Some days are definitely more unusual than others. Wakrat, a brand new ‘jazz-punk’ trio featuring Rage Against The Machine‘s Tim Commerford on bass and vocals, have hit London on something of a flying visit. As well as getting the opportunity to sit down and chat with Tim and drummer Mathias, an invite also plopped into my inbox for their exclusive show at The Black Heart the following day. How could I say no?
That was not all. Before the show, we were also invited to join the band for a short tour of central London, with a quick stop in a prestigious location – but more about that in a moment.
The motley crew of press, label folk, competition winners and miscellaneous others assembled in a Soho bar, and together we waited for the bus to arrive. Soho’s narrow, warren-like streets were not exactly designed for vehicles much larger than a Fiat Panda, so a short walk was in order to actually board the bus itself. Painted London bus red and adorned with the Wakrat logo and a #GenerationFucked hashtag, it was certainly going to turn some heads in the evening rush hour traffic.
The inside of the bus itself had been gutted and refitted as a mobile party venue. With a bar downstairs, sofas lining the walls upstairs and – crucially – a remarkably powerful sound system. This system was put to work pumping out a mixture of seventies punk, Rage Against the Machine and, naturally, Wakrat’s debut album, scheduled for release in November. Waiting for us on the seats were copies of the constitution of the Republic of Wakrat, as well as further information on our planned stop, which was to plant a flag on a small patch of land and claim it as the Republic of Wakrat. The patch of land in question is generally known as Parliament Square, on which sits Westminster Abbey and the houses of parliament themselves. Heavens.
Now, having a little bit of activism in my own history, and through paying close attention to the political comedy of Mark Thomas, I was aware that in classic British fashion, if you want to stage a political protest in Westminster, you have to fill in a form and ask permission first. It quickly became apparent that this legal permission had not been sought. This could get interesting.
After Wakrat themselves board, we set off through the West end. With the band visibly enjoying the sights, we roll slowly with the rush hour traffic through Trafalgar Square, past (fittingly) the theatre hosting the 1984 stage play, out along the Embankment past Cleopatra’s Needle and the London eye. As we progressed, we could watch the flickers of curiosity, amusement and outright horror on the faces of tourists and commuters alike as they read the signage on the bus. Scowls and grins in equal measure, and plenty of photographs, which should liven up a couple of holiday snap slideshows, at least.
We reach Parliament Square. As we pass the entrance to New Palace Yard, the police manning the gates all have their backs turned. That’s weirdly convenient.
We pull up next to Westminster Abbey, and after a quick pep talk from Tim, we grab the hand made placards dotted around the bus, and spill out onto the street.
With a rousing call-and-response, led by Tim and his megaphone, of “We’re fucked! Yes we’re fucked”, still community minded enough to wait for the green man at the pedestrian crossing onto the central square itself, we complete a full lap before venturing into the very middle, where the band plant their Republic of Wakrat flag, and Tim reads the constitution( which you can read here).
Of course, this type of activity wasn’t going to go unnoticed – but in typically British fashion, the face of the establishment takes the form of a bewildered and somewhat exasperated ‘Heritage Warden’ – a kind of Community Support Officer for national landmarks. With some admittedly admirable chutzpah, considering he likely doesn’t even have the legal authority to detain anyone, he strides right into the mix to address Tim directly. I’m standing just a bit too far back to hear the full exchange, but the gist is very clearly;
“Would you stop, please?”
After failing to get the chanting to stop, the warden retreats and takes photographs of the group as a whole. We’re certainly attracting attention from the tourists and – in all probability – from the less visible security. The ones who don’t play games.
But, just as I think we might be pushing our luck far enough to warrant the deployment of the actual police, the call goes up to return to the bus. With Tim hitting the siren button on his megaphone, we walk back in a loose group, leaving a trail of perplexed tourists in our wake, and one relieved Heritage Warden.
We return to our seats on the bus and…nothing happens. We notice that our numbers are steadily depleting, and then we find out why. The bus is broken, and our party is steadily being decanted into taxis to speed us across town in time for Wakrat’s set at the Black Heart. So, amusingly, this leaves the bus with its #generationfucked decals marooned in Parliament Square, ready to appear as a curio in dozens more tourist photo albums.
This minor hitch means that the protesting party trickles its way into the venue, gradually swelling the crowd waiting for Wakrat to take the stage. Seizing the opportunity, I snag myself a spot right at the monitor line, positioning myself in front of Laurent’s hastily reconstructed guitar rig.
As Tim had said in the interview the previous day, he has brought his full rig with him, so a pair of hefty Ampegs loom from his corner of the stage, with his mysterious, home made pedalboard and a pair of Stingray basses in front of them. Just the sight of this distinctive rig in probably my favourite London venue is pretty exciting for a lifelong fan like myself.
The trio peel themselves out of the little box which passes for a backstage area, and launch into “Knucklehead“. The sound, even with Laurent’s botched-together pedalboard, is utterly monstrous. Of course, all eyes are drawn to Tim – this being the smallest space he would have played in the UK since the days of the debut Rage album – but Mathias and Laurent throw everything they have at the performance as well. Mathias is shirtless, and smacks the ever living shit out of his small kit. Laurent is shoeless, and stomps around, making the most of what little space he has on the tiny stage, made even smaller by a whole battery of photographers and cameramen.
The songs rush by in a blur of riffs and shouting: some more straightforwardly punky; others carrying grooves instantly recognisable to anyone who has spent more than twenty years studying Tim’s basslines in Rage and Audioslave - but every song also seems to have a little quirky twist – an extra beat here, a stop-start there. Just enough to slightly wrong-foot you (well, me) on first listen. Jazz punk, indeed. I can’t wait to have a proper listen to the recorded versions of these songs.
The temperature in the room climbs ever higher. Sweat is visibly dripping from Laurent’s nose, but it doesn’t seem to affect the band. I guess living in California kinda acclimatises you to being hot. Tim’s voice does start to struggle towards the end of the set, but that’s to be expected considering just how much shouting he was doing earlier on, in Parliament Square.
The set ends relatively abruptly. As the final song concludes, Tim simply says “Thanks, that was dope.” and the band squeeze their way off the stage. Even a couple of months ago, I simply wouldn’t have believed that this show was going to happen. It may have been a little rough around the edges, but I suspect that’s just how Wakrat like it – and what’s more, at its core the band have a collection of songs which are as smart as they are furious. We can only hope that after the run of shows that will see Wakrat supporting Prophets of Rage, they will return to playing highly intense shows in poky little venues. It feels right.
If you’d like to get more of an idea of what the day looked like, the footage from the array of cameras following it all around had found a home in the “Generation Fucked” video. Watch it, and get hyped for the imminent album release.