A conversation with Tim McIlrath
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Anthony Saint James
Summer is in full swing, which means that the Vans Warped Tour will be barreling in to an amphitheatre, fairgrounds, or baseball stadium near you. Warped is an anomaly in an era when the traveling summer festival has gone stationary (Coachella, Bonnaroo, even Lollapalooza). Attendees are presented with a smorgasbord of punk—and, controversially, a few other genres—and dozens upon dozens of bands make it a point to link up with the tour for at least a few shows. This year's showgoers should be delighted that Rise Against is among the bands that have committed to the long haul for 2006, and though the tour is reluctant to qualify anyone as “headliners,” it’s clear that the Chicago punk/hardcore act - who release their fourth full-length, The Sufferer & The Witness, on July 4th - will be generating as much attention and taking as much heat as anyone. You can be sure that Rise Against will be dishing out plenty of heat, too - particularly if the Armed Forces set up misleading recruitment tents on venue grounds again.
Frontman Tim McIlrath and his bandmates had a chance to gear up for the summer - and get unusually up close and personal with their fans - with five consecutive sold-out nights at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. The summer will reunite them with some friends, allies and old labelmates - among the notables are Anti-Flag, Thursday, and Against Me! - and also bring The Sufferer & The Witness to life, albeit under the bite-sized conditions that the Warped Tour imposes in order to maximize the number of bands that can grace their stages (sets are kept around the half-hour mark). Like its predecessors, The Sufferer & The Witness is a fierce wakeup cry, concerned with matters both universal and achingly personal. But it is also unlike its predecessors in a number of ways, and it's these yet-explored territories that most excite McIlrath.
The new record isn’t out until July 4th, but have you been finding that a lot of your fans already know the new songs at shows?
Yeah, yeah, we have fans who know them, for sure. This is our fourth record, and every single one has leaked before it’s come out, so there was no reason to expect that this would be different. The only records that don’t leak are records that no one really gives enough of a shit about to leak.
In reading some reviews of the Troubadour shows, a lot of old fans said that it reminded them of the old days, when they felt more of a connection to the band in those smaller venues. How much do you feel that sacrifice up on stage when you’re playing the larger venues?
I think that happens with all bands; the bigger the capacity, the harder itis to achieve that connection. It’s difficult. We certainly still try to do it, to break down the barrier between us and the crowd. If you’re some kid that’s 100 yards back and I’m a dot on the stage on a shitty PA system, it affects the quality of the show—but I guess that’s what you do to be able to include everyone who wants to see your band play. We could show up at every single town and play bars, and we’d have a good time with 400 kids, but we’d also piss off a lot of people.
Yeah, I mean, a band like Radiohead will frequently play smaller venues than they could, and, sure, everyone who sees the show comes away happy, but a lot of fans get left out.
Totally. Especially in today’s world, you play a small show like that and people just buy the tickets up and put them up on eBay, or it becomes an exclusive thing to get into the show and the industry is commandeering a hundred guest list spots. I worked for a ticket broker for years in Chicago, and there’s a big business for these ticket scalping vultures who are around shows. I think you make yourself more accessible to those vultures when you play shows like that.
Some of the bands who participate or have participated in the Warped Tour have enjoyed talking some loving shit about it, saying that the big appeal for everyone is that you can play a quickie set and get out of there and hang out with your friends. Is that a draw for you guys, too? What makes it a good fit for spending your summer?
That’s certainly a nice benefit of the Warped Tour. We’ve spent the last few years of our lives on the road, and when you do that, there are so many people in your life that occupy these little snapshots of time. I’ll spend six weeks with this one bass player from one band as we go across Europe, and we’ll have a great time together and explore Austria and Germany—and then at the end of the tour, it’s like, “See ya later.” Sure, we’ll keep in touch, but the nature of what we do is going to make sure that we hardly see each other ever again, unless we do a tour together. Warped Tour is this giant reunion of all these bands you’ve toured with; when you’ve toured for six years, you can’t even list all the bands. Chances are, a lot of them are going to be on the Warped Tour. It’s really cool, after the last kid goes home and the place shuts down, everyone hangs out by their buses and talks about all the stuff you’ve been doing—this person got married, this person has kids, whatever. That’s a personally gratifying part of the tour.
I like Warped Tour, too, because it’s such a slice of life. You talk to so many different kinds of people. If we play a Rise Against show, I’ll talk to Rise Against fans—it’s a fairly safe place for me to exist. The chances are pretty small that I’ll run into somebody who doesn’t like the band or is challenging something that we’re saying. It’s a fairly safe bubble, and punk doesn’t survive in safe bubbles. On Warped Tour, you get people who are just walking in because it’s a giant festival that comes to their town, or because they like that one band’s song on the radio. It kind of reminds me of when we first started this band, when we were making a point to challenge a lot of people’s thought processes. As the band has gotten bigger, we’ve kind of lost that challenge—but Warped Tour brings that challenge back. There are Rise Against fans there, but when you’re talking about a show with 20,000 people, the majority of people aren’t Rise Against fans.
So in addition to proving yourself to fans who might not know you guys, do you also get negative feedback?
For sure. You get kids who hate your band—or just hate what you’re standing for, like, “Fuck you, I came here to have a good time with my friends, and to drink a lot of beer, and this guy is up here talking about the war in Iraq!” When Rise Against plays shows near military bases, that’s always a good time. A lot of Warped Tour is like that. The couple years that we’ve done it, the fucking Army and the Marines have been out there recruiting. They’ll sign kids up and give you free dog tags if you give them all your information. They don’t really tell you what you have to give in exchange—which, in reality, is all of your contact information, down to your dog’s name, so they can haunt you for the rest of your life.
In St. Louis, it wasn’t even guys from the Marines or the Army who were giving the dog tags and getting information—it was all beautiful girls in tiny shorts and bikini tops. They were doing all they could to get these dudes to walk over there—and kids were lining up to do it. You’ve got to give it to the Marines: they know how to market to the kids. It was so bad and desperate and disgusting and pathetic. They make it out as this big, amusing carnival of dog tags and whatever else, but the big picture is that they’re signing people up to go to war. They’re signing people up to say “I’m willing to put my life in the hands of the Bush Administration. I will go wherever they tell me to go.”
There’s such misinformation—now you have Army recruiters being caught teaching kids how to fake high school diplomas. This shit is really happening. They’re out there like salesmen, telling you anything they can tell you to get you to join.
So when we go up and we have our half hour, we tend to make sure that the Army recruiters get a piece of our mind.
That’s not to say that a lot of Rise Against fans aren’t troops; I get e-mails from Iraq every day. I’ve been told that there’s an Iraqi radio station that plays Rise Against. It’s been really cool to hear from these troops, and I completely and obviously support all the people in the Armed Forces. These are our brothers and sisters. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for recruiters to be at a place like Warped Tour.
The last time we talked, you were saying that a silver lining of the Bush re-election was that people had woken up and realized that challenging or questioning the government was more of an American activity than an anti-American one. Do you think that people have stayed awake?
I think that people are becoming awake. In the punk scene and hardcore scene, people were against the war and asking questions from the beginning, and I remember getting so much shit about questioning the war. Everybody was ready to attack us, everybody was ready to challenge us—“I can’t believe that in a time of national tragedy that you would question our government.” In those first few years after 9-11, I really felt that we were in the margins, and that our position was really radical. The punk/hardcore scene was at the place that the American public is getting to now. People are waking up to it. Being against the war is no longer a thing that’s going to get the windows of your car smashed. When the war started, we got a lot of crap about the cost-of-war counter and the anti-militaristic stuff on our website—we don’t get that crap anymore. It’s been interesting to watch the sea change.
While the costs and the casualties are obviously mounting, the core reasons that people are anti-war now are pretty much the same as they were in the beginning. Do you think we could have done a better job of explaining our position back then, or do you think that people just weren’t ready to hear it?
9/11 hit the American people so emotionally, and when you’re hit with something that’s so emotional, it affects your decision-making process—whether it’s your girlfriend breaking up with you or terrorists bombing a symbol of your country. You make rash decisions. You jump to conclusions. It turned a lot of Americans into overzealous patriots who weren’t willing to look at “Why are we bombing? Who did this? What’s the best course of action to rectify this?” Everyone got trigger-happy and blood-thirsty. We were gonna get our man—and of course we haven’t even gotten that man yet. I think it also gave some people a reason to act on their violent or racist inclinations.
But people are starting to change, starting to realize that they did jump to conclusions, and that the attack on the Trade Center was retaliation after years of corrupt American foreign policy. That in no way justifies it—nothing would ever justify it—but it looks at the cause and effect.
There was definitely a time when people were pariahs just for saying, “Hey, maybe we should think about why this happened.” That lasted for a while even after 9/11.
Yeah, the atmosphere has really changed, and it would be nice if the general way of thinking continues in this direction. Maybe in the big picture, they’ll look at the Bush administration as being such a shitty, shitty administration that it caused America to hit rock bottom and make some changes. If there’s any sort of positive impact that the Bush Administration makes, maybe that’ll be it. (laughs) He did such a bad job that people finally turned against the right-wing.
Yeah, and hopefully the pendulum can swing back a little further to the left than it might have otherwise, and we won’t get stuck with someone wavering in the center.
But...we probably will.
(laughs) Yeah. Hopefully we’ll get somebody in the White House with a little bit of sense—I don’t think we’re ever going to put anybody in the White House with a lot of sense. I don’t think the Democratic Party is the answer to all of our problems; you’re still talking about a bunch of billionaires fighting for the position. But it would be nice if someone would get in there and take our foreign policy a little more seriously, and put an end to the militarism that’s happened in the last 100 years and longer, and begin to repair America’s image in the rest of the world.
Alright, let’s dig into The Sufferer & The Witness—I have a few questions about specific songs, starting with “The Approaching Curve.” Was that always intended to be spoken, or had you tried it out singing and then felt that something hadn’t worked with it?
I never tried it singing, but it was also never intended to be a spoken word. We’ll write a lot of songs and I’ll sing over it in practice, and that was one of the songs where we’d written it at the tail end of our writing process and I was so burned out and had so much on my plate. It was one too many things for me to deal with at that point, and I couldn’t think of anything to sing over the song, but there was no doubt in any of our minds that it was a good song, so we kept it even though there were no vocals.
We did that, we recorded it, and I still had nothing for it, except for a chorus that I liked. At some point about two years ago, I had a book that was like half tour diary and half poetry and short stories—just random journal kind of stuff. I went back and read a lot of it, and I found a short story that I’d written back when we were on a 50-day tour with the Mad Caddies. I was reading it and I thought, “What if I just read this?” It would be kind of the way that Suicidal Tendencies song starts where he’s talking about getting a Pepsi. It would be different. We gave it a shot, and it worked out—it was more or less one or two takes—and by the end it became like my favorite song on the CD because it was one of those songs that was totally different than anything we had ever done. To be in a band for six years, to be on your fourth record, and to write a song that doesn’t sound like any of your other songs, I think that’s an accomplishment. I’m so stoked to be in a band that can create this song six years into their career.
The other song that people will talk about as being against type is “Roadside,” even though there’s some precedent with “Swing Life Away.” In the press release, it mentioned that “Roadside” had been around for a while, but you didn’t know what to do with it. Why was there hesitation to work it into an earlier record?
I had the song, and it wasn’t 100 percent complete, but the lyrics and vocals were pretty much done. I always heard it as maybe part of another song. When we were writing songs for Siren Song, I’d try to work it into a bridge where all the guitars would stop and it would just be that riff. I just chalked it up as part of the whole bank of song parts that I have—parts but not songs. It always sat in that bank.
I played it for Bill [Stevenson] when we were doing pre-production in Chicago and Bill said, “Tim, what is that?” I said, “I don’t know what it is, Bill. It’s part of a song I’ve been trying to work into another song.” He said that it was good on its own, that it should be its own song. So we recorded it, rounded off the edges, and made it into a real song, not really sure of where it would end up. It came out of nowhere. Bill really coached me on a lot of it, then a couple of the guys at the Blasting Room were able to add a little bit to it with subtle string parts. It turned into a song that when I heard it, I was like, “Holy shit, this is us? This is a Rise Against song?” I said the same thing about “Swing Life Away,” and I was happy to have that on our record, for sure.
I played it for the guys, and they said, “Can we put it on our record?” We all sat there thinking, “Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t,” and then we came to the conclusion that if we’re thinking about a song that we all deem a really good song, but we’re concerned about putting it on our record for God knows what reason… that’s dumb! We shouldn’t be thinking about that kind of stuff. That’s why all of us ended up with punk rock, because we didn’t give a shit what people thought of us.
Are you playing it live?
That’s to be determined, I guess. We’ll see how it goes. We never intended to play “Swing,” but it got such a good reaction that we thought that if people are actually going to dig it and put up with me playing an acoustic guitar, then let’s try it. But if this record comes out and nobody digs that song, I don’t want to have to pull out a guitar and be by myself on the stage.
“Fuck you, kids! Quiet down and listen!”
(laughs) Yeah, yeah, totally.
“The Good Left Undone” has that wicked instrumental end. Is that one of those song bits, too, or had it always been attached to the song?
That one was actually pure collaboration. With a lot of our songs, Joe will write the whole thing, or I’ll write the whole thing, or Chris will write the whole thing, and then we’ll all collaborate on little parts here and there. But “The Good Left Undone” was really all four of us, Brandon included, all adding our own two cents.
Since we’re the same age, does that mean that Warped Tour is making you miss your 10-year high school reunion?
(laughs) Shit, is that this summer? Well, I’m Class of ’97.
Ah, I’m Class of ’96.
Okay. What this could be is the year I die, because this is the year that guys in bands die: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, D. Boon, Robert Johnson, the original guitar player from the Rolling Stones. Watch out where you’re walking! But I don’t think I’ve sold enough records. (laughs)
Stick to Nebraska. You should be safe there.
Yeah, yeah, I think I’ll be alright here. But today I’ve already seen a dead body. I saw what looked like a guy who walked out of his car and got shot. I saw my first corpse today. I also saw a boat detach from an RV and just roll down the highway by itself.
What a day.
Yeah. And I sat in a Subway and talked to this guy—I’m guilty of pegging him as this farmer hick—about how conservative Nebraskans are hypocrites because most of them are on some sort of public funding, and public funding is a form of socialism.
Yeah, and this guy was wearing a Cornhuskers jersey and Cornhuskers hat, and he looked like your uncle who works on a farm and hates gay people. It just proved to me once again that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Had I not known anything about him, I would have pegged him as a guy with a sheltered life in Nebraska with a whole bunch of white people. He was talking about his friend from Colombia, and his Lebanese friend, and how he rents a house to an ex-Nazi skinhead who just got out of prison—right in the middle of this town in Nebraska.
Wait, where was the corpse?
Somewhere near Kearney on I-80. It was pretty fucked up. It wasn’t an accident; the guy’s car wasn’t fucked up. I’m talking like fucking CSI where they were going around with the yellow tape and cops were sitting around taking pictures. I’ve had many more uneventful days in Chicago. I had to come out here to see the mayhem.