Ready Not to Fall
Rise Against guitarist Zach Blair talks success and Straight Edge
By Richard Whittaker, 4:43PM, Sun. Jan. 15, 2012
If you were renting tapes from Vulcan Video six years ago, it might have been Zach Blair checking your membership. Now he's headlining the Austin Music Hall this Tuesday as guitarist for political punks Rise Against. Quite a career change. "It's very easy to take it all for granted," Blair said, "and I'm trying very hard not to do that."
A native of Sherman, Texas, straight out of high school he and his brother Doni moved to Dallas ("because there was nothing for a musician in Sherman, Texas") as founding members of Hagfish before Zach took a two-album stint under the rubber as Gwar's guitarist Flattus Maximus. In 2004, he finally made the mandatory sojourn to the live music capitol of the world. "I know it's a cliche about musicians loving Austin," he said, "but I absolutely do. Once I got here, there were more professional musicians, more kindred spirits."
Seven years later, Doni is bassist for the Toadies while Zach is two albums into his career as Rise Against's guitarist. Not that it was always so rosy. Post-Gwar, the Austin transplant was working nights shifts at Vulcan Video. In addition, he said, "Fadi [el-Assad] from the Riverboat Gamblers had got me a construction job where it was very obvious to everyone on the site that I didn't know what I was doing." That was when he got the call from the Chicago quartet. They had suddenly become a trio, following the departure of guitarist Chris Chasse and were just launching into a tour for their fourth album, The Sufferer and the Witness. The connection was the man he calls "my mentor," former Black Flag/Descendents drummer and punk producer Bill Stevenson: Not only had he produced two Hagfish albums (Rocks Your Lame Ass and Hagfish) and now the last three Rise Against discs, but he and both Blair brothers were part of hardcore supergroup Only Crime. Blair said, "We had toured with Rise Against because [Stevenson] had produced their records, and I met the guys and lo and behold they needed a guitar player not long after that and they thought of me."
But this isn't just any band. Rise Against has always been openly activist on a slew of issues, from civil rights to environmentalism. So how much was his recruitment about his musicianship, and how much is that, as a vegetarian, a PETA supporter and a man who lives the Straight Edge lifestyle, he is very much a kindred spirit to the band's ethos? "If I'd have come in and been a steak-eating Republican, of course I don't think it would have worked out in the long term," he said. However, there was no political orthodoxy test. "The band never identified as a Straight Edge band, and not everyone in the band was, but I happened to be a guy that never smoked, drank or did drugs. That helped, but they were more interested in whether I could do the gig. Could I play, could I perform?" However, now he has been a member for five years, "I think the band's political motivation is just as important as anything else. It's the message of the band, it's the focus of the band, it's the focal point of the band, and I don't think you could have one without the other."
Rise Against has never seemed more mainstream: Not because they have sold out their principals but because the street-level political scene is catching up with them. Occupy Wall Street has revived a truly populist role for progressive politics, and Straight Edge has never been higher profile as a social and philosophical movement. Take the WWE: Back in the 1990s, their top-billed wrestler was the beer-chugging Stone Cold Steve Austin. Now it's straight-talking drug-free icon CM Punk, whose X-marked t-shirts could pass at first notice for Youth of Today merch. Blair called that "the Hot Topicization of punk culture. You'll be watching something like a normal sitcom, and they'll say, 'I thought you were Straight Edge.' Well, when did that term become common knowledge?" For Blair "it's a bit of shocker when ten-year-old, nine-year-old kids know what it is, and not because they listen to Minor Threat records, but because it's just common knowledge these days." That's a long way from his teen years when "[Straight Edge] might as well have been a term I invented" for all the recognition it got.
Yet these are good time to be in Rise Against and, as Blair puts it, "The iron got hot." Their latest album, 2011's Endgame, was their highest charting to date and finally broke them in the UK. The video for first single 'Help is on the Way' (a blistering critique of the rescue response after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster. Blair has also been part of headline tours supported by Tom Morello, Rancid and in a strange moment of circularity Bad Religion, who Rise Against had supported years before. Then there was a stadium trek opening up for the Foo Fighters, although that helped keep the band grounded while still building the audience. "It was humbling," Blair said. "We hadn't been an opening band in a long time, and you forget just how big the Foo Fighters are. We were fighting for every clap, every smile in that audience. We would play our set, and we'd play a song that a group of people knew, and they'd be like, 'Oh, you're the band that plays that song.' We kind of realized just how much work we have to do."
For Blair, that's just more motivation. "We're not coming off the road any time soon," he said. "We get to play in a band that wears its political idealism and motivations on its shirt sleeves, and even though that might be a view that's not very popular with a lot of people, we still get accepted and embraced and encouraged."
Rise Against play the Austin Music Hall, 208 Nueces, Jan. 17, supported by A Day to Remember and the Menzingers, Door 6.30pm.