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Rage Against the Machine Bassist Talks Double-Duty Summer Tour, Punk Roots

Hear latest single from Wakrat, Tim Commerford’s gritty new trio, currently on the road with Prophets of Rage

Prophets of Rage Bassist Talks Double-Duty Summer Tour, Punk Roots

Prophets of Rage and Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford discusses his gritty new prog-punk trio Wakrat.

Travis Shinn

This summer, Tim Commerford is enjoying the best of both worlds. The bassist is currently out on tour with Prophets of Rage, performing Rage Against the Machine‘s classic protest anthems, as well as reworked Public Enemy and Cypress Hill favorites. But he’s also kicking off each show with a set by Wakrat, his frenetic, explosive prog-meets-punk trio with drummer (and band namesake) Mathias Wakrat – whom, as the bassist told Rolling Stone last year, he met through RATM frontman Zack De La Rocha – and guitarist Laurent Grangeon.

The latter band is gearing up for the release of its self-titled debut, out November 11th on legendary underground metal label Earache. On tracks like album opener “Sober Addiction,” premiering below, Wakrat tears through pummeling, off-kilter rhythms as Commerford, who doubles on lead vocals, alternately sings and shrieks. The group’s sound recalls early-Nineties alt-metal touchstones such as Helmet but also draws on Mathias Wakrat’s sturdy jazz background and Commerford’s love of classic punk rock.

“Prophets of Rage is more an aerobic, musical, bass-player thing, whereas Wakrat is more of a mental strain for my brain and for my heart,” Commerford told RS over the phone the day before the tour began. In a wide-ranging conversation, he touched on Wakrat’s mindbending compositional style, why RATM is overlooked as a great punk band, why he loves lyrical profanity and what it’s like to sing karaoke with John McEnroe.

So you’re about to head on tour, doing double duty with Wakrat and Prophets of Rage.
The tour starts tomorrow and we’ve been lucky that we’ve had the venue for the last few days and today. Starting after I’m done with you is the Wakrat [soundcheck] day. This is not for me, but for the other two guys, this will be the biggest venue that they’ve ever seen, as far as playing. It’s exciting.

I know you guys have done a few shows up till now, but will this be the first major show?
Oh, for sure. This is it. We’ve only played weird little shows. We’ve only played six or seven shows total actually as a band. And it’s so exciting. I look at the schedule and it’s like three nights on, one night off. That’s how you do it; that’s how you get good. And that’s what we’re heading into.

Having heard the record and even thinking about that first video you put out where you’re playing in a tiny room, it’s got a really intimate, punk feel to it. It’s interesting to think about adapting music like that to a huge stage.
Oddly enough, we have that carpet that we use that’s in that video – that carpet they just rolled out on the stage. We have room to set up in a bigger way, but we just kept it real and that’s the way we play. We literally just rolled that carpet out. We had everything marked and we just put everything where it goes. It’s exactly the same as it is in that rehearsal room and we don’t even have the drums on a drum riser. It’s Fugazi-style, you know.

Were they a big influence on this project?
Oh, yeah. Fugazi, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Minutemen, and believe it or not, Prodigy is a big influence. And then Mathias, the drummer, he’s a big jazz guy. He’s got a really extensive knowledge of jazz that blows my mind. He hears anything from the bebop era and he not only can tell you what it is, but he knows the names of the players based on how they sound. It’s pretty insane. So there’s a big jazz influence and the Sex Pistols, and it’s everything. It’s all the things that I’ve listened to growing up that inspire me, that I never had a chance to really do. It’s a blessing that I’m here doing it.

You’ve referred to this band as a punk band, and while the music itself does sound raw, there’s also a definite prog element. Those two styles are not always thought of as compatible, but Wakrat draws on both.
Absolutely. Time signature is the thing that I think that really makes it outside of the punk box. Punk rock, for the most part, as with most music, is in the standard 4/4 time and we don’t have any songs that are in 4/4 the whole time. Every single song has a weird time signature, and the song that we’re supposed to be talking about today, “Sober Addiction,” there’s a huge part of it that’s in seven.

My experience with playing in odd time signatures was progressive rock and learning King Crimson songs as a kid coming up and maybe learning Pink Floyd, “Money,” that kind of thing. I never thought that I’d actually be in a band and have to really learn how to wrap my head round that and especially in this type of a band. In a band that’s playing this fast. It’s a completely different thing with Rage and with Audioslave. [Those bands were] more groove-oriented and I would just lock into that groove. But in this thing, it’s different for me, somehow. I find myself ending a phrase and taking a breath and landing with a certain finger and going, “OK, I’m OK.” All the sudden, “Wait a minute, I didn’t breathe there and I landed on the wrong finger. I’m off somewhere, something happened.” It’s a puzzle, but I’m blown away with how much more autopilot it’s become and it’s exciting. We just keep getting better and better, I think.

The other thing, too that strikes me about the band is your vocals. It seems you’ve taken pains to make them hooky in a way, whether that’s a melodic hook or something more shout-y and anthemic. Were you thinking about contrasting how complex the music is with vocals people could sing along to?
Maybe. I don’t have any real preconceived notions with anything I do. I just kind of do what I’m feeling and you know, maybe sometimes the music would confuse me and I would have a hard time finding where the one was, and maybe the song would be in 3/4 time or something like that and I would go “Well, I could do this vocal part that comes around every 12 times and actually is in 4/4, even though the part is in 3/4 and that that kind of thing.” And I like that. That makes it easy for people to understand that maybe don’t understand odd time signatures.

Not only are people just sort of programed to listen to music that’s in 4/4 time nowadays; we’re also programmed to listen to music that’s in perfect time. The tempo is absolutely perfect, because everything from hip-hop music to the pop music to now alternative music, it’s all programed drum beats and everything is on the grid and it’s just perfectly laid out and there’s no variance between snare-drum hits and kick-drum hits and this sort of thing. And you know, we’re not like that. This is real math wrapped up in what I consider a punk-rock band. And, like, what is punk rock? It’s music and it’s also an attitude, and I feel like both of those things are intact with Wakrat.

I appreciate the live feel of the record. It sounds authentically like three guys in a room.
That’s what it is. We made music. When I initially came into this band, I learned how to play these songs in pieces. I couldn’t figure them out and I couldn’t wrap my head around the time signature, so I couldn’t go, “OK, I got this one. Let me just play this.” Instead I learned it in pieces and recorded it in pieces with Pro Tools and I did the vocals the same way. And then when it came time to actually learn how to perform the songs, I was worried about it, thinking, “We’re probably going to have to get a bass player or a singer to be able to do this stuff and Mathias and Laurent were like, “No, you can do it.” I’m like, “That’s wishful thinking. I’ll give it a shot.”

We started to learn how to do it and I quickly realized that these songs that I recorded vocally that blew my voice out, I was hoarse after every time I would go in the studio. I was straining too hard to hit the notes and I was quick to say, “Hey, we should de-tune our stuff, like, a half step and make it more comfortable for me to sing.” So we did that and it did make it more comfortable and then we learned how to play the songs. Then what I thought was our record, quickly became our demo tape: “OK, we need to go back in the studio and record these songs honestly, and play bass and drums together and then put the guitar down and then vocals and do it all as one track and try to be as good as we can be.” And that’s what we did. I’m excited. It’s rare when music is recorded like that nowadays.

Can you tell me more about “Sober Addiction,” what you’re getting at in the lyrics?
Well, it’s pretty simple, truth be told. For me, it’s a sober addiction: my knee-jerk denial of opportunities in my life. “Goddamn it, why didn’t I do that?” I can’t tell you how many things I’ve thought that about, back in school or even within the context of being in Rage Against the Machine. “Fuck, why didn’t I say that then? Why didn’t I do that then?” Instead I just said no. I said no and that has always been. I think it’s not just me; I think it’s just people. It’s fear and it’s missed opportunities because of it. You want to do this? You want to go you know, like the other day, I was in the studio with Steve Jones, on Jonesy’s Jukebox and the Sex Pistols, that’s a band that I just loved. And I was like, “Hey, I do Sex Pistols at karaoke all the time,” and he’s like [imitates British accent], “Want to do a song, mate?” I was like, “Yeah!” But there was a big part of me that wanted to say, “Nah, I’m good.” And that’s what it’s about. It’s my sober addiction and it haunts me to this day, all the things that I said no to, that I should have given a shot, tried out, said yes. Tried it different. Done it differently. And then where would I be today?

I could have played water polo in high school instead of football. I would have gone to Stanford like my other buddies from Irvine who played water polo and ended up going to Stanford, you know.

Maybe you’d be in Rio now.
And I would’ve never been in Rage Against the Machine and I’d be in Rio. I’d be the captain of the water-polo team [laughs]. Huge hands.

I grew up as a swimmer. And my brother was a football player and I played football. Coaches were like, “Commerford, football.” I played tight end in Pop Warner. I should have played tight end in high school, and I would have done well. Instead, it was my brother was a defense tackle – well, I’m defense, defensive end. I never ever told them, “Hey, I played tight end. And the water polo coach was like, “Commerford, you swim.” I swam my whole life, you know. He’s like, “Your hands are huge. You would shred water polo.” Nope. Playing football. You know? Things like that that I just live with and I question every day. Why did I do that? I don’t want to get into the drama of being in Rage Against the Machine. But man, there were so many things that I wish I would have said and at the time I just said no.

Tim Commerford (L) and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine perform at the Tibetan Freedom Concert at Golden Gate Park on June 16, 1996 in San Francisco, California.

Is there one moment you’d feel comfortable sharing where you were in Rage and you would have liked to behaved differently?
Well, I mean just like back in Rage, we didn’t do press, let’s say. You wouldn’t have caught me dead talking to you on the phone. I just didn’t do that kind of thing; I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t think it was cool. I just, or I was scared, or whatever it was. I didn’t do that. I look back on that, and you know what, I should have done that. Not only should I have done that, I should have gone up on a soapbox and tried to convince everyone to do that. I’ve been doing these interviews with Tom and Chuck D., and Chuck D is very much like Zack. They have a similar political view and they are both super smart, but self-educated smart in a legitimate, great way. It’s so great to hear Tom, this really calculated, intelligent scholarly guy doing an interview and hearing Chuck talk. You can tell that Chuck just shoots form the hip and there’s no preparation and he just says how he feels and he says it in such a great way and it’s just so neat to be around that. And the other day, I was like, “Fuck, man. It would have been the same.” Rage with Zach and Tom, they would have complemented each other in such a great way, had we just said, “You know, we’re going to do this. Yes, we’re going to do this, instead of no, we’re not doing it.

In the song, when you say “no punks in my band,” is that referring to one of these bands?
Well, I consider Rage, when I see people talk about the history: What are the 10 best punk bands of all time? I never see Rage on that list, and I always just go, “That’s bullshit,” because Rage is a punk band. We were a punk band and our ethics were punk. We didn’t do anything that anyone wanted us to do. We only did what we wanted to do and that is the essence of punk rock. That’s a line that’s sort of a tribute to that: “There’s no punks in my band.” That’s it.

Going back to the tour, you haven’t played one of these shows yet where you’re going to be doing double duty in both bands. But just from a mental perspective, what’s it like to go from the mindset of this super scrappy up-and-coming band that is essentially an unknown quantity and to playing these beloved, 20-year-old Rage Against the Machine songs that people are filling arenas to hear.
Well, I can only speak from rehearsal. I’ve yet to experience it in the real world. But they feel like they cross and they intersect in places. They don’t step on each other in any way. I really feel like Wakrat is a mental and a personal strain. The lyrics are real: They come from me, they mean something to me, and I’m obviously not a lyricist in in the Prophets of Rage or Rage Against the Machine, so it’s different.

I’m a bass player first and foremost and that’s where these bands cross and I’m so proud of what I’m doing in both bands. But like I said, one is more of a physical strain, the Prophets of Rage is more an aerobic, musical, bass-player thing. Whereas Wakrat is more of a mental strain for my brain and for my heart, you know. It’s different and I’m excited to see how it works out.

I know there will be a lot of people there, various ages. We draw a crowd from little kids, people that bring their little kids to the show to older folks, and I get a feeling there’s going to be a lot of people there [who are thinking], “We’re bringing our kids and we told them about ‘Killing in the Name’ and they’re prepared for the swearing; they can handle it.” But I don’t know that they’re prepared for what Wakrat is going to bring. Our shit is hard, man. That’s the way I see it. And I’ve always wanted to be in a band like that. And when I was a little kid back in elementary school, when Zack and I first met each other, and we were rocking out and Zack played guitar and we were playing Sex Pistols songs off Never Mind the Bollocks. And the song “Bodies” is the one with the most F-words and that’s the one we fucking we enjoyed the most. And I always felt like, “I want to be in a band like that.” I love “Killing in the name.” I love that. I just love not being scared. In lyrics, it’s so easy to be scared. It’s so easy to sing about girls and drugs and dumb shit, and I’d rather just fucking get pissed and be real with it. That’s those [Wakrat] lyrics; that’s the type of person that I am. I don’t like happy songs. I like minor chords. I like playing with my middle finger [laughs].

I think all that stuff comes through on the record. Do you think you’re going to be bringing the band around for smaller club tours once this tour is done?
Oh, yeah. For sure. This is just a lucky situation that we find ourselves in, being able to play this. I had my fingers crossed: It would be awesome if Wakrat could do this with the Prophets and then Tom hit me up. I didn’t say anything. He hit me up, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is cool. We would for sure do that.” Here we are doing it.

But I want to pay my dues. We just played a club called the Black Heart in London. It’s like 150 people, sold out, Wakrat, and those little shows like that, those are the hardest shows to play. Those are the hardest ones. I’ve played in front of a hundred thousand people and it’s easy for me to squint my eyes and blur my vision and then all the people just turn into a giant piece of pizza or something. Everyone becomes one, you know. But when you’re in a little club like that and you’re looking at the guy that’s standing right in front of you and he’s staring at your hands or at your eyes, it’s more personal. It’s harder. And these lyrics, you know, on top of that.

We’ve already played shows where I’ve looked at those people in the front row and we opened up for Royal Blood at the Observatory in Orange County, and there were a couple people in the front row, they were looking at me and I could tell they didn’t get what we were doing. They didn’t like it. I’m going to be dealing with people that aren’t going to dig it. It’s that kind of music, and it feels good. It’s like singing Radiohead’s “Creep” at karaoke. The lyric, you know: “I’m a creep/I’m a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?/I don’t’ belong here.” The lyric is perfect. What I’m saying in these songs, it’s perfect. I feel like if you dig it, awesome. If you don’t dig it, I got some fucking words for you. These words are for you. In that situation, it was really great. We were, again, back in Orange County. That’s where I grew up and these people were not digging what I was doing and I made a point of saying, “Hey, I grew up here in Orange County,” and people start to applaud, and I’m like, ” … in this shithole and I feel sorry for all of you.” [Laughs] And so that becomes the highlight of every show we’ve played so far: the things that I get to tell people in between songs. It’s exciting.

(L-R) Musicians Tim Commerford, Chuck D, Brad Wilk, B-Real and Tom Morello of Prophets of Rage perform onstage at Whisky a Go Go on May 31, 2016 in West Hollywood, California.

So you’ve actually done “Creep” at karaoke, then?
I have. I do that song and then any Sex Pistols. I do karaoke a lot with John McEnroe and we have like a little battle that we do. We make sure that we don’t repeat a song, which makes it hard. So one time, I was like, “I can do the Sex Pistols really good, but I’ve done all the Sex Pistols. What do I do? Midnight Oil!” I did “Beds Are Burning,” and John’s wife, Patty Smyth, came up and did the female vocal. I swear to God, it sounded exactly like it. But we have this sort of friendly karaoke-battle thing that we do and whoever gets the most crowd response wins. Sometimes he wins.

You could make a TV show out of that – you and McEnroe having a karaoke battle.
I told them … I’m about to let a cat out of the bag, and watch this become a big show. But I told McEnroe, I said, “You should do a TV show. You’re the host, it’s karaoke, and it’s only sports guys. Old sports guys, Joe Namath and any sports guy from any sport that wants to come up and sing a song on your show. It’s on ESPN, it’ll be a hit.” It would be.

And you can go on as the honorary former football player.
Either that or I’d be the co-host. I’d be the Simon Cowell.

I can see that.
The guy who doesn’t know anything about sports, even though I do know something about sports. … The guy who knows nothing about sports, but tells everyone how he feels about it, even though he doesn’t know shit.

And gets up there and jams “Creep” every once in awhile.
V-neck T-shirt [laughs].

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