Rise Against’s much anticipated headline tour of Australia is hitting the East Coast this December. Killyourstereo.com had the opportunity to chat with vocalist Tim Mcllrath about setlist choices, politics and which of their records he’s most proud of creating.
Hey Tim, where are you at the moment?
Back home in Chicago, I just flew in from five weeks of touring around Europe.
I heard you had flight delays, was it a struggle after such a marathon tour?
Well my luggage is still somewhere out there in the universe so I’m still waiting on that. Other than that it was fine getting home though.
Starting off with the European tour, what was the highlight?
I don’t know if I’ve had enough time to reflect actually. The best part was probably it being like a game of roulette with the venues every day. We played a different festival every day, and there were just too many festivals to possibly keep track of. So you pretty much wake up in a different country and you have no idea what kind of festival you’re going to be playing. Every one was so different. You wake up one day and you’re playing with Lamb of God and Motley Crue in Austria, then the next you’re playing with One Republic and Sam Smith in the Netherlands. Then the next night you’re playing with Ignite and Bastille in Hungary, and it’s on and on like that. So you’re just like, “where are we and who’s playing? Was that Tommy Lee walking by?!” Every day is so strange, and you’re so tired and just trying to figure out where the food is honestly before walking out into a dusty field somewhere to a huge crowd (laughs). A lot of [people] might be there for Florence and the Machine but then you’ve got us walking on stage doing what we do. So it’s a lot of fun, and you meet up with a lot of friends that you’ve toured with in the past. We met up with Lagwagon out there, we saw Yellowcard, crossed paths with NOFX. It was kind of like a cool family reunion vibe. It was a great time, but it was a whirlwind with some incredible shows in beautiful countries. We had some shows in Russia as well, and we literally just got back.
With all those old friends around, and people like Sam Smith and Florence playing the same gig, did you make any new friends that you didn’t think you would be talking to?
I tried to make friends with the Wu-Tang Clan. But it didn’t go very well (laughs).
There has to be a story there.
I went to the guys “why don’t we try and hang out with the Wu-Tang Clan?” We couldn’t get past their entourage though. They definitely seemed like, “we’re here to play this show, not hang out with any of you weird rock people out here.”
I wasn’t expecting that to come up today, but I’m so glad it did.
That’s the kind of shows we played man. I woke up that day and they told me, “you’re playing after Eagles of Death Metal and right before Wu-Tang Clan.” And I said, “Okay cool, sign me up, where’s the stage?”
Did you tailor your setlist to what festival you were playing? Lighter setlists for lighter festivals, that sort of thing?
We used to do that when we first started the band. We were on all kinds of weird tours, we opened for Mad Caddies – who are a ska band – then the next tour we played with Agnostic Front with a bunch of skinheads and punks. So we used to tailor our set a little more. But I’ve found out that people just want to see you. They don’t want to see a modified version of what you do, and see you tailor your set because of whom you’re playing with. Even if you’re just the freaks out there, they want to see the freakshow. We just do what we do and we find our audience really. Sometimes I’ve been playing really heavy songs in front of a crowd waiting for Sam Smith, or I’ve played an acoustic song at a metal festival. Because we play acoustic songs, that’s who we are. People want to see who you are.
I’ve seen you a couple of times and ‘Swing Life Away’ and ‘Hero of War’ go down extremely well. Are you always surprised when it does go down well in front of a huge crowd of metal fans?
Yes I am, and there are more times than not before we go on stage where I’ll be looking at the setlist and think about taking them off. One of the big questions I used to ask was “should I bother with the acoustic stuff?” Like is it going to be cool, lame, whatever, or should we just pummel through the other songs? Those songs though… Especially ‘Hero of War’ there was a sing a long where the crowd was louder than I was, and I was not expecting it at all. For a song that’s a few years old – six years or so now – I feel like today you can’t predict what sort of songs are being shared online or what people are gravitating towards in a world that’s less reliant on radio. I played these songs in countries for years but this was the first time it really surprised me. ‘Hero of War’ is an interesting one too because in the States, where we live, it was never a single and the US radio wouldn’t touch it. It was too controversial. But around the world it was embraced a little more and I was always proud of the song, I thought it was a great song. So whenever I leave the country I’m always surprised at the reaction because it doesn’t get that in the States.
Does that ever stifle you in a way knowing that controversial songs might not get released in certain countries?
It doesn’t really bother me actually. Just as long as they come out and people can get them when they want them, that’s the most important [thing]. With the decision on what stations play, it’s really out of our hands, to be honest. I find it interesting, but nothing more than that I guess.
‘I Don’t Want To Be Here Anymore’ hits a pretty controversial topic, do you ever worry whether a song hasn’t gone down well with an audience?
I suppose that just by the sheer nature of who we are as a band, our audience isn’t always going to agree with us. But I’m also a kid who grew up going to Rage Against The Machine shows knowing full well that the majority of people may not agree with – or even understand – what Zack was trying to say up there. But, he was up there for the people that do get it. There’s people who aren’t going to get it, or they’re just there to hang out, dance and rock out. But for every one of them there, there was someone like me appreciating that someone was making bold statements that commercial radio couldn’t ignore, street press couldn’t ignore because it was so powerful. I don’t go out there naively believing that everyone in the audience is going to understand what I’m saying or that they necessarily agree with me. But, I go out there trying to connect with people. I feel that it makes them feel less alone, and that music can definitely embolden [and] empower people.
On that note, who do you think your typical fan is then?
That’s a great question. I’m still trying to figure it out. When our band first started and we were doing typical punk and hardcore, our fans were pretty easy people to nail down. But as the band got bigger we were playing to more of a generic rock crowd sometimes. Being a punk band playing a small punk rock show and saying things like, “I’m against the war in Iraq” was like, “Oh big surprise. The singer of Rise Against is against the war in Iraq. Glad I paid 20 bucks to find that out (laughs).” That was the normal type of things we’d play. But as the band got bigger, you found people that it was a big surprise to. They’d be like, “What’d he just say? What is he talking about? We’re just here for a good time, just shut up and play.” You found out that there were people that were shocked at music being more than just entertainment. And for someone like me, that’s where it became fun. It became more provocative; it meant I could create more friction. The message was all the more powerful because it was finally reaching the ears of the people that needed to be reached. So as to who our typical fan is, I actually don’t know. I meet fans that say, “I like your band, but I disagree with a lot of the stuff you say and I wish you’d just shut up and play.” Then I meet someone else who says, “Why aren’t you more political? Why isn’t there more activism in your music? Why isn’t the music saying this? You sung about this, but why not about this? I want to know where else to go with this, I’ve got your record and [it] inspired [me] but I don’t know what to do. Tell me more.” So there are two different types of fans and it’s a tricky thing to navigate, what people expect you to be and who you want to be. Those aren’t always the same thing.
During The Black Market there’s a lot of global concerns, whereas your older material like Siren Song of the Counter-Culture focused quite a bit on local issues. Is it you growing more mature that’s prompted the more international focus?
Well ‘Siren Song’ was still a very ‘post 9/11-beginning of the war in Iraq’ time so I couldn’t help but write about that, write about tapping into the atmosphere of the country at that point in time. I guess as the band got bigger we realised that presidents like George Bush were a symptom of a much bigger disease. Wars like the war in Iraq were a symptom of something much bigger and you want to sing about those things. Things like global events that lead to presidents like Bush becoming a powerful person. Also, I guess I was very humbled by all the travel that this band has allowed me to do, all the countries it’s taken me to and all the people I’ve met, all the different ways of life. That’s an experience that really shapes you and I can’t help but look at the planet and not just my own country, around my own town. Even in terms of the Rise Against community, it’s a global community. When I think of our fans, I don’t think of just one flag or one country because we tour all over and we have incredible fans everywhere.
You’re touring in Australia again. What sort of material are we going to see? From all the different albums or are you mainly focusing on new material?
On this upcoming tour… That’s a good question, and it gets harder to make that set list every single year and also when we make a new record. When we record a new album, another song gets squeezed out from being played. But I’m not a guy that walks out on stage and turns my nose up at the crowd and says, “I’m only going to play what I’m going to play.” That’s not me. I want to play the songs that will light this place on fire. Whatever songs will, sign me up. I want to play them. I’m not really precious about the catalogue, and if it’s gotta be this song, or this song. I want to create a great physical atmosphere to have at a punk rock show. When you hear the songs we play, that’s the thought behind that setlist. What is going to make this place go off?
On that aspect, which record are you most proud of that’s got a lot of people involved?
That’s a good question again. Some of the records I’ve thought are the most politically powerful aren’t the most popular records. So there’s a difference between my favourite records and the ones that reached the most people. I think Appeal To Reason was one that had Saviour, which got a lot more miles than any of us thought it would. Songs like ‘Collapse’ and ‘Hero of War’ have some of the most bold statements I’ve ever written about the state of my country and where I’m from. So to have a record that spans from a top 10 single about love and loss to a song about war crimes I guess I’m proud of because it contained all of them.
Unfortunately we’re out of time but I wanted to say thanks for Swing Life Away since I’ve got “we’ve had some times/I wouldn’t trade for the world” tattooed on me.
Oh that’s amazing dude, I love that. I’m so glad I talked to you.
Rise Against are touring the East Coast this December with Clowns and Outright, details are available through Frontier Touring.