When Rise Against drummer Brandon Barnes started going to punk rock shows in the '80s, the vibe was much different than it is today. Bands such as Bad Religion and Minor Threat sang about political issues. Organizations such as PETA and Amnesty International often set up booths to hand out flyers about a variety of issues. The concerts were as much about consciousness-raising as they were about having a good time. If you hit up a punk show these days, you're more likely to get pestered by salespeople hawking iPads, headphones or even automobiles.
"When we were younger and would go to punk shows, there would be a table out front with some literature about the government or police brutality or animal cruelty," Barnes explains in a phone interview. "You would bring it home and then realize, 'That's where my cheeseburger comes from?' It doesn't matter whether you're vegetarian, but if you're going to eat meat at least get it from a place that's not some huge disgusting factory farm where you're essentially eating dying animals. At least if you pick up a PETA pamphlet, you can start to understand where your food comes from and take some responsibility. You should also want to know what your local government is doing in your town. I don't go to the DIY punk shows anymore, but I feel like it's not as political as it once was."
Politics might have taken a backseat at most punk shows, but Rise Against remains steadfastly political. In 2012, the band contributed a track to Amnesty International's Chimes of Freedom — The Songs of Bob Dylan. Earlier this year, it released The Black Market, a collection of tunes about the current state of the world (as the title suggests, the band's point of view is rather dystopic). Recorded between January and March at Blasting Room Studios with long-time producers Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore, it's another incendiary effort characterized by political lyrics that adhere to the band's history as an activist group.
"Every record, we are a little better at our instruments," says Barnes. "We try to come up with some different sounds. We're always evolving and growing. I think every record, we try to keep it Rise Against but change it up a bit. We like to play all different types of music. We'll go from a fast hardcore song to a more poppy song or a hardcore metal song. That helps too. We have a wide musical range and that keeps it fresh. It's not like, 'This is our eighth album and it sounds exactly like our other seven albums.' We're trying to bring it every time and do our best."
The album's first single, "I Don't Want to Be Here Anymore," features heavy guitar riffs and parched vocals as Tim McIlrath sings, "I don't recognize the place I call home." The song nearly comes to a stop for the chorus, adding emphasis to the concept of feeling out of sorts with the world.
"It's an anti-violence song," says Barnes. "We did a video for it with [among other things] images of Chicago and the shootings that have been going on there. The whole gun thing in America baffles everyone. We tour in all these other countries and people there don't have handguns like we do. It's hard to find a handgun in lots of places. Here, you can get a handgun with a fake ID. It's too easy. There's some political stuff on the record, like always, but there's personal stuff too. This one has a little bit of everything."
Songs such as "The Eco-Terrorist in Me" and "Sudden Life" suggest a call to activism and deliver the band's message: People need to get up and do something if they want change.
"People have to start it," Barnes admits. "They have to make the change. Songs like that can create a little bit of angst or make somebody speak their mind or think about their lives. It's awesome to see people and fans react and tell you stories about hearing a song and volunteering or doing something proactive."
For Barnes, who joined the band on a whim in 2001, the journey with Rise Against has been a rewarding one. The band hasn't had to compromise its views and still records for a major label.
"Prior to joining the group, I was in this band called Pinhead Circus and we were on BYO Records," he says. "We played in Fort Collins and I met [bassist] Joe [Principe]. When he called me, I was working at a hotel and going to college. I went out to record my first album with them. I had no idea 14 years later that I'd still be in the band. It's amazing."
So what's been the key to keeping the band together at a time when bands seem to come and go with the wind.
"I think we're all stubborn and want to keep doing it," Barnes says. "There's no way Tim and Joe and me are going to quit. We love playing music. This is what we've been doing for so long. Even if we were to do something else, I don't know what we would do. The bands that last are people who like playing music so much they'll go through all the traveling and the ridiculous things involved in being with a band just to keep playing music. Once you get on stage, it's awesome. That part is never bad."
Rise Against with Touche Amore and Radkey
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 25, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-622-6557. Tickets: $30.50, livenation.com.