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Siren Song of the Counter Culture

Interview: Punk rock band Rise Against's frontman Tim McIlrath talks about the importance of preaching to audiences on the opposite side of ones political views.
 
 
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When they made their entry into the saturated world of punk rock, Chicago's Rise Against had humble goals: play some shows, put out a few records and maybe, if things went well, book a show at their city's famed (but smallish) Fireside Bowl. Four albums later, they find themselves signed to Geffen, playing amphitheatres as a co-headliner on the Warped Tour -- still the premier punk festival each year -- and being widely considered as one of the heaviest hitters in their genre.

Rise Against have long encouraged social activism, and have walked the walk by involving themselves with Punkvoter and PETA. Their latest video (" Ready to Fall") features a gut-turning parade of footage, from factory farming to stripped forests to melting icecaps. Frontman Tim McIlrath blends the political and personal in his songs; some are fiery anti-government inciters, others are straightforward stories of fractured relationships and lost love. If there is a thread connecting the bulk of the Rise Against catalog, it is simply "The time to change is now."

There comes a point, though, when increased popularity can result in preaching to the converted; few fans at a Rise Against headline show are going to be surprised or challenged by the band's beliefs. For McIlrath, this is one of the great perks of the Warped Tour, and their co-headlining tour with Thursday this fall: having to prove themselves to an audience that may not always be starting on their side.

WireTap: What do you think has helped Warped keep from fading away or falling apart like the original Lollapalooza and so many festival tours after it?

Tim McIlrath: I think [tour founder Kevin] Lyman really respects the fan, and that's important. He keeps bands on there because they are credible and he likes them and the real punk fans like them, instead of filling the lineup with the flavor of the week, top selling bands of the summer. People appreciate that and they come back.

WT: Some of the bands who have participated in the Warped Tour have enjoyed talking some loving shit about it, saying that the big appeal for everyone is that you can play a quickie set and get out of there and hang out with your friends. Is that a draw for you guys, too? What makes it a good fit for spending your summer?

TM: That's certainly a nice benefit of the Warped Tour. We've spent the last few years of our lives on the road, and when you do that, there are so many people in your life that occupy these little snapshots of time. I'll spend six weeks with this one bass player from one band as we go across Europe, and we'll have a great time together and explore Austria and Germany -- and then at the end of the tour, it's like, "See ya later." Sure, we'll keep in touch, but the nature of what we do is going to make sure that we hardly see each other ever again, unless we do a tour together. Warped Tour is this giant reunion of all these bands you've toured with; when you've toured for six years, you can't even list all the bands. Chances are, a lot of them are going to be on the Warped Tour. It's really cool, after the last kid goes home and the place shuts down, everyone hangs out by their buses and talks about all the stuff you've been doing -- this person got married, this person has kids, whatever. That's a personally gratifying part of the tour.

I like Warped Tour, too, because it's such a slice of life. You talk to so many different kinds of people. If we play a Rise Against show, I'll talk to Rise Against fans -- it's a fairly safe place for me to exist. The chances are pretty small that I'll run into somebody who doesn't like the band or is challenging something that we're saying. It's a fairly safe bubble, and punk doesn't survive in safe bubbles. On Warped Tour, you get people who are just walking in because it's a giant festival that comes to their town, or because they like that one band's song on the radio. It kind of reminds me of when we first started this band, when we were making a point to challenge a lot of people's thought processes. As the band has gotten bigger, we've kind of lost that challenge -- but Warped Tour brings that challenge back. There are Rise Against fans there, but when you're talking about a show with 20,000 people, the majority of people aren't Rise Against fans.

WT: So in addition to proving yourself to fans who might not know you guys, do you also get negative feedback?

TM: For sure. You get kids who hate your band -- or just hate what you're standing for, like, "Fuck you, I came here to have a good time with my friends, and to drink a lot of beer, and this guy is up here talking about the war in Iraq!" When Rise Against plays shows near military bases, that's always a good time. A lot of Warped Tour is like that. The couple years that we've done it, the fucking Army and the Marines have been out there recruiting. They'll sign kids up and give you free dog tags if you give them all your information. They don't really tell you what you have to give in exchange -- which, in reality, is all of your contact information, down to your dog's name, so they can haunt you for the rest of your life.

In St. Louis, it wasn't even guys from the Marines or the Army who were giving the dog tags and getting information -- it was all beautiful girls in tiny shorts and bikini tops. They were doing all they could to get these dudes to walk over there -- and kids were lining up to do it. You've got to give it to the Marines: they know how to market to the kids. It was so bad and desperate and disgusting and pathetic. They make it out as this big, amusing carnival of dog tags and whatever else, but the big picture is that they're signing people up to go to war. They're signing people up to say 'I'm willing to put my life in the hands of the Bush Administration. I will go wherever they tell me to go.'

There's such misinformation -- now you have Army recruiters being caught teaching kids how to fake high school diplomas. This shit is really happening. They're out there like salesmen, telling you anything they can tell you to get you to join. So when we go up and we have our half hour, we tend to make sure that the Army recruiters get a piece of our mind.

That's not to say that a lot of Rise Against fans aren't troops; I get e-mails from Iraq every day. I've been told that there's an Iraqi radio station that plays Rise Against. It's been really cool to hear from these troops, and I completely and obviously support all the people in the Armed Forces. These are our brothers and sisters. I just don't think it's appropriate for recruiters to be at a place like Warped Tour.

WT: Did they have the same presence this year as in years past?

TM: While they weren't a constant presence, they did show up from time to time to conduct the ever important chin-up contest. The times I did see them this year, kids were passing them right by. I think the current administration and the pathetic, misguided and ongoing war in Iraq is doing more for the anti-recruitment effort than we could ever hope to do.

WT: Is your co-headlining tour with Thursday this fall a continuation of the challenge you face with Warped audiences, or do you see their fanbase as being pretty in tune with what Rise Against stands for?

TM: I really think that Thursday and Rise Against exist on the same wavelength -- and, for that matter, so does Billy Talent, who will be joining us. Thursday have songs that challenge society's idea of sexuality and women's empowerment, and I think their last record was pretty damn political, actually. We come from the same world, Thursday and us, and I've always known that they are here for the right reasons.

WT: In those cases when people in the audience do react against you, do you think that stems from the content of the songs, or what you may be saying between songs?

TM: I think there are a significant amount of people who listen to music as background and only skim the surface of certain songs without digging into their meaning. Maybe they just like the way it sounds, or maybe they just really don't care what we're talking about. Sometimes, live, I will put the song into context be prefacing it with a statement, and then somebody realizes that the song they've been working out to or just driving around listening to is really something meaningful and important, and perhaps that rubs them the wrong way. I figure if people aren't being challenged, then we're not doing our job.

WT: When we spoke around the time of your last album [2004's Siren Song of the Counter Culture], you were saying that a silver lining of the Bush re-election was that people had woken up and realized that challenging or questioning the government was more of an American activity than an anti-American one. Do you think that people have stayed awake?

TM: I think that people are becoming awake. In the punk scene and hardcore scene, people were against the war and asking questions from the beginning, and I remember getting so much shit about questioning the war. Everybody was ready to attack us, everybody was ready to challenge us -- 'I can't believe that in a time of national tragedy that you would question our government.' In those first few years after 9/11, I really felt that we were in the margins, and that our position was really radical. The punk/hardcore scene was at the place that the American public is getting to now. People are waking up to it. Being against the war is no longer a thing that's going to get the windows of your car smashed. When the war started, we got a lot of crap about the cost-of-war counter and the anti-militaristic stuff on our website -- we don't get that crap anymore. It's been interesting to watch the sea change.

WT: While the costs and the casualties are obviously mounting, the core reasons that people are anti-war now are pretty much the same as they were in the beginning. Could the position have been better explained at an earlier time, or was the majority just not ready to hear it?

TM: 9/11 hit the American people so emotionally, and when you're hit with something that's so emotional, it affects your decision-making process -- whether it's your girlfriend breaking up with you or terrorists bombing a symbol of your country. You make rash decisions. You jump to conclusions. It turned a lot of Americans into overzealous patriots who weren't willing to look at 'Why are we bombing? Who did this? What's the best course of action to rectify this?' Everyone got trigger-happy and blood-thirsty. We were gonna get our man -- and of course we haven't even gotten that man yet. I think it also gave some people a reason to act on their violent or racist inclinations.

But people are starting to change, starting to realize that they did jump to conclusions, and that the attack on the Trade Center was retaliation after years of corrupt American foreign policy. That in no way justifies it -- nothing would ever justify it -- but it looks at the cause and effect.

WT: There was definitely a time when people were pariahs just for saying, "Hey, maybe we should think about why this happened."

TM: Yeah, the atmosphere has really changed, and it would be nice if the general way of thinking continues in this direction. Maybe in the big picture, they'll look at the Bush Administration as being such a shitty, shitty administration that it caused America to hit rock bottom and make some changes. If there's any sort of positive impact that the Bush Administration makes, maybe that'll be it. (laughs) He did such a bad job that people finally turned against the right wing.

Adam McKibbin is an editor for TheRedAlert.com.