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Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford picks up the mic in Wakrat

“Any time people are breaking outside the norm and playing something that isn’t expected — that feels like punk to me.”

To keep their skill sets sharp, musicians must challenge themselves creatively on a regular basis. It’s a concept that’s been embraced head-on by Tim Commerford, the powerhouse bassist best known for handling the low-end duties in Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and most recently, Prophets of Rage, a galvanizing RATM offshoot that also features Chuck D of Public Enemy and B Real of Cypress Hill handling rap and vocal duties.

Commerford recently added a new job skill to bolster his own résumé: lead vocalist. It’s a role he took to upon becoming a member of the post-punk trio known as Wakrat (pronounced “Wok-rat”), which also features drummer Mathias Wakrat and guitarist Laurent Grangeon.

The band released its punishing and politically charged self-titled debut Wakrat digitally via Earache Records on Election Day — and on physical formats a few days later — and they just finished a run opening for Prophets of Rage on their recent Make America Rage tour. Heavy-hitting Wakrat songs like the complementary yet contradictory thrust of Sober Addiction, the of-the-moment-as-anything Generation Fucked, and the bruising neck-breaker Knucklehead all show Commerford can clearly handle whatever gets thrown his way.

“The idea of being able to do the bass and the vocals together seemed like a pipe dream to me — it didn’t seem possible,” Commerford admitted to Digital Trends. “I was even telling Mathias, ‘Hey, we’re probably going to have to get a different singer to pull this off.’ But they were very confident: ‘No, dude — we know you can pull it off.’ I went, ‘OK, wishful thinking, maybe — but I’ll take that confidence.’ Now I can play all the songs we have, and I’m blown away. I’m so proud of being able to do it all at that level.”

Digital Trends got on the line with Commerford while he was on a tour break to discuss how changing time signatures fuels new song ideas, the common thread between punk and prog, and why he prefers mixes that aren’t too bass heavy.

Digital Trends: First of all, I have to say I like the fact that you’re rarely, if at all, playing in 4/4 time on Wakrat. You’ve come up with some pretty cool time signatures here.

Tim Commerford: (chuckles) Yeah, and I think that sets us aside from a lot of today’s music, and particularly punk music. I was really drawn to that when I heard the arrangements Mathias and Laurent initially presented to me. It was like, “Wow!” I hadn’t heard anything like that before.

It’s a weird feeling playing music that’s not a standard, square 4/4, you know? It’s not the same. I didn’t play anything that wasn’t 4/4 for my entire career until Wakrat.

The album’s opening track, Sober Addiction, is in 7/8, right?

Yep. Every song on the record has some odd time signature, and it’s not because of me — it’s because of Mathias. He grew up playing jazz music in a jazz quartet he toured with, and he also loves punk rock.

On some of the songs, there are some really odd beats I had never heard before. Mathias and I would be listening to jazz music together, and whether it was Miles Davis or Eric Dolphy, he would go, “Listen to that beat! Do you recognize that? That’s the beat in Nail in the Snail!” I’d be like, “Oh my God — I never heard that beat before, but there it is!” It’s so different in the context of a be-bop quartet.

Would you say listening to that kind of music opened you up to get out of the pocket kind of groove you established when playing with Prophets of Rage, Rage Against the Machine, and Audioslave?

Oh yeah! Even when we went from Rage to Audioslave, I always loved how different they were. I was really proud of that. This is another different turn that I love, and it’s making me a better player.

Do you feel you have to play bass differently when you’re in Prophets with Brad Wilk on drums as opposed to how you play in Wakrat with Mathias on drums?

Oh yeah — it’s a different style, you know? Playing with Brad in Prophets, it’s that square, 4/4 style. It’s all about the feel, and the groove that’s like an internal metronome. So I focus on that, and try to feel it in my performance.

With Mathias, it’s more math, like, “OK, here’s a phrase where I start from this finger, and I end the phrase on this finger. I take a breath right here, or else I’m not going to be able to sing this part. If I do it all right, I’ll be landing on that finger, breathing right there, and everything’s going to be OK at the end of this phrase.” With Mathias, it’s a different puzzle, for sure.

You’ve mentioned that King Crimson was an influence on you growing up, and there’s a little of that in Nail in the Snail. That one feels a bit Frippian [Robert Fripp is King Crimson’s longtime guitarist] in spots to me.

Oh yeah. Brendan O’Brien mixed the record. He’d produced a couple of Rage records, Audioslave, and everything in between, from Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Pearl Jam — and he’s the best instrumentalist and best guitarist I’ve ever been around. Set aside that he’s a great producer and engineer. When he was mixing it, he was quick to say, “Hey man, this has definitely got a King Crimson vibe to it.” Coming from him that meant a lot, because he can play pretty much any song from any band in that era.

Do you have a favorite King Crimson era? Are you an In the Court of the Crimson King guy (1969), or a Discipline, Adrian Belew-era guy (1981)?

I like Discipline. That’s my favorite King Crimson album.

“I personally consider be-bop jazz to be punk rock. Prog rock definitely falls into that category too.”

Tony Levin’s bass playing must be a big influence on you, then.

Yeah. I was a huge prog rock fan as a kid in high school, and I’m so thankful for that. As much as I was over the top into the Sex Pistols, that was my one true love. I really went from the Sex Pistols to Rush, and ultimately to King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and everything else. I’m really thankful that that’s how I learned how to play my instrument, by emulating [Yes bassist] Chris Squire and people like that.

There is a through line between punk and prog, in a lot of ways. I mean, Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols even played a song from Van der Graaf Generator guitarist/vocalist Peter Hammill’s solo material on a radio show in the U.K. in 1977, because he felt an affinity with that stuff.

And what is punk rock, you know? Is punk rock really music, or is it really just an attitude? I get into that discussion with people all of the time. I personally consider be-bop jazz to be punk rock. And prog rock would definitely fall in that category too. Any time people are breaking outside the norm and playing something that isn’t expected — that feels like punk to me.

Listening to Rush as a teenager was like you were in a secret club. It didn’t become “cool” until we all got much older.

I’m so thankful that it did. Geddy Lee’s approach to the instrument of bass is so — he plays so hard. When I went to see them play, I would notice how hard he would be hitting the strings, and that inspired me to want to do that. That really is the key to the way I play — it’s not really the amp or the bass as much as it’s the right-hand technique.

And you hit the nail on the head. When Rage first got together, I had already known Zach [de la Rocha, vocalist/lyricist] all my life — and, believe it or not, he was the one who turned me on to both the Sex Pistols and Rush for the first time, when we were little kids! So when I was meeting Brad [Wilk, drummer] and Tom [Morello, guitarist] for the first time, it was easy for me to go, “Oh yeah, I love the Sex Pistols,” but it wasn’t as comfortable for me to say I was a total Rush fanatic geek.

When I finally did muster up the courage to say that, Brad said, “Oh, man — me too!” That was our common ground, so he and I would jam on YYZ [an instrumental from 1981’s Moving Pictures] at the end of rehearsals. That was always really fun.

I’ll bet. How do you want your bass tone to come across in the mixes for Prophets of Rage tracks?

I really enjoy midrange. On the EP we made [The Party’s Over], I almost feel like there’s too much low end on it. Like I said, I like Geddy Lee, man — I like that Moving Pictures bass sound, where it’s very midrangey and grindy.

Right, like the sound he gets on Vital Signs.

Something like that, yeah. He got a great sound on all of those songs. I feel like that record was the quintessential Rush sound. It’s not a lot of low end — it’s more midrange, mid-low.

“I just want to be heard, but I don’t necessarily want to be felt.”

That’s how I EQ my amplifiers. If there’s a graphic equalizer on my amp head, I always turn the lowest low-end slider way down. I also turn the highest high-end slider way down, and I peak the band in the middle to get into that more midrange tone. That tone doesn’t take a lot of high-tech equipment to get, so the good thing is, if you’re listening to it through the speakers on your computer, you can hear it.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown up to the first show of a tour, and some tech or a new monitor guy gets the sound set for the stage, and when I get my first listen to it, it’s always, “Whoa, dude — you’ve got way too much low end. Way too much!” (chuckles) It’s always that way.

Do you think because they see you playing a certain role in those bands that they overcompensate for that perception?

Maybe. Bass is bass, so maybe they think, “Well, he’s a bass player, so he’s gonna want to hear bass.” Not me. I’m more focused on the overdrive and the blend of the clean bass sound, and being able to remove one thing and let something else shine through. It’s more like that, rather than hearing some big, giant sound. I want to be able to hear distortion. If there’s too much bass, it buries the distortion quite a bit.

That makes me think about what we might not be able to hear in a track like Knucklehead, which has a lot of interesting elements going on in its mix.

For sure — not to mention it would be harder to focus on the guitar, the kick drum, and those sort of things that I think are just as important, if not more.

I just want to be heard, but I don’t necessarily want to be felt. I like to feel the kick drum, but I don’t like to feel the bass in my chest like that.

A lot of people are going to come to Wakrat and Prophets music through streaming services. As a musician, what do you feel about the streaming universe? How do you discover new music yourself these days?

Truth be told, if I want to listen to new music these days, I plug into the computer and Google what I want to hear, find a video of it, and listen to it that way.

For a moment in time, I wasn’t sure I agreed with the way music was going back in the ’90s, but now here I am, seeing the computer as a middleman. It’s taken the job of a lot of people, but it’s made it easier for musicians to get their music out there, and it’s ultimately made it easier for people to hear new music.

As a musician, I like the opportunities people now have to hear my music, and to be able to get my music out there to everyone in the world — it is what it is. It’s an evolving form of entertainment.