An Interview with Zach Blair of Rise Against

Words by Nick Hodgins

All it took was a few emails and a couple of texts for the members of Rise Against to establish that it was time to start writing music again. Coming off their longest break between albums yet, the punk rockers released what could arguably be one their most experimental albums to date.

Musically, The Black Market pulls from all walks of Rise Against’s discography, with powerful punk tracks reminiscent of their Revolutions Per Minute (2003) days to the monstrous choruses of Appeal to Reason (2008); and while traces of past Rise Against are scattered throughout the album, The Black Market manages to push boundaries the band has never touched before.

Rise Against has seen a few guitarists come and go over the years before finally hooking up with Zach Blair in 2007 and recording Appeal to Reason—their most successful album to date until Endgame was released in 2011. The Black Market marks the band’s seventh studio album and officially puts Blair as the first guitarist to appear on three consecutive records.

While their sound has evolved over the years, the songwriting and recording process has pretty much remained the same for Rise Against. Reminiscing of his days as a fourteen-year-old kid, Blair recalls the excitement of getting together in a room with bandmates and bouncing ideas off each other.

“It’s that thing that makes it appealing, that makes it fun. It takes you back to your youth in a really great way. We have this whole catalog of things that we’ve tried, and boundaries we’ve tried to push, and we’re able to pull from that,” Blair began over the phone while biking near his hometown outside Austin, Texas. “We never try to repeat ourselves, but then again, we’re Rise Against and it’s going to sound a certain way no matter what.”

There’s no questions as to whether or not The Black Market is a Rise Against record or not, but there are certain aspects to it that set it apart from previous albums. For one, lyricist and frontman Tim McIlrath explained in an interview with the Alt Press, that rather than follow political agendas so often covered in their songs, he decided to go inward for inspiration when it came to the writing on the new record.

“The genius thing behind Tim,” explained Blair, “is there’s a bunch of double entendres going on, so it may be a personal sort of situation or may be a personal lyric, but there’s a fine line between your personal lyrics and your politics. The way you live your life and the way you cast your vote go hand in hand.”

He continued, “It’s fortunate I get to be in a band with him, as I’m a huge fan of his lyrics. I mean, he’s a genius, he has a way when he writes the lyrics, it’s just Rise Against that is this band. I think he came into his own as a lyricist in this band because the band’s been together since they were kids. We don’t touch that department, we all contribute musically but we don’t touch the lyrics, and rightfully so.”

Mr. Mcllrath wasn’t the only one switching things up on this album, though. With melodic muted intros as heard on ‘Methadone’ or the full throttle solos featured on the back half of ‘Zero Visibility’, Blair found a way to pull from his metal background as a former GWAR guitarist, (Flattus Maximus 1999-2002) and fuse it with the punk rock foundation that is Rise Against. Citing Brian Baker (Minor Threat, Bad Religion) as a major influence, along with anything fast and aggressive, Blair looked for ways to incorporate those elements on The Black Market.

“There’s the thing of, let me just show off, let me just do this because I can show off my ability. Rise Against has never been that,” he explained. “For me personally, I’ve always thought that doing some flashy solo or whatever, would just step over the lyrics or the melody, and it never needed that part. It’s a real tricky thing to do that in punk rock music, because it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t need to happen.”

Blair honed his guitar skills growing up listening to bands like Slayer and Black Flag, saying, “It offended people and it was aggressive, so I was into it.” With a radio DJ for a father, he was constantly exposed to new music and eventually got into classic rock and acid rock. He later got into British bands as well, “Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Jimmy Paige…all those guys.”

“So with the syntax of songs [on The Black Market] it just felt like there were some places to do it,” he said. “I think Brian Baker from Bad Religion was one of my idols, absolutely, from his work in Minor Threat to Dag Nasty, the list goes on. So Brian always managed to sort of shred in a really cool tasteful way and that’s Bad Religion, so I figured taking him as a sort of cue, well I can do this, I can show off a bit, and it’s been interesting seeing where it can fit in.”

For his lead parts Blair plays a classic wood custom Les Paul, which he takes on tour with him. But one of his favorite axes to play on the album was a Gibson SG which had been outfitted with an Evertune Bridge that he used for the heavier riffs and rhythm parts.
Of the Evertune Bridge, he explained, “You can pull the strings as much as you want and it won’t change pitch or go out of tune. For recording punk rock and heavy parts especially, it makes the recording process so much easier and freeing, because you have to play really hard to get a tone like mine, and it’s really hard to keep a guitar in tune when you’re doing that, so it solved a lot of problems.”

“We also explored a bit with other guitars they had in the studio. We used a Fender Jazzmaster, a Telecaster on some things, and we used a limited edition Baritone Les Paul they had up there.”

The Black Market was produced by famed producer Bill Stevenson (Black Flag, Descendants) and Jason Livermore, at their recording studio in Fort Collins, Colorado, known as The Blasting Room. Rise Against has recorded all but two of their albums there, The Unraveling (2001) and Siren Song of the Counter Culture (2004), with Stevenson, who Blair referred to as “the fifth member.” All members had a say of what ultimately made it onto the finished product.

“You know, I think this band could play a polka song and it’d sound like Rise Against,” he said laughing. “When the four individuals that make up this band play a note of music, and Tim opens his mouth, it sounds like Rise Against. We know that, so really it’s about the fun of trying something new. We’re our own worst critic and worst police, we know when something’s not working, so chances are if it’s gotten on the record it’s been through a really arduous process of ‘do we like it?’ and if we don’t like it, it ain’t coming out.”

Catch Rise Against at the Best Buy Theater this September 26th and the Wellmont Theatre on September 30th along with Touché Amoré and those crazy kids from Radkey. | The Black Market