Like Peter Parker, Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath learned a lesson over the course of his band's 10-year career. "There comes responsibility with this," he says.
Since 2001's The Unraveling, Rise Against have been one of the most outspoken groups in the new wave of punk. Super-political, supporters of human and animal rights, vegetarians, and — above all — tuneful, McIlrath and his three bandmates have fought the good fight on six albums. In September, McIlrath joined Tom Morello on a short acoustic tour supporting the nation's unions. And Rise Against's version of Bob Dylan's sprawling, 11-verse "Ballad of Hollis Brown" (about a farmer driven to tragedy by poverty) is a highlight of a new Amnesty International benefit album that comes out this week (see Playback for a review).
"We've always had a bullhorn, but now somebody's given us a much louder bullhorn," says McIlrath. "What triggered my interest in music was its ability to affect change. I knew if anybody ever gave me that microphone and that stage, I would do something with that."
All of this rabble-rousing has rankled some fans, who wish the band would just shut up and play its guitars. The group's latest album, Endgame, debuted at No. 2 when it was released last spring. Three of its songs ("Help Is on the Way," "Make It Stop," and "Satellite") have been on modern-rock radio playlists ever since. But because of their melodic swing, and McIlrath's tendency to make almost every song sound like a rousing anthem, the band's agenda may be lost on casual listeners.
Not that McIlrath is forcing it down anyone's throats. But it's hard to escape the messages of songs like "Prayer of the Refugee," "Re-Education (Through Labor)," and "Audience of One." "We have fans who tell us that our music has pointed them in the right direction," he says. "That's the kind of thing you only hope for in your wildest dreams as a songwriter."
McIlrath expands his worldview a bit on Endgame, especially on the stirring "Make It Stop (September's Children)," which addresses the suicides of bullied gay kids. It's a small but vital move from the band's spitting punk roots toward the sort of socially conscious everyman music the folk icons and protest singers used to make in the '60s.
He's happy to settle into this role ("I didn't grow up with any Guns N' Roses rock-star dreams," he says). After all, it's a pretty empty field right now. Very few bands combine hooks and political integrity with actual record sales these days. McIlrath wishes he weren't so alone. "We live in the most tumultuous political climate of my lifetime," he says, "so I'm always surprised when I don't see more of us out there."
He realizes that if all the things he sings about — war, human rights, injustice — ever leaned his way, he'd be out of a job. But he isn't too worried about that. Someone will always come along and fuck things up. "I'd love if we could put ourselves out of business," says McIlrath. "I'd love if our next record had 12 songs about the world's biggest problems and we solved them."