After sparking revolutions and rebelling against social injustice with his legendary aggressive-rock outfit Rage Against the Machine, and going on to redefine his playing in the soulful pop super group Audioslave, Tim Commerford has etched the next chapter of his playing with his new band, Future User. Formed with keyboardist Justin Tarlow, and his lifelong friend, drummer John Knox, Future User has exploded onto the scene with their mix of electronic music-meets-rock, fueled by the assertive and fleet fingered playing of Commerford.
Remaining anonymous while releasing four songs with accompanying videos, Commerford wanted to go under the radar to gage his audience’s reaction to his music without relying on the tutelage of the success of his prior bands. The Internet soon became fixated on the unidentified outfit releasing disturbing videos with scenes that included steroid use, the water boarding of tennis icon John McEnroe, and vulgar trash talking with cyclist Lance Armstrong. The spectacle finally came to a head in the music video for “Mountain Lion” when the protagonist of the videos—a character only referred to as S.W.I.M.—uncloaked and lit himself on fire, revealing that it was Commerford behind the mask and the music.
Once the secret was revealed, Future User released their debut album, #SteroidsOrHeroin, which is Commerford’s first record since Audioslave's Revelations, in 2006. The brash vibe of the music and the smoldering mid-range bass tone that drives it is nothing short of what we’ve come to expect from Commerford over the years. In the days leading up to its release, Commerford sat down with BP in a series of interviews to discuss his past, present and future in music, his bold videos, and how he and the industry around him has evolved since Rage first took on the world.
Why did you choose to go under the radar when you first released the videos?
I didn’t want to piggyback this on Rage or Audioslave right out of the gate, although ultimately there was no way I could get around it. I know there are going to be people who love Rage Against The Machine and love Audioslave that are going to hate what I’m doing now—they’re going to absolutely hate it! But I wanted them to have more than one song of ours to listen to and base their opinion on; that’s why we released four songs and videos right away.
It must have felt pretty liberating to remain behind the spotlight.
It did, and it gave me certain freedoms. I wanted to experience today’s world of music and see what it’s like to be a band starting out in 2015. It’s so different than how you did things in 1990, and I wanted to feel that. There are artists like Daft Punk, Deadmaus and other bands who remain anonymous, and I thought it would be fun to become the character called S.W.I.M.; then we realized this character would be perfect for our music videos.
Future User’s videos are visually stunning and somewhat uncomfortable. Was that the point?
I’ve always loved videos and so does Jordan [Tarlow], so we knew we wanted to use it as a cool way to make a statement while putting our music out there. As a member of Rage Against the Machine, I feel obligated to express my opinions, whatever they might be, so the videos became the vehicle for that. They had something to say and they were putting my opinions out to the world in a somewhat disturbing way. They played out exactly how we wanted them to.
How much did your time in RATM fuel these songs and videos?
Rage Against the Machine is a huge part of me. I spent twenty-plus years of my life defying the powers-that-be and trying to put out a different message than the one taught to us in school. That’s the kind of person I am; I don’t want to let the power base get away with it. We did videos with Michael Moore for “Sleep Now in The Fire” and “Testify,” which made a strong impact. I watch those videos today and I think they’re some of the greatest rock videos ever made. They’re an inspiration and they helped shape me to be who I am.
You literally lit yourself on fire in the video for “Mountain Lion.” What was the experience like?
Crazy, and it’s all totally real, no special effects or CGI involved. There are a few people in the movie and entertainment world who do the burning fire scene, but it’s always the same where they’re frantically running and flailing their arms everywhere. I wanted to do a scene where I light myself on fire, but I wanted it to be like the Rage [self-titled] record cover, where it’s peaceful and beautiful. It was super uncomfortable and very cold. It was a chilly night already, and when they put the special cream all over me it felt like I was swimming in the middle of the ocean in the winter. It was to the point to where I really wanted them to light me on fire! And then we ended up doing 3 takes. I figured, I have metal plates in my head from crushing my skull on my bike, I have a cadaver hamstring pinned into my shoulder that holds it together from a bike crash, I have tons of stitches and road rash and wounds, there’s no way I was going to get hurt any worse. Turns out that it wasn’t as bad. I would take lighting my body on fire over getting road rash any day of the week.
How is it different starting a band in 2015 versus starting RATM back in the early 90’s?
Back when we were starting out in L.A. there was an exciting music scene with clubs to appear at. You’d play The Club With No Name, Al’s Bar, Club Lingerie—these places just don’t exist anymore. Nowadays it’s just “Club YouTube.” When we would headline at those small local clubs with Rage, we’d peak outside and there would be a huge line down the street, and we would say, “Oh my god, we are actually doing it. This is actually happening!” Now, with “Club YouTube,” the line down the street is the little number in the corner of the screen that counts views. And in the same way, when that number gets big enough, people take note of you.
(Commerford and Tarlow)
Is one way better than the other?
It’s weird and it’s different, but it’s just the way it is now, whether we like it or not. It’s cool that if a person is a great musician and has great music, and they want the world to hear it and be discovered, they can do it on their own. There’s no middleman; you don’t have to go through the record labels anymore. I’m glad I was a part of the golden era. It was fun to make records that people would go out and by after hearing the first single on the radio. They wanted to hear all of your songs so they would know them all when they went to your show, not just your hit. Now we live in a one-song era, which puts a lot of pressure on artists to make hit songs that people want to hear. But when bands finally do get big enough to play a show, no one knows the rest of their songs, and a lot of people really don’t care.
Did you guys embrace the record label heyday back then?
Absolutely, and it was awesome. The label would fly you out to New York City, where you’d head over to the biggest, tallest, most beautiful building, and go to the offices on the top floor offices. There was a lot of staff and a huge vault room full of CDs; you would go in there and walk out with boxes of them. It was the heyday of the record industry and labels could throw millions and millions of dollars around, frivolously. People don’t buy records anymore, they just download their music. As a result, record labels today are just two people in a cubicle in Culver City. That’s the truth. I grew up with record stores like Tower Records and The Warehouse, and those were such an important part of the music industry. Now they’re gone, too.
How else has technology changed the music world in the span of your career?
It’s crazy, but the biggest difference is the computer. Look at the history of music. In the 1800s you had the invention of the saxophone and jazz music emerges from that. Then in the 1930s, the electric guitar comes around and it’s followed by the invention of rock and roll. In the 1970s, the synthesizer develops and you have new wave music. In the 1980s the sampler becomes accessible, resulting in hip-hop. In the new millennium the computer is the central instrument, and we’re seeing all of this new electronic music coming from it.
And you’ve obviously embraced the computer in your songwriting.
I resisted the digital and computerized ways of making music back in the ’90s, when everyone started using Pro Tools. I’m so proud to have been a part of the time when you had a razor blade to cut analog tape in the studio and you really had to learn your songs. You had to be able to nail them in a couple of takes, with the tape rolling. I’m glad I have those skills and I still utilize them. But nowadays you don’t even really need to be a good musician. With a computer you can put anything on the grid. I resisted it for a long time and I hated it, but as it started to evolve, I began to accept it.
What caused you to hop on board with it?
It was right around the time when we were making the last Audioslave album with [producer] Brendan O’Brien. Chris Cornell was cutting his vocal takes and he sang the song through like twenty times, while Brendan was just taking notes. Afterward, Brendan went back and forth between all of the takes and blended Chris’s best parts together using Pro Tools, and all of a sudden we had this amazing take. That’s when I started thinking there was something to it. For me, it was the amount of wasted time tracking digitally eliminated that got me excited.
Did you ever expect for your career as a musician to have the impact that it has?
I was never the kid on my bed with a tennis racket striking the rock and roll poses. For me, bass guitar was my catharsis. I came from a family where my mother was really sick and it was somewhat of an abusive situation. The bass was a way for me to escape. It was something I did by myself in my room, with my headphones on.It was all for me and it was the healthy outlet I chose. Then the opportunity arose to be in Rage and it was like being on a roller coaster ride. I never ever thought anyone would know who I was. As a kid I was really into Jaco Pastorius and I realized I could never play like him. But with Rage it didn’t matter that I wasn’t the greatest, I loved what I was doing and it made me proud of who I am. When we played our first shows I used to get so nervous and so afraid; then as time went on, that fear empowered me and now when we play I embrace it. It’s a live wire I love to tap into, that I can’t live without.
Read the full interview and our transcription of “Mountain Lion” in the May 2015 issue of Bass Player.