Rise Against

Today we're bringing you the first of a three part interview with Rise Against. Earlier this year, Punknews.org spoke with both bassist Joe Principe and vocalist Tim McIlrath about their new album, The Sufferer & the Witness.

Over the course of about two hours and more than 15,000 words, Tim and Joe talked about everything from Black Flag to 88 Fingers Louie to life on a major label. The next installments will follow over the next few days.

It seems like the album came together really quickly.

Yes! It was insanely quick. We always write while we are on tour so we had the ideas, it was just a matter of getting us in a room to sit down and work it out.

I’ve always thought Rollins ruined Black Flag. I’m sure that’s going to get back to me at some point

This is your second album for a major label. Did you feel kind of any, like I mean obviously for the first one there’s a lot of pressure from your original fanbase and I guess with the second one you have a little more room to do what you want?

With the first one I think we were just a little nervous going into it because it was new territory and after working with Fat Mike it was a little bit - I mean he’s just easy. Going into Geffen it was definitely a little bit different although they still let us do what we want musically, but we were just nervous because it was a new process.

And of course, between 88 Fingers Louie and Rise Against, you’d been on indies for at least 10 years.

We were the fourth band to sign with Fat Wreck Chords for 7-inches. It was Lagwagon, Propagandhi, No Use For A Name, and then us, which is crazy. And then we went to Hopeless for our full length so we’re talking over 10 years ago. Probably going on I’d say almost 12 years.

I have that first 7-0inch in a box somewhere I think.

(laughing) So do I!

On the subject of the new record, there was a new fanbase that came onboard after "Swing Life Away" broke. I think a lot of your longtime fans heard the song on the compilation before, but did you guys expect it to blow up the way it did?

We didn’t really know. We actually didn’t even think about it, but when we were recording Siren Song of the Counter-Culture we didn’t really think about putting it on the album and then people were telling us that it was a great song and that we should consider putting it on our album so that more people hear it because not everyone is going to buy the Punk Goes Acoustic compilation.

We ended up just doing it and Tim reworked it a little bit and we kind of didn’t think anything of it after that and then we were a little hesitant about releasing it as a single for obvious reasons because we were not a Dashboard Confessional kind of band. Somehow with this band though different styles have always worked so we think it worked out in our favor for sure.

It wasn’t contrived or anything at least that. It was definitely a Rise Against song.

I think part of the reason it felt more natural was because you guys put it out on just some comp. at one point so it was like, if this was a big calculated thing you guys probably wouldn’t have put it on the comp., you know what I mean?

Exactly. Or it would’ve been insane planning on our part to do it three years in advance.

I have to tell you when you guys announced the signing I was a little surprised. And don’t get me wrong, I thought RPM was amazing and I was a huge backer of the band for the longest time and that one really blew me away, but you guys always seemed a little hard for a major label.

It’s weird because the whole major label world was a world that we didn’t think about or didn’t feel that we even had a place in it and then just one day I got a call from this dude at DreamWorks and he was the head of A&R. I thought someone was playing a joke on me?

So then it just started from there. He didn’t even say he wanted to sign or meet us. He just told us who he was and that he liked our band. That was it and it really caught me off guard. It was literally the day after I got back from a European tour that we did with the Mad Caddies. It was a Fat Wreck Chords tour and just like you know, I wasn’t even in that frame of mind at all with the major label thing. And then after he called more and more people started calling us and we were touring and people were coming out to our shows. It was a really strange experience.

What were you really going for with the new album? It is a dark, dark album and definitely not what you’d expect from a band that had a hit acoustic song. You even went back to Bill Stevenson, who is definitely more in tune with the independent punk scene than GGGarth was.

No matter what label we’re on or what producer we’re working with we’re always going to write whatever our hearts are feeling at the time. It’s definitely a per day kind of thing and that’s just kind of the result of that and Bill will definitely help that, help our sound more than say GGGarth. I wouldn’t say Garth hurt our sound, but he didn’t quite understand what Rise Against was about. When we’re writing songs or working on song structures you can say "Hey Bill I want this part to be like Depression from Black Flag" and he’s going to know exactly what I’m talking about and with GGGarth it was like "What? What do you want? I don’t understand." It’s like Bill has the ability to take Rise Against and just step it up a couple notches you know so….

We work very well together for sure.

On that note, what was it like playing Black Flag in the movie?

It was awesome. If there’s any movie we were going to be a part of that, it was that one. When I got that call saying they were doing a movie about Dogtown Skateboards and Tony Alva and they wanted us to play Black Flag, it really was just a surreal thing and it was great because when we filmed, Tony Alva was on the set and Bill Stevenson was on vacation with his family in LA so he came out to the set and it was just great, just fun to be a part of.

Did you hear from Keith or Greg or anyone about it?

No I didn’t hear from them, but it’s funny because the drummer that played on that 7 inch, the Nervous Breakdown 7 inch, was this guy Brian Migdol. Our booking agent was moving offices and he was one of the movers. And he was talking to Corrie who’s our booking agent and he said "You book Rise Against right? I used to play in Black Flag I was in the Nervous Breakdown 7 inch and I’d really like to meet those guys." Whoa! That’s crazy!

I really love that single I think that’s the defining Black Flag moment. I know everyone goes with Rollins, but I think that’s the defining one.

I’ve always thought Rollins ruined Black Flag. I’m sure that’s going to get back to me at some point but I really like Keith Morris, Chavo… Ron Reyes was my favorite… the Jealous Again EP is by far my favorite Black Flag EP.

The new album definitely has a consistent feel and mood. Do you guys write albums or do you write songs and pick the ones that you feel flow together?

We definitely write songs and musically we never try to go for a theme on an album. It’s just like I said these songs are written over the course of a year or two of touring. Even if it means writing a verse or a little guitar riff, the ideas are there throughout a long period of time and we’ll get together for a couple months and hash out all the little intricate parts.

It’s kind of weird because sometimes we’ll have bits and pieces and sometimes I’ll have the whole song or Tim has the whole song and then we kind of work out the little nuances. But it’s not like we’re writing all of these songs in a months’ time, you know.

You mentioned that you all bring stuff to the table because there was definitely an evolution between say The Unraveling and RPM and since then you are writing more as a unit because everything like you are writing together more?

Yeah. I think that is the case and I think we took a lot of basic frameworks on Sufferer and the Witness and we really made sure that the drums were accenting vocal things and guitar parts were played just write at least to where we thought were just right- not overplaying or underplaying. I guess as we grow as a band we’re paying more attention to that you know, and I think with my bass playing too over the course of since I started when I was 15, I think I kind of tended to overplay in 88 Fingers Louie and I’ve since learned to only play when needed if that makes sense.

Yeah, I know what you mean. 88 Fingers Louie was a pretty technical band even though people probably didn’t think of them that way you guys were all pretty intense musicians on that one, at least on the records that I’ve got.

I think that was a result of me trying to be like Matt Freeman from Rancid and Dan trying to be Lagwagon or something. You know, and that’s fine because we learned from that.

You’ve been doing this for a while so how do you keep staying out on the road for such long stretches of time? It tears up a lot of bands and you’ve been doing it for a long time.

I’m not going to lie, it’s hard. In our personal lives we all have families and two of us are married and two of us have daughters and it’s definitely hard as far as that’s concerned. But, it’s also very rewarding to see this band’s growth and to know that what we do has meaning you know, and it’s kind of like- there’s two parts that make up at least my life. My wife is one and this band is the other, and without either or I’d be lost. So, I think that kind of drives us to do what we do.

Warped Tour is a hard tour to do because you’re outside everyday- it’s two months you know. Luckily we’ve went through the hard part of it when we were playing the smaller stages and you were wheeling your equipment through dirt fields and that was hard to do, but it definitely gets easier when you’re on the bigger stage.

You’ve been on the Warped Tour a number of times in the past you’ve seen how things have changed over the years where it’s not just about punk and hardcore anymore but it’s about a lot of other things. What kind of reception do you guys get?

Somehow you know over the last couple of years when screamo’s gotten really big we’ve always seemed to keep our head above water through it all, and a lot of punk bands can’t say that. I don’t know we’re just surviving through it for some reason and we’re really lucky that the people who listen to From First to Last are going to listen to and I don’t know why that is but I’m not complaining.

I wouldn’t want this insane just blowup like Fall Out Boy is having. I mean I’m happy for those guys but it must be very stressful to be all of a sudden a double-platinum selling band.

I think kids still respond to good songs, regardless of how it’s classified. My girlfriend’s not really a fan of hardcore or punk, but she likes Rise Against.

We’re were sincere about what we do so I guess that shines through the music…

You had Emily from Holy Roman Empire and Long Distance Runner to sing, and I think that was the first time you guys had a female vocalist. There’s a different sound and range that you can get and I was just wondering if you guys have to think differently when you write that kind of stuff?

No, they were existing ideas that we came up with. Bill came up with the idea for a female to do the parts on those songs that Emily is on.

Tim immediately said we had to get Emily. We used to share a practice space with them and we’re really close with Holy Roman Empire. Tony was our original drummer (he’s the drummer for Holy Roman Empire). So it just made sense to get her and it worked out really well. It is definitely a different direction that we’ve taken as far as us in the past, but it’s worked out.

It definitely makes it feel like a smaller world; Neil Hennessy contributed to your last record, and now he’s producing Holy Roman Empire’s demos. We were talking when the Lawrence Arms came through the other day and we were talking about Chicago.

It’s funny because it’s so big. Like Chicago is insanely big, but the punk scene seems to be small. You know, everyone knows each other. Glenn Porter who started out Alkaline Trio with Matt Skiba was 88 Fingers Louie’s drummer.

I don’t know what it was like when 88 Fingers Louie got started, but nowadays a lot of people have their eyes on Chicago. And there are so many bands coming out of there that are just blowing up. You know what I mean?

Without a doubt and Ryan’s Hope is great.

Thank You.

I was going to say that was great that you guys put out that record and I’m glad that Dan produced it too. It’s good to hear bands like that coming from Chicago you know. They’re aggressive but they write great melodies.

If you guys ever want to take them on tour we wouldn’t complain.

I’ll keep that in mind whenever we headline.

After you finish the next few months of tours are you headed back to the studio?

No, you know we always like to leave a couple years in between records so probably… I couldn’t even imagine when we’d be back in the studio you know. We’ll at least have a year and a half of touring….

Well it feels like the last album came out more recently than it did because it was like 2004 so it’s been a few years but, I guess because it took a while to really build to the point where people outside of the scene that we live in started talking about it. It felt like it was almost new again when the single came out.

Yeah, it was a very slow and steady kind of growth. It was like, just chugging along. And I kind of prefer that. I wouldn’t want this insane just blowup like Fall Out Boy is having. I mean I’m happy for those guys but it must be very stressful to be all of a sudden a double-platinum selling band you know?

So, we’ll see. I think with this next record it is a step up from Siren Song so hopefully we just continue to grow like we’ve been.