Rise Against – ‘We’re not preaching, we’re just stating the facts’

Words: Miljan Milekić

The year was 2004, and I remember hogging friend’s computer because mine was too shitty to run Tony Hawk’s Underground, the latest game in the series we religiously played. It was always more than a game, it was our window to what’s cool, our introduction to the worlds of extreme sports and punk rock. And there it was – a bass guitar intro that’s crushing walls, roaring guitars and raspy voice pissed at everything around it. Rise Against. ‘Like the Angel.’ Fifteen-year-old me was hooked and there was no way back. No other band influenced me in my formative years in the way Rise Against did. The way I think, the way I look at the world around me owes more to their albums than to any book or a school teacher I encountered. And here we are, some seventeen years later, I’m in a Zoom call with the man behind that bass intro – Joe Principe, discussing their upcoming ninth studio album ‘Nowhere Generation,’ their views and messages, and of course – skateboarding.

Hi Joe, hope you’re good. Your new album ‘Nowhere Generation’ is set to drop on June 4th. Tell me more about it, and how different was it to put the record together during the global pandemic and lockdown?
We finished everything two weeks before the pandemic, before the lockdown hit. Things started to close down, a couple of weeks after we were done. It was crazy because we had three different dates that we are going to release the record. We just kept moving it and moving it, so we finally settled on June 4th. We were waiting for a vaccine to get rolled out and all that. It was crazy ’cause at the time, people were like – “Oh, it might not be four years until there’s a vaccine.” And I was like – “Oh wow, that would be devastating.” (laughs)

You’ve already taken three singles off the record – ‘Broken Dreams, Inc.,’ ‘Nowhere Generation,’ and ‘The Numbers.’ What are the reactions so far? I guess, without shows you have to rely on what you hear and read online?
It’s been really good. People seem to be excited. One of my favorite tracks on the record is ‘The Numbers,’ so I’m glad that song finally made it out there. I think it captures Rise Against in what we do best, which is this high-energy punk rock. Even though we wrote it pre-pandemic, I think this record speaks to the youth, and it’s more of like – we recognize that they’re going through such a hard time to try to keep their head above water, as you graduate college and you try to get a job. It’s really difficult navigating this crazy world, especially as we’re just coming out of Donald Trump being president. I mean, he really burned every bridge he could possibly burn, on all levels and all fronts. So it’s nice to see somebody in the office, president Biden, that at least has compassion. And he’s looking out for every citizen and not just his rich buddies.

On the video for ‘The Numbers,’ you once again teamed up with Indecline, the activist collective that’s been doing some amazing things in recent years. How did you get together with them in the first place?
We actually met them through a mutual friend. Our friend Emily Nielsen who runs art collective Punk Rock & Paintbrushes thought we would make a good match. It turns out that some of the guys in Indecline have seen Rise Against when we first started in San Diego. There’s this cafe in San Diego that would have all the hardcore shows and punk shows called the Ché Café, and they saw us way back then, you know, we’re talking 18 years ago, probably. So we just felt they were like-minded people, they really get the vibe of the band and they know we like to ruffle feathers, you know? It definitely makes a statement, and that’s what we like to do. So, it was a great match. ‘The Numbers,’ they came with that concept themselves, basically with no input from us. And when we saw the finished video, we loved it, it was great.

On this record, you decided to go back to The Blasting Room and work with Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore again. What was the reason behind the decision?
We deviated from Bill and Jason twice. We did it on the ‘Siren Song of the Counter Culture,’ we went to Garth Richardson and it’s never the same vibe. I feel like Bill and Jason get the roots of the band. They’re kind of the bullshit detectors. If we’re writing something that maybe we’re too close to and we don’t see that it maybe doesn’t sound like the band, they’ll say – “No, guys, you can’t do this or that, for whatever reason.” And Bill coming from Black Flag and the Descendants, he knows hardcore and he knows pop punk. He has an amazing pop sensibility. You just don’t get that.

So when we left for ‘Wolves’ to go to Nick Raskulinecz, I think we, kind of, forgotten our experience, when we left the first time. So we’re in the studio recording ‘Wolves,’ and again, it’s not the same vibe. You know, Nick was a great producer, but not for us. We would draw from influences that he wasn’t familiar with, so he didn’t quite understand what we were trying to go for. Even me, as a bass player and as a songwriter, I’m trying to capture a certain vibe that I feel like it’s unspoken with Bill and Jason. They know exactly what we’re trying to go for without a conversation. So it’s super easy. There’s no team like them as far as the style of music we play.

Working on this interview, I realized that, apart from maybe Green Day and Rage Against The Machine, you are the biggest, let’s say political, for the lack of a better word, punk rock band out there, and pretty much the only one on the verge of the mainstream. Do you feel like this fact brings you any additional responsibility or pressure, just knowing that you are on the frontline?
I think there is a lot of pressure because we created this legacy. I don’t write lyrics, Tim writes lyrics, but I don’t envy him because you have to keep it fresh, but you have to keep it honest. And I would say that’s how we’re able to get by. It comes from the heart, it’s not forced. I think at the end of the day, we just do what we do. We’re very grateful that we have mainstream success, but I feel that because of that, we need to take advantage of the platform that we’re on. We want to sing about important issues, important topics that affect everyday life. I feel like if we didn’t do that, then we wouldn’t be a band.

That’s all we know. That’s how we were brought up in the punk scene. That’s what drew us to the punk scene. We found a scene that we could relate to, ’cause we were just discouraged with mainstream society. But there are so many kids out there that are discouraged. If we can use our success to appeal, to get to those kids, and then introduce them to the punk scene, so they don’t feel so alone… I think it’s very daunting when you’re growing up and you feel alone in the world, and when you feel like you can’t talk to somebody about what you’re thinking or feeling.

In the last few years, and especially during Donald Trump’s presidency, we saw a disturbing level of control of the narrative that mainstream media can have. Everything social and left-leaning was instantly turned into an extreme left and communist. Anti-Fascist organizations were considered terrorists, while groups like Proud Boys were getting a pass. So, do you feel that everything you do around your music – every new video, every social media post, every interview you do has additional weight to it in cutting through that noise and getting your message out there?
Oh yeah, absolutely! It was very scary to see what was happening in the last four years, and how people viewed Antifa and The Proud Boys. Most of the people in middle America didn’t even know what the fuck Antifa stood for. They didn’t know it means Anti-Facist. They just see what’s on the news. And Donald Trump did a great job of saying one thing, very extreme, and then two days later saying the opposite thing. He’s trying to confuse his audience, and that’s exactly what he did. That’s how he’s able to get away with things.

And being a band like Rise Against, we feel that there’s an obligation to help educate our fans if they’re a little bit confused as to what happened in the last four years. Again, we don’t want to force-feed anything to anybody. I don’t want to tell somebody like – my way or no way. Here are these facts, here’s this information. Please listen to me, and you can decide whether you agree or not. It’s up to you, we’re just presenting the facts. So yeah, it’s very crazy. We got into a really sad state, in the United States, with racism.

Speaking of, as I as a non-American see as the worst president in US history, we saw many bad things exposed in the way they maybe hadn’t been before. We saw more people than ever realizing the existence and problems of systemic racism, and many people engaging in BLM and other protests. We saw many people acknowledging police brutality and rising against it. Many more people are talking about problems of atrocious health care and unsustainable minimum wages. So, I know it’s a weird thing to say, especially having in mind that people died, but is there a possibility that his presidency, by a chain reaction, can bring some positive changes in the long term?
Yeah, I think that’s right. I think way more people are involved. We’ve had the biggest voter turnout this last election, I think ever, in the history of the United States. I think he pissed off enough people to the point where they didn’t want to be apathetic anymore. They wanted to get out there and make a change.

It was a very scary time, and I know, even like my children, they are so young, but voting was on their radar. We’re talking about twelve years old, ten years old, and seven years old. When I was that age, I didn’t care about voting. I just wanted to go out and skateboard. I just didn’t think about it. But the fact that they know how important it is to vote in a federal election, and also in local elections – because the local elections affect them directly, it’s great to see that they are learning that from Donald Trump. So there’s definitely the positive to the last four years, with that. I mean, for what it’s worth.

Rise Against / Photo Travis Shinn

So, we have the elephant in the room, in the form of Covid-19. It took more than three million lives around the world, many more got sick. People lost their jobs, and many countries’ economies collapsed. And yet it seems like things are slowly getting “back to normal” in many places. But is there a “normal” after something like this? Is it enough to just go back to the way things were without learning anything? Without changing the way we live, work, travel, what we eat, drink, and how we use all the resources on the planet?
I was actually talking about that with my wife. It’s definitely changed the way people view what they’re eating. They’re definitely way more aware of physical fitness. It’s also made a lot of people realize where they stand on science and vaccines and things like that.

I mean, I’m for science, I’m for getting back to normal, but at the same time, I don’t like chemicals in my food. I don’t like the fact that people relied on going out to eat, not really paying attention to what they’re ingesting, taking care of their bodies. It put it in the forefront, for sure. One thing I see is way more people outside – working out, riding their bikes. In America, at least where I live, there was hardly anybody outside. I met neighbors this year that I didn’t even know I had, because no one would go outside. I’m guilty of it, too. People just get complacent in their life, and they stay in there on their couches and just do their daily routine. But it definitely woke up people to appreciate the outside and what we have. Even our national parks, a lot of people don’t visit them, but they do now.

‘Appeal to Reason’ was a huge album for me, and there is a song on that record that’s been really haunting me recently, as it turned out to be scary prophetic, and it’s ‘Collapse.’ And what’s even scarier is that it’s been only 13 years since it’s released, and we can already see many of the things you were singing about. How hard is it to look back at some of your older songs, to revisit some of the things you, as a band, talked about and warned everyone about keep happening?
It’s funny because we have a song on the new record called ‘Talking To Ourselves,’ and it’s about that exactly. It’s frustrating because, especially that song, that song is definitely one of my favorite songs, and we’re not preaching. It just is. That’s how the reality is. That’s how the world is. That’s what we’re doing to the environment.

And there’s a lot of people that weren’t on board with that song. They say it’s preaching to the choir, that people already have that mindset. But to get to people who weren’t really having it on their radar, to take care of our environment, that’s not preaching it. These are facts. I just want people to have an open mind, but yeah, it is frustrating. Even now, I just met somebody, maybe a week ago, and I realized they don’t recycle. It’s 2021, that’s the easiest thing you could do for the environment. Recycle your garbage, your plastics. And they don’t do it.

So, on the other side of the spectrum are people who did listen. I know many people around me who have stories about what your songs meant to them and how important your band was in their lives. How does it feel to know that you had that kind of influence on people all over the world?
Joe: It’s incredibly rewarding. You know, I was that kid. Growing up, there were hardcore bands that meant the world to me. Bands like 7 Seconds, Bad Religion, Bad Brains, they changed my life. So to hear that being said the same way I would say that when I was growing up, is awesome.
It’s very rewarding, and it’s a good feeling to know that some people are listening. I guess, even if it’s just one person that we’re changing, then we’ve done our job. It will never get old to hear somebody say that. It makes it all worthwhile – touring for so long and being a band for 20 years. It’s just a really great feeling.

So, I would love to finish on a more positive note – as a website, we write a lot about skateboarding and other extreme sports, and their connection to music, and especially punk rock. How connected were skateboarding and music for you personally, and do you feel like being loved in the skateboarding community opened some more doors for Rise Against? I even remember reading an interview with you in Thrasher a couple of years ago.
For me, skateboarding and music, went hand in hand when I was growing up. The aggression that you get from skateboarding, that outlet for creativity, because you can do whatever you want on a skateboard, is the same with punk rock. I learned about other bands through skateboard videos and Thrasher Magazine. Like you said, they would always have interviews with bands. And I do think that that world gave back to us.

Like the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, we were on a couple of those games, and we got a lot of fans from that. But, I mean, even to this day, I still skate. That’s why my hair is messed up. (laughs) I went to the skate park earlier this morning. I had a helmet on and skated a mini ramp. (laughs) The feeling I get skateboarding is the same feeling I get playing music. It’s just a form of self-expression. And I think that’s why everyone skateboards, and that’s why everyone has their own style. And it’s the same with music, that’s why bands sound different.

I could never associate the aggression and the intensity that skateboarding brings with a different music scene. I know that it evolved over the years, with hip hop, although hip hop is also a creative outlet, but it got a little further away from punk rock over the years. I think the underlying essence that you get, is that they go hand in hand still. So it’s super important, and yeah, the skateboarding community has definitely accepted us with open arms over the years.

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