Rise Against: Interview with Joe Principe
The Seattle Interview
I must admit: I'm not much of a punk rock fan. But seeing Rise Against was one of the best musical decisions I've made. I wouldn't have even thought of listening to Rise Against on my own- I was forced to last year by a punk friend of mine. Every muscle of my hard rock self strained against the idea of submitting to punk, but I eventually fell victim to the fantastic riffs and throaty vocals of Rise Against.
So when I heard that Rise Against was coming to Seattle, I decided to ask for an interview. This show represented a lot of firsts for me: My first time interviewing a punk band, my first time photographing a punk band, but most importantly, my first time experiencing a punk show. I'd heard rumors of the insanity of punk shows: People moshing, fists slamming the air, Mohawks poking eyes out. I was excited to experience the chaos for myself. I guessed it couldn't be THAT different from a metal show.
I was so wrong. The show was sold out, just like every other show on Rise Against's tour. The venue was completely packed. Wall-to-wall, front-to-back packed. There was hardly room to walk, let alone take pictures. After watching the mosh pits and crowd surfers for the opening acts, I didn't even consider getting up front to take pictures- I valued my life and my camera too much. I have never seen the energy levels I saw at Rise Against's show. Every person in the venue was screaming, singing, jumping, moshing, head banging or raising their fists.
Before I was immersed in the insanity of Rise Against's show, I interviewed their relaxed, mild-mannered bassist Joe Principe. He and his calm, level-headed interview could not prepare me for the out of control show that followed, but did allow me to understand the band, their motives and why people love them so much.
Joe wasn't what I'd pictured him to be. He is not your stereotypical punk rock bassist. Joe is well, an average Joe. He wasn't wearing leather pants and a spike studded jean jacket. He didn't have a 3-foot high Mohawk and he wasn't smoking a cigarette. In fact, Joe looked like a dude you could just as easily see at the playground with his kids, or coming home from work on the bus.
Joe quickly made it clear that a lot of people perceive his band in ways he doesn't agree with. The first perception that bugs him? "We don't like to look at ourselves as a political band. We want to be more like a socially aware band." Rise Against does gets the political stereotype for a good reason. All three of the band's albums have very politically heavy content. Song titles like "State of the Union" and lyrics like "I have an American Dream/But it involves black masks and gasoline," and the band's political activism with PETA and Punk Voter all logically lead to Rise Against's political stereotype. Joe is aware that asking for this stereotype to go away is absurd, but he's still frustrated. "We have been getting press specifically on the political aspect of our band. We are labeled as a political band, but we don't want to be pigeon-holed. We do have strong views on politics, but we don't want that to be our main focus."
Oops. I'd planned several questions on this topic. To move away clumsily - from the topic of politics, I asked Joe about modern punk rock. He was quick to respond. "There's a lot of misrepresentation of punk rock in the mainstream. There are a lot of bands that are saying they're punk rock but are not at all. I think the public can be confused on what's punk rock or what can be seen as punk rock. I'm not saying 'We're the real deal' but I'm saying that there is a difference." Joe is upset at the trend of these quasi punk bands, but is fascinated with the current status of the real punk rock bands currently on the scene. "There's this resurgence of the whole screamo style. I think [punk's] going to go back to the more aggressive, fast roots. I think it always comes full circle every fifteen years or so."
To move from the macro to the micro, I asked Joe to talk about the evolution of Rise Against. He is confident that the evolving sound of his band is directly related to the people producing their records. "Our second record was produced by Bill Stevenson. He really helped us with little intricacies of a song, like getting things tighter and other things we never would have thought of, even getting down to the way I pick on my bass. He made us a better band, I'm sure." I was curious about how Gggarth, of Mudvayne fame, impacted their latest release, Siren Song of the Counterculture. I was dying to know how a producer from heavy metal roots meshed with a punk band. "Gggarth really made us look at songs in a different way. He actually made us realize that simple is sometimes better than too much. There were times that he didn't quite understand the whole punk rock thing, but for the most part it worked out." Joe seems happy with Gggarth's work. He even declares that his favorite song ever done by Rise Against ("To Them These Streets Belong") is on Siren Song. "I like the fact that we were able to make this record on our own terms. I like that it still has a pretty eclectic sound."
I pointed out that Rise Against's newest album had done surprisingly well on the charts. Joe attributes the album's success to finding a new audience by switching from Fat Wreck Chords to Geffen Records. "When we signed to the major label [Geffen] I think a lot of kids were expecting it to be a different type of record. But I think when Siren Song of the Counter Culture came out, they were like 'Oh! They're still the same band.' I think that's developed our fan base." Joe seems pleased with the label switch, and is quick to gush on how supportive Geffen is of the band. Joe's only complaint is the bureaucracy that comes with a major label. "Getting things done isn't as easy. We used to be able to call up Mike up and say Hey we want this.' Now we have to go through a process."
Tentatively, I moved back to the political questions. Joe quickly stated that he doesn't like getting too deep into politics, but then proceeded to jump into his view on the state of the union. "I think it's terrible that we had an inauguration celebration that cost us $50 million and then we have tsunami victims that we initially gave what? $30 million? $35 million? The whole cost of war, a lot of things just don't make sense to me. It's a very dark time in American politics." Rise Against worked extensively with PunkVoter.com, a Fat Wreck Chords sponsored movement to kick Bush out in the 2004 election. Unfortunately, Rise Against's energy in the movement wasn't enough and I was curious to hear Joe's reaction on the election outcome. "It was obvious that the popular vote got what they wanted, and we were very disheartened that so many people believe what he's doing is right. I think a lot of people voted out of fear of terrorism, but no one looks at other issues."
He may be discontent with the government, but Joe is more than content with his own life. After happily discussing his band, he confidently decides that a few factors are what make his band so popular. "We tour a lot and we're hard workers. I also think we're really sincere about what we do. We really love what we do and I think that shows." Joe seems centered and happy. His calm demeanor and confidence lead me to ask what he hopes to accomplish with the band. "My goal is already becoming accomplished with being recognized as a sincere punk band. I don't agree with a lot of what society expects of us. I want to use this band to let people know that it's ok to question things."
As the bands begin to warm up for what I will soon find out is going to be a completely unruly night, I decide to wrap up my interview. The last question I ask all bands is pretty general: Anything else? Usually I get album promotions or uninterested thank yous, but Joe's response was different. "Thank you to our fans. We've been doing this for five years and it just keeps getting better and better. We're in awe and we're really appreciative." A few hours later, as I burst out of the sauna-like venue into the cool night air, singing Rise Against lyrics, I understood why the band's fans are so devoted. Rise Against epitomizes the punk rock mentality of togetherness and all-out love of music. Through their sincerity and phenomenal music, the band is able to connect with each and every fan. Every single person in the venue that night was in love with Rise Against because Rise Against was in love with every single person in that venue.