These days, the rock scene is low on mysterious figures. As the music has lost its countercultural edge, many of its champions have transformed into average celebrities, happy to speak into any microphone that wanders by. That’s not true of Zack de la Rocha: the Rage Against the Machine vocalist is the rare rock star who keeps his distance from the hype.
De la Rocha is as famous for his radical politics as for incendiary poetics. Between his retirement from Rage in 2000 and his recent reunion with the band, he’s limited his public appearances to the occasional rally or benefit show. His musical output has been spare too: only a few songs have seen light.
But this summer, the 38-year-old Southland native is back and seemingly unstoppable. He has a new musical project -- One Day as a Lion, which pairs him with drummer Jon Theodore. One Day as a Lion’s self-titled debut EP, on Anti- Records, hit No. 28 on the Billboard charts with minimal media attention, and is gaining traction nationally on rock radio. A full release will come in the fall.
De la Rocha has also found a way to embrace Rage again. A 2007
Coachella appearance marked the band’s return as a live unit, and its shows have become major events. Earlier this month, Rage blazed through a chaos-inspiring set at Lollapalooza in Chicago, and the band has just announced a Sept. 3 Minneapolis date, which will serve as a protest against the Republican National Convention occurring simultaneously in St. Paul.
This burst of activity has even inspired De la Rocha to break his media silence. He spoke Monday by phone about the current state of political music, his creative process, and the future of One Day as a Lion — and Rage Against the Machine. A shorter version is running in Tuesday's paper but Soundboard has the full edited interview below.
How did One Day as a Lion, your new project with drummer Jon Theodore, come about?
I’ve known Jon for several years now, and I saw some of his first performances as a member of the Mars Volta. He come from Baltimore and had been in some underground bands there, so I’d heard of him. When I did see him it was clear that music in L.A. was never going be the same now that he was here! I’ve worked with some great drummers, and have seen people try to execute those kinds of things before, but never as effortlessly and with as much feel. He exists in this realm between John Bonham and Elvin Jones. I haven’t seen drumming like that in a long time.
So I immediately felt compelled to get to know the guy and pick his brain and find out what kind of music he was interested in. We had a lot in common. We met in jams a couple of summers ago, without the intention of making an album.
Jon had a friend named Troy Zeigler, who now plays with Serj Tankian, and Troy had this very small rehearsal space where he would teach drum lessons. A couple of summers ago, Jon and I went in there to talk to Troy. He wasn’t there. Jon sat down on one of the student’s kits and started playing. The room was filled with random instruments - there was percussive stuff, these old 80s metal amps that hadn’t been used in ages, and a dusty Rhodes keyboard with some broken keys. I plugged in through a metal amp and ran it through this messed-up delay pedal that had a trigger on it and we immediately started playing. It felt like two people having a conversation using whatever phrases were at our disposal. We had to document it.
We’re still using that keyboard. We had to put an old Number Two pencil and jam it into the side to keep the top on.
The EP came out without much warning and basically no hype. What was the strategy involved in releasing it that way?
I wish I could say there was a strategy involved! We felt that the collection of songs we had chosen had resonated with us and it was really something we wanted people to discover on their own. That’s been missing from music, in a way; we’ve been marketed to so much, rather than people discovering something and picking it up.
When I heard Public Enemy for the first time, it was on the soundtrack for the movie “Less than Zero,” tucked between a Madonna song and some other ‘80s rehash. I was in a friend’s car, he put the soundtrack on and I thought, what is this junk? When it got to “Bring the Noise,” I had that kind of urgent reaction where you just had to stop what you’re doing. It sounded like breaking news.
How did the signing with Anti- come about?
I’ve known Brett [Gurewitz, Bad Religion guitarist and the labels’ founder] for years and we’ve collaborated on a few things in the past, and I appreciate his perspective on making music. He has a genuine respect for artists. I think Anti- can bring in a number of voices that wouldn’t be considered in our rigid radio format-dominated industry still. I found that appealing. And it’s kind of in the neighborhood. But they also have the ability to enable us to grow if that ends up happening. We are working on another album now. And we want to play shows and be a band and go out and start some noise.
The band’s name, One Day as a Lion, hints that this might not be a long-lived project. Am I reading that right?
No! This is not simply a burst of energy. We are going to be making records and writing songs. We’re still in the process of forming as a band -- we need a keyboard player, I’m not good enough to do it all myself -- so that will be rectified soon.
The name speaks about a generation of people, a kind of development that I feel. It’s an intuition about people who aren’t going to be so concerned about elections to get what they need. And whose politics aren’t going to revolve around a bourgeois morality. Their interests are going to be focused on food and housing and justice and revenge. And without going too far into that, that’s an intuition that I had.
Why is there no guitar in these new songs?
I’ve always wanted to experiment with sounds that could provide a kind of tension, something you can’t avoid. When I first heard the sirens and high sax squeals of hip hop in the late 80s, I was drawn to creating those textures. With this new music, it’s wasn’t a choice not to use guitars so much as the spontaneity of that moment when Jon and I got together, regardless of the instrumentation. We wanted to produce a sound that was much larger than what you’d think it could be.
You’ve worked with many collaborators since leaving Rage, including Trent Reznor and DJ Shadow. Did what you learned from those experiments factor into ODAAL?
To an extent it did, and it didn’t. When I left Rage… first off, I was very heartbroken, and secondly, I became obsessed with completely reinventing my wheel. In an unhealthy way, to a degree. I kind of forgot that old way of allowing yourself to just be a conduit. When I was working with Trent and Shadow, I felt that I was going through the motions. Not that what was produced wasn’t great, but I feel now that I’ve maybe reinvented the base sounds that emanate from the songs. But I’m still doing what I feel I do well, while looking for a more minimal sound.
The first ODAAL single is called “Wild International.” That implies a global politics from the get go. How does your work fit into that scenario?
Before we get into the larger thing, that song is a response to the way we saw the U.S. government try to reframe the conflicts of the world. Particularly when the Soviet Union had collapsed, there was no way to subject the country to the kind of fear needed to justify what I consider to be an ill distribution of wealth. After 9/11 you could see that reframing taking place. The specter of Communism no longer haunted the U.S., justifying its actions in Latin America and all over the world. What filled that void were Al Qaeda and the Muslim world in general. That song is, in an abstract way, addressing the way the right has distracted people from this huge rush of wealth from the bottom to the top.
Beyond that, I’m speaking toward a deeper sentiment that I feel and I know a lot of people feel. Most of the songs have to do with redemptive moments that come in the face of some real indignity. And that’s the current that I’m trying to tap into, because I think that for a lot of people -- for the real participants who live in the shadows and work at car washes and are forced to cross the border and are struggling and facing the real economic consequences -- they’re often left out off the debate because of the language they speak or even the terminology that they use.
So it stems from my own frustration. It stems from seeing how things have been developing politically, and watching so much dissatisfaction and people very upset about the way the country is going. And watching all of that frustration steered back into a more traditional political process. The problems stem far deeper than anything that Brother Obama can address, and eventually people are going to have to respond.
I think maybe like a conduit for that expression. I have those same feelings too. I’m a Mexicano growing up in that colonized Southwest. I’m an artist, but I didn’t grow up wealthy.
On the surface, some of these new songs seem very anti-religious, including the single.
I don’t see it as an anti-religious song. I see it as the West has been using Christianity as a way to justify its actions when in reality, those figures, Christ and Muhammad, were rebels. These two religious figures have been co-opted to justify power, although they fought against the abuses of power and the expansion of empire. It’s almost like, what would Christ and Muhammad do?
What do you think of the state of political art now? Sometimes it seems to have really died down, what with a mainstream full of teen pop and reality television.
I’m listening to things all the time. There have been eight years of the Bush administration and the decline of real wages, and people are responding all the time. It’s unfortunate that more conscious artists or
political artists in general haven’t been heard in the mainstream. But I think back to when I was going to hardcore shows and I saw the Bad Brains, those moments resonate and are life-altering moments. Those people who were at those shows have become artists or activists as a result of having their perspective shifted. During the 1980s when punk was seen as unviable or dangerous, or threatening to the music industry, those voices went underground and created their own networks and vehicles for producing what they produced. It did create a very politicized generation. So I don’t necessarily feel that music within the
mainstream is always an indication of the political frustrations that exist beneath the surface.
I’ve traveled back and forth between here and Mexico a lot, especially since the Zapatista uprising in 1994. The Rand Corporation did this study about how the Zapatistas were able to create such an international presence and have their experiences and the objectives of the rebellion outlined for so many people worldwide, and how that was responsible for fending off a more direct military action against the communities. It had a lot to do with the Internet. Whether you’re interested in change and growing up in the Lacandon jungle, or whether you’re young here and watching these horrors unfold in Iraq and Afghanistan, we now have the tools to provide a countervoice.
One line jumped out at me, from the title track -- “If L.A. were Baghdad, we’d be Iraqi.”
In one sense, that line about one of those redemptive moments that run through the whole EP. But I’m also making a comparison between the expansion of U.S. power into Iraq and Afghanistan and the history of the Southwest, which has been erased. There’s a very close relationship between what happened in Fallujah and what happened at the Alamo.
When settlers fleeing the South after the Civil War came into San Antonio, primarily because they wanted to practice slavery, an altercation took place and James Polk used it as an excuse to invade, to fulfill Manifest Destiny in the Southwest, which is really a misnomer -- this is really Northeastern Mexico.
In Fallujah, there were Blackwater mercenaries, and U.S. soldiers taking over schools and using them as a military base in the interest of Exxon Mobil. And the students and their parents reacted by staging a protest. Several students were killed. The U.S. used that as a pretext to go in and decimate Fallujah. I’m exploring that in the song.
How do those two elements of your own life -- activism and music-making -- intersect or diverge now?
I don’t think the separation is valid, especially in these times. For me, the only time that that line gets
drawn when you’re producing music and you’re trying to flush out a certain idea -- that’s very liberating, in a very abstract way. It’s in those moments where you feel free, and you can go ahead and explore why you feel free in those moments. In the past moments with Shadow and Trent I didn’t feel that.
Participating in the Son Jarocho work [his activist work with urban farmers in South Central Los Angeles, which included playing folk music with the group Son de Madera] felt more community based, more collective. I was part of a collective voice and not on my own as an artist, and something about that attracted me.
It’s so funny; I’ve read a couple things someone said that there were bets being placed on who would finish their album first, Axl Rose or me. One joke was that Axl was calling his record “Chinese Democracy,” and that there would be democracy in China by the time he finished! I laughed when I considered calling this record “American Democracy.” But I kinda spoke too soon on that!
It’s an election year here in the U.S. -- did that factor in to your decision to debut new music now?
I’d be lying if I said it was coincidental. I think that it’s an interesting moment. The lowest approval rating in the history of any presidency -- and for Congress. There’s this interesting rupture developing, and I think it’s a healthy one.
To watch the Democrats, who were really our only institutional obstruction to this extremely rightward swing, fall in lockstep behind this new imperial fantasy that became reality -- that was a pivotal moment. A lot of people began to question the whole nature of both parties. Now more than ever, there’s a more fertile ground for artists to try to reveal the nature of both parties, who are mainly the public relations team for transnational corporations.
Barack is clearly the most viable candidate, the most intelligent, the one with the most forward-thinking position, but I would hate to see the flames of discontent be watered down by rhetorical visions of hope and change, when historically those things have only come from immigrant workers or people fighting against segregation, or against the second class position of women. History has taught us that when it comes to ending war, it’s always been the people on the ground who’ve led the movement. Veterans who have come home and fought against the war. Iraqi kids. And artists and musicians.
You’ve been touring with Rage again. What is your relationship like with those guys now?
So much has changed. When you get older, you look back on tensions and grievances and have another perspective on it. I think our relationship now is better than it’s ever been. I would even describe it as great. We’re going to keep playing shows -- we have a couple of big ones happening in front of both conventions. As far as us recording music in the future, I don’t know where we all fit with that. We’ve all embraced each other’s projects and support them, and that’s great.
When you look out a crowd like the one you played in front of at Lollapalooza, what kind of potential do you see there?
There was this interesting thing that happened during the Clinton administration; people were looking inward and not outward, and not addressing what was going on. Rage set the political foreground for things that would come very shortly thereafter. I think people might see that what we are saying has more relevance now than when the band first came out.
Can we look forward to some live ODAAL gigs in the near future?
Definitely. I’ve always hoped that a project I was involved in could be a little more spontaneous, set up on a block and play. Me and Jon see eye to eye on doing that.
Meanwhile, as you said, Rage is playing in Minneapolis the same night the Republican convention happens in St. Paul. What do you anticipate for that show?
You’re gonna have to come and cover it. I think we both know what we expect. Good shoes would help. And you might wanna dip that bandanna in some vinegar.
Top photo courtesy of Anti-; second photo of De la Rocha playing in Scotland by Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
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