Situated at the South West edge of London’s Hyde Park, in one of the city’s most affluent areas, The Royal Garden Hotel is a truly pompous building. Grand but entirely soulless, everything from the sunshine bearing down on the glass front of the lobby to the vitality of its clientele seems dulled by the dark marble flooring and overpowering air of imperiosity. It’s a jarring location for an interview with a band whose songs once made me want to burn down buildings just like the one in which I now find myself.
Sure, punk bands aren’t obliged to live in squalor for their art – and nor do I want them to – but considering the band in question is Rise Against, a band accused of losing their edge over the last few years, it’s a particularly uncomfortable situation. Especially when the hotel staff clearly don’t take too kindly to scruffy music journalists like myself loitering in their grand lobby for very long.
When the door to the band’s suite opens, I’m greeted by the sight of a silhouetted Tim McIlrath sitting by the window in shades looking, well, cool as fuck to be fair. The Rise Against frontman has become a bonafide rock star and, instantly, the measured swagger that has replaced scrappy fury on their most recent records falls into place. They’re just not scrappy people anymore. In a genre that takes the idea that “it’s better to burn out than fade away” as a mission statement, Rise Against have managed to stay the course by moulding their music around who they are.
“I’ve always thought that it’d be just as disingenuous to try and be the band we were fifteen years ago as it is to try to write songs for the radio,” McIlrath reasons when asked how aware the band are of their changing sound. “They’ve always been equally disingenuous motivations to me because in both cases you’re not allowing yourself to be the band that you are. I would like to think Rise Against has had a good instinct for that and we just play the songs that feel right at that moment.”
It’s a pretty standard line that McIlrath feeds here – ‘we’re just playing what feels right’ is an answer that almost any band would give when faced with a question about a change in sound – but his words are spoken with total conviction. And they’re firmly reinforced by their recently released eighth record, Wolves. While still bearing the radio-friendly approach of recent efforts, Wolves differs by being an album that sizzles with the tension and fury that propelled Rise Against to the top of the ladder in the first place. These are massive rock songs rather than punk ragers, but they’re massive rock songs that feel vital.
“Regardless of that,” Mcilrath continues, “I’m gonna go on stage tonight at the Garage and sing ‘Black Masks & Gasoline’ off of a record we wrote 18 years ago and we’re gonna do our damnedest to make sure it sounds just as good as, if not better than, it did back then. But when we write new stuff, we have to be true to ourselves. I don’t want to be posing as somebody other than who I am, even if that somebody is just 22-year-old Tim McIlrath. I can’t be that guy when I’m really 38-year-old Tim McIlrath.”
Going into the band’s eighth record, the frontman explains, he “isn’t chasing anything.” In fact, in his view, the band never crossed over to the mainstream at all. “The mainstream ended up coming over to us. We’ve never chased that and and at this stage we’re not about to start.”
Be that as it may, this is the man that wrote the accusatory lyric “Our heroes are icons that mellow with age”. If his band making music that is quite literally mellower than what came before doesn’t contradict those words, what would?
“For me,” McIlrath answers, “it would be if we stopped talking about politics and stopped writing songs like ‘Welcome To The Breakdown’ and ‘Wolves’, from the new record, and we gave up that fight.”
I went into this interview telling myself that I was going to interview Tim McIlrath about Rise Against, rather than about Donald Trump, just to mix things up a bit for the frontman, but this is a band whose political standpoints are central to everything they do. Of course it’s a topic that would come up even when asking cheeky questions about potentially hypocritical lyrics.
Wolves was written during the election cycle that saw Trump elected as President of the United States and, as fate would have it, this interview is taking place the day after that same president decided to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, effectively raising a middle finger to the reality of global warming. Rise Against’s best work was written under the second Bush Administration. Not to play into that embarrassingly self-centred ‘at least we’ll get good punk songs out of it’ rhetoric, but maybe it takes a certain political climate to get the best out of Rise Against and keep them going.
“I feel like Rise Against has found different reasons to keep going as the years go on,” McIlrath says. “It’s not a given that this band exists, and it’s not like we were always going to keep going no matter what, but we find different reasons to have a passion for it.
“When we first started, it was just the sheer fire and energy of starting a punk band, writing songs with your friends, committing them to record and putting it into the world to see if anyone is actually going to like it. Then, after the first three records, we ended up signing to a major label and had songs on tv and radio and we were exposed to a much larger audience.”
For McIlrath, this larger audience helped to reinvigorate the band’s outspoken political approach. For years the band had been giving their sermon to punk crowds in basements and clubs across the country. People that, for the most part, already agreed with the band’s anti-war and pro-environmental messages. In the frontman’s own words, they were “preaching to the choir”.
But when the band’s breakout came in the form of third album, Siren Song Of The Counter-Culture, the band found themselves playing to much larger, and more politically diverse, mainstream audiences who neither expected nor wanted to have their views challenged.
“Often people were pissed off that there were political bands playing their big fun festival. They weren’t cool with going to see the band they heard on the radio that week and being spoken to about the war in Iraq. That’s when I realised that it was exciting again.
“It’s always exciting to sing about things that matter, but if you can sing about it to people who aren’t expecting it and you can put water where the fire actually is, that’s an incredible challenge. That became the thing that drove us. We wanted to be a punk band that flirted with the mainstream world so that we could infiltrate it with our ideas and our culture, and create some friction.”
Far from neutering the band, or diluting their message, radio stations and a major label simply gave the band “a bigger megaphone.”
And is that what keeps the fire burning today? Is that why, almost two decades deep, they can still write songs like ‘The Violence’ that encapsulate protest spirit so perfectly?
“Absolutely,” Tim leans forward as he speaks, adjusting his sunglasses. “I’ve been playing in this band for 18 years and for that entire time, the front row has always been about 16 years old. It feels like a school where the freshman class is always coming in. If you’re a professor at a university, you teach your class to a fresh crop of 18-year-old kids every year and to him, they never get older. That’s how I feel with Rise Against sometimes.
“People walk into our band at different points. That keeps it fresh and new and important, because ideas that might seem old and dusty to me are falling on new ears so I have to treat it like that and ask myself, ‘how dare I be jaded in the face of a bright-eyed and hungry audience?’ It reminds me not to mellow with age and reminds me to still give a shit about this, even as I get older and a lot of people my age have stopped giving a shit about this or that. I’m lucky to have that and to be able to go on stage and channel that energy from that crowd.”
Even with all that energy channeled and that front row hanging on every word, the world today – certainly politically at least – is in a worse state than it was when Rise Against first picked up their instruments. It has to be demoralising to keep rallying against an enemy that only seems to grow in strength.
“The world is an overwhelming place and burnout – especially activist burnout – is a real thing. There are obvious horrible things happening but Trump, and the ideology he represents, has brought a lot of people out from under rocks and got them engaged again. When I see hundreds of thousands of people marching in the US in the wake of the election I think, ‘Woah, maybe he is making America great again, just not in the way he intended.’
“That stokes the fire. It makes us realise that we have a role to play and that maybe we can help our fans navigate it all and get them as charged up about it as we can. That’s the whole point of all this.”
Later tonight, when the band take to the stage at The Garage in London and launch into an opening salvo of ‘Give It All’ and ‘Black Masks & Gasoline’, McIlrath makes good on his promise from earlier; he and his band play these songs with all the vigour with which they were written, and then some. Deeper into the set, the aforementioned Wolves highlights, ‘Wolves’, ‘Welcome To The Breakdown’ and ‘The Violence’ are given their UK debuts and are performed with even more fervour still.
Rise Against’s fire might have been flickering for a little while, but Wolves has managed to find the fuel to see those flames return tonight, full-bodied and burning brighter than ever.