Rise Against | PHOTO BY LEANN MUELLER

BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Tim McIlrath is not just headlining Riot Fest this weekend with his hardcore punk group Rise Against, he is also a fan. Born and raised in Chicago, a city he still calls home, McIlrath remembers attending the homegrown attraction over its 10-year history, most notably a backstage moment after seeing NOFX and Screeching Weasel at the Congress in 2009. “That’s when [NOFX’s] Fat Mike was in his ‘Cokie the Clown’ phase, and when I leaned in to talk to him, the flower on his lapel exploded white flour all over my face.”

Riot Fest, though, is no joke, says McIlrath, singling it out as one of the best of the many festivals he’s played over the world. “I think [founder Mike Petryshyn] brought a Chicago mentality to the idea of festivals. The idea was always more about creating a lineup of artists the community wanted to hear and less about trying to figure out who was on the Billboard Top 10. Riot threw all those rules out the window and, because of that, it has an identity and credibility.”

The same might be said for Rise Against. In the past 15 years and seven albums (the latest, “The Black Market,” was released in July), the band has established respect as a hard-thinking, outspoken dynamo rallied behind the idea of the protest song. Even if not everyone agrees with their viewpoints on capitalism, war and human and animal rights on songs like their latest single, “I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore,” that hints at the violence in Chicago.

“It would be naïve of me to think everyone in the audience is on the same page as we are,” he says. “But the goal is to get people talking about issues. Music is at its most incredible when it’s used as a vehicle for ideas.”

It was something McIlrath saw as a fan growing up in the local ‘90s hardcore scene where there was a longstanding marriage of politics and music. “It triggered my interest. It wasn’t that I had this drive to learn an instrument or to be on stage but rather listening to bands sing about challenging subjects and using it to enact change was what cool to me,” he says noting that the band does donate a number of proceeds to the organizations they stand behind like PETA and Amnesty International.

And at the same time Riot Fest was getting off the ground in 2004, Rise Against was starting to see its ascension with its first major label release, “Siren Song of the Counter Culture.” The band had been kicking around as an independent act for five years prior, and even before that in predecessors 88 Fingers Louie and Baxter. They were playing Fireside Bowl, church basements and VFW Halls; Fall Out Boy was opening for them. There was barely an Internet then, no social media. But there was word-of-mouth, flyer plastering and a “punk rock hotline where you’d call in and the answering machine would give you a list of shows,” McIlrath recalls with a laugh. Soon Rise Against was the topic of a lot of chatter, and it took them beyond the corral of Chicago to an international fan base.

“I just don’t think we ever thought our voices would be heard as much as they are, those scenes we came from were so small and there was no delusions of grandeur. We never thought we’d be on radio someday or like sell out Aragon,” which they are close to doing with a Riot Fest preview on Thursday night. “It came as a shock to us; we used to talk about our ideas to small crowds and they just kept getting bigger. It’s not a challenge everyone is up for, but we are.”

RISE AGAINST

When: 5 p.m., September 11

Where: Aragon, 1106 W. Lawrence

Tickets: $39.50

Info: (773) 561.9500; ticketfly.com

*The band also headlines Riot Fest on September 12

Rise Against on YouTube

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