The state of the nation: Rise Against frontman talks about war, education and the modern role model

Rise Against's Tim McIlrath shares his thoughts on some of the action initiated by angry people in his own national capital.

- Sheila Busteed
Photo by Dara Hakimzadeh

posted February 19, 2007

The state of the nation: Rise Against frontman talks about war, education and the modern role model
     “Trigger-happy, blood-thirsty patriotism” – these are the words that Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath uses to describe the anger that has become the driving force of the nation in recent years.

     McIlrath and the band were in Ottawa, Ontario recently with fellow rockers Moneen, Anti-Flag and Billy Talent as part of the latter’s first cross-Canada arena tour. While in town, McIlrath shares his thoughts on some of the action initiated by angry people in his own national capital.

     “The anger that causes you to get into a fight with a guy in a bar that pushes you – that’s a wrong kind of anger,” he says to compare good and bad types of anger. This topic is first addressed in a quote in the jacket artwork of the band’s most recent album, The Sufferer & the Witness, which says, ‘Real revolution begins at learning. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.’

     McIlrath elaborates on this thought, saying, “That quote was a response to people that say, ‘Oh, Rise Against…What are you rising against? What are you so angry about? What is there left to be angry with?’ And the question is so absurd to me. Have you read the paper today? If you haven’t, read it tomorrow because it’ll be just as good.

     “There’s just an amazing amount of injustice that happens in the world on a daily basis,” he continues. “It’s important not to get too bogged down in what happens and not to get too depressed. I’ve seen other people who just want to close their eyes to it all and just go on with their lives. And, at the same time, I think it’s important to realize that there’s a lot wrong with the world and it’s up to the people that have luxury to fight it.”

     He adds that the most important thing that people must rise against in today’s world is apathy. “People need to overcome the instinct they have to just not care about what’s going on in the world, which I think a lot of people unfortunately fall victim to,” he says.

     McIlrath suggests that the best way to combat apathy is to be completely honest about current events, especially the war in Iraq. He adds that this level of honesty has to start in the media.

     “I’m a big believer in the phrase, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’” he says, referring to the media ethics debate over publishing gruesome war photographs. “You can read a paper all day or a magazine all day about the war but, until you see the pictures, it’s not going to hit home to you.

     “If you see a picture, how many lies can you tell in a picture? There it is – there’s somebody dying. There are many people dead. Who killed them? Who cares – they’re dead, they’ve died. That kind of thing needs to be seen,” he continues. “Especially in the States, the war is presented in a very seamless package. ‘Here’s the war: it’s a class act, we have great weapons and great soldiers and everyone is happy. We’re winning, the Iraqis love us, you know, I think somebody died yesterday, but anyway.’ That’s how it’s presented. It’s presented as this very, oh I don’t know…it’s almost the same way we present sports. It’s just so terrible.”

     Another interesting feature in the album’s art is a list of recommended reading material, including >Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States of America and Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael.

     McIlrath says that the inclusion of a book list in the album art – something the band started doing with its second record, Revolutions Per Minute – is their way of passing on sources of influence to those who they, in turn, have influenced with their music.

     “I found myself doing interviews and people gave a shit about what I said and it was this really new idea to me,” he said of the band’s early years. “I got email from people mentioning they picked up a Minor Threat record because I mentioned it in an interview so it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe that amount of power can be wielded by anyone.’

     “More people would ask me, ‘What are your influences,’” he continues. “Well, shit, Minor Threat was an influence but so was Black Flag. You know what was a much bigger influence on me? George Orwell. You know what was a bigger influence on me? Books like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Brave New World…those kinds of books changed my life in a way that music could never change it.”

     McIlrath adds that recommending these books is his way of wielding the power he possesses.

     “Books have taken a backseat,” he says, “and it’s sad that the kind of stuff that I deem required reading, what was told to me was required reading, are books that people are making it to the age of 30 without touching or ever seeing or reading or even hearing of. That’s crazy!

     “These are books that pretty much prophesized what’s happening in today’s world and this is like the contemporary Nostradamus. These were crazy sci-fi writers in their day but really perceptive men who were getting it right,” he continues. “That’s one reason why we did the book list and we realized that people did check it out. If I walk away from all of this a few years from now and a couple of kids have picked up A People’s History by Howard Zinn, I’ve done my job. Mission accomplished!”

     McIlrath reflects further on the fact that he does happen to possess some power and influence over those who cross his path – a phenomenon with which he’s not entirely comfortable.

     “It certainly speaks of the way that entertainment media has just permeated all aspects of our lives,” he says of the public’s fascination with celebrities. “If I had to come up with a theory of my own, it would be something like, ‘People are so intimidated by the world’s problems and what’s going on in the world that they want to go run and hide from them.’ Where better to run and hide than somewhere like Hollywood or entertainment?

     “It’s sad, and I think that’s ultimately going to create a generation of disappointed people,” he continues. “We all can’t be famous. It’s sad that those are people’s priorities.”

     McIlrath adds that a lack of positive role models in current culture is contributing to celebrity obsession.

     “It seems like there needs to be more role models out there and unfortunately there aren’t,” he says. “I think the wrong people are being considered role models. I think that someone like Paris Hilton didn’t come out and say, ‘I want to be a role model,’ but I think that’s what she’s become in a strange and sick way. I think there are a lot of people out there that don’t realize how much responsibility that they have towards the next generation.”

     He adds that people like Angela Davis and Iain McKie would be much better suited as role models today than those who currently hold the positions. And as far as being considered a role model himself, McIlrath doesn’t exactly relish the concept.

     “I’m really uncomfortable with the idea of being a role model, only because I feel that a role model separates you,” he admits. “It puts you on a pedestal; it puts you on this sort of level and I don’t want anybody to think that what I’ve accomplished or where I am is something that is unattainable to that person.

     “I think what we do is all about breaking down the walls between the band and the audience, the musician and the audience,” he concludes. “I think the idea of a role model is only another brick in that wall.”