Veteran Hardcore Act Rise Against Takes Trump to Task on Its New Album

click to enlarge Veteran Hardcore Act Rise Against Takes Trump to Task on Its New Album
Travis Shinn
The Chicago-based melodic hardcore band Rise Against was in the midst of writing songs for its new album when Donald Trump became president.

Shocked, the band retooled its songs to reflect that polarizing shift in the White House. As a result, the songs on its latest effort, Wolves, have even more of a sense of urgency than the typical Rise Against tunes, which often reflect the band's leftist political views.

Wolves was an album that we found ourselves recording in a much more urgent situation in terms of delivering songs that weigh in on what’s happening in the world around us,” admits singer Tim McIlrath via phone from Chicago, where the band was rehearsing for a fall headlining tour. It performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 29, at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. “We started [the album] in a pre-election and pre-Trump America. As it started to take shape, it was still soft around the edges. We weren’t sure what the direction was. The election happening in the middle of it all and then the record found its purpose. All the bigotry and racism and homophobia and monsters we thought we had put away into the dark corners where they belong came out of hiding.”

On Wolves, tunes such as the title track and “Welcome to the Breakdown” make allusions to presidential election and the band's outrage at the results.

“People take change for granted,” says McIlrath. “Once it’s happened, they think it’s done, and we can walk away. The younger generation struggles with issues of apathy. It’s easier to bury your head in the sand than be engaged. I think that’s a huge element that can’t be understated in terms of this country and how we elected a clown like Donald Trump to be president. It wasn’t the people who voted that got him into office. It was the people who didn’t vote that got him into office.”

The band had been making records with producer Bill Stevenson (Descendents), but for Wolves, it wanted to try something different, so it hooked up with Nick Raskulinecz and went to his Nashville studio to cut the album.

“Nick came from a rock world,” says McIlrath. “He has worked with Deftones and Rush and Rancid and Death Angel. He’s done a huge spectrum. We loved his energy. He’s a big, friendly guy. I tell people we didn’t go to Nashville to make a record. We went to Nick’s to make a record.”

McIlrath says Nashville, a city with which he was largely unfamiliar, didn’t play a role in making the album.

“I’ve been to Hamburg, Germany more times than I had been to Nashville,” he says. “It’s not one of those places where bands like us show up. I loved the people, and the music there was cool. People told me I would love it, but it’s a one-kind-of-music town. For a guy like me who has zero reverence for country music, a lot of it fell on deaf ears. We were hermits holed away in Nick’s studio, and we were kind of the black sheep, but that’s when we tend to thrive.”

With its beefy guitar riffs and bellowing vocals, the album's title track recalls punk rockers Bad Religion at their prime as McIlrath defiantly screams, "We are the wolves at the gate/Our numbers growing every day."

"I think I wanted to add teeth and claws to the resistance and the ideology behind Donald Trump," McIlrath says when asked about the tune. "People like me were resisting these ideas were depicted as cry babies and snowflakes and upset about the outcome and sitting around complaining about it. To me, nobody I knew was like that. They were fired up. They wanted to throw bricks through windows and take back that control."

McIlrath says he thought at one point that "Mourning in the America," a more melodic tune, would be the album's title track. But he decided that the more aggressive "Wolves" more accurately represented the album's theme.

"The election wasn’t a sad moment even though people were grieving," he says. "We wanted to take the moment and grab it and really run with it. We wanted to make it a teaching moment for the country and about how we can stop it from happening in the future and also show that our fans are wolves. They’re people not to be messed with."

All the album's songs aren't political in nature. “House on Fire,” for example, centers on domestic issues. "I won't let go of you," McIlrath sings on the tune that features a thick bass riff and cooing call-and-response vocals.

"While ['House on Fire'] may just come across as a love song, it’s really about becoming a parent and the trials and tribulations of raising a kid," says McIlrath. "It’s admittedly not a punk rock thing to write about. I feel like with this band I’ve learned so much, and I’ve figured out a lot of things, but I wasn’t prepared for the challenges of parenthood, especially when you’re raising a teenager. It’s thrown a lot at me that I’ve been juggling."

The band intended to release a music video to accompany "The Violence." They wanted to film it at a failed theme park that features 20-foot tall statues of former presidents. When the park owner got wind of the song's content and the band's political stance, he pulled the permit and put an end to the shoot.

"It’s not like we want the world to be Lord of the Flies and we’re all anarchists," says McIlrath. "Our director found this field of presidential busts that sit there in this park where they're covered in weeds and grass and some are knocked over. We saw pictures of it, and they looked fucking amazing. I thought it was an amazing statement about power and authority. It’s maybe even more of a statement now that we have this drama about confederate statues. We didn’t want to disrespect the president. We just wanted to film a cool video on a cool setting."

McIlrath admits that in a strange way he felt a sense of pride that the band's views triggered such a strong response.

"You play in this band and come from a hardcore and punk scene and you hope your band has meaning and relevance and is dangerous," he says. "As we get older, people think you’ve lost our age. Something like this tells me we’re still a threat. We’re still seen as a band that’s not seen as appropriate. That kind of makes me feel good. I don’t want to be accepted by a community I disagree with. The second you’re accepted by a community you disagree with is the moment you’re doing something wrong. Until someone says that, I feel like maybe we’re not doing enough."

Given the way in which Wolves responds to the current political climate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that McIlrath says the live shows have been especially engaging. He compares the experience to the tours the band embarked on during the Bush Administration.

“I found a really hungry audience for the kind of sentiments being expressed," he says. "I think all music is political. You either make a decision to be a part of it or you make a decision to not be a part of it. Either way, you’ve made a decision. I don’t think every single band should be political. I don’t need the Ramones’ songs to be political or my Jawbreaker songs to be political. I feel like if it’s something in you that you need to get out, you shouldn’t ever humble yourself or hold it in because you’re afraid of alienating the audience. We don’t hold it in, and we haven’t sacrificed success. Those aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Rise Against, Pierce the Veil, White Lung, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 29, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-912-7032. Tickets: $31.50-$36.50,