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Why Are You Standing in the Ashes of the Ladder They Climbed?: Rise Against on 'Nowhere Generation'

Wednesday, 02 June 2021 Written by Matt Mills

Photo: Wyatt Troll

It’s not uncommon for an interview feature to begin with a direct quote: something inflammatory, intriguing or insightful to get you hooked from the word go. But in the case of dissident punks Rise Against, whittling it down to just one would be a challenge. Singer and guitarist Tim McIlrath is full of anti-establishment maxims, each chiselled by a life of rebelling from within the American counterculture.

“Why are you standing in the ashes of the ladder they climbed?” he asks while talking over Zoom, signalling his frustration at older generations hoarding wealth and opportunities. “We’re not planting seeds for the future—we’re ripping up the plants,” is another metaphor that casually appears mid-conversation as he laments the unsustainable nature of shareholder capitalism. And, troubled by the scale of the fake news that led to January’s Capitol riots, he opines: “If you really thought an election had been stolen, you might do some crazy things too.” 

As quotable as he is politically recusant, McIlrath has always been the type to give authority two fingers. He discovered punk rock young, learning about Bad Brains and Ramones while scouring skateboarding magazine Thrasher in the mid-to-late ‘80s. During his high school years in Rolling Meadows, Illinois—a suburb of Chicago—his favourite pastime was gathering his friends to make things go bang.

“Pre-9/11 and pre-Columbine, making a pipe bomb was just as American as apple pie,” the frontman smiles, dropping one more pearl of a sentence. “We were skateboarding punk vandals. I cringe when I look back at some of the stupid shit we did. We’d make pipe bombs and explode them in parks. There probably was a bit of property damage [but] nobody got hurt. We were definitely the most in danger.”

After graduating high school in the early ‘90s, McIlrath was presented with tangible targets for his angst by the local and highly political hardcore scene. He attended shows organised to spread awareness of Fred Hampton: the Chicagoan Black Panther who barely made it into his 20s before he was killed in his sleep by law enforcement and the FBI. He heard bands sing about sweatshops, the climate crisis and the oppression of indigenous communities. “Those things politicised me before I knew what politicising was,” he remembers.

“[I thought] ‘Oh, there’s another side to society that my teachers and parents didn’t tell me about.’ There were benefits [about] police violence in Chicago, which is crazy because I was learning about it in the ‘90s and here we are today. It’s still happening, if not happening even more. Being a punk and a skater, you’re kind of marginalised in your own community, too, so you start to learn about discrimination,” he continues. “I finally went to university and learned about the origins of discrimination—learning more about what it is to live in a disadvantaged community, income inequality and things like that.”

Today, McIlrath jokes that joining Rise Against meant he was “kidnapped” from university during his third year (he’d eventually return to higher education in 2020). The band started after he met bassist Joe Principe at a Sick of It All show in 1999, and quickly amassed momentum.

Just two years later, they released their debut, ‘The Unraveling’, on Fat Wreck Chords—the label owned by NOFX leader Fat Mike—and they were off to the races from there. Their third album ‘Siren Song of the Counter Culture’ heralded the kind of major label breakthrough hitherto undreamed of by a hardcore-leaning punk band (Minor Threat/Fugazi/Dischord icon Ian MacKaye once asked them, “How'd you guys do it? How'd you get away with it?” according to Principe).

All these years later, Rise Against persist as a fixture of the rock mainstream. Every album they’ve released in the last decade-and-a-half has entered the Billboard top 10. Their signature anthem, 2008’s Savior, has accrued almost 400 million Spotify streams. They’ve headlined countless international tours. However, through it all, McIlrath has remained the straight-edge punk that moshed at gigs for Mumia Abu-Jamal in Illinois clubs 30 years ago.

Rise Against’s impending full-length, ‘Nowhere Generation’, is a clarion call to those who, today, are the age the singer was when punk showed him the injustices of the world. “Your generation has it the hardest and you get shit on the most,” he says. “We’re no longer planning for the future. We’re looking at things a lot more short-term. Capitalism is finding a way that people in power only answer to shareholders, not to citizens. We’ve normalised this idea that you can work hard, from 9 to 5, and still be poor. That’s a downwardly mobile society.

“Young people wake up with this weight on their shoulders [because of] things like social media, global warming, school shootings and the one percent. So, what you have is a generation of people who feel like they’re swimming upstream against this insurmountable current. They’re trying to figure out why, all while the people on the sidelines are going, ‘Hey man, just get over it. Swim harder. Swim faster.’ Everyone keeps moving the finish line for you.”

‘Nowhere Generation’ isn’t shy about wanting to incite the revolution. First track The Numbers commences to the sound of The Internationale: a left-wing anthem associated with assorted anarchist, communist, and socialist groups as well as Bolshevik Russia and the USSR. It fizzles into Rise Against’s signature gritty-yet-melodic punk, hurrying through aggressive chords as McIlrath barks, “They have the power, but we have the numbers now. It’s all just a constant illusion of control.”

“That first track is a spoiler for what the rest of the album is gonna talk about,” the singer states. “The rest of the album is going to talk about how it feels to be disenfranchised, how it feels to think you don’t have a future, how it feels to try and get ahead but you can’t because there’s so much keeping you down. You ask yourself, ‘What am I gonna do about it?’ The Numbers is the answer to that.”

However, is revolution passé? Truth is subjective in 2021, so how can we “wake up” when so many of us are only hearing what we want to hear? Fewer than six months ago, easily disprovable lies inspired hundreds to riot at the heart of American government. Echo chambers are built around us by social media, monitoring our activity to present content that only reinforces our beliefs.

“Revolution is a thing reliant on information,” says McIlrath. “If someone hijacks that information, you end up with something like the riots at the Capitol. Propaganda has always existed, but now it’s happening at a scale that I don’t think anyone thought possible. We have found ways to weaponise misinformation.

“It's a challenge to break outside of those echo chambers,” he admits. “I’ve always been in two minds [about] it. You don’t want to just be preaching to the converted; at the same time, I feel like a show is a rally of your community. They make people feel less alone, [but] you have to be realistic and know that, if you want to really change things, you’ll have to break outside of that bubble. After the last year of election conspiracies and QAnon and, ‘The Democratic candidates are all Satan-worshipping paedophiles,’ you don’t even know where to start. It’s so bizarre.”

So, it sounds like we’re fucked, then. “Alternative truths” have made objectivity a nebulous concept, dismantling the unifying “power to the people” ideology that has to fuel great upheavals. But McIlrath hasn’t lost hope. Shortly before vanishing from Zoom, he gives simple advice: “The biggest thing we can do is listen to each other.”

“We can listen to each other’s stories,” he continues. “And learn we’re at the precipice of a new way of life that’s gonna require new ways of thinking. It can’t rely on what has come before. The people at the top don’t need to be listened to anymore. They don’t have the answers, they don’t wanna help, so we need to listen to each other.”

‘Nowhere Generation’ is out on June 4 via Loma Vista.

Rise Against Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Mon November 15 2021 - LEEDS Key Club
Tue November 16 2021 - BRIGHTON Chalk
Wed November 17 2021 - LONDON Pryzm

Compare & Buy Rise Against Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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