Sometimes, it’s hard not to fanboy. It would be fair to say that, somewhere in the early nineties, Rage Against The Machine‘s eponymous debut album went off like an atom bomb in my then-teenage mind, arguably making a gigantic contribution to shaping both my musical tastes and political awakenings.
Fast forward over twenty years, and not only have three quarters of Rage joined forces with Chuck D and B-Real to form Prophets of Rage, but bassist Tim Commerford has also broken cover in an even more abrasive fashion with his new jazz-punk trio Wakrat. With the trio in London to play a special, one-off gig at our favourite Camden haunt The Black Heart, along with some other high-jinx beforehand, I sat down with Tim and his drummer Mathias Wakrat the day before to find out a little bit more about what they have been up to. Here’s what they had to say, as I struggled valiantly to contain my over-excited inner teenager:
I guess the place to start is with the Republic of Wakrat. I’ve seen the website and the manifest. Could you tell us more about the thinking behind that?
Tim: Musically, it comes from the heart, it’s the way I feel. Even if I try to not be in a band with a political slant, I end up in a band with a political slant. That’s just the way it works. So I really feel like 2016 is like 1968, for me. I feel like this is an incredible era that we’re in – there’s violence and it’s unrest, and it’s political uncertainty and it’s racism. It’s genetically modified foods and it’s Guantanamo Bay. The list just goes on and on, and that’s what these songs are all about.
On a scale of one to ten, how fucked are we at the moment?
Tim: It seems pretty fucked. It seems like it’s not getting any better. Living in the United States, that’s one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. You know, we call it the United States, and we’re really not united. The states are all separated, there are different laws, so there’s even division within the country like there is in the world and in reality, we’re all earthlings. If we want to solve the problems that we have in this world, we need to unite. That’s what the Republic of Wakrat is all about.
Is the extraordinary situation in America right now one of the things that spurred you into action with another band?
Tim: Well, what spurred me into action was this guy right here. He’s Matthias Wakrat, the band is named after him. I think it’s like The Police wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Stuart Copeland. He is the Stuart Copeland of Wakrat. He has an incredible musical library in his head, and he’s sort of orchestrated the music. The way that we write songs is kind of his orchestration, and it inspired me.
So I understand that you met through mountain biking, but what was the real spark that lit the flame of the band?
Tim: He played me the music that him and Laurent (Grangeon, guitar) were working on. I didn’t really take him seriously as a drummer, you know? I knew he played the drums, but I didn’t think it was as seriously as the way I played bass and I was wrong!
The songs and the arrangements that they had recorded, to me, were spectacular. I’ve never been in a band where I’ve played in anything but 4/4 time. Most music that we listen to is in 4/4, and every single song on our album is in odd time signatures, and I love that. That uptempo, fast, odd timing, weird sounds – it all inspired me to write these angry words.
If we just take “Knucklehead” as an example that everyone has heard at this point; could you just talk us through how that became a song? I’m interested in where that started, and how it developed into the song that it is.
Mathias: Well, “Knucklehead” was probably the first song that Laurent and I wrote together, but it really took shape when Tim jumped in. It’s now a totally different song – I didn’t know you could even write a melody on that track! I didn’t think it was possible until he played the bass. It sounds weird but when we recorded the bass, you could hear melodies and possibilities. So when Tim joined, it was like a quarter done, so we changed the arrangement to fit these vocals.
Tim: On our record we have a version of “Knucklehead” that we re-recorded, and then we have the version that’s out. When they came up with their original arrangements they played them to me. I was inspired, I played bass on them and – because of the time signatures, mainly – I wasn’t able to wrap my head around the music and knock it out in one take. I had to do it piece by piece, you know? And then I took that recording home and figured out vocal melodies. But some of the melodies I’d figured out I was thinking I’m gonna sing this part, and we’re going to have to edit parts off it that were a bit too long. So we did that with our engineer Eric Colvin, and trimmed off the ends of riffs. Then I would craft the arrangement the way it should be. We had recorded quite a few songs like that, and each time I sang the songs, my voice was just gone. I couldn’t even talk.
So then when it came to learn how to play them and sing them, which was a big concern for me, I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I would tell these guys “I think we need to get a bass player. If I’m going to sing these songs, we’re gonna need a bass player, or if I play bass, we’re going to need a singer.” But they were confident that I could pull it off, so that inspired me to try.
Yeah, it is very difficult.
Tim: It’s hard, especially playing with your fingers. There’s a short list of players that sing and play with their fingers. Pick is one thing, fingers another. So when I went in to do it, I quickly realise that these songs are all in a key that is about a half step higher than what I’ve been doing. So we needed to de-tune a half step. So we did that, and started rehearsing and I was pulling it off. Then we went to meet a management company and I hadn’t been listening to the music we had recorded, because we’d been doing it a half step lower. So I was listening to all our songs and realised that we needed to re-record them in the right key and honestly, playing through it or singing it in one take. Now I can do that, so let’s do that.
In that spirit, we have a version of “Knucklehead” that was recorded in pieces, and now we have a new version, that’s a slightly different arrangement and in the right key.
So I guess that also means being a little bit lower, it’s a bit meatier too?
Mathias: And the difference is that when we recorded “Knucklehead” originally, we had never played together. So when we re-recorded all these songs, it was the way we had been playing them. So it was much easier to record them. Bass and drums were basically done in an afternoon.
OK, obviously everyone know’s Tim’s musical background. So, Mathias, could you tell us more about what you and Laurent have done prior to Wakrat?
Mathias: Well, Laurent played in a number of different rock bands. Me, I’ve played a lot of jazz and did a bunch of session work. Stuff like that.
So nothing of this kind of nature, or this agressive before?
Mathias: Well, this is the music that I have in my head. It’s what I wanted to do. And when Laurent and I started playing together, he was like “That’s what I wanna play, too.” So we found that we had no idea that we were going to make a record, it was just fun to play. And when Tim heard it, he also said that he wanted to play it too.
Tim: Mathias has, like, a jazz encyclopedia in his head and that’s not kidding. He can listen to be-bop era jazz and not only tell you who’s playing the song, but also tell you who’s playing what instruments. Sort of like a jazz savant! It’s a beautiful thing.
Mathias: I was in between jazz and punk. That’s where my head is at.
I really like the way jazz plays with meter, melody and so on, and taking that into a punk or hardcore environment works really well. I don’t know if you’re aware of a Canadian band called KEN Mode who do similar things? They were a band that sprung to my mind when listening to your songs.
Tim: Oh, cool. I’m gonna check that out. I really love what we’re doing, that kind of punk-jazz. It feels great, because there’s not a lot of bands doing it. I love that, it’s refreshing. I’m not trying to make music that we think people want to hear, we’re making what we want to hear.
And then the people who want to hear it can find it.
Tim: If you like it, you like it. If you don’t, fuck off!
Ha! That’s the spirit.
Mathias: I don’t think punk and jazz are really that far apart; they’re both very honest.
So you went through the quandry of whether to add a bass player or a singer, but did you ever think about adding, say, a second guitarist as well? Or was it more about keeping the purity of guitar, bass and drums?
Tim: It’s a trio. I love trios. I’ve always wanted to be in one, and it’s pretty liberating. It feels great. Laurent makes a ton of noise with his guitar. He has an incredible sound where he’s got three amps! He uses three different heads and three cabinets and if you isolate those cabinets and listen to the sounds that are coming through, it sounds like there are three people playing.
So that’s why he’s having difficulty recreating that sound over here? (Laurent is absent from the interview as he is off scouring London’s guitar shops for effects pedals)
Tim: Well, his pedalboard didn’t make it! His pedalboard was to big and heavy to go on the plane, so they shut it down. It’s huge, it’s like a spaceship. It’s a big part of our sound. That pedalboard is key.
So tomorrow you’re playing in probably my favourite small space in London (The Black Heart). How does it feel to go back to playing these types of small shows again?
Tim: Those shows are a lot harder to play than big shows. It’s real easy to look out what looks like a giant piece of pizza when you’re looking at a huge audience. You can blur your vision and look at them all without looking at anyone in particular. But when you’re playing in a small venue, it’s harder for me. What seems easy in a rehersal room, when you put it into a small club like that and you’re making direct eye contact with someone, it’s so easy to screw up. It’s harder, but it’s exciting.
How many shows have you done together?
Mathias: We’ve done four or five.
Tim: Yeah, but this is the first show that we’re going into tomorrow that, on my own behalf, I’m not worried about the performance, I’m really not. All the other shows we’ve done I’ve been worried about screwing up parts of songs, and this one is the first where I think I’ve got it.
Mathias: You’ve got it. Oh, and bring your earplugs!
Ha! But yeah, I never go to a show without them.
Tim: I don’t care if it’s 150 people or 150,000 people, I’m still turning the amp up the same as I always do. I never wear earplugs, though. I’ve got small ears, man! It doesn’t really amplify the sound as much. I tell people that if you meet the guy who’s going to mix your record and he’s got these big massive ears, he’s going to be hearing it completely differently to me. All you have to do is put your fingers up around your ears, and it changes the way it all sounds. I like to find the sound guys who have the smallest ears!
I can honestly say I’ve never thought about that before. (laughs). But, moving on, I saw that you recorded the video for “Knucklehead” in your rehearsal room. Was that in keeping with the DIY spirit?
Mathias: There’s this guy who comes to the restaurant, who is the assistant of a famous Director of Photography. He heard the song, and wanted to work with us.
Tim: We had an idea, we kinda knew what we wanted to do, but he then embellished on that idea and showed up at our rehearsal room with, like a semi-truck full of rigging and a crew of ten people, for free! It was cool, and we made that video. We’re hoping to make a video for every single song on this record, and we’re going to make all of them in our rehearsal room. They’re all going to look different, we already have a couple of ideas for different things we can do, different techniques we can use. The room changes and gets better every day.
It does look like a really nice space.
Tim: It’s a cool spot, it feels really good. When I walk into that room, I’m really proud of the way it looks.
Mathias: Every musician, famous or not, who walks into the room, they’re like ‘Oh my God!’.
What would you say are the over-riding themes of the songs on the album? “Knucklehead” seems more personal and “Generation Fucked” more political; is there an even split between the other songs?
Tim: Most of the songs are about the world and my views on the world, or people, or myself. Generally speaking, those views are all negative. I focus on the negative. I was inspired by the Plato’s allegory of the cave, “Generation Fucked” is really about that. It’s the world we live in, with people chained together, staring at the wall of the cave with the fire behind them. The only thing they can see is the shadows of things that go by from the fire. When someone escapes, they see what really makes the shadows and go back to tell them “Hey, it’s not what we think it is, it’s something else. I want to show you.” And the other people say “We don’t want to know, we’re happy here looking at the shadows.’
You said in the Rolling Stone interview that you find information that makes you angry, and it makes you want to write about it. So where do you go for information you can trust?
Tim: The only information I can trust is the information that I have experienced in my own path, that I know is true. You know, I take everything with a grain of salt, but I’m a conspiracy theorist. I love conspiracy theories, I’m always looking for a good conspiracy. I definitely feel like anything is a possibility, whether it’s 9/11, the moon landings or Jihadi John, I question it all.
Does it feel to you like there’s been a bit of an absence of politics in music in recent years?
Tim: Well, there’s been an absence of politics in music in every year, because people don’t want to embrace bands that have something to say. That’s a short list, like bass players who sing! They don’t want to give bands opportunities to speak their political views.
I think it’s fair to say that the internet has kind of devalued music, which has its pluses and its minuses, but do you think it’s also done the same thing for information?
Tim: Oh, for sure, because you don’t know whether you’re getting truths or lies, you just don’t. It’s so easy to put information out there that’s not true. We have a song about that, called “Nail in the Snail“, it’s about information overload. We’re in a period of time where there’s so much information, and it’s coming at you every day and so it’s just overload. It’s too much.
Yeah, I remember as a teenager, sitting with a VCR and the “People of the Sun” video, going through it frame-by frame to read all the texts that flashes past. That’s what we would do before the internet to find information.
Tim: Awesome. That’s how I became who I am, politically. I came into it all with no real care about that, and I became a member of Rage Against The Machine and I became politicised through that. People ask me whether you can educate through music, and I know first hand that you can