You can’t force artistry. True musical creations are typically launched via pure inspiration or serendipitous moments and ideas that are often baked to perfection through sheer work and dedication. Still, many musical artists have opted to churn out songs with a cookie-cutter, assembly line mentality, cramming albums with formulaic songwriting, by-the-book tolerances and the kind of bullish one-upmanship that’s more commonly seen in a corporate — and definitely not creative — environment.
But, as frontman Tim McIlrath confirms, there is no preset framework for the Chicago-based melodic hardcore band that refuses to adhere to any established norm in the music industry. McIlrath says the foursome —bassist Joe Principe, drummer Brandon Barnes and guitarist Zach Blair — simply engage in their album making activity without over thinking and precisely planning every step, and that includes the band’s latest release, Appeal to Reason.
“We took the same approach to this record as we’ve done to our previous records, which is actually a lack of approach,” McIlrath says. “There’s no approach. It’s just show up and let’s play. There’s no plan, we don’t map it out, we don’t decide on a direction. We just kind of let it happen real naturally. That’s how it happened.”
“We don’t have a set formula,” Principe concurs, “but what we do have is writing constantly while we’re touring. Any idea we have, we’ll try it. We don’t want to limit ourselves.”
But looking back at the career of Rise Against, one can see that the band’s reach also grew organically from its roots in the national underground punk scene to a phenomenon that has touched the lives of millions of listeners across the world — nothing was charted nor prescribed. With equal doses of perseverance, conviction, artistry and commitment, Rise Against rose from the local Chicago scene through its earliest independent releases, The Unraveling (2001) and Revolutions Per Minute (2003). After landing the opening slot on high-profile national tours and joining the Vans Warped Tour roster, the profile of Rise Against sharply rose outside of the occasionally insular underground.
In 2004, the band released its breakthrough, Siren Song of the Counter Culture to an amazingly receptive response, with sales rocketing near Gold status. With nearly a year of consistent touring and promotion to reach both potential listeners and its longtime fans, the band’s singles “Give It All” and the introspective “Swing Life Away” captured the hearts and honest minds of audiences via alternative rock radio stations across the country. The follow-up, 2006’s The Sufferer and the Witness followed a similar path of success, with its engaging lead single “Ready to Fall” spun on heavy rotation, both on the air and on stage and its subsequent singles “Prayer Of The Refugee” and “Good Left Undone” topping the radio charts.
Though the fluke test is seemingly over, Rise Against have not opted to rest on their laurels with the creation of Appeal to Reason. Working again with their team of producers, Bill Stevenson (NOFX, Evan Dando, Comeback Kid) and Jason Livermore and mixer Chris Lord Alge (Green Day, My Chemical Romance, AFI), the band returned to their “home studio” of the Blasting Room in Fort Collins, Colo. for two months to track their latest creation. However, this is where any semblance of a prescribed attitude ends.
For example, instead of writing enough songs to satisfy a full-length album requirement, McIlrath notes that the band was incredibly prolific during the writing sessions for Appeal to Reason. In fact, Rise Against allotted a solid week of just playing time in the studio, and did not track anything for the first ten days.
“We wrote a gigantic number of songs,” he says. “We’ve always wrote about the number of songs that would end up on our records. You’re not going to hear long lost Rise Against B-sides, we rarely have anything extra. But this time we wrote some 30 pretty solid ideas. Things were just flowing out of us. We just kept spitting songs out. We had to boil that down to a record. That was the hard part.”
Also, McIlrath says that Rise Against is continually listening and incorporating new elements to its trademark sound. For example, “Long Forgotten Sons” finds the band invoking more of an ‘80s vibe, somewhere between The Cure and early Fugazi, while “The Strength To Go On” was influenced by McIlrath’s love for bands like Tool.
The lyrical content of the songs on Appeal to Reason have also greatly widened Rise Against repertoire’s spectrum. “The Strength To Go On” finds McIlrath further questioning the information that’s disseminated into society.
“The chorus, it’s definitely taking and looking at where we get our information from and who’s telling us the information and who’s right and who’s wrong and how everything we do has some kind of spin on it and who can you trust,” he says. “How we were brought up, how we were raised, everything, and how we separate the truth from the lies, and our entire upbringing. And when it really boils down, it’s hard to see what we know is true and what we know is false. It’s interesting thought.”
The touching acoustic-based “Hero Of War” puts Rise Against dead in the center of a generation of military service personnel who are battling their own personal wars outside of those in the Middle East. Partially based on true stories, the song is actually an amalgamation of a number of characters, starting with military recruitment.
“That’s something we deal with when we play shows that have a recruitment tent,” says McIlrath. “There’s a guy from the army roping in kids. We’re talking about those kids who see the army as an option. When I was 17 years old, I met with an army recruiter, because I considered joining the army, the armed forces. I wanted to go out and see places and do this. We get a lot of e-mails from kids who are soldiers, all branches from the armed services. They come out to our shows. They tell you their stories and their stories are in the first verse, a sum of a lot of the stories that I’ve heard.”
The second verse documents situations at Abu Gharib, Guantanamo Bay, and the Haditha revenge killing for an IED explosion. And the song’s third verse was based on a true story after McIlrath watched a documentary called “The Ground Truce.” Moved by the film, McIlrath wrote a majority of the song inspired by the stories and images presented in the documentary.
“Neil Young documented the Kent State shootings in Ohio and so many bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Buffalo Springfield did so much,” says McIlrath. “I learned more about the Vietnam War from bands like that than I did from the history books. As this war is hopefully coming to a close, and as stories of what happened are coming out, I needed to write a song that dealt with the reality of war.”
The album’s first single is the straightforward, four-chord heavy rocker “Re-Education (Through Labor).” “It’s a good way to start off this new record, because I think the album has a lot of progression and something different to offer,” says Principe, “and I think that song represents us the best.”
Of course, none of the songs on Appeal to Reason are able to make much of an impact if there isn’t an audience to receive them. And for McIlrath, creating connections to the band’s audience is of paramount importance — regardless of size, scenes or musical styles.
“It’s still about reaching people, putting what we’re giving into these people, making them think and challenge the ways of thought, creating conversation and dialogue and putting new ideas forth for people to consider,” says McIlrath. “And when you have a bigger fanbase, that’s even more fun to do, because all of a sudden your voice is louder. Now you have a bigger bullhorn than you actually have. It’s exciting and fun and I look forward to the next couple years with this record. Now that we have a fanbase, it’s just a question of what are we going to do when we’ve been given the privilege that we’ve been given.”