Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath doesn’t have this problem with punk anymore
With the release of "Broken Dreams Inc.," from the 'Dark Nights: Death Metal' motion comic, the RA singer discusses the resonance of graphic novels while welcoming a new political consciousness.September 25, 2020
At first glance, it may seem suspect that an acclaimed punk band would be aligned with a DC Comics property. But when Rise Against announced their participation in the soundtrack to the DC mini-series Dark Nights: Death Metal, there had to be something special to it. After all, “Broken Dreams, Inc.” is the first new music from Rise Against in three years. But frontman Tim McIlrath saw much more at play here than a comic franchise.
“What I’ve learned in the process of doing this song and talking to the authors,” he begins, “and talking to the soundtrack people and talking to the artists—it’s that everyone is telling a story, and they’re doing it in their own way. We’re all just storytellers.”
McIlrath spoke to Alternative Press about his interest in being part of the soundtrack and his thoughts on the graphic novel format’s ability to resonate. And he gave us an update on how the follow-up to Rise Against’s Wolves was coming along. With 21 years in the punk-rock/hardcore trenches, McIlrath is excited about America’s new political consciousness.
“Broken Dreams, Inc.” is the first new music from Rise Against in three years. What drew you to participate in the Dark Nights: Death Metal project?
I didn’t realize it had been three years until I saw that same headline, you know? And it occurred to me like, “Wow, it’s been three years now.” Because we put Wolves out, and it still felt so newish because we’ve been touring it, playing it around the world and bringing the record to fans. So I didn’t think about this being “the song [that] heralded our return.” But it is. I love the song. I love that double down on the Rise Against mission. And I love that people are enjoying it.
Are you a comic book fan? Isn’t Zach [Blair, guitarist] the big comics fan in your band?
He’s the only one that could probably authentically claim that. The rest of us would be posers to try to claim that. I grew up reading comics as a kid, like my little brother riding a bike to the newsstand with our allowance money, buying candy and comics. A lot of G.I. Joe and the Punisher kind of stuff. I don’t live under a rock somewhere, so I’m aware of the huge franchises. But I never followed up with the comic world past my adolescence. So this whole process was my reintroduction. The whole graphic novel world comics had turned into was my education. And I found it really interesting to see what the artists are doing.
I think that in the end, all of us—musicians, comic book artists and writers—we’re all just storytellers. Just like a Rise Against song. When you look past the fast drums and the power chords and I’m screaming in your face, there’s a message. There’s a story being told there. When you look past the artwork that we characterize as comic artwork, there’s also in those lines these authors still talking about some pretty important and heavy things that people want to hear.
And to me, that’s where change happens. I might be on my side of the fence and my friends on this side of the fence, and nothing we say to each other is going to make us leave our tribe. I feel like trying to find that communication to get people to think outside their box and shed their preconceptions of biases. The only way you can do it is by telling the story. The stories are what really hit people hard and what get them to reconsider their positions. And that’s what artists are in the end: storytellers.
You mention the dialogue in comic books. There’s a certain kind of finesse that goes with that writing style. In the lyrics of “Broken Dreams, Inc.,” there are some hard lyrics. “Gather your things, but there’s nowhere to go” and “When we owe more than we’re worth.” The comic book dialogue and your lyrics seem to make this project an allegory for real life. It doesn’t seem like literature or escapism anymore. Are we seeing comics as a serious medium to get messages across? It’s such a visceral thing.
I think that’s a good question. And I think the answer is that it is serious in the same sense that almost all art is a serious medium. I might be an artist, but I’m also the audience. And it hits us all in different ways that other mediums don’t. So art is political, whether it’s trying to be or not. Then within that story are themes about how they feel about humanity and the world around them. Power and powerlessness. And struggle. There’s important stuff happening in the pages of a Batman comic, just like there are important things happening on the airwaves of the radio. I think artists are tapping into the way people feel about the world around them.
That line “When we owe more than we’re worth” is some serious real-life knowledge. That’s something that’s definitely beyond any type of escapism. Are people attuned to that?
Yes. I think that people—especially in this moment of reflection that we’re all having—were given this opportunity to step off the treadmill and reflect on the direction we’re going in. I feel like there are ways we’re listening differently. And that’s an opportunity for a band like Rise Against to really be there for people who are listening and who are looking for something and looking for someone to put into words, perhaps the way that they’re feeling.
That statement segues into my next question. Comic books convey the idea of the hero and the villain. Sometimes the antihero where you’ve got a person who wants to do great, but they’re flawed in some dark way. Do you think that we, as consumers of pop culture, have realized that maybe we are our own superheroes? We need to take that power and do it? Because the song really seems like a news broadcast. There’s a subtext of “Hey, we have to fix this ourselves. Nobody is coming to save us.”
Absolutely. And that’s something I think we’ve always tried to do with our music. Empower the listener to just show them. We came from this DIY punk-rock background. Everything we did, we did ourselves. That same attitude applies to societal change. We can’t rely on who’s running for president this year. Or who ran for president four years ago. Or who’s ever going to run for president four years from now. That’s a cycle that will always be like dangling the carrot in front of us. Rise Against want to be a part of a community of artists that are trying to empower the audience to take responsibility for the direction of the planet.
And that’s a great metaphor. We’re all our own heroes in that sense. You can’t be waiting for someone else to come along. That’s what participatory democracy is. That’s what being a part of the fabric of this culture is. It’s to weigh in. It’s to put your thumb on the scales. You see something that’s happening, and it happens so often that [it] turns into a cycle. The only thing that’s going to stop that is destruction. And destruction can be ugly and crazy sometimes. We’re seeing a lot of disruption happening here and now. But that disruption, there’s the growing pains. Then after that comes growth. After that comes some sort of evolution, and the world looks more like an equitable place.
In terms of Rise Against fans and punk-rock community, are you seeing a sense of consciousness about this sort of thing? Like people aren’t feeling the same way that they did four years ago?
Yeah, I am seeing that. I’ve seen political action stigmatized by youth culture in the last 20 years at different points. Where being part of a protest or singing a protest song was seen as cheesy or campy. If you were in the street holding a sign, there was a time in the last 10 years where that really wasn’t cool. People decided to put cool points on something as important as societal change.
That has diminished, and it’s so exciting to see that people understand how important it is to be in the streets and how important it is to not be silent about what’s happening and understand. But being cool and hip is a powerful force. It’s what drives a lot of things. Now you’re seeing people shed those labels, and now they just really care about the world. They’re going to grow up in the world their kids are going to grow up in. And they realize that they’ve got to put their hands on the levers a little bit.
Democracy being a full-contact sport, as well.
Absolutely. And people are saying that that’s exciting. It’s exciting to hear, especially growing up in the punk/hardcore scene. It’s sort of ingrained in you that electoral politics are bullshit. “Everyone’s bad, voting doesn’t change anything and it’s Stalin versus Hitler.” I always had a problem with that tenet of punk rock and hardcore. I always saw it as really defeatist and a cop-out. It wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees. It was like there are real consequences to who you put in office. And there are real consequences by sitting elections out.
I have a Fahrenheit 451 question. If things get really bad, which book would you hope people memorize to pass down to their kids?
Can you tell me anything about the next Rise Against record?
I can tell you that we have not been lazy. We’ve not been sitting around just doing Zoom calls. [Laughs.] We’ve been busy. We’ve been creating. And we’ve been waiting for our moment to strike. We’re watching the same headlines. Like you said, this is our first new music in three years. So it’s been a while, and we’re ready to jump back on the moving train of music culture. We’re just looking for the right place to jump on, you know?