Tim McIlrath: “Rise Against Are Living Proof That There’s A Hungry Audience Who Want Music Laced With Ideas Of Change”

Vocalist/guitarist Tim McIlrath talks his 2020 superheroes, how to use your platform, and new Rise Against music…

Tim McIlrath: “Rise Against Are Living Proof That There’s A Hungry Audience Who Want Music Laced With Ideas Of Change”
Header photo:
Jonathan Weiner

Recently, Tim McIlrath went back to school. Having been “kidnapped” by Rise Against as a third-year student in college over two decades ago, the 40-year-old decided this year that, with some unplanned free time on his hands thanks to coronavirus, it was time to return to education.

“It was something that I’d always thought about doing, but that time never came – and then all of a sudden, this year happens and the lights go out, and it’s like, ‘Okay, it’s now or never!’” the vocalist and guitarist tells Kerrang! today from his home in Chicago, where he is also joined for this interview by one of his sweet dogs that appears in Touché Amoré’s heartwarming new video for Reminders.

“I’m going for what they’re calling an Interdisciplinary Degree, and so that way I can kind of pick from the whole buffet,” Tim explains of his chosen subject. “But it’s mostly philosophy, and sociology, and political science.”

As well as enjoying family life (and “wrangling” his kids into home-learning) and working on new music with his bandmates in Rise Against, the frontman has found his time studying to be most helpful this year. Though it wasn’t a tool used to inspire creativity for his politically-charged lyrics in Rise Against, it has been an unexpected – but very much welcome – result.

“It really triggers something in you: it gets those creative juices flowing, and it’s been really exciting doing that again because I’m studying and reading, and I’m like, ‘Oh, there’s a song right here. This would be great,’” he enthuses. “And so then I’m pulling out a different notebook and writing down lyrics and ideas. It’s a lot of work, as any student can commiserate with (laughs), but there are moments when I’m really glad I’m doing it. It’s like anything else: your brain is a muscle, and it’s like going for workout, or ride a bike, or run. It’s been a cool process.”

There’s also, Tim chuckles, the added bonus of those around him being completely oblivious to his position as the frontman of one of the best and most important punk rock bands on the planet (our words – not his).

“When I’m with other students and teachers, they don’t really know who I am, and in a sense they don’t give a shit who I am,” he laughs. “They’re happy to tell me I’m wrong, or that I didn’t do something well enough. I think when you’re in band, your word is unquestioned in some ways, and so I’m really happy to get the feedback. When I get a paper and the teacher hated it and said, ‘Here’s where you screwed up,’ I actually kind of crave that feedback in a way. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is how you get better.’ You don’t get better when someone tells you you’re great all day long, you know?”

The idea of Tim’s songwriting improving even further, then, is an exciting one. Recently, the band unleashed the brilliant Broken Dreams, Inc. for DC Comics’ Dark Nights: Death Metal soundtrack – and, as well as serving as the highly-anticipated follow-up to 2017’s Wolves album, it also shows that Rise Against are still at the top of their game, 20 years into their career. And with “the next chapter” and album number nine on the horizon, there’s plenty more to come…

How has this year been for you, Tim? Have you found it creative, or has it more just been about spending time with family and making the most of that?
“I think it’s been finding a balance between those two things. When we’re off the road, this is what life looks like for me a lot anyway – I’m kind of homebody, and I’ve got a family, and I use my time at home to spend time with them before I go back on the road. And so I’m sort of used to it, but I’m not used to it dragging out this long (laughs) – I usually have another thing coming up every few weeks or so, so this is the longest time that anybody in the band has been home. But, we’ve been hitting it hard for the past 20 years; we’ve had a lot of adventures, and I’m glad that we did them when we did, and now it’s nice to have that time to reflect on everything, and be appreciative of what we have. I feel for the bands out there where this was supposed to be the year they break [through]. Whether it’s their first record, or their first big opening slot on a big tour – like what the first few years of Rise Against looked like. I think about how Rise Against will weather this year and will come out of the other side of it, but what if this was Rise Against in 1999 or 2000, when every show, tour and record really mattered? We were just trying to get in front of people. My heart goes out to the bands and musicians and artists where this was supposed to be their year to break, and I hope that this window stays open long enough for them.”

Support for workers in the music industry in the UK has been incredibly poor. How have you found it in America?
“Yeah, you’ve definitely hit a nerve because we’ve been talking about venues and our crew. North America started the National Independent Venue Association – mostly in response to the fact that these venues are falling through the cracks of a lot of government assistance; they’re not being taken care of the way that a lot of [other] businesses are being taken care of. They really need extra attention, and we’ve been trying to contribute when we can, and to generate awareness around the issue of independent venues and their potential closing in this time. It’s hard, because there’s no shows, and so not only are the employees not getting paid, but the buildings themselves… how they’re going to weather this year is a really tricky balance for a lot of these venue owners – and especially independent venue owners. The bigger venues are hurting too, but a lot of them have more resources at their disposal, but the independent venues need the help. Right now, the National Independent Venue Association is trying to petition government to take venues seriously and treat them as what they are: these institutions of art and culture in everybody’s towns that mean a lot to people – they certainly mean a lot to us, and they mean a lot to our audience as well. These buildings are irreplaceable a lot of the time, too; as a band who have rolled around the world playing all these shows, you really come to appreciate those old venues. And then when you play a brand-new venue, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you can’t just construct the charm that lives in an old venue.’ It’s not as magical – and so when I use the word ‘irreplaceable’, I really mean it.”

In happier news, we recently got the first new Rise Against music in three years, Broken Dreams, Inc. Do you get nervous about releasing new music at this point?
“You know, it took somebody to tell me that it’s been three years since we put out new music (laughs). I think, had I heard that sentence before we put the song out, then yes, I probably would have been more nervous. But to me, Rise Against is an ever-evolving snowball rolling down the hill; it’s always this living, breathing, organic thing, and this song is just another part of our story. And I’m happy with the attention it’s getting – in this world, usually your singles get the most attention, but I love our deep cuts; I love our songs on the records that are way in there that fans grab onto. And so I was so excited to see this song getting the attention it deserves, as opposed to if it was, like, track eight on a record. This has been a cool, unique way to get it out there, too. It’s been rad. All along our career there have been interesting devices like this that get your songs out there – like the Tony Hawk’s video game. None of us anticipated the song that we had on Tony Hawk’s [Like The Angel, from 2003’s Revolutions Per Minute] would be so massive, and later there were then the Guitar Hero games. It’s a really great way to introduce yourself to new fans. And this is the first time we’ve hooked up with DC Comics. When someone told me we were doing a soundtrack to a comic book, I was like, ‘You’re going to have to say that sentence to me again, because I don’t know how that works…’ (Laughs) But now I’m seeing all of the tentacles of the comic and graphic novel world, and how massive it is, and to have our song to be the background and soundtrack to that is really exciting.”

Your lyrics were written long before the pandemic and any of the craziness of 2020, and yet they have this dystopian feel and cross over into a superhero world really well. Were they written once you knew about the Dark Nights soundtrack, or was Broken Dreams going to be a song for the new Rise Against album at first?
“We were already working on the song; we were working on the music almost a year ago, and then the lyrics were something I put in later. But it just sort of dovetailed really nicely with this story. We had a few songs that we’ve been working on, and so we gave Loma Vista [the label curating the Dark Nights soundtrack] their pick – we were like, ‘Here’s some stuff we’re working on. What do you think matches up?’ And they loved Broken Dreams, Inc. And after I started to see the Dark Nights series and what it was about, and this struggle over humanity, I was like, ‘Oh, I see why this song resonated with the creators of the comic.’ It makes sense. It’s eerie, though, because we’ve never written a song for anything, or taken inspiration for a song knowing where it was going to end up, and so it was really serendipitous that the lyrics and the feel of the song matched up well. And that’s the kind of stuff you can’t plan. Had we tried to write a song about Batman I’m sure it probably would have been pretty campy (laughs). But when they’re digging away at the tunnel from one side, and we’re digging away at the other, and then we meet in the middle, that’s the kind of stuff that you can’t always plan.”

You’re asking a lot of questions in the song – ‘Was this place ever our home? Were these lines ever our own?’ What are you hoping that fans take away from it, if there is a lesson to be learned or specific message?
“You know, a lot of that song was painting two pictures: it’s the future that you thought you were gonna have, and the future you’re having. We were all prepared and told, ‘If you do these things, then you will receive these things; you will be rewarded for that work.’ And I think there was probably an age in civilisation where that was very true, but it seems like we’re leaving that age. We’re still asking people to do these things, but we’re no longer rewarding them with the same things that we rewarded previous generations with. Working hard is not enough, because there’s too many systems in place to keep you down. Or the rewards have been hoarded by a different class of people. And so I think that the song is painting this picture of, ‘What does this future look like if it doesn’t look like the future you promised us, and what should we be doing about that?’ That’s where Broken Dreams, Inc. came from.”

Musically and lyrically, what kind of indication is it in terms of a new album?
“I’ll tell you, we’ve been really busy this year – we haven’t just been sitting around! We’ve been planning the next chapter of Rise Against. And, you know, we’re reading the same news that you’re reading. We’re waiting to see when the lights go back on, and when this train gets started back up then we’re gonna jump onboard. So stay tuned on that – and rest assured that Rise Against haven’t been lazy (laughs), we haven’t been sitting this out. We’ve been working hard on the future of Rise Against.”

With Broken Dreams, Inc. being for DC, who are your real-life superheroes in 2020?
“Oh, that’s a good question. You know, the superheroes to me are every protestor and activist who is putting everything on the line to be out there on the streets, singing and holding signs and getting pepper-sprayed by law enforcement night after night. It’s just such a brave thing to do – and especially during a pandemic. History has shown us that it’s that kind of friction that creates change, and those people who are out there creating that friction are essential to me. When I look out there, it makes me proud to be alive in this time: to see people that really care that much. These people have been backed up against the wall for so long, and they’re finally lashing out because they have nothing to lose. Those are my superheroes right now: everybody spearheading those movements.”

It feels as though 2020 has pushed more artists than ever before to use their platforms. Do you have any advice or words of encouragement, as someone who has been doing that for their whole career?
“Man, you’d think I would have learned more in the last 20 years (laughs). I think that when you use your art as a vehicle for change and awareness, you get yourself into dicey territory. There are a lot of people who expect musicians to just entertain people, and they don’t expect to have their preconceptions of the world challenged, and they don’t expect music to be confrontational. You will always find those people, and not everybody is your audience. So I think musicians, and anybody reading this, should know that we are living proof that there’s a really hungry audience out there who want music laced with ideas of change and awareness. There are fans out there that have an appetite for this; they’re searching for it, and they’re so grateful when it exists. And that’s something we always focus on: we might not be your band, and we might not be what you want when you turn on your radio, and that’s okay. All musicians need to understand that not everybody is your fan – and don’t focus on the people that aren’t your fans. Create your art, and if you’re doing it honestly and authentically, people will resonate with that, and they’re going to find you. And, in the end, there are people who completely disagree with us on things who will still appreciate that we’re just an honest band; they know what they’re gonna get from us. We’ve been really consistent about who we are, and so you might disagree with us, but you’ll at least nod your head begrudgingly – like, ‘Alright, I see what they’re doing!’ (Laughs) That’s worked well for us.

“When you’re in a band you have to balance that delivery of the message, because there are times when you’re going to on your pedestal and overbearing and telling people how to think, and then there are also going to be times when you’re not saying enough. You need to find that balance right in the middle where you can get on a stage, and write that song, and not tell people what to think. We’re a punk rock band – people found punk rock because they’re sick of people telling them what to think, you know (laughs). And, for me, finding that balance is a lifelong journey – there will be times where I’m leaning too far in one direction, and you have to monitor yourself. But every once in a while, when you nail it and that message is received, you can change lives. That makes everything you do worth it.”

Broken Dreams, Inc. is taken from the Dark Nights: Death Metal soundtrack, and is out now via Loma Vista

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