BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Hope and change isn’t just some campaign slogan-style lyrics in the songs of Libertyville, IL native Ike Reilly. No less of an authority on speaking truth to power than fellow longtime Libertyville resident, Rage against the Machine and The Nightwatchman singer-songwriter-activist Tom Morello has labeled him a “heartland hero.” Reilly, who has just released his seventh studio album, Born On Fire, isn’t quite sure what to make of Morello’s “heartland hero” tag. When asked what he thinks Morello means, Reilly’s reply was quick and concise, saying “I don’t know,” before adding, “I think he means that I know Middle America and I talk about people’s struggles; whether it’s personal struggles, marital, booze, drugs, kids, wife, you know, and I think maybe that’s what he’s talking about.”
Ask Ike Reilly a question and you’re going to get a straightforward, unfiltered reply. I recently asked him a whole host of questions about myriad subjects, including life in Libertyville, his definition of a protest singer, the erosion of the middle class, greed, jealousy, jobs, joy, sorrow and how his music – and music in general – can make a difference in everyone’s attempt to make it to the next day.
Oh you know, last night one of my bandmates was accosted by one of my high school friends in a bar. It didn’t come from any violence. I have no reason to understand why that happened. Generally it’s a white-bred town, you know, I pretty much sequester myself to my house and occasionally take late-night trips to a couple of bars. And my studio is here in the outside of town, so I’m usually just in there.
So I don’t know if you’ve already answered my next question, but does the town live up to its name? Liberty?
I kind of sensed that that might be the answer.
No more or less than the rest of America, though.
Your new album Born On Fire is out on Rock Ridge Music and fellow longtime Libertyville resident Tom Morello’s appropriately named – I think – Firebrand Records. Tom is certainly not shy about speaking and singing his mind, and neither are you. Looking back, who or what helped foster your early desire to speak up and sing music that matters, as I call it?
Just the music I listened to; the music I was influenced by. The punk movement, and of course Dylan, even though I don’t think Dylan was speaking up as much. Tom definitely comes from the protest thing; his mother was his huge influence. She’s an incredible lady. She had a mixed-race baby in Libertyville in the 60s, she couldn’t find anywhere to live; she taught all over the world and she was an early spokesperson against Tipper Gore and censorship. And she was my teacher in high school, too, and she was influential in politicizing me. But as far as music, you know, Strummer and The Clash and those kind of bands. But you know, not all my songs are overtly political, but I’m glad you think they are.
Well, I wouldn’t say that they all are and I’m sure we’ll touch on that more in the conversation here. Let me quote a lyric here, and by the way, I just have a download of the album, Ike, so I don’t have a booklet with lyrics, so please correct me if I get any of these lyrics wrong: “Don’t let nobody try to temper your flame/try to cool you down/try to make you change.”
Well it was inspired by one of my sons, but it’s about anybody that’s been put in a box or oppressed, suppressed or repressed. It’s not so much of a follow-your-dream song, but it’s like don’t let teachers, parents, coaches, priests, institutions tell you what you can do, believe in, achieve, or whatever. This song was probably inspired by me doing that to my own kid, and then realizing, f**k man, that’s exactly the s**t that I f**king hated! So it’s about trying to be true to yourself. It’s for people that are either clowns, poets, fighters, or whatever, that just don’t fit the typical American mold. And I’m not talking about necessarily aspiring to greatness, but I’m talking about aspiring to personal fulfillment.
And this, the title track, is an example of a clearly non-political song; this is about life.
It is, yeah.
And it applies to the universal “you.”
The song “Job Like That (LaSalle and Grand)” certainly peaked my interest; set in the center of Chicago, my former hometown. So what every day urban story were you observing that day that compelled you to compose this tune?
Well, it’s a composite of years of those urban stories. I was a [hotel] doorman for years, so truly it’s just a song about jealousy. I think the catalyst was maybe thinking about when I used to load people into cabs, and seeing people who were my age or younger and they were affluent and beautiful, and I’d be like, what the f**k! How do you get a job like that, you know? It was kinda like, how do you get a job like that, how do you get a girl like that, how do you get a kid like that, how do you get in a band like that. Just wanting what everybody else has.
That’s the vibe that I got from it. Definitely.
But I love the way that track came out. You can tell that that’s a monster band.
Introduce us to the characters in “Two Weeks a Work, One Night a Love.”
Ah, they’re not really any characters. It’s about needing simple things and not wasting time praying, you know what I mean? It’s just about needing necessities like food, work and love, and instead of praying for it, it’s more about getting it. It’s about a guy that’s drifting through Chicago one evening, and he’s alone, looking for a girl – a stranger – that reminds him of someone that he loved. He walks by a church and he starts thinking like, why are these guys wasting all their time in there; get off your knees, don’t waste your time praying. I need work and love.
Right, right. You mentioned Dylan as an early influence, which leads me to this question: what would be your definition of a protest singer, or a protest song?
Well, you know, I don’t know. I mean, Tom (Morello) sings protest songs that are specifically about specific topics. It’s such an overused term, you know. I mean, protest; you can protest anything. You can protest compassion if you wanted to. I like a lot of different songs, but I think the greatest songs are the ones that take you somewhere you wouldn’t of been without it. I love mindless s**t, I love instrumental s**t, but you and I are talking I think, lyrically. So like, I love The Clash because I’d never been to England; I love Dylan because I didn’t know s**t about the places he sung about. They take you to places that you can’t get to in your physical world. So if a song shows another side of humanity to somebody, and makes them more human and more compassionate or more interested in other people and other cultures and other ways of living, then I think that’s a cool song. So, protest-wise, I don’t know. I mean a protest song would be like, I could pick up my guitar tonight and say to my wife, (singing) I don’t wanna go to dinner tonight with you. F**k it, let’s stay home (laughing). That’s a protest song (laughing).
You mentioned The Clash a couple of times. I will say this; Sandinista! was a life-changing album for me. Boy, I wore that record out, for sure. So when did you first hear the calling to pick up the guitar and use it, at times, as a literal instrument of change? Did you have that proverbial Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment, or big bang moment, when you said to yourself, I wanna do this for a living?
No, I started playing harmonica as a little kid and I was really good at it; probably as good as I am now (laughs). And I wrote a lot of stories and poems; I don’t even know if they were poems, they were more like ramblings of an early teenager, and I just kept writing. And then I kinda was really interested in films and stories and music, but I never thought that would be a living until I was a young adult. And then I just kept doing it, and I got signed at 38, so you know, I just kind of evolved into it. I wasn’t one of those guys that was like, I need to get a band so I can get some p***y and fame; that wasn’t my scene at all. So, I didn’t have one of those moments, but I have been thoroughly moved by musical experiences, yeah, but I never looked up on a stage and say, I gotta get that life, you know (laughs)?
So you and the aforementioned Mr. Morello partner on the – what I think is, or could be – a lullaby to Libertyville. “Paradise Lane” is the track I’m talking about. Tom supplies a wicked guitar solo…
Very much a signature solo, for sure. Talk about the song.
That’s one of the most literal songs I’ve ever written, for sure; that was almost a joke at first. Tom always comes home, and I know a lot of people here and he laughs because my mom’s still here, I got four kids all here, I’m here, so I know a lot of f**kin’ people, so he’s like, you gotta be the mayor! You might as well get paid for it; you’re already the mayor (laughs)! I’ll finance it, we’ll get a float in the Libertyville parade, we’ll get chicks in camouflage bikinis with fame AK-47s – cuz this is such a rightwing town (laughs)! So I wrote this song that kind of combines three different rock and roll movements in Libertyville: My obscure career, Tom’s meteoric career and then this band of kids – one of them was still in high school – that I recorded called The Tribe, and these two boys got in an accident on Paradise Lane. They’re fine, but that was the catalyst for this song. What I find trivially interesting about the song is that everyone that’s in the song is on the song. Tom plays on it, I’m on it, everybody in The Tribe; they all sing the backgrounds with all of my boys.
Tom has called you a “heartland hero.” What do you think he means by that?
I don’t know. I think hero is good enough for me; he shouldn’t have to classify it geographically, he should just say international hero (laughs). I think he means that I know Middle America and I talk about people’s struggles; whether it’s personal struggles, marital, booze, drugs, kids, wife, you know, and I think maybe that’s what he’s talking about. But ask him, don’t ask me (laughs).
When I get the opportunity, I will. There’s one more song that I wanted to ask you about and that is “Am I Still the One for You.” I love the lines – and again, please feel free to correct me if I get something wrong: “sometimes being greedy makes you broke” and “sometimes feasting makes you sick.”
It’s “sometimes feasting makes you choke.”
You know it sounds like it’s from person-to-person but it’s really kind of about a relationship with America. I think I was initially inspired by the f**kin’ polarization of like the Trayvon martin shooting and I just don’t understand how anyone can just get on the wrong side of that. Sometimes you just get sickened by how everything gets so polarized, and it ain’t really that way. The verses are not tied together in a story; they’re separate little scenes, and the chorus is true, you know, you’ll pay the price is you’re greedy and if you eat too much you’re gonna choke. So you know I’m asking am I still the one for you because sometimes you don’t feel part of what’s going on in the country. And then I kinda come around and say, in spite of all the s**t, you’re still the one for me. I got nowhere else to go; this is my home.
Well you know, it would certainly be for another conversation, but I could ask you so much more about…
I got 10 more minutes, so it’s up to you.
That’s cool with me. I did want to ask you about…
You can ask me whatever you want.
Well let me ask you this; we’re certainly dancing around politics, and what the hell is going on with divisiveness nowadays, so what do you think the next Commander-in-Chief should be thinking about as far as reversing the tide of the shrinking middle class?
Well, I don’t know what to do. It seems like the deck is stacked and the horse is out of the barn on that whole thing. You know, everybody says education; I think everyone should be educated because it’s just a more fulfilling life…but I see the game is rigged, man, and it f**kin’ pisses me off. And what’s gonna happen – and it’s probably not gonna be in my lifetime – is the place is gonna implode, or explode. That’s like simple political science s**t; when the gap between the rich and the poor gets too big and there is no middle class, there’s gonna be a revolution. It’s just f**ked up! I’m not smart enough to understand how to fix it and I’m God damn sure none of these motherf**kers that are running for president are, either. People are so into fame and money that to see Donald Trump running around, for a lot of people, is real exciting and fun! He’s winning women and poor people; I mean, come on, it’s insane. You’re gonna give that f**kin’ knucklehead the nuclear buttons in a suitcase? You know, he’s like, You’re fired!
(Laughs) Right! (laughs) I meant “You’re fired (laughs)!
(Laughs) Well, man, I gotta wrap this up because I’ve actually got another interview coming up, but…
Oh, I gotta tell you one thing, though; we just shot this video for “Born On Fire.” The (late comedian) Chirs Farley’s family gave us all this Super 8 footage of Chris and they cut a pretty cool video of us performing with Super 8 film of Chris as a child and other kids as children and my son is in there as a little boy, and it’s pretty cool and poignant and nostalgic and sad and hopeful at the same time. I saw it this morning and I think its pretty God damn good.
Cool. I’ll certainly make a note of it and be on the lookout for it.
Pimp that record, kid! I appreciate it.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Ike Reilly, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.