Hello, Hello... ...It's Good To Be Back
Words: Ben Myers, Pictures: Ross Halfin
Issue 772, October 16 1999, Pg. 12-16
Humourless revolutionaries. Po-faced militants. Volatile insurrectionists permanently on the verge of splitting. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE have been called all of these and more. Which makes it all the more bizarre that they're busy posting surreal messages on the Internet and denying that they give milk cartons a hard time...
"There are some funny motherfuckers in this band..." TOM MORELLO
SOME WOULD see it as a covert operation executed with the sort of military precision that befits a group of revolutionaries. Others would view it as a breakdown in communication that isn't helped by a gaggle of over-zealous mobile-touting record company representatives. Whatever the reason, getting to talk to the four members of Rage Against The Machine is not an easy task. Ushered into the hotel reception of one of central London's most expensive hotels, the wait begins in solitude as the clock ticks on past the scheduled time. An hour passes and, save for the sight of vocalist Zack de la Rocha stalking across the lobby in baggy pants and shirt, there is no sight of the band. Five years have passed since the four members of RATM were last interviewed together which, given their status as militant 'all-for-one' comrades, speaks volumes. Recent rumours suggest that all has not been well in the Rage camp, yet today's coming together could signal a new beginning - a new-found solidarity - for the band as they return with their much-anticipated third album, 'The Battle Of Los Angeles'. Formed in 1991 and named after a song that Zack wrote for his former band Inside Out, it didn't take long for Rage to explode onto the international stage with their self-titled debut album. Their impact was astonishing. While grunge was busy brushing away the debris of the '80's 'hair-metal' scene, rock was still largely a non-political genre. People sang about themselves and what what it was like to be young, American and pissed off. Rage, however went one step further. Through a relentless barrage of songs that read like manifestos and were delivered with all the subtlety of a home-made Molotov bomb, the multi-cultural quartet managed to put politics on the agenda and, at the same time, become the first act to successfully and convincingly mix very different musical genres. After Nirvana, Rage are arguably the most important and influential rock band of the 90's. While Kurt Cobain articulated the feelings of millions, Rage Against The Machine encouraged those same people to get involved and tackle issues head on through extreme activism. They were - and still are - the ultimate people's band.
WHATEVER THEY'RE hiding today, the fact that Rage Against The Machine still exist and actually have made a third album is remarkable. More diverse than their previous offerings, yet not straying too far from the original blueprint, 'The Battle Of Los Angeles' is the sound of a band on fire. While songs like 'Testify' and 'Guerilla Radio' pick up where the likes of 'Bulls On Parade' and 'People Of The Sun' left off, elsewhere the band explore more groove-oriented sounds. Tom Morello's guitar once again defines the band's sound via the staccato hard funk of 'Mic Check (Once Hunting, Now Hunted)' or the uplifting Hendrix-goes-hardcore chorus of 'Sleep Now In The Fire', complete with de la Rocha's political shit-list. It's the sound of guitar music being dragged through the turbulent streets of the City Of Angels and into a new era. With much of the past four years taken up with outside projects, many fans wondered whether we would see the return of Planet Rock's most incendiary insurrectionists. Guitarist Tom Morello has worked with such diverse artists as The Prodigy and Jimmy Page, drummer Brad Wilk filled his time by making home demos of experimental noise, and bassist Timmy Commerford was rumoured to be recording a jazz funk album. And then there's the enigmatic Zack de la Rocha. Vocal in his support of the Zapatistas, a rebel group based in the Chiapas region of Mexico, the singer has made several journeys between America and the Zapatistas' base over the last few years. He also found time to address the Human Rights Convention in Geneva earlier this year. You wouldn't see the God Of F**k doing that. And now they're back and ready to talk. Only problem is, things aren't going according to plan. Seconds before they're ready to speak, everything has changed. The quartet have suddenly decided they will only be interviewed seperately and for a maximum of 15 minutes each. The interviews will take place in four different rooms, all of them blandly identical. It's far from ideal, but then this is a band who have faced harassment, tear-gassings and arrests in their quest for truth and justice. And if this is the way they want to do it, then so be it. Rage Against The Machine it seems, are finally ready to talk.
ZACK DE la Rocha has recently taken up smoking. He lights up another cigarette from the pack on the coffee table in front of him and proceeds to watch it burn down to the butt without inhaling on it. He's got better things on his mind: like speaking to the British press for the first time in five years. "Sorry about this, man" he says, by way of explanation for the way the Rage '99 model have chosen to work. "It's crazy. There's just so much to do." Onstage, de la Rocha is a one-man whirlwind of dreadlocks and polemic. Yet, away from the stage he's a very different person. Softly spoken and laid-back he converses on any number of topics, always recognising the importance of speaking his mind. He's refreshingly frank about the fact that the recording of 'The Battle Of Los Angeles' wasn't an easy process. "With us? Never," he replies, with a grin. "No, it's never enjoyable. Actually, I take that back. It's just that so many tensions arose when we made 'Evil Empire' that we had to adopt a different approach. A lot of tensions eminated from the conceptions that each of us developed after the first album about what a great record would sound like. Having not continuously written due to our political engagements, we came back with different ideas." Such differing opinions led to some major conflicts within the ranks - conflicts which seem to have hit the singer the hardest. "I didn't feel my contribution was recognised among the four of us," he continues, barely pausing for a thought as the cigarette burns between his fingers. "At that point I had written and arranged half of Rage's music, yet still felt as a songwriter I wanted props of recognition from the others. It's not about self-aggrandisement or money. I just wanted recognition. So this time those guys took the musical reigns and I came in to do the lyrics. In the end it was a healthier, more fulfilling process than times past." Was there ever a time when you wanted to leave? "Right now, we're taking it day by day," he states. "I don't see why we can't continue, primarily because we have overcome a lot of the tensions. I don't think that in our heart of hearts we were really ready to destroy this gift that we'd fought for. I mean, we could have sold two or three times the amount of our first album, but I think that would have been destructive."
ACCORDING TO de la Rocha, this creative tension is "a fundamental part of our chemistry and I wouldn't change it for anything. "After our early tours with Public Enemy then Pearl Jam, we discussed whether we should make videos as a way for people to assimilate information", he elaborates. "At first I was very opposed to it, but ultimately it was the right decision. Would our actions have been percieved the same way if we'd sold seven million records straight away? I don't think so. That's where me and Tom don't agree. We have a different approach to the way our politics are addressed. But then again we agree on most of the other stuff too. Ultimately the contention has served us well." This, he explains, was also the reason he declined to do interviews with the press for a number of years. "One of the things I wanted to ensure was protection of this band's integrity," he says, fiddling with his lighter. "That we were walking what we were talking, as opposed to just talking. We're dealing with a monstrous pop culture that has a tendency to commodify and pacify everything - it's happened to so many bands in the past. It's important that artists in my position set an example and there's a fine line between the promotion of a product and the promotion of an idea. And so, to protect my integrity, I decided to refrain." While Rage have undoubtedly retained their integrity, there's no denying the fact that they opened the floodgates for a whole slew of bands who took de la Rocha and co's lead in embracing hip-hop. It's safe to say that without Rage Against The Machine there would be no Korn or Limp Bizkit. "We just happen to be a band who have been able to create this open space within pop music," says Zack, "and try to set in motion a new era where more dissident voices in commercial music can become a part of the dialogue. It comes with great responsibilities though. Anyway, for every Nirvana there were 10 or 15 Bush's or whoever, and with Rage Against The Machine there's been some not so great bands."
DRUMMER BRAD Wilk describes his most memorable Rage Against The Machine moment as the time when the band were tear-gassed while playing a show in Kristiana, a communally-run area of Copenhagen, 1996. "It was the most intense moment of my career," grins the drummer. "We were tear-gassed on our bus right before we were due to go onstage. I remember the police coming in and trying to incite a riot, even though the kids weren't doing anything. After it happened we got up and and played the most intense show we've ever done. After being threatened like that, I have never felt so alive in my life." Dressed in non-designer combat trousers, stout black boots and a sleeveless Led Zepellin T-shirt, Wilk is charmingly polite and happy to look back on a career that he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams. "The first show we played was at a club called Jabberjaw in LA in 1991," he reminisces. "We rehearsed for two or three months and decided to f**k the record companies and just sell the tape ourselves at the show. The crowd reaction was so intense that it was a big celebration of frustration and anger. It was a remarkable feeling. I realised that we had something special and that maybe we could take this thing further. There's nothing like it. I love it." As for Rage's image as angry young men, Wilk is amused. "We don't wake up in the morning and rage against the milk carton because we can't get it open," he chuckles. "Yet, the fact that we aren't a typical band creates some sort of mystique around us, which is a good thing. Anyway, it's much easier to talk about politics than yourself."
"Right now we're taking it day by day..." ZACK DE LA ROCHA
IF ZACK de la Rocha is Rage Against The Machine's mouthpiece, then Tom Morello is their public face. While his bandmates have been content to shy away from the limelight, the guitarist was the one who kept Rage's profile high via assorted musical collaborations. He is accutely aware of his band's place in the grand scheme of things. "We began a genre in '91 that has now come to commercial fruition," he says as he settles into a chair, adjusting his trademark baseball cap. "But I still think that we stand apart. Zack's lyrics have nothing in common with anything else. Timmy and Brad play their best - it's the deepest funk and there's a new musical cohesion there. It feels great." Articulate and amusing, Morello is completely at odds with the group's stern-faced image. "Although our work is always deadly serious, on a day to day basis there's some funny motherf**kers within this band," he laughs. "It's not always a heavy political vibe. That's the side the public sees, as opposed to the dressing room hi-jinx." It's Morello who has continually encouraged the rest of the band to embrace the mainstream - a philosophy that reached it's natural conclusion on last year's ill-fated tour with maverick New York hip-hop collective Wu-Tang Clan. "The Wu-Tang tour was dramatic, to say the least," he remembers. "The combination of our politics and a rap group terrified the authorities. We managed to intercept a memorandum meant for a local sheriff's department in Colorado and it talked about anti-police sentiments and the blackness of Wu-Tang. They then tried to file injunctions, but none of them were successful thanks to the First Amendment. It was very weird though," he adds with a wry smile. "It's not like we're devil worshippers." Unsurprisingly, the Harvard-educated Morello has dipped his toe into the murky pond that is politics. "My involvement in politics was originally just a daily gig because it was the only thing that my degree could get me," he explains. "It was a last-gasp attempt at parliamentary politics. I had a woman ring up incensed because there were Mexicans moving into her neighbourhood. I told her that it's far better to be living in a neighbourhood of Mexicans than a neighbourhood of loud-mouth racists. I thought I was doing good work but I was chewed out by all of my employers for my honesty." So no 'Morello For Prez' campaign in the future then? "Well, I could see Rage playing at the White House," he laughs. "Maybe we should have our record release party at the Oval Office. Imagine that..."
"We stand apart..." TOM MORELLO
WITH HIS large square frame and jaw-dropping array of tattoos, bassist Timmy Commerford is the most physically imposing member of the band, yet he confesses to being the most insecure. He's also the one who admits to having had "way too much spare time on my hands these past four years". This may explain his frankly bizarre recent behaviour. Originally known as Timmy C, earlier this year he insisted that the world address him as y.Tim.k. The ridiculousness culminated in a surreal message he posted on the band's website that began: "I am changing. I am trying to get a grip. My tastes are different (I actually like onions). But I'm not content, so in other words, I feel the need to rock fools. "That was just me dicking around," he laughs. "It was letting people know that I'm out there. I've always shied away because my anonimity is important. I sit at home like a regular guy getting psyched thinking about playing shows. It's a great thing." Of the foursome, it's Commerford who's the most enthusiastic about the new music. For him, the band is everything. "My job is to deal with my insecurities," he explains. "I do worry about feeling good about myself. Before the band, there was a point where I didn't think that I was cut out for music. I nearly left it behind to be a carpenter." Despite long periods of inactivity over the last couple of years, the bassist is more enthusiastic about the future than ever. "With Rage, everything is a sporting event and all other bands are competition, friend or foe," he grins. "Onstage or on the bus playing Playstation, it's on. Man, we look better than we've ever looked before. We're all over 30, but we haven't been hit by old age yet. I trip out on that, man."
AND THAT, as they say, is that. Time has run out, and Rage Against The Machine are ready to bid us farewell. Their reasons for their decision to detach themselves from one another aren't clear: it could simply be down to the constraints of time, it could be that the internal friction is starting to spark up once more, or it could purely be to protect the mystique that Brad Wilk has talked about. If it is the latter, then they have failed. Over the course of an hour, the following facts have been disclosed: Tom's favourite book is the fluffy bunny tale 'Watership Down'; Brad has two boxer dogs that keep him busy; Timmy undertakes "a daily jail cell-style workout", doesn't listen to heavy music and may one day make cabinets for a living. As for Zack...well, he's more driven than ever, more determined to overcome any obstacle that's thrown his way. Even as the record company people usher them out of the room, it remains apparent that Rage Against The Machine are still the most important band around, the only band who have a chance of making some real changes, the only political band truly worth listening to. And for that they should be saluted.
Rage Against The Machine: They'll collaborate with anybody...
Artist: Puff Daddy & Jimmy Page
Track: 'Come With Me'
Tom Morello: "The Puff Daddy thing was interesting because Jimmy Page did not appear on that track. He played on it, but he's not on it, if you get what I mean. Did they turn his guitar down? Not even that - he never made the record. Puff Daddy is in a crazy world, but he was great: he's a lot more musical than I expected and he's got his own methods. With Rage, we just set up in a room and rock."
Artist: Class Of '99
Track: 'Another Brick In The Wall Pt II'
A supergroup comprising of Tom Morello, Alice In Chains Layne Staley, Jane's Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, Porno For Pyros bassist Martin LeNoble and Matchbox 20 keyboardist Matt Serletic. They recorded a cover of Pink Floyd's biggest hit for the soundtrack to 'The Faculty'.
Artist: Maynard James Keenan and Bill Gould
Track: 'Calling Dr. Love'
Another supergroup, this time with Morello and Brad Wilk lining up alongside Tool's vocalist Keenan and Faith No More's bassist Gould under the monicker Shanti's Addiction. The track was recorded for a Kiss tribute album.
Artist: The Prodigy
Track: 'One Man Army'
Tom Morello: "The best collaboration that I have personally done was with The Prodigy for the 'Spawn' soundtrack. I think that the song we did is awesome. Instead of the usual collaboration, Liam Howlett based the song entirely on my guitar part, which I found pretty flattering. I just think he's got a great way of working."
Artist: Chuck D,
Track: 'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos/Zapata's Blood'
After appearing onstage with Rage for a version of Public Enemy's classic 'Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos' which was released on a Japanese-only Rage compilation, the Godfather of rap also provided an intro on a new version of 'Zapata's Blood' as a B-side on the 'People Of The Sun' single.
Artist: Henry Rollins, Flea, Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony
Morello, Rollins, and Flea hooked up with rap crew BT&H to record the track 'War' for the soundtrack to computer-animated kiddie flick 'Small Soldiers'.
Zack de la Rocha joined veteran rapper KRS-One for 'C.I.A.' on last year's 'Lyricist's Lounge' hip-hop compilation.
Artist: Run DMC
Track: 'Big Willie'
Morello played guitar on the track 'Big Willie', taken from the hip-hop veterans 1994 album 'Down With The King'.
Artist: Snoop Doggy Dogg
Track: 'Snoop Bounce'
Timmy C: "Brad, Tom and I worked on the song with Snoop for a benefit record. We wrote the song in a day or two then Snoop dogg came in and just fucking went off man...one take! He smoked a load of dope, brought a lot of people in and turned off the lights in the studio, then - boom - he did it. It was amazing. Snoop Dogg's got skills, man!"
Transcribed by Leo Ross ([email protected])