By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago's suburbs are lousy with angry young pop-punk bands, but few maintain the tight musicianship and walk-it-like-you-talk-it ideals that eventually make them stars.
Rise Against has both, and it's put them on top. They've made albums shouting down the Bush administration and the wars in the Middle East, and they've supported veganism and straight-edge living. Meanwhile, those albums keep climbing the charts — "Siren Song of the Counter Culture" (2004) cracked the Billboard 200, "The Sufferer and the Witness" (2006) made the top 10, then "Appeal to Reason" (2008) reached No. 3 and the new album, "Endgame," debuted at No. 2 early this year.
They've become so big that this weekend their heroes — Bad Religion, a veteran punk band that was formed in 1979, the year Rise Against leader Tim McIlrath was born — are their opening act.
"I know, right?" McIlrath says, amazed. "It gives me goosebumps just to hear you say it."
"We opened for them five years ago, at the Riviera, and we've been friends ever since. At some point, those guys said, 'Hey, we should go on tour sometime.' They were the first ones to say, 'You're getting pretty big. We'll go out with you.' They're the band we put on a pedestal. We never considered them as support. It speaks to our respect of them and how much we want to introduce our young fans to them. There's not much out there currently that we have an affinity toward, so this is perfect."
We caught up with McIlrath to chat about his band's success, its fierce social messages and how those translated to a crowd of protesters on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in February.
Question: You just got back from a tour in South America. How does your music go down there? I would think your message is popular, but I don't hear about too much South American punk ...
Tim McIlrath: Those parts of the world are hard to figure out. They're way more into dance music than rock. A guy like me screaming into the microphone is a minority. The dance music scene there is massive. But, yeah, progressive things and social justice in that environment are way more common. The right wing party in Brazil is treated with the same attention level as the Green party here. The only question in their politics is how left wing you are.
Q: You recently joined Tom Morello in Madison to sing for the protests against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's bill against collective bargaining for unions. How'd that happen?
TM: I was in Denver when that started happening. I got a call from Morello and flew back home. I went from O'Hare right to Madison. It was incredible, and it was right in my own backyard, this attack not just on the people of Wisconsin but on the Midwest ideology or the working class. ... I was grateful for the opportunity to play for them. As someone from Chicago, I don't find myself arm-in-arm with people in Packers jackets very often.
Q: Have you much experience as a protest singer — at an actual protest?
TM: No, I've gone to protests but have never played before. I said yes before I thought about it. I kind of leaped before I looked. We've got six records, I can figure something out. Then I get there on the capitol steps, it's freezing, with my guitar in hand. My friends are doing all these union songs I'd never heard before. I look at the crowd, and this is not a Rise Against show. There are not a bunch of kids waiting for me to play. There are people from all walks of life, and they need inspiration. I had to energize this crowd. I felt like some of the songs I could have played wouldn't translate. I started to rethink my strategy. I need something that would bridge the gap between me and this audience. The two songs I thought of were "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills & Nash and "Who'll Stop the Rain?" by CCR. As I played that one, it started to rain a little.
Q: You've been playing "Ohio" in concert. Why that particular protest song?
TM: I read about its inception. Neil Young rushed in with it, said, "Here, it's tracked," and got it out. He said, "This song needs to be out right now." In the recording, you can hear it. It's not complicated. In the few words he says, he gets his point across. ... It's a song about a governor who goes too far. I didn't want it to be irrelevant to what was happening in Wisconsin, and I didn't want to somehow compare [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker to people being shot and killed, but I thought maybe it would express that this kind of thing has happened in the past and people have fought it in the past — that we can fight and win.
Q: The new Rise Against album, "Endgame," is apocalyptic and seems pretty bleak. Am I wrong?
TM: "Endgame" is my strategy to find a different approach to attack a lot of the same societal ills. Instead of being a guy tugging on your shirt sleeve, saying, "Check out what's going on in the world. Let's do something!" I imagined a character who says, "OK, I've tried tugging and begging you. Now let's paint a picture of the repercussions of our actions." So it's a story, kind of, that shows where the world is headed in the event of a financial or environmental collapse, war, worldwide poverty. Let's paint a picture of what that looks like — and then imagine the world that could be born from those ashes. You get people to picture that future possible world, and they can learn from their mistakes right now.
Q: It's pretty much a concept album.
TM: I shy away from "concept album." There are songs on this record that don't talk about this. But the "Endgame" concept does pop up in several places.
Q: Lyrically, it has a kind of "Life After People" tone to it.
TM: Yeah, we're not reinventing the wheel here. "The Road," "Life After People," we've got apocalypse on the tip of our tongues right now. It seems like the world is ending, there's a lot of doom and gloom. We've tried many approaches to get people to wake up. This is a different one.
with Bad Religion and Four Years Strong
♦ 7 p.m. May 13 and 14
♦ Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence
♦ Sold out
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.