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Zack de la Rocha talks to Ann Powers

03:30 PM PT, Aug 11 2008

Lions

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?

Zach436_2I’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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Ragin' Bull

The real question still lies: what is Zack doing with the $2 million that Rage got paid to play at Lollapalooza (as well as Coachella, RockAmp, etc.)??? For a self-proclaimed socialist, $2 million is a LOT of money! It's hard for me to grasp how Zack is still "fighting the good fight" - talking about food, clothes and shelter while driving a BMW??? Just cos you march at couple union rallies and play in some Son Jarocho band doesn't justify your blatant capitalistic actions of taking money from corporations like Coca Cola & Nike, which in turn you advocate their 3rd World genocide. Just the fact alone that RATM gets paid THAT MUCH is out of sync with what they stand for. I've been a valid Rage fan since '93 but then "Battle for LA" comes out and here they are playing the MTV VMAs and David Letterman ... it was almost a side novelty joke; like the Republican Nazis were sitting there jamming to "Guerilla Radio" while burning the constitution. Can we give credit where credits due to the real artists that walk the walk - Fugazi, Dead Prez, Paris, Prof. Griff from Public Enemy, etc.? And you wonder why meathead frat boys come to Rage shows drunk on Coors Light, rockin' their Che t-shirts? For a hypocritical band comes hypocritical fans ... everything stems from the top. With all that preaching Zack does, yapping about hanging Bush and burning the Senate, the only stance he ever made that actually resonated with genuine power and rebellion was when he disappeared while Audioslave took over Top 40 Radio! Sometimes the biggest revolution comes in silence. Unfortunately, this "rage against the machine" revolution is more of a mockery than rebellion. Good luck with ODAAL - I'm sure your fans will appreciate your music as they drink their Starbucks and drive their SUVs.

Karlton

The only thing more ridiculously childish and out of touch with reality than RATM's lyrics are the petulant rants of their purist fanboys....

How dare you make money or own property, de la Rocha!

Xver

Can't we all just relax and listen to the pretty music?!

No one actually believed in overthrowing society.

Or did they? ...

jug_head

I'm sort of shocked that Zack, who was raised in lilly white Irvine, CA by a white mother, has this faux Mexicano identity. It's an interesting and dishonest twist that allows him to shake his fist at the man while simultaneously being the man.

Zack wears many disguises.

Sondra

In response to the first post: you can't fight guns with shovels. Zack and Rage have uniquely tapped into the mainline of pop culture distribution. After listening to songs like "Testify" (a song about U.S. imperialism in the Middle East) it makes me feel good to see Rage on the cover of Rolling Stone on the news stand at the airport. If you believe that rebel music is only reserved for independent distribution then maybe you should rethink your political position and the artists you listen to.

Pancho Tortilla

I met Zack one day as I passed a nice little cafe on La Brea. Although he was very kind and spoke with me for about a half hour it was hard to take all his rage against the machine comments seriously. I clearly saw his car keys (BMW) and some fresh Nike's in a bag next to him. Don't get me wrong he has opened the eyes of alot of people and has embraced his roots (at least one side) but it's kind of like the preacher who preaches about the sin on the street but never bothers to walk those streets as soon as his church blows up. Put your money where your mouth is and not in your B of A account.

xenu

OMG HE DRIVES A NICE CAR AND WEARS NIKES'!???

I'M BURNING MY RAGE ALBUMS WHO'S WITH ME!!1???

jojo

DeLaRoacha is a Latino racist. That's basically all you need to know about the dude.

lmh

Aw, come on people! Let Zack enjoy his lattes, beamer and wealth. He earned it.

If only he'd stop bitching about those horrible evil Capitalists, he might be believable.

history man

"When settlers fleeing the South after the Civil War came into San Antonio...James Polk used it as an excuse to invade, to fulfill Manifest Destiny in the Southwest"
He should have spent his downtime away from the music scene reading a little bit of actual, factual history, so he might find out that Polk died 12 years before the Civil War even occured...not that facts get in the way of such claptrap in the service of revolutionary revisionist history (otherwise known as Marxism, all the RAGE back in the 19th century, before its 20th century application sullied its legacy for all time...)
Recall the last time Rage protested the big convention...at the 2000 Democratic Convention here in L.A....Of course "THE MAN" they were protesting that day was Al Gore...

bdasht

ummm, zach? i love your political enthusiam a lot more than your music, but it's probably worth pointing out that the alamo and subsequent war with mexico took place BEFORE the civil war. so your little theory about whites escaping the reconstruction into texas is really supported by the facts. nice theory though, probably looks really kewl on the back of che tshirt

Mike

If the Southwest is a misnomer for Northeast Mexico, then Northeast Mexico is a misnomer for the lands of dozens of Native American tribes before Spain/Mexico colonized the region. Seems like Mr. de la Rocha has a myopic view of history.

Alex

Art is not a straightjacket, and artists are complex people just like the rest of us. Neil Young wrote that awful, jingoistic song "Let's Roll" and yet he also sings about peace and love. Does that make Neil Young a hypocrite? Maybe it just makes him a human being.

When I was younger I felt the same sense that the commenters are expressing -- i.e. that there couldn't be any legitimacy to a "radical" band on a major label. These days I would say that I was simply wrong to take the music and the message so literally. There are many ways to resist the broad trends of capitalist culture, and Zack has always been a person who has encouraged resistance. If you find that meaningless, it's a failure of *your* imagination, not his.

Peter Finestone

Zack heard a ODAL song other day and brought me joy to hear such a gem and to hear your playing with the phenomenal Jon. I am glad you found a home with Antil and Brett, and looking fwd to full length.

For those who disagree with Zack that is fine but put the personal polemicals aside and come to the table with more then personal digs about how someone purportedly lives. If anything, Zack is consistently consistent on his beliefs, so disagree with policy if you want, but who gives a crap about what the man drives.

Hope to see you around the rock bro. GO PURPLE AND GOLD

Pete

tommyt

an artist doesn't have to wear burlap and take a vow of poverty in order to make political criticisms and/or offer social insights. if de la rocha were claiming that he was poverty stricken etc, he'd be a hypocrite. he doesn't, he isn't. you gotta separate art and artists - those who don't should swear off art entirely (or become stalkers - to make sure their favorites live according to fan's standards...) if, on the other hand, you disagree with what artists like ex-rage musicians believe in, have the courage to make your criticisms that way - discounting someone's opinion because of their bank account is as lazy a way of avoiding an issue as exists.

Kiffen

"this is really Northeastern Mexico."

No its not.

This is The United States of America.

what a douche this man has become.

Mike

" I think people might see that what we are saying has more relevance now than when the band first came out."

My god this 90's acts din't realized yet that is 2008!

I'm going back to listen to my new Justice download.

Drown

I'm not a Rage fan but if he worked for it he's allowed to buy himself what he want. He has opened the eyes of many people to politics the would have ignored otherwise. So tell me what have all these people that talk crap done. Nothing.

Javier G.

The reality of the crimes being comiited around the world is too much for some people, so they instead attack the messenger.

Oz

Where's the love, people? Where's the love?

Big News Flash: "Zack is Human After All; Prone to Common Human Fallacies." So he rages against the machine while driving a very nice one; big deal! So he lives one day as a lion sporting his Nike's; who cares! The sum of the parts is still good medicine in this case! Besides, any one out there not guilty of the same thing at one point or another?

His earnings? Who knows what he does with them. I think it might be safe to assume however that it's not on big bling and strippers, though!

C'mon, kids! You know when the song comes through your speakers, you turn it up! C'mon, you know you do!

Zack, for the next release, how about a self-reflective piece – "How to Walk the Walk and Not Drive a Crappy Car." Sounds terrible, I know, but it'll help expose and give voice to another painful reality, just like the rest of your works – that of the Metro-Revolutionary! (Wow, I think I just made-up a word!)

Keep it up, Zack! Love what you do!

Saul

First of all, I've seen him plenty of times and he drives a Prius. That said, if through his art he's made some money then let him spend it. If anything his message has always been consistent. I remember going to shows and watching the OC surfer kid rapping along to "People of the Sun" next to me and I knew he had no clue... Bet he's just like many of you writing in today. Now, for those ignorant on what he was recalling about the Alamo. Read the Polk Papers, letters written by Polk himself. The conflict with Mexico was deliberately set in motion by US interests and then used to profess Manifest Destiny. I don't pretend to read his mind, but I interpret his words as "Northeastern Mexico" as a powerful description that summarizes the empririal expansion and ties it back to his point of "if LA where Baghdad, we'd be Iraqi". Seeing how many reacted, it just goes to show how effective his words were. Keep it coming Zach!

rcp

Nothing wrong with Zack using this avenue (provided by a free market and democratic state) to opine about many things that are left unspoken or otherwise shot down (see the countless comments above).

"Born in lilly-white Irvine" - perhaps this was even more a reason for this person to question the state of affairs.

And this is is from a Corporate Law attorney.

Looking forward to hearing more of his material.

HBg

So he's a bum because he's materialitic? Give me a break. Can we grow up here?! Its a concept that he's pushing;and idea; a message that is both abstract and real..Geez people.

Knowledge Addict

For every one of those folks yelling on about how Zack sucks because he has nice things, because he's made a living out of doing something he loves, while also promoting awareness of various political issues across the globe - you need to ask yourselves some questions. What are YOU doing about the current problems in your neighborhood or city or country? What kind of awareness are YOU raising for causes around the world? Are you making a difference, no matter how small? Have you sworn off all materialistic pursuits? Have you REALLY? If you have, then rage on. But if you haven't, what gives you the right to judge? Why do you hold Zack to a higher standard than you do yourself? Just because he's got a mic and an audience, does that mean you can be a hypocrit but he cannot?

We're all hypocrits in some form or another. So what if the guy is wearing a pair of Nikes, or drives a nice car. He's trying to build awareness and open up doors for young people to pay more attention to who or what they're voting for. That doesn't mean what he's saying is right or just - it's his opinion. He's entitled to it, and entitled to share it. Different voices help us work through the endless amounts of crap that we're fed/read/seek out and form our own opinions. 'Freedom' made me interested in Leonard Peltier and the question marks around that case/issue. It didn't GIVE me my opinion, but it did push me to read more about it and pay more attention to it. It helped me gain knowledge.

THAT'S what people like Zack should be lauded for. Not for their hypocricies, but for their attempt to bring about change through enlightenment - through sharing knowledge. You don't necessarily have to agree with the message to gain value from it, but by simply using that message to push you towards continued growth as an individual.

Matt

Beware of disgruntled activists looking for a pat on the back or terrible rap-rock copy cat bands that never made it. They spend their bitter days "blogging against the machine".

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