In today’s chaotic political environment, the United States has seemingly never been less united, with people on both sides of the aisle competing for an opportunity to make their voices heard. Whether it is on Social Media (Facebook, Twitter, etc), the comment section of a news article, or in a public place, you don’t need to go far to see competing political viewpoints fighting for their time in the spotlight. Such voices have even made their way to music and entertainment, with artists and performers using their mediums as a platform to spread a message and unite listeners around their cause.
One band that has been making their voices heard since the very beginning (and long before this current political climate) is Rise Against. Formed in 1999, Rise Against has consistently used their music as a vessel for change and an opportunity to make a difference, and inspire others to do the same. Recently, on the eve of the release of their brand new acoustic record Ghost Note Symphonies Vol 1, we spoke to guitarist Zach Blair to discuss the band’s recording process for the new record, his thoughts on the current situation in the United States (and how we can fix it), the responsibilities of his band to stay on message, and what lies on the horizon for Rise Against. Check out our interview below.
AW: Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview with us Zach! How are you?
Zach Blair: I’m good man! I flew out last minute to Quebec City because we had a festival cancel on Saturday and got offered a different one on Thursday, but we found out yesterday so we had to fly out today. It’s kind of hectic.
AW: Your head is probably spinning a little bit right now!
Zach Blair: [Laughs] Yeah a little bit, I was not expecting this!
AW: For sure! Hope things calm down for you a bit! Let’s start off by talking about your new record, where did the idea for Ghost Note Symphonies first come about and what inspired you guys to go back and re-examine some of your older songs in a brand new light?
Zach Blair:The initial thought was to actually just to do some bonus acoustic songs, like maybe four or five; it wasn’t even a concept of doing a full album. The idea was to maybe do an EP, just for fun because we hadn’t been in the studio for a while…and with Bill Stevenson who was our longtime producer – who we didn’t record with on Wolves – we were looking for a reason to get back and do something with him because he had some time available, and we felt that maybe it would be fun to go back and reexamine some of these songs in a different light.
And once we got in there it was so much fun, and it was flowing so well that it took on a new life. We started kicking around song ideas, with some older songs, and everyone got to pick a few. Tim McIlrath, our singer/guitar player/songwriter is so gifted when it comes to the acoustic singer-songwriter style that he really kind of just takes the ball and runs with it. So these ideas were starting to take on all these other lives, and hearing these things with different ears, it just really got out from under us. We realized we were sitting on top of a whole record.
AW: When it came to deconstructing the songs and re-imagining them for this album, how did you approach the songwriting process? Did every new version begin from a similar starting point, or did each track have a different approach?
Zach Blair: Each track sort of had a different approach. The idea was ‘let’s try and stay away from playing these songs on acoustic guitar the same way you would play it on an electric’. So we tried to get away from that, and while some of the songs are similar to that a little bit, other songs are completely rearranged through a different lens and with different instruments than what you would expect. Some of them have string sections, some of them are on piano, and some of them are on ukulele. So it was really fun to deconstruct them, and try everything out that we could.
AW: A few of the songs re-imagined for Ghost Note Symphonies were from albums that were released before you joined the band. How did it feel to be able to put your own spin on those early songs?
Zach Blair: It was really fun, but we were also putting different spins on every song because we weren’t playing what we did on the record anyways. Most of the record I ended up playing Nashville tuning, which is basically where if you’re taking a 12 string guitar, there are drone strings on that 12 string guitar, so Nashville tuning is where you tune a six string guitar with all the drone strings of a 12 string guitar. Which sounds a lot more shimmery, a lot brighter and it makes it ‘pop’ a lot more. So I was really kind of taking that approach to it. Because with acoustic songs, or an acoustic album, you really don’t want to overload it with too much information, as that’s basically the idea, to strip it all the way down.
So for us it’s taking guitars out, it’s taking distortion out, it’s taking drums out, and having the song survive on just its merits alone or how well the song is written. So every song started with Tim’s acoustic guitar and Tim’s voice, and we approached each track with “does this even need someone else?” and if it did need someone else, then what instrument did it need? Sometimes that was another guitar, but sometimes it was a violin, and sometimes it was a piano. Sometimes it was an acoustic bass, and sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes it needed more production and sometimes it didn’t need anything but just one guitar and one voice. That was the most fun part of it all.
But to answer your question, and to approach songs that I didn’t originally play on, I’ve been in the band so long now that it almost feels like I did play on them because I joined halfway through touring for the record The Sufferer & The Witness. They had only been touring that record for six months when I joined, and so it almost feels like I recorded those songs because I have such a relationship with them and have been playing them for so long. Same goes for songs on Revolutions per Minute and Siren Song of the Counter Culture, and so on and so forth.
AW: Since the album title quite noticeably mentions “Volume 1”, have there been discussions about doing more volumes down the line?
Zach Blair: It’s one of those things to leave open ended for us, and it was actually brought up when we discussed it that way. Tim pitched the idea and we were like “if we never get around to a Volume 2 is it going to be a bummer for anybody?” and that’s always a little interesting. It leaves a question mark, and hopefully one day we will get around to doing a Volume 2 but with the band, and our schedule and the fact we all live in different corners of the US, we definitely wanted to leave it a question mark for everyone else as much as ourselves.
AW: Going back to an earlier answer, on your 2017 album Wolves you guys worked with Nick Raskulinecz, breaking the longtime tradition of working with Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore. What were some of the things that Nick did very differently compared to Bill and Jason?
Zach Blair: It really was a different animal in all aspects. We go in with Bill so loaded from so much experience, and me personally, I was in one of the first bands to have ever recorded at The Blasting Room in Fort Collins, CO. It’s disputed. I say it’s the first. So that goes all the way back to 1995, and I played in a band with Bill, so there’s no experience that’s going to be quite like that for me personally. And for the band, he’s made all but three of the records the band has put out. So it’s an unfair advantage because we have a vernacular, and a way of doing things. When we go back into that studio it almost feels like we’re just continuing the same record that we’ve been working on for decades. We just fall right back in to the old habits.
So for us as a band, that’s great and there are more positives than negatives, but we did feel like we were resting on that just a bit and it was time to try something new. This was in addition to the fact that Bill now has The Descendants going as a full-fledged touring unit and full business again and not just some one-off festival reunion thing. They’re putting out great records and they’re really working again, so our schedules didn’t really work out in that end as well. We needed to make a record, and he just didn’t have the time. So we figured what better time than now to try this out, and go with someone else because it had been years since the band had done that, and before I was in the band. The last time they had done that was Siren Song of the Counter Culture. Ever since I’ve been in the band we’ve recorded with Bill. It was great and we all had a great time, and Nick was a great producer. But it did make us realize who we were as a band and our strengths and weaknesses, and going back to Bill for Ghost Note Symphonies, really was like going back home. You realize the things you do lean on and do depend on.
But recording with Nick was a great process. It was great to let somebody else into our world, so to speak, and see how that worked and see how they would adapt to us and how we’d adapt to them. We’re a little set in our ways and our old age; we’ll just put it that way [laughs].
AW: A few years back Tim stated that he viewed music as a vessel for change and that he wanted Rise Against to make a difference instead of being a band that doesn’t say anything important. With that in mind, how do you think we can get out of the absolute mess that we are facing inside the U.S. at the moment and what role do you think bands like Rise Against can play in bringing about change?
Zach Blair: I’ll admit it is definitely hard sometimes to not feel the burden of your voice not mattering and that as loud as you’re screaming it’s not getting heard, or if it is getting heard, it’s just not given a shit about. Everyone nowadays ends up feeling that way I imagine, because it’s the Wild West out there. These are times like we’ve never seen as a culture, and I do feel that it’s important in these times – and that’s the whole concept of the new record – not just to focus on that futility, or that futile feeling but instead speak as loud as you can and try to push back as much as you can. Do everything you can and get involved in local politics, and definitely vote, even though many people now have that feeling that “oh the election is going to get rigged anyway again”, and there’s so many reasons for someone not to speak up now, because of this idiot we have in office. Which is sad, but for a band like us, we were making this record when the election was happening and it definitely turned the idea of the record around for us.
So that’s really what we’re trying to do, and that is in every show, every night we’re trying to say something about this. I think everybody has a little bit of a voice. Sometimes we have a mic in our face like right now, and you can use that to say what you want to say. And we have the ability of some people wanting to hear what we’re trying to say, which is a good thing, but even if you’re just the average guy or an average person on the street, there’s something you can do too. It just takes the guts to do it which is saying a lot nowadays.
AW: Great answer! Thank you! You recently released a video for Megaphone. You worked with Indecline, an activist art collective known for their own activism. How did the collaboration with Indecline come about, and could you tell me more about the creative process for that video?
Zach Blair: They had done a video of their own and used a Rise Against song as the background, which they sent to us for approval. And so after we had started talking we realized they were fans and that we had a lot in common and kindred spirits, and they had some ideas for the music we were making. It just so happened that we had an idea to put that song out as a 7 inch with two songs that hadn’t made it to the Wolves album. So it all just worked out serendipitously, and I think they made a great video. It’s completely illegal the video they made [laughs] but that goes into the last question of what can you do nowadays to speak up and try to get heard, or get noticed or try to say something. And I’m not promoting exactly everything that happened in the video, but there’s one way you can do it, you know?
AW: Speaking of collaborations, you also recently worked with photographer Rob Fenn on a photo book. What would you say it is about Rob’s photos that drew the band to want to collaborate with him, and out of all the photos included in the book, is there a particular moment he caught that sticks out to you?
Zach Blair: We had seen his work that he had done for Rob Zombie, and we’ve all been doing this for a really long time but I had never seen a live photographer with that dynamic, and who could catch a band the way that Rob had caught a band. We were all just blown away with every shot he had done, and you could tell that he really sort of lived it, and it turns out he did [live it] as he was living on tour with these bands and really knew their personalities, and was catching these candid shots backstage. It felt true, it felt authentic and there are so many things that happen while you’re out here that it’s the sum of all parts. Sure a huge part is getting on stage and playing in front of people but that’s the person you are while you’re on stage. There’s also a person you are backstage and the person you are in regular life and Rob tends to echo that in a really cool way, and he just becomes a part of the whole unit. He tours with you, he travels with you and he just became a member of our whole family. Nothing felt intrusive and we really let our guard down so for me to pick one moment out, I really don’t think I can. Every time I look at the book I still see things I had completely forgotten about because he captured them in such a realistic way, and true to the essence of what was happening.
AW: Let’s talk about the future. Where do you see Rise Against going in the coming years? Punk bands like Black Flag, Anti-Flag, Bad Religion, (etc), are still going well beyond their 20 year mark. Do you see a similar future for Rise Against?
Zach Blair: I hope so! I think with the determination of the four gentleman involved, absolutely. But it’s difficult to predict the fickle buying public, or the attention span of the average rock listener. I think the landscape gets changed so frequently, that it’s almost like trying to ride the tide you know what I mean? So far we’ve done that to some success, so I really hope that we can somehow harness whatever it is we’ve done so far, keep hold of that and be able to still ride that wave. We’ve been really lucky so far, and hopefully that persists.
AW: Thank you once again for your time! Anything else you’d like to add?
Zach Blair: We have a tour beginning very shortly, and we’re taking out AFI and Anti-Flag with us across the US in two different stints and so we’re really looking forward to that, and that’s going to be the rest of the summer for us which will be great. Like you said, we do have a book Whereabouts Unknown which is out right now, the 7 inch for “Megaphone” which is also on iTunes and the new video. And of course Ghost Note Symphonies which is coming out July 27th!