“And then once we had 15 of the 16 planned songs, we went in the studio to record,” he says. “Funny enough, song No. 16 [titled “Damaged Soul” on the finished album] was just a blues jam that I had never even heard before. Rick was like, ’That’s what’s missing, you know, that’s what Black Sabbath is so great at.’ And that’s the thing that bands these days that love Black Sabbath miss about Black Sabbath; they get the metal part of it but they don’t get the jamming part of it, the jazz part of it, the funky part of it.”
The track’s heavily “Voodoo Chile”-ish vibe was a direct result of the band’s favored molding of song material out of spontaneous, bluesy jams.
“It was so great to have this song that was completely open-ended – you know, ’Here’s Part One, play the riff, here’s Part Two …’ That was one of my favorite moments: I was like, man, I’m here with Black Sabbath playing just really off the cuff, and it felt so great. That’s when I realized I really feel sync’d and locked with these guys.”
Wilk’s ideas about his chess match – like relationship with the rhythmic styles of singers has radically altered his own sense of timing, feel, and flow. In Rage Against The Machine he had to interact with rapping Zach de la Rocha’s rigidly demarcated blocks of lyricism, a marked contrast to his work with Audioslave vocalist Chris Cornell.
“They were completely different drumming styles that showed how the vocals have a huge part in how I play drums. With Zach, he’s amazingly percussive with his voice, and he has such great rhythm, and that’s partly why Rage Against The Machine is so unique. There was a lot of room for the funkiness and the influences that I came to Rage with, and it just seemed to work.”
When Wilk moved on to Audioslave, his pairing with Cornell’s voice was another stretching experience – literally. “Chris is a guy who holds the notes out really long, so I wanted to make more of a spacious sort of sound, and that’s when I really started getting into the idea of having the note along with the space that your note creates. And they’re two very different things. The space that you create is as important as the note that you create. I took a lot of time thinking about that space, thinking about where it leans, and where the song leans.”
Such intellectualized stuff doesn’t exactly sound like the sort of thing one can practice. “I certainly couldn’t practice it in a room by myself,” Wilk confirms. “But that’s the beauty of playing with other humans, that it’s something that you can practice as long as there are people in the room, because you’re having human interaction.”
Understanding these concepts about the space between notes seems a bit methodical when you’re talking about it, but, according to Wilk, it’s more about feel and doing it than it is really thinking about it. “And if you’re thinking about it too much, you could wind up in a hole that you don’t want to be in. Music should be about an initial feeling and a vibe, and if you can keep that and make it sound as spontaneous as you can, that’s great, that’s my favorite kind of music.”
A drummer’s personal relations with the other members of a band will directly affect the way he makes the music, he believes, and testy vibes among the players can make for fertile musical grounds. “One of my favorite bands of all time is The Who, and those guys wanted to kill each other. But I remember getting The Kids Are All Right record from my brother and flipping through those pages and being awestruck by it, and then actually hearing the record, and it was amazing because they both made complete sense to me. The Who is a celebration of anger and frustration – and Rage was certainly of the same ilk.”
Recording an album with his childhood heroes was a full-circle experience that took Wilk right back to his youth. The tracks on 13 were laid down at the Shangri La recording studio, which sits aside Pacific Coast Highway near Zuma Beach, not too far from where Wilk spent his headbangin’ formative years.
“I grew up in the [San Fernando] Valley, and that was me in the room when I was 13 trying to emulate Black Sabbath. I was the kid going down to the beach with my ghetto blaster, blasting the Sabbath records, blasting Blizzard Of Oz.” He laughs. “So at the recording sessions, when we’d go outside for breaks, I could stand there and see Zuma Lifeguard Station No. 6, the exact lifeguard station where I used to hang out blasting these Sabbath records.”
The location’s sights and scents triggered the feeling.
“You know how a smell can bring you back instantly? I’d walk outside and I would get that smell and it was like I was a 13-year-old kid again – except [laughs] the real Black Sabbath actually were all in the room and we were recording an album.”
And as a fan and a player, Wilk couldn’t be prouder about being a part of the album’s creation. “When I got the record back after being away from it for a couple of months, I myself was blown away by it. And it was weird feeling that – to be blown away by something that you actually did sounds pretty big-headed, but it’s shocking because usually I’m my own worst critic, and I was literally just sitting there and listening to it and truly enjoying it, and going, ’This is so great!’”
Now picture again what Wilk’s mind was going through as he set about occupying the drum chair of one of the world’s most legendary bands, in the face of some seriously furious opposition to the idea that anyone but Bill Ward could ever fill the bill. (There’s even a Facebook page called “1,000,000 Black Sabbath Fans Say Yes to Bill Ward” – ouch.) Like, who is this imposter? “That’s a lot of freakin’ pressure,” he says with a slight grimace. “You know that you’re going to be judged by many, but at some point you just have to throw that out, and go for it.”