"As the world changes, our albums help people to see what's happening around them and in that sense, they helped us reshape our mission," says Tim McIlrath. It's a mission that led straight-edge noisemakers Rise Against from day one of bumming around Chicago to breaking through mainstream stations and stages with a loud voice shouting for change. It was a call for arms in a fight for animal rights, against homophobia, environmental crisis and socio-economic injustice that struck a chord in scene kids' hearts worldwide.
"Rise Against has always tried to be the voice of the underdog, unafraid to be a thorn in the side of the establishment. To sing about things that not a lot of mainstream bands are singing about. We want to always bring our punk and hardcore roots into the radio because that's where we came from," states Tim.
After going AWOL for four years while a new legion of contemporary musicians picked up their battle, Rise Against are back. Filtrating modern issues through their veteran lenses, fuelled on the post-2020 revolutionary spirits, they're bringing with them a ticking-bomb of an album, 'Nowhere Generation'.
"The Nowhere Generation is really anybody who feels like they are swimming upstream against an insurmountable current. They're trying to figure out why they can't get ahead, why they can't live the life that their parents live or their grandparents live, why it feels like there are obstacles on their way to success. It's anybody who recognises that we're living in a time of unprecedented concentrated wealth and income inequality and the rise of the 1%. We're dealing with global warming and climate change. We're dealing with the anxieties of social media asking us to live up to a lifestyle that nobody can live up to. It's really anybody who looks at tomorrow and can't quite focus on what it's supposed to be and what is supposed to be for them. 'Nowhere Generation' as a song, as an album, is speaking to those fears and trying to identify the source of those feelings and hopefully in identifying the problem we can begin to solve it."
To crack the problem, they returned to a home-like studio, Bill Stevenson's The Blasting Room. Having worked there on six of their previous albums, the band, surrounded by long-time collaborators, spent a few solid months blasting out sounds of 'Nowhere Generation' – urgent, ridden by thunderous drums and speedy riffs, all mixed up with a bit of hope for better tomorrow and packed into 11 neat tracks. They remind us that punk is indeed the music of the unheard, especially in 'Talking To Ourselves', an ode to shouting into the comfort zone-based chambers. "The best way to break out of those chambers is to communicate with stories," Tim explains. "I feel like stories are the one thing that cuts through the noise. We can argue with each other about our points, how we feel about different issues, but storytelling is what really makes people on the other side of the fence think about your perspective."
In 'Broken Dreams, Inc.', originally recorded for a new Batman animated comic, Dark Nights: Death Metal, they tell a most popular story of our age. The one about falling victim to the vicious doings of the system and setting yourself free. "The recipe for the American dream is broken. You no longer have to follow the recipe. You can now make your own. You can now put in your own ingredients because what you've been told will create the American dream is no longer true. We're waking up to that," says Tim and points out the decay of the middle-class that is unable to provide for itself. "As people keep seeing that finish line moving, they are waking up to the idea that they're going to have to fight for resources and fight for their governments to focus on more long-term and less on just short-term shareholder capitalism."
Though McIIrath sings 'we are the nowhere generation', it feels like he's more of a spectator, reporting on dilemmas that millennials face. "At first glance, our instinct is to brush it off and say 'well, that's everybody'. Everybody feels like there's something upstream. That's every generation. What you're dealing with it is not unique, and you're not special, and that's where you get a lot of millennial jokes," he says. Getting a first-hand account of current issues from his teenage daughters and fans worldwide, he realised that the generational gap is narrow, so you can build a bridge on it. "The more I listened, the more I felt like I got a lot of sympathy for what people were dealing with now. That's where the song wanted to speak to that with more of a sympathetic and less judgmental ear," he says.
It's not about the year you were born in; the Nowhere Generation recruits all outcasts. "Anybody who feels like they're working really hard, but they can't seem to get ahead and are wondering if they're playing on a level playing field or if the game has been rigged," Tim says.
Cards might be stacked against today's youth, but Tim sees a light at the end of the tunnel in the efforts of some of his personal heroes. "I love young people like Greta Thunberg. I love activists. The Black Lives Matter movement was really inspiring, just to see people really rally around some basic common sense to say 'we matter'. It was exciting to see a lot of people wake up to those ideas of institutionalised racism. The environmental movement is still going strong. The people behind the documentary Seaspiracy'; it's the latest thing that I really was blown away by," he lists movements and people with reality-altering potential, hoping that Rise Against can be a soundtrack to those changes.
It's not enough to operate from the margins of society; the shift has to start from within. "The government needs to do better. They should do better," Tim points out that the States have always had an issue with devaluing arts and paints Europe as handling it better, reflecting on the time on the road. "People respected the process of somebody committing their life to art." He sees traces of similar progress on American soil, though it's still not enough to shake up the ignorant structure of beliefs. "Hopefully, people will understand how important this is. Not just to society but even if you want to look at it from an economic standpoint. The arts are part of the economy," he says.
The system won't change itself overnight. It needs people determined to constantly poke it and triggers provoking responses at all times. Since their debut album 'Siren Song Of The Counter-Culture', Rise Against keep on experimenting with new musical methods of stirring the status quo's pot. "We're never trying to simply rehash the past and be the band that we were, but we're also not trying to go out of our way to reinvent ourselves either," Tim shares.
There's never a big game plan or a blueprint for what should come next. Instead, the band embrace spontaneity. "The songs just capture where we are and bottle it in that moment. It's not even until we really take a step back that we're getting perspective on what we were trying to accomplish. Sometimes it's a journalist or someone who tells us, 'I notice this in all your songs'. It's like, I didn't even think about that," McIlrath says, before sharing the golden rule of making it as a band for almost two decades. "You're always trying to make your best record. To me, your best record has still yet to come. It's the perspective you should always look out for when you go into it. It's really exciting to be a band this long, to make this many albums and this many songs and still find things that to me sound pretty fresh and unique. To have any songs left up here at all. I'm always amazed when you put the key to the engine, and it actually starts up."
Rise Against has been relentlessly fighting for a change in a wide socio-political area long before topics like environmental crisis or veganism went viral on social media. While this kind of revolting created a new generation of digital activists, it's also partially responsible for the spread of false information. "There's always more to do; it's important not to be overwhelmed by that. Nobody's ever doing quite enough. We're not doing enough, but I feel that the more voices you add to the conversation, the more urgency you add. There's been a lot of amazing progress even in the last 20 years of just this band's existence."
Though his drive to always go an extra step to help seems never-ending, even he sometimes needs to lay low - especially after pouring his whole soul out into a brand-new record. Luckily, Tim has a kind of secret hideaway to escape from the world when it gets too much. "For me, that's always been nature. A lot of my life, I've spent in studios, on tours, on a tour bus and in a lot of big urban centres. If we play a show anywhere around you, it's going to be in your biggest city. It's always great to unplug. I'm kind of a cycling junkie; anytime you can find a place to meditate, reflect and enjoy the incredible world that we live in."
After a year of taking a few steps back, along with the rest of the world, Tim is ready to get back on the road and give back to the community. Rise Against are done with silently scribbling down notes on the rotten system - it's time to let it all out with a bang. To feel the cracked foundations crumble. "These songs aren't meant to just be to exist in your headphones or in your car. They're meant to be played live. They're meant to really complete that cycle. The song isn't finished until we've played it in front of you."
As long as there are issues worth fighting for and people wanting to outrace the system, there will always be a need for bands like Rise Against. It doesn't matter that the war zone got temporary transferred online and the battle language translated from the earth-shattering screams, once piercing through music venues stages, into anxious whispers among comrades too tired of waiting.
Maybe 'Nowhere Generation' is the one that will finally focus not on getting to some unattainable and, for now, utopian goal-point but is destined to fix what's wrong with the engine. Only then the generation after can go further and faster into a brighter future. Rise Against might know what parts are flawed, but they need manpower to make the change happen. Tim is well-aware of that: "The audience has always been part of that because we were just blindly stabbing out in the darkness to see if anybody was out there that want to listen to a band like ours. When we found those people that helped us realise our identity."
Taken from the June issue of Upset. Rise Against's album 'Nowhere Generation' is out 4th June.
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