Tim Commerford: "My tone is always a work in progress, and the stage is my laboratory"

(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/WireImage/Getty Images)

What happens when you mix three parts rap revolutionaries with three parts of the most politically driven, riot-instigating rock group of the past three decades? The members of Prophets Of Rage will gladly answer that question with firm fist raised in the air. 

Tim Commerford and two other Rage Against The Machine members have united with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord and Cypress Hill’s B-Real to form a supergroup fit to revolt against even the most formidable of political regimes. Just over a year after releasing their 2016 EP The Party’s Over, the rabble-rousers of revolt have returned with a self-titled debut album that contains enough rancor to spark a movement.

On the bass front, Timmy C is holding it down like never before. After swapping Fenders for Sadowskys for Steinbergers and everything in between over the years, the 49-year-old is currently smitten with Music Man Stingrays. He buckled down with longtime producer Brendan O’Brien to make sure his recorded sound embodied all of the gritty qualities that he’s known for. 

Commerford also applied his marathon practice regimen from the past few years to his writing, and the results are funk-meets-metal-meets-punk riffs with a whole lot of swagger - a vibe that’s met and matched by his bandmates. And it just might ignite a revolution.

What led Prophets Of Rage back into the studio for this album so soon after releasing your EP?

During the tour we did right after our EP, we had so many soundchecks and so much down time on the road to jam and write together, it all started to really gel. B-Real was the one who said we needed to put out a full record when we got back. A couple months later, we were in the studio, and we just rode that wave of being a band. Three months later, we had the record mixed and ready to go.

What was the studio process like?

We recorded it the way we know how to record. Brad [Wilk, drums], Tom [Morello, guitars] and I know how Brendan works in the studio, so everything went smoothly and efficiently, and Chuck D and B-Real fit right in with that. Coming from the hip-hop world, they do things differently, so it was neat to figure out how to work and do it. We just got another message from B-Real saying we should make another record this winter. We’ll see.

Was it a collaborative writing process?

I brought in a ton of material, and so did Tom, and then we let the songs write themselves. Brad would bring in beats, too, or Chuck would have a vocal hook that would lead to something. There isn’t one primary songwriter; it’s been that way in every band I’ve been in, from Rage to Audioslave to this.

The album is very politically charged, which has always been your M.O.

Well, now it feels like it’s getting worse and worse every day. Look who’s president right now. Donald Trump being in office makes it easy to write songs - especially angry ones. We’re more than an anti-Trump band, but it’s outrageous what’s happening every day, and writing songs that have something to say about it isn’t a choice for us. It’s an obligation. 

All you have to do is open up your computer, grab a newspaper, or turn on a TV and there’s always something fucked up happening in the world. Being in a band that writes about politics is tough, but we’re used to it. If being in a band were like playing a video game, we choose difficulty level: extreme.

What was it like working with Brendan O’Brien this time around?

Brendan always knows what I’m going after, but I wasn’t really happy with how my bass sounded on that first EP, and I knew I could have done better. I made that clear to him going into this record and let him know that I wanted to be psyched with my sound. I love how it came out on this record and how my tone sounds on all of the songs.

What were you going for?

I’m always going for the same thing, which requires a clean amp and an overdriven amp, but in this situation I had two overdriven amps that blend with my one clean amp. Right now my amps and basses are at an all-time high. Everything sounds so good, and my bass is so touch-sensitive. 

We did a little club run that made me re-think how I do things. I used to run just a clean tone when we first started out, but now I know that switching from clean to dirty channels makes the heavy parts feel so much bigger, because of the drastic contrast of the sounds. That’s a lifelong passion of mine. Experimenting with amplifiers and basses is just a part of me. My tone is always a work in progress, and the stage is my laboratory.

Unfuck the World has a seriously grooving bass line in the verse.

That was the first piece of music I came up with, and it came from a phone call I made to Chuck where I asked him to give me something to chew on - a vocal hook or a lyric or anything. He said, “How about unfuck the world?” And I loved that. That song is kind of a mixture of Metallica’s Enter Sandman and Rage’s Killing in the Name. I jokingly called it Killing Sandman when we first started working on it.

Your playing is heavy, but with a lot of funky undertones, like in Take Me Higher.

Tom brought in that guitar part, and I tried to figure out something that worked with it. We’re always focused on locking in and playing riffs together, but for this album I was focused on not always doing it that way. It does a lot to the song to play something rhythmically different from what Tom is doing on guitar, and it can make the riff more funky and three-dimensional.

Has that changed your outlook on your playing?

For sure. Lately I’ve been focusing on what I call “the pulse.” I’ll never be Jaco Pastorius or Rocco Prestia or John Paul Jones or Louis Johnson, but they all have the pulse. Even if they’re playing a simple line, I know in their heads they’re hearing that 16th-note or maybe even a 32nd-note pulse that drives everything they’re playing throughout the entire piece. I’m trying to harness that pulse more, and I feel like that’s the key to how bass players should be playing, regardless of the song, the time signature, or the tempo.

What have you been practicing?

In the last couple months I haven’t done anything but play scales and modes and arpeggios. I’m trying to run all the modes, all the way up the neck and back down, and be comfortable with making the right movements from that. It might seem monotonous, but I do that for hours. So many riffs and song ideas come from that.

You seem highly motivated to play right now.

Dude, I am. It’s such an amazing thing that I’m almost 50 and I’m still able to get better on bass and learn new things about this instrument every day. I’m playing all the time - more than I’ve ever played in my life, and I love every minute of it. I love my tone, the parts I’m writing and the people I’m playing with. My love for the bass just keeps growing.

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