Rage Against The Machine bassist Tim Commerford has gone through extremes in his musical tastes of late. As he tells Billboard he went from being intimidated by the computer to only wanting to work with computers and not play with a guitarist.
He finally found a happy medium though, and the result is his new band, Future User, which he describes as “Progtronic,” a mix of electronic and prog rock. The band, which also includes guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jordan Tarlow and Jon Knox, has already attracted a lot of attention for their controversial videos. The first, “Clockwork,” found tennis legend John McEnroe being waterboarded. And in the latest, “Mountain Lion,” controversial cycling legend Lance Armstrong makes a cameo.
All of this is leading up to Future User’s debut album, #SteroidsOrHeroin, on Feb. 24. Commerford and Tarlow spoke to Billboard about their new sound, touring plans and why Commerford feels liberated wearing a mask.
Is there a sound to the album?
Jordan Tarlow: I don’t think there is a sound. The sound to the album really does revolve around the basslines and then it was working with a lot of ancient synthesizers with the bass and how much can you make the bass come out or build around that as opposed to, “Here’s the song, Tim, play some bass.”
How did the Malibu studio and setting affect the writing of the album?
Tarlow: Malibu had no influence on this record. This was definitely in a dark room where you don’t know what time of day it is, you don’t leave it for a long time. This is our years of imagination.
Tim Commerford: The computer has always been this ominous, scary thing that came into music, for me, in the early ’90s, right when I first started playing music. And I’m so proud that I was part of the real woodshedding and learning your songs and knowing how to play them the best you can and going in the studio and then playing them and cutting tape with a razor blade. That’s exciting. But over time I started to become more interested in electronic music. And EDM music grabbed my ear and got my attention and I started realizing that the computer was, in the same way that the saxophone was invented in the late 1800s and guitar in the 1930s, an instrument. I’ve now sort of embraced it in that way as the ultimate prog rock musician. It can do stuff that human beings cannot do.
Did the computer then present a new challenge for you?
Commerford: It’s more immediate, like you think of something and you go, “Hey, man, let’s do that.” And you’re immediately able to do it and see if it sounds good. So you’re able to tap into the spontaneity musically, which I really think is awesome. You can take these beautiful synthesizers that I grew up on as a fan of progressive rock and I recognize these certain sounds that I love. Now we can connect them to the computer and use those beautiful sounds to make these incredible modulated keyboard lines we couldn’t do before. It’s inspiring, it’s an incredible tool. And we are making what I would consider progressive electronic music — we call it “progtronic.”
Do you guys have tour plans yet?
Commerford: No, we’re just sort of playing it by ear and seeing if there is an interest in it. We’re just making art right now. Playing it live would be awesome. That last time I went to Coachella, last year and year before, there’s the electronic music tent and when I drove away Coachella was still happening and I could hear that electronic music tent for many, many miles away. I would hate to be a band on the other stage while that was happening — you can’t compete with that. You cannot compete with the key of G and a dubstep. That’s the beautiful thing about what we’re doing, we sort of have delved into the dubstep world and EDM world and we have elements of that in our music. And if we do play live, some of that will be on playback, some of the stuff we’re not gonna be able to actually play and we’ll have to have it on playback. So it will be an actual mix of electronic dance music and organic real woodshedded musicians.
Was there a song or turning point that shaped the progtronic sound?
Commerford: For me, I went into this with the attitude [that] I don’t ever want to play with a guitar player again. I want to utilize the computer as the guy playing guitar and we made our music like that. And then I hooked up with Brendan O’Brien, who musically I am blown away by and he put guitar on it. Once the guitar was on it I then felt like, “This is the kind of music I want to make, this feels good.”
Tarlow: He first wanted to do everything electronic and I’ve spent years and years in the studio with computers and I was like, “I don’t think it’s going to work.” But then I saw Infected Mushroom and sometimes they’ll play with a band, sometimes they won’t. And I was like, “It’s really cool, it can work with a little bit of everything.” Then Brendan came in and it let each of us play with some things we really wanted to do and never got to do.
Who did the three remixes?
Because you are buddies with McEnroe was it easier to get him involved in the clip?
Commerford: It wasn’t easy because maybe we don’t see eye to eye politically and I had to pitch to him what the video was going to be about. I wasn’t really sure how he was going to react and at the end of the video it was moving ’cause it wasn’t going to be an act. I didn’t want to faux waterboard John McEnroe, I wanted to waterboard him. And I told him I wanted him to feel it so he could speak from experience and I gave him this hammer and he held it. I said, “Okay, dude, if it gets really bad, drop the hammer.” And so he would drop the hammer and I would continue to waterboard him because I wanted it to be real. And at the end he was emotionally moved and crying. It wasn’t easy, it was crazy, what it was.
Did having John be first create the motif where then it made sense to bring Lance Armstrong in for “Mountain Lion”?
Commerford: These are two people that I deal with and that don’t play by the rules, and that I consider punk rockers. I’m proud to know them. We wanted to make these videos and they seemed like the perfect people to approach and lucky for us they both agreed to do something that if I were them I wouldn’t have done. [Laughs.]
How did having them be involved influence the concepts of the videos?
Tarlow: Lance was inspirational in the song “Mountain Lion” because Tim brought the lyrics in and it was about mountain biking and just really competing hard and Lance had left him this message about mountain biking, telling Tim he was in better shape than him and would crush him next time. And to be building a song knowing that you’re trying to get across [that] somebody is really serious about going into battle was kind of inspiring. And as it grew to take on other meanings in the video, you knew you were building on the back of something that was very real and fresh. And then McEnroe, to waterboard somebody that everybody knew and had an opinion on was important.
In the “Mountain Lion” video you set yourself on fire. Where do you go from there?
Commerford: Believe me, I know where to go from there. I’m not gonna tell you where it is, but I know where to go.
What was the response to your skateboarding with the hood on?
Commerford: Same as if I’m in the grocery store with the hood on. For me it’s liberating to be able to look somebody in the eyes and know that they can’t see my eyes. I’ve always thought that when I would see Slipknot playing. There’s something about it, you put a mask on and roll around. It’s an amazing superhero feeling. I love that guy, I like to refer to S.W.I.M. (the anonymous masked figure embodied by Commerford) in the third person. I think he’s a cool dude. It’s neat, we’re making kind of a rock opera, it’s prog rock. S.W.I.M. is our guy, he’s our Tommy type, he ties everything together and it’s kind of dope.