“You have five minutes,” someone muttered abruptly. The door closed with a bang. I spun around to face a familiar set of tattoos. Five minutes? I thought nervously. Five minutes to interview Tim Commerford, one of the most technically-skilled and unique bass guitarists of our time. Five minutes to ask him about playing with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Future User, Prophets of Rage, and of course, his newest project, Wakrat, who had just destroyed their opening set a few minutes before. Five minutes to talk about the election, what it means to Make America Rage Again, and all of the social constructs he famously scrutinizes and tears to pieces. I could feel the questions in my head scrambling like alphabet soup.
It had been a long, strange trip down to the dressing rooms underneath the Barclays Center. After some sudden time changes (hence the 5-minute rush), a run-in with Michael Moore, a flurry of backstage security check-ins, and an underground elevator ride we shared with one of Tom Morello’s dry-cleaned shirts, the interview itself had seemed much further away than it was. Now Tim and fellow Wakrat members Mathias Wakrat and Laurent Grangeon were sitting in semicircle around me, eyes wild from their set, and the clock was ticking. I would quickly discover, though, that they had no problem skipping the formalities.
“I feel like music is like this universal guillotine, and I just want to cut the heads off of the establishment with it,” said Tim, his muscles still tense from Wakrat’s aggressive performance. “We’re in cities. we’re in states. Like Chuck D always says, ‘the states are not united.’ I love that, you know? They’re not, and they should be. And now we have people saying ‘Oh if I’m president, I’m gonna build a wall.’ And there are these plans of building walls, and these visible borders and invisible borders that separate everyone. And we really should just be united in our anger with what’s happening.”
Talking to Tim was like reading a companion book to Wakrat’s music. After seeing the trio deliver an especially vicious “Generation Fucked” during their show that night, which had all the tension of a long-lost Rage Against the Machine song, I was curious to hear which generation he was speaking to. The answer was not what I expected. “That song, you know, was initially inspired by the Jihadi John beheading videos that I don’t believe are real,” he explained. “I believe that those are propaganda. They’re high-definition. I could be wrong, but they seem fake to me. There’s nothing real. You can’t see the knife cutting the neck off. The thing is, if you were a terrorist and you wanted to scare people, you’d show that.” “But it goes to black, right?” I said. “Right. What’s up with that?” he asked incredulously. I shrugged. We’d run the gamut on my ISIS videography knowledge, but he still seemed impressed. “Hey, they’ve got time,” he said quickly to their guard, who was already approaching to escort us out. “They’re good, we’ve got time.”
He continued on as we soaked up the extra seconds. “That inspired me to start that song,” he said. “And then I read that ‘Allegory of the Cave,’ by Plato. It was this story about these people that are living in a cave. They’re chained in the cave, and they’re looking at a wall on the inside of the cave. The opening of the cave is behind them, and there’s a fire back there. And things go in front of the fire and they cast a shadow on the wall. These people see the shadows and they go, ‘oh that’s a bird,” ‘that’s a dog,’ or ‘that’s an airplane,’ or whatever. They see the shadows and they decide what they are,” Tim recalled. “Then one day, one of the people breaks the chains and goes outside of the cave, and actually sees what makes the shadows. He goes, ‘Wait a minute, it’s not what they’re saying it is. It’s not! It’s not a bird, it’s not a dog…’ So he goes back into the cave and goes to the other two people, ‘Let me unchain you, so I can show you what’s really making the shadows.’ But the other two people in the cave are like, ‘No, we’re okay with the shadows. We like our reality, even though it may not be the truth. So that’s what that song’s about.”
As you can hear in Wakrat’s live set, there’s something even more powerful hiding under the racing basslines and violent drums – a desire for truth, and the pain that comes with trying to uncover it. But according to Tim, they don’t necessarily see themselves as messengers of that truth. “I don’t know that I’m trying to bring anything to anyone,” he said. “I’m just doing what I want to do. We’re just making the kind of music we want to make, and saying the things we want to say. If it’s deemed political, then it’s political. You know? I don’t think we’re a political band. I think we’re a mixture of a lot of different things.” He paused for a moment. I could feel time sneaking up on us again, like a cat arching its back before a pounce. I asked Tim if there were any other current events he was grappling with, one conspiracy theorist to another. Laurent laughed. “You’re going to need another 15 minutes together.”
“We disagree on one main conspiracy theory of mine, which is ISIS,” Tim explained rationally. “I do not believe ISIS is real. I think there are terrorists, they do hate us – rightfully so, cause we’re bombing their children and killing their families. They hate us and they want to cut our heads off. But are they united in a war room as ISIS, wearing the same uniform, taking orders from the ISIS general? No. I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. I believe that they don’t even know each other. They’re separated, and some live in Berlin, some live in San Bernardino, some live in Paris. They’re like-minded, but they’re not together.” “And that’s where I disagree,” said Mathias, who had been listening quietly as he spoke. “But we exchange ideas. He never tells me what to play, I never tell him what to write.”
In spite of their differing views, it’s a collaboration that works beautifully. “The weirdness of our music comes from these guys,” said Tim. “They write the arrangements. I was just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Zack de la Rocha actually introduced Mathias and I; said we should meet. We rode mountain bikes together and talked about music a lot during that time, but never talked about playing together. And then one day, he said ‘Hey I’ve got this thing I want to do Laurent, and we want you to play bass on it.’ And I skeptically went into it, and just went ‘Alright, I’ll check it out,’ thinking I probably wouldn’t dig it. And I was blown away. It’s awesome. I actually played it for Zack too, because that’s the kind of music we grew up on. And we were both like ‘This is sick.’” “Zack was probably the first guy who supported us,” added Laurent.
Someone banged on the door. “Gotta go!” came the voice. “We’re good!” said Tim firmly. The knocking ceased. “I’m still a work in progress,” he admitted. “This is all new to me, trying to play bass and sing. For the backing vocals with Rage, I was just like the angry parent, you know? Shouting all the same words as the other guys,” he laughed. “This is nothing like that. For me, it’s like math class, playing with Wakrat. And then I get to go to P.E.,” he said, referring to the headlining set he would soon play with Prophets of Rage.
Wakrat’s math class approach is uncompromising, and just one of the reasons they’re proud to be working together. “We record honestly, and we play as if we’re recording to tape,” said Tim. “We play full takes of the songs, as if you’re gonna splice it in an old-school, two-inch tape sort of way. We do it like that, so it’s honest. But that’s not what’s going on in music right now. It’s a shame. The computer has created a different mentality, which is taking people out of – like in my situation – out of the bedroom where I sat for hours and hours, picking up the needle, trying to learn songs and just figure things out.” Mathias and Laurent nodded, remembering their own self-taught hours by the record player. “I became a bass player by doing that,” said Tim. “But nowadays, it’s like you don’t have to work for it. And music today is a reflection of that. You know, every kick drum and snare hit is in exactly the same place, there’s no variation in tempo, and people are programmed by it. But we are actually playing what you’re hearing. We’re not manipulating what you’re hearing. I’m really proud of the honesty.”
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley