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Rise Against's Joe Principe: “Bass playing should be about locking in with the drummer. I’ve always seen myself as a percussive player”

(Image credit: Daniel Boczarski / Stringer / Getty)

Politics and music have always made for a controversial combination, but done right, you have an unparalleled force for change, greater than any manifesto.

Chicago-based punk four-piece Rise Against have done just that for the past 18 years - and show no sign of giving up the fight. Directly addressing social, environmental and personal injustices on last year’s studio album Wolves, when the 2017 US Presidential Election was all over the headlines, Principe explains how these issues affected the album and his own playing.

I use a Fender Precision which has a 70s Jazz neck on it, Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder pickups and a Badass bridge - that’s my go-to instrument

“We were toying with the idea of calling the record Mourning In Amerika, but we didn’t want it to have a sense of despair,” the bassist explains. “Tim [McIlrath, vocals/guitar] and I were having dinner one night and he was like, ‘I’m considering naming it Wolves’. It gives it a sense of empowerment and hope. We have the power to change what we don’t like and use our voices.”

With such delicate subject matter, how did this affect his playing, we ask? “For me,” he muses, “I think it’s about creating a mood when I’m writing a song, whether it’s a hardcore song or a pop song. It’s really all about trying to translate that mood to the bass, and that’s the only way I know how to write. Then I try not to think about it too much. You don’t want to overthink it.”

Having played Fenders for most of his musical life, Principe holds both Precision and Jazz models very close to his heart. Instead of choosing one, he’s cross-bred a unique instrument that combines the comfort of a Jazz neck with the tone of a P-Bass. As he describes it, 

“I use a Fender Precision which has a 70s Jazz neck on it, Seymour Duncan Quarter Pounder pickups and a Badass bridge - that’s my go-to instrument. The first real bass I bought was a 1978 Jazz, and I got so used to that thinner neck, especially for playing chords. When I switched to a P-Bass, I longed for that neck, so Fender pieced it together for me.”

(Image credit: Gina Wetzler / Getty)

Something that was mine

As you’d expect from Rise Against’s furious style, Principe has a huge presence at the lower end. This is no small undertaking and with over two decades of experience, he’s never neglected the significance of his role.

Playing bass chords and picking accuracy are very important to me

“Playing bass chords and picking accuracy are very important to me. It should be about locking in with the drummer, and I’ve always seen myself as a percussive kind of player. I would always play along with the kick and snare, no matter how fast the beat was.

“I think a lot of that is due to growing up listening to Minor Threat, because of that galloping kind of picking, which is how I’m playing right now, even at 43 years old. Everyone’s like, ‘Doesn’t your wrist get tired?’ but I don’t really think about it.”

Principe has always found an outlet through bands who played fast, aggressive music, he tells us - and always will.

“I grew up as a very quiet kid,” he recalls, “and music was my only form of self-expression, along with skateboarding. I used to listen to Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies, but I didn’t know it was punk rock, I just knew it just sounded funny and cool - like ‘What is this?’

“I started playing the bass because when I was skateboarding with my best friend when I was a kid, he brought his little brother to the skate ramp. His brother played drums and he told me he was starting a band. He asked me, ‘Would you want to play bass?’ And I was like, ‘Sure!’

“Before that point, I had never picked up a bass - but that was it, I fell in love with it immediately. It was like second nature to me. I just knew from then on that this was something that could be mine - and no one could take it away from me!”

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