Rise Against's Zach Blair: the records that changed my life
Though he’s mainly known for his incendiary guitar work in Chicago hardcore heroes Rise Against, Zach Blair is a musician that’s dipped his toes in all kinds of musical situations.
Most notably, perhaps, dressing up as an evil space monster playing some of the most demented intergalactic heavy metal songs ever written…
“I was in Gwar for a long time as the character Flattus Maximus,” grins the guitarist, sat in a room on the top floor of the Kensington Gardens Hotel.
“I wrote and recorded with them from the age of 23 for about five years. I quit and then the guy that replaced me was Cory Smoot, who died, so I went back in between Rise Against’s touring to write and record their last record Battle Maximus with [now-deceased founder] Dave Brockie.”
“Gwar were a band that didn’t want to stop - they’d come off tour and head straight into the studio. So when Dave asked me if I had anything written, and I was like, ‘Always! I’m a metalhead!’
“I went back for the final album and it felt rad to sweep through arpeggios again, because obviously I don’t get to do that much [in Rise Against]. I did quit because of the things that led to Dave’s untimely death, but he was one of my best friends and mentor. I’m so glad I got to make that last record with him.”
Whereas most punk-rock musicians focus on riffs and song structure, Blair is something of an anomaly - a self-confessed guitar nerd that took as much inspiration from players like Yngwie Malmsteen as he did bands like Black Flag…
“You guys should all check out this guy called The Wizard Of Shred (opens in new tab) online,” notes the guitarist.
“He looks like a clean-cut teacher, but is a total Malmsteen shredder. He shows you everything on a scalloped neck Strat and it’s all neoclassical metal, so harmonic and melodic minor shit! It’s not theory as much as it is a number system you learn… almost like learning a different language. I highly recommend it!”
That said, the guitarist is quick to point out such technicalities aren’t hugely necessary in his main job playing with Rise Against, where attack and power easily outweigh the need for speed. In that band, his focus is on stability - being able to thrash out chords and beat his guitar with no fear of it slipping out of tune. As it turns out, there’s a secret to his methods…
“I really like the Evertune bridge and have been putting those on all my Les Pauls... because I clearly don’t care about the value of guitars,” he laughs.
“Those things are insane! People might argue I should learn how to play in tune, but for me, it’s more about not going out of tune. You can set each string to bend or not bend. We get recorded live a lot, and knowing you’re always in pitch takes a lot of the stress out… I don’t even use a tuner on stage any more!”
Here, Zach picks the 12 albums that changed his life…
Rise Against's new album, Wolves, is out now via Virgin Records.
1. The Who - Tommy (1969)
“The very first one for me was Tommy. My dad was a big hippie biker that worked on radio as a disc jockey. I remember him watching The Who doing Woodstock on the television and it felt really scary and dangerous compared to all the other bands singing about peace, love and joy. I saw Pete Townshend smashing his guitar and jumping everywhere and thought he was crazy.
“So I found my Dad’s copy of Tommy, which sounded incredible. It didn’t dawn on me at the time, but it was a record that created this whole weird world for me to escape in. This was one of the most successful early concept albums… it affected me in this visceral way, even as a kid. It’s still to this day one of my favourites ever made!”
2. Slayer - Reign In Blood (1986)
“I think a lot of people would agree with me on this one… it’s the perfect metal album.
“I was about 12 years old and into thrash metal at the time, listening to Master Of Puppets a lot, but this was the record that captured what hell must have sounded like. When I saw the album cover, I didn’t know if I was supposed to be listening to it… but once I did, I just couldn’t stop.
“Every song was like a bee-sting or accidentally having Wasabi - really deliberate and relentless. It was so concentrated and intense, and then suddenly over in under half an hour. They had such a singular focus… that band needed to be on the same page to create something like this.
“The solos were fuckin’ insane, sounding like a demon playing guitar super-fast with loads of tremolo craziness… It still makes me go, ‘Holy shit!’ If I listen to one song on that record, I have to listen to all of it!”
3. Descendents - Milo Goes To College (1982)
“I was born and raised in a real small Texas town called Sherman, about an hour north of Dallas, which was the big city I moved to before ending up in Austin. The Descendents were basically singing about being an outcast kid that got beaten up and didn’t get any girls for being a total nerd. They embraced that and sang about being a dork.
“My brother and I really identified with it because we were from Texas and we’d like any sort of weird counter-culture we could get… metal, punk, thrash, all of it…
“We weren’t from a coast - and if you think about it, the coasts were able to align themselves with a scene or a sound - but we didn’t. Whatever the record store in the mall had was what we got… if no-one else liked it, we still listened to it. From the Descendents to Black Flag or Black Sabbath or Possessed or Pestilence or Kreator or Sodom or Coroner! We took it all in.”
4. Bad Religion - No Control (1989)
“Around the same time, Bad Religion were coming out as well.
“I was straddling my atheism at that point, bearing in mind I came from a small Southern Baptist community. Just seeing the Bad Religion logo with the cross-buster, along with covers for records like Reign In Blood, made me realise you could make the choice not to be religious.
“I was never made to go to church because my parents weren’t religious like the rest of the family, but these bands singing about atheism - and being fuckin’ offensive about it - felt kinda rad. Me and my brother would listen to this constantly because it was so fast, and we were hyperactive kids!”
5. Black Sabbath - Vol 4 (1972)
“It goes back and forth, but this is probably my favourite Sabbath album. I feel like they hit the eclipse of heavy with songs like Supernaut.
“I also really love the Dio stuff, so Heaven And Hell has been my favourite at points, too. I even like Mob Rules - my dad brought it back from the radio station one time and I totally loved it, not realising that Bill Ward was not in the band any more.
“But Vol 4 sounded ridiculously heavy and almost became the template for stoner and doom bands like Sleep. You could just tell how influential an album it was.
“My dad was a huge Black Sabbath fan, and whenever I heard it, I could tell it was old. Everything about it was so well put together, the idea was focused and genuine. Of all the rock records my dad owned, nothing sounded like this.”
6. Gwar - Violence Has Arrived (2001)
“This was right around the turn of the new millennium. I had been in the band for a couple of years, having joined right after they’d recorded their previous record - which is similar to how I joined Rise Against!
“Gwar got into doing these really big concept records, with a show built around it and all these extraneous characters. I remember talking to David Brockie and saying, ‘Let’s just make a really focused metal record and not worry about writing songs for characters or storylines!’
“I wanted to write about hacking things up, just war and blood, guts and gore. It pissed people off, but we chose to work as a regular band on this one - just us, alone.
“Not to pat myself on the back, but there’s Scumdogs Of The Universe and then this album which feel like a return to the roots of metal for GWAR. The problems started when we began touring it, but looking back now, I’m really proud to have been a part of it.”
7. Various Artists - No Wave (1978)
“There was this compilation album called No Wave in the early '80s that my dad brought home from the radio station. This record absolutely changed my life. It had a punk rock guy surfing an ironing board on the cover, and if I ever find a copy, I always buy it!
“It was when the whole new wave thing was happening, and I believe IRS (the label) had signed a bunch of punk bands. There was The Police, The Squeeze, The Stranglers, The Dickies, Klark Kent which was Stewart Copeland’s side-project… all these bands that I still love to this day.
“I have seven copies at home, plus a picture disc version. I didn’t really know what punk was until I heard this. The Dickies became one of my favourite bands of all time. They write the most perfect punk songs, but their singer has the most discernible, odd and crazy voice. It’s not for everybody, but it works for me… he’s one of my idols.
“The songwriting was just so amazing; it set me on a path of finding the perfect marriage between punk rock and musicianship. Their guitar player Stan Lee is a total shredder!”
8. The Buzzcocks - Singles Going Steady (1979)
“Again, this is a record where I thought the songwriting was so fucking unbelievable and they were still considered a punk band.
“That’s what I love about the umbrella of punk rock: it all fits under one roof but the bands could sound totally different. For example, a band like The X didn’t sound anything like Minor Threat… all these groups were unique in their own ways.”
9. Black Flag - Damaged (1981)
“This is the sound of what’s going on in someone’s head when they’re in a room trying to kick major drugs. Five pissed-off guys getting their heads kicked in by cops, with no money or no future… it’s pure aggression.
“It basically came out sounding like a supercharged Iggy And The Stooges - just so raw and visceral. They were dangerous and all-out, satisfying all the urges from punk to metal, because it was just so feral.”
10. The Ramones - It’s Alive (1977)
“I guess everyone was doing a live record around this time. If you’re a novice to the Ramones, get this album, because it sounds like what they were supposed to sound like… I don’t think the studio ever captured them as well as this. It’s basically a greatest hits, so it’s pretty much back-to-back with no talking, except for maybe one line here or there.
“I think the Ramones are one of the greatest bands of all time. My big four are the Ramones, The Beatles, Black Sabbath and The Who… you really can’t go wrong with that. Those bands changed my life - all punk came from the Ramones and Iggy, at least in my eyes. I went to the Ramones museum in Berlin the other day - it was pretty unbelievable!”
11. Metallica - Master Of Puppets (1986)
“When I was a kid, along with listening to my dad’s classic stuff, I bought loads of records like Mötley Crüe or Yngwie Malmsteen for myself. But this was the one that came out and changed everything.
“Suddenly these dudes that looked like the dirthead stoners that would kick my ass before high school were making their guitars sound like machines. I didn’t know how the fuck that was happening and had to find out… it became hugely influential for me as it did many other people.”