Rise Against swap the political for the personal on album number seven, and Tim McIlrath explains the thinking behind TheBlackMarket: “maybe it’s a bit of a mid- life crisis”. By Andrew P Street.
According to Tim McIlrath, punk rock is more than a feeeeeelin’.
There are precious few things you can rely on in this world, but for a good deal of this century one could be certain that Rise Against would a) release an album every 18-to-24 months or so, b) said album would be an aggressively articulate takedown of everything wrong with the world, and c) the band would tour the absolute bejesus out of it. That’s been the case ever since The Unraveling appeared in 2001, but something astonishing happened in early 2013 after touring wound down for 2011’s savage Endgame: the band actually stopped for a bit.
“I think we’ve always been scared that if we ever slow down we’ll never get the momentum going again,” singer/ songwriter/guitarist Tim McIlrath explains. “It’s like any kind of endeavour: you have all these pressures around you and you don’t see the forest for the trees sometimes. This is the first time that we got off the road and instead of booking a studio we said, ‘Let’s go home. Let’s see our friends and our family and put our instruments down and go do other stuff for a year or so. Let’s take a little time to enjoy the fruits of our labours and get a little perspective’.”
It’s that last point that was to lead to the new album. After spending a decade and a half questioning the world around him, McIlrath found himself wondering about his own work. Was what they were doing actually… well, necessary?
“And I never felt that about the band before – we always just charged ahead like a freight train. This was one of those moments where we were like, ‘ Well, what’s our mark gonna be? What are we leaving behind? What do these songs mean to people, and how can we be helpful?’ The record is a little bit more about Rise Against than it is about the world.”
That sounds somewhat ominous – particularly when the lead single of the album is entitled “I Don’t Wanna Be Here Anymore”.
“‘I Don’t Wanna Be Here Anymore’ just came from that universal feeling of wanting to escape from a physical place, or a mental place, or something in your life that feels stagnant and you want to move on. That’s kinda the theme of that song. As it applies to the band, it’s about how I always wanna be something that is relevant and adding something to the conversation, never really resting on our laurels.”
He pauses for a moment. “It was also about how I don’t want us to become caricatures of ourselves, you know what I mean? I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, here’s Rise Against, this is what they do and this is what we expect them to do’. I think especially on this record I was thinking a lot about, ‘ Well, who are we? How do people see us? What do people want from us, what will they approve of or disapprove of, and what does that mean to our writing?’ It’s only when you cast off those preconceptions that you can write honestly.”
Of course, some that start down that rabbit hole end up getting completely lost. Start thinking too much about how others perceive you and you risk being too scared to move in any direction at all, surely?
“Absolutely, especially for a band like us: we dive into politics, we dive into the world, we talk about what’s happening to the less fortunate and real issues – not backstage dressing room issues,” he scoffs. “I like to think of our band as a mouthpiece for change and awareness and important stuff. And when you think about that it makes everything else seem really petty and small, like any issue in your own life. That I live in a place where I have the luxury of being an artist – that’s an incredible thing and I never take it for granted, and it really made me never want to address the internal strife that I was feeling as an artist.”
McIlrath didn’t want to turn Rise Against into The Tim McIlrath Precious Special Feelings Show, but at the same time he knew that if this was what was on his mind, this was what he had to write about “…because when I write about anything else, I’m kinda faking it. I have to get things off my chest [via music] and for the last decade these things have been more societal. They’ve been bigger, more worldly things. And right now this is where I am, so I needed to write about that. And that’s where The Black Market kinda came from.
“We’ve been a band for 15 years and going into our seventh record I was looking inward a lot more on this one. Maybe it’s a bit of a mid-life crisis, facing mortality type of thing,” he laughs.
That being said, he didn’t realise that was the direction of the album until quite late in the piece – specifically, when he came to write the title track.
“WE DIVE INTO POLITICS, WE DIVE INTO THE WORLD, WE TALK ABOUT WHAT’S HAPPENING TO THE LESS FORTUNATE AND
REAL ISSUES.” TIM MCILRATH
“I THINK WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN SCARED THAT IF WE EVER SLOW DOWN WE’LL NEVER GET THE MOMENTUM GOING AGAIN.” TIM MCILRATH
“The song ‘ The Black Market’ – that was the one where the light bulb was going off in terms of the ideas behind the record, for me,” he explains. “I was reflecting on the band and what we do as individuals and where we sit in music and what we do with our time and how we make a living, and it struck me that, as a songwriter, I expose myself for a living. I dig deep down into these – at times – quite dark places, you know what I mean? As an artist you can find the angst and the sorrow and the anger and you turn that into a song, and you create this product that people will then be a part of. And I thought about that as such a weird transaction: to traffic in emotion. Hence, ‘ The Black Market’.” So that was the album’s Eureka moment? “It was exactly that. But it kind of came at the end for me, to be honest. It was only when I pulled back that veil, only then did some of the pieces really fall into place. I’d been spewing these words out in kinda the same way that you might make an abstract painting, it’s just kinda subconscious, but when I wrote down ‘ The Black Market’, it was like, ‘Ooooohhhh: this kinda sums up what I’m feeling and it’s something I feel like people can chew on. There’s a theme here’. And then I was like, ‘ Well, this is it: this is the record, this is what the cover’s gonna look like, this is what this record’s gonna be themed around’.”
Given the question of outside perception, was the decision to turn the camera inwards a little fuelled by fear of covering the same ground as previous albums?
“You know, there was that. After Endgame we toured for a good two years and everything went really well and we were ready to take some time away from the band – I put the guitar down for months – because we’d been hitting it pretty hard for the last six records and 15 years. So coming back to it I had a little perspective. I didn’t want to write Endgame Part 2 – I wanted to write something that was equal but different. And I realise I’m so close to it that perhaps what I think is different, but I feel like when we came to a few of the crossroads on this record we tried to make an effort to take a different direction than we’d normally go in.”
It’s worth making clear that while The Black Market is the band’s most personal album, that term is a very relative one. By any other band’s standards it’s still a fiercely political album. Look at the song titles: “The Eco Terrorist in Me”, “Methadone”, “The Great DieOff”… y’know, Taylor Swift it ain’t.
“You’re right, there are moments on there. There are songs on there that will be hard to ignore, and are still about the world. I can’t help but write about that stuff.”
Despite all of this going on in McIlrath’s head, don’t imagine this was some carefully planned out concept record. The actual album really didn’t come together until the last minute, with “The Black Market” being the final song written for the disc.
“We were still working on stuff in the studio. We probably wrote 25 songs for this one, whittled it down to the 12 on the record, and I was still writing a lot of the lyrics as I was singing ‘em. It was all kinda spur of the moment: we didn’t really go in completely prepared and knowing how things were going to go. It was a really fluid process.” It’s a surprise, given that the album sounds so coherent as a single piece. “We fooled you then!” he laughs. “They were just floating ideas that we were grasping at. The process has changed over the years: we used to go in [to the studio] with the record completely done, we’d probably demoed it a couple times, because we only had a little money to even afford a studio. So we went in well-practised with everything down to a T. And as years went on we went in not as prepared, which is part pure procrastination and then part of it was taking advantage of the studio and what it has to offer and the ideas you can come across in that space that you may not come across elsewhere – that energy that you get when you’re under the gun.”
It’s also a testament to the band’s stability since 2008: after a revolving door of guitarists in the early years, Zach Blair’s been on board for the last three albums.
“Yeah, there’s a chemistry with the four of us – it’s the reason we are a band, it’s the reason we sound like we sound,” McIlrath explains. “By the time it gets to the four of us, once it’s out of all four of our hands, you have Rise Against. And it makes it so that we can stumble blindly into a rehearsal room with absolutely nothing, turn our amps on, set the drums up, look at each other and go, ‘OK, what’ve you got?’ and just start playing.
“There’s no grand complex formula behind it – our strategy has always been a lack of strategy. We just go into it the same way that we did when we were 15 years old, playing with our friends in a basement. For better or for worse we just go with our gut, playing whatever feels right in that moment.”
All of which leaves us with the obvious final question: so, isn’t it about time Rise Against actually, y’know, popped by?
“Oh, it’s been far too long,” he says, with feeling. “Australia somehow got lost in the shuffle last year. We’ve neglected Australia for far too long, and we have so many incredible fans down there. We’ve done some of our most incredible shows down there and we always look forward to getting over. It’ll be either the end of the year or beginning of next year.” Yeah, that’s what they all say. “I know!” he laughs. “But it’s already somewhere in the calendar. Honest.”