For more than a year, Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford had been biking around with his future bandmate and didn't know it.
The avid mountain-biking enthusiast was introduced to drummer and restaurant owner Mathias Wakrat through Rage frontman Zack de la Rocha, a frequent diner at Wakrat's French bistro in Los Angeles. "We both just share the same enthusiasm for riding mountain bikes," Commerford tells Rolling Stone. "We'd talk for many hours about mountain biking and one day, he was like, 'Oh, yeah, I play drums.'"
With the addition of guitarist Laurent Grangeon, Wakrat, Commerford's punk- and hardcore-influenced new group that Tom Morello called an "ultra-heavy power trio," was born. Wakrat (pronounced "wok-rat") is still finishing their as-yet-untitled debut album, but Rolling Stone has the exclusive video premiere for their first single, "Knucklehead."
Shot earlier this month at the group's rehearsal studio, the video is a blurry, disorienting clip filmed using cameras attached to drones and GoPros hooked up to, as Commerford puts it, "ceiling fans, drums, drills, the floor, you name it."
"We got a spastic, bananas video," he adds.
"I've been dealing with some deep, dark family stuff in the last year that left me in tears."
The song is as dark as the video is epilepsy-inducing, with Commerford, who wrote all the album's lyrics, screaming, "Gimme the gun/Fuck the knife/I'm alright … Why am I locked in my aquarium?" For Commerford, it's a deeply personal song that was more cathartic than entertaining.
"I've been dealing with some very deep, dark family stuff in the last year, stuff that left me in tears," he says. "I spent a lot of time crying in the last year and feeling trapped and alone. That's what 'Knucklehead' is about. Sometimes the dark side spawns incredible things, and the music came from that. It's the ray of sun at the end of the day. I went through some deep shit that I hope I never go through again, but look what came from it: this incredible opportunity in music that I love. The scream at the end of the song makes me feel like I'm just putting my face in a pillow and screaming my guts out."
Despite the emotional bend, the outspoken musician still weaves in trenchant political messages and imagery on the album that fans of Rage Against the Machine and Future User — the group Commerford formed in 2013 that mixed electronic music with prog rock — expect. "I can't stop myself from finding information that makes me mad and writing about it," he says.
When Wakrat started 18 months ago, they began looking for a lead singer, with Commerford originally feeling that the group's "weird punk-jazz music with odd time signatures" would be too difficult to play and sing simultaneously. "I reached out to some people, but they were busy. When we weren't able to find anyone to sing, I just said, 'I think I can do it.' When I do karaoke, I go straight to [Sex Pistols'] Never Mind the Bollocks album. I can do a Johnny Rotten that is the best of all time."
The group's upcoming 10-track album is rooted in punk legends the Minutemen, Bad Brains and Fugazi. "They're all punk. They're all fast. They're all spastic," Commerford says of the songs. Electronic and spoken word flourishes helped round out the group's sound.
"This is the music I grew up on and always wanted to do. It's the same feeling when Rage Against the Machine started playing."
But unlike Future User, in which Commerford purposely obscured and concealed his involvement until later on in the project, Wakrat finds the musician front and center.
"I always looked at Future User as performance art. I had a vision, and I wasn't a part of that vision," he says. "With Wakrat, we're a band, and we're going to play all the time, and we're going to pay our dues the old-school way. This is the kind of music that I grew up on and always wanted to do. It's the same feeling as 1991 when Rage Against the Machine first started playing. It felt uncomfortable and doesn't feel right, and I love that feeling. I am enjoying myself right now on a musical level more than I've ever enjoyed myself in my entire career. It's incredible that I'm saying that; it's a beautiful thing."
Despite selling more than 16 million albums with Rage Against the Machine, Commerford is taking a grassroots approach to Wakrat, opening for bigger bands — the group will support Royal Blood Thursday night — and playing small clubs. Earlier this month, the trio played their first show at L.A.'s the Viper Room, supported by audience members Chris Cornell and Rage bandmates Tom Morello and de la Rocha. The group has no label in place — "We're bottom feeders. We got nothing" — but the bassist says the goal is to work with "passionate people who go, 'Fuck, I love this shit.'"
For the 47-year-old Commerford, last seen getting graphic (and real) back surgery in Future User's "Voodoo Juju" video, Wakrat finds him at his most authentic. "There are a lot of Rage fans that didn't really get what I was doing with Future User, but I really feel that they're going to get this," he says. "This is some shit I have not done before. I haven't played in a band that's this uptempo and punk and furious, but this is me."