Rise Against are one of the world’s biggest bands to come out of the punk scene. Currently on tour in the UK supported by Pennywise and Swimmers, we caught up with lead singer Tim McIlrath to talk about the band’s maintained ideals and political beliefs, along with their roots in Chicago and new album The Black Market.
How did you get into punk?
I got into punk around junior-high through a lot of friends’ older brothers and sisters. They’d pass us mixtapes and stuff like that. A lot of the time the mixtapes weren’t labelled or anything, so we wouldn’t really know who we were listening to. I had mixtapes with bands like Fugazi, Naked Raygun, Screeching Weasel, The Subhumans and Jawbreaker. I didn’t know who any of the bands were so I’d just be like “oh I know this song, but I don’t know why I know it.” I actually didn’t realise it was The Subhumans until about five years ago when I was listening to them and I was like “how do I know all the words to these songs?” Then by the time I got into high school, a lot of kids were already into punk. That was how I connected to the scene and then I started going to shows. I grew up around Chicago, and Chicago had a pretty cool underground scene. You would just go show to show and get flyers to figure out when the next show was. The internet wasn’t quite a big thing yet. There was a punk rock hotline in Chicago where someone would leave all the shows on their voicemail and you’d just sit there with a pen and paper and try to write it all down. That’s how you found out about the shows, just by going to shows really. You’d walk into a show and there would be a stack of flyers by the door. If you missed a show you’d miss the flyers, though, so you wouldn’t know what was coming up. They were never in typical venues either, they were underground Veterans’ halls, or YMCAs.
Do you know what the Chicago scene is like today?
I’m like the last person to ask [laughter]. We’ve been touring a lot, we’ve been gone a lot. If I was a kid in Chicago right now as old as I was when Rise Against started, 21 or whatever, and I was listening to some 35-year-old guy talking about what the scene’s like I’d be like “you don’t know! You’re not here!” And it’s true, I’m not. I know a lot about the general punk scene around the world. There’s still loads of cool stuff happening in Chicago, though. There’s a cool punk scene, a cool hardcore scene and loads of scenes I’m sure I know nothing about. There will be loads of stuff I don’t know happening and there will be kids who will be taking our spot on the stage soon.
You mentioned the wider punk scene. What are your views on it? Are there enough political bands? Any issues which need attention?
I think there could always be more bands talking about issues, but I also think if it’s something you don’t feel passionate about then you shouldn’t fake it either. Don’t pretend to be a political band if you’re not. I think people underestimate the power of music and how it can be a force in a listener’s life. I also think people are afraid that political music might alienate their audience but if you look to bands like Rise Against you can see that’s clearly not the case. You can still put your opinion and ideas in your songs and people will still come out to see you. Maybe even just for that.
Yeah, songs like “Make it Stop (September’s Children)”, especially in such a scene which can be so macho at times, it’s great to hear bands as big as you talking about those issues.
That’s one of the main reasons we did that song. We knew we were in this scene which can be very macho, and we wanted a remedy for that. But you’ve still gotta have a good song, yunno? If it’s not a good song then nobody’s gonna hear your message. It’s important, if it’s something you’re passionate about then sing about it. But if you’re holding back your opinion or things you’re passionate about because you’re afraid of voicing your opinion, by all means don’t hold back. Just embrace that, because people know if you’re for real or not. Audiences are smart, people who listen to music are smart and they can tell if you’re for real or not.
Have you been happy with the reception to The Black Market ?
Yeah, I wasn’t sure what the reaction would be. I wasn’t even sure what I thought of this record, I was still like observing it all. It would go back and forth, I wasn’t sure if it was a throw-back to our old stuff or a brand new sound or is it much of the same. I had all these different feelings while we were creating the record, and the fact that it was confusing me so much I think was a good thing because I couldn’t put it in a box. And surprisingly the reaction has been mostly positive. People wanna hear the new songs live. It’s been really good so far.
It’s a very personal record. Do you think it’s easier to write in a specific way or just whatever comes natural at the time?
I think it’s whatever comes natural, wherever your head is at. And for me, we were coming off of Endgame  and I was at a place where I was thinking I needed to do a record which doesn’t just do what we did on Endgame. And I think having the time off between records too caused me to get a little perspective on this endeavour of Rise Against that we do and it allowed me to just take a step back and look at it from a distance and reflect on what Rise Against is. What is it besides four guys jumping around on stage? Is it something else which is bringing people to these shows? When somebody says they identify with Rise Against, what is it that they identify with? So in that sense the record turned into an introspective type of record, which is something we hadn’t done before. And that said, there is some pretty heavy political songs and issues on this record. I guess I just can’t steer clear of it for too long. It just ends up coming out of me. But yeah, it was definitely approaching the record from a different perspective on The Black Market. I think that allowed the record to be its own entity in terms of our catalogue.
What were your musical influences while writing it?
You know, I listen to a lot of metal which I don’t think comes out on the record. I listen to a lot of old stuff like Shades Apart and Quicksand and a lot of classic stuff like Samiam. I guess I’m just listening to all the bands I grew up listening to.
Have you got any plans for a solo record?
Yeah! Well, I always have plans but they always get steamrolled by the machine of Rise Against, which is fine. This where my heart is and my priority is, but just when I think I have enough time to do it I’m wrong. So yes, I’d like to. I have a bunch of songs I’ve written. Some of them just end up as Rise Against songs anyway. But I think it would be fun to put together a batch of songs with just me and a guitar, maybe some extra instruments. And I always have my eye on that, it just never fits in. Besides the band, we wanna go home, we have families and all that takes time away. I’m always trying and failing to balance all of it.
What are your favourite songs to play live? Are there any which really stand out in particular?
Favourite ones live are ones like “Survive” which we haven’t played recently, but we might put it back in. I’m enjoying “I Don’t Wanna Be Here Anymore” which is a new one we’re playing. “Make it Stop” is always a good time. “Long Forgotten Sons” is another favourite of mine, I don’t know why.
Is it hard putting together setlists at this point?
Yeah, it’s really hard. We’re actually gonna throw in a new song, we’re gonna play “Tragedy + Time” tonight, probably for the first time we’ve played it, ever. But we’ll probably have to cut something out to put it in. The venues have hard curfews, yunno? We have like seven records to try and figure out what to put in. People have their favourites and we wanna make sure that everyone has a good time. People do a lot to get to a show like this tonight, they pay a lot of money, we wanna make it their night. We come to a place like this, Sheffield, from very far away and it’s not like we’re playing here all the time so we wanna get everyone’s favourite stuff in. You have older fans and newer fans. It’s really tough. Whatever record you came into Rise Against with tends to be your favourite record, and we have our own favourites.
Looking back over your career now, which record would you say you’re most proud of?
Probably the latest one. For us it’s just still being here, so being able to create this record now and still feeling like we have something to say is awesome. I look at this whole thing and I’m glad we weren’t like a two-record band. We’ve had a good sort-of short career with some big songs. For me, now, it’s all about just staying here, being able to come back here. Being a band that’s been able to play venues like this, the Sheffield Academy, so many times, it becomes a sort-of home away from home. The fact that we have the staying power impresses me. As I get older the staying power of bands is important. For example, we’re out with Pennywise now. They have that staying power. They’ve been around for like twice as long as we have and that’s what I admire. You could write a good song and be a one-hit wonder this year and be on the radio but that doesn’t impress me. But a band like Pennywise – still be around here since the late eighties. That’s what impresses me.
So what are your plans for the rest of the year?
We go home from this and we have a handful of radio shows in the States. Then we take the holidays off. Then we just announced today that we’re supporting Linkin Park on their US tour coming up and we’re going straight from that to support Foo Fighters on their Australian tour. And then from there we’ll go to Hawaii. And then we’re talking about going to Japan too. So we’re busy throughout the spring and we’re starting to already figure out the summer. We also have a new video for “Tragedy + Time” coming out. In the meantime we’re just gonna focus on this tour here.