Chester, Grohl and More: Rise Against Singer on 10 "Holy Shit" Collabs | Revolver

Chester, Grohl and More: Rise Against Singer on 10 "Holy Shit" Collabs

Tim McIlrath tells favorite stories of working with personal heroes
rise-against-chester-getty-web-crop.jpg, Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty
Chester Bennington and Tim McIlrath, The Forum, Inglewood, California, December 13th, 2014
photograph by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

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"Every time we put out a record, I feel like we've released it into a different wilderness," says Rise Against frontman Tim McIlrath. "The world looks different each time."

From the Chicago punk crew's 2001 debut, The Unraveling, to their eighth album, 2017's Wolves, each of the band's releases have contended with a new landscape of music-industry trends, tech innovations and consumer behavior. But it's safe to say that the world Rise Against's new and ninth album, Nowhere Generation, is dropping into is a much different place than ever before.

The heavily distanced measures through this last year of the pandemic, for instance, have greatly changed how closely we're able to interact with one another outside of an immediate bubble. The live-music circuit of arenas and clubs the band would normally utilize to promote the record — due June 4th through new label home Loma Vista Recordings — is nowhere near back to normal.

"When the pandemic was at its height, it was like, 'Are we ever going to go back out? Are we going to have shows? Are these things that we talk about the way The Walking Dead talks about television?'" says McIlrath. "It made me grateful that we've done what we've done."

It's perhaps because of that socially distanced disconnection that the vocalist/guitarist has been looking back fondly on all the artists he and his Rise Against bandmates have met and collaborated with along the way.

Rise Against may have made a name for themselves via their driving mix of melodic fist-hoisting anthems and politically charged punk, but some of McIlrath's most cherished musical memories are of him working outside of the band's usual parameters. Take singing Temple of the Dog's grunge touchstone "Hunger Strike" with Chris Cornell in London, or having Foo Fighters leader Dave Grohl hammering down snare hits for Rise Against in Australia during a cover of his old hardcore band Scream's "Came Without Warning." Moments like these are currently in the rear-view mirror, but McIlRath knows Rise Against will, well, rise again once the coronavirus pandemic has run its course.

"Rise Against is going to be fine. We're going to be there when the lights go back on," he says. "We're no longer the band from 19 years ago, scraping away trying to get on every tour, trying to get people to hear our band. So, this was for us — and for me personally — a good time to take a deep breath. I've never really looked back at what we've done; I'm always looking forward to what the next thing will be. That can be exhausting!"

Below, McIlrath takes a few minutes to look back, and revisits 10 of his most memorable studio collaborations, onstage guest appearances and other assorted "holy shit moments" he's experienced as part of Rise Against.

Tom Morello and Steve Aoki "How Long" (2018)

Tom was doing a solo record [2018's The Atlas Underground], and he was collaborating with a bunch of people, like Steve. They had a big instrumental track of Tom riffing and Steve doing his thing over it, no vocals. They were like, We should put vocals on it. Tom was like, "I have two ideas: Tim from Rise Against or Dave Grohl." I don't think there's a world where I can compete with Dave Grohl, but Tom said he'd call both of us, and whoever calls back first gets it. Obviously I hit him back first. [Laughs]

I was only vaguely aware of who Steve Aoki was, to be honest, but I found out later that I was at one of his shows. Before I was in Rise Against, I'd seen This Machine Kills [Steve Aoki's early '00s hardcore band] play at Fireside Bowl. I loved that stuff, and a lot of that Gravity Records stuff —  I was going to see bands like Heroin or Angel Hair back in the Nineties. I didn't realize that Steve was the real fucking deal. He was putting on shows, running a record label; he was way more involved in hardcore than most.

I've been to Steve's house in Las Vegas. He has some of the most prized artwork — he has a Banksy in his house, really crazy, Sotheby's style artwork all over his house. But right there with it, framed and positioned just as importantly, is the original artwork for a Born Against record. It's not tucked in the corner. I went over with a buddy of mine who is also into hardcore. Steve was so stoked that we appreciated that.

Rise Against and Dave Grohl covering Scream's "Came Without Warning" live in Adelaide, Australia (2015)

We were on tour with the Foo Fighters, having a blast. We'd hang out with those guys when they were around, and at some point one of us asked Dave as he was walking away, "We should play a Scream cover!" [Prior to Nirvana, Grohl played in the Washington, D.C. hardcore punk act.] You know when you're being blown off, right? When someone says, "We should hang out," and you know it won't happen. Dave stopped, turned around, deadly serious, and said, "We should fuckin' do that." We assumed he'd laugh it off, [but] we held him to it! We went into a practice room to see if we knew it: I'm trying to remember the lyrics; Dave's on drums. We're laughing through the rehearsal. It's a short song; we did it and said, "Awesome, let's do it tonight!"

I didn't want to blow him up, but I was like, "Hey Adelaide, we're going to do a song by a D.C. punk band called Scream, and we have their drummer here to do this with us." Definitely one of those holy shit moments, [but] that's Dave. That's the Foos: class acts. His enthusiasm drove it.

Flobots "White Flag Warrior" (2010)

They're a hip-hop act from Denver. Kind of a cool story: they won a battle of the bands and next thing you know they had a huge hit going viral [2007's "Handlebars"]. We took them on tour around that time. They're a really politically active band, like the Anti-Flag of this hip-hop world they were in. They were doing a song at [Colorado recording studio] the Blasting Room, which is our home turf, and asked if I would come in and sing. I went through Jamie [Laurie's] lyrics as he explained the song: "The same way we frame war as strength, I want to frame that it's strong to be peaceful, and brave to not walk blindly into a war that can last 20 years." That's how we came up with that term "White Flag Warrior." It ended up being a single, and we did a video for it out in Joshua Tree, California. Every time they roll around Chicago, I'll go up and sing it with them.

Alkaline Trio "I, Pessimist" (2013)

They're all a few years older than me, enough that they had a head start [playing in punk bands]. But my high school band [Baxter] was opening for Alkaline Trio. Rise Against has also toured with them. We've certainly crossed paths; we've got a Chicago crew. Again, they were working at the Blasting Room. [Bassist/vocalist] Danny [Andriano] had written "I, Pessimist," and wanted someone to come in and sing it with him. It was all Danny's lyrics, he coached me through the whole thing. It was fun! A little more aggro for Danny's world, too, which I thought was cool. I'm glad that they put that shit together.

"Hunger Strike" live with Chris Cornell in London (2009)

We had an off day during an Australia tour [in 2007], and Chris Cornell was also there touring solo. My manager, who was traveling with us, was friends with his manger, and I was like, "I want to go to this Chris Cornell show tonight!" She made it happen, like, "You're in, you're going to go to the show. Do you want to sing with Chris?" I was like, "I just want to go see one of the greatest throats on the planet. I mean, give me a nosebleed seat and I'm a happy camper." But he wanted to know if I would sing with him, and the answer was yes. We did "Spoonman" that night and it was fun.

Years later we had a day off in London, and it came up again. He asked what song I wanted to do so I said, "Dude, 'Spoonman' was so much fun, but 'Hunger Strike' is my jam." I remember we got to the rehearsal, and he asked, "Do you want to do my part or Eddie [Vedder's] part?" I said, "First of all, nobody can do your part, dude. Maybe Robert Plant? Of course, I'll do Eddie's part." It's one of those moments that makes me smile. I was a big Soundgarden fan, that was junior high for me. I grew up listening to Temple of the Dog. If I write a memoir one day, being onstage with Chris Cornell in London, singing "Hunger Strike" [will be a part of it]. We became buds after that and would trade e-mails. I went to see a couple of Soundgarden shows after that, and we'd hang out backstage and talk guitars. I was always so surprised that this guy of such stature was just super down to earth.

Berri Txarrak "Denak Ez Du Balio" (2003)

Berri Txarrak is from the Basque Region, an autonomous region between Spain and France. They sing in the Basque language, which is one of the oldest languages on the planet, and also one of the rarest to be spoken. The Basque people are proud of who they are. They're part of their own region. They have a long history of fighting for that freedom. That's what Berri Txarrak was steeped in and sang about.

We played a show in Pamplona [Spain] a long time ago, and this kid walks up to me with his demo and says, "I'm in a band called Berri Txarrak, and I want you to sing on our next record." I didn't know much about the Basque region at the time, but I learned a lot [speaking] with Gorka [Urbizu], their singer. This is about 2002. He was mailing me cassettes. My friend Neil [Hennessy], who plays drums in Lawrence Arms, helped me record it. Gorka had phonetically written out how to speak the language, so I sang in [Basque] for part of it. It became a lifelong friendship with Gorka and his band. We took them on tour around Europe, and Australia as well. A really cool and unique group. The song is special, close to my heart.

Bad Religion "Let Them Eat War" live

We opened for Bad Religion on their tour for that record [2004's The Empire Strikes First]. Bad Religion was a big influence on us. They paved the way for bands like us to exist. Before the tour, they reached out and said they have a song called "Let Them Eat War" where, in the middle, the rapper Sage Francis does a bit. The song was becoming a single, so [they asked us] "We don't have anybody to rap this part. Will your singer rap?" There are definitely two things I know: I don't rap, but I also don't say no to Bad Religion. I remember memorizing these lines, trying to do it in a way that wasn't campy; a way that could still be me. Every night of that tour I walked out onstage and I did Sage Francis' rap part. [Seen at the 27:02 mark in video above.]

There became this joke … You ever have that moment with your friend where you go for a high five but they go for a handshake, and then you go for the handshake but they've now transitioned to the high five? Or you go in for a hug but it goes horrible wrong? That happened with me and Greg [Graffin, Bad Religion vocalist] every night. No matter what we tried for, we'd have the most awkward embrace. It definitely endeared me to those guys. Another time where it was like, "Whoa, I'm onstage with Bad Religion." So cool.

Linkin Park "Bleed It Out" live (2014)

The first time I met Chester [Bennington] was at a KROQ Weenie Roast. Linkin Park wasn't playing, but he had gone out and sang a song with Alice in Chains. I met him after the show and started talking about doing guest vocals; he said he was so nervous. Years later, he asked if I wanted to come out and sing "Bleed It Out" with Linkin Park. Actually, we did a short-lived tour with them. It was canceled when Chester broke his ankle right at the beginning of the tour. A 30-day tour turned into three shows, but those first three nights I was jumping out and doing "Bleed It Out" with them. It was one of those things where I got to know that band a little more. You really learn a lot about another band, and a singer like Chester, when you're standing next to them as they're commanding a crowd of 20,000 people. I saw how ferocious, yet calm he was as a frontman. I loved being a fly on the wall for that.

Deftones "Passenger" live in Mexico City (2010)

What a great song, first of all. That White Pony record took me by storm. Maynard [James Keenan] also sings on the album version; it's one of my favorite Deftones songs. We'd played shows with them before, and I was singing along side-stage, but I remember we were in Mexico City playing a festival with them, hanging out backstage. Chino [Moreno] was leaving and I said something super cheeky like, "If you need any help on 'Passenger,' I got you." I weaseled my way onto their stage and did it.

There's something about that song and that part that is so triumphant and "rock star." In all my years of playing shows with Rise Against, I've never really had the moment where I feel that Almost Famous "Golden God" moment. We just do our thing. But something about singing "Passenger" with Deftones in front of that Mexico City crowd felt so epic. That became a thing, too. If I was ever in the same town, I would jump onstage with them.

The Donots "Das Neue Bleibt Beim Alten" (2014)

I met the Donots while playing shows in Europe; Ingo [Knollman, vocalist] and I became buddies. The Donots sing in English [generally], but he wanted to [collaborate on] a song in German, partly because at the time there was this rise of the fascist Right Wing in Germany. He wanted to sing about this problem that they were experiencing and asked if I could do it. I said, "I don't speak German, but if you coach me through it, I'd be happy to do it." We were doing pre-production for our record The Black Market at Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica, and I came in early one day with our producer Bill [Stevenson] and asked if he'd help me record it. It was a challenge to figure out. Ingo did ask me to sing it live once, and I was like, "I don't think I can do that." I had a sheet of phonetically written out lyrics [in the studio].