From their appropriately-titled début album Siren Song of the Counterculture to their latest hit Billboard album Endgame, Chicago punk rockers Rise Against have mastered the highwire act of maintaining their humble punk roots while also appealing to the masses.
“Our audiences are really growing hungry and engaged. Our audience is people who have questions about the world around them; they’re trying to look toward their favorite bands or artists or filmmakers to start to reflect those questions,” says McIlrath in an interview with KROQ/Los Angeles.” And we’re one of those bands that have those questions and are asking those questions.”
“We’re not a band that claims to have the answer to any of those questions,” says McIlrath searchingly. “I don’t know if anybody does.”
“In this sort of current climate of music, we stand out simply because I think there are bands that are avoiding the question,” continues McIlrath, verbally hesitant to accept the genre title of “protest music” and modestly recognizing Rise Against’s evident pull on the “mainstream” despite their revolutionary material.
“So, it makes us sort of an anomaly and I think that’s where we get the tag ‘protest music’ or ‘political punk rock.'”
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m hesitant to own that tag because I like protest music. And when I listen to it, I don’t think of Rise Against as ‘protest music.'”
“Some of our biggest songs aren’t political at all. Songs like “Savior” or “Audience of One,” explains McIlrath. He understands that people “digest culture” by “grabbing onto” a label to describe a band. “We’re a band that I guess isn’t afraid to talk about politics in the media interview and onstage through our lyrics.”
Essentially it’s that conscientiousness, thoughtfulness, and intuitively intellectual way that Rise Against expresses their hard-to-label “punk rock kid” beliefs about certain “majority” philosophies that makes them resonate so much with the newly-enlightened “mainstream.”
It’s pointed out that Rise Against are sort of the antithesis of regular hetero-normative male-oriented rock and roll.
McIlrath laughed, saying, “We’re sort of imposters. We never sort of aspired to be here. I never went to shows at arenas. I went to shows at garages and basements and bowling alleys. So playing shows at arenas is even more foreign to me.”
Stressing that he never “grew up with any sort of Guitar Hero rock and roll dreams,” McIlrath said that Rise Against were just a “bunch of punk rock kids who grew up on punk rock music and punk rock bands.”
“We sort of do what we do and I think the mainstream sort of crossed over to us in a way. It found what we were doing compelling.”
Although Rise Against is now playing big arenas, they are still finding time to stop at tiny record stores, talk to fans one-on-one, and get back in touch with their “underground” roots.
McIlrath calls his music a “vehicle for politics and a vehicle for a message.” This aspect of the music scene “hooked” him.
“Seeing music as a vehicle for change: That sort of unlocked my potential and it gave me the drive to do it,” explains McIlrath. “But still to today that’s still why I do it.”
“I don’t do it because I love the rock and roll lifestyle,” continues McIlrath. “You know, that was never really me. That’s not really any of us. But then we get thrown into a bigger mainstream world and a commercial world where we get put up alongside of those bands and then we sort of stand out a little bit.”
“Which is fine. The reason we got into punk rock is because we were the black sheep. But we don’t mind being the black sheep where it is we are.”
–Nadia Noir, CBS Radio Los Angeles