I sat down with Tim McIlrath and Joe Principe of Rise Against to ask them about a number of topics including their brand-new album Appeal to Reason (Geffen Records), the upcoming presidential election, their social activism, the bands they look up to, and how they've survived on a major label, among other things.
First of all please introduce yourselves and say what you do in the band. Tim McIlrath: Well, my name is Tim and I play harmonica in Rise Against. Joe Principe: I'm Joe and I play everything else.
You guys are the two remaining founding members of Rise Against. How have you been able to stay friends and stay together for as long as you have? Tim: Drugs. Joe: I think drugs and I don't know. We're weird. Tim: We're weird people and we stick together. I think we have a pretty common mission and when we get together to write a song, it's a awesome song and we like it so we've got that going for us. And it's been a fun road from the first time I ran into Joe in Indianapolis at a Good Riddance show and he said, "Hey, do you want to sing over some songs I'm doing?" I said yeah and then we were in the basements of Chicago suburbs, doing our first show and Fat Mike was calling us. Every year has been awesome.
The new album hits stores tomorrow. How did the writing and recording process go this time? Tim: Pretty good. I guess it was very similar to all of our writing and recording processes, especially since we were with Bill Stevenson again. We kind of blocked a month off over the winter and said, "Let's all get together, get the rehearsal space, and start putting some ideas together," which is what we did. And then, we also blocked off a week or two at the Blasting Room after we arrived in Fort Collins to just kind of jam stuff out, get some new ideas going if they were there before we even pressed record. And Bill's great, Jason's great, and so it went really good. The only difference is that those guys, Bill and Jason, are never content to do whatever they did last month. They always want to do something different, you know what I mean? They can do a great sounding record and instead of just going with that formula, Livermore wants to start from scratch and try whole new guitar tones, or Bill just wants to do something completely differently with the songs. They know us, and they know what we're capable of, they know what sounds like Rise Against, what doesn't sound like Rise Against. We can get so lost in some of the songs sometimes and feel like they're a good bearing. I know especially with lyrics, Bill's my guy, I can run them by him and he likes them. If I'm having an issue with maybe one line and I'm ignoring it, he's that second voice saying, "What about that line, Tim?" And I'll be like, "Yeah, I know, I was thinking about that line too, and now that you said it, I'm going to change it." Joe: It's a good mix. Tim: Yeah, it's a really good fit.
So you guys have a strong rapport with Bill after working with him three times? Tim: I think we had a strong rapport within the first twenty-four hours that we met Bill in 2003. He's a really hard-working guy, takes his job really seriously. I think he takes a similar approach to recording and producing that we do with this band. We're lucky to do it, we're lucky that people give us the chance to do it, and we want to make every single show, every single song, every single record like it's our last. Because who knows when this will all be taken away from us. We hit it hard, and we've been hitting it hard for eight or nine years now and Bill's the same way. He's got such a work ethic, just an amazing work ethic, and Livermore too, and the whole studio, all the people that work there.
Talk a little about the new album that's coming out tomorrow and what people can expect from it. Joe: Genius. Tim: Pure genius, it's going to change the shape of music as we know it. [laughing] Riots in the street. Joe: I think it's the next logical step for Rise Against. Sounds like a Rise Against album but there's still something new that we're offering. I think we've grown as songwriters and as a band, and it shows on the record. We're really excited about it, and from start to finish it's probably our favorite record that we've done. Tim: It's pretty awesome. I like it because I have the record in my car, and I'm driving a friend around and I'm like, "Hey, do you want to hear a new song?" and I play them a new song. And they're like, "Whoa, cool, the record sounds like this." And then I'll have a different friend in the car and be like, "Hey, do you want to hear a song?" and I'll play that person a completely different song, and they're like, "Oh, the record sounds like this." And something totally different. If I played you a handful of songs and I played her a handful of songs, I think you guys would walk away with completely different ideas of what the record was. I think it's a cool part of the record; it's so diverse. It's all over the board. It's thirteen songs, and they're everywhere. Each song is kind of its own little entity and tells it's own story, and the record is a collection of all those stories. I'm excited for people to hear it. I know bits of it have reached the internet and people have heard a song or two songs and have their own take on it. Once the whole thing is out there, I think people will be able to grasp the entire process and I'll be curious to see what they think.
About a year ago, Bruce Springsteen mentioned in an interview that he had an affinity for punk bands, and he mentioned you guys and Dropkick Murphys along with some others. How does that feel to be mentioned by a guy like Springsteen? Joe: Surreal. That's insane. Tim: Weird. I mean, to think that we're even a blip on his radar at all is pretty crazy. Bruce Springsteen is Bruce Springsteen. I think he's got some kids that are really into punk. It's cool that he's that in touch and even cares to be that in touch about new music. I'm not even thirty yet, and I feel like I could be jaded sometimes. This guy's got to be almost twice my age and he's still listening to the new Against Me record, and so that's awesome. It's cool for us and encouraging to see artists who still give a shit late that in their career.
Speaking of new bands, what are some you guys have been listening to lately that we should be checking out? Joe: I like Gaslight Anthem, although I guess they're on their second album, but they're really good. I feel like they're offering something a little different than most bands seem to be offering these days. There's substance there, so yeah, I really like them. Tim: We toured with Cancer Bats this year, and they're a band from Canada. Canada's really just putting out so many good bands whether it's Billy Talent or Cancer Bats or Bedouin Soundclash or all those amazing bands. What else are we rocking? We've also kind of been listening to this Torche band lately. Joe: Oh yeah. Tim: Torch with an "e". Joe: It's kind of Quicksand-y, sort of. Real rockin', driving stuff. Tim: Cavalera Conspiracy. Old guys, but new band. We kind of really embraced that record when we were in the studio. Every time we wanted to lunch, we'd be in Bill's van singing along to Cavalera Conspiracy.
What's the significance behind the new album's title? Tim: The title I lifted from, I was reading A People's History by Howard Zinn and it was a chapter on industrialization of America, turn of the century stuff when America was just in the throes of industrialization and people were coming into the city to find jobs and living in slums and working conditions were terrible. People were working fifteen hour days and seven day weeks. Kids were working. This was all before labor reform, and the conditions that really kind of sparked labor reform in the first place. And at that time there was one of the biggest social publications was called Appeal to Reason and not that the record is about socialism or anything, but that phrase, appeal to reason, is just so…wow. You talk about workers' rights and it's such a common sense thing and the things they were talking about were common sense, especially at a time when things like socialism were deemed as so radical and borderline communist and that kind of thing. Turn of the century America, socialism was a huge party. There were candidates running for president that were socialist candidates, you know? And that was borne of the frustrations of American workers who were so sick of the way they were being treated as a cog in the gear by huge corporations like J.P. Morgan or Rockefeller or Ford or whatever was happening at the time, and they just wanted change and they saw socialism as a way to balance the playing field. Appeal to Reason was the first publication where Upton Sinclair's The Jungle was printed in, which was about Chicago, which makes it kind of interesting for us. Also, in its own way, it's about animal rights—it's about the slaughterhouses in Chicago and how disgusting they were, and it was really one of the first exposes about labor conditions in the back of the Irish neighborhoods and America in general, and one of the first times people outside of the cities kind of saw, "Whoa, look what's happening." I know that was a really long explanation but I basically took that from there because the phrase kind of struck me, you know, appeal to reason can be applied to a lot of the things we're talking about.
You've always been pretty strong with your political and social convictions. How do you feel about the upcoming election? Tim: Strong to quite strong. Joe: Yeah, strong to quite strong. Tim: That was Ben Stiller's answer about his portfolio in Meet the Parents. Strong to quite strong. Historic election about to take place, I'm voting for Obama, I think we're all voting for Obama, I don't think I know anybody voting for McCain. But I know people out there will. I think that—well I guess there's two things I'm thinking. I'm thinking, a) it's cool to see a candidate like Obama who is different than every other candidate that we've had. People will probably argue with me on that one, but it looks like that he's either got a great message or he's fooled me, you know what I mean? He's talking about some really interesting, progressive things and I also get scared to see the people who completely rely on Obama for all things in the change department. You see people like, Obama's going to change the world. It's like, well, he might. But realistically he's not going to change the world. He might change a few things or reverse some of the things that the Bush administration has completely screwed up, and I hope people don't assign too much of a God complex to this guy and hold him to this extremely high standard. He's a president, yes, but change isn't a product exclusively manufactured by the White House or our government. It's something that's in everybody. And so to see him become the "rock star" is a scary thing. I don't think we believe in idolizing people and putting people on a pedestal so with that said, I think he's easily, by far, the best candidate in this election, in many elections, and certainly someone to reverse a lot of the damage that the Bush administration has done. Joe: Yeah, I think it's going to be baby steps like Tim said. We can't just go like that and—there's processes and it's not just up to him, but I think we'll move in the right direction if he's elected.
Music, politics, and social issues are often linked so people can speak freely about those issues and promote being active. What got you guys involved? Tim: In politics? Music was a huge part of it, the bands we grew up with, the 80's punk bands. Jello Biafra was huge into politics, his songs are so funny and sarcastic and cynical and talking about politics with a little bit of comedy along with it. Bands like Minor Threat, certainly, were talking about a lot of important issues. Joe: I think bands that inspire change, and we got into punk rock because we felt like we didn't fit into, we didn't subscribe to that you need to do this with your life, and it's all-inclusive, you're fighting—you want to be an individual and you're standing up for what the mainstream is trying to say is right, and I think that's why politics, people were protesting our government back with the Dead Kennedys, and I kind of include that in taking a stand personally on a social level and a political level. It just makes sense. It's okay to question authority, and that's what they were doing. And some people are scared of that. Tim: We're not. Punk has always been about championing the underdog, being the voice that's saying things that people are afraid to say, giving you the hard truth, the realities, the alternate viewpoint. It's one of the last sanctuaries for truly free speech. People that are in bands and musicians are putting into song what a lot of people are thinking but are afraid to say at their workplace or their school for fear of how they'll be looked at or that their job will be at risk or things like that. That's what punk came in. Even the music is a direct reaction to mainstream commercial music at the time. It was a different sound, it was more raw, more crass. It was, "We don't want to be the Beach Boys. We don't want to be The Beatles. We want to be something different. It was an answer to that and obviously it was embraced by an entire generation of people and generations that continue to this day, so these bands weren't crazy. They were feeling these things that others were feeling too and in turn, let these kids know that they're not alone. There were kids like us and it let us know we're not alone. That continued with bands in the Chicago scene with bands like Los Crudos, like political bands. Chicago had a really good hardcore scene with a lot of good bands that really found a way to meld politics into music. So like, not just make a show a show, but make it a benefit for ARA or Food Not Bombs or bring in literature about animal rights and things like that. It made a show more than simply just entertainment. Here's my five bucks, I want to be entertained, now I'm out of here. It was a lot more.
As a punk band, how did you reconcile signing with a major label when you guys have been championing the underdog? Tim: It sort of a no brainer, to be honest. It was basically someone saying, "You've been speaking to this crowd about what you do and we like what you do and we just want to give you a bigger bullhorn so more people can hear you." And it was like, well yeah, that makes perfect sense. And the only pitfalls of that would have been, well, we also want to control your sound or your message or your artwork or who's in your band or your hair style or the bands you tour with, you know, all those things. And none of that baggage came along with it. And when we realized none of that baggage came along with it, it was like, so you're telling us we can do what we do, as we've always done, and we'll probably continue to do with or without your help, but you're just going to help us do it and get it out to more people? And their answer was, "Yeah, we are." We're not dumb. We grew up in the time of Jawbreaker and Schleprock… Joe: Jawbox. Tim: Jawbox, who else? Joe: Samiam. Tim: Smoking Popes, just all these bands that got dicked around by major labels or whatever. And we've certainly seen that happen, but we went into it pretty confident that this was a good thing, but also knowing that if it's not a good thing or it doesn't work out, we don't depend on a label for what we do and for our existence. If the bottom dropped out today, we'd still be playing shows this month, and next month, and next year, and still writing records. We'll still have our fans, we'll always have our fans whether radio's playing us or not. And so we knew we weren't desperate for their love, for them to love us and embrace our band. We didn't live in fear of being dropped. It was like yeah, big deal. The good outweighed the bad. It was like yeah, maybe we can get out to a lot of kids—or maybe we'll get dropped. And it turn, here we are four years later and we've gotten out to a shitload more kids; our audience is way bigger and way broader. You come to our shows now as opposed to five years ago, and there are fans from all walks of life, you know? And there are fans that maybe people wouldn't expect to see at our shows. People who aren't as punk as they are. That's probably one of our biggest fans' complaints—oh this asshole from my school was at a show. He didn't have your album, he wasn't there. And to me, that's the person who needs to hear this message. That's the person who needs to hear. People will sometimes accuse us of preaching to the converted, but I see it as more of a rally cry. It's cool to come and meet up twice a year here in Worcester at the Palladium and get together with people who share the same opinions and say, "Hey, we share the same opinions" and sing about it and stuff. It's also fun to get our message out to more people, and it's challenging. When this band started up, to open up for Agnostic Front and not get shit thrown at you every night. That was a challenge. I like that challenge, and we kind of liked that going into each show like a battle to win the crowd over, and if you were scared at all and if you had any moment of doubt, that crowd would eat you alive. You just go in there every night to the boos and jeers dudes with liberty spikes and studded belts and leave with them stoked and coming back to your show next time because you went in there and you took it and gave it everything you had. So each frontier that we go into, it's a new challenge, and maybe this year it will be the radio crowds, getting them to really understand what we do. Or maybe weeding out people who don't belong here. Weeding out the guy who calls people "f-ggot." Weeding out the guy who doesn't believe in being fair to each other. It's like, you may like our song on the radio, but maybe you don't belong here if that's the way you're going to be. So these are all challenges. And in retrospect, I'm really glad that we signed. We've had a great relationship with the label, and they've been really cool. This is now our third record with them, so it's been good. Joe: I think that the major label gives somebody say in Dubuque or something, they tend to be sheltered, Midwest, that may not have heard songs like "Chamber the Cartridge" and it will hopefully open their eyes a little bit, and that's worth it to me right there. Tim: Especially in a day and age when the lines between major labels and indie labels are being blurred. And I don't want to take this as us completely endorsing all major labels. Every one is different. Even people on our label have problems. We happen to have a really good situation; that doesn't mean all major labels are awesome. There are shitty major labels out there, there are shitty people who run labels who treat bands shitty and just want to make money. But there are also shitty indie labels out there. We've heard the stories from our friends, bands that are having a harder time on an indie label than we are on our label. We've never been asked to go back and write a single. That's never happened in the history of this band. It's happened to so many of our friends on indie labels. That's regrettable and so there are good indies and bad indies, and there are good majors and bad majors.
So you guys think the key is really just to find the label that supports what you do? Tim: Yeah, and that's hard to tell when you're just trying to decide that at dinner one night with some A&R guy. It's hard to look into the crystal ball and say this is going to be a good situation. We went with our gut and we found the right people.
How's this tour been going so far? Tim: Good. It's still really early; it's only the fourth show. Joe: It's been great so far. Tim: Our tour manager's awesome. [laughs] He's cute. [Interviewer's note: The band's tour manager was sitting with us during the interview.] We don't do anything; he's the one who does everything. We just sit in hotel rooms and watch TV and he makes all that happen. No, it's been really good. We're out with amazing bands. If we were just out with the Alkaline Trio, it would be an awesome tour. If we were only out with Thrice, it would be an awesome tour. If we were only out with the Gaslight Anthem, it would be an awesome tour, and instead we're out with all three of them. I didn't see that happening, it's an incredible bill. It's the kind of bill where I'd go to the show if we weren't playing. It's a really rad bill and it's fun in a day and age where it gets harder and harder to find bands that you want to share the stage with. When we set up these tours, and we do set them up—we are the ones who pick the bands. We decide the bands we're going to play with, and nobody gets on that bill if we're headlining unless we want them there. If we're not, that's a different case, a different story, but if we are headlining, it's our say. And it gets harder and harder to find the right bands out there, and you want bands that somehow you share something in common with, and I feel like we have something in common with all of these bands in one way or another.
I'm going to go through some of our user-submitted questions. Are you guys looking to play any politically-based shows before Election Day? Tim: Politically based show? [laughing] Every Rise Against show is a politically based show; that's the answer.
Is there any chance you guys would be putting out a live album anytime soon? Tim: There's no plans to do that. It makes us feel old, you know? When you do a live album, that's when you're old and don't have any more ideas left, you put the live record together. [laughs] We've still got to write our dance record; some of the best songs are yet to come, so we've got to wait for those to do the live record.
What are your favorite songs to play live? Tim: It changes all the time. Joe: I think it's different for us because we tour so much so any new song, it's new. It's something, it's cool to play the new ideas live. "Re-Education" has been really fun live. Tim: New songs, hands-down. It's fun bringing them to the stage in front of the kids, and you're definitely playing with more life than you're playing the old stuff. You're just excited about it. We're playing three new songs in this set on this tour, and that might change by the time you read this interview because as the record comes out we're going to try to add more. But the new songs are always a lot of fun. As far as anything from the back catalog, anything off of Sufferer is such a good, just a great live song. It's just built for the stage, and then busting out the old stuff. We've been playing a lot of The Unraveling at sound check and at some of the shows, even and it's fun. Joe: It's just been fun to go back and play some of those songs. We're better musicians, I think, and it's a little bit tighter. Tim: It's a whole different thing hearing Rise Against of 2008 playing the song that we wrote in the year 2000. It's a whole different thing.
How do you feel your music has made a difference in the world? Tim: I guess in a lot of a different ways. I guess in the smallest way possible is when you get the e-mail from the kid who says, "Hey, I grabbed an animal rights flyer at your show, I found out you guys were vegetarian, and I looked into it and went vegetarian, and now I'm into animal rights and environmentalism." That kind of thing. If we just got one of those e-mails in the last eight years, everything would be worth it, but instead we get countless numbers of those e-mails. It doesn't have to be animal rights or vegetarianism; it can be a lot of different things. People who wake up in the same way that bands woke us up when we were young and start believing that maybe just maybe the rest of this world can be a more compassionate place. And it's a big eye-opener as it was for us growing up, and you can see the eyes opening on our fans too, and just to have that sphere of influence for people is an amazing thing, most certainly. I owe a lot to the bands that opened my eyes to a lot of things and so I know where those kids are coming from. And I also think that we are a band out there that is sort of hopefully setting a precedent. Our band will be gone at some point, and the kids will inherit all of this; the kids in the crowd will inherit all of this. And hopefully, we can show them that you can do this the way that we did, you know what I mean? We're doing it the way Bad Religion did it and the way Pennywise did it, and all these other bands, and hopefully we can be that link to the next generation and show them, kind of blaze a trail the same way that bands of our ilk blazed that trail. That's my biggest hope. What would suck is if this style of music that puts just as much emphasis on the message, if this style of music died out, that would be the saddest thing. If my kids grow up in a time where every band is like Forever the Sickest Kids and Meg & Dia, I'd be really bummed. Hopefully there are bands out there that are starting, that are looking to bands of our ilk as inspiration.
So you guys kind of see yourselves as carrying the torch and hopefully being able to pass it on to younger bands? Tim: Yeah, that's the idea. Someone did it for us; the least we can do is to do it for them.
Who are some of your favorite bands to tour with? Tim: Thrice, Alkaline Trio, and Gaslight Anthem. [laughs] I really liked touring with Sick of It All and Bad Religion. Those were some of the most fun, memorable shows ever. Joe: Alexisonfire. Tim: The Bronx, Cancer Bats, Billy Talent. We had a blast with My Chem last year. Any time you can share a stage with NOFX is a good time. Joe: Pennywise. Tim: Pennywise. Good dudes. Joe: Like-minded people. Tim: This is our second time out with Alkaline Trio. Bands like that.
What got you guys into becoming musicians in the first place? Joe: For me it was really for lack of something better to do at the time. I didn't really play an instrument; someone asked me to play bass in their band. I kind of, the year prior, I messed around with power chords on an acoustic guitar that my sister had because I wanted to learn D.R.I. songs because I thought it sounded cool with the muted guitar, but I had an acoustic and obviously you can't really do it like that. It was kind of by default for me, but I think that's what's great about this music, anyone can do it. Anyone can pick up a guitar. The bands I went to see growing up, I never put them up here; just like-minded people. Tim: I think even the word musician can be an intimidating word for kids. I never wanted to be a musician but I wanted to know how to play Minor Threat. I wanted to know these songs and learn them and then I wanted to create my own. It was just something for fun, I guess, and it just grew from there.
Is there anything else you guys would like to add? Tim: Just thanks to all of our amazing fans. We have incredible, incredible fans, we get incredible feedback from people who come to our shows and get our records and it's overwhelming to see what this band means to people in so many different ways. And I hope our fans know that they are a huge part of all of this, a huge part of why we're here, why we still do what we do and it's just been a really good ride and we owe it all to them. Joe: Yeah, I concur. Tim: Go to meatsnotgreen.com; that's the campaign for our new tour. It's all about how meat is the number one cause of global warming. Register to vote; go vote. I don't know when this thing's going to print, but hopefully people have registered by now and hopefully they are involved in the election. If you're reading this in Canada, we're coming there with Thursday in December. If you're reading this in England, we're playing there with Anti-Flag and the Flobots. If you're reading this in continental Europe, we're playing with Strike Anywhere there. We're coming to Australia. We did a song for the Nightmare Before Christmas compilation that's out right now. It's pretty hilarious. People should check it out. It sounds like us trying to play Dillinger Escape Plan, so it's pretty awesome. I haven't heard the rest of the CD, but I bet it's pretty cool. I mean, trying to cover a Danny Elfman song, it's madness. Joe: It was by far the funnest and hardest thing we had to do ever. Tim: And don't ever ask us to do it again because we're not going to be able to duplicate whatever we did. That's about it. Check out our new video that we have for "Re-Education (Through Labor)" and the record's out, so go buy it.
Special thanks to Tim and Joe along with Dave from Next Big Thing PR.