A conversation with Tim McIlrath
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Tim Harmon
The leader of one of the best punk bands in the mainstream - or any stream - talks about their noisy new Appeal to Reason, the upcoming election and the untold stories of our ongoing war.
In Rise Against songs over the years, there’s a recurring theme that we’ve reached a tipping point or a point of no return – but there’s hope, a chance at redemption. It’s seldom doom and gloomy. But at what point does the window close? At what point can we no longer regain our footing?
That’s always the concern – that we’ll finally fall and no one will be there to catch us because we’ve alienated all of our allies. I think that’s why bands like us exist – and beyond the music world, there are people who care deeply about our country and the things that have been accomplished by this country. Part of the hope that I have comes from the fact that this band is even allowed to exist in this world today, and that we have as many fans as we do who buy our records and come to our shows and agree at least in part to some of the things we’re saying. And we’re just a dot on the radar of a much larger subversive community of people around the country. As long as we have those people, I think we’ll have that balance. I certainly have hope that there will always be those people, and hopefully somewhere in that community, people will be able to eradicate all the injustice that happens – or at least partly do so.
I just read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine…
Oh! I actually have that but I’ve only just cracked it so far.
It’s one of my favorite books of the last few years. She does a magnificent job of laying out all of the horrible precedents in American foreign policy that have led us to Iraq – this theory that America can shock countries into democracy and the free market.
Yeah, war and colonizing developing countries has become as American as apple pie. We’ve done it under the guise of noble causes, so many Americans will kind of glaze over it. Even World War II – the war against the evil Nazis – the reasons we got into the war were far less noble than the reasons we say we got into it.
Appeal to Reason references a left-wing newspaper that helped bring attention to Upton Sinclair – and it’s a title that speaks to one of the challenges facing the left-wing today: things like “reason” and “nuance” and “intellect” are now equated with “elitism.” How do you think we can push past that?
It’s so true – that kind of stuff is equated to elitism. And if not elitism, then to some sort of controversy or radical politics or things that are so marginalized that people can be convinced “Don’t get behind these ideas because they’re too radical.” I’ve done a lot of interviews with people who are vaguely familiar with our band, and what comes up is that Rise Against is political and controversial – and that stuff has always kind of baffled me. I’ve taken a look at the things we’re saying in our songs and the things we’re asking of each other and of other people, and when you boil it down, we’re asking people to be fair to each other. We’re asking people to give each other a chance in a world free from injustice. Only in a world this screwed up could that be considered radical or controversial. Appeal to Reason is certainly inspired by that leftist paper. It hit home to me – very reasonable things are being talked about in these songs, and the way this band is viewed and the way leftist politics are viewed is more of a reflection on how far today’s world has been spun to the right, and how scared we are of dissent and subversion. It’s very interesting to me to see that kind of stuff, because I don’t consider us to be radical or controversial.
How did “Hero of War” come into being?
We were in the middle of writing the record and I’m always writing acoustic stuff, so I just forgot about it and put it in the file. As we were completing the record, and the songs were all coming together, I realized there might be a place for that song on the record. I remember coming to Bill one morning and I said “Bill, what if I told you that I had an acoustic song from the perspective of a war veteran?” He looked at me and he goes, “Tim, I just drove over here in my car and I was listening to a protest song and I was thinking that you need to write an acoustic song about the war.” I played it for him and he said, yeah, this should definitely go on the record. This needs to be said.
I like it for a number of reasons. We’ve written a lot of songs about the war and covered a lot of different aspects. To write another one, I thought it might be kind of redundant in the Rise Against world. I wanted to take the perspective of “What is the war going to be looked back on as?” Hopefully we’re coming to a close on the war in Iraq. When that happens, only then are the stories going to really come out. Only then are these soldiers going to go home and really start talking about what happened over there. I think we’re going to be completely inundated; I think you’re starting to see it now. Every magazine I pick up has the token Iraq veteran war story in it, and they are always amazing and eye-opening.
Depicting soldiers acting in any way other than heroically can cause a kneejerk reaction – some people want the troops to be painted as heroes in every situation. “Support The Troops” can almost come to mean “Don’t Talk About The Troops.”
Different events in this war.. everything from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib to Haditha, where 25 innocent civilians were killed in what appeared to be a revenge killing of U.S. soldiers. Simply donning a uniform doesn’t make you a perfect or noble person. There are people who did some serious wrongs in this war and they did them in uniform. You can’t generalize anything with soldiers. With that said, the song isn’t even a condemnation of soldiers or the Army or Armed Services – it’s just a story. It’s a story I’m hearing from our fans, it’s a story I’m reading about from soldiers coming home. And it’s a story that needs to be told.
Right after 9/11, bands like Anti-Flag were getting dropped from shows because of the name of their band. Now all these years later, the level of our discourse has risen to where we’re talking whether Barack Obama hates America because he didn’t wear a flag pin on his lapel. And somehow those ideas really take root and resonate with people.
Which is so funny. Hopefully we see a change in the direction of that kind of thinking. Hopefully we look at the world on a more international platform and have a president who is more of a player in the international forum. I love America. And I love Canada. And I love France. And I love England and Germany. I love China and I love Japan. I love Australia. I love the band Anti-Flag because that’s what their name means – it’s not about borders or flags. We’re all people living here on this planet. These borders are nothing but social constructs, and they’ve done nothing but tear us apart. Certainly a candidate like Barack Obama, who has a more worldly background than any candidate in history, will help in that change of direction.
I think it could really quickly. The eyes of the world are on us. People in England, for instance, are really tuned in to our election season. I’ve met Brits in the past few years who half-joked that they were surprised that they liked me and my American colleagues – they didn’t think they were going to like Americans based on what they were seeing on TV.
[Laughs] It’s so bad. We toured Europe in a pre-9/11 world and a post-9/11 world and it was such a huge change in atmosphere and how people approached and thought about Americans. 9/11 was seven years ago now. That’s a whole generation of kids who were brought up after that – they were 10 then and are 17 now – and that’s how they were shaped and that’s the America they were introduced to as an adolescent. It’s pretty sad. Like you just said, we’ve experienced the same thing. We’re so vocally against the war and against a lot of American policies that it’s always a surprise to a lot of Europeans.
In closing, I was wondering whether you, as a married man, have any advice for me, as a newlywed.
Ah, a newlywed! Congratulations. Being a family man has been one of the best things for me. It’s one of the things that helps maintain any sort of balance in this weird life that chose me. I think it’s an important part of anybody’s life. I certainly appreciate it in my own life – I’m married and I have two kids. It keeps me grounded. Any good wife is good at keeping you grounded. My wife certainly is. So good luck with that.
Thanks. And I think that’s it for me. Thanks again – it was fun as always.
Yeah, it was great to talk to you again. I look forward to doing it again.