Written on July 6, 2011 – 7:26 am | by Jaxon Hallahan
Rise Against never lets listeners forget about the problems facing humanity. The Chicago punk-rock band has been delivering an urgent message on the state of the world for more than a decade, cranking it out in a blaze of fist-pumping punk-rock anthems, and the occasional acoustic ballad. War, environmental degradation and homophobia are some of the issues frontman Tim McIlrath addresses in his songwriting.
Whether it’s the socially charged backbone or the crunch of their singalong rock songs, the band has connected with a restless generation, especially, it seems, in Canada. Their sixth album, Endgame, was a No. 1 album on this side of the border earlier this year, a feather in their cap after years of touring our country. Their fan base has grown with each appearance: years ago, they played clubs like Ottawa’s Capital Music Hall; now they’re headlining Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest.
So, what’s up with Canada and Rise Against? McIlrath has a hard time explaining it, but there’s no doubt in his mind that his band enjoys a special relationship with Canadian fans.
“Canada is the first country on the planet that really embraced this band on a large, large scale,” he said during a recent phone interview. “At the time when we were still beating down the doors of the world trying to get them to listen to us, Canada got it right away and we immediately had an incredibly rabid fan base all across the country. It always made us look forward to playing Canada.”
McIlrath shares the stage with bassist Joe Principe, drummer Brandon Barnes and lead guitarist Zach Blair, all straight-edge vegans and animal-rights supporters. To them, the increasing popularity of the band, in Canada and elsewhere, means the message must be getting through. At heart, Rise Against is a punk-rock band and punk-rock bands don’t get traffic on Billboard charts, McIlrath says. That’s a huge indicator that there are so many hungry voices out there looking for music like this. There’s a vacuum for bands like Rise Against.
On the chart-topping Endgame, the challenge was to find a way to present the same messages they had been pounding out over five previous albums in a way that would be relevant and still carry a sense of urgency. The technique McIlrath came up with was to imagine a future in which civilization had collapsed.
“The record is hypothesizing that it’s too late,” says the singer-guitarist. “That the collapse of civilization is already happening and it was a look back, to paint a picture of the consequence of our actions. It was fun to play with that imagery but also to use it as a tool to get people to think about what’s happening, to really imagine the effects, to really stop and take a peek at what the world could be like a few years of from now if we stay on this same road.”
Rise Against is also part of a project that takes a look back at one of the pioneers of protest songs, Bob Dylan. The band is recording Dylan’s “Ballad of Hollis Brown” to mark the folk-rock icon’s 70th birthday and Amnesty International’s 50th anniversary. The song will be featured on an upcoming album of Dylan covers.
The punks opted for “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” a 1964 song about an unemployed farmer who kills his starving family, because McIlrath says he felt passionate about the lyrics.
“I’m kind of a born-again Bob Dylan fan, I’ll be honest,” he says. “I grew up in a punk-rock/hardcore world where it wasn’t cool to listen to folk music, so I’m just now discovering a lot of amazing artists. Bob Dylan was one I passed on in the past, but now I’m digging into his catalogue and really appreciate his stuff.”
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