Rise Against has conquered the album charts and smashed hardcore's glass ceiling
Even though he's now headlining 5,000-seat venues with Rise Against, Tim McIlrath isn't without his regrets. One of the big ones is touched upon in "The Dirt Whispered", a distortion-strafed lament on the Chicago quartet's fifth and latest album, Appeal to Reason. Lines like "The postcard says ”˜Wish you were here', but I'd rather I was there/Holding on to the simple things before they disappear" make the point that, for McIlrath, life on the road isn't always as fulfilling as one might dream. For the number one reason behind that reality, consider that the singer-guitarist is the father of a young child.
"Today is what, Thursday? And I woke up in Chicago this morning," McIlrath says, on the line from a San Diego tour stop a day before Halloween. "I dressed up my four-year-old daughter in a witch costume—she wanted to be a dark princess, which is essentially a witch, but she said it was a dark princess—and then dropped her off at school. And then I hopped on a plane to San Diego, where I'll be tonight. So I won't be there for Halloween—that's one holiday that I've actually never been home for. Being home this morning to dress her up is the closest I've got.
"So things like that are tough," he continues. "Monday is my birthday, and I can't remember the last time I was home for my birthday. But in the grand scheme of things, we choose to do this, and I'm not complaining at all. Every day that we are out here, no one is twisting our arms. And despite the sacrifices, in the end it's what I love to do."
Who can blame him, considering that, over the latter half of this decade, Rise Against has quietly become arguably the most successful hardcore band in the history of the genre. Appeal to Reason hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts, impressively trumping 2006's The Sufferer & the Witness, which reached No. 10. Making both those benchmarks even more laudable is that the band's 2004 major-label debut, Siren Song of the Counter Culture, had the former Fat Wreck Chords act topping out at 136, which is still impressive considering where Rise Against came from. Back in the early days, McIlrath and band cofounder bassist Joe Principe weren't thinking much beyond house parties and all-ages halls.
"I really believed that there was a glass ceiling on how big a band of our style could get," the front man admits. "Like it would only get so big, and then there was no way it would get bigger. Slowly, though, we've just kind of broken through that ceiling over and over, which to me is just shocking."
Shocking to the point where the rise of Rise Against left him confused.
"I grew up going to shows by bands like Hot Water Music and Face to Face and stuff like that," McIlrath reveals. "For us to finally play the same size clubs they were playing when I was a kid was a huge thing for me. And then to break out of that and play larger venues than bands like Hot Water Music and NOFX was like being in uncharted territory. Like, ”˜I don't know what to do or how to navigate this. I've never even gone to a show in this size of room, much less played a show in this size room.' That's when you have to really lock things down, make sure that you've got everything under control and that you are doing things for the right reasons."
In other words, Appeal to Reason isn't the album where Rise Against suddenly starts pandering to those for whom Avril Lavigne is the second coming of Nancy Spungen. Musically, the band once again injects second-wave Midwest hardcore with shots of melodic punk and Hiwatt-jacked metal. What sets the album apart from past efforts, though, is McIlrath's lyrics. Appeal to Reason pretty much confirms that the 30-year-old singer didn't vote for John McCain on Tuesday. In the past, McIlrath has admitted he has a tendency to leave things open-ended in his writing, preferring to let his fans put their own spin on things. This time out, he wastes no time making it clear that he's taking a different tack, announcing, "Neutrality means that you don't really care" in the warp-speed kickoff track, "Collapse (Post-Amerika)". It's hard to miss the message in "Kotov Syndrome" that American imperialism has cost countless foreign lives, and in "From Heads Unworthy" that George W. Bush might have made the biggest policy blunder in the history of the U.S.
As Anti-Flag and many others have learned, you don't usually go platinum by wearing your left-of-centre politics on the sleeve of your leather jacket. McIlrath, however, has a good idea why Rise Against has managed to connect with a mass audience. America has gotten to the point where it's so fucked, you might as well comment on the obvious.
"What I've noticed, from the band attracting more attention on this record and this year, is that, to me, it's not a case of ”˜Look at us—we're so awesome,' " he says. "It's more ”˜Look at the world—it's so pissed off and it's looking to bands like us.' I see all these kids who are demanding music that reflects the questions they have about the tumultuous climate that we live in. That's encouraging to me—that people are coming to this band because we're asking the same questions they are. There are a lot of different ideas on this record, so I'm confident that they are going to provoke a lot of thought. They already have."
Strangely, the album's most effective song is also its quietest. On the plaintive folk number "Hero of War" McIlrath switches off the distortion pedal and picks up an acoustic guitar, taking dead and devastating aim at the war in Iraq through lines culled from conversations with those who've served their country. When it's suggested to the singer, however, that he's never been more political, he counters with the argument that sometimes the most powerful thing an artist can do is reflect what he sees around him.
"Something like ”˜Hero of War' almost has no Rise Against in it," he says. "That song is really just a story. I didn't inject my own opinion into it at all. All I did was tell things that you hear all over this country."
And McIlrath has no regrets about taking that approach, even when he could have been forgiven for blasting away with both barrels.
"Rise Against has done antiwar songs in the past," he says. "But I really felt that I wanted to comment on this elephant in the room, and I didn't want to be redundant. I didn't want to write the same antiwar song. I think ”˜Hero of War' is a fresh approach to an old problem."
Rise Against headlines UBC's Thunderbird Arena on Sunday (November 9).