Storming unto the scene with a knack for loud, heavy sounds and syncopated rhythms, the Wakrat trio are certainly a force to be reckoned with. Led by french drummer Mathias Wakrat and fronted by renowned bassist Tim Commerford (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave), the band made its mark alongside their friends and tour mates from the Prophets of Rage on the “Make America Rage Again” tour and is about to release its debut album over at earache Record. Here to talk about the project is none other than the mastermind himself, Mathias Wakrat, who was nice enough to agree for an interview.
First off, could you tell us a few words about your musical background up until the start of Wakrat?
I started playing music around 10 or 11 years, I forget why I chose the drums. I studied in drumming schools in France and I moved to the US when I turned 22, so 20 years ago. I wanted to play heavier material, I liked listening to heavier stuff than what I was used to hearing around me and what people made me play. I played a lot of Jazz sessions a the time but I was also mostly into heavy music. I figured that it would be easier to find these kinds of projects in the US so I moved. I played in a lot of bands, I played popular music and stuff like that up until I decided to get this current project going. I had this agressive punk music in mind with irregular time signatures. I talked to few musicians I knew in LA who were very interested. We started jamming but nothing really clicked yet. Then I started jamming with Laurent, whom I met through one of my best friends, probably the only french musician I played with since I moved here. We got along well and the project happened to be what he had in mind as well, so it all started all from there.
From what I understand you guys met through a french Bistro in Los Angeles.
Yeah, I’m actually a co-owner of a french restaurant. At the time I was really struggling to get by with music as my sole resource so I started taking jobs here and there on the side and I somehow ended up in the restaurant business. Being french, it was one of the easiest way to make money abroad. I wasn’t too bad at it and I ended up taking over a restaurant with my partner Jean-Christophe. We’ve been open for quite some time now. Laurent actually worked there for a bit, that’s how we first met, he was a friend of Jean-Christophe. Through this restaurant, which frequently serves a lot of artists and musiciens, the word and the fact that I play music spread out. I became quite good friends with the frontman of Rage Against the Machine. Being a mountain biking enthusiast, Zach planned to hook me up with Tim to go riding together. So that’s how I met Tim over 10 years ago. Tim know I played the drums but never knew how well until he heard the demos Laurent and I made. He and Zach really dug it, they thought it was different and they were impressed. We asked him if he’d like to lay some baselines on the songs and so it all went from there.
So you already had the basis of your sound when you brought him into the band.
Yeah, a lot of the demo tracks actually landed on the record, some of them having been more or less rearranged in the meantime after we added the bass and vocals. Once we rearranged everything we got back to the studio to re-record everything with Tim. We relearned the songs and rearranged them all together, which wasn’t an easy task for Tim, being that he had to play bass and sing. In the end we finished up all of the drum parts in one afternoon. It was a long process to get there but the recording in and of itself was done very quickly.
Your songs rely on a lot of odd time signatures. Was this part of your artistic vision for the project or simply an integral and natural part of your playing style?
Being a drummer, the idea of playing to odd time signatures was a dream. As a matter of fact, all of the riffs and time signatures are based on rhythmic ideas, they’re the basis of our writing. I come up with a groove and a few riff ideas and Laurent works with them. On top of that, the bass comes over to add the melodies. At first our music was very mechanical and electric. It got a lot more melodic after Tim joined us. I’m a big fan of The Prodigy and their electro/punk style with weird sounds and crazy rhythms and I liked the idea of creating that sound with electric instruments. I really like odd time signatures because it gives a “kick” to the songs. Instead of having the monotonous 4/4 time signature you get this unexpected hit before things kick back on track, kind of like a hit in the face. I like that, but it wasn’t intentional at first, we just ended up with odd time signatures.
Are the main ideas born from jam sessions or rather rhythmic ideas that you work on your own before bringing them to the rest of the band?
The three quarters of these rhythmic patterns are based on ideas I had on the fly. I’ll wake up one morning with these rhythms in my head. I test them out in the studio and Laurent tries to lay something on top and we discuss it. It’s a real team effort. Everyone adds their own element, that’s what’s great about the band. There’s a huge group effort and I’ve never seen anything like this before. Everyone brings their own angle and that’s what makes our unique sound. With that being said, people are always going to trace things back influences: people would mention Helmet and Fugazi. I was really into Helmet back in the 90s’ actually and Tim also loves them. Nowadays however I listen mostly to Jazz from the late 50s to the late 60s. Strangely enough that’s what inspires me to make stuff like this.
Although the lyrics center around a more personal outlook, they seem to be the reflection of broader socio-political issues. What is is that feeds this energy of yours in Wakrat?
The music is really born from the collaboration between the 3 of us, it’s not really thought out. Lyrics-wise, the political aspect is entirely Tim. I know Laurent is also into politics as well, him and Tim agree on a few things but not everything. Tim is a very political from his background. I will admit that I don’t agree with everything he says, namely his way of condemning the US, which is the country I chose to live in and love, even though Tim may have a few points on a few things. Tim handles all of the lyrics. I always say that he never told me what to play so I’m not going to tell him what to write. It’s part of his way of expressing himself, it’s what he wants to do and thats’ what makes this project so beautiful. This project is a dream. Tim has things to say an I’m not going to stand against that. He’s got some ideas I don’t related to, but I respect them. I’m glad to give him this medium through which he can express himself and talk about it.
Aren’t there limits to what you’d agree to affiliate yourself with as a fellow bandmate?
Not really, because when you listen to the lyrics you don’t really know where they come from. You can make up your own interpretation and your own opinion. You’re not necessarily going to interpret things the same way as he does, that kind of happens very often when you listen to the radio. You’re surprised when you hear about the inspiration or meaning of the song because you had a different idea in mind. I let tim write the lyrics without having him explain what they mean and I had made my own interpretation of them. When we finally sat down and he told me what inspired him to write these words I found some things I totally agreed with and other things I completely disagree with where I prefer to refer back to my initial interpretations. That’s whats’ beautiful about it. I love Rage Against the Machine but I’m sure that there are some ideas that Zach sings about that I wouldn’t approve of, but that doesn’t change the fact that I love the music and that I hear his lyrics from a different angle. I will never impose Tim any ideas. It’s what makes art beautiful and it’s called freedom of speech. Although I may find he goes a little too far on certain subjects, I support him completely the same way I let him do his thing when he expresses himself through his bass guitar. We might change a few things if they sound better musically, but in terms of content I respect his choices. Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I approve of them.
I was wondering where the french title “La Liberté ou la Mort” came from. Why the french song title?
Actually that was just a song title that we kept. It was the name of the song when we wrote it with Laurent. It was the second song we wrote together. The rhythmic pattern with the open and closed hi-hats reminded me of a guillotine, we were joking around with Laurent on that idea. We were talking about revolution and so as a joke we called it La Liberté ou la Mort (Liberty or Death), figuring that we’d change it later. The song title turned out to fit well with the lyrics and Tim liked the idea of having a French song title. It just came from a private joke. There are a few titles like that, we changed quite a few of them but there are 2 or 3 of them that kept the same title. The same goes for “Nail in the Snail”, which came from a private joke between Laurent and myself. We were eating snails and Laurent was fixing somethings to the walls so I told him “Watch out, you we don’t want to end up with a nail in the snail!”. It made us laugh and it just so happened that we were writing that song at the time. Again, the name just stuck because people liked it and we liked the way it sounded.
Regarding The Thing, is that a reference to the movie? Or maybe Heidegger?
No actually that’s how I happen to call my wife (laughs). “La Chose”! It’s just an old joke. Again, we had the title before writing the lyrics. We changed the song title after writing the lyrics. We had finished the record and mixed it and it came back to us saying “I loved The Thing! I think it fits with the lyrics and it’s way more interesting than the other title!”. I feel a little silly giving you this answer, it’s a lot less “intellectual” than you had expected I’m guessing ! (Laughs)
How did your wife react?
She laughed. My wife is the most laid back and supportive person there is. It’s true that it’s not a super positive song but it’s not about her. It makes her smile. When we finished everything it was Tim that insisted that we keep that title. He also wanted to make sure that my wife wouldn’t take it personally, he knows I call her that. She doesn’t care.
Touching upon a subject from in your Earache introduction video, you mention social media and our relationship to them in modern day-to-day life. As a band, what is the line that you draw between the benefits and downsides of social media?
I admit that I really don’t care for social media. On the other hand it can also be a magical tool, the fact that you can record a song and share it with the whole world within the hour is great. It’s amazing. When I was a kid I remember that when I went to by this album by Tony Williams I needed to order it and wait a month before getting it. Nowadays when a record comes out you can have it immediately. As a band you have to use them. I’m just glad I don’t have to handle all of that because we wouldn’t have gone very far otherwise. What bothers me with social media is that you can’t dissociate what’s true and what’s false. The same goes for music. The beauty of a project like ours is that we’re 3 guys playing together. Nowadays you can listen to incredible things but you’re not sure whether they can really play these things. It’s all turning into an illusion I find. It’s easy to put a bit of makeup on and look good. That’s what you see with music and social media. It’s all based on what’s called “the hype”. You expect something until you find that there isn’t really much of anything behind it.
There are a lot more ways to hide and compensate for imperfections and nowadays.
Exactly. On the other hand you’ve got guys making albums on their own and that’s great. You’ve got some incredible electronic music producers out there. I love electronic music and I’ve got a lot of friends who are DJs and who do amazing things, but I find it sad that we’re losing these bonds we used to make as musicians. There’s nothing better than meeting up with your friends and making music together. We’re losing that in the internet age. I guess you need to keep up with the times, but we lose human contact and interactions. People go out less, they’re less curious. People come see us because we’ve got Tim from Rage Against the Machine, otherwise people don’t leave their homes to check things out.
People find their music online instead of going out to shows to discover new bands.
Exactly. You go online, listen for a bit and if you don’t like it you skip it, kind of like girls nowadays. You go on these apps and swipe right or left if she’s not your type (laughs). It’s kind of the same deal with music nowadays. People listen for a couple of minutes and move on to something else. It’s a shame but what are you gonna do.
Have you kept an eye on the music scene in France since you left?
Actually I had stopped paying attention before I even moved out of France. It was kind of like the mafia at the time in France, it was always the same deal. I followed a few musicians from the Jazz music scene, I have a few friends who are Jazz musicians in France. In terms of radio songs, I don’t know anything at all and to be honest I’m not too upset about it (Laughs). With that being said, we’ve also got some shitty radios over here!
Can you name one of your favorite albums, movies and books?
That’s hard, there’s a bunch. I’ll go with Evil Empire by Rage Against the Machine! Movies… I don’t go often to the movies, the other two guys would have jumped all over that question, they love movies. I really enjoyed The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. It’s one of the rare movies I loved and that I’ve seen dozens of times. I mainly read biographies, so I’m going to go with The Amazing Life of Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius. I must’ve read that book 25 times, and I’m not even a reader, which goes to tell you how much I was obsessed with that book! (Laughs). Basically all of my picks are music related. What struck me with The Last Temptation of Christ was namely the score by Peter Gabriel.
Interview conducted and Translated from French by Robin ONO
A huge thank you goes out to Mathias and to the the staff at Him Media for Making this Interview Possible!
Be sure to check out Wakrat on their website and social media pages!