Generation-defining protest music, incendiary gigs, debilitating creative differences, then an unexpected second chapter with an ending as yet unwritten: since Rage Against The Machine’s partial resurgence in 2007, the crowd has divided over whether they’ve become an anachronistic relic of a bygone era or remain immortalised as one of the last truly fearless rock bands.
In bassist Tim Commerford’s view they’re an ongoing concern, waiting in the wings for the next cause to fight. The UK last heard from them in 2010 when they knocked Simon Cowell off his perch for a minute, then they signed off with an appearance at LA Rising the following year. Activists chewed over the burning topics of illegitimate war, exploitation of labour, and the future for immigration while de la O rocked the hits next door. Then silence. For fucking ages.
“That’s one thing about us, especially in the last ten years,” he starts. “We don’t want to repeat ourselves; we want to do things that we haven’t done before. How we got there and how we accomplished that? It was special. Inspirational… hopefully more things like that will happen in the future.”
The knackered state of everything is perhaps too much to adroitly address with a few angry verses in 2016. As the Whitehouse quivers at the 38% chance of a tragicomic free-fall with Trump at the helm, Commerford shakes his head at the circus with angryasfuck power trio Wakrat – completed by namesake drummer Mathias Wakrat and guitarist Laurent Grangeon.
With the imminent US Election Day release of their self-titled debut, there’s enough to talk about already. Commerford has also been spending his time pulling double duty on an amphitheatre tour across America alongside enduring bandmates Brad Wilk and Tom Morello in a group fronted by Public Enemy firebrand Chuck D and B-Real of Los Angelean weed kings Cypress Hill, called Prophets of Rage (presumably Calm Like A Bong was vetoed early on).
Of course, DiS doesn’t shirk a good origin story, either.
DiS: Everybody knows Rage Against The Machine’s reputation as a live force, for pushing guitar music forward, inciting the odd riot, ending Simon Cowell’s reign of terror, and your anti-Bizkit stance at the MTV Awards. There isn’t a great deal known about the band’s – or your own – early days, though. Who made you pick up a bass guitar in the first place?
Tim Commerford: Zack de la Rocha – he’s the guy! I’ve known him since we were in elementary school. When I first met Zack he already knew how to play guitar – he was a great guitar player. I was really impressed by that… didn’t have any friends at the time who knew how to play an instrument. He did. Then, when we were in middle school – I was in seventh grade – he was in a punk rock band called the Juvenile Expression. I remember watching them and feeling the draw to play an instrument. Zack had showed me some stuff on guitar; we were playing Sex Pistols songs and he showed me ‘Pretty Vacant’, ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’ and ‘God Save The Queen’ on the acoustic guitar. Then I started trying to figure out how to play bass. I remember him saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t use a pick when you play bass, you play single notes with your fingers.’ Not long after that, I got my parents to buy me an electric bass – it was a Gibson G-3, the same bass Gene Simmons played. I learned the Pistols tunes on that bass. That’s how it started; I’ve gotta credit Zack for being the inspiration.
He’s also the common denominator between you and the new band, right?
He is – Mathias owns a restaurant called Cafe Beaujolais in Eaglerock, California. Zack was living near there at the time and was a regular. He knew Mathias mountain biked, and I mountain bike a lot, so Zack hooked us up through that. We started riding together quite a bit and Mathias became a close friend. I’d never really taken him seriously as a drummer. He said he played but I thought maybe it was just a hobby. It was quite a while before I realised that he was more than just a dude doing this for fun, he really knew how to play.
What were your earliest conversations about Wakrat's direction like?
Mathias and Laurent had been playing for quite a while and had already written and recorded these arrangements before they asked me to play bass. I played bass on the arrangements as they were… every single song has some weird time signature, and I’d never played one song with Rage or Audioslave or anything ever that was not in 4/4. Maybe Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ and some King Crimson songs, but never any original music. That in itself was a challenge, to play bass to their arrangements. It took a while to figure that out, but we eventually recorded it. Then we thought about finding a vocalist and were sort of unsuccessful. Eventually I thought: ‘You know what, I think I can do this.’ I went back, did the vocals and it became this Rubik’s Cube of ‘Can I sing these parts and play these basslines… is this actually possible? Playing with my fingers and singing with authority… to do this confidently?’ Every time I walk out of a rehearsal room with these guys I’m amazed I can even attempt it, much less do it. Doing this with Wakrat for the last few years, I’m confident and don’t worry about it. It’s second nature.
The Wakrat album is a ferocious thing – you’ve talked about trying to emulate Prodigy’s energy but there are nods to Refused in there too. Is this the sort of music you were meant to make?
I love what I’m doing. Couldn’t be any more passionate about it. So proud of the fact we’re not trying to fit in with whatever else is happening; this is what we wanna do. That, to me, is punk rock. The music, though; I could never have thought of these arrangements. Mathias and Laurent came up with these arrangements and that’s how we’ve continued to write songs. In the same spirit, they go in there, figure out the structure, then I come in to play bass and do vocals. That’s the way we do it. I would never have been able to figure some of this stuff out. To say this is the kind of music I’ve been wanting to play implies that I’d be able to do this without them. Saying that, I genuinely do love what we’re doing – I couldn’t feel any more proud than I am.
Rage Against The Machine bowed out at its height and remained silent for seven years. Audioslave were prolific during that time, but Chris Cornell’s lyrical message was much more introspective. Rage always seemed to be about action; did that leave you with an itch?
I’m proud of Audioslave and what we did. I’m blown away that Tom, Brad, and I were able to transition away from groove-oriented, riff-oriented rock with hip hop vocals to more chord-based, melody-driven music with Cornell, and that we were able to grow as musicians. It made me a better musician to be in that band, for sure. It’s helped me out in Wakrat a lot. Musically, they played in to what I’m doing now. I’ve also always been particularly proud of the music of Rage and for being lyrically fearless. I’ve always been inspired by that approach. With Wakrat, I feel fearless musically. Those lyrics come from me; when I write lyrics, I write what I’m feeling and thinking. I don’t consider myself… I’m not Tom Morello, I’m not a Harvard grad, I’m not Chuck D, I didn’t grow up in Roosevelt, New York in the ghetto. I grew up in white suburbia in Orange County, California. I became political through being a member of Rage Against The Machine. I’m proud of that and I’m at a point in my life where I can’t stop myself from having an opinion. Music is a great place for that opinion and sometimes, for me, that opinion includes a lot of cuss words. This is what I tell my sons. My youngest said, ‘Dad, in that song you said the F-word 31 times!’ We don’t swear in my house, so I said ‘Son, if you want to swear you can get into a rock’n’roll band and swear all you want!’
31 fucks… is that more or less than ‘Killing In The Name’?
“Ha – I think we do swear more in Wakrat than Rage. A lot more. ‘Killing’ had a lot, but not as much as ‘Generation Fucked’!”
You’ve recently got together with a few of your old bandmates and two of the most recognisable voices in hip hop as Prophets Of Rage. Who pulled that together?
That was Tom’s idea; he asked me if I wanted to do it… of course I did. When Zack and I lived in Orange County and were driving up to Hollywood to rehearse with Rage for the first few months, before we made our first record, we were listening to It Takes A Nation of Millions and the first Cypress Hill record, Bad Brains… the grunge thing that was happening at the time – Nirvana’s Bleach, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger… even the first Pumpkins record. And that was it. To be able to get into a room with Chuck and B, realise how cool they are and for it to be this fun. It’s exciting and it’s a blessing, man.
Chuck spoke openly about his admiration for Rage and desire to collaborate with the band in a more meaningful way all the way back in 1998, and there were rumours that B Real tried out as vocalist when Zack originally left in 2000. It must feel like a bit of wish fulfillment for all this to finally come around...
Whenever we were around playing festivals, if Chuck or Cypress happened to be there they’d usually come up onstage and play a few songs. We’d think about what we were going to do right there in the dressing room, moments before we went out there. “Chuck’s coming on. What are we gonna do? He’s going to play ‘Can’t Truss It’.” Back then, we’d just have to come up with an arrangement on the spot. That’s what we did though – it’s rock’n’roll music with hip hop vocals. Back in 1990 when we wrote that first record, it felt so easy. Here we are, back in a situation with the Prophets Of Rage where it’s that same sensibility. Now we have the whole Public Enemy, Cypress Hill and Rage catalogue… we can mash-up, borrow Rage riffs and lift P.E’s lyrics over the top of that. We can play original versions or we can dream it up in the dressing room and bring it to the stage a minute later.
We’re at the arse end of what has been a particularly surreal and chaotic presidential campaign, driven more by a wacky, dangerous personality than any meaningful or realistic policies. Public protest over the West’s fractured political structures has become the stuff of online petitions and ‘Like’ buttons, but you were marching on the Republican Convention in Cleveland with Prophets Of Rage earlier this summer. A different atmosphere to the time you crashed the Democratic Convention in 2000?
I’ll say, there was a gang of security. I haven’t been around a situation like that before, where there were more police officers than protesters. There was a line of police everywhere we went and that’s the way it was in 2008 when we played in Minneapolis during the Republican convention. Police shut down streets all around the venue we played it. There were armoured cars, the police were in riot gear, and it was a serious show of force. It felt good to be out there; we played a protest show, we lead a march, we played a little pop-up show and played our own show. We were there and were up against that racist, fascist, Republican Party.
You’ve previously remarked that Trump has essentially incited race hate in America with the way he’s positioning the immigration discussion. It’s the mirror of what’s happening here in the United Kingdom. What have you made of our sorry Brexit situation?
It feels like we build more walls and are separated by those walls as Earthlings. Especially in this world now, where we can travel globally… we all live on this planet, man. We’re all the same. There are those out there who want to place blame for their circumstances on somebody else from some other part of the world. In reality, we’re Earthlings. Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately – and it’s the same for you guys in the UK, I think – it’s interesting that they called the United States the United States. They’re all different, governed by different rules and laws. This world is not united, and that’s the problem. The more we become disconnected, the worse the problems get.
I understand most of your old bandmates were in the crowd for the first Wakrat gig. What was their response like?
I have no doubt I’m going to get Zack involved in something to do with Wakrat in the near future. I can honestly tell you that he likes the band, and that makes me so happy. It speaks to him in the way it does me. That’s the kind of music we grew up on, so he couldn’t be more supportive. After the first show, he and I spoke for two hours about what he appreciated about it and what he thought I could work on. As did Cornell; they both had similar comments. ‘This music is so honest and there’s not a lot of people that could do what you’re doing with this much intensity, but there’s a more emotional side you have that came out.’ They both brought up the same song – a track called ‘La Liberté Ou La Mort’ – where I did this extra, improv, vocal thing. Their take was: ‘Man, you need to evolve that into a song.’ I took that to heart, went back and changed some things… brought a little more of that into the music so it wasn’t quite so full on. Tom Morello – same thing, he gave me some amazing props and he’s a total supporter of Wakrat. He posts us up on his Twitter page and couldn’t be more supportive. It was him who put us on the Prophets Of Rage tour. He was just like ‘Hey man, why don’t you open up?’ Oh dude, into it! With Prophets, it’s more of an aerobic workout. Playing bass, moving around a lot. With Wakrat I’m kind of stuck on the spot at the mic. It’s more of a mental strain, whereas Prophets is a physical one.
You pretty much nailed a Johnny Rotten impersonation on Steve Jonsey’s Jukebox recently. Was it a wee bit daunting to perform such an iconic tune with one of the guys who wrote and recorded it?
Oh dude, I was so nervous. My hands were shaking… it was weird. I’ve performed a lot of shows and can’t remember the last time I felt that nervous. I was so beside myself. It was incredible to pull it off… I had to look at my phone to remember the words, I was cheating but I’m sure I could’ve done it without. I just wanted to get it right. To get back to Brexit, that was in the spirit of what was going on. That was the day… I’d just learned about it on the news and I said ‘Yeah man, I do a real convincing Johnny Rotten on karaoke.’ He’s like, [slips into a cockney accent] ‘Let’s do a song!’ I was like ‘OK.’ Which one do you wanna do? I said ‘Well, this Brexit shit’s happening… let’s do ‘Anarchy In The UK’. So that was it. It was an unbelievable dream come true. Your life comes around full circle when something like that happens.
And of course the Wakrat LP is coming out on British label Earache, who have always existed on the margins of extreme music. Were you a fan of the label's output in the early days – stuff like Napalm Death, Godflesh, and Carcass?
I’d heard of it and knew what they represented… was very hopeful they’d like what we were doing. I don’t consider the type of music we make to be in the same vein as what they do. Maybe the message, but maybe not the actual music. So far, so good. They understand us and every idea they’ve come up with has just been spot on. They’re good people and I’m proud to be on Earache. I’m excited to see what they can do with this record.
What’s next for Prophets Of Rage? Download is happening next year; can we expect to see you anywhere else in these parts?
We’re definitely coming to Europe. We haven’t solidified those plans yet. This is not just about America for us. It’s global, man. We want Earthlings to be rocked out so we’re touring the Earth!
Is there more music to come?
We’ve recorded a couple of songs and have the EP we put out and hopefully we’ll continue to release this stuff. We’re not just a nostalgia act playing songs from our catalogue, we’re definitely trying to be current and play new material.
Speaking of which, has Rage attempted or considered making new music since 2007? Or is it at a point where you hold the band’s history as something sacred?
Well, I never say never. I’m always hopeful. If I was a fan of Rage Against The Machine, I would definitely be going to catch the Prophets Of Rage, because you never know what you might see. I love Zack, he’s a close friend of mine. Rage Against The Machine is still a band; we’ve not broken up. We just do it the way we wanna do it. Bands who’ve come along since who’ve tried to do the whole rap-rock thing, the one ingredient they’re all missing is what we have – and it’s a huge part of our music – it’s punk rock. We are a punk rock band. That’s the truth. We didn’t ever do what anyone told us to do. Whether that’s playing shows or writing records or whatever. With that in mind, I’m always hopeful that the stars will align and we’ll do something. I don’t know what that would be though.
DiS witnessed Rage Against The Machine’s resurrection at Coachella in 2007 and the gig still sticks vividly in the memory. How was it to try on those immortal protest songs and revisit the attitude you had as a young band after such a long time away?
The Coachella show was great. That was an electric thing. When we walked out on that stage I’ll never forget how that felt. That’s the thing about Rage… the band and the audience are just as important; that night was proof that the audience is the generator that makes the band work. Without that electricity, the amplifiers don’t work.
Wakrat’s self-titled debut is out now via Earache. For more information, please visit the band’s official website.