In the following phone interview Rise Against bassist Joe Principe talks about the band’s new record Endgame, being inspired by the military and how punk rock gave him the courage to speak out.
The last time I saw you guys was at Epicenter back at the end of September, which was right before you headed into the studio. Now here it is five and a half months later and the album is coming out. How quickly did this album come together for you guys?
It’s crazy because we booked the time probably six months in advance. It got really close to leaving Chicago and heading into the studio and we’re, like, “Oh, wow. We’re slightly underprepared.” So we got to the Blasting Room and we were in songwriting mode. We worked for a good three weeks right before we started recording. There was a three-week time to finish the song and idea process. We were a little bit underprepared than we normally are, but the ideas were there. It definitely was a little bit of a race the clock kind of thing [laughs].
So was this more hurried than the other albums you have done?
I wouldn’t say hurried. Typically, the song ideas are there, whether it’s a song Tim wrote or myself. It’s just a matter of getting in a room with all the guys, hashing it out, and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Usually that process takes us about a month, and we didn’t have a chance to do that until the studio. Like I said, we didn’t write any songs in the studio. I would hate to do that. It was more song structures and things like that. It was finalizing all the ideas.
On these last two albums you have played around with more of a hard rock sound than the fast punk you started out with. Looking back how do you see that your sound has evolved through your different records?
As far as songwriting goes and style, I just think with every record and the older we get there’s a progression. The older we get more things come into play, as far as influences. We also try to not rehash old ideas. We do still enjoy playing fast songs as well as the midtempo kind of stuff. I think it’s more about challenging ourselves as songwriters. I feel like we owe it to ourselves as songwriters in a band to constantly push the envelope on that. There’s song ideas we’ve used in the past that we felt if we revisited it would be too close to that idea, so it’s just a progression.
As far as keeping things fresh and not rehashing ideas, how challenging is that now on your sixth album? I’m sure it would be very easy to phone a record in and still have it be very successful, so how challenging is it to be creative and fresh?
It’s definitely a challenge. I think what a lot of bands fall victim to is they’ll reuse an old idea, and because it is old and there’s so many records in between, say like The Unraveling and Revolutions Per Minute, you don’t realize, like, “Oh, wait. I did that on this song on the second album.” You have to be aware of what you’ve done in the past and not overlook it. I feel like that’s what a lot of bands do and they don’t realize it. It’s definitely hard, every record, to keep it fresh and not deviate too much from the core sound of the band.
This album, Endgame, has been described as dealing with the end of humankind as we know it. Is that what it is about in the grand scheme of things?
It’s open to interpretation but for me personally it’s more about starting over and rebuilding. Basically, there’s so many fucked up things in the world and the fixes seem to cause more problems. There’s more harm than good from it. Is that where we’re headed now, basically just starting over? That’s kind of how I take it. The concept came from Tim’s lyrics and for me it made me think about a lot in my life. There’s a lot of excess that we don’t need and things like that.
Today it’s so easy to get angry or cynical with the way things are, but I think you as a band have always strived to stay on the more positive and hopeful side of things. Is that difficult for you to do?
There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s like you said, from the get go we like to instill that in our message and in our songs. It’s a more realistic approach than the doom and gloom kind of thing. It’s important for people to realize that if you’re passionate about something enough and really work towards something, change is possible. That’s the sense of hope I think you can get from our songs. That’s what plays into the name Rise Against. If there’s something wrong, speak up and change it, don’t just sit around. That’s where the hope comes into play. That’s the drive behind it.
I got that a lot from bands I grew up listening to, bands like 7 Seconds and even Bad Religion lyrics. I feel like they presented facts with this open interpretation of, well, if you don’t like this than do something about it. Even songs like “Progress” from Bad Religion and things like that, that really is what spoke to me growing up. In 7 Seconds, there was so much positivity behind their lyrics, and I think we carry that over into Rise Against. It’s kind of lacking in mainstream rock music in this day and age. It’s not as common as it was in punk rock as it was 20 years ago.
Another thing I saw Tim said about this album is you wanted to add something new to the conversation. Do you feel like you have done that?
For me, it’s hard to say. I think Tim did an amazing job with his lyrics this time around and I think it will put that spark under the listener, hopefully make them think about something they maybe hadn’t prior. It’s hard to say without the record released and getting feedback. I’m so close to the record it’s hard to look at it objectively. It’s really tough because I get asked that a lot. When you’re so close to something you almost have to sit back for a few months and then revisit it and realize what you have. It is something I’m really proud of, though. I’m really excited about it and I think it will definitely make people think.
One of the key songs of doing that would be “Make It Stop,” which I understand was inspired by some emails you received from fans. Can you talk about how that song came about?
That was inspired by the suicides that come from kids getting made fun of for their sexual preference. There’s kids getting made fun of in school for their sexual preference and they might not even be homosexual, and as a result there’s a high suicide rate. It baffles me that in 2011 that even has to be an issue. Growing up, I never thought twice about someone’s sexual preference. It’s ridiculous to think that people are afraid or angry or just not comfortable with someone’s choices in life. I think it’s a lot of insecurities in their own lives. That’s kind of how that song came about. I feel like it’s very needed in today’s musical climate. In the mainstream rock world, it’s definitely not a subject that’s sung about or written about very often, so Tim felt the need to get that out there.
Towards the end of the song there’s some names read underneath the music. Where did that idea come from?
That actually came as a very last minute idea from Tim. Those are specific cases and he decided to read those names off as a memorial to those kids. It was kind of a last minute idea but I thought it was a really good idea.
As far as your interaction with fans goes, I believe you still have your emails posted on your website. What is that like for you these days and has it become harder to keep up the more successful you have gotten?
I love it because I love hearing feedback from our audience. It’s definitely hard to keep up with but we check it as much as we can. Every email is definitely read. It can be overwhelming at times, but we find out about things that we wouldn’t have known about otherwise. Kids are, like, “Oh, your show in so and so city, scalpers bought a lot of tickets and they’re charging crazy prices for it.” Things like that that we wouldn’t have known about. It’s cool that people care enough to alert us. I think it’s important to stay on top of everything.
Another song I want to mention briefly here is “Survivor Guilt,” which is supposed to be something of a sequel to “Hero of War” from the last record. Can you talk about what that song is?
Tim would be able to explain it more in-depth, but my take on it is the harsh realities of an 18-year-old, 19-year-old going off to war when they signed up to get a college degree. A lot of people have faith in the government and they feel like what they’re doing is best. We’ve kind of run into the situation where we’ve talked to soldiers and they’re just as pissed as we are. They’ve gone over to Afghanistan or wherever they were stationed and they realize, “Wait, this is wrong. This is fucked up.” They’re forced to do things that they’re not comfortable doing but they feel peer pressure.
I think it’s important for people to realize that, yeah, it’s definitely an extension of “Hero of War,” and it’s messed up. The stories we’ve heard from Iraq vets against the war, it’s heartbreaking. They’re not taking care of wounded soldiers. There’s a six-month delay with health benefits kicking in after someone’s discharged from the army. Why is that? The system is broke. It’s kind of sad. This is supposed to be one of the best places to live, and then you hear that and it’s just mind-blowing to me.
That reminds me of the 9/11 workers insurance thing that they were trying to cut.
Absolutely, and now they’re saying that people who have suffered lung damage and it’s coming out now, they’re trying to back out of it and say maybe it wasn’t because of that. Maybe you smoked. It’s just really fucked up. Those are things that everyday Joe is not thinking about. It doesn’t affect their life. It’s an inconvenience to look into things like that. It even goes into play with the BP oil disaster in New Orleans. It’s like out of sight, out of mind. The media went away, so therefore everything’s great. That’s not the case.
Do you find that you have a big following among the military?
Yeah, absolutely. I wouldn’t say way more than I thought, but it just goes to show you. A lot of people are, like, “Oh, you’re anti-troop. You don’t support the troops.” It’s, like, “No, we do.” We actually feel what they’re going through. The army unfortunately preys on disadvantaged people, finically disadvantaged people. They convince them to sign up and they’ll get a college degree, but then they’re shipped off to a war that shouldn’t even exist. I think the military people that listen to us realize that. They realize that we’re singing about topics that people don’t sing about. Every show there’s someone in the military saying, “Thank you. Thank you for writing ‘Hero of War.’” Hopefully, they’ll like “Survivor Guilt” as well.
Also on this record there’s no stripped-down, slower songs that you usually have done, like “Swing Life Away” or “Roadside” or “Hero of War.” Was that something you didn’t want to include this time?
We never write something because we feel like it’s lacking, it’s always just what inspires us. “Wait For Me” seemed like it kept the record in balance with the heavier songs and the fast songs. “Hero of War,” “Roadside” and “Swing Life Away,” they were written in the normal songwriting process. Nothing’s ever forced. These batch of songs was just what came out of us.
The second song you released online, “Architects,” a lot of people have been curious about the line, “Don’t you remember when you were young / How you wanted to set the world on fire,” which seems to be quoting Against Me! Was that what Tim was aiming for, if you know?
I think Against Me! is a great band. To me, that song was a little disappointing. I think Tom wrote that song to get a reaction, and he definitely got a reaction from Tim because it inspired him enough to write “Architects.” I think it’s just two different takes. I wouldn’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth. I’m not sure exactly why Tom wrote that song, but I can cay we’re still inspired by the things that founded punk rock. There’s validity to it and we don’t want to invalidate it just because we’re older now. I think with any scene there’s going to be people in it for the wrong reasons, and maybe that was Tom’s experience. I’m not sure. I just felt like that was the response to Tom’s song. It’s definitely not a personal thing with us and Against Me!
The band’s political lyrics and outlook gets a lot of attention for you guys. Is that something you’re surprised by or do you think it’s because that’s not as prevalent as it once was so it sticks out more?
The topic of politics and Rise Against, it’s definitely unfair to say we’re only a political band or all politics. Punk rock by nature is a response to the current state of the government and things like that. For me, growing up, I was never overly political. I was more in it for whatever I felt was wrong in my life. I felt like there was a place for me in punk rock and it was OK to raise my voice and say, “Wait a minute. I don’t have to put up with this. This is kind of fucked up.” I think you can apply that to politics and to socially responsible situations like the environment.
The scope of Rise Against is a lot broader than just politics. That’s the shorter answer, but certain things speak to people in different ways. What affects one person doesn’t affect the other person in the same way. I definitely feel like the point of Rise Against when we started was to speak out and say, “Wait a second. This is wrong and it’s OK to say that.”
Growing up, I was very shy and very quiet. With every aspect of my life I kind of just went with it, even though I wasn’t totally comfortable with whatever the situation was. Whether it was being forced to join a sports team or having to do this to go to college because that’s what’s expected of me, I didn’t subscribe to that but I was too shy to open my mouth. I feel like that’s really important. It’s not just making people aware of political situations, it’s all encompassing.
Now that shy thing and not wanting to speak out, was that something you were able to overcome as you grew older?
Yeah, it was when I stated to get more involved in the punk scene in Chicago and found like-minded people. A lot of it has to do with bands’ lyrics that I got into. That’s what inspires change and speaking out for yourself. I think punk rock helped me realize that it was OK to do that. Like I said, I was very shy. I didn’t want to upset anybody. The older I got, the more I realized that doesn’t get me anywhere. There’s tactful ways to raise your voice and it definitely depends on how you go about it. The teenage years are so difficult it’s definitely important to know that you can do that. You can do that with teachers and authority figures. It’s OK to question things.
As a musician, you can say all that stuff and try to make those messages known but in the end it’s left to the listener and the audience to act or decide on it for themselves. Do you feel like you’ve been able to make a noticeable difference out there?
The emails we get from our website, it’s really inspiring. People going vegetarian because of us. I love when people write and ask us, “Now what did you mean in this song? In ‘Hero of War,’ what exactly did you mean?” It’s great because an open dialogue is welcomed. It’s through human interaction and a real discussion. The biggest thing is people writing. They weren’t exactly sure about the motives behind “Hero of War,” and it actually stems from that documentary, Ground Truth, and the actual soldiers’ stories. People weren’t aware of that at first and then they’re, like, “Oh, we thought you made that up.” That’s definitely a good thing.