Through their 18 years, Rise Against have been hailed for their outspoken advocacy just as much as their hard-hitting music. For the foursome–vocalist and rhythm guitarist Tim McIlrath, lead guitarist Zach Blair, bassist Joe Principe, and drummer Brandon Barnes–vigorous riffs paired with the constant of lyrically examining motivations behind actions, are their bread and butter. It helps them make sense of things; and they hope help others to as well.
Rise Against’s latest record, Wolves, is no different with songs, like “Mourning In Amerika,” trying to gain an understanding in the world’s tempestuous state through a string of catchy choruses and punk-driven basslines. McIlrath took some time from their current tour to discuss the band’s come-up, dealing with tumultuous times, and what keeps them going.
You guy’s just started your tour with Pierce The Veil, who are actually the cover of this week’s (Sept. 20) issue. When The Aquarian spoke to frontman Vic Fuentes, he said how surreal and exciting it is to be touring with you guys after growing up listening to you.
It’s so crazy because where I am right now is in Edmonton in Canada–in Alberta– in a venue called the Shaw Conference Center, and walking in here I realized the first time I played her Rise Against was the opening band on a tour with NOFX headlining. It was Rise Against’s first Western Canadian tour and we got a maybe 25-minute set, and people barely had any idea of who we were. I don’t think we had a record out yet, but we were just so excited.
Another ironic side-note is the tour manager of NOFX then is our sound guy now here today. So it’s a weird full-circle thing happening. But we were just talking about that show and we were young kids, and we were just super excited to be on tour with NOFX. Just that a lot of the bands that we grew up with were kind of validating what we were doing and taking us on tour.
So to be here this many years later and now we’ve moved up the marquee, we’re the headliner, and to think that there are some bands that are following in those footsteps is kind of amazing. It’s what it’s all about, that’s what it’s supposed to do and how punk rock is supposed to work. You’re supposed to grow up listening to music and then when you make your own unique version of your influences.
It’s funny the way things work out sometimes. Now, I know you guys put out your latest record, Wolves, in June; it really addresses the world’s current sociological and political turmoil. As a band you’ve always touched on these subjects, but has how you approach them–both personally and musically–changed over the years?
Rise Against’s relationship with politics, the idea of change and awareness has always been a strong one. When we first started this band I just put pen to paper and said, “This is what I want to sing about. I’m not sure anybody will ever listen to this, or hear this, or resonate with this, but if I’m gonna go on stage every night this is what I want to sing about.” When we first started touring people got into the music–which was exciting, that was the goal–but I was totally blown away by the people that got into the lyrics and the messages behind the songs.
I wasn’t sure if I was sort of alone in that endeavor or if people would hear the lyrics as sort of a secondary, you know? It was satisfying to know what people were out there identifying to what we were singing about, but it was also sort of alarming to see, “Wow, there’s so many people out in the punk world who are hungry or this kind of band that is hungry for these lyrics, hungry for a message and hungry for songs that talk about the problems in the world instead of just ignoring them.”
Kind of a lot of what I attribute our success to is simply the vacuum that was created for Rise Against: this vacuum of music that spends more time ignoring what’s happening than addressing what’s happening. And as we’ve moved forward, we’re now a band that’s been a band through what is now our fourth presidential administration. So we’ve sort of been around the block in terms of the different changes the country has gone through–and certainly of the world. I like to think of Rise Against as an international band, we’ve been all over the world to play and places that we’ve gone back to every single year that make us sort of feel like family.
I think Rise Against–our strategy and my strategy as a lyricist–is to not just sing songs about Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, but to sing songs about the ideologies that surround them. Those people are sort of just the face that was elected to represent a system of beliefs–sort of like a mascot. So if there’s an ideology there, like an ideology that put someone like Trump in power is an ideology that we disagree with, and an ideology that we want to expose for the sort of fraud that it is. So we sing about that instead of singing about the person, because Trump will come and go, but the ideology and the environment that put him in power? That will stay there. It’s sort of like treating the symptoms versus treating the disease.
There’s a lot of fear now, and in recent years that fear has kind of creeped its way into concertgoers following acts of violence, most recently in Manchester. How has that weighed on the band?
That’s something that we’ve been more conscious of the past few years, how a concert could become a potentially dangerous place to be. Paris, with Le Bataclan and Eagles of Death Metal, that’s a venue that we’ve been playing for 15 years. We know the people there, we know the bartender there, the people that do the catering in that room and place we’ve played all the time. It’s so heartbreaking to see what was happening there. So that’s changed in the landscape of what we do.
But something else that’s been happening more recent in music is stage collapses. The stage collapses, people get hurt. Storms at festivals; all of sudden it seems that the storms that are happening are a lot more powerful than they used to be. We were at Pukkelpop in Belgium when a microburst tore through there and killed people, and hurt a lot of people. We have to think about our safety, our crew’s safety and of course, our fans’ safety. There’s due diligence being done there with venues and the way our crew inspects the stages. Festivals take a lot of responsibility to make sure everything they do is up to code. Once you do that, what we do, is…not ignore it, but not let this slow us down either.
We go into those shows and play them the same way we’ve always played them. That’s the only way you can approach it. There’s so much of life that you cannot prevent, and if you try to you can drive yourself crazy. So there’s an acceptance of the dangers of the reality that we live in, and then there’s getting up, putting your shoes on, and going on with your day. If it’s something that you really are concerned about, then it’s something you should address in your creative output. That’s something that Rise Against tries to do. Not just how many barricades and metal detectors can we put up, but why. Can we look at why people do this? What about our world, our way of life, is driving people to do these things? Because if we just ignore the motivation, it doesn’t matter how barbaric it might be, it’s just going to keep happening.
Absolutely. On the other end of the spectrum, what are some of the positives that continue to drive Rise Against?
That’s the audience! To come back out here every year–almost our 18th year of doing this. I was like 21 or 22 when I started this band, and the crowd in front of me was mostly 16, 17, 18-year-olds. I’m 38 now, and the crowd in front of me is still 16, 17, 18-year-olds. So it’s crazy!
If I had to put it in some sort of metaphor, it would probably be like a college professor teaching that class every year, and every year new people are walking in, and that group of students that you get are going to be different than the last ones. You may be teaching the same class, but they are going to react differently, add something to it, or find something that someone else didn’t see. So that change of scenery–I’m at Edmonton at the Shaw Conference Center, I’ve been here more times than I can count, and that scenery hasn’t changed. But the people that fill this room is always changing.
We certainly have diehard fans who we see all the time, but there are still people who are just getting into this music, getting into Rise Against, and they’re getting ready to see their first show in Edmonton even though we’ve played here many times. So that’s what keeps me going; knowing people are still discovering this whole thing.
You can catch Rise Against play the Stone Pony Summerstage on Oct. 6 in Asbury Park. For more information, visit riseagainst.com.