Tim McIlrath: A Newly Re-Energized Era For Rise Against

  • Photo: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic
    Tim McIlrath and Brandon Barnes of Rise Against

According to Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath, whose band just released the new album Wolves, last week, this climate of political upheaval is exactly the kind where the Chicago band thrives.

“This is a year in which our band has become sort of re-energized in a way that we haven’t in a long time,” he says. “There’s a conversation to be had and we’re a band that has never shied away from that conversation and we look forward to it. It’s something that’s laced in all of our songs, something we want to tap into.”

The band is taking that conversation to fans with two high-profile tours, one being a co-headlining bill with the Deftones and opening act Thrice, the second being their own headline dates, like two nights at the Shrine in Los Angeles, in between the rocking package.

 McIlrath sat down with the Recording Academy a few days after the start of the tour with the Deftones. As always, it was entertaining, intriguing and very politically minded.

Where are you today?
I’m in Long Island. I’m not sure if people say you’re in Long Island or on Long Island, but Long Island is where I am.

And it is already humid as hell there?
I’m from Chicago, so you gotta get real humid for me to really start feel it. I did 20 miles on a bike from Brooklyn to Central Park yesterday, so it wasn’t too humid for me. It was just enough to get out.

I know you are used to it because every festival I cover there gets rained out at some point.
(Laughs) I feel like Lollapalooza happens on the hottest day of the year. Festivals are those things featuring weather you have to deal with. Even on this tour we’re on now with the Deftones, the majority of these shows, all but two of them are outdoors, so we’re kind of at the mercy of weather.

The tour just started, correct?
Yeah, it started Friday night in Chicago, amazing show, amazing night. It was sold-out show in the hometown on the day of the record release. Then we continued in Detroit and then Toronto, all incredible shows. Now we’re out here in New York.

How did it feel being between Thrice and Deftones?
That fits great too. As the tour started I feel like it’s hard to explain to the audience what a co-headline tour is. It’s hard to explain to them we’re swapping back and forth. So I feel like there is an element of confusion when we go on stage and don’t do an encore because essentially us and Deftones are playing the exact same set length. So I want to stop and explain to the crowd, “Hey, this is both of our tour and we’re gonna flip flop. Sometimes we’ll go on after Thrice and sometimes after Deftones.” But either way it’s always a surprise who’s gonna go on after Thrice. So now that we’re three shows deep I’m kind of wrestling with, “Do we just do this and go for it or should we hold the crowd’s hand a little bit and let them know what’s going on?” I will say as far as the bands and the music it couldn’t be going better. They’re all good friends, guys we’ve all toured with, we all know each other, all the crew guys are kind of family. So right away from day one you just take a look around and you knew that you were gonna have a fun summer, it’s all no drama, it’s all good and bands that all kind of check different boxes. At least for me there’s no competitive vibe, it’s more like, “I love what you guys do, it makes me do what I want to do even better.”

How are you approaching this shorter set?
We’re each doing 60 minutes, we each have the same amount exact of time no matter who goes on last. We’re playing three new songs usually – “Wolves,” “Welcome To The Breakdown” and “The Violence.” And they’re actually going over super well. The crowd has immediately taken to these songs more than they ever have in the past. I think it’s partly because I hope they’re good songs and partly because we just personally love them. And when a band is personally excited to play something that shows on stage. We can’t really fake it, we don’t have the poker faces. When you see us excited I feel like that helps kind of sell the song.

How much are you enjoying the mix of your own shows with the co-headline shows?
I think it’s awesome because these short sets are fun and they’re a challenge to pack in the right songs. We also go up and let it out over 60 minutes. But just on the way to the venue we were talking about how excited we were to play our full set again. So by the time we get off this tour we’ll know exactly what to do with our full set.

It sounds like your batteries are recharged now since 2014.
This is such a crazy time in America right now. I want to be talking about this, I want to be singing about this. I’m glad that we’re able to now put music out that kind of reflects that change. I feel like there’s a delineation between, especially this country before the Trump administration and this country during the Trump administration, and I feel like there’s a lot more to comment on, there are a lot more fires to put out. For us, it was like a pivot in the message. I feel like Rise Against would have put out a different record had we not anticipated all this stuff happening. So we’re here now tapping into the friction that exists, and we’re gonna continue working on music and find something that tries to hit home with a lot of confused people out there right now.

I’m curious, this may be possible to answer, I don’t know. I asked Neil Young this same question—what is the greatest protest song of all time? Is there one? 
The one that hits home for me, maybe because you just said Neil Young, is “Ohio.” I love the song Ohio, I love what it’s talking about, and the story behind Ohio too is that Neil Young wrote it the second that he saw that happen—he was in the studio that day. So, you can kind of hear the urgency behind the message in the song, that he had to get it out there and talk about what was happening. It was probably the closest thing that Neil Young had to social media back then. You know, we need to put a song out right now, it needs to be talking about this immediately. So, “Ohio” is still a timeless protest song.

His answer was you can’t pick one because all of them are needed, so his was very diplomatic.
You know what the underrated protest song is? “Civil War,” by Guns N Roses. I was going through that song recently and just like, Axel talking about the war machine and Vietnam, you know, we think of Axel as this insane Sunset Strip nihilistic kind of guy, and there was a lot of important stuff that I certainly missed when I was a kid listening to that song, and it only hit me later. It was a message in here, it was a message that you weren’t hearing from hair and metal in the 80s, and it he would talk about it, which I thought was bold. Protest music is probably boldest where you least expect it. Like, if I’m singing against the Trump administration 2017 let’s say as the singer of Rise Against, it doesn’t really carry as much weight as if like Brad Paisley and Toby Keith start singing against the administration. They have the power to really be huge protest artists. It’s different for a basketball player to come out as openly gay than it is for say somebody in a more artistic scene in the world to come out as gay. There are bold and courageous moves that people make to different degrees. I look forward to artists making those bold and courageous moves.

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