Despite being one of the most commercially successful punk bands in the world, Rise Against have not lost the progressive, revolutionary spirit that inspired them to make music to begin with. The quartet are on the road for months in support of last year’s studio album Endgame, and they recently the contributed their cover of “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown” to the Amnesty International 50th anniversary compilation Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan. I spoke with frontman Tim McIlrath in late January for Newsday, and there was just not enough space to print everything we chatted about. Here is the rest.
I’m amazed at the millions of views that your videos have racked up on YouTube. “Prayer Of The Refugee” has received 16 million views.
“Hero Of War” has gotten 11 million.
“The Good Left Undone” has hit 7.6 million.
Wow, I think my mom constitutes several million of those right there, so you could just chop those off. That’s great. It’s pretty amazing, the power of the Internet. It’s funny because you used to make videos hoping that MTV would play them, then they stopped playing videos. Then there was that gray area for a while of what are we making videos for and why should we make a big video if it’s not going to get played on MTV anymore? Then YouTube came in, and all of a sudden it created a bigger platform for the music video. I’m the same way. If I want to check out a new band and go to listen to their song online, I figure I might as well watch their video too.
During the last fifteen-plus years the whole pop punk thing has exploded, although obviously it was a watered-down version of the original movement. Even though bands like Rise Against and Against Me! are more popular than the underground bands, you did come out of there. You’re also more melodic than a lot of the underground bands. Is it a tricky balance for you to walk in terms of having mainstream appeal and yet not alienating the underground fans that supported you back in the day?
I think that we’ve got a couple of things going for us. We’re such big music fans first and foremost that we have witnessed all of the stumbling of our peers or the people who came before us. We have watched the mistakes that were made and seen our favorite bands go from the band that we can keep in our pockets and nobody knows about to the band that the kid that you hate that sits next to you in class is wearing their T-shirt. We’ve also gone through that journey ourselves. When I was in high school and Bad Religion was signed to a major label, I was like, “Fuck them, they’re sell-outs”. I was that kid too. When people have that same opinion of our band, part of me wants to be very protective of what I do, but the other part of me really identifies with that audience member at the same time. How could I possibly judge you for the way that you’re looking at this because I looked at it the same way? Nobody could’ve told me shit when I was 15 or 16. I had my mind made up.
It only took growing up and going through my own musical journey to figure out what’s important and what’s not important, what makes a band a sellout and what makes it not a sellout. I realized that that’s everybody’s own journey. I can’t really do anything to help you along. All we can do is focus on what we do. But in a lot of ways, I believe that with Rise Against, instead of going to the mainstream, the mainstream came to us. We never changed anything we did to perk their ears. They just kind of found us, and I like to think that we have been unaffected by it. We still do things the same way and are happy to be here, and of course we’ll always have the ambition to be playing for more people. Playing to more people means your band gets bigger and sometimes some awkward growing pains. We don’t always get it right. We make mistakes as we get bigger, and we’re always trying to walk that fine line, but we’re okay with fucking something up, learning from it and not doing it again.
There’s also a fine line between making people aware of things and preaching to them. That said, I am waiting for Rise Against to come up with an ode to the Presidential campaign idiocy that we’re seeing.
I’m not running for office. I’m not afraid to offend people. I sing for a punk rock band. If I’m not ruffling people’s feathers, then I’m probably not doing my job. I don’t have an electorate that I’m beholden to. I’m just a person angry at what’s happening, and I’m just going to give it to people straight. There are a lot of rules that you have to follow, and all I want to do is identify with people who feel the same way. But you make a good point. If you’re constantly walking that fine line between informing and making people aware and preaching…anyone who has found their way into punk rock or even metal probably found themselves there because you were sick of a world that was shoving things down your throat and wanted to start your own world. I don’t want to be yet another person in one of our fans’ lives shoving things down their throats. It’s a fine line, and again I don’t always claim to walk it purposely. There’s a balance that we’re always looking for. And you get older — we’ve been doing Rise Against for 11 years now — and I can’t legitimately write an honest song about breaking up with a girl anymore or the heartbreak of my teen years. I’ve been married for many years now, so I don’t think I could sell that to you, but I have no trouble singing about the things that I read in the paper and the events of the world as they unfold and the direction of history in the time that I’m occupying it.
“I’m compelled to want to do things for the USO and for the troops, but I’m always nervous that that will be repackaged as supporting the war.”
What’s the most personal song on Endgame for you and why?
I like “This Is Letting Go” as a personal song because it was a song that attempts to differentiate the differences between giving up on something and letting go of something. Giving up on something is a negative thing. You don’t want to give up on anything, but at some point it becomes letting go and something that you let go of, and that becomes a very positive thing. If we can define those things in our lives that we need to be persistent and keep going with, and the things we need to let go of, then we can figure out the things that are a weight on our shoulders and the things that are lifting us up.
I’m assuming the song “Survival Guilt” was inspired by from the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts?
Yes, it was.
Do you know people who have served overseas?
Yeah, and so many more doing this band. Being a band with such an antiwar stance, we also work with people like the Iraq Veterans Against The War. I’ve met so many more just being a part of Rise Against. It’s been really incredible to meet the people and get their stories and put faces to the statistics.
I assume that came in to play when you were writing the lyrics to that song?
Yeah. I wanted to sum up the sacrifice that a lot of people I know were making and making for a country that has yet to give them a good reason to make those sacrifices at all. They sent a lot of really confused men and women into a battle where they’re doing things that the only way they can justify them is if they believe wholeheartedly in the war, but nobody’s ever really wanted to be in this war. Then you have people coming home that are breaking down mentally because they can no longer justify their actions and what they did and some of the atrocities of war that are sometimes the necessities of war. But if that war was predicated on false assumptions and then built on sand, then there’s nothing else you can put on top of it.
The thing that really pissed me off throughout the past decade was how the Republican Party turned “Support The Troops” into “Support The War”.
It’s like the false choice that Bush gave us, that you were either with him or the terrorists.
I couldn’t agree more. We’ve been asked to do a lot of stuff with the USO and the troops. When I think of troops, I just think of people my age and younger who are in my audience, Rise Against fans who were looking for a way out and joined the military, people in my own family whose lives were turned around by the military, going from being total fuck ups to having direction to their life. So I’m compelled to want to do things for the USO and for the troops, but I’m always nervous that that will be repackaged as supporting the war. You’re right, the Republicans have done such a good job of equating the two that it does something ugly like make me hesitate when asked to give support to the troops. I don’t want somebody to see that as supporting the war in any way, shape or form.
I imagine it’s strange to be asked to be doing any USO gigs to begin with?
It is. It’s very strange. I guess we have been very careful who we associate with. We work with people who are very clear about what they are, like the Iraq Veterans Against The War and the Afghanistan Veterans Against The War. A group like that is going to be more clear. We want to support these people, and we don’t agree with the war.
The members of Rise Against have a straight edge lifestyle. Are you vegetarian or vegan at this point?
Vegetarian. Three of us are straight edge, and all of us are vegetarian.
When I was growing up, rock stars were the exact opposite of that. They were rebellious in that it was all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. They smoke, they drank, they partied too hard. They were behaving badly and living badly. Of course, that’s bitten a lot of those people on the ass as they’ve gotten older now. Do you think rock ‘n roll still has that rebellious edge? Is the new rebellion completely anathema to people who grow up with rock ‘n roll originally?
I guess it still exists. There are still bands out there that are definitely living that lifestyle. That was never something that was appealing or that I wanted to do. I love Guns N’ Roses just as much as the next guy, but I never saw that as something that I want to do. I appreciated what they do and who they are and love reading the tell-alls, but that was not the magnet that attracted me to music. For me, music was something totally different, something that me and my friends could do in the garage, especially punk rock. It is something that we could play very easily and put together songs with a message, songs that talk about things that were important to us. That’s what really triggered my interest in music, when I saw the music could be a vehicle for something more than just entertainment. And because I grew up in the ’90s and saw the excess of the hair metal scene or even the big grunge scenes happening, I never considered mainstream success as something that I would ever be privy to. What we did was in our basement and our garages, and it snowballed into where we are now, but we never really aspired to do that. I didn’t sit here and demand that you have to go buy my records, but they did. Now it’s put me in a position where I’m now compared to other guys who sell a half-million records. I’m just not that dude and never have been. I guess it’s just a different motivation, but I also want to be clear that I have nothing against that dude. We all do music for different reasons, and they’re all valid. This is just the way I found it.
My friend Katie Ellsweig did an interview with you a couple years back, and she told me I was supposed to ask you about stories about logging in British Columbia.
We did a record signing [at locations] in British Columbia and out past Vancouver, then we came back there to film a video for our song “Ready To Fall,” at which point we filmed it in clear-cut forests of British Columbia and also went to a logging factory, where they take the logs and cut them down to bite-size pieces. We went from those two very polar and opposite places, from a place that was clear-cut where people were activists and protesting them and had a deep resentment for loggers to a logging place where people had Rise Against T-shirts who were just trying to pay their bills. “Hey man, I just operate this thing here. I’ll be glad to operate something else if somebody will pay me to do it. We’ re just trying to make a living.” It was an interesting five-day adventure, being turned back and forth between the demand for wood that is in North America and how it affects all of us.
“I can’t legitimately write an honest song about breaking up with a girl anymore or the heartbreak of my teen years.”
She was mentioning how some of the activists would put nails in certain logs that would then injure people when they were being cut down. What were they doing exactly?
I’ve heard conflicting reports about this since. There were protesters that were driving these giant metal spikes into the trees in hopes of breaking the chainsaws when they went to cut them down. But sometimes the chainsaws would miss them, and the logs would make it all the way to production in these giant logging mills that were chopping them up — then when they hit one of those blades, they would explode like shrapnel. It would be like bullets just flying through the air. When we were there, there was this aluminum steel ceiling through the whole mill and there were little shards of light coming through these little holes.
The guy there told me that everybody had to wear a lot of safety gear, because when they hit one on those metal spikes it just explodes and goes to the ceiling and could hit them. I’ve also heard that a lot of the logging environmentalists up there are adamantly nonviolent and that some of these spikes are put in by property owners more than they are put in by advocates for the forest. I wanted to make that clear because I think that the environmental movement goes out of their way to be nonviolent, and the only way that people can find some sort of kryptonite against them is if they repackage them as these violent activists and then repackage them again as terrorists. Then they can turn the world against the green movement. But it’s definitely interesting.