Pasted on walls and boarded-up windows around Chicago are promotional posters for Rise Against’s fourth album, The Sufferer And The Witness. Although they simply advertise the album’s July 4 release, the big, colorful posters show how far the Chicago band has come since 1999—when its members were the ones stapling cheap flyers to poles, not an unseen army of major-label street-teamers. Rise Against jumped to the majors in 2004 after releasing two albums for taste-making indie Fat Wreck Chords, which specializes in the kind of aggressive, melodic punk Rise Against generally makes. But it was an acoustic song, “Swing Life Away,” that made the group’s major-label debut, Siren Song Of The Counter Culture, a hit. It went on to sell nearly 400,000 copies domestically, and its success made Sufferer one of the punk scene’s most anticipated albums of 2006. From a stop on the Warped Tour, frontman Tim McIlrath spoke with The A.V. Club about managing high expectations.
The A.V. Club: As Rise Against has risen in prominence, you’ve spent less time in Chicago. “The Good Left Undone” seems to reference feeling disconnected from home.
Tim McIlrath: We spend up to nine months of the year on the road, longer sometimes. We come home for like a week or two at a time, so you become very disconnected from your friends and your family and the scene. Home does become a strange place. We’ll always have our roots in Chicago, but when people ask me, “Oh, what’s going on in Chicago? How’s the music scene?” I’m always like, “I’m really not the most qualified person to ask that question. I could tell you how it was going six years ago, but I can’t tell you how it’s going now.” It’s certainly sad, but obviously we do what we do because we love to.
AVC: You said previous albums have been about convictions, but this one’s about questions. What caused that shift?
TM: Certainly age. [Laughs.] When you’re 18, you have it all figured out, right? You know it all. As you get older, you realize you don’t have it figured out—there’s a lot more questions out there and a lot less answers. That’s when you separate into two different roads: You either decide, “Okay, there’s a lot of questions out there that I don’t have answers for, and I’m going to look for these answers,” or you just say, “There’re so many questions out there, fuck it, I’m not even gonna try to find the answers anymore.” There’s certainly those kinds of people in the world. I think I’ve certainly realized there are a lot of questions that I don’t have the answers for, but I’m still having a lot of fun being on this journey toward those answers.
AVC: The album definitely has a sense of mortality; the last line of “Worth Dying For” is “What if we all died young?”
TM: It’s funny, I’ve had friends making fun of me this year because I’m 27; this is the year that Janis Joplin died, that Jimi Hendrix died, that Robert Johnson died, and D. Boon from The Minutemen, and Kurt Cobain, all the 27 deaths. [Laughs.] I had a lot of friends joke with me, but we also determined that I haven’t sold enough records to die yet. [Laughs.] So it probably won’t happen. I need to be platinum to die. I became a parent in the last two years, and you start thinking about stuff like that. It definitely played a role in this record and, in retrospect, a more significant role than I thought as I was writing the songs.
AVC: You’re from Chicago. Is it weird to see posters advertising your album pasted up on walls around town and ads in big magazines?
TM: It’s so strange. I’m used to having our records come out and all of us digging through these tiny fanzines looking for that tiny little ad, one of 10 records on a half page, and we’re like, “Yes, we made it!” Actually, I was in the city briefly before we left, and I saw like three or four of those [posters]. There was one right across the street from my friend’s tattoo shop on Belmont. There was one near our practice space—our practice space is in the absolute ghetto, so I was questioning the placement—but I was like, “Oh there it is, cool.” It’s crazy. It certainly makes you feel really good about the support you have with the band. We do all we can out here on the road; we work as hard as we possibly can, and it’s just so great to know that work is being reciprocated… It’s great to know what you can do, given the chance to be heard. Whether it’s heard or not, whether people actually pick it up or not, that’s up to them, but people will know the record’s out. But yeah, it certainly totally trips me out when I’m driving down the street, and I see a Rise Against thing on the wall. “I’m in that band!”
AVC: Is that unnerving at all?
TM: Sometimes. “Oh wait, we’re actually a band people know about now.” [Laughs.] We actually have certain expectations on us and stuff. But I try not to think about it, and to be honest, it’s so surreal it’s never truly hit me.