IN MARCH 2020, TIM McILRATH WAS heading straight for what he calls a “post-album emotional collapse” — and then the pandemic hit.
The Rise Against singer and guitarist had just wrapped work on his longrunning Chicago political punk crew’s ninth record, Nowhere Generation, and he was ready to retreat into a “dark room with blackout curtains and not see anyone for a while.” So when Illinois issued its stay-at-home orders, McIlrath’s plans weren’t quite as upended as many other folks across the country.
“I turned the TV on and they’re like, ‘You can’t go outside and do anything,’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘That’s cool — that’s what I was planning on doing anyway.’ [Laughs] So the world falling apart dovetailed nicely with my calendar!”
It’s April 2021 when Guitar World connects with McIlrath, and his spirits are high. Nowhere Generation’s release is right around the corner (this past June via new label Loma Vista), and the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has the country entering what seems to be a much different, hopeful phase of the pandemic. Despite McIlrath’s gallows humor, the guitarist is keenly aware of the toll the coronavirus crisis has taken on people’s health, emotional well-being, income and more. After all, social consciousness has been intertwined with his creative output ever since Rise Against dropped their first album, The Unraveling, in 2001.
For the past two decades McIlrath and his band have been perfecting their formula — packaging call-to-action messages in rousing melodic punk — and it’s paid off. Not only are they one of the scene’s biggest acts and most dependable tour draws, but their records have also achieved Gold- and Platinum-selling status and consistently rank on Billboard’s Top 10 chart.
Nowhere Generation continues McIlrath’s mission to use his platform to address social issues close to his heart, which include economic inequality, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, veganism, environmental preservation, animal activism and more. But this time he’s adopted a slightly different perspective when approaching his lyrics. Now in his 40s, the “nowhere generation” McIlrath is referring to are the millennial and Gen Z kids coming up in the world today: from the young fans at Rise Against’s shows to his own two teenage daughters.
“I was getting feedback from young people that listen to our band about their anxieties and fears about what tomorrow’s going to look like,” he says. “This generation has to deal with unique things: the rise of the 1 percent, increasingly concentrated wealth, decay of the middle class, leaders shrugging off climate change … The whole album is like listening to these anxieties with a sympathetic ear.”
Over Nowhere Generation’s 11 songs, Rise Against — which also includes lead guitarist Zach Blair, bassist Joe Principe and drummer Brandon Barnes — create a powerful musical statement that runs the gamut from scathing protest anthems (“Nowhere Generation,” “The Numbers”) and furious burners (“Broken Dreams, Inc.”) to catchy-as-hell fist-pumpers (“Talking to Ourselves”) and poignant acoustic ballads (“Forfeit”).
McIlrath and Blair — who have been a six-string team since the latter joined Rise Against for their fifth album, 2008’s Appeal to Reason — lead the charge with a deft mix of whiplash punk-rock rhythm work, tastefully placed arpeggios, soaring octave riffs, “sparkly” atmospheric solos and more.
When asked to describe Rise Against’s dual-guitar attack, McIlrath cites the chemistry of Nineties alt icons Fugazi as his aspirational reference point — while Blair hits us with what might be the most unexpected touchstone for a punk band ever: the Grateful Dead.
“Our [approach] to playing guitar is like something I read about the Grateful Dead,” he says. “Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir interweave around each other — Tim and I do that too. Because if you have two guitar players, why play the same thing at all times?”
McIlrath and Blair’s innate creative connection and fluid musical interplay is apparent throughout Nowhere Generation. But it’s taken years of collaboration to get to this point. To better understand how a liberal activist punk songwriter from the Midwest and a heavy-metal-loving Texan arrived at such an organic, exciting sonic partnership, you need to step back and examine where each player’s guitar journey began.
TODAY TIM MCILRATH IS a highly visible and influential musician, and Rise Against have become a well-established pillar in the modern punk movement. But when he first picked up a guitar, around the seventh grade, his dreams were much less grand. In fact, he suspected he was already too late in the game to “make it.”
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