Interview: Tim McIlrath of Rise Against
If you had bothered to check the top of the Billboard “Top 200 Albums” chart the week of July 13, you’d have at first glanced over it without much interest. Johnny Cash. Nelly Furtado. Dixie Chicks. Rihanna. The soundtrack to High School Musical. Rise Against.
Hey, wait a minute — one of these things is not like the others. One of these things is not accustomed to selling a lot of records. When you’re a Chicago punk band that sings, “In the white flames of burning flags, we found a world worth dying for,” you don’t expect to think much about chart position or worldwide sales.
But somehow, just by touring incessantly and making music that’s honest and important, Rise Against have suddenly found that people are listening. Lots of people.
It’s not as if they decided to make their fourth album, The Sufferer and the Witness, any more “accessible.” The songs on Witness are just as intense and brutally truthful as ever, rooted in hardcore and played with sharp, blistering musical ability. In fact, after creating one album (Siren Song of the Counter Culture) with mainstream rock and metal producers GGGarth and Dean Maher, Rise Against decided to go back to their previous producer, Bill Stevenson (formerly of The Descendents and Black Flag), to be sure that they had someone who could speak their language.
To Rise Against, numbers don’t matter. They’ll still be presenting the same passionate message, the same unique voice, and the same dedication to their art and their fans. In music (and especially in punk), everything changes, but Rise Against will stay the same.
In the midst of sweltering August heat and no less than 98 bands vying for my sonic attention, I had the chance to speak with Rise Against vocalist Tim McIlrath at the Buffalo date of this year’s Warped Tour. We talked about the shock of success, the allure of punk rock’s summer camp, and the value of intelligent, opinionated fans, among other topics. Later that night, Rise Against grabbed the spirit of the exhausted crowd and shook them into anger, fervor, feeling, and, most importantly, unity. It was good to be reminded that there are still bands out there that can do that.
I wanted to talk to you about the album, obviously. Were you really surprised about making the Billboard Top 10? Is that something that you saw coming?
Not at all. I think the last record hit somewhere around 150, and that was the highest it ever saw. So we certainly weren’t expecting this at all. It was just a huge shock, and it’s still a huge shock to know that we were up there with all of these bands. Just to see a punk rock band in the top 10 is just a rare thing, especially a band that’s presenting more important and subversive material like we’re doing.
Do you have any opinion on why this album hit such a higher level commercially than the last album?
I think that some of the momentum that we’ve been working on for six years was all behind us going into this record. We have a lot of great fans who really support what we do, and that’s an amazing thing. We work really hard getting our music out there, and everything else we leave in the hands of our fans and the people who wanted to get the record, and enough people wanted to check it out. People have asked me this before, “What do you attribute this to, this [sudden] success?” I think that it’s not even so much that we’re creating this audience — it’s almost like the world is creating this audience. I think we live in such scary times right now that there are people looking for music that is reflecting the questions they have about the world, and I think that people [are] looking for more than just entertainment. They want to at least have a band that’s with them as far as their concerns about the world and what’s going on around them.
You went to Bill Stevenson to produce The Sufferer and the Witness. What did Bill offer that was different than what you had dealt with before?
So much. It wasn’t a change so much as it was going back, because Bill did our second record. We were familiar with Bill and had a great relationship with him, and we sort of missed that relationship. We had certainly hooked up with Bill a few more times since that record — we toured with his band Only Crime, we’d been back through Fort Collins and the Denver area a few times. He comes from an incredibly diverse background, being with The Descendants and Black Flag, and he’s now playing with The Lemonheads.
I think that there are so many producers that don’t understand what we do as a band, and don’t know how to record it, and don’t know how to…I mean, you’re trying to describe a sound and you’re using bands like Black Flag or Minor Threat to describe it, and if you’re working with a producer who doesn’t know that, you’re lost. It’s something you can’t really teach — you either get it, or you don’t. And Bill gets it. He speaks that language. He really pushed us to write a better record and try new things. He’s a good guy; he’s a good friend.
Is that something that was missing on Siren Song of the Counter Culture, without condemning [Siren Song producers] GGGarth and Dean Maher?
It wasn’t quite missing, because we had this conversation with GGGarth and Dean. We said, “We come from this world, and you guys come from this [other] world.” I think we kind of complimented each other — we wrote a record that was a sort of combination of both of our influences. And their approach to what we were doing was cool, and it was different for us. And I’m glad we wrote that record. I’m glad we did that, I’m glad we went to GGGarth and Dean. And for [The Sufferer and the Witness], it was just more appropriate to go with Bill and Jason [Livermore, co-producer].
Now that there is a higher degree of commercial success, is there a different goal in mind for Rise Against? A different path that you want to follow as a band?
I think we’re kind of just along for the ride. Starting a band, you never think about things like Billboard — or even selling more than 10,000 records. At the time I was starting bands, if you wanted to be huge, if you wanted to be successful, you needed to start a band that sounded like Pearl Jam, or Soundgarden. Or some nu-metal band. If you wanted to be famous, you’d better sound like Disturbed. If you want to be famous, don’t start a punk rock band. Punk rock is not going to be famous; it’s not going to be successful.
So, to have all the success we have now, and to still be playing shows six years later, and to be one of the headliners of the Warped Tour, that’s incredibly overwhelming. We’ve gone so far past any goals that we set as a band — anything out here is just a bonus. The bands I look up to are people like the Pennywise guys, the Social Distortion guys, Bad Religion. Those are the kinds of bands that I see as really successful, bands that still do it, and do it their own terms. That’s where I’d like to be.
What do you think happened in punk in the past five years that now you can hit the top 10 and you can be a headlining act?
Punk certainly became a little more commercial. Punk was commodified by everyone from cell phone companies, to car commercials, to whatever. I think it was just a trend, one of the trends that these people were picking up on — all of a sudden, instead of vinyl pants and Goth makeup, it was mohawks and spiked studs. All of a sudden, the spotlight was on us, it was on punk. It’s certainly frustrating, because it creates a lot of bands that are flying this flag of punk that you have nothing in common with.
But I try not to focus on that. That side of music has always been there, and it’s always gonna be there. So I think it’s important to focus on the music that really matters — bands like Bad Religion. Bands like Social Distortion, and Pennywise, and NOFX, and The Bouncing Souls, and The Casualties, and Anti-Flag, and Thursday — these bands that really matter. And a lot of the bands [that try to be punk for commercial reasons] don’t matter, and won’t be here for that much longer, because they’re just here because it’s big and popular right now.
Do you think that’s changed the Warped Tour? For a tour that’s been around since ’95 and ’96, do you think it has changed for the better or changed for the worse?
I think it’s always changing. You’re talking about a tour that’s had everyone from NOFX to Eminem on it before. Limp Bizkit’s been out here. It used to be The Deftones and Qwiksand, and now it’s Aiden and The Academy Is. It’s always changing, [and] I think it’s great. Kevin [Lyman, Warped Tour founder] has done a great job of always bringing some really diverse bands to it. I think, within the microcosm of punk, you could say it has changed a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s been a punk tour for 12 years. And he’s always tried some new things, some different things; he’s tried throwing different kinds of bands on the tour to see what happens. We’ve got Joan Jett out here, we’ve had The Buzzcocks out here this year, we’ve had The Germs out here this year. We had the wedding band from The Wedding Singer out here in California. I think there’s something for everybody out here.
At the same time, you’ll notice that he’s really been loyal to the pillars: NOFX. The Bouncing Souls. The Casualties. Multi-platinum bands have come and gone on this tour, but The Casualties are still playing. They’re still playing; they’re still out here on the main stage.
How do you like doing the Warped Tour?
I really like it. It’s a good time for a number of reasons — not just because of what goes on out on the stage and in front of the fences, but because of what goes on behind the fences. There are a lot of good people out here. You make a lot of friends on the road, and it’s cool to come back and hook up with those friends for a whole summer instead of just shows here and there, short tours here and there. It’s nice because we spend a lot of time together — we have lunch together, we get together at the end of the day, we hang out. So it’s a lot of time you spend with a lot of cool bands, which is a rare thing to find.
How do the 30-minute sets treat you? Do you find that limiting?
It’s certainly easy, from a band’s point of view. It’s not too challenging to play for a half-hour, especially when you’re used to playing for an hour or so. What you do is try to make that half-hour worth it. You just go at it twice as hard, because you have half as much time. It’s limiting especially when you’re a band like us, and you have four records, and you’re trying to squeeze stuff from all four records into a half-hour, which is only about eight songs for us. That’d only be two songs from each record, if we did it that way. So you end up having to cut songs that you’d like to play, just because of time restraints.
Are the crowds that you see out here different than the crowds you would see in a club show or a smaller show in any way?
Yeah, it’s very different. You’re talking about people who have been out in the sun all day, hanging out…especially on a day like today, when it’s super hot. They tend to be a little more rabid, you know? Just more of that festival kind of a feel to it.
That’s weird, because you’d think that as hot and exhausted as everyone is, things would be a little calmer.
Yeah, maybe it won’t be so rabid when we go out there at 7:30 after a 100-degree day. People might be a little drained. But there’s definitely a different vibe. A little bit more energy.
Do you do a lot of signings at your tent and fan interaction when you’re playing Warped?
Yeah, whenever we have time, we do a signing. We haven’t done one in every single city, but almost everywhere.
Does that help you out at all?
It’s awesome, because it’s something that you don’t get a chance to do often on a regular tour. You can’t really do a signing in the middle of a show. So it’s actually one of the few times in our touring year that we get to meet our fans face-to-face — not really talk to them, but at least meet them and see who’s listening to the music. If they have things they want to share with us, they get to do that. They show us their tattoos. I know the fans appreciate it, but honestly, we really appreciate it, too, because it gives us a little bit of insight into who’s checking out our band.
Now that you’re seen as one of the headlining bands on the tour, do a lot of younger bands come to you for advice or approval?
Yeah, it happens out here. It’s weird because it feels like the inception of this band was just yesterday. And so, when somebody comes up to me and he plays in a band that sells as many records as we do, and he says, “Hey man, you’re a huge influence. I’ve been watching you play for five years,” I’m like, “Holy shit. I’ve been in a band for five or six years. You saw me when you were a kid, and now you’re in a band, and now we’re sharing a stage together.” That’s just mind-blowing to me, [meeting] some of these kids who have turned into amazing musicians and they’ve started amazing bands, and to think that at one point, this was a kid in the front row of one of our shows. And besides the fact that that makes me feel really old, it’s also really cool. (laughter) It’s really cool to know that the seemingly shitty show that we played in Seattle in 2001, where it seemed like everybody hated us, there was that one kid in the front row who loved us, and that kid’s singing for Aiden right now.
The first thing I saw when I went to your website was a link to SaveDarfur.org. What drew you to that cause, of all causes, to focus on right now?
There are so many causes, so many things that you read about that really hit you hard, and that was one that hit each of us really hard. You know, it’s “Rwanda version 2.0.” It was really upsetting that this was happening, and there wasn’t enough attention being given to what is going on there. Our website is something that we’ve been given that we’re lucky enough to have so many hits a day, so many people that actually check it out. We try to use it to facilitate some things beyond just selling records and t-shirts, something beyond ourselves, so that we can pass information on to the people who happen to check us out.
What can teenagers and younger people do for the Darfur cause?
It starts with awareness. Specifically talking about Darfur, just familiarize yourself with what’s happening there, and share that with people, and at least have an understanding of it. Then decide for yourself what you want to do about it. One of the things that we’ve always tried to do as a band is not shove anything down anybody’s throat. And I’m not going to say we’ve always succeeded at that, but we certainly try, because that’s something that turned us off as kids going to see bands. What we like to do is lay things on the table and say, “Here’s some information that we’ve come across. We’d just like to share it with you,” and encourage them to make up their own minds about it.
It’s not important to me that a fan agrees with me about everything I believe in, but it’s important that they’re not neutral. I don’t want neutral fans, I don’t want people who are like, “Whatever, I’m just here to dance.” I want people who care about something one way or another — they’ve thought about it, and they’ve taken a stance.