Armed with the fury of classic punk acts as Minor Threat and Bad Brains, blended with intelligent vocals and a serious commitment to providing a positive alternative to the oft-dreary and disenchanted aura that engulfs most punk bands, Chicago’s Rise Against might be seen as an outcast amongst its peers.
“It was almost cool to be negative, especially around Chicago,” bassist Joe Principe recalls. “So, vocalist Tim [McIlrath] and I had this main goal of putting a positive light on things. There are so many bands that sing about negative things, and we kind of wanted to use this to show people it’s OK to voice your opinions and stay positive. We just wanted to be more productive, lyrically.”
“It’s not so much as we’re a political band, but what we feel is our social responsibility,” adds McIlrath. “It’s not just a responsibility as human being on the planet, but towards the punk rock scene. I feel like we’re kind of carrying the torch of punk. So many bands aren’t doing that, shaking their obligations as a punk band. I don’t want to be a band that took for granted the things that Minor Threat and Black Flag did that brought me to where I am today.”
Founded in late 1999 by Principe and McIlrath, Rise Against rose from the ashes of Principe’s former band, 88 Fingers Louie. Sporting blistering, aggressive melodic punk and hardcore traits, Rise Against took the template Principe set in his previous band and expanded it further, through the thought-provoking vocals of McIlrath.
“I wanted to put in some level of energy,” says Principe. “It’s hard to pinpoint what bands like Bad Brains and Minor Threat did. Those guys had something together. They took what they were doing and separated themselves from everyone else. And that’s what I wanted from this band.”
The cohesive sound of Rise Against is actually a seamless melding of two musically independent worlds. “Joe comes from more of an old-school background,” says McIlrath. “He grew up with Bad Brains, Articles Of Faith, SNFU, all the hardcore stuff. And I liked Fugazi, the more melodic, early ‘90s emo like Cap’n Jazz, Braid and Friction. We were wondering how this would all work. I mean, it should’ve been a train wreck.”
Fortunately, there was no derailment in sight for Rise Against. In fact, almost a year after they first met, the act was playing their first show. And after playing musical chairs behind the kit, the band finally found a drummer that exceeded their expectations, Colorado-based Brandon Barnes, formerly of Denver punk outfit Pinhead Circus.
“He had just left his old band and had this demo of himself just playing drums and told me he had a trailer that he rented out in the mountains, and he’d just go there and play drums all the time,” says McIlrath. “The demo was actually sent to Good Riddance, and when they heard that we were looking for a drummer, they passed the tape onto us. He came out to Chicago and played our stuff perfectly.”
After cutting a demo, Rise Against found a home at mega-indie Fat Wreck Chords, a label owned by NOFX bassist Fat Mike. In spring 2001, the foursome soon found themselves in the studio of famed Chicago punk veteran Mass Giorgini (Screeching Weasel, Smoking Popes) who tracked the band’s debut The Unraveling. And then they hit the road.
“All our shows were small and we’d just hop on anything we could hop on, take every opening bill, making not even enough to pay for our gas,” McIlrath recalls. “We were totally roughing it, taking those opening slots five minutes before doors opened.”
After two years of solid touring, Rise Against recorded their sophomore effort in December 2002, the well-received Revolutions Per Minute - recorded by Descendents/ALL/Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore.
“We had no idea how much fun it would be and how much of a learning experience it would be for the band,” McIlrath says about working with Stevenssson. “You’re talking about a guy who’d footnote Black Flag and the Descendents when talking to you about things.”
Pumped from the experience, Rise Against quickly put themselves back on familiar turf, touring extensively, including the Warped Tour. Soon enough, the act was appearing on the radar outside of the underground punk community — namely major labels came calling with offers.
“A lot of our friends had signed to major labels, and we’d talked a lot about the labels with them,” McIrath notes. “And everyone who I respected had a real good response about them.”
Taking the advice of their peers — and justifying the move based on the idea of reaching a wider audience — Rise Against amicably left Fat Wreck Chords and signed to DreamWorks in December 2003.
“We met like a dozen labels and DreamWorks was the only one that really made us feel like they were going to do what they said they were going to do,” McIlrath explains. The band also took comfort in the fact that the label had a solid reputation in the punk community, after creating fruitful careers for bands like Jimmy Eat World, Sparta and AFI.
Furthering their message and support was of the utmost importance to Rise Against. “What we do well is play in a band,” says McIlrath. “So if we can take what we do well and lend it to some kind of cause, I’m all for that.” Some of the causes Rise Against support include fighting against racism in punk rock, animal rights, inhumane electro-shock therapy on patients and PunkVoter.com, a Fat Wreck-sponsored campaign to defeat the re-election of President Bush.
Parting ways with their previous guitarist, Rise Against brought in former Reach The Sky guitarist Chris Chasse in March 2004 and almost immediately began recording their DreamWorks debut, Siren Song Of The Counter-Culture, with Gggarth Richardson.
“[Chasse] learned like 20-some songs for the new record, and in the meantime, we’ve been teaching him the other two records,” says Barnes of the crash course. “He’s a great guy and has always been interested in the band, even back when no one gave a fuck about us.”
After Rise Against hits this summer’s Warped Tour, the act hopes to tour South Africa later this year, in an effort to spread the word of the AIDS epidemic and unfair trade laws through their performances. “I’d love to spread awareness to people outside of Africa about what’s going on down there,” McIlrath notes.
The proactive nature of Rise Against is fully entrenched in the band’s philosophy. “It’s just whatever we feel or are capable of,” McIlrath says of the causes the band supports. “We’re like, ‘This is bullshit, let’s do a song, let’s do a benefit comp, let’s do a show, let’s do something for this.’ That’s what we do. We’re all on the same page with this and this band represents what we all believe.”