Rage Against The Machine are the most politically outspoken rock band ever formed, anchored by the incredible bass playing of Tim Commerford. With Rage “on a break” and supergroup Audioslave no more, Mr C. returns with an even more uncompromising agenda than that of RATM themselves.
Joel McIver meets a man on a mission…
Words: Joel McIver Images: Kevin Estrada
R age Against The Machine, the Los Angeles quartet who achieved massive commercial success over their initial period of activity from 1991 to 2000 and since their reunion in 2007, have always faced one apparently insoluble criticism. Railing against capitalist exploitation in all its forms, from the enslavement of the masses by advertising and TV to America’s foreign policy, Rage made a vast sum of money for themselves by signing to a major label, Epic, and touring the world enabled by a network of music-industry corporations – the very targets of their songs. Noticing this, many an observer remarked on this apparent ideological inconsistency, but the band – Zack de la Rocha (vocals), Tom Morello (guitar), Tim Commerford (bass) and Brad Wilk (drums) – shrugged off the naysayers with the reasonable retort that the use of major communication networks makes for a better dissemination of information. Did people listen? No.
This alone makes Rage much more interesting than your average rock band, whatever you may think of their political agenda – but what is more gripping still, at least for the purposes of this hallowed magazine, is that their music is rooted in the amazing bass parts of Tim Commerford. To understand Commerford’s playing, you need to understand the man himself – and there’s a reason why he’s holding a massive (and very real) rifle in that picture over there.
In everything Commerford does, from extreme sports to extreme music, he applies himself with total commitment, unafraid of causing controversy and only interested in causing reactions. He rides bikes with Lance Armstrong, the American cyclist best known over here for being a naughty drugs cheat. He keeps himself in ridiculous shape, covering his body with a degree of tattoo coverage that most headbangers would quail at. Most recently, he has returned from a period out of the limelight since the demise of Audioslave, the supergroup which succeeded RATM, with a new band, Future User.
The new trio (Commerford plus keyboardist/programmer Jordan Tarlow and drummer Jon Knox, self-released an album this year called #SteroidsOrHeroin (you won’t see that in Asda) and a couple of eye-opening promo videos. In the first, ‘Clockwork’, Commerford adorns the gimp mask you see pictured and subjects chum John McEnroe (yep, the tennis player) to actual – not simulated – waterboarding. In the next, ‘Mountain Lion’, Commerford goes for a merry bike ride with chum Armstrong and then has his naked torso set on fire. Yes, set on fire. Oh, and he used his own blood to colour the vinyl used for the album.
Apply this relentless credo to the bass guitar, and what do you get? First, machine-like technique. Listen to the long bass riff at the back end of Rage’s 1993 hit ‘Bullet In The Head’. It’s played fingerstyle (he describes pick playing as “not bass playing” in the interview below) but sounds like a pick, with such minimal variation that you’d think it was a sample. Secondly, stripped-down economy. Try ‘Bulls On Parade’ from 1996 for size: Morello’s relatively sparse guitar line leaves plenty of room for Commerford to add fills and runs, but he mostly chooses not to, focusing instead on deadly, repetitive intensity. Finally, gear: as he explains below, his vast arsenal of equipment was amassed not because he’s a collector but as part of his quest for the perfect tone. A true bass player.
We’ve been unsuccessfully trying to track Commerford down since BGM began in 2002 – and now that we’ve got him, we think this special, extended interview makes the wait worthwhile.
We haven’t heard much of you since Audioslave folded in 2007, Tim. What have you been up to since then?
I’ve been active! I’ve actually been playing bass more than I’ve ever played before in my life. I’ve gone back to being a kid again, and just loving the instrument and making music. I’ve got a lot more songs to put out with Future User, and then I have another project that I’m gonna dig into, at the other end of the spectrum.
Tell us about Future User. How did it come about?
Me and Jordan wrote and produced the music: Jordan has an incredible studio at his house, he’s just a studio rat and knows everything. He’s got this massive collection of analogue synths. We recruited a guy named Jon Knox who I grew up with in Irvine, California: he’s an insane drummer. There was probably four black people who lived in Orange County, and he was one of those people – and he was also a Rush and Iron Maiden freak, so he was an anomaly!
Wasn’t Jon involved somehow in the formation of Rage Against The Machine?
The band that Tom Morello was in before Rage, called Lock Up, were signed to Geffen and they needed a drummer and auditioned everyone in Hollywood, including Jon and Brad Wilk. Jon got the gig but the band fell apart, and later he called me when I was living with Zack de la Rocha and said, ‘You should play with this guy Tom’. That’s the real story, right there. He was really the catalyst that brought it all together.
Who plays what in Future User?
Jordan plays synth and does all the programming, apart from a bit of Fender Rhodes piano which I played on the song ‘Clockwork’. I play and sing, and Brendan O’Brien – who produced two of the best Rage records, Evil Empire and The Battle Of Los Angeles, as well as the last Audioslave record – is an incredible guitar player and can play any song in any style, note for note. The solos, everything. I was like, ‘I never want to be in a band with a guitar player again, I just want to use the keyboard as the ultimate musician,’ which is what I’ve been calling the keyboard, because it can play things that humans can’t play. But Brendan really liked the music and I asked him to play the guitar. He really solidified the direction of the band, and became the missing element. For ‘Clockwork’ his guitar tuning was E, G, G, G, G, G. It’s insane!
The videos you’ve done are shocking in parts. Was the idea to get people’s attention?
Yes, it sort of was the plan. I knew there’d be a ton of people who didn’t understand why I would want to play such a drastically different style of music, but I love all kinds of music and I like to be able to play whatever I want. I just wanted to lay a foundation and have songs out there so I could say, ‘By the way, this is my band’ and people wouldn’t just have an opinion about one song. Like back in the day, when you put out a single and people would go buy your album and got exposed to all the other songs on there. That’s how it used to be, and it’s not that way any more: nowadays people download one song and only listen to that one song. I wanted to recreate that older vibe.
You set yourself on fire for the ‘Mountain Lion’ video. How on earth do you approach that?
You gotta be careful, and you have to not be afraid of pain! I’m really not: I am a pretty avid, extreme athlete, so to speak, and I have my fair share of stitches and bruises and road rash, and metal plates in my head and cadaver parts in my body. Right now I’m three weeks out of back surgery from crashing my bike. So I’m not afraid of pain, and when I went into that fire burn I was thinking, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? I’ll have a second-degree burn somewhere, or burn my hair or eyebrows off, or something.’
Did no-one say, ‘Tim, this is a really stupid thing to do?’
People were saying that, and I told them ‘Is it any more dangerous than doing a flip off a rooftop, or riding a bike or skateboarding?’ It’s all the same. The guy who did it for me, who is the only guy who does what they call a ‘skin burn,’ where you actually burn without clothes on, told me afterwards – and I’m glad he didn’t tell me this beforehand – ‘Hey man, I just want you to know that this was the biggest skin burn I’ve ever done. I’ve never burned this much flesh before. Also, you’re the first person I’ve ever burned who’s not a stuntman.’ I was like, ‘Right on, that’s awesome!’
Does it hurt?
Well, you’re on fire until it burns you. That’s how it works. It was very uncomfortable to get this thick, malleable protective gel on you. They mould it onto your body and in your ears and your eyes and inside your lips and in every orifice. That stuff is freezing cold, especially because we did it on a freezing night and it was a combination of cold on cold. It was like jumping into a river. The gel protects you, but only for so long: eventually it burns off and then it’s up to you to decide when you’ve had enough. Then they put you out. The guy said, ‘Dude, I know you’ve been through a lot of pain and you have a lot of scars, but don’t try to go too long, because you really can get burned.’ I probably went too long, but it was awesome. I was so cold that I was hyperthermic, probably: I couldn’t control my shivering, so I was looking forward to any source of warmth. I was like, ‘Please light me on fire!’
Your new songs are just as outspoken as anything Rage Against The Machine ever did.
Oh, definitely. I was inspired by Rage in general. That’s gonna be a part of me forever. I was lucky enough to be a student to people like Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello, who are so passionate and political and smart. When Rage first started I was a layman, an average person, and I still am, but I learned and became more passionate about issues and politics, if you want to call it that. When we made those two videos with Michael Moore – ‘Testify’ and ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ – those were, to me, the greatest videos of all time. That’s been my template for Future User. I want to do real stuff. I want to make real videos that have something to say, like it or not.
The cyclist Lance Armstrong was in the ‘Mountain Lion’ video. Has too much been made in the media about his drug use?
He’s a cool person, and we get along in a real shit-talking kind of way, which is a side of him that most people don’t get to experience. I enjoy that a lot. I’m a lot like that as well, and I’ve always believed right from the onset that sports fans are a huge contingent. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger group of people than sports fans.
What inspired that song?
When you have a politician like George W. Bush, who talked about steroids in sports in his State Of The Union address in 2005, that infuriated me. I was like, ‘How dare that guy talk about this, when we have some real drug issues in America that he’s not talking about?’ He’s not talking about the war over there in Afghanistan and the drug lords who they fund, and how that goes hand in hand with the heroin problem that we now have in America, which is the biggest heroin problem we’ve ever had over here. And the overcrowded prisons: we have more people incarcerated here in America than in any other country in the entire world. We have people who say ‘I’m gonna go and buy a prison and have my prisoners make Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret’ and stuff like that. Slave labour. And the prisons are mostly overcrowded with black and Latino prisoners in this country. Slavery is happening here, and that’s a real drug issue because most of those people are in prison for drug-related crimes. That issue should be spoken about in the State Of The Union, not performance-enhancing drugs in sports. I’m sorry, but they’re all doing them. There’s so many people in the Hall Of Fame in various sports and they’ve been doing drugs… and in cycling? Come on now. Since the 1920s and the Tour De France, they’ve been looking for anything they can do, whether it’s drinking or cocaine or whatever… Doping is a part of that sport. And they still are doping, and it’s still a part of the sport, and they’re just always one step ahead of the testing.
What’s the status of Rage Against The Machine, who last played live in 2011?
Dude, same as it’s ever been, you know. I never know. I never know whether the last show we played will be the last show we play, or whether or not there’ll be another one. I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t waste any time thinking about it. If that magic happens, and someone’s able to figure out a reason to play, then that would be great. We’re still a band: it’s not like we got together and said ‘We’re done’ and issued a press release.
What would it take to get Rage to play a concert?
That’s the million dollar question. I have no idea. But I consider Rage a punk band. We’ve never played by the rules and never will. We could have gone on so many tours and could have made so many records and we could have been forgotten, like so many bands that did that. But we didn’t do that, and we don’t want to go out and play the same tour and be redundant. We’re past that point. It’s going to take some spectacular new place or issue that we need to support. That’s what it’s gonna take: something new that we haven’t done.
How did you come up with the chordal riff in E in ‘Bullet In The Head’ from Rage’s first album?
It’s very much like Cypress Hill: listen to that first record and ‘How I Could Just Kill A Man.’ It’s almost the same bass-line. Zack and I would listen to that album when we were driving to Los Angeles from Orange County to rehearsal. We wore the cassette out, we played it so much. Those bass-lines were completely sick. Hip-hop has never been as good since then.
What about the slap riff at the beginning of ‘Take The Power Back’?
Every band that I’ve ever been in, whether it’s Rage, Audioslave, Future User, whatever, everything is organic and starts in the room. Some idea, whether it’s a drum beat or a bass-line, happens, and we’re like, ‘How about this? And how about this? Oh, that’s cool’ and then it snowballs and builds. That riff was a spontaneous kind of thing, like ‘That part will sound good with this part.’
Do you slap much?
I used to be really into slapping the bass, pre-Rage. I loved that Red Hot Chili Peppers album Mother’s Milk, and I played those songs – not as good as Flea plays them, but I tried! I really liked the old Brothers Johnson stuff, and Duran Duran, I love that too. When I started with Rage, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as another Chili Peppers or Faith No More, and I had other bassists like Geddy Lee that I was really into, and I knew I could play like that too and make it sound great.
Are you a fan of Mark King of Level 42?
Oh yeah, dude. For singing and playing, I think he’s gotta be the ultimate. He really is. I’m really excited about being on that short list of bassists who can sing and play, and he’s the ultimate. I love Mark King, I’m a huge fan of that guy.
I hope you don’t find questions about bass gear boring, because we have loads.
It’s not boring to me, because I’m always evolving. What I was using in 1993 is gonna be drastically different to what I used to make the Future User record. It’s fun for me to tap into influences that I’ve never had a chance to tap into before.
You’re using Steinberger basses in Future User, correct?
Yeah man, I use a Steinberger, and that’s a big deal. A lot of people probably hate me for that, but you know what, that’s a sick bass. I always wanted one. I had one of the cheesy ones when I was in high school, like when Geddy Lee switched over to Steinberger for Rush’s Grace Under Pressure album. I was intrigued and got the one that they call the XP2, the wooden-bodied one. I played it for a while but I didn’t really like it that much, so I got rid of it and got my first Fender Jazz bass right after that.
How did you get on with the new Steinberger?
I asked myself ‘I wonder what that bass feels like to play?’ and I bought one on eBay and started learning about them. They only made a few thousand of those basses with the composite body and neck, and they’re so interesting: they have no truss rod and they all sound the same. I bought a second one and wondered if it would sound different, but it sounded exactly the same as the first one. Then six months went by and I picked up the first one again and it felt exactly the same as the second one, and it was in perfect tune! It came out of the case after six months in perfect tuning. It’s insane! They’re just perfect. There are no dead spots on the neck. The high strings and the low strings are super-even. The one thing that suited what I was doing really well was that the strings are a bit closer together, not quite an eighth of an inch but maybe three or four millimetres closer together than a Jazz bass. Having the strings real close together made it a lot easier for me to play faster, and to transition from string to string.
Do these basses have interesting spec?
One has the TransTrem [whammy bar], which is pretty cool. I used it on ‘Mountain Lion’ for a little dive-bomb bass thing. It’s neat, you can lock it in like a capo and you can drop all your strings’ tuning, or you can go up and tune your bass to G or whatever, which I love. So it’s like a capo but it’s a tremolo at the same time. When I got to use a bass tremolo on a song I thought, ‘That is so sick! I don’t know if anyone’s ever used it!’ If you look back at the history of the Steinberger bass, it was used quite a bit in reggae music, because it has a huge low-end sound. And it was used a lot in New Wave music: it sounds really good with keyboards and blends really well. I just love them, man, and now I have seven of them! They’re so cool. I went on Craigslist and I found one for 600 bucks! They’re so comfortable. I made my own thumb rest for them out of a piece of aluminium: I drilled a couple of holes in it and used the screws that you use to adjust the height of the pickups to attach it to the body. It worked perfect.
Are these old basses?
I’ve got an L2 from 1981 or something, it’s the first version. The saddles don’t have a screw adjustment on the back – you move the saddles with your hand to get the right spot and to adjust the intonation. The L2 had the EMG-SS pickup, and the XL2 has the HB pickup, which is not as good as the SS, or at least that’s what people say, and I kinda notice that. I felt it. So I have two beautiful L2s, four XL2s, three of which have the SS pickups, and then the new pickup is called an HBC pickup, so I put that in a bass and got it all set up and dialled up by a guy called Don Greenwald at Headless USA in Newark. You can send him a beat-up old XL2 and Don will dial it up and send it back. I had one from Costa Rica which was all beat up, but Don put a new pickup into it and I swear it’s the best one now.
Some of the bass parts in Future User sound like a workout for the fingers.
Well, I had to go back to my roots. When I first started playing bass I was really into Rush and Iron Maiden and I used to use three fingers to play the bass-lines. I’m no Jaco, but I love Jaco: my left hand is nowhere near his left hand, but I’ve been trying to get my right hand to be pulsating [like his]. No one will ever be him, but I’ve emulated his style and Geddy Lee’s in order to do that. Later, I eliminated the third finger and went to two fingers, and then I started eliminating the second finger and tried to keep up with one finger. I developed this attitude, like ‘If you can do it with one finger, do it with one finger. If it takes two fingers, do it with two fingers.’ But now I’ve turned back to my roots and I’m saying, ‘If it takes three fingers, do it with three fingers!’ ‘Mountain Lion’ is the perfect example of a song that requires three fingers: I don’t think there’s a person living on this planet who could play that fast with two fingers. There probably is a pick player who could do it, but to me, pick playing is not bass playing.
Are you strictly a four-string player?
I have a couple of five-strings, but I have super-big hands like a basketball player, so the strings are too close together for me. I need to get under the strings. I do have a cool Fender five that they made to my spec a few years ago with a wider neck and standard four-string spacing, and the standard giant headstock, rather than the smaller one that they normally use for five-strings.
Do you play double bass too?
I do play upright bass, but it’s a sport – you need to have callouses all up the side of your finger. I was so into it for a while, I was totally into Mingus and all those old 60s jazz bassists. I even took lessons with a bow and everything. You need to practise that thing every single day and not stop in order to be any good. You have to take advantage of any harmonic you can in order to keep your intonation right. Christian McBride: that dude is insane – he’s the Jaco of upright bass.
Are there any other basses on the Future User album?
I did play a Lakland Jazz for some of the distorted parts on the song ‘Supernatural’, and that’s a wonderful bass. Those Lakland basses, if you look at the joint between the neck and the body, you can’t even put a piece of paper in there. It’s unbelievable craftsmanship. There’s this guy Carl Pedigo [www.chicagobassdoctor.com] who was their main luthier when they started, and I have a couple of basses of his, and they’re beautiful too. They’re so detailed and so perfect. When the neck joint is that solid, and the strings go through the body, you’ve got the ultimate Music Man-meets-Jazz, built to the highest standards.
Did you use amps in the studio?
I use Ampegs for a distorted sound. I have an SVT valve head that I’ve had modified with a knob on the back that I crank up and it’s all-out Eddie Van Halen, it drives the amp to another level. I use a 4×10 cab with that amp. But I’ve also got an Acoustic 360, and I’m loving that amp. I use it to get a regular clean bass sound. It’s super-punchy and it has this pulsating sound like John Paul Jones or Jaco Pastorius. You can hear that amp in their sound.
What effects did you use?
I went crazy on the pedals. Jordan and I had no preconceived notion of what music we were going to play, so we just made some musical arrangements before I even did any singing. I was so intrigued by dubstep, even though I felt I was a little late to the party, and I really enjoyed the sounds they were making and wondered if I could get those sounds. I thought maybe I could, so I went out and bought a bunch of effects pedals and geeked out! I bought the Eventide TimeFactor and PitchFactor pedals: those two pedals alone have a lifetime of sounds in them. Those things are so cool. Then I bought a Markbass synth pedal, an Akai SB1 which the dude from Muse uses, and all these different boutique distortion pedals like the Dirty Boy Bass Bully, the Zvex Woolly Mammoth, the Skychord Truck Loud and a WMD Geiger Counter, which is beautiful and has so many sounds on it that it’s overwhelming. Then the Chunk Systems Brown Dog, and their Agent Funk, where you loop them together and they sound crazy, and then I got into the Electro-Harmonix Talking Machine pedal. I went nuts and spent thousands of dollars on effects pedals and tried to recreate synth-bass sounds.
Did you pull it off?
I was successful to a certain extent, but sometimes I had to let Jordan use the beautiful old analogue synths that he has, like the ARP Odyssey and the Minimoog. We’d come up with bass-lines on the bass guitar and beef them up with the synth, or we’d come up with lines on the synth and do the opposite. If we play these songs live it will be a bit of a science project, but it would be incredible if we played a festival with an electronic music tent. Last time I went to Coachella, when I drove away, I could still feel the bass from their tent when I was 10 miles away. Most dubstep is in G because a low G is the lowest note that most PA systems can handle – so some of our songs follow that rule.
Basically, you’re surrounded by amazing bass gear.
Well, I’ve been lucky. So much of being a successful musician is being in the right place at the right time and knowing the right people. I hit the jackpot. I’m able to go out and get what I want, so I do. I don’t even know what I have any more. I just know there’s a lot of stuff laying around. I have a storage facility full of stuff, and a house full of stuff, and a studio full of stuff. There’s kit everywhere.
We have something here called GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome…
That’s it, dude. I don’t have GAS all the time, but I definitely have it two or three months a year.
#SteroidsOrHeroin is out now on iTunes.