While on stage McIlrath is a force to be reckoned with, behind the scenes he couldn't be more unassuming. Seemingly happy to be contributing yet another interview to Punknews, Francis John Corva III spoke in person before the band's second consecutive night headlining the venue about the cyclical nature of punk rock, the artist's role as an educator and just how important Guitar Hero is these days.
How's this tour going so far?
As awesome as it sounds. Alkaline Trio, Thrice and The Gaslight Anthem. You can't ask for a better line up than that. It's been really good. Everyone's really cool. We already know Alkaline. We already know most of their crew -- and Thrice, the same thing. Just a lot of guys that we've been on the road with a lot over the last eight years or so. And then Gaslight, this is our first time meeting them, but they've been living up to the hype. They're a great band. They're really killing it every night.
There were a few years there where Alkaline Trio was a bit bigger than Rise Against, no?
(Laughs) Oh Yeah. Probably for most of the time. It's weird to go on after them. I used to go see Alkaline Trio at veteran's halls in Chicago. My high school band opened up for them. A number of bands I've played in have opened for Alkaline Trio. Coming from Chicago, Alkaline is pretty much the quintessential Chicago band with the die-hard fans. I think I was talking to Brendan Kelly from The Lawrence Arms when Alkaline headlined The Aragon. He was like, "That's the first time one of us has headlined The Aragon Ballroom," and it was true. It was the first time that somebody from the whole lineage where you go back to Slapstick and The Broadways and all that headlined a show that big. They're certainly an inspiration because they broke outside of Chicago and they did it the right way. So, it's cool to be on stage with them. It's weird to go on after them. It's going to be weird to go on after them in Chicago.
Do they kind of bust on you guys because of that?
I think that we've all been around long enough to know that there was a time when we were begging to get on a Thrice tour and five years from now we'll probably be begging to get on one again. It's just a cycle. It's not up to us. It's up to the people that are reading this interview right now. It's up to you whose record you like the best this year. It's an always revolving thing. We're taking out Thursday next month and there was a time when they were taking us out. There was a time when Boysetsfire. was taking us and Thursday out. It's just this big old cycle and I'm sure it'll cycle all over the place again. So, we're just happy to be on the road with such cool bands.
One of the biggest things I've noticed concerning this upcoming election is how artists haven't organized to extent that they did in 2004. You had everyone from Bruce Springstein touring with Pearl Jam and Death Cab For Cutie to Fat Mike doing Punk Voter raising funds and awareness, all in support of ousting Bush. Instead, I've read things from artists like yourself and Tom Morello, saying, "Yeah, this is an important election, but we have to remember to organize in our own communities," to paraphrase. What would do you think is the reason for this? And is your stance staunchly pro-Obama?
It is and I already cast my absentee ballad before I left for the tour for Obama. We took part in an Obama fundraiser earlier this year. So, we're all voting Obama. I can't imagine voting for McCain. I don't really know anybody who is.
He can be a scary guy.
(Laughs) Yeah, [he] really is. So, that's where we're leaning for sure. I think the difference in this election is [that] you kind of see what bands or people were just simply sort of tourists in the political world and what bands were there before Bush and what bands will be there after Bush. And I think that things like Punk Voter and Fat Mike and bands that were really involved really mobilized a lot of kids and got kids interested in politics that are still interested to this day that are taking part in this election. And I think that will be evidenced by the ballots on November 4th. I think it will be evidenced that the kids came out. I really hope they do. I really believe that they're going to. So, I think that though you don't have the Punk Voter, you don't have the Fat Mike spokesperson, [that] the groundwork has been laid. For us, this isn't a Punk Voter tour or a Punk Voter show, but to me it's like every time Rise Against sets up some gear on stage and plays a show there are important things to be talked about. There's a dialogue being created. It's certainly an historic election and like you said the only time I get scared is when I see people kind of assign a God complex to Obama. When you do that you sort of deem yourself powerless in the process. You put all your power, all your faith into one candidate. One candidate is not going to solve the world's problems. You forget how important the individual is. Change isn't a product exclusively manufactured by the White House. That's something that's in everybody. That's something that we talk about in our songs and in our shows to our fans.
I noticed the Pablo Picasso quote right when I opened the record and I read something about you saying how you were inspired by the grandeur of My Chemical Romance while you toured with them. As you get older, do the aesthetics of your art and sound start to become more important?
You always want to do stuff that you're interested in when you have to play on tour. And you know, it's like I definitely grew up listening to a lot of punk stuff like Black Flag or The Descendants or Jawbreaker, but I'm not going to say I didn't listen to Appetite For Destruction or Back In Black or all those classic rock records, too. So, there's a lot of rock in us. There's a lot of metal in the four of us. Probably more metal than anything else.
I saw you wearing that Sepultura shirt in Alternative Press.
(Laughs) Oh yeah. Chaos A.D., what an amazing record! It was metal, but it was so punk, too. Those songs were about human rights abuses in Brazil. That whole record is so political. No one thinks of Sepultura as political or at least I didn't at the time, but when I got that record I was like… You know, Jello Biafra wrote the lyrics to "Biotech Is Godzilla." It's a song about the environment. I love Sepultura. I love The Cavallera Conspiracy, too. What were we talking about again?
The aesthetics of your music and show, partially inspired by My Chemical Romance.
Doing that tour and doing the Billy Talent tour across Canada, which I actually think was bigger than the My Chem tour, because that band's huge in Canada. We played every single hockey arena in every single town. That's how big it is. They're just huge up there. I think this might be their year here in The States, too, because they're an incredible band. Just going out with those bands and just watching those bands really just own the stage and just own these big ass rooms. Something we have to admit to ourselves is that we don't want to play The Fireside Bowl exclusively. It's all about bringing that show to the room and doing it in the right way. I felt like those bands really found ways to do it right. Not to say that we're going to go out there with a Black Parade-type production, but I'm just talking about the sound, the feel, the general vibe. It was really cool. I loved being a part of those tours.
On the topic of touring on that bigger level, in an interview with Thomas from Strike Anywhere he mentioned that he was slightly skeptical about touring with bands of your stature because of the amount of radio fans that bands like yours has that are only there for you guys and your singles. Basically, that Strike Anywhere would be overshadowed and fall upon deaf ears at shows like that. Have you ever had bands turn down tours with you guys for that reason?
I mean, if they have declined for that reason it's not something that anybody's really told us. A band like Strike Anywhere is coming to Europe with us in the spring. I think there are a lot of bands that are sort of wary of that, the same way that we're wary about it at our level. It's like, maybe we'd be comfortable going out with The Offspring, but maybe we wouldn't be comfortable going out with like Timbaland. It's just that fine line. Maybe we could go out and open up for System Of A Down, maybe, but maybe we don't want to go out to open up for a Limp Bizkit kind of band. That kind of stuff is like picking the right tour and I'm sure there are probably smaller bands that are making those decisions as well. So far, everybody that we've wanted to tour with has always come out on tour. They may recognize the fact that what we represent is how you can maintain that punk ideal at a bigger level, so we can take out a band like The Gaslight Anthem, but we don't make them stay backstage while we traverse the hallways like some bands do. We're still the same guys we were when we started. We were The Gaslight Anthem at one point. We were that opening band opening up the Strung Out tours and the NOFX tours and for Sick Of It All. And so, I don't think that anybody has a lot to lose opening up for us, but I certainly respect that at the same time. I don't ever judge anybody for the way they look at our band, because I realize that everybody looks at each band differently. I remember getting my heart broken when Bad Religion signed to a major label when I was 16 years old. So, its like I sympathize with those people who maybe have those feelings, because I feel like we all have to go through that. I mean, I went through that and I realized that Bad Religion wasn't going to change. They still haven't changed. I think they're one of the glowing examples of how punk can survive the decades. I only hope that the next generation has a punk band like them to look to the way that we had them to look to.
Well, according to Fat Mike, since you're only three spots below them on the "Best Punk Bands In The World" list, it seems like you guys have a good shot a being that band. You guys have established your sound at this point. The core is there and you do have some nuances that deviate, but for the most part you know what you're getting when you buy a Rise Against record.
It's up to the fans. It's all up to them.
I admire that you guys still put literature and film recommendations in your album booklets. Do you have kids that come up to you telling you how they read something and how it's influenced them to read other works? Or do you have kids that come up to you also that tell you how you were their gateway to other punk rock? Like, the type of kids that heard Green Day on the radio and then went to look through a Lookout catalogue.
Yeah, it's amazing to see what kind of influence you exert over people just simply by wearing a t-shirt in photo shoot until I really think about how I was when I was a kid and I was the same way. I saw my favorite bands wearing t-shirts and I would go out and buy those records. If a band cited another band in an interview I went out and bought that record. It made me pay attention. So, I think in a lot of ways we take that seriously especially with the reading lists. It's something that we did on a whim for our second record, Revolutions Per Minute, and were so surprised at the feedback it got. People who were turned on to books like [A] People's History [Of The United States, Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It also created something else to talk about with our fans. You meet fans and you only have so much to talk about, you only have so much in common sometimes, but then they spent the last two weeks reading a book by Aldous Huxley and you're like, "Oh wait, we [have] lots to talk about." They recommend books to me. I have kids bring me books at likes signings or whatever. It's like "You recommended me this and I enjoyed it. You should check out this because I enjoyed it." Stuff like that is a sort of connection to the fans. I'm also not na´ve to the fact that we put out this record [where] hundreds of thousands of these records go out there, so why not put something in there. You know, if people are going to read those liner notes it makes them think a little bit it's something awesome to pass on.
The Fountainhead, to me, is the only questionable book you've cited. I feel like it's a story that can be interpreted as either stick to your guns and do what you believe or just be all about yourself and don't care about others. What did you take from it?
What I took from the book is just how important integrity is and how Howard Roark stood up to the man. I thought that was really symbolic of punk rock. I saw it as that character sort of represented a lot of different punk bands to me. They said no to this, they wouldn't do this, or they refused to be a part of this and that kind of thing.
You've described this band as "an extension of your adolescence." Does that mean there's a "real job" beyond Rise Against or do you not even think that far ahead? And being that you're a father, what is it like to have such responsibilities in tandem with writing songs for a band and touring as much as you do?
It's tough. It's different now than it was in the past when I was sitting on a couch, bored and unemployed and writing songs because I had nothing but time. Now I'm so busy that [I] have to pencil in the time to write songs. [I'm] no longer just sitting around watching TV with the guitar on my lap just like riffing around. So, it's a different world. As far as life past this, I haven't really crossed that bridge yet. I guess there are lots of things I'd like to do. Certainly do the band for as long as we can and then find a way to do something that still incorporates the ideals of this band, which would be great. Doing this band and touring as long as we do and having a family certainly makes it a lot more difficult, [but] there are a lot of family guys out here - Dan from Alkaline, Dustin and Teppei from Thrice - all family guys, all fathers. It's cool that I have models to look at, people like Jim from Pennywise, the Bad Religion guys have kids, the NOFX guys have kids, the Lagwagon guys have kids. It can be done and I certainly want to pass on to my daughters that if you try hard, if you work at something, don't be afraid to dream big. I hope to be an example of that.
In terms of the fact that you're career in Rise Against feeds your family is there something about that that's brought the music to a new level.
In a way, I guess, but I've tried to maintain a separation between the two. Sure, we've become a bigger band and we play bigger shows and we sell more records, but it could all disappear tomorrow and I wouldn't be freaking out. I don't think you'll find anybody in Rise Against rolling around in Benz or Mercedes or living in huge houses. I think we've been pretty humble about our success. And also, we've been around music long enough to watch the bottom fall out of some on our favorite bands; to watch bands get screwed by major labels. So, we're really realistic about it. I think we're all pretty punk rock at heart. I don't think about that the whole money side to this, I truly ignore [it], probably to a fault. I probably should be paying more attention to it, but I really know deep down that if I talked too much about this stuff that it would ruin what is Rise Against. I can't let that happen. I don't ever want to be doing this for any sort of strictly success reasons. Someone brought up to me while we were doing this record, "Which songwriters write your singles?" We've never had a songwriter help us out with anything. No one's ever asked us to write a single. And to be honest, I'd rather fail on my own, than succeed with someone else's song. You'll never see me out there singing someone else's song. It's just not going to happen. Even if you would say to me like, "Here, I've seen the future. I have a crystal ball. Your band fails with the music that you write for your sixth record, but it also succeeds if you just get this guy who wrote that Hinder hit to write your song." I'd be like, "You know what, I'll take the fail." I don't want success unless it comes from us, unless it comes from inside.
Where does the Appeal To Reason title come from?
It came from the Howard Zinn book, People's History. That's where I learned about a lot of the labor movement at the turn of the century [in] America. It was a socialist newsletter. It was the first place that Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, which was not only close to my heart because it was Chicago, but it was [also] animal rights at the same time. In turn, it was just huge expose about how bad labor conditions were in Chicago and slaughterhouses and it really was America's first eye-opening sort of insider's point of view to what was happening in the labor movement. And it sparked huge labor reform -- the eight-hour day, the 40-hour work week, child labor laws -- all stuff like that. The newsletter was called Appeal To Reason and it hit me. Not that our record is about Socialism, but it hit me just sort of as appeal to reason, that's what this is all about. People might want to put on us this tag of controversial or radical or political, but for me it's common sense. It's about appealing to the reasonable part of the human psyche. I don't see a lot of what we're asking as really crazy. I see it as really common sense things. Only in a world this turned around can something like being fair to one another and fighting for that fairness could that be considered radical or controversial.
I thought the title worked well also in the light of Bush and Palin's "God sent the troops to Iraq" mentality. Before we conclude, I wanted to get your opinion on the medium of Guitar Hero for your music and kids finding out about Rise Against through it?
You know, it's so funny, because I live in a neighborhood [where] some kids might find out I'm in a band and they'll be like, "What's your band called?" And I'll be like, "Oh, I'm in a band called Rise Against." And they're like, "Oh, we haven't heard of it." And I'm like, "Well, I've toured the world like 20 times in the last eight years." "Not a big deal." "Well, I did the My Chem tour last fall." "Ah, whatever." "Well, we have a video on MTV." "Yeah, big deal." "Well, we have songs on the radio. We were in the Top 10 this week." "Oh, whatever." Well, we're on Guitar Hero." "YOU'RE ON GUITAR HERO?!" (Laughs) I've never been a gamer. It's a whole different generation of kids that are getting into this. They don't listen to the radio. They don't necessarily watch MTV, because MTV doesn't play videos anymore. They're not necessarily at shows. It gets harder and harder to find out about new bands. It's all through video games, which is the largest branch of the entertainment industry, outside of porn. It's all the sudden getting into all these households. It's kids' first introduction to music. I've only played the first or second Guitar Hero when it first came out. It was one we had on the bus. I played AC/DC and Heart. Who doesn't love AC/DC and Heart?! I think that I'd be singing a different tune if it was a whole list of just crappy bands on there. For the most part there are some really cool bands. Like I heard Bikini Kill on the new Rock Band. It's like, what a great way to introduce these people to music. And I think the new Rock Band is finding ways to encourage people to put down the plastic instrument and to pick up a real one, which I think is the biggest critique of Guitar Hero, that it's taken people with ambition to play and allowing them to settle on playing this. But I don't know if that's true. I wonder if it's getting people to really want to play the guitar, to get them interested the ideas of rhythm and pace and tempo and all different things like that. It's different than playing guitar, that's for sure, like, I can't play "Prayer Of The Refugee" on expert, but I can play it tonight here at Roseland! The whole game world is foreign to me, but I know that it turns a lot of our kids onto our music, which is always a big goal.