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Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath: “I Don’t Want To Just Sing About The Symptoms, I Want To Sing About The Actual Disease”

Chicago modern punk icons Rise Against have been penning passionate anthems of informed resistance and rebellion for over two decades. With their home country slowly piecing itself together after four years of intensely divisive leadership and social disharmony, not to mention the crippling impacts of the pandemic, it is not surprising that Rise Against have a lot to say on their ninth studio album, Nowhere Generation.

What is perhaps surprising is the perspective that anger is being projected from and who it is directed towards. On Nowhere Generation, Rise Against turn up that signature anger, energy, frustration and urgency and use it to amplify the struggles and outcries of Gen Y and Gen Z, taking aim at generations of selfishness, corruption and economic recklessness that have resulted in these groups being on track to be the first downwardly mobile generations in modern American history.

In lesser hands, that intent could come off as disingenuous or opportunistic, but for a band that has always looked to connect with and empower their audiences’ voices, who also happen to be parents of teenagers themselves, it is as genuine, fitting and effective as any of their previous rallying cries.

We jumped online for a chat with vocalist Tim McIlrath for an inspiring chat, covering the origin and inspiration of the record, Rise Against’s expansive career, punk rock parenting, the normalisation of the concept of the working poor, working with Bill Stevenson and their plans for the post-Covid-19 vaccination world.

MF: G’day Tim, how’s this crazy thing known as existence treating you today?

Tim McIlrath: So far so good!

MF: Excellent to hear, now Rise Against have been pumping out these anthems of informed rebellion since 1999, so you’d be forgiven for losing the passion for the good fight, but your new album, Nowhere Generation, shows that the resistance is still strong in the Rise Against camp, how do you keep that fire burning?

TM: Yeah, well the world does a really good job of giving us fuel for the fire. So every time that we sit down to make a new record, we seem to find that the world never disappoints, when it comes to the amount of things that need to be sung about!

MF: Well, this time around, what was it specifically that lit the initial fire?

TM: You know, first it was just being alive as an American living in the Trump administration. As a political punk rock band, it was a lot of easy stuff to sing about, a lot of low hanging fruit, so to speak. If you can’t sing a song about being an American in the year 2019, as a punk rock band, then find a new job! When I thought about it more, I realised that what I didn’t want to do was just be singing about a particular moment in time or the headline-grabbing stuff, I wanted to sing about and investigate, what got us here? How did we get here? Why do we, as a people, feel like this? Why would somebody feel that someone like Trump was a solution? How would they get to that place in their life?

Then that got me thinking about the younger generation, the world before. it got me thinking about very specific things like income disparity, or the concentration of wealth, the rise of the 1%, or institutionalized racism and gender inequality. Then I realised, oh, people are waking up every morning, with a lot of weight, a lot of fears and anxieties about what tomorrow looks like, that’s when I realised, I want to sing about that, I want to sing about the underlying issues. I don’t want to just sing about the symptoms, I want to sing about the actual disease. I want to sing about the source of why we are all feeling like this. That’s where Nowhere Generation came from, what does this younger generation feel like and what do they want people to know about how they feel?

MF: As a member of Gen Y, I have to say that a lot of the content on this record really hits home with me. It’s like you’ve been eavesdropping on my internal monologue! So I have to say it is refreshing to hear someone a little bit older and with a more prominent voice that might actually get listened to, going out and publicly addressing the reality of the situation that the bulk of our generation and the generation below us find ourselves living in.

TM: That was the goal, it was a combination of interacting with our own community of fans who are oftentimes younger than me and listening to their complaints and realizing there was something different about what they were saying to our generation, and that they were all saying the same things. Then also being the father of two teenage daughters, I’m watching them grow up in a world that looks and feels very different to my experience. So when I put pen to paper, I realised that we need to stop dismissing these complaints with millennial jokes, and start lending an ear to them and give those complaints and concerns a place to exist.

MF: One thing that hits home particularly hard is the idea that we’re on track to be the first generation to be worse off than our parents in a long while, and the impact that has on our ability to aspire to the classic American/Australian dream. It seems like for most now the dream is survival, which for countries as rich as ours, shouldn’t be the case. Surely with all this knowledge and wealth, we should be aspiring to ensure everyone is born on second base?

TM: The USA has normalised this idea that you can work a full-time job and still be living below the poverty level. When I grew up, you could be a single income family and live a middle-class lifestyle, and now you need much more than that to get by. We’re looking at downwardly mobile generations for the first time in a long time, instead of upwardly mobile. We’re looking at a lot of instability. Whereas I grew up in a time of a lot of political stability and social and economic stability. There’s a lot of things happening and the first thing we need to do is acknowledge them so that we can address them and make actual progress.

MF: One thing that’s been particularly eye-opening to me of late is the extent to which regular people seem willing to defend a company or organization that blatantly rips off their employees in the name of profit. The comment sections of articles and discussions on cable news everywhere are full of people fighting ideological battles about workers rights and the value of labour, but doing so on the side of corporations, not the workers. How the hell did we get here?

TM: I feel like every successful society in history has been some hybrid of capitalism and socialism, right? There’s always some recipe where both of those things exist. Then what we do as humans is that we wrestle over the ingredients and measurements in that recipe. Should we have more capitalist ideals and less socialist ideals? Should we have more socialism in our systems and rely less on pure capitalism? Should we be splitting the two right down the middle, that kind of thing? And so we’re going to continue to wrestle that.

Someone who had a really good experience with capitalism is always going to defend it, and then someone who had a really bad experience with it, or someone who is disenfranchised by institutions that disadvantage you because of your race or your gender, they’re gonna have an issue with a system that only answers to shareholders and makes profit out to be the only God that people should worship. There are flaws to capitalism that should be and can be acknowledged, and they can even be addressed. We have that capacity. When you know that we don’t live on a level playing field, then we should be able to start to move forward.

MF: Exactly, and there’s so much opportunity. That’s the thing that always frustrates me sitting here as a fellow punk rocker, the thing that annoys me is that people never see the opportunity that’s in front of them to make a system better, to improve upon a system and give more opportunity to more people at really no cost to yourself.

TM: That should be the goal, creating more opportunities. It feels like people think that addressing the issue of capitalism means giving everybody a handout, or giving people [help] who don’t deserve help, you know? Or just giving them free money, that kind of thing. But it’s not about that at all, it is about what you just said, creating opportunities for people to grow and prosper. In order to create those opportunities, you have to understand that someone growing up in Uganda right now, doesn’t have the same opportunities or resources as someone growing up in my hometown of Chicago, and then even someone growing up on the north side of Chicago, has different experiences and opportunities than someone who’s growing up in a lot of the underserved communities in the south side. The world is complicated, and we all don’t start on the same base. Addressing that inequality of opportunity is the only way forward from that.

MF: For Rise Against, the lines between the personal and the political in your music have always been blurred, as they are for most people. You did touch on the fact earlier that that’s particularly true at the moment, as you have teenage children. Have you found that it feels more important to you now to use your platform than it ever has been before given that you’re now fighting the battle for your own kids?

TM: I think that urgency has always been there, I’m just seeing it a lot more in literal terms. The future has always been something that’s on my mind and on the minds of our fans, I’ve always wanted to write songs that connect with people in a way that gives them a place to feel hope when they put our music on their headphones, or if they physically come to a show, a way to give their emotions a voice, and through that process, make each other all feel a little less alone.

MF: There’s a lot of loneliness in the world right now too, coming off the back of the lockdowns, which leads me to ask that as a band that has made a career out of being road dogs, what has been being stuck at home for a year, without any tours or shows been like for Rise Against?

TM: It’s probably different for all four of us. We live in different parts of the country. For me, specifically, oddly enough, I wound up going back to school. So I was in university for most of the lockdown, which is something I always wanted to do. After finishing the album Nowhere Generation, I had exerted a lot of energy, and I wrote a lot. So I was kind of doing a lot of output in my life, you know, and I was ready for some input. I was ready to shut up and let someone else do the talking. So I ended up becoming a student and became a sponger for new information. That has kept me really busy, like, too busy sometimes, you know? At times I was like, “I can’t believe I voluntarily signed up to stress myself out about writing papers.” But, I did and that describes a lot of my downtime.

MF: Well, that’s a really productive way to use the gift of downtime. I mean, I know a lot of people who just drank a lot and played video games, so getting more educated seems a healthier way to spend that time.

TM: Don’t get me wrong, I still watched everything on Netflix and I still played a lot of video games and all those things.

MF: Yeah, well that is an amazing thing, about being off of the road, isn’t it? You realize there’s a lot of time in a day!

TM: There’s a lot of time in a day! In my adult life. I’ve never been home this long. I’ve been gone since the band started 20 years ago. I’ve only been home for pockets of a few months at a time.

MF: Now, I’ve been around supporting your band, since Revolutions Per Minute and I have to say this record is equally as angry and frustrated and energetic and urgent as that record and the few that followed it. I’m wondering if there was anything different that you did recording this time around that sort of brought that rage to the forefront?

TM: Hmm, you know, we were back at the same studio, with Bill Stevenson at the Blasting Room, and that feels very homey to us. Other than that, we really don’t have a master plan or a grand strategy, when we go in to do a record. We kind of just let it spew out of us and trust our instincts. It’s only when we step back and take a look at what we made that we become aware of what we were feeling or thinking at the time, and we discover the vibe that is tying the record altogether.

MF: Moving away from Nowhere Generation specifically and talking a little bit more about the band, in general terms, Rise Against are an arena-size proposition, which is a fairly rare thing for a punk rock band in the modern age. Do you see hope for other bands coming up now to reach the level that you are? Or do you think arena bands of the rock or punk variety are a thing of the past?

TM: That was a great question. I wish I had the answer for it. The world that we came up in is so different from the world that exists currently, as far as the music industry goes. So, I’m often at a loss to give advice to young musicians, because I feel like my experience was just so different. I can tell you about MySpace, but that’s about the endpoint of my relevancy.

We grew up in a different world, where we passed out demos and CDs. So will this world create arena-sized punk rock bands again? I hope so because I think the reason that we are able to be out here doing what we do is because we tapped into an audience that was hungry for our music.

I think that every generation creates an audience for punk rock, wherever you have disenfranchised people, who don’t feel like mainstream culture is creating what they want, then they’re going to find punk, in whatever version that term exists to them, and they’ll create their own meaning for the word that is powered by the same ethos, and that’ll snowball into something even bigger and more powerful than they could ever have imagined. So I hope so.

MF: I hope so too. Do you still get inspired by new bands these days? Are you still finding new music that’s inspiring you to continue this lifetime love affair with punk rock?

TM: Definitely. Sometimes it’s harder to find because you have to sift through a lot to find it, you know, but every year someone seems to come out with a unique take on something I like and I find myself thinking, “this is really cool, I like this, these kids are great and they’re going to have a bright future ahead of them”. So I’m still inspired by that.

MF: Now, obviously, touring will be back on the radar soon in the United States, now that you’re heading into a post-vaccination landscape. Are you looking forward to getting back out on the road? Or have you come to enjoy being at home with the dogs?

TM: I’ve definitely enjoyed being at home. I feel like that’s the paradox of the road. When you’re on the road, after a while, you’re like, “Oh, I can’t wait to go home”, and then when you’re home after a while, you’re like, “Oh, I got to get back on the road”, you know, you’ll have like itch? For us, touring has become a lifestyle and it is one that we’ve been living for nearly 20 years. The road is where a lot of my friends and family are. A lot of my community of people that I see that I see year after year, you know? And so having no access to that can be sad sometimes. So while I’ve enjoyed the routine of being at home, I’m ready to get back to doing what I do.

MF: That’s excellent to hear. We’re fortunate enough to have shows back over here already, on a local level. I must say the first time you get back on stage, feels amazing. We’re a much smaller proposition than you, but even at our level, you can tell that people have missed connecting with live music. You have a hell of a time awaiting you.

TM: I can’t even imagine what that moment is gonna feel like!

MF: Now, before I let you go, I’m going to close out with my trademark closing question, which is, essentially, if you could choose any song to start playing each time you went to the room, to announce your arrival. A song that says “Hi, I’m Tim! Pay attention to me, NOW, what song would you choose?

TM: Oh, man. I’m gonna say ‘Waiting Room’ by Fugazi.

MF: That is an amazing, amazing, song and one that the next person waiting to interview you is probably listening to right now.

TM : Absolutely, please check it out if you haven’t it’s a must.

MF: That was the first bassline I ever taught myself, at the tender age of 30!

TM: That’s a great first bassline, at that point, you may as well just put it down, and move on. You’ve cut straight to the top.

MF: Now Tim, it’s time to let you go back to being Tim from Rise Against, so thank you for taking the time to speak to Music Feeds and we all look forward to seeing you Downunder, once the government opens the borders.

TM: Absolutely. We are champing at the bit. We can’t wait to do it. As soon as they let us in. We’ll be there.

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