Music: Against the Odds

After a scrape with the infamous 'label mergers,' Rise Against find themselves major-labelly satisfied

Jul 10, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Lisa Johnson

Unlike most, label ownership moves actually benefited Rise Against, who are thrilled with Geffen.

Tim McIlrath says Rise Against chose to sign to a major label knowing full well that there were no guarantees it would be the right move.

"We went into this thing realizing it could backfire on us," he says. "We weren't completely ignorant of major labels, and we certainly seen a lot of our favorite bands just absolutely fail on a major label and stuff like that. So we weren't naíve about what could happen."

For a time, it looked as if Rise Against might regret leaving indie label Fat Wreck Chords for DreamWorks Records. Around the time the band was releasing its first album for DreamWorks, Siren Song Of The Counter Culture, the label was shut down and absorbed into Geffen Records, a situation that, to say the least, was less than ideal for the launch of the CD.

"I think when Siren Song came out, we were still a very new band on (Geffen's) roster," McIlrath recalls. "We didn't know anybody over there. We didn't even have an A&R person actually, at all. We were just kind of floating around the office."

Not surprisingly, Siren Song didn't exactly rocket up the charts upon its release in 2004. The CD might have been declared dead on arrival, except Rise Against didn't let its misfortune stop it from doing what the band had always done — jump in the van, tour relentlessly and bring the music to the people.

The effort paid off, as Siren Song gradually gained momentum and prompted Geffen to take notice, even though the band had been anything but a priority up to that point.

"That was when the label kind of perked up and said, 'Wait a minute, who's this band that's selling 100,000 records and we haven't even sunk a dime into promotion yet?" McIllrath says. "They were kind of shocked."

Since then, life on Geffen has been just fine for Rise Against, whose new album, The Sufferer & The Witness, arrived last summer with considerably more fanfare from the label. What's more, the band has found Geffen to be as artist-friendly as any band could expect.

"They've never turned away one of our records," McIlrath says of Geffen. "They've never sent us back to write a radio single. They've never asked us to tone down our message or change this or change that. They've been nothing but supportive and actually have encouraged us to do as much as we can with the music and with the message."

Rise Against is the type of band whose music could have been tweaked to make it more amenable to mass consumption. Where most Punk bands that enjoy major success have a strong element of catchy Pop to their songs, Rise Against, though not all that abrasive, goes for an edgier, more old-school style.

Formed in Chicago in 1999 by McIlrath and bassist Joe Principe — the two primary songwriters in the band — Rise Against has drawn equally from groups like Fugazi, Bad Religion and Pennywise. As a result previous CDs like The Unraveling and Revolutions Per Minute were filled with songs that had plenty of fast-paced rockers that blended buzzsaw guitar riffs with memorable, anthemic choruses. That direction continues on The Sufferer, as Rise Against — which also includes guitarist Chris Chasse and drummer Brandon Barnes — blasts its way through such forceful and melodic rockers as "Injection," "Ready To Fall" and "Under The Knife."

Although the record doesn't break new stylistic ground, it might well be the band's strongest effort yet.

"Every record, every song, you're trying to write your best song ever and you're trying to write your best record ever," McIlrath says. "And this time I think we nailed it on a few. We wrote the songs the best possible way they could be written. I think it was just a product of our experience as a band and with each other and what we want out of a song and out of a record. We've learned a lot over the last six or seven years as a band."

Rise Against also has never been afraid to be opinionated in its lyrics or videos. For instance, the video for "Ready to Fall" takes aim at environmental sins and animal rights with its images of oil-covered beaches, clear-cut forests and animals in test laboratories. And while The Sufferer might not be as blatantly topical as other Rise Against efforts, McIlrath said the album as a whole is meant as a wake-up call to be aware of and involved in the issues in the world today.

Despite the band's track record for issue-oriented lyrics, McIlrath is hesitant to embrace the political Punk Rock label that many have given Rise Against.

"I always felt like the political tag was sort of an unfair one just because there were more elements to our band, and I always felt like the political side was almost like false advertising," he says. "I think when you call a band political, I'm thinking about Rage Against The Machine, I'm thinking about Bad Religion ... bands that really just delved into politics.

"The politics of our band, I always thought that was implied," McIlrath continues. "I always thought it was just a given because we were a Punk Rock band. To me, Punk Rock has always been political ... that's how I think Punk is distinguished from mainstream breakthrough music. So I always went out there (thinking), of course, we're political because we play Punk Rock."

McIlrath says Rise Against might well bring some of its politics into play during its live show, but music will be the focus. The live set promises to find the band showcasing a good number of songs from The Sufferer as well as some unexpected tunes.

"It's definitely getting harder and harder to fit in all the songs that you love with each record because now we have four records and a ton of songs, and songs that we want to make sure get played," McIlrath says. "We're definitely real excited about the new record and the new songs. I think that's going to take up as much of the set as we can possibly justify, because the four of us are just really into these songs and playing them."

RISE AGAINST plays Bogart's on July 11.