You Can’t Pick Your Fans

Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath talks about sticking to his message as an artist while navigating certain fans who miss the point.

When people say you don’t pick your audience, you realize that the music lives a life beyond your creation of it. It takes a life of its own, which in some ways is great, because you create something—it’s like tentacles that find their way all over the planet. Your music finds fans around the world organically. But at the same time, you’re not there to supervise those tentacles as they travel around the world.

The biggest example from my adolescence I can think of is Rage Against the Machine. Getting way into Rage Against the Machine, then going to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago to see them play, and a bunch of shirtless dudes in backwards hats are kicking my ass in the pit—they’re reciting lyrics about environmentalism and sweatshops, but clearly it’s all lost on them.

You take a step back and you’re like, “Well, we need to make sure that we are cultivating our band in a way that we can at least let people know what we stand for and what we condemn.” That’s something that we’ve always done. If no one’s listening to you, then it doesn’t matter what you stand for or what you condemn. But if we at least are vocal about who we are, then that at least can help guide some of that traffic. But a lot of it’s out of our control.

We were playing the Social in Orlando, which is a small club in downtown Orlando. If I had to guess, it was 2004. It’s Florida punk kids, and they’re nuts. The shows are sweaty—just mayhem. It was a lot of fun. Then after the show, this guy come up to the stage, high fives me, and was like, “Hey man, I had a great time. Great show!” And I was like “Oh that’s great, I’m glad you had a good time.” He goes, “Yeah man, I was in that pit there. I was just punching people all night!” And I was like, “Oh…” How do I be cool to the kid that likes my band but is clearly saying offensive shit to me?

I’m like, “Dude, you don’t need to be punching people in there. Just have a good time.” And he looked at me in, like, true alarm, and he was like, “No dude, it’s cool. They were all faggots!” And I was like, “Oh man.” God, it’s like I thought the punching thing was so offensive that I was ready to handle that one, then when he doubled down and peeled back a whole other layer that I wasn’t prepared to deal with, I was like, “This is an entirely different conversation that we need to have now.”

Bootlegging merchandise in Europe is pretty popular, and there was a bootleg Rise Against shirt being sold with a confederate flag. I was like, “Oh, this shit just went off the rails.” In my experience, Europe, especially in the UK, I meet a lot of people who do not have a good understanding of what the confederate flag means in America, its symbolism. Just like I’m sure there’s lots of European symbolism that is lost on me as well. What the confederate flag means to this country is something that people in Europe don’t always think about. So I don’t even know if it was an intentional thing, but as the four of us walking into wherever we were, it was like, “Oh this can’t be a thing. This is offensive.” At the same time, it’s a bootleg industry that almost nobody can control. So luckily that was just an anomaly I don’t see very often.

That’s the kind of thing we really try to watch out for. We make sure we’re not playing stages sponsored by the U.S. Army or doing things, as a vegetarian band, that are really meat-centric, factory-farming centric, that kind of thing. So at least we steer clear of those things and let people know who we are in that respect.

Having fans in the military is such a delicate situation too, because I feel like for a lot of the active duty and veteran fans that find us, it might start out as this very enthusiastic, gung ho, “We blasted you in the tank while we were shooting mortar shells in a village in the Middle East and it was fucking awesome!” And the horror that you feel as an artist thinking that your music was the soundtrack to innocent civilians dying. What often those stories evolve into is somebody who’s really distressed about what they did. Somebody who feels a lot of anguish about what they did, and the music was there to help them sort through their feelings. I did meet people where the music was very simply a soundtrack to what they were doing, and in a war that I always had opposed, so that was conflicting as an artist to hear that.

But I’ve never felt any animosity towards the men and women that sign up to fight wars that the government decides to wage. I feel like they are a lot of ways just as much victims as anybody else. When we wrote the song “Hero of War,” it was kind of like an amalgamation of stories people had been telling us backstage. At a time, especially in the Iraq War, post-invasion, when the press around that war was still overwhelmingly positive, to be against that war was still to be in the margin. I felt like the stories we were being told backstage by these guys and girls who were coming back were so much different than what I was hearing about in the press.

So we wrote “Hero of War” as this amalgamation of stories we’ve heard, making the story of one soldier making their way through from recruitment to the time they finally shot an innocent civilian because of the situation they were put in. That song polarized our fans, polarized our military fan base. It was the first time we got real death threats, where it was like, “I’m gonna come to this show, and I’m gonna kill you,” or whatever. That was when you realize you hit a nerve, but the nerve you hit, too, was more about our country. In a lot of ways, we have an unhealthy relationship with the military, where the rest of the world has this healthy skepticism of military and military actions. We have kind of like troop worship with respect to our country, so if you poke at that bear at all, you’re going to trigger a reaction. Here I was poking that bear. But I always stood by it because I was like “Listen, I didn’t make this shit up!”

I had an email account that was just [email protected], and I didn’t keep up with it, but I would check in on it once in a while. I had emails that were, like, a death threat, then the next one was like “Dude, thank you for writing that, it’s my story entirely, I’m glad that somebody put it to a song.” Sometimes they’d be the same exact setup, like, “Hey man, I’m a 33-year-old male Marine, I’ve been active duty, and fighting this war, blah blah blah, I have family, I’m from this state, and I hate your fucking song. Fuck you for writing it.” Then I get the next one, “Hey I’m 33, and thank you for writing that song.” Or “I’m the wife of somebody who fought, and that song really tells the story,” that kind of thing.

As someone who’s been around music for a long time, asking that question: What is the true nature of what you’re doing, and is this message being lost? It’s something I’ve thought about since I was a young kid seeing Bad Religion or Rage Against the Machine, or any of these bands playing, then finding myself in a band where it’s the same thing. Are we just here selling tickets? Are you just here to dance? Is what we’re talking about completely being forgotten about the second you walk out that door?

“Entertainment,” that song specifically, eventually answers that question, at least for us. One of the final lines is like, “This is more than entertainment,” and that’s something that we need to remember as a band too. It’s easy to get lost in the whole function of being in a band and just going on tour and playing shows night after night. I feel like we do things for different reasons; we live outside of that paradigm a little bit, and so it’s a good reminder to us too.

“Entertainment” was written for Appeal to Reason, so it was at one of the heights of being in this band too. We’re playing these huge festivals, we’re opening up for these giant bands. We went from a small, Fat Wreck Chords world, where our identity was very much known by a rabid fan base. If you walk into our shows back then, whether you liked us or not, you knew our deal. Now we’re going into places where like, they don’t know our deal—not only do they not know our deal, but they don’t know bands like us. They don’t even know bands that come from our world, or why a band would do this. This is their first introduction to a band that would use a stage to talk about politics.

We did a radio festival with all these bands—I’m not gonna name names, but all these active rock bands—and we’re walking around and trying to make friends like we would on the Fat Wreck Chords tours back in the day, and we realize like, “Oh shit, I don’t have anything in common with you.” It isn’t that we’re such different people or live different lives; it’s that we got into this through a different door, and once you walk in through a different door, then you’re going in way different directions. Those were the things I could not understand, and I couldn’t relate to the people, because not only were they there just for entertainment, but that was the goal from the outset. And they were stoked about it. They just wanted to entertain. What we do is different.

As told to Kyle Ryan.

(Photo Credit: Travis Shinn)

Tim McIlrath is a member of Rise Against, whom you can follow on Twitter here. The long-running group releases a career-spanning vinyl box set on November 30.