Punk rock veterans Rise Against have been in the art of making music with a message — that quintessential punk sound, the rawness of a quick drum beat, catchy guitar and of course frontman Tim McIlrath's arresting lyrics. With six albums under its belt, the band is reaching a larger audience than ever before. I chatted with bassist, Joe Principe, about the band's transition to fame, the punk community in the Bay Area and his favorite vegetarian foods.
Brittany: As co-founder of Rise Against back in 1999, what were some of your original hopes for the band?
Joe: Back then, I think I was totally content being on an established independent label and the goal was always to be playing in front of 600-1000 kids a night in cities. I liked it better when it’s bigger than that. Bad Religion and NOFX were the bands we looked up to. We never really considered this to be a career. We were still in college when we started. It just kept taking off, slowly. Things kept coming our way, the major label deal and it’s worked out. I definitely didn’t think we would get to where we are today.
B: Can you recall the first time you picked up a bass?
J: My oldest sister had an acoustic guitar … it was sitting around our house. Right around freshman, sophomore year of high school I just got the itch to learn how to play a power chord just listening to the Ramones and stuff. I wanted to learn how they did that. You can only go so far on an acoustic guitar learning power chords and punk rock stuff. A year into it, me messing around on the acoustic, a friend of mine who I skateboarded with, he played drums and he was like, ‘Hey, would you be interested in playing bass?’ He knew I had never played bass, but my friend had a bass I could borrow. It just came really easy to me. I’ve never taken a lesson and I’ve never put it down since I was15.
B: Can you tell me a little bit about the punk community back in Chicago? I know you tout influences like The Descendents and other crucial punk bands. How much of listening to stuff like that really influenced the sound you try to bring now?
J: Without bands like Bad Religion, Descendents and Rancid, I wouldn’t have picked up the bass and Rise Against definitely would not sound the way we do. I learned how to write songs because of listening to bands like Bad Religion. I learned how to play different chords because of NOFX. They were doing something more than three chords. That’s how I learned to play bass, mostly because of Rancid and Descendents because their bass players are amazing. It was something that just came natural to me. Without that, I would be very lost. It definitely helped fill a void in my life.
B: Rise Against is known for championing issues, animal advocacy with PETA and supporting groups such as Amnesty International. Why is it important for the band to incorporate these issues into your music?
J: It’s something that is just a part of us. It was a part of us before Rise Against. The PETA thing, I discovered right at the start of Rise Against through friends of mine. I grew up with being used to the fact that punk bands were singing because they felt things needed to be changed, whether it be politically or socially. That’s just something I always associated with the music I was listening to, that was just something I could relate it. Before I even knew about straight edge, I just didn’t drink. And then when I figured out bands like Minor Threat were singing about it I was like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s this whole scene I could relate to.’ I think it’s just a part of me and a part of us. When we started Rise Against, we kind of wanted to carry the torch that bands like 7 Seconds and Bad Brains carried. That is definitely the heart and soul of Rise Against — that passion to inspire change for the better.
B: You’ve been around for 13 years now and a lot of your fan base has been with you from the beginning. Does it affect your musical content, especially as you’ve picked up notoriety and a younger fan base along the way?
J: I’ve definitely seen that our fans have grown up, but we’ve grown up as well. When people get married and start having children you realize how important it is to inspire change for the better now for the future of our children. You just don’t think on those terms when you’re growing up like that, that you’re going to be molding this young mind, that you’re putting your children out into this world that has a lot of messed up qualities to it. It really gives you a spark to push forward.
That’s one of the underlying reasons why “Make it Stop” came to be. Our kids are going to face the whole bullying thing whether we like it or not. I was bullied growing up and I think it was something we felt the need to address. Our fans range from the younger kids, but then they’re definitely (fans) in their forties and even some 50-year-olds, parents, that start listening to us because of their kids and I think they really respect what we’re trying to do.
B: Upon the release of “Endgame,” you guys put a message on your website inviting listeners to apply the songs' messages to current events like with “Make it stop.” Why was it important to reach out to your listeners, to open up that forum?
J: In order to raise awareness on how badly the effects are of being bullied, people need to talk about it. I think when the actual bullies … when they hear the dialogue, hear people talking about it, it’s going to hopefully trigger something. I hope they realize this has a lasting effect and I can’t do this anymore. Kids really don’t realize the lasting effects it has. For me, I just hope it opens up some minds. I hope that’s what they got from it.
B: I’ve seen you play in the Bay Area three times and in Sacramento twice — I feel like the energy in the Bay is really unique.
J: For me, personally, there’s a lot of history in punk rock coming from the Bay Area — obviously with Lookout Records, and Rancid, Green Day, a lot of bands that influenced us. I’ve always enjoyed playing there. I think that when we were a very young band we became really close to a lot of bands from the Bay Area like AFI, just a lot of like-minded kids. I guess I still feel like that.
B: You’ve kind of hit it mainstream. Do you thinking having that sort of notoriety has allowed Rise Against to reach a bigger audience?
J: When I write a song, I have no one in mind when I write the song as far as this needs to be accessible to the masses. Music is my only form of self-expression. I’m a very quiet person and I’m really terrible at vocalizing my emotions, so I needed music growing up for me to do that and it’s still the case for me now. I do think we’re incredibly lucky that we can play songs like “Collapse” that is close to our roots and still be played on the radio. I guess for me we’ve always written fast songs, we’ve always written poppy, catchy songs and it’ll always be the case whether we’re huge or playing 500-capactiy venues. We’d be the same band whether we’re on Epitaph Records or Interscope (Records). I think in my head I still feel like we’re this basement punk band. It’s still a very surreal experience.
B: If people have never seen you before, is there something that you want them to get out of that experience?
J: Just a sense of community. When I was growing up, I really did not fit in with any scene other than the punk rock scene, and I’ve never felt more comfortable than I did when I was going to shows. I want our fans to feel that and take that from our shows — a sense of belonging.
B: So I hear you guys are vegetarian. I recently decided to become a vegetarian — do you guys have a favorite dish that gets cooked a lot on tour?
J: We’re all lazy so we’re microwaving the veggie burgers. Veggie dogs. Personally, Thai food is my favorite. There’s a vegan/vegetarian diner in Chicago that I get a vegan Philly Cheesesteak. That’s my favorite.