The Chicago quartet Rise Against doesn’t fit neatly into any pigeonholes. As ultra-melodic hardcore punks with a serious political consciousness, the musicians never were part of this city’s vibrant pop-punk scene or its venerated art-punk tradition.
For that matter, the foursome always has been more underground than many of the acts it’s shared a stage with on the Warped Tour, even though its last three albums have been increasingly popular major-label releases, and some peg the group as the next local band destined for the multi-platinum success of Fall Out Boy.
“In the weird musical landscape we have found ourselves existing in, we’ve always felt like a fish out of water,” vocalist Tim McIlrath says. “We’re a Chicago punk band that is all of a sudden thrown into the cage with all of these mainstream bands that we have nothing in common with. The more we ventured into that territory, the more we realized it was uncharted territory for us, and I felt like we should hold tight to the friendships that we made on the way.”
To that end, the group decided to record its recently released fifth album “Appeal to Reason” with producers Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore, the same duo that helmed “Siren Song of the Counter Culture” (2004) and “The Sufferer & the Witness” (2006). And though the new album is by far the most tuneful of the band’s career, rather than a conscious attempt at reinvention, it’s more the dedicated honing of a sound that’s been in place since McIlrath and bassist Joe Principe first formed the group in 1999. (The two have been the only constants through several personnel changes, and the current lineup is completed by drummer Brandon Barnes and guitarist Zach Blair.)
“We weren’t trying to reinvent anything, we were just trying to make a good record,” McIlrath says of the new disc. “There are no plans to what we do; we just kind of bang out the song. As it was happening, there wasn’t this sense of, ‘Oh, we’re creating something great and life-changing.’ We just had the feeling of, ‘Oh, we’re doing this the right way and the way we want to do it with the right people.'”
Rise Against is uncompromising in its leftist politics: “There is no middle ground, no compromise, we’ve drawn the line,” McIlrath sings in “Collapse (Post-Amerika),” the opening track of “Appeal to Reason,” which takes its name from a socialist/agitator newspaper from the turn of the last century. “Rise Against is a Noam Chomsky band in a Hot Topic world,” the Washington Post declared, while the New York Times concluded that the group’s “relentless earnestness is both a defining factor and a limitation.” But these observations slight the strength of the melodies–the lyrics could be gibberish and the songs would still be inspiring and unforgettable–and the fact that the socio-political observations are far above bumper-sticker sloganeering.
Witness “Hero of War,” a haunting tale of a patriotic soldier who winds up brutalizing the people he’s allegedly liberating.
“That song was inspired by a documentary called ‘The Ground Truth,'” McIlrath says. “It was all about soldiers returning from Iraq and dealing with post-traumatic stress and the things that happen to them when they re-enter civilian life. Telling those stories and coming to terms with what they did over there during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan… the documentary was just so moving. I remember watching it and picking up the guitar right there and putting those thoughts out–just summing it all up into 3 minutes of song.”
McIlrath proudly notes that the band’s fan base boasts a large number of servicemen, and that two members of its road crew are veteran Marines. “So much of it is intertwined in our lives that I felt that song was necessary to document what’s going on in these kids’ lives–and I do mean ‘kids.’ We have gotten to know the Iraq Veterans Against the War, and they have been coming out to our shows. Yesterday, a 22-year-old was telling me how he was hit with shrapnel seven times. He’s out of the Marines, he’s only 22, but he’s lived an entire life: He’s fought a war, survived seven near-death experiences, and he’s barely old enough to drink.”
As with many of the best anti-war anthems or political rock in general, Rise Against is at its best when it’s focusing on the most personal stories. But do fans care as much about the message as the music?
“I think so,” McIlrath says. “If I only had one kid walk up to me during the last eight years and say, ‘Your band has really challenged my thinking process and made me confront different issues in my head; it’s inspired me, changed my life and made me want to go into the Peace Corps or start a band of my own…’ If I only had one kid that said that, it would all be worth it. But the fact is that I’ve had thousands of kids say that to me, and that’s amazing.”
Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, the Gaslight
7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Nov. 20-21
Congress Theatre, 2135 N. Milwaukee
MORE WITH RISE AGAINST’S TIM McILRATH
Here’s the full transcript of our recent interview.
Q. Let’s start by talking about the new album: Does it feel like a leap forward?
A. You know, it only feels like that when I start to get the reaction from people–when others start to digest the record. To me it was kind of… I didn’t feel like we were doing anything different than we have ever really done. There are no plans to what we do, we just kind of bang out the song. As it was happening, there wasn’t this sense of, “Oh, we’re creating something great and life-changing.” We just had the sense of, “Oh, we’re doing this the right way and the way we want to do it with the right people.”
Q. So there were no particular goals going into the studio?
A. Right. We’re not trying to reinvent anything, we’re just trying to make a good record. Now, with the reviews coming in, they are saying “Oh, they have reinvented themselves!” It was never a goal of ours to do that.
Q. Tell me about making the record and these songs coming together.
A. A key part to it all is certainly the fact that we went back to Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore, who are the producers, and this is now our third record with them. They are really good friends of ours, and they’ve become like an extension of the band. In the weird musical landscape we have found ourselves existing in, we feel like a fish out of water. We’re a Chicago punk band that is all of a sudden thrown into the cage with all of these mainstream bands that we have nothing in common with. You also get people who point you in the direction of producers that you also have nothing in common with. The more we ventured into that territory, the more we realized it was uncharted territory for us, and I felt like we should hold tight to the friendships that we made on the way. That certainly includes Bill and Jason.
Q. You count on them not to steer you in some direction you don’t want to pursue?
A. Yeah, they get it, but they are also not crotchety old-school guys who are like, “You must do this because this is the way it has always been done!” They are guys who are never just happy with what they did last month; they want to push it every time they do a record. They want to progress and get better and better at what they do. They’re open to that sort of progression that we ourselves as a band are open to. It’s a good match.
Q. Do you feel strange getting lumped in with some bands, like when people say, “They’re a Warped band”? To me, you guys are old school punk in a really melodic way.
A. It’s funny, too, because in my mind, I have the stereotype of the Warped Tour bands. I never put us into it. So many people think that we’re from Southern California. “What part of California are you from?” Well, not any part of California: I grew up in Arlington Heights! It’s weird. People have a hard time even grasping that we’re not a West coast, frat-rock punk band. I think you’re right. We’re on tour with a band called Thrice right now, and it’s a progressive band doing amazing things, but they have been lumped into the whole Warped Tour crowd. If you listen to their record, there is so much more to them. I think we’re only now in our career starting to graduate from that mentality. I honestly began to notice it only in the last few weeks just by the people who are covering us… the caliber of journalists like yourself. Jim DeRogatis is calling me; I must have graduated at some point!
Q. Well, I’m actually late to the party in writing about you guys. What I think is turning people’s heads is that there is a focus and eloquence on this album that is even above what you have done before. You sound like you were ticked off and had a lot to say, and you said it really well.
A. One of my concerns writing this record is that we have done many political songs and many political records, and I wanted to make sure that we could do another one without being too repetitive. I didn’t just want to sit down and write another song against the war. I feel like we’ve done it effectively–not that there could ever be enough songs against something like that, but I feel like we’ve done it. It was sort of taking the politics of what our band was about and our beliefs and our ideas and finding different angles to present them so that it didn’t become repetitive or so you didn’t think that you were listening to our last record again. That’s where songs like “Hero of War” come out: Take a look at this war, take a look at what’s going on there. Find a different perspective, a territory that hasn’t been crossed yet in terms of songwriting and this war is concerned.
Q. Do you think it makes a difference at the end of the day? Do you think that the average fan cares about what you’re saying as much as they care about the music you’re backing it with?
A. I think it does. If I only had one kid walk up to me during the last eight years and say, “Your band has really challenged my thinking process and made me confront different issues in my head, inspired me, changed my life and made me want to go into the Peace Corps or start a band of my own,” if I only had one kid that said that, it would all be worth it. The fact is that I’ve had thousands of kids say that to me or find some way of getting that message to me. It’s amazing. I’m here because of the bands that inspired me when I was growing up. They inspired me to do what I do. I see what we do simply as an extension of that. I think the generation before passed the torch onto us and now it’s our job to pass the torch to the next generation. We’re speaking a language and people understand that language.
Q. You know, the highlight of American punk was during the very worst of the Reagan years. Now we’ve had this resurgence with the Bush years, but what’s going to be left to sing about if Bush is gone?
A. It does certainly make sense that the Bush administration made for great punk rock. Like you said, the Reagan years were evidence of that, too. I think a lot of the ills of society that we sing about are a little more timeless than with the administrations. The administrations are just a symptom of a bigger disease and our songs are about the disease and finding a cure.
Q. You mentioned “Hero of War;” what inspired you to sit down and write that? It is a really moving song.
A. I’ll tell you exactly what it was: It was a documentary called “The Ground Truth.” It was all about soldiers returning from Iraq and dealing with post-traumatic stress and all kinds of things that happen to them when they re-enter civilian life. Telling those stories and coming to terms of what they did over there during the war in Iraq and Afghanistan… the documentary was just so moving. As moving as it is for some people to hear our song, that’s how moving I found that documentary. I remember watching it and picking up the guitar right there and putting those thoughts out. It just kind of came out and what I was doing it just sounding out a lot of the documentary into a song. Just summing it all up into 3 minutes of song and taking the stories they were talking about. One story in particular was a soldier from Chicago. I think the Sun-Times did a piece on him: He got sent over with the Marines, but his mother was an activist against the war.
Q. Was this the soldier who lost his leg?
A. No, but that guy went to my high school, believe it or not.
Q. Have you heard from veterans about your songs?
A. Oh, yeah. You’d be surprised how many people in the Armed Forces reach out to us, from all over. I’ve talked to a lot of fans who were coming back from Iraq, and some who were going over, and our show was one of their last nights in town. I got emails from guys who are out there right now in active service who are telling me what’s going on. I got emails from a kid who fled the country and who is living in Canada right now. I’ve gotten emails from kids who are thinking about signing up, too. So the military is really such a big part of a lot of our fans. In fact, two guys on our crew are former Marines, our merch guy and our former guitar tech… and actually, our drum tech’s girlfriend was a part of the National Guard. She almost got stop-lossed and sent back to Iraq, but she fought it because she had an injury. So much of it is intertwined in our lives that I felt that song was necessary to document what’s going on in these kids’ lives.
Q. To me, the song showcases the soldiers who’ve been accused of brutalizing the people they’re supposed to be liberating, and it shows how they’ve been brutalized themselves.
A. Exactly! These people are victims. So it’s very interesting… I get a lot of email from the military as well as kids saying, “Thank you for that song.” Or people who don’t even make it past the first chorus and who are p—ed off: “How dare you talk about the military in this way?” Also, in the process, we have gotten to know the IVAW, the Iraq Veterans Against the War, and they have been coming out to our shows, and we’re getting to know these kids. And I mean kids! This 22 year old yesterday was telling me how he was hit with shrapnel seven times. He’s now out of the Marines and he’s only 22. He’s lived an entire life: Fought a war, survived seven near-death experiences, and he’s barely old enough to drink. If you talk to him, he’s got shaggy hair and and a lip ring. I’m like, “What? You?” He was telling me how he had to carry a 100-pound backpack… It’s just amazing what these kids deal with and the fact that they come home and are able to function at all is amazing. Some of these kids as they are talking to you are shaking. We had a kid back stage the other day and as everyone was packing the stuff down, which is a pretty loud process, we heard something slam and he jumped. I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe how these kids are still dealing with this stuff!” And it’s hard for them to be tabling with the IVAW because what that does is force them to talk about what’s going on over and over again. I feel guilty about it as a listener, because I want to know. I’m prodding them: “What happened?” But you can see this kid reliving it.
Q. Well, they say that the people who don’t talk about it are in the most trouble.
A. Right. It’s therapeutic in a way, but it also has a burn-out factor. After a while, they will say, “I can’t talk about it, I’ve had enough.”
Q. How do you think you guys fit in the bigger picture of Chicago punk?
A. Well, we’ll start with our bassist Joe Principe, who played with 88 Fingers Louie, who were a pretty influential pop-punk band. They were one of the first bands in the pop-punk scene who helped put Chicago on the map. So I think Joe in that sense is a focal point in Chicago’s punk history. Joe is a few years older than me; I was still the kid going to shows when Joe was playing and touring. I would go see 88 Fingers Louie and go, “Oh, it’s Chicago!” A little Chicago pride there, that they broke out.
Q. Well, this city has the ’80s tradition of bands like the Effigies, Big Black and Naked Raygun, which were really pretty arty, and only political in an oblique way. And then there was the ’90s pop-punk scene, with bands like Screeching Weasel, which weren’t political, either. You guys take a little from both of those schools, but don’t really fit into either. Nor, for that matter, do you have anything to do with Fall Out Boy…
A. [Laughs] Well, it’s definitely interesting to see that Chicago is known for its poppier side because of the bands that are coming out. If it doesn’t fall into the indie-rock category, it falls into the poppy-punk category, and we’re one of the exceptions to that rule. I started going to shows in the early ’90s, before there was a Fireside Bowl, when they were just everywhere. You had to get that flyer, that Chicago shows list and call the punk-rock hotline.
Q. Arlington Heights had one of the VFW halls that was popular for those kind of D.I.Y. shows, right?
A. Yeah. That was amazing, I stumbled into so many shows, literally stumbling in, seeing kids walking outside and walking into some band’s set, not even knowing who they were. So I lucked out in a way, but I remember back then that it wasn’t if you were hardcore or pop or all the other different genres of punk, it was all the same. It wouldn’t be weird to see the Queers playing a long side Los Crudos.
Q. Just getting a show to happen at all was a success!
A. Yeah! To see Cap’n’Jazz and some pop-punk band playing together, two completely different sounding bands that perhaps wouldn’t be playing with each other today. You had a pick of everything, and when I was kid, I did take in everything. I loved Screeching Weasel as much as I loved Los Crudos. I loved the political side, heavier side, and the punk-pop side of Chicago.
Q. Is that a reflection of what you guys are trying to do?
A. I think so. I think also when the band started there was a vacuum for a bank like us to exist. I remember going to so many Pegboy shows, and I was the kid with the shirt torn off his back, missing a shoe, covered in sweat. They would heckle us and we would heckle back, and I remember people flying everywhere, stage diving and going nuts. When Pegboy stopped playing as often. it was harder to find that show where everyone was going nuts. It was harder to find that vibe. My friends graduated to the Double Door crowd, and now they’re sipping beers and tapping their feet. I started to move onto that a bit too and found myself listening to different bands and going to different clubs, and then I started to really miss the sweaty shows. I started to miss the punk shows and stage dives and sing-alongs. I found myself yearning for that. and I couldn’t find a band that was like that, and that’s when I got really into the hardcore scene. But the hardcore scene got it right with the politics, but they got it wrong with the elitism and how stuffy it could be sometimes. So when Joe told me he was starting a band and that he wanted to make it a fast, melodic punk band like Bad Religion or whatever, I was like “Yeah!” Not only did I want to do it, but it’s what Chicago needed right then.
At that point, our ambitions didn’t reach outside of Chicago. Our goal was to maybe one day have a gig at the Fireside. But we felt that we needed to start this band if anyone else was feeling like we were feeling. We started it and we found that a lot of kids felt that way and were ready for a band like us. So it was fulfilling for us and the fans.
Q. Is it weird to look back now and think you’ve come such a long way now, with your third record on a major label, and all of this anticipation and talk about radio play and such?
A. It’s completely overwhelming. I can’t even look that direction. I can’t grasp it. Every now and again. Joe and I just look at each other and go, “Can you believe it?” When bands we used to open up for now open up for us, when the tables turn like that… we never honestly felt like the band would be going this far. The bands I grew up listening to at the peak of their career may have played Metro and maybe sold 30,000 records. To reach this point where my favorite bands, whether it is Hot Water Music, Samiam or Jawbreaker or Smoking Popes, when we reached that point, we were like, “Holy s—, we’re playing the same show as those bands did! We sold the same amount as this band!” And to keep going? When all of a sudden we’re selling more than they did or we’re playing venues that we never even went to as kids? Holy s—! What happened?
This is sort of the uncharted territory I was talking about before. It gets challenging because all of a sudden you don’t have the model to follow. Before we were just walking in the footsteps of the bands we grew up with, learning from their mistakes and just plowing ahead. Suddenly, when we broke out of that box, we were like, “Hh, now we’re going to places not many punk bands have gone before and survived.” It’s a little more of a tricky balance.
Q. So what happens from here?
A. I don’t know! I didn’t even know here would happen! I’m still kind of reeling from the rise that it’s been. I can’t even plan out anything else. I know certainly we’ve already met any goals we had.
Q. So now it’s all gravy?
A. Yeah! Now it’s all, “We can’t believe it!” I guess to me it’s all about maintaining relevancy. In the grander scheme of things, I hope we’ll pass it on to the generation that will inherit it. I hope that when we leave, in our place, perhaps from the way we did things, we’ll bring it into the next generation.