Artist Interview: Guitarist Zach Blair of Rise Against chats with us before everyone's Riot Fest induced bender
Wait for it…wait for it…it’s The Final Countdown! *da na na naaa, deet deet deet deet deee*
The Riot Fest is almost here, and we’re counting down the days, neigh minutes, until its arrival. Last year’s showing was a dusty, muddy, disgustingly favorable mess of fun and debauchery that we wish had never ended. So while all this pent-up anticipation and excitement wears on our souls, we’ve taken the opportunity to speak with a few of the artists coming through Denver for the second installment of the celebrated festival.
As lead guitarist and backing vocalist of the superlative punk band Rise Against, Zach Blair has been nothing short of critical in the continuing spectrum of the anti-authoritarian / social awakening genre’s lasting influence. He’s one of many artists coming to Sports Authority Field at Mile High on the final dates of the festival this weekend Sept 19-21.
He and his band are currently on a massive run of shows touring the world over and he says that a string like this is necessary in appeasing music fans. He also gives us a look into the process of the steadfast band and whether or not he thinks his genre is a dead one.
Do you think bands have to hit the road more because of the current state of the industry, that you have to be more physically engaging with every fan?
Yah because before it was that the tour was to promote the record; now the record is to promote the tour, because the record’s free. It’s this really interesting thing that’s happening, and it’s a strange thing to be a part of.
Lately it seems that the type of shows people want to go see is changing now to more of the party, dance-driven thing, where there’s this huge laser light show and huge, loud music and party cultures. I read a thing where that was addressed and that even a band like Outkast didn’t have the draw everybody thought it would because they were playing against a DJ. And then a band like The Replacements played to fucking no one at Coachella, because they were up against whoever. It’s awful.
So at first I did see that. Ticket sales were fine, then record sales sucked, but tickets are fine, but now even that, not with us personally – but who knows I’m sure we will be affected by it – people are still going to live shows; it’s just the type of live show they’re going to.
Do you address that as a band and look at festival lineups and say, “This will be good because we won’t be playing against band A,” or do you even care?
Nah, we don’t care. With our band we have such a good turnout, we have such a good fan base, that fortunately they’ll come out. They haven’t stopped doing that yet.
It’s an odd thing in music now to have songs that focus on effecting change. Listeners buy into easy topics of love, money and things that aren’t all that culturally beneficial, but Rise Against always has a message, why is that important?
We started as the influences that the band had, that the band shared. The common ground was bands that were politically motivated themselves. These bands that had this message, you didn’t really think twice about it. You’d go to their shows and there’d be a table in the front with somebody talking about an organization or handing out flyers. That’s just how it went, you didn’t even think about it.
Fortunately for those people, you got a message with your punk rock. That was sort of a common idea with Rise Against. Whether it got popularized or not – which unbeknownst to anyone in the band, and still shocking to everyone in the band – it wasn’t something that was going to get compromised because a certain amount of people started paying attention. If anything I think the effort got doubled. I think people thought that, “Oh the band is popular now, they’re gonna drop it a bit and stop screaming in our face,’ but it got turned up even more so.
As an artist are you frustrated with what’s popular now?
Well, it sucks because you see this potential, and they have this gift of a fickle attention span, and they’re getting a lot of it right now. But lets face it the reason they’re getting a lot of it is because of what they are saying, which is something to do with partying all night or whatever it may be. That’s the reason why they are so big, it’s one hand washes the other.
It is frustrating. It’s frustrating to me that that sort of a thing gets so much attention. When there’s so much in the world that needs so much attention, and is deserving of more attention. It’s frustrating as a human being, much less an artist trying to say something.
Are you comfortable now writing whatever comes to mind with those social issues or do you think about what fans want and tailor your songs accordingly?
We’re all still fans of the band as well, that’s really important. It may sound a little cocky, but you have to be a fan of your own band. You can’t be in there going, “Okay this is gonna be expected and people are gonna like this if we do this. “ If we stay true to ourselves – and this sounds like such a canned answer, it sounds like it but it’s not – if we stay true to ourselves and we write what we want to hear, we can usually guarantee that the people that love our band and who have always loved our band are gonna appreciate that as well.
You always come to the Blasting Room in Ft. Collins to record those songs too; why here and not somewhere else?
For me personally I go so far back with Bill (Stevenson). I was in the first band that ever recorded there; it was a band called Hagfish. It was basically because we were a huge Descendants fan. Fortunately for us he liked our band and he took us under his wing. The guy has been this constant in everything I’ve ever done, which is a great fortune to me.
Rise Against had recorded before with him before I joined and he was sort of the common bond. We all toured with Rise Against, that’s where I met the guys and that’s where we all bonded and realized this was gonna work out. So when they needed a new guitarist, I was the first they thought of, and I was like, “Fuck ya I can!” It was the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.
And now you guys are on a main spot for The Riot fest, or what a lot of us are lovingly calling it “The Warped Tour for grownups.” How is it to be a part of such a unique bill compared to all the other festivals?
Well it’s a rock festival. We all have guitars. They’re super successful, at it which is rad. All the other festivals have to cater to the dance crowds to make it a business, but somehow the Riot Fest and Fun Fun Fun (Austin,TX) and Punk Rock Bowling (Las Vegas, NV) and a handful of other ones; they stay true to how it started and it’s still successful. Riot Fest seems to be on the constant upward slope, which is amazing. So we’re more than thrilled to be a part of it, and if we weren’t a part of it we’d be really upset because we’d want to be a part of it!
Is it nice to see it take off because it validates that the rock thing isn’t dying, and that there are people that still want the Social Ds and Rise Againsts of the world out there on stage. Is that validating?
It’s validating in a way that I can’t exactly explain. I’m a professional rock and roll musician, I play guitar, it’s how I make a living, and I can’t do anything else. For me it’s everything, it’s not just this cool thing happening. There is hope.
For me I never really put much faith in the modern populous’ collective taste, I’ve always been a fringe musician and I chose that life. Fortunately I’m in a band that’s beaten the odds and is successful, but I was fully prepared for that to not happen. I would have toured in a van and slept at Motel 6 for the rest of my life until I physically couldn’t have done it anymore.
So this on a major scale is validating in an amazing way. Because you live in such a bubble and all you see is what’s in front of you and you think, “God no one likes punk rock music anymore, or rock music anymore, or guitars anymore,” and that couldn’t be more to the contrary and things like this prove that.