“The jokes about millennials aren’t real. Young people want a better future”: Rise Against’s fight for the Nowhere Generation
Tim McIlrath, frontman of political punks Rise Against, is standing in his yacht when our interview begins. Well, kind of. He’s in his version of one. And, it should be stressed, it is not sea worthy.
“You know when someone asks you what you would do if you could have anything in the world you want, like a yacht or whatever?” he says. “All I ever wanted was a place to be really loud; my own little world where I can turn my guitar up.”
As he explains this, Tim scans his surroundings with a beaming smile. “This is my yacht,” he laughs, gesturing to his hometown studio space in Chicago replete with a drum-kit, amps and wall-mounted guitars. “I think my wife is happy I come here every day, too. She’s like, ‘Okay, you’ve been home for too long now!’”
It’s been a busy day for the Rise Against singer/guitarist. First off, and much to the delight of Tim’s two daughters, a bird got trapped in the McIlrath household (update: “It’s gone now”). Then, determined to enjoy the first good weather his home city has offered in 2021, he even elected to run to his studio and is, subsequently, less prepared than he wanted to be for the start of our interview; as such, he’s still frantically brewing his tea as he greets us. As Tim wends his way through his studio to find a suitable place to sit, he’s trailed loyally by one of his two adorable dogs.
“We rescued Ruby when she was young; she’s probably 14 or 15 years old now,” he explains. “She’s been the best dog in the world. Every day I’m worried about her because I know how old she is; she’s defying the odds of life expectancy. I’ll be a mess the day that she leaves me.”
As Tim continues the tour, K! spies a black and white flag draped down a wall. Before we can even ask, he’s already pointing to it. “I’ve got my Nowhere Generation flag there!” he exclaims. And those two words are precisely what we’re here to enquire about. Nowhere Generation: the name of Rise Against’s stunning new album, explosive lead single and, clearly, the source of great pride and excitement.
The record sees Tim, bassist Joe Principe, guitarist Zach Blair and drummer Brandon Barnes reunite with their personal hero as a producer – Black Flag/Descendents legend Bill Stevenson – at the Blasting Room studio in Fort Collins, Colorado. Everyone knows a studio can have a special impact on an album, but the Blasting Room? It’s had a profound effect on Rise Against’s career, with each of their records bar 2001 debut The Unravelling and 2017’s Wolves being recorded there. Today, Tim is even drinking his tea out of a Blasting Room brand mug as he salutes Bill and his fellow BR alumni Jason Livermore, Andrew Berlin and Chris Beeble who pored over every detail of Nowhere Generation to make it one of their most exhilarating offerings yet.
While the first song written for the album was the title-track, its music actually harks back to an idea Tim had during the making of Wolves that never took full form. Sometimes writing a song is like writing a thesis, he reasons: you’ll change ideas lots of times until you figure out exactly what it is you have to say on a subject. Some of the potent words he settled upon include, ‘The smoke on the horizon was the burning promised land.’ It turns out that what he wanted to sing about, most likely, concerns you.
“I feel a special connection to our fans,” he explains. “For the most part, they fall into the ‘younger than me’ category. I grew up in a different generation; a lot of them are millennials and younger, and people my age have a really good time making fun of them…”
You know the jokes: snowflake variants ad infinitum.
“I’ve been on the peripheral of those jokes for a while,” Tim continues. “They talk about millennials and the younger generation like, ‘They’re entitled, helpless and whiny.’ And I couldn’t square that with what I was seeing with our crowd. The jokes didn’t make sense to me because the young people I meet are really smart, incredible and hard-working, and they want a better future. But they’re dealing with a lot of things that my generation, and my parents’ generation, didn’t: income disparity, environmental degradation, the barrier of entry for jobs…”
Recently, Tim was asked to pen an op-ed piece. While researching it he discovered that university tuition has gone up a bank account-mauling 313 per cent over the past 30 years in America. Everywhere he looked he saw “huge inhibitors” to generational progress.
“When you saddle young people with incredible amounts of debt, it really slows them down in terms progress in their life,” he continues. “And so you have this generation that we’ve thrown up all these obstacles in front of and we’ve told them, ‘If you work hard, we’ll reward you with the American Dream!’ But we keep moving the goalposts back saying, ‘Well, you’ve got to keep working hard.’ And then, just when they think they’ve climbed to the top of the mountain, there’s even more. The jokes about millennials aren’t real. This is the way anybody would react to having the rug pulled out from under them each time.”
Listen to Tim discuss why new track Sooner Or Later is about much more than just environmental collapse
It hits close to home for Tim. Quite literally.
“My daughters will be 17 and 13 very soon, we’re looking at colleges and stuff like that already,” he reveals. “I think about the world they’ll grow up in and how it will look different than even the world I grew up in, obviously, but even the world that they’ve known as a young person.”
The resulting title-track of Rise Against’s new record sees him not only hitting back at the punch-lines about younger generations, but also acting as an inter-generational middleman. Some things are so fucked, we’re just going to have to work together on fixing them…
“What’s happening globally to capitalism, progress, automation and industrialisation knows no boundary, border or years,” Tim says. “No matter what year you were born, you can very likely become the victim of growing social inequality, growing income disparity, or climate change – those things know no birth date. You may have better advantages depending on your gender or race, but for the most part it will hit all of us.”
It makes you wonder about the American Dream. Was it ever real? Did it ever exist? Tim responds with a joke. It’s not his own, but we’ll let him have it.
“Well,” he begins. “It was George Carlin who said, ‘You know why they call it the American Dream? Because you have to be asleep to believe it.’”
By this point in his career, Tim McIlrath is renowned for many things. A formidable intellect. Piercing, socially conscious lyrics. A voice that manoeuvres effortlessly between melody and ferocity. His support of animal rights and other righteous causes. Oh, and Tom Morello once told K! that Tim has an uncanny ability to play guitar in freezing temperatures (“Hey, I’ll take it!” Rise Against’s frontman sputters).
It is something of an injustice, however, that one of his greatest attributes is so often overlooked: Tim is a verbal wizard when it comes to similes, metaphors and analogies.
The frustration of the Nowhere Generation every time the goalposts are moved? Simple. That’s like the ongoing joke in the classic cartoon Peanuts when Charlie Brown goes to kick a football only for it to be yanked away at the last second, leaving him flat on his back. When he relays the gnawing, inexplicable sensation of loss underpinning RA’s brilliant new track Middle Of A Dream? “It’s like in an old black and white crime movie,” he suggests. “You’re chasing the guy in the trench coat, but they keep getting lost in the crowd!”
But there’s one analogy he offers in particular that captures the tumult we’ve all lived through in the past couple of years: the calamitous Trump administration, the COVID pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests marching against police brutality and systemic racism, and the small matter of our dying planet. Picture, if you will, a car, and we’re all in it. We’ll let Tim tell the rest…
“So, we’re cruising along and it’s making noises,” he says. “And something’s clearly broken in there, but we’re too busy to fix those noises or worry about them. We just want to get to where we’re going. But one day you say, ‘I’m going to see what that knocking noise is.’ The pandemic made everybody stop the car, pull over, and in that time, we said, ‘Let’s take a look at those noises now.’ Turns out there was a loooot wrong under the hood.”
Hear Tim reflect on the anxiety and sensation of loss underpinning their brilliant new track Middle Of A Dream
This is hardly a revelation for Rise Against, of course. For over 20 years they’ve made a career out of investigating these assorted “knocking noises”. In fact, they are probably one of the few bands out there who actively hope that their songs detailing our shared societal burdens will become less relevant with the passage of time.
“Right!” laughs Tim. “You cure these ailments of society? Our songs would just be gibberish!”
Only the ailments aren’t cured. And Rise Against’s new material is far from gibberish. Ten years ago they sang about the ‘orphans of the American Dream’ on Disparity By Design. Nowhere Generation dives deep on that sentiment, examined from a number of compelling perspectives across 11 glorious tracks. As with Wolves, it is not a Trump-dumping affair.
“Donald trafficked in divisions and separations,” Tim offers. “He found people’s fears and anxieties, and dug his fingers in and made them bigger and greater. But this is Rise Against’s fourth presidential administration; we’ve seen them come and go. I’ve never tried to write songs about a specific president, because it really is the ideas they represent that I want to sing about. The ideology of Donald Trump was there before him, and it’ll be there after him.”
Instead, Nowhere Generation paints the portrait of a world in which everything has been rendered incredibly complicated. The songs flow seamlessly, but the emotions often contrast greatly. Nowhere Generation’s anthemic opener The Numbers – created by bassist Joe Principe – captures Tim singing about how people, not politicians, hold the real power. It chimes nicely with a post-Biden world. It makes you feel optimistic. Yet the very next song, Sudden Urge, details the failures of the systems that are meant to protect us, and the desire to, well, burn them all to the ground.
“It’s definitely a little bit nihilistic, that song,” he laughs.
Truth be told, we never really pictured Tim as a nihilist…
“I’m not really that person – you know I’m not!” he replies. “But there’s an age-old question, when you debate politics, about the institutions that run our lives. That question is always, ‘Can these institutions be reformed, or is it better to dismantle them and start over?’”
Here Tim points to the ways everything from America’s police to its non-universal healthcare system, military and two-party election system can sometimes seem so flawed as to be beyond saving.
“Sudden Urge is about that feeling when you’re like, ‘This isn’t working, it needs to be destroyed and we need to create something better in its ashes.’ You can talk about the nuance of it all, but sometimes you just gotta be like, ‘I’m so fucking pissed off.’”
There are many ways in which Rise Against have lived up to their name over the years, but different times call for different measures. There has been a time for revolution. A time for appealing to reason. But what Rise Against are calling on everyone to do is listen to each other, to find common ground. It’s a core message explored on another Nowhere Generation standout, Talking To Ourselves.
“Listening is important, especially in this day and age,” Tim suggests. “Rise Against are not in-your-face shock artists trying to get your attention with a line like, ‘I never wanted to disturb the peace’ – we’re not out there to do something super-crazy and shocking, but we do feel like there’s messages that can be amplified. We do feel that there are things out there that should be talked about. That’s where you get the seeds of a lot of our songs.”
As wild a year as it has been so far, lest we forget the U.S. Capitol being stormed, Tim is feeling hopeful. There are more people talking about issues that are close to his heart. And seemingly more people listening.
“For 20 years we’ve been trying to get people focused on some of the things that are happening that might not make headlines,” he reflects. “But then a lot of the things started making headlines, and the world is talking about them. It’s really exciting for me to see that. I’m not just seeing race being talked about in some tiny little punk show, it’s on Saturday Night Live.”
This isn’t the only thing Tim has been paying attention to lately, either. He freely admits he’s never really been the “rear-view mirror guy” when it comes to looking back at his own life. It’s funny how a global pandemic can change that, though…
Tim McIlrath says it happens every time. Without fail. Seriously, you could set your watch to it at this point. What happens is this: Rise Against record an album, and afterwards, once the months of long days of recording are done, he crashes.
“It’s my typical post-album emotional collapse,” he deadpans. “We finish a record, I’ve just put pen to paper for three months straight, I’ve been away from my family and going home to an empty apartment every night most of the time, just kind of losing my mind… Every album comes with a post-album emotional collapse. It’s like the blinds are drawn and I don’t want to see the world for a little while.”
At least this time around his withdrawal from the world synced up, almost perfectly, with people around the globe all doing the same thing during the first lockdown of the pandemic. There have been highs: it’s been the longest time he’s ever gotten to spend with his wife and kids without having to leave to go on tour. Like everyone else, Tim made time for TV (most recently HBO’s “super-sad” show on Allen v. Farrow documentary). He also enrolled in college, partaking in an interdisciplinary smorgasbord of courses in political science, sociology, philosophy.
The pandemic has also been a time of illumination. Without the constant treadmill of life in Rise Against, he saw his life in a new way. It dawned on him: he was 42 years old and, as a parent, facing the prospect of being “an empty nester” in just five years. These are things the school of rock just can’t prepare you for…
“Growing up in punk, you don’t think of life after 40, you know?” Tim says. “You think ‘Well, maybe I’ll make it to 40!’ and then, ‘Oh, I still have a lot of life to live here, a lot of things I can do if I want to.’ I went into thinking a lot about my identity: Who am I if I can’t do what I do?”
So did he figure out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life?
“No! I have no grand plans,” he continues. “I just realised I want to keep making music.”
It turns out that Rise Against is everything Tim wanted. He points to their new track Forfeit – a string-assisted acoustic ballad – as example of why he has never gone solo. He’s never needed to.
Tim explains how Rise Against’s new acoustic track Forfeit came to him out of nowhere…
“Rise Against ticks so many boxes for me,” he explains. “Because if there was a world where I couldn’t bring that song in, yeah, maybe I’d be compelled to say, ‘This needs to be a different project.’ That’s what I’ve always loved about Rise Against. When we bring songs in it’s not like, ‘Oh, this isn’t us.’ We make every song us, and that’s so liberating.”
Not only does Nowhere Generation continue to shed light on the different musical dimensions of this band, we also see some other sides of their singer. While much of the record is in dialogue with the world around us, some of its finest moments detail the human behind the humanitarian. Monarch, for one, is particularly deceptive. At first it can be heard as a broadside against a looming oppressor. And it is partially that. But Tim – who never previously struck us as a lepidopterology specialist – also points something else out.
“A monarch’s a butterfly, too,” he explains. “There’s a transformation happening [in the song]. And even though I feel like my transformative years were so long ago, and I’ve been confidently who I am for a long time, I feel like it behooves us to always be revisiting that – to remind yourself who you are.”
It’s been decades since Tim had his life transformed by punk, growing his hair long and skateboarding the streets to the strains of Black Flag. This image is still the source of great laugher in the McIlrath household.
“My kids are pretty intimately familiar with my adolescence, whether my wife has told them or my mom, they love poking fun at me about all the trouble I got into as a kid, and it was fun! I’ll just say that…”
How does someone who jumped in a tour van at a young age give his kids practical advice on what to grow up to be? It’s not a question K! asks, mind. It’s one Tim poses to himself.
“I don’t have a real foot to stand on,” he laughs. “There’s so many times I’m talking to my kids where it ends with, ‘Don’t make the same mistakes I did!’ And I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I didn’t take school very seriously, and I wish I had. I think it would have enhanced everything that I ever would have done, and I want them to take it seriously. And, I mean, shit, Rise Against was such a precarious bridge we were trying to cross with no safety net. The young men of Rise Against? Nobody in that van had a good back-up plan (laughs). We were all or nothing, and it was kind of beautiful and innocent in that way. Because we had no reason to believe that it would be successful. I get anxiety thinking about the shit that we did like, ‘How fucking irresponsible is it to think that I could do that!’ If I tell my kids anything, it’s like, ‘Whatever you’re into, follow it – trust that itch, because that itch you have at 16 years old might be the same itch you’re scratching at 42.’”
The outcome of his own personal itch still astounds him to this day.
“We shouldn’t even be still be here, you know what I mean?” he says. “Culture should have already pushed us out the door – every record, they should have done that. And so the fact that we’re still here is beating the odds. There’s the new hot thing every year. I mean, why is the band assigned to Fat Wreck in 2001 still here? The hope is if you write good enough songs, and you stay true to yourself and protect your legacy, then you’re good.”
And this is how, as a 42-year-old, Tim McIlrath hopes to ensure that Nowhere Generation actually connects with the real Nowhere Generation and more beyond that. The plan is to stick to the plan…
“When I get done with this interview, I’m going to do the same thing today that I was doing when I was 16 years old.”
“I’m going to walk into the next room, I’m going to pick up a guitar, turn it on and start playing it real loud until I get a song. And that’s my life at 42. And that was my life in my parents’ basement, too, getting home from school and doing the exact same thing.”
Tim McIlrath has everything he wants. He’s got his family, his dogs, his band, 17 college credits and, lest we forget, his very own version of a yacht.
Rise Against’s Nowhere Generation is released on June 14 via Loma Vista. Pre-order/pre-save your copy now.
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