It’s 6pm on a Tuesday night as Rise Against’s vocalist Tim McIlrath sits at home at Chicago.
He’s just come back from a five week US tour with Californian juggernauts Deftones, and a European tour’s next on the horizon. Set to tour down here in February on the back of eighth album Wolves, the four musicians have “a love affair” with Australia, first hitting our shores in 2005 for Big Day Out and making regular trips ever since.
However, this runs deeper than touring for McIlrath, whose thoughtfulness immediately becomes apparent as he reflects, “I think that when you’re able to travel somewhere far away like Australia, it allows you to look back on where you live through this filter and offers you a different perspective by having that distance. The two things that come to mind are gun control and health care.
“When I’m sitting in an Australian hotel room on a day off and watching the news from America, people are debating universal health care like it’s inventing the wheel. You’re sitting in a country looking around and you’re like, ‘Well they have it here. They have their complaints, but it’s not Lord of the Flies here. It’s not the crazy world that Americans like to describe.’
“Then gun control. Americans have this really twisted, romantic relationship with weapons, and they argue that we need them,” the singer continues, an edge of disbelief in his voice. “When you’re in a country that has strict gun control laws, you’re thinking, ‘Well they’re doing just fine without them here. Why can’t we learn that we’re not the only culture on the planet? It’s not necessarily tinkering or inventing, you can just look across oceans and see how other people deal with the same issues that are very human.
“So I always feel very lucky to play in this band and have been afforded the opportunity to get that perspective from travel. I feel like travel alone can be the antidote to so many ills of society.”
Plenty of social problems fired McIlrath up in his teenage years, and it was this gravitation “towards anything that was rebelling against the status quo” that first tied him to the punk rock world.
“I found it so much different to any music I’d heard before,” the vocalist reminisces. “The ‘80s and early ‘90s were when hair metal was slowly giving way to perhaps grunge, and I liked a lot of that music. But when I first heard Minor Threat, I was like, ‘Holy shit this sounds dangerous, like something I shouldn’t be listening to’.
“There were also punk bands that I’d heard but didn’t necessarily connect with, like the Sex Pistols or New York Dolls. When I found Minor Threat or even Dead Kennedys, I found music that was really talking about something and in the positive sense, like looking for a solution. Minor Threat sounded like there was substance, and the glass was half full. I liked that part of punk, and then that’s when I found hardcore as well.
“When I saw politics fused with music, whether it was The Clash or Rage Against the Machine, that’s when the light bulb really went off. I didn’t have any guitar hero dreams of being on a stage and playing for thousands of people under bright lights because it looks cool. The bands that I listened to talked about issues that spoke to me on such an incredible level.
“I left those shows just buzzing, and I knew that if I ever got the opportunity to step onstage, that’s what I would want to do.”
McIlrath’s as passionate about sharing in an intelligent dialogue as he was in his early years, and he says, “What helped me and where I may be different than the average 38 year old out there is the fans. They are a constant reminder of what is important on this planet, constantly holding me accountable for my words and reminding me of how it felt to write these songs the age I wrote them at.
“So I feel very fortunate to be able to walk out onstage and have these people that are essentially an antidote to apathy. I think that urge to bury your face in the sand lives within all of us, and it only pulls stronger the older we get. Our community of fans constantly inspires me.”
That push to explore and question the human condition helps the punk rockers distil their feelings about the problems around us into songs, with a trademark intensity and lyrical sharpness.
Recorded in Nashville, latest album Wolves further delves into these ideas, with the US’ tenuous political climate providing, as McIlrath puts it, “a lot of low-hanging fruit to choose from as far as what we wanted to sing about.”
“Not only did we see the rise of a candidate like Donald Trump, but along with that, racism and sexism… We saw a man who was happy to brag about assaulting women, or grabbing them without their permission, become who people in this country voted for,” the vocalist remembers with measured anger. “He represents an expression of the worst of American culture, and so we had to tackle it like, ‘How do we want to sing about this?’
“I think through our 18 years as a band, we’ve done a pretty good job of recognising that it’s not always the person that’s the problem, but the ideology. We’ve been a band through four presidential elections, and we’ve managed to not just sing about these men who are presiding over our country…
“As a band, we want to be treating a disease, not just the symptoms.”
In those 18 years, there’s been plenty that McIlrath has struggled to come to grips with, and from different viewpoints as a political observer, musician and family man. Pausing at length, he then begins, “I guess as a musician, you watch music and the way we consume it change a lot. It’s about trying to figure out where being a musician fits into culture.”
“Not just people that make music, but people who write about it, the brick and mortar record stores that used to sell CDs and all the jobs that the industry has supported for a long time. Watching it all collapse in on itself… It’s changed so much since we started.
“Then I’ve watched a lot of generations that listen to our band, and you see a lot of engaged people but apathy as well. I feel like part of the reason we’ve got Donald Trump as president is not necessarily because of the people that voted for him, but those that didn’t vote at all.”
“As a family man… I used to cruise around in a van trailer with my three friends and we used to play shows year-round for no money,” McIlrath chuckles here. “To still be doing this as I’m approaching my 40s and have a family that I support by basically screaming into a microphone every night…
“I still think every day, ‘I can’t believe I get away with this’.”
Get ready to become part of the rallying cry when the punk rock veterans return to Australia this summer, armed with their latest album Wolves and SWMRS in tow. The tour kicks off in Perth on February 7 – full dates and tickets here.