Ill Literature #18
Rage Against the Machine
Peter Atkinson

On Election Day, even though there wasn't much happening at the ballot box this year.  The LA-based agitators rocked the vote by dropping their incendiary third album, The Battle of Los Angeles, and then tearing midtown Manhattan that evening with a performance for The Late Show with David Letterman * their first network TV appearance since being tossed off Saturday Night Live for hanging an upside down flag on their speakers.  The band already had worked fans into a lather after the release weeks earlier of the profane first single, *Guerilla Radio* to radio and the internet (where Battle's opening track *Testify* also was available for download) and a series of shows in Mexico City, New York, Washington D.C., and Coachella, California.  And all this was preceded by a last-minute campaign stop, fittingly in Washington, D.C. for a Halloween club show and the band's first ever in-store appearance.  The frantic run-up to the album's release actually capped a solid six weeks of nonstop, worldwide promotional work that began with a rousing set at the Woodstock '99 debacle * this after doing next to non for their last album, 1996's chart-topping, 3-plus million selling Evil Empire.  But in the middle of all this came a sobering Supreme Court ruling denying a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia death row inmate whose cause the militant Rage had taken up a year ago.  Pennsylvania officials set a Dec. 2 execution date for the former Black Panther and radio journalist, who was convicted nearly 20 years of killing a Philadelphia police officer, but a U.S. District Court judge interceded on Oct. 26 and issued a stay of execution.  Rage Against the Machine sparked international debate * and in some quarters outrage * last spring with they headlined a benefit show for Mumia in New Jersey and pay homage to him on Battle with *Voice of the Voiceless*.  As usual, Rage offer up a big plateful of lyrical food for thought on The Battle of Los Angeles, a heavier, funkier, and livelier album than its predecessors.  Buoyed playing, singer Zach De La Rocha lays out a political agenda that touches on the evils of racism, capitalism, and media manipulation and addresses some of the band's other prominent causes, including the plight of Zapatista rebels and the superiority of the underclasses.  In separate phone interviews, bassist Tim (YtimK) Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk bring us up to date on arguably the most important band in contemporary rock music.

Why are you doing all this promo stuff this time?

Tim: We've got a record that we feel really strongly about and we all want to do what we can to help it do well.  It's been three years since our last album, and music is a hell of a lot different now than it was then.  In the past there weren't a whole bunch of bands doing what we do.  But now there's a lot of bands with that sort of musical fusion, there's a lot of multi-racial bands.  And I think that's great, it helps shake up the mainstream. But it also crowds the field and we want to elbow our way back into the game.  It's kind of weird, it's not music, that's for sure. (laughs)

Have a lot of people been taking advantage of the songs that are available on the Internet?

Brad:  The whole album is out there (laughs)  It's pretty crazy, a lot of people already have the record because of the whole MP3 thing. Part of me thinks it's pretty fucking punk rock that anyone can get your music at any time.  We're going to have to go back to our day jobs and make music for the art of it (laughs) and have it be free, man.  You never know.

Do you think there might be a little overcompensation this time with the promotional onslaught?

Tim: We're willing to do this promotional stuff for this record only because it's a good time for us and it's kinda fun.  But the minute its not or the minute any negativity comes off it, we're done with it.  The one time a year we roll through town is usually pretty cool.  It's a live show and that's what we're a band for, so that we can go onstage and play live: not do records, not do press, and not do anything but play some extreme music and some extreme politics. I think a mystique is nice. Us putting out a record every four years builds a mystique, I believe in that.  There was a time when I felt that taking four years to do a record wasn't a good idea, but now since music has come around our way and we're nine years into the game on our third record I think there's definitely an argument that those four years between records is why we're still around.

Is this stuff good for the Rage esprit de corps?

Tim: It's brought us closer together and empowered us.  We dropped our management a year ago and we've been handling our own affairs since then.  Right now, everything that happens within the context of Rage has to come from each member of the band and it feels good. And it's not really that big of a deal to have to go to an occasional meeting and discuss how we're going to make the band bigger.

As usual, there were break-up rumors about you before the record came out. 

Tim:  When we're not out there and not making music and not out on tour, these things come.  We're four strong-willed, driven individuals who take a lot of pride in what we do, but we're also a unit, and the unit, the band, comes first.  We went to Atlanta a long time ago and we wrote a whole bunch of songs and none of them worked, there was always one person who wasn't happy.  So no matter how strongly you feel about this riff you wrote or whatever, if the band as a whole doesn't dig it, you've got to swallow your pride and move on.  That can be discouraging, it can piss you off, but in the end the band comes out the better for it.

Musically, what kind of statement were you trying to make here?

Brad: I think we were definitely trying to show the intensity of our live show and capture that on tape and show nine years of growth and show the dynamics this band is capable of having.  And I think we captured that much more than we did on the first two albums.  Everyone as musicians have grown.  I was just listening to it.  The bass lines, the guitar and the vocals, I don't take them for granted I think the guys in my band are awesome.

Tom's guitar solos are so cool.

Brad: They're from like Mars or something, I don't know, it's just awesome and I love the chemistry that happens between the four of us when we get together, it's just something I'll never feel in any other band, I don't think any of us will.

You've all been in other professional bands (Lock up, Inside Out, etc.) what is the x-factor that you all have with Rage that you didn't have with the others?

Brad: I think that from the first time that the four of us got together in the room something clicked. Like I said, I don't take chemistry for granted, it all has to do with the chemistry and whatever happens was there from day one and we knew it and we knew that we were onto something that was special to us and that we thought was unique.

Given the chaos you saw at Woodstock '99 and your new *YtimK* moniker, what are your thoughts on the looming millennium?

Tim: I think it's exciting.  Since I've been a kid, I looked at the eour day jobs and make music for the art of *The Year 2000* and though 'wow, I'm gonna be 31'. And here I am.  Obviously, there's a lot of things with the Y2K vibe happening and all that. And I hope if it does go down, like some people think it might, that we'll be ready for it.  But I'm excited by that kind of shit, to be honest with you, chaos and war, I feel that.  I've always felt that I'm going to be in a war someday, that it's gonna go down and it's going to be part of my life.  Other people in other parts of the world experience that, they look out their window and see tanks rolling by and I've never seen that shit before.  America has never seen that before, and it's gonna come, and it's going to come in the new millennium.

In what context do you see this war?

Tim: There's a couple takes on that.  There's still racism, rampant poverty, and serious class divides in America, so racial and cultural upheaval are certainly within the realm of possibility. And there's war going on in other countries and there's plenty of well-armed countries and terrorist groups itching to get at us.  All it could take is a guy with one of those suitcase bombs. The world's not a good place now. But I've got some friends who've spent time in prison and one friend who's a police officer who worked in prisons and there's a good possibility if something's gonna happen, its gonna start there.  There's something like 2 million people in prison in America right now, that's more people than are in the active military. Think about that!

How does that factor into The Battle of Los Angeles?

Tom: It seems fitting in that a lot of what the band is about has to do with Mexico and California and Los Angeles was Mexico not long ago.  And there's a lot of Latin people in California and a lot of non-Latin people that resent that and tried to make it so kids can't get health care, and can't go to school, so there's definitely a war going on in that way.  And then it's not hard for me living in California, in LA, to go right down the street and see some kids that might be at war, like gangs and there's a lot of different people.  I just spent some time in Japan I look around and all you see is other Japanese people, but in Los Angeles you look around and you see everyone, and with that comes tension, like it or not, and some day the shit's gonna go down.

What is the band's political make-up like, do you all share the same ideologies or is their room for individual concerns?

Brad:  We're all definitely into different things, but the philosophies are in line.  I'm more into doing things on a local level as opposed to a global level, I think they're both really important, but there are a lot of people who are concerned with global issues that walk out the front door with blinders on and it's important for people to realize what's going on in their own neighborhood.  I work with the Los Angeles Free Clinic, which is right down the street from my house.  There's a lot of homeless people around where I live and this place gets them the medical attention and health attention that they otherwise would not have.

Has there been a lingering backlash from the Mumia benefit, do you guys feel under the gun at all from the police?

Brad:  I don't know.  We don't really pay attention to that. You can't go through life looking over your shoulder just because you're taking a stand that other people don't agree with * even if they are cops.  The only backlash I'm concerned about is Mumia's.  The fact that his appeal was denied by the Supreme Court, I think that's the most important thing.  He needs more support and people need to make that [a new trial] happen and the only way that's going to happen is by people writing in and demand that he does get a fair trial.

Any other benefits in the works?

Brad: As of yet we don't, but I know that we will.  It's something that we're definitely going to have to address and figure out again. It would be that much more important for us to do it at this point.

Does screaming your ideology at the kids in your audience have an impact, or do most of them just get off on the bombast and the cool grooves?

Tim: There's always those kids who are into it for the aggressive style of music and I respect that, I have a certain amount of that in me.  Then there's always going to be those kids who know more about the political topic of a song than we do.  I feel like music transcends words, it s the universal language. And we go up there and whether we're in Japan or America it doesn't matter.  There's kids that understand what's being said and there's kids that don't understand, but they feel it.  They know that we're giving every ounce we have, and that's the coolest thing.  We've achieved our mission.