Interview: Rise Against
Sun, 14 Dec 2008 11:32:13
About ten years ago,
Monster Magnet vocalist Dave Wyndorf said something to the effect that the reason contemporary music sucks is because kids don't have to fear things like the draft and fighting wars in the Vietnamese jungle. Therefore, they have nothing inspiring to write about or rage against through the medium of music. Fast-forward a few years and enlisted men and women are in the throes of a war in the Middle Eastern desert that may or may not have an end in sight. This prevalent, global and social issue has given many rock bands something to rant and rave about. Chicago's Rise Against have always been a politically-charged punk band that has something important to say in its music, and Appeal to Reason is the type of album that reminds fans that music is indeed vehicle that can effect change.
Vocalist/guitarist Tim McIlrath spoke to ARTISTdirect.com, while in St. Paul, Minnesota on a show day. McIlrath was perusing a bookstore and reading submitted video treatments for the next single "Audience of One" at a coffee shop, but he graciously took some time out of his day to pontificate on Rise Against’s place in modern punk rock history and how music can make all the difference.
Rise Against have always been a band that encourages thinking against the grain and uses music to spotlight all the shit going on in our country. How does Appeal to Reason continue this tradition?
I hope for the day that there is nothing to sing about. I long to live in that world. But it's not happening. The reason I started this band, and the reason I still do it, is that I still open a paper and say, "Holy Shit! Are you kidding me? Is this really happening? Are people voting for things like Proposition 8? Is this America? Are we still in Iraq and in a place that people think a white versus a black president is a big deal?" There is so much to address through music. There is plenty we need to learn from. One of these wars will teach us not to get into another one, because we have amnesia about the previous ones.
How do you get all the elitist punk rockers and anti-corporate rock fans to still support Rise Against, since you’ve been on a major label for the past few albums?
It was an issue when I was 15-years-old for me. Bad Religion signed to a major label, and I was bummed. It's a natural thing to feel like you have discovered something and it's your little thing to keep in your pocket. When it's out and exposed to the masses, you no longer have ownership of it, although you never really did! But you feel betrayed and lash out at the obvious target, which is the band. I have no ill will towards those people who feel that way about Rise Against. I was that kid. It is a part of growing up, and it doesn't need to be bands that are the only ones who experience this. It can be a restaurant. You discovered it, and it was yours but then it gets popular and now you can't even get a table there. So you're bummed and hate people going there, hate the food, say the menu sucks when it still is really good or even better than it was before. It's a natural part of life. But I put my head on the pillow at night and know I have not compromised anything, so it's fine with me.
This is the third album for Geffen/DGC. What’s the one thing you've learned from the entire experience?
The blanket generalization that indie labels are awesome and major labels suck does not apply. Not all major labels are awesome. It is a case-by-case situation. We signed to a major, knew the risks and aren't blind to the history, like major labels crushing bands like Samiam or The Smoking Popes. So many of our favorite bands, like Jawbreaker, didn't make it on majors. Geffen is a cool label that gets us. The parts they don't get, they admit. But they let us do what we want to do. We have cool people surrounding us. It's been a pleasure to put three records out on Geffen. No one asks us to go back and write a single or to work with a songwriter or tells us what producer to work with. There are no shenanigans. It's been great. I have friends on other majors and they are having a nightmare of a time and are told to do all those things, or not to put lyrics on a record’s packaging because it costs more. But in the indie label world, the same things are happening. I thought indie world was safe, and then I have friends there who said their indie label asked them to go write a single and change their image! Are you kidding? An indie said that? The old rules don't apply anymore. Assholes are assholes, whether they run an indie or a major label. It's sheer luck and the role of the dice. You go with your gut instinct. How much can you know about the guy who signs your band when you've only known him a brief time? We got lucky.
“Assholes are assholes, whether they run an indie or a major label.”
You've said that you've learned more about Vietnam from musicians and songs from that era than you did from history books or classes on the subject. Talk about what songs on Appeal to Reason serve that purpose for your audience or generation.
I was talking about the song, "Hero of War," when I said that. It was written expressly with that idea in mind. It was a way to documenting what's going on, like other artists documented for their generation and for generations to come. I felt it was a service to kids like me. "Fortunate Son" or "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which are huge hits today, were songs that I learned from. Mass media brought that song to my ears. It was a great way to remind Americans or others around the world what was going on at the time. There are not many songs serving that purpose in 2008 or talking about what's going on during eight years of occupation in Iraq. That, combined with meeting active soldiers and retired soldiers at our shows and hearing those stories about what is going on on the ground amid all the bullshit, showed me the differences from what is really happening to what is happening in the news media. I just thought that this needed to go into a song. There needs to be more of these kinds of songs, so I figured, let's write one.
Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet said that contemporary music hasn’t been good because there was no catalyst in the world, like the Vietnam War, forcing powerful music to get made. Now there are rich subjects and resources to mine for music! You clearly understand that.
Music was authentic counterculture then. Today, people are trying to get rich and famous by any means necessary and that means don't piss anyone off, remain as neutral as possible and get your music out to all audiences. People worry that taking a stance could affect record sales, and therefore, they don’t want to come out as pro-war or anti-war. That thinking wasn't in Neil Young's mind.
It's like many bands are willing to dilute their music. Rise Against doesn’t do that. Is there any unifying theme or concept to Appeal to Reason?
All of our songs are "that" song that we won't dilute. They always have been. I've never written a song, until "Hero of War," with a specific goal in mind. People have skimmed over Abu Ghraib and don't talk about it anymore. I want to remind people of these events while they’re happening. Perhaps it’s a lesson or a document to learn from in the future.
How do you hope to look back at Appeal to Reason? Where do you think it will fit in Rise Against’s catalogue and career history?
I hope it's the spark that gets a generation of kids to start bands that are saying things. It seems like music is inundated with apathetic stuff and bands instead concentrate on ignoring rather than addressing the world. It's a domino theory, with bands like that. There's a place for pop bands singing about girls. There should always be those bands, but it is sad when every band on the radio is that band. No one is talking about the war in this climate. How can there not be people speaking out? A lot of it is a fear of having no audience. I hope our band can be evidence that there is an audience for it. We get attention because people like our band. I want kids to think that if they start a band, that a band like Rise Against can go out there and speak out, regardless of controversy, and that people respond to it. I hope that is our legacy. I want people to inherit that responsibility.
— Amy Sciarretto