AT THE DOOR

HOW ONE REPUB­LI­CAN PRES­I­DENT HELPED RISE AGAINST BE­COME A ROAR­ING BEAST WHEN THEY WERE STRUG­GLING TO MUSTER UP A VOICE.

Australian Guitar - - Feature - BY PETER ZALUZNY

There’s an al­most sad irony to the life of a punk mu­si­cian: their most in­spired work emerges when they have some­thing to fight against and when they have a mes­sage to spread. In other words, punk bands are at their best when the world is at its worst. The thought of such an ex­is­tence would make most peo­ple dive into the near­est cor­ner and roll around in the fe­tal po­si­tion, but bands like Rise Against rel­ish in the op­por­tu­nity to charge through walls and rip out the heart of out­dated so­cial and po­lit­i­cal po­si­tions. If it wasn’t for Don­ald Trump, their lat­est LP, Wolves, may not have packed the same po­tent punch.

In 2016, the USA had come out of a po­lit­i­cal pe­riod that the band agreed with for the most part. At the time, it seemed that some­one of a sim­i­lar ilk would be mak­ing their way to the White House and gen­er­ally pro­gres­sive at­ti­tudes would roll on. While happy, Rise Against were at a loss for where they could go next. Their job was far from over, but the evo­lu­tion of their cre­ative path wasn’t im­me­di­ately clear. Then sud­denly, seem­ingly out of nowhere, pol­i­tics in Amer­ica took a dra­matic turn and ev­ery­thing hit the fan. With that, the spark be­came an in­ferno, and Wolves emerged from the flames.

Now, let’s not mince words here: Rise Against are a proudly left-wing band, and the painful re­al­ity of a Repub­li­can pres­i­dency brought them back into ac­tion, but they flatly re­fused to write an anti-Trump record. That would be too easy, and be­sides, you don’t de­stroy an ide­o­log­i­cal moun­tain by tak­ing aim at the top. They wanted to in­spire every­one to stand up against the emer­gence of what they felt were re­gres­sive at­ti­tudes – sex­ism, racism, dis­crim­i­na­tion and ho­mo­pho­bia. These, and the grow­ing val­i­da­tion of such be­liefs, were in their scope.

Be­cause the man at the top? He’s a small part of the prob­lem, and Rise Against wanted to get un­der the skin of those that share his views be­fore they be­came the norm. They had to weaken the foun­da­tions be­fore the moun­tain be­came an Ever­est, and that meant tar­get­ing their philoso­phies. It was a grand plan, but the right one, as front­man Tim McIl­rath found when he was gear­ing up to shoot a video for the al­bum’s se­cond sin­gle, “The Vi­o­lence”. Just be­fore you head out to shoot the clip in Pres­i­dents Park – which is an area filed with old pres­i­den­tial busts – the lo­ca­tion’s board of di­rec­tions can­celled your per­mit on the grounds that the video was anti-govern­ment. That seems lu­di­crous, espe­cially in a coun­try where free speech is en­shrined in the Con­sti­tu­tion.

I guess as a band, we’ve had a few run-ins. Like, we’ve never had a spon­sor for one of our own tours, but we do play fes­ti­vals that are a part of that world be­cause we want our mu­sic to be heard. But we’ve had prob­lems with that: we were asked to play the US Army stage dur­ing the height of the Iraq war at a fes­ti­val some­where – they’d ba­si­cally spent money to get a foot in the fes­ti­val where they could try to re­cruit young peo­ple to fight in Iraq. So we called the fes­ti­val and said, “With all due re­spect, we’ll still play your fes­ti­val, but you’ve got to put us on a dif­fer­ent stage. We’re not go­ing to be un­der that back­drop.”

What hap­pened?

They got re­ally shitty. They called us un-Amer­i­can and said that we hated the troops. There was a DJ on the air say­ing, “If you’re un­cle is in the army, Rise Against hates your un­cle.” We saw the power of me­dia, ra­dio, na­tion­al­ism and trig­ger-happy pa­tri­o­tism, and how that power can turn peo­ple so eas­ily. I re­mem­ber email­ing Tom Morello at that point, too, be­cause it was re­ally stress­ful for us, and I was like, “Hey, this just hap­pened to us, did this ever hap­pen to you guys when you were play­ing in the ‘90s?” And he said, “Are you f***ing kid­ding me!? This hap­pens all the time! That hap­pened all through our ca­reer. Don’t be alarmed by this, it’s go­ing to hap­pen to you again so con­sider it a badge of hon­our.” Peo­ple were real­is­ing that our band has teeth – that it has claws and that it’s deemed as dan­ger­ous – and there’s some flat­tery in that.

So you feel the same way about “The Vi­o­lence” now?

I’ll be hon­est – when I found out we’d been shut down, my first emo­tion was pride. Rise Against is my baby, and to see that the baby was grow­ing up and still ef­fec­tive was cool.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing time to live in Amer­ica, to put it lightly. How did the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial cli­mate in­flu­ence Wolves?

I’d spent time re­flect­ing on what a Rise Against record could look like in 2017. We had eight years of fairly pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics – that cer­tainly wasn’t with­out its faults, but for the most part, we were see­ing things like same-sex mar­riage be­come a re­al­ity, and a draw­back of war and mil­i­tary power. I think a lot of peo­ple – in­clud­ing me – thought a pro­gres­sive can­di­date was prob­a­bly go­ing to win the next elec­tion, too, and it was like, “Where does Rise Against fit into that? What does Rise Against say in the wake of good news?” I was at a loss. I wasn’t ex­actly sure what we’d be hon­ing on, and then when the elec­tion pulled the rug out from un­der us, I was like, “Holy shit!” I couldn’t be­lieve it was hap­pen­ing. We were right back to the wood shed. It was like, “Okay, this is the era that Rise Against was built for.”

So the band is at its best when you feel things are at their worst? There’s some­thing oddly po­etic about that.

These kind of ad­min­is­tra­tions have al­ways been good for punk rock. We started in the Clin­ton era, we weath­ered the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and then went into eight years of Obama. Some­thing that it’s taught us is that ide­olo­gies are the things that sur­vive, and the ac­tual per­son doesn’t. The per­son – Trump or Bush – they’re just the symp­tom of a much big­ger dis­ease, and I don’t want to treat that symp­tom with these songs. I want to treat the dis­ease.

And you were in the belly of the beast while mak­ing Wolves, right?

We were in Nashville, Ten­nessee at the time, and Trump vot­ers were ev­ery­where. There were Trump signs in the fields that we’d drive by and in win­dows on the way to the stu­dio, and a lot of times I saw peo­ple just like me, but they felt like this was the re­course they needed to take, which made me re­ally think. In that sense, the re­al­ity of a Trump coun­try was a good place to put that record to­gether, be­cause I don’t want to live in that bub­ble or echo cham­ber where I only sur­round my­self with other peo­ple who agree with me. It was in­ter­est­ing to feel like the black sheep in that city, and to feel like my coun­try was go­ing in a di­rec­tion I didn’t recog­nise.

You’ve been at that cre­ative process for a while now – it’s been some­thing like 18 years since Rise Against started. How do you think age has helped you process and present po­lit­i­cal and so­cial sub­jects?

With age comes the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing there to ob­serve the au­di­ences’ re­ac­tion, and real­is­ing what works and what doesn’t work. Be­fore I started with Rise Against, I was play­ing in a lot of Fugazi-style bands. The lyrics I were writ­ing were more on the vague side – kind of artsy, maybe – and you’d be hard pressed to trans­late what I was try­ing to say. But when Rise Against got to­gether, my mis­sion was to make this shit un­der­stood – to hit peo­ple like a fist. Over the years, you fig­ure out how to make that fist, how to hit peo­ple the hard­est with it and how to get them to grasp what you’re talk­ing about. Rise Against is broad strokes: there’s no mas­sive in­tri­cacy to our mu­sic, and it’s not meant to chal­lenge the lis­tener. God bless the bands that are out there do­ing that – I love those bands as well, but we are not one of those bands. We’re just a mu­sic mus­cle, and we want that to be black and white.

It seems to be work­ing. Wolves is a real kick in the teeth.

It’s a re­sponse to the cur­rent rise of sex­ism and racism, espe­cially in Amer­ica, and peo­ple are at a loss as to how to re­act to it. I think there’s been a griev­ing process in the wake of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, and I wanted to take that and put it into more of an ac­tive process. I wanted to say some­thing like, “We are the wolves at the gate, not the peo­ple cry­ing about what’s hap­pen­ing in the world and feel­ing de­feated by it.”

What was it like watch­ing that un­fold in your own back­yard?

It was pretty shock­ing. I feel like a lot of peo­ple like me look at things like racism and sex­ism as these mon­sters that we’ve locked up in cages. While they still ex­ist, we live in a world that out­right con­demns them, for the most part. So to watch these mon­sters get loose – to watch the cages be un­locked – it was a strange place to live in. I felt like a stranger in my own coun­try, and it’s like ev­ery­body’s been given per­mis­sion to be an ar­se­hole. That’s what’s crazy, is how global it all is. It’s in Aus­tralia and it’s across Europe as well, and it makes you re­alise that hu­man­ity is con­nected. Bor­ders and flags only mat­ter so much when emo­tions and feel­ings trans­late across the globe.

Did the same gui­tars and equip­ment that you’ve used on pre­vi­ous records make their way with you onto Wolves?

All the gui­tars on Wolves were recorded en­tirely with the EverTune Bridge, as they were on TheBlack­Mar­ket. It al­lowed me, Zach [Blair, lead gui­tar] and the whole band as song­writ­ers to try more things with­out the an­noy­ing parts of keep­ing shit in tune, which slows you down. I could turn to Nick [Rasku­linecz], our pro­ducer, and say, “I have five dif­fer­ent ideas for the bridge com­ing up,” and with that gui­tar, I could record the ideas per­fectly in tune. With­out that gui­tar, we might have got­ten through two of them be­fore we’d both be burned out, so we’d say, “Screw the other three, one of these has got to be good enough.” That never hap­pened with the EverTune.

“IT WAS IN­TER­EST­ING TO FEEL LIKE MY COUN­TRY WAS GO­ING IN A DI­REC­TION I DIDN’T RECOG­NISE”

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