Rise Against

Today we're bringing you the second part 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 installment will follow tomorrow. In today's segment, we spoke with Tim. You can also check out yesterday's chat with Joe Principe.

So it’s really nice to be able to talk to you again, I guess we never had the chance to speak with you during the last album so it’s been a couple of years.

I’m not going to overturn the government this morning but I can decide to print all the Rise Against merchandise on sweatshop-free shirts and for six years- that’s a lot of fucking clothes.

In in relative terms of what most bands do its’ been a pretty brief period of time. I’m not sure why it happened exactly. We’ve been going as a band for six years now and there hasn’t been a break in those six years and I think maybe we lacked the capacity to conceive of what a break really is. All we know is just to go, to just do it.

We appreciate every second that we have in this band and I guess taking a break seems so pointless. We’ve been given this opportunity so we feel we should do something. We went straight from touring on the last record to writing for the new record. To be honest we left a tiny window of time, we left the month of January to pretty much write the whole record which most bands spend a whole lot more time than one month writing a record. And even in that month things got whittled away and we ended up really only having three weeks. But we managed to work really well under pressure in the past. If you give us the luxury of time we seem to just procrastinate, you know.

But when you have to finish it by "this day" because you’re going on Warped Tour and unless you don’t want to go out until the fall you have to turn it in now. It all turned around really fast and it helped that the label is really excited about it and we kind of hammered it out all in one piece and we didn’t have to go back and change anything or do any of that kind of stuff we were happy with it all the first time we did it.

It was all a first take kind of thing so that all worked to our benefit too. Obviously it’s nice to have it done for Warped Tour because we’re just so excited about the new songs so the sooner it gets out there the sooner we can play the new songs live. It would be torture to hold onto this record all summer and not be able to play any of the songs until the fall.

I was talking to Joe last night and I was saying how it almost feels as if it were more recent because the album came out and then it got a second wind which of course made it feel even more recent you know what I mean?

It’s been a long running record. And to this day I get an email every Wednesday from the label telling me how things are going. And it’s just amazing it’s still in these top modern rock charts, whatever the hell those things are, so it’s still on these charts. It’s still up there and we still sell a bunch every week.

It had a real late start. I remember the first six months of this record and when it first came out. All my friends were saying that was going to be a giant rockstar now and blah blah blah and everyone was really excited about it. And then it came out and I kind of had all my friends looking at me as if my pet just died.

Like, oh so how are things going? You know, because it was obvious to everyone. We haven’t seen this record, we haven’t seen it in a magazine, we haven’t heard it on the radio, we haven’t seen your video. Obviously this was a giant mistake- you shouldn’t have signed to a major label and blah blah blah. It was supposed to do well for you and it obviously backfired. When I’d see people they’d all just skirt around that issue. It was an interesting 6 months for us. I mean we saw the progress and we were having fun out on the road doing what we just always do so I think everybody else was just expecting us to become a giant rock thing.

It certainly didn’t happen in the first six months but we just pushed on and kept touring and playing for our fans and our kids and the fan base that we had acquired from our days on Fat. They went out and got the record and they dug the record. We still toured and I think that around that time we were really on the backburner of the label. You have to keep in mind that this was when DreamWorks dissolved and we were thrown in Geffen’s lap.

You could definitely tell. In the first six months you didn’t really hear or see a lot of press. It seemed like Fat put more press into it for the first couple weeks.

Everything Fat did was more than what happened to us in the first six months and we were just like whatever. This isn’t what was supposed to happen you know. At the same time we were just happy that the record was out and happy to be playing and filling clubs and whatever. But we certainly weren’t getting any additional- we were doing the same things we could’ve done on Fat pretty much.

It wasn’t anything really additional you know. We didn’t have an A&R guy at all actually, we had nobody representing us at the label because our guy was with DreamWorks and then he got canned and they never really gave us a new guy. We were totally in limbo and but at least we’re still doing what we’ve always been doing.

It didn’t really increase in size at all but we were still filling out clubs and still playing shows and still doing this and I think at that point the people at the label were wondering who the hell this band is that keeps selling records without our help? "We haven’t sunk a dime into marketing for this band yet and they’re selling just as many records as a lot of the bands that we’re spending the big bucks on."

It was at that point where they started to pay attention to us. We weren’t calling everyday asking us for stuff like tour support or get us on the next U2 tour or whatever. I think in doing that we got a lot of respect from a lot of people over there and they really saw what kind of band we were and were able to prove to them that we’re this sort of autonomous vehicle. We can survive on our own and we can do it even better with your help. And it was at that point they really just closed in on what we were doing and helped us out and that was when the record for all intensive purposes really started to do well.

It was just absurd to me that I think we did the video for "Swing Life Away" 13 or 14 months after the record was released. Literally, it was like a year afterwards in music industry terms, this record be way over by now.

It should’ve been. Records should survive for a few months and the next big records come out and all the other ones get forgotten about. We were just kind of surviving. I still walk in record stores to this day and we’re on those end-cap things.

Other bands survive on there for a couple weeks and then the next big thing comes out. So it’s weird, in retrospect I’m so glad it worked out the way it did you know, I think that one of the common mistakes that major labels make is this barrage of press and media and they just hit them on the head all at once and it kind of if something is getting shoved down your throat you tend to spit it back up. That happens with an awful lot of bands and for us we were able to just gradually grow into these shoes as we’ve gradually grown into them over the past six years.

We’ve been able to do it all on our own terms with no compromise or anything and it worked out to our advantage. Stuff like one hit wonders come all at once but for the most part that kind of success never really endures. We’ve managed to do things where it’s growing slowly and gradually and at a pace that we’re comfortable with.

So, in that sense Siren Song of the Counter-Culture was a great experience and I’m glad that it happened all the way that it did.

"Swing Life Away" was huge and it’s always funny to me because that was a song that you just wrote that with Neil who I guess was your roommate at the time?

We lived together for many years.

It’s surreal to me how popular it became. It’s a graduation song, like that Green Day song turned out.

Totally, it’s the graduation song, it’s the 8th grade slideshow song, it’s the prom song, it’s the wedding song, it’s the funeral song too. I’ve gotten emails that back up each one of those claims, you know it’s like someone sent me their wedding invitation and the front of the invitation was simply lyrics for "Swing Life Away".

You know and they passed out bookmarks at the wedding with lyrics for that song and definitely it hit a lot of people in a lot of different ways and I was so happy that it did. It was a song that I stood behind from the get-go. I love the song, I love the message behind it all, you know. I’m just really glad that a band like Rise Against was able to do that. Like I play in a band that was able to do that. I play in a band that doesn’t really put ourselves in a box you know and we can do whatever.

That comp came out what, 2 years before you guys even signed?

Yeah, I actually recorded that song during the Revolutions Per Minute session at the Blasting Room with Bill. Like we had just finished the record and then I had this song and was like let’s record it. It’s funny because Bill was like you’ve got to put it on Revolutions Per Minute, you’ve got to put it on the record. And we were unsure of the song and where it’d fit on the record. But it’s so funny because he’s always been saying we should’ve put this thing on RPM and thankfully we didn’t. It came out with little fanfare on the Punk Goes Acoustic comp. I definitely got emails from people who really liked it and thought it was the best song on the comp and everything. And then that kind of died out you know, it was kind of no big deal. We re-released it to simply get it more exposure, and it obviously did.

In the lead up to the new one you mentioned that there was no acoustic songs almost like you were addressing a concern people head.

that certainly was every other person’s question to me about the new record. People were always asking me, whether it was my friends or someone from the label or whoever, whether there would be a "Swing Life Away Part 2?"

I think it would be a really predictable thing to do. Like we had a lot of success from this acoustic song, let’s just have Tim write another one. I certainly have no problem in doing another acoustic song and I’m not saying we’re never going to do another one ever again but it was not something that- I don’t want it to be a permanent thing. Like here’s our record and here’s our acoustic song and here’s the ballad and here’s the one like you said for your high school graduation.

The new record feels like it follows more closely with RPM than even the last one. Not just because of the production, though I have to say as much as I liked Siren Song of the Counter-Culture I think Bill understands you better.

Exactly and I totally agree with you that this record has so much in common with RPM. This record is just an extension of RPM…

How did you feel about the experience going back to Bill after GGGarth. GGGarth is a very well known metal producer, a very clean sounding guy. All the stuff sounds pristine.

Yeah well Garth was certainly- we knew that we had the chance to make this record on a major label and for all we knew we were going to get dropped the second that it came out and so we thought we should take advantage of this, let’s go with a dream producer, somebody that we possibly will never be able to go with again in our entire lives.

In the whole music industry LA top big shot producer world, most of those producers who are into indie rock are really poppy kind of producers. Or you cross over into just serious metal, like all of your big metal producers. And Garth is kind of like in between there. He’d certainly done a lot of metal stuff but he also did Rage Against The Machine’s first record. He had did Sick of It All’s Built to Last, and he was messing with From Autumn to Ashes and Atreyu. He was doing a little mix of hardcore, he was doing all that stuff. And he also did old Melvins stuff as well. So we knew that out of all of these producers he was the heavy guy, and he would get the heavy side of our band. There’s certainly, I’ll admit a poppy side to our band, I mean we have poppy songs. But I didn’t want a producer that would focus on the poppy side of our band you know. I love melody and I’m a sucker for catchy stuff but I love the heavy side of our band. I didn’t want some producer saying well they’ve got one poppy song, let’s make them all sound like that. I wanted someone to be like well they’ve got this song that’s pretty poppy but it’s so heavy, let’s put a spotlight on the heaviness. And we felt like Garth was the best guy… sonically you know the record sounds great I mean he killed it on the drums and the guitars and bass sound great, it’s just this huge sounding record with really great production. As far as the performances and when we were doing them with Garth, he simply doesn’t speak the language that we speak.

He comes from a different world. And we went to him because he came from a different world but we also noticed that when I was doing vocals with him it was hard to get him to understand exactly what I was doing. It was hard to get him to understand that this is my voice at its best or this is my voice at its worst. He didn’t really know the difference

When you’re in a studio situation it’s such a crazy weird place where all your songs are put under the microscope and for the most part you just really trust the producer and trust that he knows what he’s doing. In that sense just because Garth didn’t understand our background and where we were coming from and what kind of record we really wanted to do, I don’t think our performance was captured as well as it could’ve been captured.

I’m stoked on the record, but I just think there are things I would change if I could go back and do it again that could be better. There are things that definitely that could’ve been better. And so in that experience as much as we love GGGarth and Dean, working with them, we come from the punk world, this is where we come from. And we want to go with people who speak our language, know where we’re coming from, and understand what we do.

There’s really only one person in the world who does that and that’s Bill Stevenson. The guy’s like a fifth member of the band. He’s a genius and he’s amazing and I mean this band was born to do records with Bill Stevenson.

And I think we’re the perfect band for him as well. Going there is just like a bunch of friends hanging out and when you can create that environment in what should be this crazy high-stress high production environment. When you can get to a place like that and just hang out with friends and just fuck around and capture all the chaos and spontaneity of what recording should be- that’s a good place to be and that’s where good records are made. It was a lot of fun to go back to him. I think that after doing the RPM stuff we took for granted how special that was and how special that relationship was we had with Bill was.

When they were booking us in a studio they had us on first class flights out to go to GGGarth. We’ve never flown first class in our lives and we certainly don’t need to start now especially if it’s two grand a flight.

We learned in the years after that record that what we felt with Bill we’re not simply going to find somewhere else. We need to take that for what it’s worth and really decided we wanted to work with him again. It was a leap of faith on the label’s part for sure, I don’t think there’s any band on Geffen Records doing records with Bill Stevenson out of Fort Collins Colorado at the Blasting Room. So it took a little bit of convincing because they were saying "You’re going to who? What?" They work with the same six producers all year. At the same time they’ve come to really trust us and they really just let us do our own thing and so we went to Bill and they were just absolutely blown away.

He’s like a machine. And the quality is so consistent. Everything he seems to do seems to get it, you know what I mean? And you can tell guy played drums in Black Flag and started the Descendents

It’s so true. There’s nobody else on this planet that I can do vocals with and have him say: "You know Tim it should be a little less Ian and more Henry right there."

I know what he means and he know that I know what he means.

"Tim, that was a little too Darby Crash let’s try something else."

That’s the language. When you can just shortcut around explaining something like this part sounds like a Bad Brains part but if the guy doesn’t know the Bad Brains I can sit there and explain it over and over again and he’s not going to get it.

How do you explain the Bad Brains to anybody?

I’m not sure either but when Bill and Joe work on the bass stuff, they get it. Joe will say: "Bill I have this total Bad Brains part" and Bill will understand. Bill just dives into a record and it just becomes him. He sits, lives, eats, and breathes the record even more than we do.

We were sending him demos of the songs before we even met with him and he had pages of notes of things that he liked and didn’t like and suggestions on everything from the lyrics, to the guitar leads, to the drums. He spent so much time with the drums alone just getting Brandon to try different stuff. There were times were they were all just super happy and doing drums and there were times when they were all just yelling at each other and doing drums. It is such an intense, intense experience. And Bill was just non-stop. Like non-stop 24 hours a day just in the record

He just takes it so fucking seriously and it’s so admirable. He’s probably the hardest working guy in punk, no doubt about it. And that claim might be able to be referred to somebody else by somebody else, but Bill as far as I’m concerned is the hardest working guy in punk rock. He is so dedicated to what he does for each one of those records. When you show up to his studio your record is his life at that point in time.

The second major label album is always a kind of weird thing. Even Green Day got really dark on Insomniac and I don’t think anyone saw that coming. The Offspring did too. My favorite Offspring record is [Ixnay on the Hombre], but it was probably the hardest one to sell to the label. Did you consciously try to write a darker album?

Granted none of our songs are ever mapped out, we never have an agenda going into a record you know, not like this is our dark record or this is our "whatever" record, they just kind of come out of us.

I guess it’s like the environment around us that really affects how those songs come out. Where the band is and where we each are personally. I guess the difference is with Siren Song of the Counter-Culture there was so much going on in this band, like so much going on.

There were so many distractions, so many things that were taking our minds off the music; we had just signed with a major - that was controversial. We were getting a lot of people that were supporting us and a lot of hate mail saying they were going to burn our records or whatever.

I certainly have no problem in doing another acoustic song and I’m not saying we’re never going to do another one ever again but I don’t want it to be a permanent thing. Like here’s our record and here’s our acoustic song and here’s the ballad and here’s the one like you said for your high school graduation.

For the most part that doesn’t really affect me. I knew what I was doing, we all knew what we were doing, and that people would understand once they heard the record and all that stuff. But at the same time it doesn’t change when kids used to love your band and then hate you.

So that was a huge distraction. There were all the new things that were involved in being on a major label- a totally different world. We were on Fat Wreck Chords for years and doing stuff on our own and booking our own shows and doing all of our own management and everything ourselves and doing it completely 100% the way we do it.

Which is how a lot of bands do it, I mean we weren’t special, that’s how a lot of bands do it and still do it. All of a sudden it was a lot bigger picture and we had to get more people on our team and we had to get more people to watch this or people that we had to meet or people who were in charge of this this and this..

We had to worry about a lot more legal stuff, like on the Unraveling we took a line from the Cable Guy. We took the Jack Black thing "Are You Ready to Rock." You can’t do that on a major label, you can’t just record off your VCR and put that on your record. There’s all the bureaucratic paperwork bullshit that goes along with it. So we’re learning all about the things we could or couldn’t get away with. You want a movie sample on your record you have to pay thousands of dollars to have that. And there were things you know that we were trying to get comfortable with that we were still uncomfortable with or things that we were fighting.

When they were booking us in a studio they had us on first class flights out to go to GGGarth. We’ve never flown first class in our lives and we certainly don’t need to start now especially if it’s two grand a flight. I know that this isn’t technically our money being spent on this record but somewhere along the line it is so don’t buy us flights that are two grand each. We don’t need it.

So it was this sort of adjustment period for the label to understand we only need a few hotel rooms and that we still roll in a van. We don’t need to be on first class flights and you don’t need to spend all our money treating us like rock stars.

They wanted to hire a driver service to take us from our house to the airport when it was time to fly. We can get ourselves to the airport so there were things like that when it came to the adjustment period in teaching the label and everyone about who we were and what we do and how we do things and how we want to continue doing things. It was like a struggle sometimes because they didn’t always get it and for the most part now they do,.

That was a huge distraction. We got a new guitar player for Siren Song of the Counter-Culture too. We got Chris right in the middle of the writing for the record. It made us a little bit nervous and it made everybody else a little bit nervous Teaching Chris all these songs and working with a new guy.

Then there were a lot of personal things, my wife was seven months pregnant when I wrote Siren Song and she actually had the baby while I was in the vocal booth- she called and said let’s go. We moved the whole studio from Vancouver to Chicago so I’d be around and I was recording right up until the delivery. That was a huge thing going on in my life. All these things were going on and it was just the wrong time to write a record.

But we didn’t really see it all from that point of view at the time.

The new record seems really focused. It’s got a consistency and a cohesiveness- not that every song sounds the same there’s a lot of variety there, but it sounds as if it were written in one place at one time.

One other thing I wanted to ask you was, looking at your album titles, your first three The Unraveling, RPM, and Siren Song of the Counter-Culture all sound like very cynical about underground stuff in general. The new title doesn’t really fall into that kind of ironic detachment from the underground.

RPM was kind of sarcastic; so many bands just throwing the word "revolution" around and that kind of thing you were led to believe there was a revolution every minute and it was a word that I still didn’t take lightly and I was upset that it was being taken lightly.

Or "Six Ways Till Sunday" on the Unraveling the line you’re the new revolution, the angst-filled adolescent, you fit the stereotype well… There were so many things, you just perpetuate a stereotype and nothing really ever changes. I guess the Sufferer and the Witness was not one of these personal comments, it was something that was a little more desperate a little more reaching like listen- we live in a world that is being so impacted by our cause-and-effect relationship with it and when we exist in this cause-and-effect world it creates suffering and it creates witnesses to this suffering and you fit on one side of that fence.

It is a title that is designed to make you think about that- everything that you do here and now every decision that you make might affect somebody somewhere on the opposite side of the world whether that’s the food you buy, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the gas you put in it.

It’s all tied together and there was probably a time in our lifetimes - even 10 years ago or longer - when things like sweatshops were unheard of or the idea of buying fruit or vegetables from the grocery store might be hurting the environment because we’re importing it from somewhere around the world and spending all these natural resources just to get us these vegetables and this fruit at low costs while we’re putting the local farmers in our backyard out of business.

Things like that that were just very foreign concepts to a lot of people in North America. Nowadays sweatshop is a household world- everyone knows what a sweatshop is and a lot of these things are coming to life like people know what they are. Where 10 years ago you could be blind offenders to this- you could buy your clothes and maybe not even know where they’re coming from.

Now that you do, the information is out there, people know about it, and so we’ve become witnesses to the suffering. Whereas before we were just blind offenders…so that’s like the sufferer and the witness, it’s a cause and effect, it’s our environmental impact on the world. It’s kind of designed to make you think about that relationship.

It’s interesting that you say tht because I’ve noticed more and more bands explicitly saying "sweatshop-free" in their merchandise. It’s as if the default is to use a sweatshop, and you need to go out of your way to find someone that pays a living wage.

You really do

If bands don’t say sweatshop-free then you have to assume that it is because for the most part it is. There are few options and the options that there are, are more expensive. We pay more money for shirts just to simply have them be sweatshop-free. It was a decision that we had to make a while ago: Do we have to pay more money? Do we have to charge the kids more money?" but it was something that life is all about; the little differences that you make.

I’m not going to overturn the government this morning but I can decide to print all the Rise Against merchandise on sweatshop-free shirts and for six years- that’s a lot of fucking clothes. If we could certainly inspire other bands to do it - picture a sweatshop free Warped Tour - 50 bands out there just selling truckloads of merch every day. Picture how amazing that would be you know and punk is obviously just this microcosm of society and that would still be a huge impact.

It’s one of the decisions that we make and we feel comfortable with and I dunno we’re going to try and keep it going. We use American Apparel and we use Gildan which is actually made outside of the country in places like Honduras and Mexico but it’s made in factories that are monitored by fair-labor unions and Gildan is a member of that. And even that was sketchy at one point- Gildan, one of their factories was super controversial because they were firing people for starting a union or something like that and all of a sudden Gildan got put on probation for that and it was in question if Gildan was sweatshop free or not.

Then all of a sudden all of our merch might not have been sweatshop-free because Gildan shut down some factory in Mexico. Luckily that whole thing was figured out and Gildan made reparations and they rehired everyone and now they’re back as part of the fair labor, but like it’s weird to have to think about shit like that when you’re just printing up a t-shirt. All of us impact the world in a different way and as a band we buy a buttload of shirts and so it’s one of the ways we can have a say…