Tim McIlrath of Rise Against

by Greg Prato

The stories behind some of the biggest Rise Against songs, his sci-fi influence, and the album Nowhere Generation.

Rise Against: Joe Principe, Tim McIlrath, Brandon Barnes, Zach Blair

Tim McIlrath doesn't think of Rise Against's music as political, but as common sense; fairness and hope should not be radical concepts. Formed in 1999, they've had the same lineup since 2008, when they released their incendiary album Appeal To Reason. As the band pushed forward, they attracted a new generation of fans with many of the same concerns they've addressed over the years, but amplified by the increasing divide between the haves and the have nots. For their 2021 album, Nowhere Generation, set for release on June 4, McIlrath - the singer, guitarist and lyricist in the band - did a lot of listening to find out what it was like being a young American in modern times when instability is the norm.

Rise Against's songs are some of the most popular here on Songfacts, an indication of how they connect with listeners and bring them together. Their most-discussed songs deal with the stages of life and finding our way though the world.

In this interview, we asked McIlrath about some of the most powerful Rise Against songs in their catalog as well as the propulsive title track to their new album. Along the way, we learned about the science fiction books that inform his lyrics, and his straight-edge/vegan lifestyle.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Was it difficult to complete Nowhere Generation due to the pandemic?

Tim McIlrath: Actually, the bulk of it was completed before the pandemic. We were in the studio as the lockdown was beginning. We were getting kicked out of hotels in Colorado where our studio is,1 trying to figure out what was happening.

So, we did the bulk of it together, which is the important part. That's when we can create the songs together, because we need that energy and that electricity of us just being in the same room. So, we were lucky in that way. And then the pandemic shut us down, and we spent that time just doing a lot of the bells and whistles – the mixing, the mastering, the artwork, all of that stuff. And then just the waiting game.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting primarily work in the band?

McIlrath: Joe [Principe] our bass player and I collaborate on the music, which we've done traditionally. Then I write all of the lyrics, the vocal melodies, and that kind of thing, and that's how the songs come together. That's how we've always done it.

Songfacts: I heard that you're a big reader of sci-fi books. Did that influence your own lyrics?

McIlrath: Even before I got into music and punk and hardcore, I was just a nerdy kid who loved sci-fi. I was a big reader, and I was stumbling across a lot of coming-of-age classics like 1984 by George Orwell or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I was really roped into the books because of their sci-fi nature and didn't realize what dystopian literature was when I was reading that. I was getting education in it by just reading that.

I was reading books as almost pure entertainment, but then I realized, Oh, George Orwell is talking about a future that he's afraid we may end up actually living if we keep going down this road. And that's what Ray Bradbury was talking about in Fahrenheit 451. It dawned on me later that these are heavy political statements.

That stuck with me forever because it was not just what I felt was brilliant writing that roped me in, but it was a way to get into the head of someone like me using storytelling, using art, using this façade of a book to express to people some of your concerns about society. That always stuck with me.

Songfacts: Nowhere Generation opens with a brief audio clip of a song called "The Internationale" (aka "L'Internationale").

McIlrath: "L'Internationale" has sort of become an anthem for the left-wing movements throughout history. Different cultures have kept the rhythm and the song the same, but they changed the lyrics to suit whatever struggle they were going through.

I think it's like the music to the French national anthem, but we use a Russian version to kick the record off. It's just a nod to a lot of the labor movements around the world, and also to point out a lot of the struggles that we deal with today are something that we've dealt with historically.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration behind the title track from Nowhere Generation?

McIlrath: "Nowhere Generation" came from my interaction with our own fanbase – a lot of them are younger than me. Our fanbase was expressing a lot of concern about what their future is going to look like, and they have a lot of anxiety about what tomorrow is going to look like. You get a lot of stories of people trying to get ahead and they can't get ahead, and they're wondering what is going on. For me, "Nowhere Generation" was lending a sympathetic ear to people who feel like they're swimming against an insurmountable current in today's society.

They're being held down by everything from concentrated wealth to institutionalized racism to the rise of the one percent, the anxieties of global warming and climate change, social media presenting a lifestyle that nobody can live up to. All these things are weighing on young people when they wake up every day, and they feel that they're dealing with circumstances that are unique to their generation.

"Nowhere Generation" is talking about that and acknowledging that, and being more sympathetic to the plight of young people today, and to anybody who is trying to get ahead and can't. Anybody who asks, "What makes this era of civilization different than previous eras?"

Songfacts: What do you recall about filming the song's video?

McIlrath: It was the first time I was leaving lockdown. I'm from Chicago, and we shot a lot of that from LA. It was at a time last fall when things were looking pretty good, everyone was hopeful. Obviously, those hopes were dashed pretty shortly after, but in that moment, there was a window of time where it felt like things were coming back.

So, we were in a studio with a production team, everybody wearing masks. It was good to see my band – we were all remote, we all live in different states. And it was good to be playing music. Honestly, it was the last time I saw them, too.

We filmed with a guy named Brian Roettinger, who also did the album artwork. He's just a brilliant artist. And it was a lot of fun to play those songs in that big white room. It felt like the Willy Wonka TV room: big, white, and sterile like that. It was a fun time to document that.

Songfacts: What about the song "Savior"?

McIlrath: "Savior" is a story of love and loss. It's one of those classic tales – a push and pull of a relationship. I wanted to put that in a song and create the Rise Against version of that coming-of-age tale that I think most people can relate to.

Songfacts: "Give It All."

McIlrath: "Give It All" is a Rise Against anthem. It is about overcoming obstacles in a way that punk rock and hardcore taught us to. It was nods to the punk rock and the DIY attitude. And then this sort of push to the listener to keep fighting to put their head down and keep on moving forward.

Songfacts: "Swing Life Away."

McIlrath: That was written when I was living in a punk house in Chicago. We spent a lot of our summers hanging out on the front porch because it was so hot in the house and we had no air conditioning. We had guitars out there, people would just hang out and drink and smoke.

It was a document to that time in my life when it was a lot of young people trying to figure out what it is they want to do and how they want to move forward in their life. Everyone has a cool story and everyone has their own struggles and experience. Some of us were really lost, some of us knew exactly what we wanted. That search that you're on in your youth. "Swing" was a document to that, a document to Chicago in the summer, and a document to that time in my life just living with a bunch of roommates in a punk house in Chicago.



Songfacts: "Audience Of One."

McIlrath: "Audience Of One" is again, that coming-of-age tale where you are growing up and the friends in the community you grew up with, everyone is going their separate ways. The experiences of our youth were starting to come to an expiration date. Everybody was transitioning to adulthood. "Audience Of One" is about that moment of your life that I think a lot of people experience.

Songfacts: "Prayer Of The Refugee."

McIlrath: "Prayer Of The Refugee" was talking about displacement that we experience, whether it's a physical displacement, or even an emotional displacement. Having to move on from one place in your life to the next place in your life.

In some ways, that song is referencing something literal: the idea of actually being not in a place you call home. But in a lot of ways, that song is more metaphorical in talking about being alienated from a community or from yourself even, almost like a more emotional take on the concept.

Songfacts: For many years you have publicly been known for being straight edge and vegan. How different do you think the world would be if more people were vegan, and could potential future pandemics be averted?

McIlrath: Yeah, we're learning more about that every year. When I got into animal rights and stopped eating meat 25 years ago, the idea of the meat industry causing pandemics was not even something on a lot of people's radar. As soon as someone told me we don't need to eat meat to survive and that we just choose to, and it's going to lead to a lot of suffering and a lot of environmental damage, then it just seemed like a no-brainer to me, and I never looked back.

It's one of those things where I wake up every day and I don't see what I do as hard or compromised or a sacrifice that I make. I see this as very easy and common sense. I'm not a martyr. I eat great food and I've never missed it a day in my life.

The animal industry contributes more greenhouse gases than all transportation industries combined, so you realize there really is a solution to global warming, and it's to stop eating meat, or at least decrease your intake.

May 6, 2021

For more Rise Against, visit riseagainst.com.

Further reading:

Justin Sane of Anti-Flag
Anthony Raneri of Bayside
Roger Miret of Agnostic Front
Jello Biafra
Glen Matlock of Sex Pistols

photos: Jason Siegel

Footnotes:

  • 1] The Blasting Room in Fort Collins, where they've made every album since Revolutions Per Minute in 2003 (back)

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Comments: 1

  • Shawn from Maryland"Savior" is my favorite Rise Against song. For me, the song illustrates the process of thinking back on a failed relationship so clearly....if that makes sense. :)
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