helped stop genocide, I could see our role there. But it’s hard to trust the American government that’s blundered its way through many wars taking too many brothers ands sisters lives away from us for reasons unclear to their families. It’s a disservice to all those people serving our country to protect our way of life. It’s a great deception. It could be traced back to the Vietnam War’s Domino Theory, which held no water.

Not to mention our country’s heavy war debt.

What’s amazing is Congress is having this budget crisis fighting over crumbs when we have a $3 trillion war. And the military budget is the meat and potatoes of what’s happening to our tax dollars, yet we can’t pull the plug on war.

For Endgame’s cover art, there’s a lone child in a wheat field draped in an American flag. What imagery are you trying to project?

That cover, as I described to our photographer, had to depict a kid taking that flag from the ashes of wherever he lived and trying to find somewhere else to put it up and call home. That’s his journey for a place to rebuild and start over again. And this record is that journey through the ashes of civilization.

How has long-time producer, Bill Stevenson (of the Descendents), shaped Rise Against’s sound?

He identifies our strengths better than we could. He points out things in the moment that later seem obvious. He’ll say a chorus is too long and a verse has to happen again or we need a better ending to hang a song on. He’s a very effective lyrical critic [whom] I trust. He’s my quality control for getting lyrics right before they go out to the world. He’s also such a hero to all of us. Some in the band love him as a free spirit, others because he’s a great drummer, producer or songwriter. We hold him in high regard and are anxious to impress him. He’s a great motivator. I wanna make him smile when I create a riff.

“Broken Mirrors” comes closest to heavy metal territory. Were you always a metal head?

Yes. Absolutely. All of us were. Metal and punk are definitely cousins. I grew up more on punk than metal, but always had an affinity for the unorthodox, rebellious, sonic nature of metal. It’s more deviant than other styles. We’ve managed to exact our strengths, for the better part of what we do, from condensing better songs that get attention faster and get across my lyrics in a quicker manner. We want people bobbing their heads while we mix politics and music. We walk that eternal line of preaching and singing. That’s a gray area I try not to get on the wrong side of.

Is it easier to communicate your feelings through compositions nowadays?

I think I’m reaching my goals more effectively now. I’m not one of these songwriters trying to be cryptic so it takes days to pour over a song in order to figure it out. I want people to get it. I don’t want a puzzle. We never had to crossover to the mainstream, the mainstream crossed over to us. That’s just the pendulum swing. But I’m not versatile enough to be able to figure out where that pendulum may swing. I just hope people find us as an awakening. But all music doesn’t have to be political. You have to have that fire in your belly for that.

Catch Rise Against at Manhattan’s Terminal 5 on May 5 and 6. More info at riseagainst.com.

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