AT THE DOOR
HOW ONE REPUBLICAN PRESIDENT HELPED RISE AGAINST BECOME A ROARING BEAST WHEN THEY WERE STRUGGLING TO MUSTER UP A VOICE.
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fetal position, but bands like Rise Against relish in the opportunity to charge through walls and rip out the heart of outdated social and political positions.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.”
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”