Since rising to prominence with their mainstream debut, Siren Song Of The Counter Culture, in 2004, Rise Against have gained a reputation for using their music to pack a message, from animal rights to political stances. After taking a notable hiatus, the Chicago four-piece released their first record in three years, The Black Market, this past July. Guitarist Zach Blair, who joined the band in 2007, has been heavily involved in the scene since the ’90s, playing with a slew of Texas-based hardcore groups as well as taking on the role of Flattus Maximus in GWAR.
Before embarking on their fall North American tour, Blair took time to discuss the new album, the effect his father’s love of classic rock had on him, and the demise of major labels.
What was the process when it came to creating The Black Market?
We took a year off after our last record, which was [2011’s] Endgame. Usually there is about six months between touring and another record, but this time everybody has kids except myself and everybody is married, so we just wanted to live like normal people for a while. We did get antsy, because this is all we’ve ever done throughout our whole adult lives. So it was really just a matter of all four of us going, “All right, it’s time to do this again,” and getting into a room and showing each other riffs. There really wasn’t a method to it; it wasn’t anybody else telling the band, “Yo, we need a record.” Instead, it was more of, “Hey, this time works, this feels pretty good—let’s do it.”
When the band writes and records, do you isolate yourselves?
The band goes to Fort Collins, Colorado. Our producer, Bill Stevenson, who has worked with The Descendents and Black Flag and has been the band’s fifth member, has a studio up there. It’s a quiet community and a small college town, so I guess it does feel a bit sequestered. You go up there and just live, breathe, and eat your record. There aren’t any distractions, and that’s really what works for us. Other bands can go to Los Angeles or New York City and still manage to function, but there’s no way we can do that. This just forces you to stick to the matter at hand.
How does this record differ from the group’s earlier albums?
Well to me, it doesn’t. It’s just the natural progression of the band. We are Rise Against because of the way we sound when we play together. Of course, it’s four different guys who have different life experiences and got into different things over the past few years, and you still kind of carry the influences that you’ve picked up with you. There’s no way that’s not going to come out, but for all of us, we’re just being us. It feels to me like writing the last three records, as this is my third record with the band; but for the rest of the guys it feels like when they first got into a basement. For me, it kind of sounds more like [2006’s] The Sufferer And The Witness than it does anything else.
Is there an overall theme or story found within The Black Market?
I don’t write the lyrics. The lyricist is Tim [McIlrath], our singer. He has to go to a deep, dark place to write in the perspective of the lyrics of Rise Against, because we are a band that carries a message with us. It’s not all about partying and having a great time and about rock and roll. We try to talk about things that we believe in passionately and strongly. He is a happy, fun guy who lives in a suburb and has two kids. But he had to go to this place to do this, and had to stay there for pretty much the entire time that we were writing these songs. That’s where the title came from, The Black Market, because we are putting those songs on this record, and then this record is going out, and that record is being bought.
What inspires you as an artist, personally?
I think it is just the honor that I get to do this and that people are listening, and that keeps me going. We’re trying to say something with our music, and people are listening to it, which is a rare thing nowadays. We are not playing popular music, so the fact that we still have a career and have success is just an amazing thing to me. It’s a privilege. I realize how rare this is and I have a love for doing what we do, so I don’t take one second of it for granted.
What were your first memories of music growing up?
My dad was a classic rock DJ and ran the graveyard shift request show, so that’s what I grew up with. He was a fanatic about music and had that show my entire life. We always had this insane record collection at our house. My family was also very poor, and we had to sell our TV set and VCR, but we never got rid of the stereo. That was the only constant source of entertainment, and there was always something playing.
With my dad, it was usually like ZZ Top, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin—a lot of heavy rock when it was such a good time for guitar music. It was just as normal to me for my dad to be listening to Black Sabbath as somebody else’s dad just reading the paper and smoking a pipe. There really wasn’t any way it wouldn’t infect me. My brother’s also a professional musician; he and I played in a bunch of bands before I joined Rise Against and he’s in Toadies, who had a big hit in the ’90s and they’re still together.
Is performing with Rise Against different than with GWAR and Hagfish?
It’s a much larger scale, for sure, but as far the basics of it, the key to being a successful musician is being able to play well with others—being a likeable person and not having too many hang-ups. Ultimately, you’re living with these people, so no matter what the band’s background or the size of a show, it really boils down to being able to be a nice, likeable guy.
When I joined Rise, it was the same deal. I got in the band and I wanted to be everybody’s brother. I grew up with a brother who was 19 months older than me and had to learn how to share, get beat up, and whatever you get from living your life with this constant partner, so I’ve always tried to adopt that mindset with whatever situation I was in.
After being actively involved with the music scene for the past few decades, what changes have you noticed within the scene and industry?
There has been so much that has happened recently within the last five to six years. The most significant thing that I’ve seen was that records became free. I’m a guy who always made a living at this, and sometimes that living was good, sometimes it was awful, and sometimes it was great. The record sale end of it was never something that I relied on that much, because the type of music I chose to play for a living and dedicated my life to never really sold well, with Rise Against being the exception (laughs). You used to tour to promote your record, and then it became you put out a record to support your tour. Now, for me as a musician and a quote-unquote “lifer,” I was going to be on tour either way, so it never really mattered. But I definitely saw how it affected friends of mine who made a living from writing songs or scoring TV or movies. We’re talking guys who were in their 40s now had to go work day jobs at Starbucks.
I don’t think we’re on the other side of it yet. Then again, the major label system has always been skewed and not exactly the most honorable. There’s other people who have made a lot of money from a band’s hard work long before the band does. So there was also a big side of me that was thinking, “Well, fuck yeah! It’s about time.” Now it’s opened up where a guy can put out his own records himself, and he doesn’t have to deal with anybody else. I really do champion that. I knew it was going to be a few foggy years until people figured out how to do it, and I think we’re seeing that now. It’s a very interesting thing to be a part of.
How do you and the guys prep for an upcoming tour?
We spend time with our loved ones. I got married, put down roots, and now this is real life. We’re not kids who can go out for 365 days a year and leave our shit in storage back home. Now we tend to go out for a few weeks, and then come home for a few weeks. The guys had babies, and now those babies are children, and those children know that dad’s gone and they don’t like it (laughs). But we still have a job to do. We put a record out, and we want the world to hear it and we want the world to see our band. We want to play those shows and see those fans. But before tour it’s just about letting the people we love know how important they are to us before this all starts again.
Rise Against will be playing at the Best Buy Theater in NYC on Sept. 26, The Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ on Sept. 30, and the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, PA on Oct. 1. Their new album, The Black Market, is available now. For more information, go to riseagainst.com.