Rise Against singer-guitarist Tim McIlrath is in a band that has defied his own modest expectations, rising from the Chicago punk and all-ages scene to headlining arenas (the band headlines UIC Pavilion on Friday). Through it all, he’s been unwavering in his belief that music can change lives and promote dialogue by addressing big issues from a personal perspective.
The music of McIlrath, Joe Principe, Brandon Barnes and Zach Blair has never seemed more timely; in an era defined by political unrest around the globe, their sixth and latest studio album, “Endgame” (Geffen), addresses everything from homophobia to economic disparity. Remarkably, it debuted last year at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart – a rare instance of what used to be called “protest music” breaking through to the top of the pop charts.
McIlrath also has participated in the labor rallies in Wisconsin and the Occupy Wall Street movement around the world. The singer, who grew up in Arlington Heights and formed Rise Against with Melrose Park native Principe in the late ’90s, took a break from tour rehearsals to offer his perspective on a tumultuous year for the world and the band:
Are we going to see another wave of protest music? “We started our band before the Bush administration, and I thought there would be a lot of reaction in the music world to that (right-wing politics). I’m still surprised the response wasn’t greater. I’m not dismissing the bands who were speaking out, but compared to the political music that came out of the ‘70s counterculture or the anti-Vietnam War protests of the ‘60s, I’m still waiting for the next wave of that. Today the world is more politically polarized than at any time in my lifetime. I would like to think we’re on the cusp of many more artists adding their voices to the political conversation.”
What’s holding artists back from making political statements in their music? “Our culture has been in a stranglehold by this hipster cynicism that permeates art and popular art. That’s the currency of the latest incarnation of music. Apathy has more weight than anything else. It’s not cool to be political, or to talk about these things in music. It’s considered trite. It’s been really fashionable to tune out and unplug. These kinds of fashion trends often bear more weight than what’s right. But there’s more at stake than where you fall on the popularity chart.”
Is music an effective way to voice political opposition? “It’s the only thing that has ever been effective. It’s about small groups of people who are passionate about something, voicing it, acting out and turning that passion into something real. You create friction where change can happen. Change never comes from the top down and trickles down. It always comes from the bottom up, and music can be a catalyst.”
How do you know some of the issues Rise Against talks about in its music are getting through? “I see it in one-on-one conversations I have with fans after shows. Whenever we get to play a part in a bigger campaign like getting out the vote or doing the Warped tour, we see it. At the Warped tour we were counter-recruiting against the Army – our band name was used to get fans into the place to recruit people into the Army during a time of war – and we’d express dissatisfaction from the stage to the point where the Army stopped recruiting at shows. They cited us as one reason why they were leaving. It’s important to understand that just because we can’t change everything, it doesn’t mean we can’t change something.”
What was your lightbulb moment in terms of developing a political consciousness? “Growing up in Chicago, there was a really vibrant, political hardcore scene. We were running around bowling alleys and the dives of Chicago, or abandoned buildings and VFW halls, and I found myself at shows with bands like the Boll Weevils, Trenchmouth, Los Crudos who were like my secondary education. I was being taught one thing in high school, and then another thing when I saw these bands. They were talking about the environment before the green movement was a household word. I was learning about the world from guys and gals just a few years older than me. It made me realize that a lot of the luxuries I was enjoying here in the First World were the result of exploiting other parts of the world. I knew then that if I ever had opportunity to be one of those bands, I would use that opportunity to carry the torch to the next generation.”
How do you avoid getting preachy in your music? “I know deep down no matter how important I feel a cause is, it’ll be lost if it’s not entertaining. It’s always a challenge to not be redundant or trite. A truly great song is something you can apply to the past, to right now, and possibly to the future. During the Bush administration I had to take a step back and realize that some of Bush’s policies were just a symptom of a much bigger disease that was here before and will be here after he’s gone. If you get too topical, the song can be dated really fast.”
What was your experience performing in Madison as part of the labor rallies last year? “It was like the anti-Tea Party of the Midwest. It was not all dreadlocked college kids, but Green Bay Packer fans, teachers, union members and working-class families out at these rallies. What happened there has the potential to affect all Americans, not just those who come to a Rise Against show. These were everyday people trying to support their families; there was nothing ‘fashionable’ about that protest. (Rage Against the Machine’s) Tom Morello called me to be part of it and I thought we might get some Rage fans, but it was more about working-class families. I went out and played (Neil Young’s) ‘Ohio’ and some CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival). At a protest like that, music can play an important role. There are moments when morale can be low, and a song from the ‘70s can remind people that these battles have been fought before and they’ve been won. That’s the story of progressive politics.”
Is the Occupy Wall Street movement inspiring any new songs from you? “What’s funny is we preemptively wrote a song about the Occupy movement, ‘Disparity by Design,’ about income disparity, about the bootstrap myth and the end of the middle class. It wound up on ‘Endgame,’ and now we’re going to play it live. It’s another way of connecting the dots through music. It’s like Billy Bragg said in London during Occupy, ‘It’s not about left- or right-wing politics, this is about holding people in power accountable for their actions.’ People can rally behind a statement like that.”
Rise Against: 7 p.m. Friday at UIC Pavilion, 525 S. Racine, $31.50, $38.50; ticketmaster.com.
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