This week, Chicago political punks Rise Against are back in the UK charts with their ferocious eighth album Wolves, their first record for Virgin/EMI. Earlier this month, Music Week spoke to the band about their career to date as part of our special Rock Issue, detailing both their music and their socially conscious mission. Here vocalist/guitarist Tim McIlrath and bassist Joe Principe take us deeper inside the album, exploring its themes spawned from the current tumultuous American social and political landscape…
Considering how bad things feel in the world right now, lyrically, Wolves seems to be an optimism album. Is that how you see the record?
Tim McIlrath: “It is optimistic as opposed to being a sad record. The [US] election happened smack dab in the middle of our record, so a lot of songs were ready, but most of the lyrics had not been written so I had a pretty blank slate to work with in terms of guiding the theme of the record. In the wake of the Trump election, we were fucking bummed, people we knew were bummed, it was like a grieving process happening. There was a sense of shock and loss, a real defeatist attitude. To me, the song Mourning In Amerika popped out to me as a theme right then, but it was sad and depressing. We were in Tennessee, too, and people were celebrating Trump’s victory. It felt like we were a fish out of water; a stranger in a strange land kind of thing. I spoke to Joe about it and said, Fuck it, this can’t be a sad record, Rise Against can’t put a sad record out – we have to put out a record that’s a call to action, that’s going to charge people up and embolden them. Because that’s what this should be, this is a learning moment. Maybe it had to get this bad for people to wake up. Which I think is what then unfolds since November, too, you watch this incredible grass roots resistance to Trump’s ideas happening. That’s the silver lining, that’s the optimism. When you watch hundreds of thousands of people marching in a woman’s march, or environmental marches, all of this stuff. When you see that it’s like, Maybe Trump is making America great again – just not in the way he thought. I don’t care how people wake up. When you’re in a band that’s been trying to wake people for 18 years and they start waking up, even though it wasn’t us who woke them up, that’s fucking awesome. It’s kind of amazing.”
On an emotional level, is it hard to have a new album full of songs of hope and then have to play them in, say, the days after Trump has exited the Paris climate agreement?
McIlrath: “Yeah, absolutely. It’s shocking what’s just happened. I look at it more as a long-term thing. The short-term effect of something like Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement is awful. But the long-term effect? Those headlines and that action alone is turning so many people away from the Trump administration, away from the Republican Party, away from the ideology he represents. As a band, inherently, we play for young people. I always think about the influence we are on them. At the same time, I think about the influence of Trump. Without knowing it, he’s digging himself a hole and creating a generation of opposition. It’s not just him. He will go away; the ideology will remain – the voters will still be there. When he does go, the ideology will still be there. Even actions like [Paris] he’s just pointing out what an idiot he is, what a short-sighted, narrow-minded idea he is pushing, he’s making it very black and white to a whole generation of people and they are rejecting that. They will reject that. Even people who aren’t even voting yet and are growing up at a very impressionable ages are learning about the Paris agreement, the environment and what it means and what side they’re on.”
As ever, Wolves has a lot of political and social content on it. Precisely how much talking goes into an average Rise Against song – where as a group you figure out where you stand on everything?
McIlrath: “I trust that the lyrics are something that everyone will be on board with. It’s a combination of instincts; I know we are not four completely different people. And as a lyricist, I have to also be true to whatever I’m thinking at that moment so it’s not a compromised idea of my own passions. Especially on this record, it would take us an hour of venting before we even turned our instruments on.”
Joe Principe: “Every record we’ve done, I never really see a finished lyric until I’m doing backing vocals. But I think growing up as like-minded people of the Chicago hardcore scene, I have never, ever disagreed with a song Tim has written. I just feel like it’s this unspoken thing – we have the same ideologies, the same ways of thinking, the same beliefs, so it’s never been an issue…”
McIlrath: “It would be awkward if it was! At this point in our lives, we’ve spent half of our lives with each other. When we first started the band, we’d only spent one twentieth of our lives together. Now, it’s literally touring for almost 20 years. We’ve gone through four presidential administrations together in a van.”
One of your new songs is called Bullshit. What are you specifically calling ‘bullshit’ on?
McIlrath: “In general? Apathy. The whole first verse of that song is kind of in third person saying, Thank you for your silence, it lets me get away with so much shit - thank you for burying your head in the sand, because it allows me to do all these awful things. It’s the role of the oppressor, the guy trying to get away with something. Thank you for going back to your phone, and obsessing over TMZ stuff, because when you do that it lets me get away with so much shit as an oil lobbyist or a private prison lobbyist or people who are orchestrating military interventions. It’s sort of like, Stick to the script – recite your lines. Be the apathetic person we expect you to be. I think about that for Trump too. It wasn’t just the people who voted for Trump that put him in office, it was the people who didn’t vote at all. The verse represents that. Then in the chorus [I call] bullshit.”
How Many Walls deals with the subjects of both immigration and gun control. Did any specific events inspire it?
McIlrath: “A wall is sold as a solution, but when you actually extrapolate it it’s not a solution, it doesn’t solve any problems. Guns are the same thing. It’s presented as an antidote to violence. The NRA guy, in the wake of those horrific [mass shooting] events, would like to say the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. It’s like, Dude, bad guys with guns stop good guys with guns <<all>> the time – that doesn’t even make sense. It’s talking about that, because America has a really twisted, and fucked up romantic relationships with weapons, it’s this weird fucked up thing.”
Do you ever see that changing?
McIlrath: “I don’t know the answer. It’s one of those things that’s hard to come back from, we still can’t agree on the problem – or what weapons mean to the problem. The pro-weapon argument is that if everybody had guns we could all be Bruce Willis in Die Hard and we would all save the day, that’s what they really believe. America is really good at being so ethnocentric that we only look at our own borders, we forget there’s a world outside of our country. A world where universal health care is not this crazy, evil, fictitious idea that no one’s ever done before. In America we talk about that like it’s space travel to Mars, like it’s something no one has ever done before and it’s like, If only we had an example to look to! It’s really amazing, especially when you’re in London and you’re watching debates over universal healthcare. Do you realise, America, that you’re the only country in Western civilisation that doesn’t have universal healthcare? The only country that still debates the science of climate change? And that goes for gun rights to. Look to Europe, look to the rest of the world, their gun laws, their violence statistics, this is black and white research, but when you have the NRA, they just have so many politicians under… it’s a lot of power. And fear is such a powerful motivator – if you can scare the shit out of middle America and make them believe that unless you buy a 9mm black people will take over America. This is the insane fear that they push on Americans.”
Of the many things that scare you in the world right now, what scares you the most?
Principe: “I think, for me, it’s people that are unwilling to have an open mind. Even my own family members. I’m looking at it from a close relationship kind of way, where even my mother, for instance, is very conservative, and she just won’t hear what I’m saying. That’s scary, because then change… nothing good will come from a conversation like that, close-mindedness. That’s what scares me.”
McIlrath: “Even the idea that like, our kids will grow up in some kind of compromised planet. They’ll grow up and not be able to experience life the same way we all experienced life. The idea that they won’t travel to another country – and also because it will be so dangerous to do so. The idea that at a concert, like an Ariana Grande concert, they have to think about that when they’re there. I’ve been to those shows with my children, Joe’s been to them.”
As artists, do you have any fears about speaking out against Trump’s America and possible repercussions?
McIlrath: “We never felt pressure.”
Principe: “It wouldn’t faze us. It would make us go more into it.”
McIlrath: “Totally, I always feel like we’ll write something and I’m like, This is it – this will set off some red flags! And when it doesn’t it’s like, Fuck, I didn’t do enough!”
Do you get that feeling a lot?
McIlrath: “Yeah! If everything we do gets full approval are we failing somehow? Are we not trying hard enough? I can’t be a thorn in your side if I’m not digging in.”
Finally, what remains for Rise Against to achieve?
Principe: “The goal is to progress. For me it’s about topping personal goals musically. I was going to say no one’s going to write the perfect song but so many people have claimed that. For me, writing a song and having Tim sing to it and conveying the emotion, that’s my goal satisfied. That’s what I strive for. I don’t know if that makes any sense, it’s hard to explain.”
McIlrath: “Especially as the times we live in become more tumultuous, I think of Rise Against as like a lighthouse, like a beacon, and our goal is just to keep that light on. We’re not going to chase you down as a fan, we’re not going to go out of our way to sell ourselves to the listening public, but as long as we’re there with the light on, so if you’re looking for a band that does what we do, we’ll be there. I would hate for a fan to be out there looking for something like Rise Against and not finding it. Our job is to keep that light as bright as we can so you find it.”