For more than a decade, Rise Against have been one of punk’s most visible and unapologetically political bands, delivering raging albums that have condemned the Bush Administration and the bungled war in Iraq, among other things, while supporting animal rights, veganism, and straight-edge living. They’re also one of the genre’s most successful acts: Their last album, Appeal to Reason, opened up at No. 3 on the charts – a career high.
On March 15, Rise Against will release a new album titled Endgame and it may be their most ambitious set of songs yet. Frontman Tim McIlrath has mapped out a haunting vision of what would happen should humanity and society as we know it cease to exist. It rocks plenty, too: Lead track “Help Is on the Way” is a dizzying anthem that morphs from an arena-ready belter into a balls-to-the-wall hardcore epic.
McIlrath’s dark, apocalyptic vision on Endgame was inspired by years of listening to punk and hardcore bands like Minor Threat and reading novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, to which he was initially exposed as a soccer-playing teen growing up in the Chicago suburbs.
As the band – McIlrath, singer-bassist Joe Principe, drummer Brandon Barnes, and guitarist Zach Blair – gears up for their new album, SPIN asked McIlrath to break down the essential albums, songs, and books that shaped his approach to songwriting.
MINOR THREAT’S COMPLETE DISCOGRAPHY
McIlrath was 15 when he discovered punk bands like the Descendents and Black Flag, but it was Ian MacKaye’s pioneering D.C. hardcore group that resonated the most. “It was the first time I really thought about music being something more than just what’s playing in the background,” says McIlrath, who cites the band’s career-spanning 1989 compilation Complete Discography as his favorite Threat release. “They had such purpose to their songs.”
In fact, the straight-edge philosophy of MacKaye’s lyrics made McIlrath feel validated about his choice to abstain from drugs and alcohol: “That was what introduced me to straight edge. I was already the guy who didn’t drink or do drugs, and I wasn’t able to articulate why I made that choice. But hearing Minor Threat was really eye-opening for me.”
JAWBREAKER’S “TOUR SONG”
After being introduced to the pioneering California band, McIlrath saw that punk music could have an intellectual sophistication similar to classic books like Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World. “It was the first time I saw brilliant writing in punk music,” he says. “It wasn’t just four lines of ‘I hate my mom, I hate my dad.’ It was well written stuff and some of the most beautiful writing in punk rock – amazing imagery, amazing stories.”
McIlrath cites the band’s 1992 track “Tour Song” as a prime example of singer Blake Schwarzenbach’s lyrical gifts. “It’s all about being on tour with your band, and everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. He’s telling the story of being on stage, not getting paid for the gig, the crowd hates them, he breaks a string while playing… but the moment you hit the chorus of a song, and you hit that right note, everything that’s bad just fades away.”
REFUSED’S SONGS TO FAN THE FLAMES OF DISCONTENT
The Swedish act was known for being far more experimental than typical balls-to-the-wall hardcore acts, mixing in time signatures, discernable melodies, and other prog elements. “Their music was so brave and compelling that it offended a lot of purists,” says McIlrath, citing the band’s album Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent as their finest work. “They used different beats, drum machines, sometimes symphony tones, pretty melodies – they took it way out there, but it definitely reshaped the mold.”
CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG’S “OHIO”
McIlrath says of Neil Young (who wrote this track): “He was the most confrontational of the protest singers from that era. He was unafraid.” In fact, McIlrath performs an acoustic version of the song during Rise Against’s live shows – mostly to inspire younger fans who may not know about the abundance of political music that came out of the ’60s. “That music nowadays lives in the margins,” he says. “It’s all Black Eyed Peas and Maroon 5 on the airwaves, but back then, protest music was the airwaves. Our generation can learn from that.”
McIlrath religiously followed this relatively obscure Chicago punk band as a teen. “No one’s ever really heard of them,” he says of the group, whose music ranged from mellifluous ballads to fist-pumping anthems. “But as a kid, they were the biggest band in the world to me.” He was mesmerized by the lead singer, Tom, whose vocals showed a broad tonal range. “He could go from being frail and beautiful in a Thom Yorke kind of way to this powerful scream,” says McIlrath. “It was really intense and cathartic. It’s sad because they’ve been lost to history. They only really live in my imagination.”
JOSEPH HELLER’S CATCH-22
One of Rise Against’s new tracks, titled “Survivor Guilt,” was inspired by the film adaptation of Heller’s novel, which featured the acting debut of Art Garfunkel. In fact, the track features dialogue from one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, where Garfunkel’s character argues with an Italian solider about America’s military importance: “Garfunkel says to him, ‘How can Italy be powerful when they were occupied by Nazi Germany?’ and the soldier just sort of laughs at his stupidity and tells him, ‘Well, we’re still here – where are those people who occupied us? They lost.’ It’s this interesting anti-war statement and you can just see it blowing the soldier’s mind.”
GEORGE ORWELL’S 1984
McIlrath says Orwell’s classic dystopian novel sparked a political awakening and taught him to be skeptical of big government – topics which the band revisits on their new album. “It showed me there’s a seedier underbelly to the gears of society,” he says. “Where I grew up, life was perfect. Everyone had two cars, we all went to school, and played soccer. But this book just turned my world upside down and made a lightbulb go off in my head.”
Rise Against On ‘Wolves’ & Inspiring Political Conversations With Political MusicWritten by Jade Kennedy on June 16, 2017
Chicago’s own Rise Against has been quiet for some time, so we knew something was brewing. Earlier this year, the band cryptically announced their latest album, Wolves and now it has arrived.
On the eve of their European tour, Music Feeds sat down with bassist Joe Principe to get the low down on Wolves, touring, and whether they’ll be coming back to Australia any time soon.
Gallery: Rise Against + Clowns, Outright – Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne 2015 / Photos: Nikki Williams
Music Feeds: Hi Joe! How are you? What’s been happening?
Joe Principe: Well we just got home from South America, and we did a couple shows in Central America as well. That went amazing. And now we’re home for like a week, and then we shove off to Berlin and London for some press, and we’re playing a couple really small shows in those cities as well, so I think it’ll be fun.
MF: So do you like doing the smaller shows as opposed to the stadium-type shows, where it’s a little more intimate?
JP: Yeah, absolutely. You know, nothing gets me going like a punk rock show, where you’re so close to the audience and you, ah, feed off that energy and vice versa, you know, there’s nothing like it.”
MF: So you just finished off your South American shows with Linkin Park and some headliners of your own – have you been previewing any new music?
JP: “Yeah! We’ve actually been playing three songs off the record, which is a lot more than we’ve ever done like with any past record. We usually, we’ll play like one song maybe, but we’re so excited about this record we’re like, screw it, we’ll play three – do a block of three songs and see how it goes. The response has been really, really amazing so that’s definitely a good feeling.
MF: Well the obvious next question is how are the fans responding, or how are people, in general, responding to this new album so far?
JP: I mean, you know, just… really great! You know, playing a song live is definitely the tell tale sign if you’ve written… like, if we’ve done our jobs and get the reaction from the crowd then mission accomplished. Yeah, kids have been losing their minds over the songs, which is really cool to see. It’s kind of like, if you play a song and it feels familiar to the crowd where it doesn’t feel so new, then it’s like, we know we’ve done a good job writing the song [laughs] ‘cos then they’re into it, and that’s definitely what we’re getting.
MF: So tell me about the new record, Wolves. It’s your, what, eighth studio album?
JP: Yeah, yeah, this is our eighth record.
MF: Do you have the process down pat now, or did you still have some to and fro, trying to shortlist from like 30 songs to see what made it to the final cut?
JP: I mean, there’s definitely… really I think at the end of the day what ends up making the record are the songs where Tim feels the most inspired lyrically, ‘cos without that you don’t have a song [laughs]. So we’ll write, like, 20 or 25 songs and he’ll start working on lyrics and whatever comes out kind of comes out. We’re mindful of styles, you know, the songs have to have a good flow and a good mix on a record where you have, like, our pop punk songs and our hardcore songs and our mid-tempo kinda rock songs, you know? We definitely try to mix it up a little bit, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the lyrics… if he’s not inspired by a song then we kinda throw the song out and move on [laughs].
MF: Yep, that sounds fair enough! So who produced this one?
JP: This record was produced by Nick Raskulinecz, he’s out of Nashville Tennessee. So he’s done like, the last few Rush records and Foo Fighters records and Mastodon. We thought it was time to switch up the producer role, work with someone new. It was a great experience, it was cool to learn what somebody else would do to our songs, you know, and see why they would do it. It was definitely a learning experience.
MF: Well I’ve listened to the record a couple of times now, I think ‘Mourning in Amerika’ and ‘How Many Walls’ seem to be the most obviously political, but what is the message behind those?
JP: Unfortunately, Tim could answer those questions a little better [laughs] but I feel like they’re definitely kind of a state of the nation… they’re more I would say commentary on what’s happening in the United States. ‘Mourning in Amerika’ was actually almost the name of the record, but then we felt it would have maybe too much of a negative connotation wit its overtones, and we didn’t want a sense of despair, we wanted a sense of hope so we changed the name of the record. But in my opinion, that’s what that song is about, where there’s so many ever-changing – I don’t know what the right word would be – I guess the country is in such a state of – I don’t even know, it’s such a mess right now – I think ‘Mourning in Amerika’ kind of reflects that, where every day we’re waking up and there’s something just completely ridiculous happening in the government and the White House you know, it’s mind-blowing.
‘How Many Walls’ is one of the first songs Tim wrote lyrics for so that was solidified, kind of etched in stone pre-election and a song like that is definitely in your face so far as lyrics go, and hopefully it could inspire conversation among our fans. To me, it’s a song that makes people think about gun control and things like that. That debate is ongoing in the United States [laughs] and I just want people to really think about owning a gun. I have family members that have guns in their houses, you know, locked in safes but at the same time, in my opinion, it’s not the answer. I think the statistics show that I think one or two percent of home invasions are remedied by the homeowner owning the gun and using it on the criminal, other than that, as far as deaths go, there’s way more accidental deaths. So it’s like, ridiculous.
MF: Yeah for sure. Obviously, the first single ‘The Violence’ has been out for a while, have you decided on your next single?
JP: No, you know, it’s something we’re not really thinking about yet. But ‘The Violence’, to me, I love that song because musically it’s so straightforward, and I’m drawn to songs like that where they’re straightforward and the vocal really pops out. But I’m just focused on that right now and having the record come out.
MF: So what is your personal favourite track on this album? I know it’s a bit like choosing a favourite child, but what’s your current fave?
JP: Well you know I love the energy behind ‘Welcome to the Breakdown’, that song is currently one of my favourites. That song and ‘Politics of Love’, that song is definitely a nod to our ‘80s new wave roots, and I just love those two songs right now, they’re definitely my favourites.
MF: Agreed, ‘Politics’ is particularly catchy in a familiar kind of way. Something new, though,was the announcement of Wolves, it was pretty cryptic, it built a fair bit of hype on the internet. whose idea was that?
JP: You know, that was kind of I guess the brainchild of management, band and record label all getting together and trying to think of ways to announce a record that we haven’t done before. Usually, in the past we’ve just straightforward announced the record, we wanted something different this time, and it’s been awesome it was great to have it come to fruition. It’s nice to keep it interesting.
MF: Definitely! With such a huge social media following, do you find it different now when you tour overseas – are the audiences more similar than they were, say, five or 10 years ago?
JP: I always feel like our fans in general, even 10 years ago, they’re like-minded. I never feel like it’s different, no matter where we’re playing. I mean, you definitely get some cities where the crowd is by nature more energetic and more enthusiastic, but overall everyone is so like-minded and on the same page. I guess with a band like Rise Against you kinda know what you’re getting into when you go to a Rise Against show and even our radio singles, the nature of our lyrics – they’re political, socially aware – so I feel like people know what they’re signing up for when they go to a show.
MF: So a couple of years ago now you toured Australia – can we expect to see you Down Under again soon?
JP: Yeah, absolutely! We’re trying to figure out exactly when, it’s looking like it’ll be more like early next year, but nothing’s set in stone yet. We’re definitely… it’s definitely on the cards and we’re trying to make it happen. We love Australia, we love playing down there so we will definitely be there as soon as we can make it happen.
MF: So we will see you touring here with this record?
MF: Lovely! We’re already looking forward to it. Lastly, on the subject of touring – with the Eagles of Death Metal incident in Paris and the Ariana Grande incident in Manchester, have you guys beefed up your security at all? Are you apprehensive now when you tour overseas?
JP: You know, no not really. We’re the type of band where we don’t really tour that way. I think we’re just gonna do what we normally do, you know? Those events are so tragic and I mean, it really is sad. Especially the Bataclan where Eagles played, we played that venue almost a year prior to the date when that happened with Eagles of Death Metal. We played that club, so that definitely… I don’t know how to describe the feeling after that happened, knowing we were there, just like so many innocent people when that happened. But, you know, we’re just going to keep doing what we do and hopefully, nothing bad happens. Again, at the same time, unfortunately, these things… I don’t know… I feel like if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen, you know what I mean? I know it’s not the best answer, but it’s reality at this point.
‘Wolves’ is out now.