Rise Against's Tim McIlrath on SB 1070 and MTV
It's been three years since Rise Against last performed in Arizona thanks to the band's participation in The Sound Strike. The terms of the boycott have changed, so Rise Against is making its triumphant return to the valley.
The line-up couldn't get much better, as Rise Against is paired with long time friends and punk peers Hot Water Music and Gaslight Anthem for a show at Mesa Amphitheatre on Friday, September 28.
We recently caught up with frontman Tim McIlrath to discuss fond memories of No Use for a Name's Tony Sly, losing the VMA for best video with a message to Demi Lovato, and of course, SB 1070.
Up on the Sun: How did this tour with Hot Water Music and Gaslight Anthem get set up?
Tim McIlrath: Sheer good fortune, I would say. When we put a tour together, it's kind of like you're putting your fantasy football team together, in a way. You pick a band you want to go on tour with, you pick your favorite bands or your best friends, or people you really love and respect, and you hope that maybe they'll do it.
For us, we've always aimed high. We've taken Rancid on tour, even though we looked at each other and said there's no way we're going to get Rancid to go on tour with us. We've taken Bad Religion out, we've toured with all of these amazing bands, and so Gaslight and Hot Water are bands that we've toured with. Hot Water Music is a band that my high school band [Tim was in Baxter with the future drummer of The Lawrence Arms, and they were actually pretty good.] opened up for at a bowling alley in Chicago in like 1997. They're a band that I've been listening to for a long time. They're kind of heroes of old punks including ours, so I guess it's sort of a dream team.
I'm sure you knew this question was coming. Since you have some upcoming shows in Arizona, why change the focus of The Sound Strike now?
That was a decision based on The Sound Strike as a group. All the bands, all the people that were involved, it was just kind of a change of strategy. It also felt like they had won a few key things that we had drawn a lot of attention to what was happening.
It's not that we don't want to play Arizona. It's not that we don't have so many amazing fans in Arizona, because the first time we played Arizona was in the basement of the Nile Theater, and I remember that show. I remember thinking how cool it is that in this corner of America that we've never been to before, we have all these Rise Against fans here. It's been like that, it's been snowballing ever since.
We had to take a step back and look at what we thought was, and we still think is, discrimination being added to the legislation of our country. Our country's history was founded on discrimination against Native Americans and African Americans, but it became this country because it rose above that. For any type of legislation that would add discrimination back to the Constitution, back to the country we live in, we felt like that was a thing that needed to be addressed.
The best way to do that, we thought, was simply by not playing because we felt like people would ask why aren't they playing here. That's an age old form of protest is the boycott. A lot of people were saying, you're just Rise Against, not playing here isn't going to change this legislation. Certainly, there's some truth to that, we're just a drop in the bucket, but that's the nature of every boycott. You're each your own person boycotting whatever it is you choose to boycott, but as a group it's a lot more powerful.
We thought a statement had been made, the point of it had come across and we felt like it was moving in the right direction. In terms of the four of us, we were uncomfortable with the passive nature of what we were doing. We felt like we could do more if we were in Arizona, but we also wanted to respect the boycott and respect The Sound Strike. We wanted to be a part of doing something that was about doing something, not a part of something that was about simply not doing anything. We wanted to return; the entire Sound Strike decided that they wanted to return as a new strategy.
How much will your Phoenix show be politicized?
I think our shows are outwardly political, the politics are laced in the music and the lyrics. I don't try to be the guy on stage telling you what to think, and sort of self righteously going on some rant about the way I feel. How we feel...our perspectives are in the music. If you've come to a band like Rise Against, or if you come to a punk rock or hardcore scene, it's because at some point somebody in your life was telling you what to do, and what to think, and who to be, and you told that person to shut the fuck up. Whatever they tried to shove down your throat, you spit back up. I don't want to be another person in your life doing that, that's the last thing that I want to do.
We started the band 12 years ago, and this is how we see the world, this is how some of the things in the world are affecting us, we want to sing about it. We thought we were alone in that, we worked alone. Our audience kind of snowballed, there was a lot of people saying I felt the same way, I thought I was alone. That's always kind of been Rise Against's mission, we're just sort of this snowball gathering of people who can feel less alone, who can rally around the way they feel about the world and the people in it in the world around them. That's always been laced in our music, and that's always been our goal to walk that fine line between informing and making people aware, and the other side of the line being preachy. We don't want to be preachy.
I'm not saying the band Rise Against has always succeeded at this mission statement that I've just spelled out, I think we've fucked it up sometimes. Maybe I've gone on stage and said the wrong thing, or maybe we've come off too strong on certain things, but it's a huge learning process. We're always learning and we're learning from our fans. It's a lot of fun, it's a cool sort of experiment that way, more than just a band and entertainment and music. I've always felt like we're plugged into something more with our audience. Our audience is engaged. We have an audience that gives a shit that we've boycotting Arizona, whether they agree with it or disagree with it. We have an audience that is talking about it and cares, we're very lucky to have the audience that we have and we're especially lucky to have an audience in Arizona.
You're playing shows both in Phoenix and Flagstaff. Portions of both performances are going toward the Florence Project. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and your decision to go with them?
Sure. Even though the band wasn't coming to Arizona, I was making trips to Arizona because I was really curious what was happening on the ground. I went to Nogales and I went to Tucson. I went to a courthouse; I watched undocumented immigrants get deported. Physically, I watched them walking with chains, read their crime, and judged to deportation back to their country. Arizona was always on my mind. I wanted to know what was happening there and what was going there...and now I've totally forgot your question because I just got lost in that thought.
It was interesting, feel free to continue. I was asking about the Florence Project.
I met the Florence Project when I went down there to do that, to go and engage a lot of the organizations and communities on the ground. I found what they were doing to be so incredible. They're basically just providing legal help to undocumented immigrants that can't afford it. They'll go through the jails where undocumented immigrants are being held to figure out their case and figure out do you have a case, or do you not have a case. In some instances, they've found undocumented immigrants who don't even know themselves that they were actually American citizens. Something in their lineage made them American citizens and they didn't even know that. They actually found people that were legal, and they never actually bothered to figure it out, they just assumed they were illegal.
It's not just a free pass saying okay, you are in this country illegally, and we're just going to get you in this country. It's giving them a fair shake, it's giving them a fair trial, a fair chance at making a life in America, which is something that everybody deserves. The Florence Project does that; it's really selfless work. I found it really compelling, all of it. I wanted to do whatever I could to help.
It's not often that I hear about a Chicago musician heading down to Nogales. What sparked your interest in Arizona politics?
Especially the SB 1070 and being part of The Sound Strike, I couldn't possibly sign up to boycott an entire state without really knowing what was going on, so I really wanted to find out [what was going on]. I was learning a lot from our fans, they were letting me know, 'you know, this legislation is something we didn't even vote for, it was passed by leaders that we didn't even elect, something that we don't necessarily agree with.' Or maybe they did agree with it, and this is why we agree with it.
I felt like I was learning a lot about immigration specifically through the filter of through the eyes of someone who's in Arizona. I wanted to get down on the ground to see, I wanted to see the wall. I wanted to go see the other side of the border. I wanted to go see how people were living, what they were thinking. I wanted to see if they were people that were either criminals or were they just after the American dream? I went down there with a few other artists and learned a whole hell of a lot. I learned a lot about what it is to want something better for your family.
I appreciate that you came down here to see it for yourself.
This will be the first time that Rise Against has been back to Arizona. But the second we lifted the boycott, I took my family on vacation, we went right there. I didn't play any shows; I went there to go hang out in Phoenix. My wife went to school in Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, so Arizona is somewhere that we've always been close to. It was a really hard thing to say to our fans that we're not going to play there anymore. But at the same time, we just couldn't compare a fan's disappointment of not seeing a rock show with the families that were suffering on the ground because of this legislation that we felt was adding discrimination to a country that we love.
Most of your material was written during the bush administration. How has the change of president affected your songwriting process?
That's a good question. I think the job of an artist who takes it upon themselves to sing about the world and politics, who has rallied an audience around him or her that also cares about that and wants to hear songs that reflect their own questions about the world, we have the responsibility to keep our leader's feet to the fire, no matter who they are, no matter what side of the aisle they're on. Especially when President Bush or Obama, or essentially really rich people who are getting more money from special interests to go be very popular and run for president.
That's something that we did under the Bush administration, and we still do it under the Obama administration. I have complaints about both, but really all of our songs kind of hold a mirror up to our culture and see how we look, and sometimes I fail. I'm not necessarily being a cheerleader for what's happening in the world or condemning it, but more of holding a mirror to it and taking a look at it. Saying, 'hey this is what we're doing, how do we feel about this?'
We do it in the way that we know how, which is through a song. A lot of my favorite bands were able to distill how I was feeling in a three-minute song or a great record better than a lot of books or news stations I was listening to. I felt like I was learning more from my favorite artists.
I think that there's a lot of things that Rise Against certainly is for that has happened under the Obama administration. Things like Don't Ask, Don't Tell was important to a band like us, who was engaged in pro-gay rights with songs like "Make it Stop" and the gay community that are fans of Rise Against.
We felt like health care reform was important. We tour around the world every year and see how people live. It occurred to us that America was the last modern western country in the world that didn't have some form of health care that put people over profits and didn't take care of the people. Our fans are saddled with all kinds of college debts and student loans and we feel like there was some progress made there.
We were against the war from the beginning, and so a band like Rise Against applauds the fact that we're finally out of Iraq and I hope that we can get out of Afghanistan soon. We're starting to dig ourselves out of the hole that the Bush administration put us in. It's certainly an important year this year, because I feel like there's a party out there who wants to continue digging that hole and a party out there who wants to keep digging us out of it.
To make things a little less political, I see that you guys have toured with No Use for a Name. Did you know Tony Sly well?
Yeah. Tony Sly and No Use For a Name took Rise Against on our first Japanese tour. That was actually No Use For A Name's Japanese tour. Tony had a tremendous fear of flying, so he never really made it to places as far as Japan often enough. That was a really important year for Rise Against, we were learning about how to be a band, learning that from other bands taking us out. No Use For A Name were kind of like big brothers to us. Tony was just such an amazing guy, I really didn't spend enough time with him after that tour.
We crossed paths several times since that tour, he was always a good person. I met him before he had kids and I certainly knew him after the kids. He was such a family man, he was such a proud father. Here's this guy whose making the rest of us dads feel guilty because he's got songs that are specifically about his daughters and named after them. It was so important to him and he was such a great songwriter. He was turning into a great solo artist as well; his solo career was blossoming. He was out there playing shows, getting over his fear of flying and still writing great songs. You don't want to see that happen. He was way too young, that band I feel like was just getting better and better. It was sad to all of us as friends of Tony and for fans of his work.
Is Rise Against working on any new material? The most recent thing we did was a Bob Dylan cover for the Amnesty International compilation. "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," which we just lost last night on the VMAs for Best Video With a Message, is what they call their category. I don't understand why the video with a message can't just be the best video, but I guess it doesn't matter when you lose to Demi Lovato. We're not working on new stuff right now; we're still focusing on this record and getting the songs out there.
We're going to South America this year, we're going to South Africa for the first time, and I think we'll get around to a record when we're ready, I guess. We'll keep touring and when we get done with these tours, we'll probably just recharge our batteries and start to figure out what we want to do next.
For us, at least for me, a record is something you can't build it and let it sit on a shelf for a year or two and then release it, I feel like it needs to have more urgency than that. I like to do a record right before it's going to come out. I like to plan it out, that way the sound is fresh, what we're singing about is fresh, that's always important. I don't want anything to sit too long; I think if we were to write anything now, it would sit too long.
Was it surprising to be nominated for a VMA? Demi Lovato beat you...really?
She did, I have to confess I haven't watched her video, so I'm not sure what we got beat out by. I don't put a lot of stock into MTV, we're not a band that traffics on their airwaves very often, we've flirted with them in the past. I think that there's people there who like our band enough to put our video out there, but they can't figure out things like Best Video With a Message. This is our second time getting in there.
A lot of what Rise Against has done is have a message, and that's kind of the way we look at music videos, which was something that was kind of foreign to us, the idea of manufacturing an emotion in front of a camera and trying to sell records. We've always kind of viewed it as hijacking the airwaves in a way. What kind of message can we put across? If we have the budget to make a video, we're just trying to sell records and sell tickets where we can actually communicate some new information. That's been the history of Rise Against videos, and that is a really rewarding and cool process it makes it exciting again.
But yeah, we lost again. I'm not sure we're in a place where we're ever going to win. I have young daughters who are way into teen pop and Disney pop and all the stuff that you hear on top 40 radio, so when I see MTV and I listen to what they listen to, I realize how distant what I do is from that world.
Thank you for the interview, I'm looking forward to your show. Thanks to all the patient Rise Against fans in Arizona. We really miss playing there and we really can't wait to come back.
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