The cliché makes eyes roll and stomachs churn. Sometimes it’s merely an ill-conceived chemistry experiment, sometimes it’s … just … wrong (we’d like to take this moment to thank Jimmy Page for that lovely P. Diddy-“Kashmir” collaboration).
But sometimes, there is reason to believe the hype.
The vocal titan from Soundgarden. An innovative guitarist who, if he had come to power a couple decades prior, would have deservedly taken over the world amidst Van Halenesque accolades. And a rhythm section that laid bombastic, funky, ghost-note-laden beats for the political rap bullhorn Rage Against The Machine.
Chris Cornell, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk didn’t garner unanimous praise for their self-titled 2002 debut. To some, it seemed too calculated, or wasn’t enough Rage or Garden. Still, it peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200, and whetted the appetite for their sophomore disc Out Of Exile.
Queue the bell. Round two has begun.
1, 2, 3, 4, Pressure. All of this immediately begs the questions: was there pressure to do anything differently for the second album? And considering the lineage of these four bandmembers, is Out Of Exile really a sophomore album?
“Yeah it is!” Wilk exclaims, leaning forward with widening eyes. “It really is. It’s a sophomore record for Audioslave. To be honest, the only pressure that I feel came from myself and the other guys. When we’re writing, we’re not thinking about pleasing other people. I think we stay very true to ourselves, and hope that in doing so that people will enjoy our music. When you start writing for other people or for what you think you might hear on the radio, I think you’re dead in the water at that point.”
On Audioslave, while there were moments of true musical solidarity, there was a definite sense of getting the feet wet in a new proverbial pool. On Exile, there is no such trepidation.
“I feel like we really have arrived as a band,” he smiles. “I think the first record, we had these two huge histories, so I think it was hard for people to see Audioslave as a band. I really feel that we’ve arrived, as far as our sound, as far as who we are. I just hear songs and go, ’Okay, that’s what we sound like.’”
Chalk the palpable newfound swagger up to the yearlong tour supporting the first album, and a more thorough approach to pre-production with producer Rick Rubin.
“Just because there’s one new guy,” he points out about working with a different vocalist, “it completely changes everything, for us. I’m used to Tim and Tom, but with Chris, when you put one different person in the mix, it’s going to change the chemistry. So we had a year to tour together, and it was really great getting to know Chris on a musical level.
“And the great thing about recording this time around, that was different from the last record, is that we did a lot more pre-production and got the songs under our belt, so they were familiar to us before we went in to record them. We basically did about two weeks of pre-production with Rick, and then played them again for another couple of weeks, and then went into the studio. It was very different from the last record, because on the last record we were actually in the studio doing the work, changing the arrangements, adding new parts. So the songs weren’t as much under our belt, I felt, as they were this time around.”
Getting Exiled. Writing songs for Exile was fast, from scratch, and mostly democratic, with the odd exception of a slower tune like the Cornell-penned “The Curse” (which was basically done on arrival). A riff from Morello, a bass line from Commerford, or a beat from Wilk, and everybody was up and running. By the end of the day, the bones of a song would be complete.
“There’s no certain formula,” Wilk says. “Some songs start with something that I’m doing, or that me and Tim are doing, some start from something that Chris or Tom are doing. There really is no set formula, which is great. The other thing I feel really fortunate about is that when we get together in a room to write, there are four guys who are nurturing each other’s creativity. And that’s very rare, actually. When you’re in that environment, and you feel safe, and you feel like all your ideas will be worked out to fruition, and then we’ll decide if they’re good or not, that’s a great thing. Usually, great things come of that. Every idea that a person has, anyone in the band has, will be worked out. No one’s going to shut anybody down right off the bat. We’ll at least try to play it well and make it our own.”
Recorded at Cello Studios in 2004, produced by the aforementioned Rubin, and mixed by Brendan O’Brien (Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden, Korn, Stone Temple Pilots), Out Of Exile definitely sounds like a band on a mission. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the title track, which starts with a militaristic sixteenth-note snare drum cadence, before settling into a Houses Of The Holy guitar riff that has Wilk and Commerford leaning so far back on the beat, they’re falling over.
“I wanted the top of it to be a very military-style sound,” Wilk explains, “like a marching band thing, right on [the beat]. And then when the groove comes in, it just opens up and is more on the back-end of things, a lot funkier. That’s kind of cool doing that within songs. That’s the stuff I love doing, and spend a lot of time thinking about. The really subtle things. When you spend a lot of time on subtle things, maybe you don’t get recognition, but people like it for some reason and they don’t know why.”
Another song that features notable subtleties is the subdued “Be Yourself,” which finds Wilk riding on his toms to lay the groundwork, while Cornell builds the dynamics through his voice. Wilk’s brassy snare doesn’t surface until the chorus.
“The vibe has this airy, atmospheric, kind of floating sound in the beginning, and I just think when it breaks into the chorus, it’s really cool, because you don’t really hear a snare drum until quite a ways into the song. I like it when that happens, when I hear other bands pull that off.”
With all this talk about subtlety, this doesn’t mean that Audioslave isn’t dishing out significant volume, as the ballsy “Your Time Has Come” attests. “That’s a good rock song,” Wilk nods. “I remember the riff, I wanted to be really solid in the riff, and then in the choruses to really open up. It sounded almost kind of Who-ish to me. I’ve listened to Keith Moon for forever, so I was definitely thinking on that level. The cool thing about that song is that the whole song isn’t like that, just the choruses. Once it gets to the verses it’s solid and groove oriented.”
Grace Notes. With Rage Against The Machine, Wilk’s drum parts revolved around four- and eight-bar phrases that marked the political raps of Zach de la Rocha. With a more dynamic vocalist at the helm, there’s more room for dynamic playing, which really brings out the strengths in Wilk’s drumming — namely, the stuff that doesn’t grab headlines like a Mike Portnoy fill or Steve Smith metric modulation. The spaces between the notes. The push and pull of a groove. Wilk knows all too well that there was more to John Bonham than mere volume, and he works on those subtleties when constructing his drum parts.
“What I’ll do is play the basic beats that I want to play over it,” he says of the initial drum-writing process, “and then I’ll take the tape home. And what I really spend a lot of time on is the stuff that you really can’thear, the stuff that you can feel more than you can hear. It’s all grace-note stuff, the stuff that makes it swing one way or another, or feel on top, or behind the beat — all that stuff is super important to me. So I spend a lot of time figuring that out.”
Wilk isn’t the only one schooled in the art of groove nuances. With bassist and “best mate” Tim Commerford at his side, they comprise one of the more formidable — and unsung — foundations in rock.
“As a rhythm section,” he leans in, “I think Tim as a bass player has stepped up on such an amazing level, because now he’s dealing with vocal melodies. In Rage, we were all about hip-hop style grooves that were very hypnotic and didn’t really change. Once melody came into play with Chris, it really changed the way I thought about drumming, and also the way Tim thought about playing bass, as far as the choice of his notes and where he was playing them, and how they worked with the melody. It’s just a completely different thing. And with the drumming, I tried to allow more space and have maybe less of a percussive hip-hop style, beats that were great over rap. I wanted to allow more space with Chris’ vocal.”
The ebb and flow is evident on most of the new Audioslave songs, which has Wilk laughing out loud as he beams, “Now it’s like, ’Whoa, there’s such a thing as bridges!’ And it’s incredible, because I’ve got to say that I’m proud of the bridges of our songs — it’s one of my favorite things about Audioslave. I hesitate to say this, and I’m not comparing us to The Beatles, but I think that The Beatles had the same thing. They had really good songs, great melodies, with these incredible bridges. There’s something to be said for incredible bridges, it’s just something that you hear, and you want to hear it again. And it’s not necessarily the entire song, but it’s something that really grabs you. We’ve explored that a lot more with Audioslave than we ever did in Rage Against The Machine.”
Sounding Off. Wilk is more than familiar with Cello Studios, since the first Audioslave record and Rage’s Renegades were both recorded there. This time around things were kept simple, with all drums recorded to 2" tape, without Pro Tools. Right. What a concept.
“It felt so great to do that in the studio,” he sighs, “and it really felt like a much more natural process than the first record. To be honest, I actually had problems with the first record. It just sounded really dry to me. The snare sounded really dry, and the kick was pretty good, but there was something about that record, I think maybe they over-thought the mix. So it sounds a little bit processed to me, compared to the other records we’ve done, and compared to this record as well.
“For this time around what we did, Tim takes a lot of the low end and sometimes we’re competing, so I got this old like 1970 Ludwig kick drum that had a Motown-meets-Black-Sabbath sort of sound to me. It was a 22", but it wasn’t ambient, and it was pretty dry, and the room that we were playing in was a small room, I think it was Room C. Rick really doesn’t like to use room mikes at all. I mean, he’ll put them up, but we’re constantly having discussions about that, because I like a little bit more of an ambient drum sound.”
When it came time to mix Exile with Brendan O’Brien, rather than go for a uniform drum sound throughout the whole album, they took it one song at a time, “and some of them just sounded better when they were more dry, and some sounded better when they had more breath to them. There was a little bit of tweaking going on for each song. It went incredibly fast, we were mixing two songs a day. I kind of like that, because you don’t start over-thinking it. There might be little things here and there that you may want to go back and address, but for the most part, you don’t over-think yourself.”
Of course, the heart of his sound is his snare drum, a tried-and-true 14" x 6.5" Tama Bell Brass model that for all of its brightness, has an uncanny warmth on tape.
“We spend a lot of time with the tuning,” he explains, “and I’m usually the one who winds up tuning the snare drum. After every take, I’ll be the guy trying to get the sound right, because we won’t start until the snare is sitting in the right place. That’s kind of a big thing. It’s almost therapeutic for me when I’m in the studio. We’ll do a take and then I’ll go to tune the drum up and it will give me time to just zone out for a second and not think too much about it. I tune it cross-lug, and I want to crank it — I want it cracking. So I tune it up pretty high, but the cool thing about that drum is that you can tune it pretty high and it still has a bottom to it, which is really nice.
Add some classic Shure SM57s and condensers, and voila: backbeat du jour. “Those drums are really cool, and I’ve said this before, but they really take on the personality of whoever’s hitting it. I’ve heard many people play that drum, and it sounds different to me for every drummer that gets on it. I don’t know what it is or how that works, but it’s interesting.”
Even though he mentioned the use of a vintage Ludwig kick drum in the studio, make no mistake — Wilk is a Gretsch man. An official endorser since the beginnings of Audioslave, but the unofficial attachment goes back much further.
“The reason why I like Gretsch so much maybe,” he ponders, “is it was my first kit in high school that I actually had to make down payments for. It took me six months to pay it off before I could get it. So it really made me appreciative. You have no idea, I would go [to the music store] every week and look at the kit, and I knew that they sounded great. So when I was done with the payments in six months, and I could actually pick it up, I just had a great appreciation for it. They just always sounded great. All the recordings I’ve ever done have been with Gretsch drums. I rented from Drum Doctors or whatever. When I was first in Rage Against The Machine I was using Pork Pie, but even so, when I was in the studio for the first Rage record, the drums I was picking were Gretsch. Gretsch with the Tama Bell Brass snare.”
“I’ve never been a big drum endorser,” he humbly continues, “because I won’t do ads for cymbals and drum companies and stuff. I’m pretty mellow about it. They gave me two kits like this last year, and I’m still using the same kit. I didn’t call them up and ask them for new drums or anything.”
Politics And Punctuality. So much has been said about the political volume of Rage Against The Machine, that it might be easy to dismiss that aspect of Audioslave. Certainly, the songs don’t have the same consistent incendiary tenor, but that doesn’t mean that politics has taken a backseat.
“To be honest with you I think it’s taken more of a front seat,” Wilk admits. “While Rage Against The Machine was musically and lyrically all about the politics, it was very hard for us to put our actions into motion sometimes. It was hard to actually take action on the things that we were saying. I think now with Axis Of Justice [a non-profit organization formed by Morello and System Of A Down vocalist Serj Tankian; axisofjustice.org], it’s sort of a subsidiary of Audioslave, so it doesn’t really get in the way of either, and we can really do both things well, and they’re not fighting with each other. I think we have more opportunities to do things. Tom has really taken Axis Of Justice to a much higher level than probably he ever did with Rage Against The Machine. It just might not seem that way because every song [now] isn’t a political song.”
Something else has changed with the Rage Against The Machine crew, in terms of attitude. Before, the band was known for being a tad, shall we say, difficult to get to. Not the case anymore, and Wilk is quick to point out that he and his bandmates want to give back to their fans in more ways than just on the stage.
“Back then,” he admits, shaking his head somewhat ruefully, “with Rage Against The Machine, we never did many interviews. We didn’t give a damn about anything. Somebody wants to do a photo shoot? ’We don’t want to do a photo shoot.’ Rage Against The Machine was a lot about saying no, probably more than it was about saying yes. I think that now, we want to do things for our fans. I just feel like we sort of sabotaged our fans in Rage, but luckily we always had an amazing fan base and they sort of took what we gave. Having said that, when we played a show, every one of us was 110 percent. Always. And I still feel that we’re that way in Audioslave, but I feel that we are much better about doing interviews and showing up for the photo shoots, and all those things. We feel like we want to do our fans right this time around.”
When it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Brad Wilk met Andy Veasey in 1990, when the latter was working for Warren Entner Management in Los Angeles, doing backline for bands like Failure and L7. Then the phone call came, “Are you available to do this unknown band with a strange name?”
That band was Rage Against The Machine, who at the time was opening for Suicidal Tendencies on a ten-day European tour. Veasey vividly remembers his first impressions of Rage: “I was totally blown away. We turned up for a sound check with a hired backline, and they had just gotten off the plane. Didn’t know anything about them. I was just totally gobsmacked, from the very first minute of the sound check. It was amazing. And the reaction from the crowd on that first tour, you could tell it was gonna go.”
And after 15 years of Rage and Audioslave dates, when asked how Wilk has changed, he shrugs and smiles, “Exactly the same now as he always was, and always will be. He doesn’t change that much. He just gets older, a bit more sensible, maybe. That’s the reason I got the job, is because I know his little idiosyncrasies. I make him feel comfortable. I’m probably not the best drum tech around, but I’m the best one for Brad. He’s comfortable with me. The whole band are, actually — they’re very twitchy, very concerned about putting on the perfect show every time.”
Of course, shows aren’t always perfect. In fact, some days you’re definitely more the statue than the pigeon, like the poor unticketed kids that showed up to a 1994 Rage show in Denmark.
“We were tear gassed one time in Copenhagen before a show,” Veasey recalls, “by the local riot police. They didn’t like the kids hanging about without tickets, so they turned up with their water cannons and fired tear gas at them — just because they could. And they used this particularly nasty tear gas that is only legal in three countries, the other two being South Africa and Israel. I’ve had some terrifying experiences in the line of duty, but you know, I’ve gotten to go to some great places.”
To Audioslave bassist Tim Commerford — Wilk’s longtime rhythm-section teammate from way back in the Rage days — his drummer’s hoodoo boils down to just a couple essential elements. “It took me a lot of time to figure out what Brad was up to, but now I feel like we’ve got an undeniable hook-up,” he says. “Brad’s style is all about the three.”
You mean the backbeat? Not exactly. “There’s always this dope triplet feel going on underneath everything he does, and it makes the grooves swing hard,” Commerford explains. “That triplet thing is what makes him different from other rock drummers, who sit way on top of the beat. His underlying loose feel makes the snare lay back just enough to make stuff sound huge.”
Huge grooves aside, Commerford readily admits that Wilk isn’t simply a drumming sideman. He’s a key component of the collective creative effort. “Brad is also really important in terms of songwriting,” he continues. “In Audioslave there’s an unwritten agreement that no one can really diss an idea until it’s been fleshed out with other parts. I mean, you’d have to be a quantum physicist to be able to tell that a part won’t work without hearing the complementary parts. Brad always comes up with sick complementary parts — these sick beats that just light up everybody in the room. I’m where I am because of Brad, and I firmly believe you’re only as good as your drummer.”
In Audioslave, Brad Wilk lays it down solid and heavy. On the title track from their latest disc Out Of Exile, Wilk proves the effectiveness of this song-oriented, meat-and-potatoes approach. Let’s take a close look at the first several sections of this song, which begins with a funky two-measure snare march over bass drum quarter-notes. This sets up the heavy guitar entrance at the instrumental chorus where Wilk gives us a slamming four-bar groove pattern that he uses in the chorus. In the verse, he plays the groove that’s in just about every other song you hear on the radio. So if you don’t know it — learn it! He varies the formula by opening his hi-hat on the second beat. The first vocal chorus has a syncopated variation in the first and second ending from the earlier version of the chorus. Finally, there’s a four-bar vamp with his first rocking fill of the song, which leads into the next verse.
Drums: Gretsch and Tama
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 6.5" Tama Bell Brass Snare
3. 12" x 9" Tom
4. 16" x 16" Floor Tom
5. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
A. 14" Signature Sound Edge Hi-hats
B. 18" Signature Full Crash
C. 19" Signature Power Crash
D. 22" 2002 Ride
E. 19" Dimensions Power Crash
F. LP Cowbell
Brad Wilk also uses DW hardware, Vic Firth sticks, and Remo heads.