5 minutes alone: Rise Against's Tim McIlrath

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(Image: © Adam Gasson/Future)

Rise Against’s leader Tim McIlrath recalls first guitars, working with Bill Stevenson and the art of song craft...

Got my first real six-string

“My first guitar was a 1951 [Gibson] Kalamazoo. I found it at the back of a friend’s closet. He bought it from a neighbour and tried to learn guitar but never did. I took it off his hands. I didn’t know what it was.”

Dream on...

“I always wanted an SG. I always thought that was a bad-ass guitar. That would be the second guitar: I had a 1984 SG. Today, I just need a Marshall and a Gibson. I don’t even need a pedal. That combination has worked for me, it’s worked for Ian MacKaye, it’s worked well for Angus Young. I play a no-frills rig. As long as I have a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall head then it’s hard to fuck that up.”

There goes my hero...

“The first time anybody validated my playing was when I played guitar on Rise Against’s second record, Revolutions Per Minute. I didn’t really play on the first record, I just joined the band as a singer. We did a record with Bill Stevenson [Descendents] and that was the first time I had played guitar under scrutiny. To do that for Bill and have him say, ‘Yeah, that’s awesome.’ Before that I wasn’t sure if I was a good guitar player or a half-assed guitar player. 

“Now I have a lot of fun in the studio playing guitar. What we do is a lot of powerchords and it’s about the amount of pressure you put on it, the way you hold that chord, the way you strike the strings. All of that makes a difference.”

Two’s company…

“Zach [Blair] and I are usually not doing the same thing at the same time. I might be playing chords and he’s playing lead or vice versa. When I say lead I don’t mean a blazing solo, it’s more textures and sounds that will complement the powerchords. A lot of it will be stuff that I hand off to Zach so that I can handle the broad strokes when he play live. If there is a blazing solo it is usually Zach!”

Can you feel it?

“My biggest weakness is soloing, my heart has never been into soloing. My strength is crafting a song and knowing the most effective way to create a song, a sound, a bridge, a verse and a chorus that people aren’t going to just hear, they’re going to feel it. It’s more than technique, it’s a part that makes sense and can change the way you feel.”

You get the best of both worlds

Not every band has to be a political band. If you don’t want to write about politics, that’s fine

“A big misconception is that Rise Against is exclusively a political band and we’re always rallying against the world. Rise Against is a reflection of who we are as human beings, so there are things that are political and there are things that are personal. There are songs and records that reflect both of those things. We have songs that have nothing to do with politics. 

“Not every band has to be a political band. If you don’t want to write about politics, that’s fine. If you are harbouring sentiments and want to speak out but you’re afraid of alienating an audience then I would encourage you to speak out in your songs.

“Our fans crave it, they want to know how we feel about these things and they want to use our music as some kind of compass for figuring out what’s going on. It would be nice to hear more music on the radio that reflects the questions that I hear every day. There was a lot of low-hanging fruit when it came to lyrical topics for [Rise Against’s new album Wolves]. It was about writing those songs in a way that wasn’t trite and in a way that cut through.”

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