"Rage Against The Machine's Brad Wilk"
by Ken Micallef
It's sixty seconds before show time and, Rage Against The Machine are about to
unleash their wrath over the national airways. Playing Saturday Night Live a week after
the Republican party's national primaries (media tycoon Steve Forbes is host), the mood
is right for some Raging shenanigans. Not since the hayday of Detroit's MC5 has a band
combined such fierce musicality with such a potent revolutionary message but the SNL
crew seems oblivious of the possibilities.
"We had covered all of our equipment with upside-down American flags," Brad Wilk
recalls. "With Forbes as host we felt we had to do it. About forty seconds before we
went on, a stagehand saw what we had done and screamed, 'Take down those flags!' We
tried to ignore him but with ten seconds to go, he totally freaked out on us, cursing
and screaming. He came on stage and ripped all the flags off our amps."
Anyone who saw that performance will remember a manic, angry
Rage Against The Machine firing through "Bulls on Parade." The song's lurching,
Zepplin-ish intro, framed by the line "Quit it now," blasted into a full-bore,
metal/hip-hop thump. While singer Zach De La Rocha roamed the stage, guitarist Tom
Morello stamped his wah-wah peddle, and bassist Tim Bob stared straight ahead into the
TV void. Slamming his kit passionately, Brad Wilk looked anxious, his edgy groove and
explosive energy seething from behind coal-black eyes. After the performance, though,
the band felt cheated.
"We were like, 'This sucks,'" Wilk admits. "We went back to the dressing room
to figure out what to play for the second song. As we were deciding what to do, one of
the big guys from the show came down and asked us to leave the building. We told him to
shove it, and then we left. They said they didn't want us dressing up their set. But
what if those flags had been painted on our equipment? In retrospect it got more
publicity by them doing that then if we had just done our thing."
Well some bands claim ties to punk revolutionaries a radical causes, Rage
Against The Machine put their money where their music is. The band has led by example,
whether berating the powers-that-be in their songs or going naked at Lollapalooza '94 to
protest censorship of their first hit single.
With a turbulant childhood filled with emotional upheavals and musical
realiance, Brad Wilk was fated for Rage. An early fan of Bonham and Moon, he also
delved into jazz, funk-anything that would anchor his emotional balloon. But it wasn't
until he met Morello and De La Rocha through an ad that he found his musical center.
The band's latest, Evil Empire, is more scalding tirades and metal-hopping
grooves. Leaning over his Pork Pie kit, both flailing and finessing his way through the
tumult, Wilk is Rage's dark heart. Whether laying it down in the funk cut ("People of
the Sun"), kicking it punk-rock hard ("Tire Me"), pummeling a march groove
(Snakecharmer), Wilk creates a wide road of groove. MD caught up with Brad Wilk between
the U.S. and the U.K., after many attempts to interview him finally resulted in phone
link-up. Resting from laundery chores, Wilk picked the receiver and the conversation
KM: Why didn't you use any toms on the first Rage album?
BW: Good question. For that first record I replaced the tom in front with a couple of
cowbells just for the challenge while we were working on the music. I did it just to
see how it would make me play. I thought it was cool. I was into keeping it that way.
KM: Did you play more ride rhythms on the cowbells instead of the cymbals?
BW: Not necessarily. I tend to use cowbells more now than I did before and in
different ways. I really didn't miss that tom very much it was more about getting into
the groove on kick, snare, and hi-hat and seeing where I could go with that then I
brought the tom back for Evil Empire.
KM: Why did it take four years to make Evil Empire?
BW: Anyone who has seen us play live knows we can take a longer time between songs than
we did between records! People are so used to bands pushing out music because record
companies need to fulfill their contracts and create product. What people don't realize
is that after that record came out we were on the road for three years straight. That's
one reason. In those three years we went through a lot, started having a lot of
success, and began traveling all over the world. We came back and the record company
pushed us for a record and got us in the rehearsal room sooner than we should have been
there. We needed some time off from each other we took off three months then began on
KM: So Rage doesn't write songs on the road.
BW: No. We're the kind of band that jams a lot. It's a free-form; whatever happens,
happens. But we don't write songs on a acoustic guitar in a hotel room. We write with
the four if us in a room with our instruments. There's not a lot of time to play at
KM: As Rage has played across the U.S., do you feel you're a part of the audience, or
does it seem that at times you are against them?
BW: When we first startedout there were coming to our shows who thought we were a white
supremacist band. I remember a few times down south, Zach pointed them out and stopped
to let them know exactly what we are about. But for the most it's not us against the
audience. It's a celebration of frustration and anger- music for everybody.
KM: Rage is a very pro-people band.
BW: At one point I turned my set around and was playing backwards. People might have
thought that it was because I didn't want to be a part of the audience, but if you think
about it, since I was turned around, I was facing the direction as most everyone else
was. I had couple of truck mirriors up in front of me so I could see. People just get
the wrong idea sometimes.
KM: Why did you turn the set around?
BR: I really liked the way it looked. People are used to seeing things a certain way I
like to break out of the mold no matter what it might be. That's what it this band is
all about, questioning things. As a band, we're communicating on a level that it does
wirh emotions running rampant on the stage.
KM: On the first album, with songs like "Take The Power Back" and "Settle For Nothing,"
there are softer moments where you play cymbal rools. There's none of that on Evil
BW: It's definitely a dirtier album. I think it's harder. On Evil Empire there aren't
any pretty moments, but there are more subtle moments within the hard parts. There's
more subtley within the groves that are less noticeable and more felt then actually
KM: Rage is so hard yet so funky. Did you feel an immediate connection when you first
played with the other guys?
BW: absolutely. I've never felt that kind of chemistry before. From day one when I
jammed wuth Zach and tom, I remember Zach being this lighting bolt. We feed off each
other really well. When all four of us jammed it felt right. It was nothing that we
even talked about. It happened very naturally. There were so many different influences
roaming around in the band and it just all came out.
As for me, when I was growing up I didn't limit myself to a particular kind of
music, whether it was punk, funk, or rock. I'm influenced by lots of stuff. The other
guys had similar experiences as well, and that's probably why there's this chemistry
between us. And I don't take it for granted. I think it's special.
On our last European tour we were out with Neil Young. We'd been having a few
rough days in the band, and Neil came in the dressing room and said what a great band he
thought we were. I never thought he would really like what we do, but he was totally
into us. He thought our chemistry was really great. Neil Young doesen't need to kiss
anyones ass. He must mean it. So that's nice to here when you're going through rough
personal times. It helped.
KM: Some well-known bands are not hard and funky, but they sound very studied. Rage
sounds more natrual.
BW: It's definitely not planned out. It's just the chemistry between the four of us.
If any one of us was gone it would be a far different band.
KM: It's been reported that while you worked on the material for Evil Empire in Atlanta,
the band nearly broke up. Did you resolve the problems before recording, or did you
just work through them?
BW: When we were down in Atlanta we did go through a lot of crap that we didn't really
solve there. We came to an understanding that we had some problems and we needed some
time to weed through them. But we're always going to have problems in this band.
Anytime you have four people with four different opinions you're going to have problems.
That's what makes this band what it is.
KM: Tension, with talent, often makes for a great band.
BW: We definately have a lot of that. We wrote twenty songs in Atlanta and I can't
even remember them. I remember letting off fireworks in the neighborhood and pushing
the refrigerator out on the front lawn- stuff that had nothing to do with the music. It
was a time for getting personal stuff out in the open. On the road you tend to bury
stuff inside to keep going. Thats bound to come out sometime. Instead of seeping out,
it exploded out.
KM: Were these diferences of the musical or personal nature?
BW: Both, but the music part we could deal with more than the personal. That gives
trouble. We're four different people with different ideas of what sounds good and how
we should sound. In order for anything to be good you're going to have to squeeze it
KM: So you just buckled down and made the record?
BW: Yes. Throughout my life in all my relationships, it's been a full circle of
emotions. Sometimes it's really good, sometimes really bad. It goes both ways. I'm
used to things not going perfectly. But thats all right; you do what you have to to
work through the rough times.
To be honest when I first began playing drums at the age of thirteen, half the
time I would be playing out of frustration. It was an outlet. I've become used to
being in that frame of mind with music. It's a circle.
KM: You've been inspired by everyone from John Bonham to Keith Moon to Elvin Jones.
BW: Those are the top three. I like all kinds of music. I remember when I was
nineteen and I saw Elvin Jones on a video of John Coltrane called Coltrane Legacy. That
changed my life. It was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen any drummer do.
They were playing "My Favorite Things," and my mouth dropped to the floor. I would see
these amazing colors coming off his kit and the number three was on top of these colors,
exploding off the kit. Not to get too tripped out or psychedelic, but that's what it
was like for me. It was the heaviest experience I have ever had watching a drummer.
KM: You saw colors?
BW: It was emotion and the feeling and the colors he was portraying. Maybe the
mushrooms had something to do with it, too! I don't know.
KM: The number three?
BW: Ever since I was eight or nine I've gravitated to the number three. It something
that has always been a really heavy number for me. It's tattooed on my arm, and I count
in threes. Everyone in school was taught two, four, six, eight, ten- I'd count in
threes in the way I'd walk, even in the decisions I'd make. It was all based on threes.
KM: Do you think in three when you play?
BW: I do. I think that it makes my playing swing more. My dad used to play a lot off
swing and big band, so I heard a lot of that when I was younger. A lot of the fills I
play will be in a triplet feel over four.
KM: But you began playing when you were thirteen?
BW: I got my first CB700 kit when I was fourteen. I played a lot to records, and I
took lessons, and I played on a practice pad for a long time. For some reason my
parents didn't want to buy me a drumkit; they thought it wouldn't last. I had begun on
guitar when I was eleven. I heard Eddie Van Halen, so thats what I wanted. But playing
the pad was great. I spent a lot of time on rudiments, which helped me out in the long
run. I took lessons for about two years.
KM: I read that Steve Millers "Fly Like an Eagle" inspired you early on.
BW: I remember being in a batting cage during little league and hearing the song over
the PA. That was the moment I understood instrumentation and where it was coming from.
It was no longer foreign to me. I could pick things out and understand what was
KM: Gary Mallaber plays great drums on that track- very jazzy and slick and really
BW: Definately. That had something to do with it. After seeing Elvin, I saw Bonham on
"The Song Remains the Same," and he blew me away too. He doesn't look like he sounds.
I love that. He doesn't look like he's grooving as much as he is. On record, he
completely floored me. I also like Bill Ward, Mitch Mitchell, Clyde Stubblefield, and a
lot of Ringo Starr's shit, and Split Sticks, who played in Fear. Charlie Watts was also
KM: Are there any musicians in your family?
BW: I my dad's side, my aunt played violin and piano. My dad did everything from being
a bookie to a jeweler. It gave me a unique outlook. Money was everything to my dad. I
watched it tear him apart. He lost his shirt a couple of times in the stock market. He
went bankrupt and we had to pack up the Ford LDT and drive it across the country. It
made me appreciate things that didn't cost a lot of money. If I go broke, I'll still be
able to live and be happy with my life.
KM: So are you frugal now with all your Rage riches?
BW: Oh, I'm a millionare, and I spend my money like mad. I'm a full- on pimp!
[Laughs] I'm kidding. Actually, I don't have as much money as someone in a band that
has sold many records as we have should. It comes in slowly. But my next move is to
buy a little house somewhere. My dream is to have a house with a studio so I can create
art. That would make me happy.
KM: How did you join Rage?
BW: I've only been in three bands in my life. I played with a lot of people, but I
could never get a whole band together, although I was always eager to be in one. I
learned a lot when I was younger by playing with people who were better than I was. You
can learn a great deal that way.
In high school I played with friends in garage bands while working in a store
that sold comforters. I remember stealing thirty comforters to sound proof our garage.
I'm not proud of stealing, but I'd do anything at that point to play. We would play
Zepplin songs for days.
I never felt like I was in a band where I could play all the styles I knew I
could play until Rage. I put out advertisements saying I was looking to form a band
that would explore many different styles to make a unique type of music. I was lucky
enough to find three other people who were into that. Tom responded to my ad in 1991.
We played for three months in a warehouse, recorded, and started playing shows
and our own tapes. The crazy thing was that from the first show we had record company
interest. It happened really quick.
KM: But before Rage you worked odd jobs until you found the right situation.
BW: I delivered pizzas at my friend's pizza place. I did what I had to make ends meet.
Delivering pizzas let me drive around and listen to loud music. That job enabled me to
buy cymbals, which were cracking left and right. I used to drill holes in the cymbals
to stop the cracks. I bought a pair of Paiste hi-hats, which were very expensive, and
they busted on me real quick. I still have letter from Paiste saying I wasn't playing
the cymbal right. I'm going to frame it one of these days. "You're playing wrong."
KM: You play a unique brand of drums called Pork Pie Drums.
BW: I've known Bill Detamore, the maker of Pork Pie drums, for a long time. They're
all hand built. He really takes pride in the work that he does. And I'm not into
putting logos on my basedrum head; I put art on it. Tim Alexander used to play Pork
KM: Were hearing Pork Pie drums on the records?
BW: I play all kinds of drums on the records. The toms are Pork Pie, with an old
KM: On SNL it looked like you played very hard. At least you telegraph a lot.
BW: I telegraph a lot with my right arm, but if look at my left arm, most of the power
comes from a 12" space between the stick and the drum. That's where the snap comes
from. It's different for each hand.
KM: How have you changed as a drummer in the last four years?
BW: Let me avoid the comedy here: On the first record, it was in-your-face, abrasive,
and you knew where 1 was. But you couldn't really hear the subtleties that I was into
priar to this band. I wanted to bring that out on Evil Empire. It was great that we
recorded in such tiny room. I wanted to capture the subtleties that were going on
between 1 and 3. That's what makes the groove, and what distinguishes your groove from
someone elses. I think this record captured that much better.
KM: So the inner sleeve photo on Evil Empire....
BW: That's where we recorded, in that tiny room at Cole Rehearsal Studio in Hollywood.
Down the hallway there was a huge room where the producer sat with 24-track board and
the tape decks. We snaked cables across the ceiling into a tiny, sweaty room where we
recorded everything. It was actually cool 'cause that's where we rehearsed for the
KM: The recorded sounds much better on Evil Empire. The bass drum on the first record
was very boomy and low, like a rap record.
BW: I think the whole first doesn't breathe too well. It was too predictable.
KM: Do you practice a lot now?
BW: I live in a one bedroom apartment and we don't even have our own rehearsal. When I
play it's usually just jamming with other people. I rarely practice alone.
KM: What are you listening to now?
BW: Everything from Black Sabbath to Leonard Cohen, Tim Waits, Nick Drake, Bob Dylan.
And a lot of jazz stuff like Gene Krupa, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John
coltrane, Wayne Shorter.
KM: Is everyone in Rage that open-minded?
BW: Hmmm...well, I don't want to comment on that.
KM: In my experience, I think drummers are the most open-minded musicians.
BW: Perhaps. I didn't say that, you did!
KM: Was a perticular song on the album that was hard to realize?
BW: [long pause] Not one really. We always go through a process of trying to make
everyone happy. One doesn't stick out that was a real bitch. They were all real
bitches- but they were quick bitches! The album only took fourteen days to record.
KM: Since a lot of your songs come out of jamming, you don't necessarily figure out a
BW: I think jamming is about coming up with drum parts. Often I'll take home rehearsal
jam tapes and find a little spot, "Oh, that's it right there." Or I'll here something
completely different the next day. Ideas are kind of passed all the way around the room
on all instruments. Everyone else is really talented in that way; there's a lot of
ideas going around.
KM: Critics cite Zepplin and The Chili Peppers as bands you sound like, but a song like
"Revolver" sounds more like MC5. It has raw anger and danger to it.
BW: Thank you! I love the MC5- and the Iggy Pop thing. It's just the abandonment of
rules. I listen to any drummer who is playing on the edge. It wasn't very controlled
and I love that. That's what the music is all about to me: Putting yourself out on the
edge, exposing yourself, and not being afraid of completely letting go in front of
KM: When Rage went buck - naked at Lollapolooza '94, what was going through your mind?
BW: I was thinking about how the wind felt underneath my scrotum, what the people in
the front were thinking, and all the cameras flashing and what they were going to be
thinking as they developed their film. Actually, doing that was no big deal. It didn't
freak me out. That's how we all came into the world. It's a liberating thing.
We were trying to convey a message about the PMRC and censoship in general. We
were being banned on the radio because of bad language. ["Killing in the Name"
contained repeated profanity.] We just wanted to make a point. The first ten minutes
they were going nuts, but after ten minutes they were getting pissed. We didn't play
the show. We stood for fourteen minutes and left. We did come back and play a free
show, though. Censorship of language is ridiculous to me.
KM: What other experiences stand out?
BW: We were in Copenhagen and we were tear-gased. We were playing in Christiana, which
is independent of the country, like a commune, and the police wanted to shut them down.
Before the show they gased our bus while we were in it! I never remember feeling so
alive and so desperate to play after that happened. And that show is probably one of the
best shows we have ever played. It just wakes you up-- definately.