by Patrick Donovan
The Age (Melbourne) 29th Oct 1999
(Transcribed by Julie Nolan)
When the crowd rioted at the Woodstock 30th anniversary concert last July, any lingering remnants of the '60s counter-culture spirit went up in flames along with the stands torched by revelers. The ensuing cross-generational debate about what caused the mayhem was one of the hottest this decade. The generation who lived through the original festival called today's kids amoral, saying they enjoyed a cosy existence and, unlike the baby boomers, had no good reason to rebel. The young generation responded that the old hippies who organised the concert had turned their backs on peace and love, overcharging concert goers for food and drink and not supplying enough water and toilets.
Rage Against the Machine, one of the few confrontational bands on the Woodstock bill with an intelligent and focused agenda, hit the stage directly after rap-metal band Limp Bizkit had openly encouraged aggression.
Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk, who witnessed the carnage that followed, lays blame on both sides. But he adds that the worst culprits were bands with a misguided idea of what punk means today. "If you have a thousand sweaty fraternity kids and 90 weather with a lack of water and a lot of girls walking round topless, they're going to get very edgy. And when, on top of it, a band is screaming "I just wanna break shit!", you're talking a recipe for disaster. They were tearing the place up, trying to rip apart sound boards and barriers."
Wilk says that by the time his band came on stag4e, most of the crowd was exhausted from running amok. "I want to remember what happened, but maybe I just blocked it out because it was just such a horrible experience. But when we went on, I remember feeling disenchanted with the whole situation. We jus played and left, and thought, "That was just fucked:, rather than try to preach to a bunch of people who had just rioted. We just played the show, stuck to our message, hoped for the best and split. I don't know, but that's what we did. It was whack.
"I really regret playing Woodstock. If I could do things again, that's the one show out of my whole career I could say that I wish we hadn't done." Later, Wilk was horrified to hear that there has been muggings and rapes at the concert. He compares his feelings to those of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, whose dismayed reaction can be clearly seen in a footage of the infamous 1969 Altamount concert festival when it became apparent a Hell's Angel, whose organisation had been hired as security, had stabbed and killed a punter.
"I felt just like Charlie when I found out what had happened : "Oh, no! Festival gone wrong."
While Wilk believes Woodstock's tradition of rebellion coupled with the Woodstock generation's hypocrisy may have spurred bands and the audience to riot, he thinks punk is in a sorry state.
"If they thought that was punk, then that's pathetic. To me punk rock is supposed to be about rebelling against things that are holding you back. But, unfortunately, to every person, that's something different. So, to me , it's just a word that has been used to describe so many different emotions that I don't think there is a true meaning of punk."
Interviews with drummers are not always enlightening. Sticksmen don't have a reputation as intellectuals and their insight into a band's music doesn't often go past rhythms. But each of Rage Against the Machine's members shares a deep understanding of its philosophies.
While singer Zach de la Rocha writes the politically charged lyrics, guitarist Tom Morello has the strongest political background-his father was a member of the Mau Mau guerilla army that freed Kenya from British Colonial rule ; his mother is a founder of the anti-censorship organisation Parents for Rock andRap ; and he graduated from Harvard with a degree in social studies in 1986. For Wilk, meeting such like-minded musicians was the most liberating experience of his life.
"When I first joined the band, my eyes were opened to so many things, and my philosophies were right in line. If you want to break it down to the basic human emotions, it's all about taking the frustration and anger and injustices in the world and having a release from them."
De la Rocha doesn't pluck causes out of the newspaper; he travels the world in search of great injustices. While the others don't collaborate with de la Rocha on lyrics, they all have a say in the organisations they back and the benefit shows they play. And many of the causes are half a world away from the band's home, the US.
"I feel that it's very important for people to get involved on a local level at some point in their lives, because it's one thing to read the paper and kind of understand what's going on globally from what other people are writing. But a lot of people do that and walk outside their doors with blinkers on." When Wilk walks out of the door of his Los Angeles home, he sees many homeless people who can't get medical help. One of the organisations he supports is the Los Angeles Free Clinic, which helps the homeless. But the bands origins are musical, not philosophical, says Wilk. It began when he placed a newspaper ad for a "drummer looking for a band with many different influences to form own unique sound." Morello applied first, and the pair "totally clicked" from the first day. The came le la Rocha and Timmy C. who were looking for spirited collaborators.
"Unbelievable enough, the chemistry was undeniable and intact, and I remember being completely blown from day one. All of us realised :"Holy shit, there's something going on here that we need to explore," and it just snowballed from there. I may come in with a bit, or Tom will come in with a riff, or Tim will come in with a bassline, and it grows from there. It is definitely a collaboration. No one ever comes in with a song and says, "Hear this", which I think is one of the best parts about being in this band, because everyone feels very connected and a part of what's being put into the music. Everyone is emotionally tied to this music, and I think that comes across very strong on this album." Wilk says the band believe their new album, The Battle for Los Angeles, is their strongest work yet. They wrote and recorded the music before de la Rocha spent seven months writing the lyrics. It's a ferocious-sounding record, with deep grooves from a tight, inspired rhythm section. Proudly organic, it is far funkier than the work of many technology-driven rap-metal bands. Although Wilk swears by organic music, he doesn't have a problem with technology. "It's just something we enjoy doing. I enjoy listening to bands that use samples and electronics, but, for us, it's a challenge and it's more interesting. I think that's what makes us different to other bands- the type of grooves that we play together in a song are so vastly different, but we make them work together. It's not something that you really notice, it's an unconscious thing."
Wilk believes the new album finally captures the emotional intensity of their live shows. "There are songs that, to me, sound like electronica-meets-punk rock. We really challenged ourselves on this album" The rap-rock-metal soundscape has shifted dramatically since rage released their previous album Evil Empire 1n 1996. A glut of industrial rap-metal bands-largely inspired by Rage-have connected with the millions of angst ridden young males who bought their albums. But while Rage deals with universal issues, bands such as Korn and Limp Bizkit are primarily concerned with personal demons. One argument is that the popularity of such bands and their lyrics suggests the world is becoming a more selfish place, and kids have too many of their own problems to worry about those of others. But Wilk believes change must start on a personal level. "if you effect change in a positive way, first you are going to exude that and want to effect change on a larger level. Not that I'm saying that that's how those bands are trying to influence kids." He believes kids will always feel a need to escape into the fantasy of rock music.
" A lot of rock music fans don't even deal with their own personal issues when they listen to music. it's just escaping their own thoughts for someone else's, and that's how rock stars are born, out of that attention. Music has an incredible influence on kids in general, and right now that (fantasy) music is the flavor of the month, and we're very excited to be coming out with a record now to try to effect change in the way that we do. With a few exceptions, like the Beastie Boys, there aren't many bands being all that thoughtful. It's all about trends and kids getting caught in the whole marketing systems of record companies," he says.
"Individually, everyone is affected differently by music. But there's always going to be a kid who comes to a Rage concert that has already conformed and knows what we're talking about and is there to support us because they relate to it. And there's the kid who's purely there for the music and walks away without the message- and our music is a positive outlet for anger and frustration. When a kid gets the message and slowly starts to become influenced by that in their way and tries to effect change, that is the most awesome feeling in the world, for us."
Rage's best known song, Killing in the Name of, is the most riotous anthem of the "90s. The line "Fuck you/I won't do what you tell me" is repeated eight times before an explosion of blistering guitar. Like Sex Pistols in the 70s, it has made millions of young people a little more cynical about the establishment. But, says Wilk, such songs aren't made to incite aggression. "If we didn't have our philosophies and causes in all of other songs, that song could have been seen as just getting on a soapbox and trying to incite a riot. We want to evoke that emotion, but evoke it in a way that makes the listener get frustrated with the injustices around them. Everyone has the right to consider what exactly is an injustice. Humans have been on this earth for a long time and we still don't know why we're here, and I don't think we even have a basic understanding of a culture of what is right and wrong. Everyone has their different views of that, and we're trying to portray an image of what we think is right and wrong, and leave it up to the listener to use that in an intelligent manner, not just unabashed violence, which is what happened at Woodstock."