Rise Against: Tim McIlrath’s track-by-track guide to Nowhere Generation
Tim McIlrath, singer/guitarist of Chicago punks Rise Against, has long since distinguished himself as one of the most important voices in rock. For over 20 years and counting, subjects such as school shootings and gay teen suicide have all found expression in his unflinching lyrics, alongside political broadsides, meditations on climate change and much more besides.
Yet ahead of the band – completed by bassist Joe Principe, drummer Brandon Barnes and guitarist Zach Blair – releasing their stunning ninth outing, Nowhere Generation, Tim would like to clarify one thing. The image some people may have of him as a rhetoric-venting frontman intent on bending your worldview to his own? That’s not what he’s really about.
“When you listen to Rise Against songs on a new record, I’m not trying to spew answers at you,” he insists. “I’m trying to ask questions, and to also see if you have some of the same questions.”
Indeed, it turns out that Nowhere Generation is a record with a lot of big questions at its heart, not only about the lives we live but also the legacies we leave behind. And also just how overwhelming it is to just get through a normal day, let alone the kind where you see the U.S. Capitol being invaded.
“If it seems like I know exactly what to do and when to do it, that’s not the impression that I want to give,” says Tim. “Because the answer is I don’t.”
Without further ado, it’s time for him to tell us about the questions that have sparked Rise Against’s new album…
1. The Numbers
“This was actually the last song we made for the record. Joe came up with the music and I liked it a lot, but I was just so buried in all the other songs and trying to finish lyrics. I think he was getting nervous because I hadn’t addressed it; he was a bit like, ‘Hey? Are we doing something with this one?’ But it kept coming back to me and eventually I really sunk my teeth into and came up with a concept and lyric idea on a day off in the studio. I went in there by myself and didn’t know how to turn anything on; I was just singing over that song and it all came to me. I didn’t even have it written down, the chorus just came out.
“The Numbers is about the direction that power flows in – a president is only a response to what people want, for better or for worse. The idea crystallised around the time of the U.S. election which was still, at that point, almost a year away from happening. With every election, the punk rock community talks about their varying opinions on voting. No-one has more opinions on voting than the punk rock community and a lot of it’s like, ‘It’s Hitler vs. Stalin!’ or, ‘Your vote doesn’t matter!’ or, ‘Corporations control the world anyway!’ – all those tropes that are everywhere, but especially in punk rock, and [said as an] indictment. But we still haven’t figured out a better way for humans to coexist than democracy and the idea of representation. There are a lot of flaws in it, for sure: people with money have an advantage and an outside influence on corporations, institutionalised racism and gender [inequality] all play a role in power. But you can still vote bad guys out of office, you know? It’s not a dictatorship and it’s not like a corporatocracy. The interesting thing is people think if you shrink government then the power would then transfer to people. But look what happens, at least in [America], when you shrink government: power transfers to corporations who don’t answer to voters, they answer to shareholders. The power’s not coming back to you.
“For all its flaws, [democracy] is still the best thing we have. The Numbers reminds me that we wield power, yes it can be a frustrating process when you don’t get what you want the next morning, but you wield power. And you don’t need to take it from me. Look at any major events and changes in history: they always come from the bottom up with people putting pressure on people in power.”
2. Sudden Urge
“It’s a little bit nihilistic that song, which is not my baseline [state of being], but I think that it’s important to acknowledge that we all hit those points where we can’t comprehend what the big picture is, or where we are out of ideas and solutions. Sometimes you just have to scream and let it all out. Sudden Urge was about all of the institutions that were in question, especially here in America, whether it’s healthcare, the police, military, a two party election system – people were asking, ‘Is this stuff reformable, or should we just be breaking it all down?’ Before Rise Against, I played in hardcore bands where [the scene] was only about embracing anger, it was nihilistic and morbid. You can traffic in that stuff and I don’t think it’s a good place to live, but sometimes you just have to embrace anger because something good can come out of it. Instead of burying your demons, it’s okay sometimes to let them out. It gets challenging, but just like anything in life, that challenge and that friction is where there’s an ability to grow and create.”
3. Nowhere Generation
“This was the first song we did for the album. A lot of the music I had back when we were still doing Wolves, and had I been a little more motivated, I could have probably finished it for that album. Nowhere Generation was my way of defending our fans, our audience – a whole generation of people who are coming up in a world where the odds are stacked against them. The concept came out of some of the lines like, ‘We are not the names that we’ve been given, we speak a language you don’t know’ – it was about a generation that was falling between the cracks and also living between the cracks. The generation that was in between everything that couldn’t just tick their year of birth, or whatever toys they grew up on, and it be their generation! I wanted to write an anthem for them. I was picturing our crowd singing it, and I wanted to speak to it in a way that encouraged people to be proud of who they are and try to make their struggle known.”
4. Talking To Ourselves
“This song was an accidental way of not only talking about Rise Against, but also anybody that does something like we do, anyone who feels like they’re standing in a crowd, trying to get everyone to pay attention and no-one’s doing it. Either they’re not doing it, or they’re just placating you, like, ‘Oh, how adorable, he’s angry!’ Sometimes you end up just feeling like an entertainer, like, ‘Oh, I guess this is just a transaction – this is your Friday night.’ When it feels like that, it’s so sad, it’s like, ‘That’s not why I got into this, this isn’t punk rock – why didn’t I just become a magician or juggler? This is supposed to be something more.’ Especially as a band gets bigger, you’ll play some big festivals where you’re the only punk rock band on the bill and you realise, like, ‘Wait, are we just one of these acts out there?’ And that’s nothing against those acts and what they do, but it’s just not why we put our foot in the door to do this. You’re always trying to figure out what to do when it feels like that: what can you do to pivot and create a moment? If you really think you stand out, then fucking do something that will make you stand out. That’s your job.”
5. Broken Dreams, Inc.
“This song reminded me of Generation Lost, which was an early track of ours. It has a super-busy opening bassline – it’s classic Joe. Again it was one of the last songs I got to where Joe was, like, ‘Hey, are we doing this one?’ I always liked it, but I struggled with where to go with all the vocals. I gave it one last like college try, and that was when some of those lines popped out and I realised, ‘Okay, this is cool!’ I like all the imagery in the song and it’s so weird because it was written before [all the protests in 2020]. It was the line about the ‘barricade’ that gave that gave me hope for that song, I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, I can build a song around this.’ Usually when a song comes out, I revisit it because I want to hear what everyone’s going to hear and it was so weird because in Chicago there were serious riots happening, they lifted our bridges on our river so people couldn’t get across them. The walls in the city streets really were barricaded, but I was only talking about when they will be in a dystopian, George Orwell kind of way.”
“It’s harder to record an acoustic song. I had a whole day off just trying to write and nothing was working out so I turned every light off, shut my studio down and was about to leave when I picked up the guitar. I started singing and it just fell out of me. I think anybody can relate to it, I wanted a song that painted that picture of, ‘When the world leaves you in the dust, I’m going to be here.’ That’s where it came from. I fought with Chris Heeble, who’s a producer at the Blasting Room, about it. Originally, I brought it in and it was power chords, it was kind of chunky. Chris was like, ‘It’s not interesting enough, you should fingerpick’ and I was like, ‘Fuck you!’ (laughs) because God forbid this thing becomes popular and then I’ve got to play it every day! I’ve not done a lot of fingerpicking stuff, but he just pushed me, which is good. I’m already dreading playing it live because it will be a major gear change. I’ve played that song pretty much every day, once a day because that’s how nervous I am about it. I can play Forfeit, but I need to be able to play it when the mix is shitty, when someone’s distracting me, when I’m having a bad show or a good show. I’m pretty much there!”
“It’s all about finding your voice; and I feel like anybody involved in punk rock can relate to that. The idea behind the song Monarch, and even the title Monarch, was referring to a person that rules you, but by the end of it, it’s also talking about change – a Monarch is also a butterfly. Two things [helped inspired it], one was that I had just read the book Educated [by Tara Westover] – it’s a great memoir about a woman who grew up in an off-the-grid homeschool religious family in Utah in an abusive atmosphere, and how she transformed herself into this amazing person and scholar and writer. I recommend it. It was one of these classic tales of like, ‘I came from nothing, and I overcame all of it.’ The book inspired me, and then I was just channeling what I feel is a really common story in punk rock, and even in my own adolescence, of being the outsider – and having the same people who wanted to beat me up in high school wanting to give me a high five for being in a popular band (laughs). I remember this specifically: I was in high school and I was a skateboarder with long hair down to my shoulder and one jock got in my face, told me to cut my hair, and yelled a derogatory slur for a gay person at me so the whole hallway heard it. And he was a bigger dude than me. The ironic part was, a year or two later, the same kid grew his hair long and got into bands – I was like, ‘Fuck you!’ When Rise Against got big, I became cool to him. Adults in my life were very dismissive about what I was doing with my life until I was successful and then it was all, ‘Good for you! I respect you now because you can buy a house!’ That’s so wrong; I was like, ‘You should have respected me then, and you should respect the person doing this who isn’t successful at it.’”
8. Sounds Like
“This band and songwriting does give me a sense of purpose, I always know what it is I’m chipping away at. But [often in life] you’re always struggling to be in the moment, there’s too many of us waiting for the next thing to happen. In this song I wanted to call that out with some urgency. Whatever you’re waiting for to happen? It’s already happening – it’s happening as you speak and you don’t want to wait forever and find out that you missed it. The thing that you were waiting for might always have been there and you never really embraced it. We all make excuses for ourselves, and we should all be helping each other snap out of it.”
9. Sooner Or Later
“That song has such an identity crisis. It just happened that way and I remember embracing it. It’s got a very dark intro and verse, and even the pre-chorus, and then all of a sudden it turns into this poppy chorus vibe. The lyrics are still dark, but there’s still an impending doom and I think that’s why I was okay with it having that identity crisis. It felt like, ‘Wait, this song can’t decide what it wants to be – a sad, dark song or a poppy, triumphant song’ but then it was so catchy I was like, ‘I’m not fucking with it, it just is what it is.’ I don’t think I meant it to be a condemnation of our actions on the planet, but it certainly came out that way with the imagery of stepping on flowers and trampling across the land. It was a big indictment on our consumerism, and our proclivity to rip crops out of the ground without ever planting seeds, and that metaphor reverberates with a lot of what we do in life and how you can’t treat people indiscriminately and expect there to be no repercussions for that.”
10. Middle Of A Dream
“No matter what I’m doing, I feel like I should be doing more, that I could be doing more – but I also know my own limits and I still want to be around here in 10 years doing this. I don’t want to burn out. I’m sensitive to that, so I’m always throttling what I do and what I’m willing to do. But when you throttle that, you’re going to create the feeling of, ‘Wait, should I have done more? Am I squandering an opportunity by doing more, or am I being really smart about treating my life a little more like a marathon and less like a sprint?’ That’s the balance, back and forth, to try and maintain your mental health, and your responsibilities, real or perceived, and your own personal desires. Middle Of A Dream is about when you’re chasing an opportunity to do something, something you wished you did, or something that you don’t even know about that’s out there but you’re not actively searching for it. It’s the unknown. It’s all those anxieties, balled up into a verse and chorus.”
11. Rules Of Play
“I would say it’s a closing note of optimism. It’s about how important connection is with somebody else who’s cut from the same cloth as you, someone else that you can see eye to eye with. We should always be reaching across the aisle and trying to communicate with people who don’t agree with us, instead of being congealed in our own tribe. But it’s not without merit, or value, to connect with somebody who sees the world the same way you do. That connection can be pretty special, and sometimes it’s the fuel that keeps you going. That connection’s what makes life seem more tolerable, and the obstacles in life seem overcomeable. There are so many complexities to life and so many games in life you don’t know how to play, you don’t want to play, you don’t want to be a part of, or you are still navigating. You’re still trying to figure out the rules. I haven’t figured out the rules, and that’s the end of the song: don’t feel dejected if you don’t know the rules of this game called life.”
Rise Against’s Nowhere Generation is released on June 4 via Loma Vista. Pre-order/pre-save your copy now.
Read this next:
Z2 Comics will tell “the stories of the ones who fight back” in the upcoming Nowhere Generation graphic novel with Rise Against and Loma Vista Recordings.
As Foo Fighters began to settle into their role as one of the world’s biggest bands, their sixth album Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace propelled them to even greater heights…