It’s been a wild decade for Rise Against. After plugging away for years, performing on the small-time nightclub scene, the Chicago punk band found itself suddenly thrust into the limelight in 2006 with the success of its fourth album, “The Sufferer & the Witness” — and since then the group has reached popularity far beyond its expectation.
When it began in 1999 the group never imagined world tours of sold-out arenas were possible, yet now it’s become a regular reality. With five albums under its belt, spawning a slew of hit singles and a jam-packed touring schedule, Rise Against is now enjoying the fruits of its labor — while remaining humble, as they still struggle to wrap their heads around their growing fame.
When it came time to plan this year’s summer tour, guitarist and vocalist Tim McIlrath says the group spent a great deal of time contemplating who to ask out on the road. Many names were thrown out or immediately shot down because of scheduling conflicts, McIlrath says. Soon the group was at its wits’ end.
“We were out of ideas,” he recalls, “and I think it was our manager who asked us, ‘If you could go out with anyone at all, who would it be?’ We said Rancid, but almost half-joking, like ‘Rancid! That would be awesome!’ But we were thinking, ‘Yeah, Rancid wouldn’t go on tour with us.’ We started toying around with the idea and they caught wind of it and were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
“We couldn’t believe it because they are heroes of ours as a band. We grew up listening to them and they paved the way for bands like us to even exist and the fact that they were willing to go on tour with us is just incredible. They’re such nice dudes and it’s been such an awesome and rewarding experience to meet some of your heroes and as a bonus, just have them be super cool.”
The tour kicked off at the start of June — and after a month of playing with his heroes, McIlrath says he still can’t believe he’s touring with these punk rock veterans.
“It’s been awesome to go out and watch (them),” he says. “It’s very humbling and it kind of puts in perspective how lucky we are and what we’ve accomplished and what the audiences have allowed us to accomplish as a band.”
Over the past few years Rise Against has been fortunate enough to tour with some of its favorite artists, including Alkaline Trio, Thursday and Thrice. With each outing, McIlrath says, he was convinced that after the opening sets, all of their fans would bail, leaving Rise Against to play to half-full venues.
“So far it hasn’t happened. But then the Rancid tour started and I thought, ‘OK, this time it’s going to happen.’ I thought that every Rancid fan is going to walk out and lo and behold it hasn’t happened. I don’t know if that’s an indication of how many fans we now have or how open minded Rancid fans are. Either way, I don’t care because these shows are going off from the time the doors open until the last note.”
The group’s latest effort, “Appeal to Reason,” which came out last October on Interscope Records, has received a great deal of criticism. McIlrath says it arrived with a many people asking if Rise Against is truly a “political punk band.”
“Punk and politics are synonymous — its very existence is political,” he says. “We always wanted to be talking about the world around us and our beliefs and express to people how we feel. We’ve always been against the war and the Bush Administration. It was so strange to me that I was playing punk shows and getting heckled for being against the war. What world am I living in now? I felt that resistance and it made me wanna scream even louder I guess. I see that this is where the fire is and where I need to pour water.”
Coming up in the music scene in Chicago, Rise Against felt itself grow out of the hometown mold and soon the group was bigger than most of the bands it grew up listening to.
“One day it just happened and we got as big as those bands and then we just kept going,” he says. “We were playing inside venues bigger than we ever even went to as kids and we thought of it as foreign territory that was difficult to navigate as a band that never really set out to be this big. We weren’t in it for that, we’re in it for the fun and when the success hit, it caught us off guard. We are constantly wondering, ‘why us?’”
In 2000, Rise Against signed with NOFX frontman Mike Burkett’s label Fat Wreck Chords and released two albums. At this point, McIlrath says the band was used to playing shows for about 30 kids in a venue, selling their own T-shirts and records at the merch booth after they played and being able to meet and get to know every fan at each gig. He recalls there being no separation between the band and its fans and that half of the time they’d be parked out in front of the venue in their van, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and hanging out with fans before the show.
“Then the band got bigger and the dressing rooms got further away and the barricades came up and it got harder to do,” he says. “We were playing some of the biggest shows of our lives and I was so sequestered by (everything) and it dawned on me that I didn’t shake hands with one person who lives in this city, yet this is the biggest show I’ve ever done. I met more kids when I played for a dozen kids in 2001 than I did tonight for thousands of kids and it was a wakeup call.”
To avoid what McIlrath describes as a “mob scene” at shows he says the band has had to come up with more creative ways to keep up with its fans including a lot of radio station promotions across the country, meet-and-greets and setting up a street team that’s run by fans. When it comes to social networking, McIlrath admits to being more old school. He’s not personally into MySpace, Facebook or Twitter, although he realizes the importance of it all. The bands’ Web people do use the sites to promote shows and post the latest news including a few Webisodes that the group has filmed while working on and touring on its latest record.
“We film whatever we can on the road so we can show that there’s more than just the hour and 15 minutes at the show and there’s more than just four dudes jumping around on stage,” he says. “We want people to know what goes into our day and show them, here’s what we do on our days off. I want people to know, especially people who bought the record and want to know more about the band.”
McIlrath says that he tends to stay away from most Internet chatter so he can keep his head clear and really focus on his music.
“MySpace and that stuff could be cool and detrimental,” he says. “I want to be able to have the music just sort of exist, untouched by outside influences and I want it to come out naturally and if I’m online all day reading every comment about what we do, it will tamper with the formula. I’ve caught myself on message boards going ‘Why am I looking at this?’ It goes both ways, though. If you start reading that people are saying you’re great, then you’re going to believe that and if they say you (stink), you’re going to believe that too. I’d rather just not know and have us just go with our guts.”