Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath: “If people had a ‘Tim for president’ bumper sticker, I’d say, ‘Slow down, I’m often full of as many questions as you are’”

Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath gets put under the K! Interview spotlight to discuss rebellion, being a punk and hardcore ‘veteran’, and why it’s okay to not have all the answers…

Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath: “If people had a ‘Tim for president’ bumper sticker, I’d say, ‘Slow down, I’m often full of as many questions as you are’”
George Garner
Jonathan Weiner
Originally published:
May 2019

For over 20 years, Tim McIlrath has been the unflinching, compassionate voice behind Rise Against. It’s hard to overstate the Chicago punks’ importance as the torchbearers of politically-charged music – here is a band who’ve addressed everything from climate change to gay teenage suicide on record.

Despite this rich legacy, Tim McIlrath was not born a firebrand. Raised in an Irish Catholic family, he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. It was, in his words, “Pleasantville”. He wore a uniform to school until he was 14, his idyllic days punctuated with games. Today he is all too aware of the real Chicago he was shielded from.

“The violence is sad, the segregation is sad,” he reflects. “There’s a disconnection. Something like the murder rates of Baghdad exist not 20 minutes away from where I am right now, and yet life hums on and no-one really does anything about it.”

It would be punk that first shattered his Pleasantville reality as he fell in love with bands like Pegboy, Fugazi and Earth Crisis. Soon enough, pamphlets distributed at hardcore shows also opened up another world to him: vegetarianism.

“I started being less able to ignore the realities of animal agriculture,” he reflects. “So yes, I stopped eating meat, but I think the bigger picture of that was the idea that something cracked inside me. I figured I was being told everything by my teachers and my parents, and if this was something I didn’t know, it was like, ‘What else don’t I know?’ The problems of the world fascinated me, because they were all hitting me at once coming out of the suburban Chicago I’d grown up in.”

Eager to be part of the solution, he entertained becoming a schoolteacher, journalist or photographer, but it was music that dug its claws in. First came post-hardcore group Baxter, then a foray into metalcore with Arma Angelus – which featured a pre-Fall Out Boy Pete Wentz (“Just meeting Pete, you knew he was always destined to have a vision and connect with a lot of people”). It was with Rise Against, though, that things would click.

Today, they stand as one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful punk bands ever. Sounds like the perfect time for an interview…

Let’s rewind to 2001. Tell us about the Tim McIlrath who recorded Rise Against’s debut, The Unraveling…
“That was a guy who’d already spent years toiling away in Chicago trying to make music. My bands were fizzling out, there was no success on the horizon. My flame was slowly dying. That’s when I hooked up with Joe [Principe, Rise Against bassist] – we were some of the last local musicians left that were dead serious. I was more focused, too, because I’d already done a lot of unmemorable musical endeavours and I wanted something people could sink their teeth into. I had always written very vague lyrics that weren’t always well thought out. With The Unraveling I wanted songs that had a message, so that even if they sucked you could still say what it was about. I was a pretty mediocre singer, too – I was still figuring out how to do it. The whole process of being ‘The singer of Rise Against’ was intimidating – we already had more attention than any band I had ever been a part of, because [Fat Wreck Chords label head] Fat Mike was agreeing to sign us before we even played a show.”

That must have been a good feeling…
“That was a huge fucking deal. It was life-changing right away, too, because I got a little foreshadowing of how people were going to look differently at me. I had come from a really PC straight-edge punk and hardcore world and there were so many rules. The punk police were my friends, and Chicago’s a pretty humble place where you’re expected to be more embarrassed of attention than proud. Right away I had friends calling me ‘rock star’ and we hadn’t even played a show! I was a scene rat. I went to every show no matter who was playing, so when everyone goes, ‘Oh, it’s the hotshot – is Fat Mike calling you?’ It was like, ‘Holy shit, what are you talking about?’ It’s a microcosm of the trials and tribulations of a small punk band becoming a bigger band. It braced me for the impact later when we signed to a major label and got on the radio. There was really nothing you could throw at me after my own close friends had decided I was too high and mighty for them. That’s when I developed armour; I had to reconcile everything with myself, too, like, ‘You’re doing this for the right reasons, ignore those dudes and keep doing it.’ And that’s taken me to the present day.”

Were there any specific reasons you choose to live a straight-edge lifestyle?
“I didn’t have bad experiences. My family doesn’t have a problem with drugs and alcohol, my friends who did drugs and drank didn’t have a problem. For me, it boiled down to conformity. I’m sure that at some point in the course of history, drinking as a teenager may have been an act of rebellion, but by the time I was going to high school in the ’90s, it wasn’t. I think I had a bigger issue with conformity than I ever did with drinking or drugs. There’s that quote in The Wild One where someone says, ‘What are you rebelling against?’ and Marlon Brando replies: ‘What you got?’ That was definitely me. Some of it was shoot-from-the-hip, blanket rebellion. It was part of growing up.”

You once said your records started out with conviction and then later became more about questions. Why was that?
“When I started the band I was young, kind of cocky and thought I knew it all. I had a code I was living by and I was happy to render judgement on a world that I didn’t understand. Older people talk about youth in condescending ways, but they’re hungry for knowledge, not weighed down by the world, and see things pretty clear-eyed. There’s a fearlessness to youth, and I had that fearlessness. But with age and experience, you realise the world’s more complex than you thought it was at 21. As I wrote more records I often had more questions and less answers; I felt I was doing too much talking and wanted to do more listening. Doing the first few albums, I was talking to fans who were much smarter than me, talking about me like I was smarter than them! I never sat comfortably in this throne that people were putting me in. If they had a bumper sticker on their car saying ‘Tim McIlrath for president,’ thinking I had the answers, I would say, ‘Slow down, I’m often full of as many questions as you are.’ That doesn’t mean my conviction ever went away or that I’ve even gone back on things I’ve said, I just wanted to leave room for growth and learning.”

Your father served in the military and you’ve said he wasn’t a fan of your protest song Hero Of War. Did recording it put you in a difficult position, personally?
“My dad is such an interesting character; he evolved in a way that people his age don’t. I never grew up talking politics with my dad, and I would find out later that he was mostly Republican throughout his life and somewhere around the Bush administration he decided he didn’t want to be anymore. Despite his evolution towards progressive politics, he’s still a 70-year-old man who has deeply entrenched beliefs, so his initial reaction to that song was, ‘No, you don’t do this because doing so is an insult to the troops.’ That was his gut reaction. I didn’t even assume my parents listened to my records, but they were proud that we were successful and I have a really good relationship with my parents, my dad included. There were times when we would start talking and I’d say, ‘Okay, we’re having a universal healthcare discussion, let’s get into it…’ And then I’d be so surprised we agreed on this stuff!”

Your song Architects quoted the chorus of Against Me!’s I Was A Teenage Anarchist, in order to refute its sentiment. Did you ever speak to Laura Jane Grace about why?
“No, we never did, and I think we live in the same town now, too. I’m not sure it was ever on their radar. I certainly didn’t write that to create any kind of beef. We toured with them, I always loved their stuff – I thought [2007 album] New Wave was brilliant. It was just my reaction when I heard that song, but I think it was largely just a tree that fell in the forest that no-one heard. I expected a little more. And in fact, Spin trashed that record and that’s the lyric they pulled out to say they didn’t like it. In some ways I tend to agree with journalists that trash our records (laughs), but I was like, ‘Man, this thing went completely over this journalist’s head if they’re treating the lyric as if it’s mine.’”

On 2014’s The Black Market you explored how you were haunted by some of the subjects of your songs. Historically, which has been the hardest to walk away from?
“I think of a song like House On Fire – which was written about my relationship with my teenage daughter. Just because I wrote a song about it doesn’t mean I put the fire out. There’s times when I’m singing it and it’s like, ‘Shit, this means more today than it meant two years ago.’ Some lyrics require a lot more of me so I have to start thinking about the chords instead. If I think about the lyrics live, I’ll choke up and I don’t want that to seem theatrical, because it is not. I’m always self-conscious about that. It’s the same place I have to go to when we cover the No Use For A Name song For Fiona. It was a heavy, heavy song. The lyrics are just haunting in the way they almost reference Tony’s [Sly, NUFAN frontman who passed away in 2012] eventual death. You’re singing this song that is basically a love letter to his daughter, who is alive and well today and exists on this planet without a father. That is overwhelming to think about when I play it. We covered it on The Ghost Note tour and I felt I couldn’t get through the song if I told the story about meeting Fiona and where I was when I heard about Tony’s death beforehand, so I told it afterwards. There’s a lot of times when songs catch me off guard.”

On the subject of fallen friends, you also knew both Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington…
“I was a huge fan of Soundgarden growing up, and I played with Chris in London at his solo show and we became friends after that. We traded some emails, and one of the biggest regrets in my life is an email he sent me that said, ‘If you ever want to work on songs together, let me know.’ Why I didn’t get on a plane that day and work on songs? The idea of a world without Chris Cornell was not something I would have considered. I was like, ‘Yes, I do, and one day we will do that.’ It’s so bizarre. Chester as well. With Rise Against we’ve achieved so much, I feel very lucky to have what we have, but there’s not many places left to go. I saw those two guys as much more popular singers than me, their legacies much deeper and broader – they were people to aspire to. Whenever I talked with Chester or Chris I always thought of them as the scene veterans who had made it, raised families and were really good people. That was one of the most rewarding parts of knowing those guys, they were just nice fucking dudes. They seemed to have their heads on straight – I saw my future self in them. Obviously, there were far more things happening than I was aware of.”

So what did you take away from their deaths?
“It makes you realise that what they’re doing is real. It’s not theatrical, it’s not done for record sales: you are listening to those guys wrestling with their demons. Songwriters from our world are, in a lot of ways, like lion tamers. We go out on to the floor and we go and wrestle with the lions out there. Those guys made it look easy, but never forget that those are fucking lions and every time you step out there it’s dangerous. That’s the illusion.”

In many Rise Against songs time appears to be running out, not just in which to change the world, but also in terms of life itself. Do you think about mortality a lot?
“I think about it more, recently. In my younger years it wasn’t really about mortality, I just always wanted there to be an urgency to Rise Against because I felt what we were singing about was urgent. The band was such a gathering snowball for so long, I never thought about the next year or our legacy. And now we’re officially in our 40s and the word ‘veteran’ will be thrown around…”

Is ‘veteran’ a word you fear?
“I don’t fear it. There are a lot worse things to be than a veteran, like a ‘flash in the pan’ or ‘sad tribute to their former self’. We are not the most perfectly stable and functional band on the planet, but we’ve certainly avoided a lot of the stereotypical pitfalls – our Behind The Scenes would be the most boring thing in the world. It’s always been about the music and fans and it will never cease to amaze me that we’re still here.”

To wrap things up, then, what would make a good title for your life story so far?
“Er… The opposite of The Dirt. No Dirt.”

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