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Interview: Rise Against - 'I hope we can change some minds'

Who’d have thought, when Rise Against started life in 1999, their politically-charged punk rock would go on to sell millions of records and threaten the top of the Billboard album charts (2011’s Endgame hit the number two spot, just behind Adele)? Certainly not the band members.

But in their near-fifteen years as a unit, the band – vocalist Tim McIlrath, guitarist Zach Blair, bassist Joe Principe and drummer Brandon Barnes – have done just that, challenging society’s conventions and injustices through a series of socially-conscious and politically-minded albums. But while this is very much a band with a purpose and an agenda, they’re not didactic, and their songs are always open to interpretation. Ahead of the release of their seventh record, The Black Market, Zach Blair – who joined the band in 2007 – explains why you don’t have to agree with them, or their intention, to be a fan of the band.

Let’s start with The Black Market: can you explain what it means to you?

“It’s an interesting concept. The way Tim explained it when he conceptualised it – well, what I took from it – was that everything is a black market nowadays. It’s a bleak outlook, I guess, but that everything is being processed and packaged and marketed and shoved down our throats and sent to us in some inorganic way. And I think that was the idea behind the cover, with the girl with a piece of our logo on her face, and our logo being everywhere – that we’re sort of in on the joke as well. Our logo is a logo, no matter what. It’s not the Coca-Cola logo, but it is a logo and it’s a way to market our band. So there’s a bit of black humour there, and I love that idea. As far as the record goes, we wrote a lot in the studio and it was kind of an easier experience than a lot of our other records. I don’t know why, because we weren’t as prepared when we started it. Maybe it was because we were on the same page that when we did start it just happened more organically than the other ones. It was probably my favourite experience yet making records with this band.”

How do you think your intentions as a band have changed since you began? I spoke to Billy Bragg a few years ago and he was saying how, when he first started, his idea was to overthrow capitalism for a better system, but he realised years later that he couldn’t do that, that capitalism probably was the best system and he had to find a way from within it to subvert it. Have your ideologies changed to that extent? Is there a self-awareness about who you are as a political band now that there wasn’t before?

“Yes. And that in itself, like Billy Bragg said – and it’s an honour to even have our name in the same sentence – when you’re younger, you tend to feel like you can do everything you’ve set out to do, and then you realise that maybe you need to change your thoughts a bit, but there’s still something you can do with it. So I think that’s kind of what we’re doing, and that’s another thing this record is, a way to reimagine commercials as saying something good or promoting a good cause instead of something that’s just going to fucking kill you, which is a lot of commercials nowadays. So I think that was another point to this record, to reimagine marketing and reimagine commercialism, because it is capitalism, commercialism is capitalism at its finest – it’s going ‘Oh no, it’s okay for me to do this – I can completely throw my product down your throat and eventually the product is going to give you lung cancer or skin cancer.’”

Obviously, you guys are a very successful band who have sold millions of records. How do you reconcile your success with your political leanings?

“Well, it’s something I’ve said a lot and Tim has definitely said a lot – if you’re getting people paying attention to you, you can say a few things. You can talk about partying, you can talk about chicks, you can talk about drugs – you can do the rock ’n’ roll guy thing. And I’m not disparaging the rock ’n’ roll guy thing at all: a lot of my heroes are the rock ’n’ roll guy. Or you could do what Pete Seeger or Ian McKaye or Tom Morello or Billy Bragg have done and you can talk about things that mean something to you and hope people are listening and maybe they’ll go and they’ll try to do it themselves, or they’ll take your influence and go even further with it. That’s what this band has always done and that’s one of the things I loved about this band before I joined, because that’s a brave thing to do. It’s so easy to do the rock ’n’ roll guy thing. It’s so easy to talk about partying and getting laid. It’s what people want to hear. It’s what the mass public want to hear – to the point almost where when you don’t do that they’re almost bummed, like, ‘Come on man – I don’t want to hear about politics.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that.”

But – especially with The Black Market – Rise Against lyrics are always open to interpretation. They can be personal, they can be political, they can be a combination of the two – so you don’t have to subscribe to whatever the actual message is behind these songs…

“Well, this is going to sound clichéd, but for me, and I guess a lot of people, politics are personal. They are the most personal thing. It’s an intimate relationship. Because it’s not just the guy you’re voting for and the political party he belongs to, it’s everything – it’s the way you’re spending you’re money, it’s the things you’re watching on TV, it’s the things you’re listening to. So it’s how you’re spending your time and your money and what you’re eating, and that’s your DNA, that’s what makes you up as a person. I definitely don’t expect our fans to have our beliefs, but if they do, great. If they want to read the books we’ve talked about on our records or if they’re copacetic with us, that’s cool, or if they just want to come to our shows and have a good time, that’s awesome too. Because that’s also what we are. We’re also a punk band at heart that’s going to come and play a show in your town. It’s just that we’ve been given an opportunity where there’s actually people who are listening to what we’re saying for however long amount of time and we’re choosing to not be the rock guys and we’re choosing to say some things that are important to us. That being said, were also a fun band, we also have the sense of humour of a bunch of fourteen year olds – it’s not all serious! But if we’re getting a bunch of kids listening to us, then we’re going to try to talk about some things that we heard when we were their ages, you know going to shows and there being tabling at all the punk shows and political organisations we never would have heard about otherwise. So we’re trying. But you definitely don’t have to be in line with our belief system just to listen to our band.”

So what would you say the purpose of Rise Against in 2014 is? Have you exceeded all expectations now or are there still things you want the band to do?

“Absolutely. I think we’ve totally exceeded our expectations and I’ve heard everyone in the band say that a thousand times. This band started just being a band and going to play some shows, and it was playing VFW halls and church basements, so to be where it is now has completely exceeded our expectations. Of any punk band. No punk band started to be where this band is now. It’s unbelievable to us. So I think the point of continuing making records is just because we love to do this. But we make records and we’re making records because we have to. There’s nothing else the four guys in this band can do in life. So there are no expectations, but there’s hopes. I hope people pick it up, I hope people listen to it, I hope we change some minds. I don’t expect that, but when it happens, it’s just the greatest thing in the world. And if that keeps happening, then awesome. It means we’re doing our job.”

And little by little the world starts to change…

“Hopefully. We’re just trying to do our small part. There’s already Billy Bragg and there’s already Tom Morello and there’s already Bruce Springsteen – we’re just trying to ride those guys’ coattails a bit!”