Audioslave’s bassist talks Fender, touring, Rage, Rush and the Police …
Audioslaving away: Commerford onstage.
Photo by Sean Ricigliano
Tim Commerford used to rage; now he slaves. From 1990 to 2000, he melted people’s faces off as the hard-hitting bassist for seminal and hugely successful politico-metal militants Rage Against the Machine. After Rage’s demise in October 2000, members Commerford, Tom Morello and Brad Wilk joined forces with former Soundgardener Chris Cornell in Audioslave. The group’s eponymous 2002 debut album quickly went double platinum, and its second, this year’s Out of Exile, debuted in May at number one on the U.S. charts. In a May 6, 2005 appearance authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department, Audioslave became the first American rock group to perform in Cuba, before an audience of 60,000.
Here, Commerford sits down with Fender News to discuss Audioslave’s success and inner workings. He also talk about Rage, and professes his love for Fender Jazz® basses, Rush and the Police …
FN: With Out of Exile debuting at No. 1 and with a sold-out tour, you must feel good about getting over the “sophomore slump.” Was it ever a concern?
TC: We really don’t worry about that sort of thing. I feel really blessed to be in another band; another great band. That sophomore jinx, or how do we come up with our music … we don’t do that. We’re just in a room. We focus on getting along. We focus on our relationships. We let the music just sort of “happen.” I feel like there’s going to be a lot of Audioslave records. Two seems like hardly any. I want to get over the five-record jinx!
FN: There’s been growth between the first and second records …
TC: Like I said, we keep getting to know each other better, and our work ethic is one that I’m very proud of in that we don’t waste days. We get into the studio and we write songs. We come out with arrangements. We don’t spend too much time on anything and we try to be productive. We all have the same attitude about it and nobody’s resisting it. And because of that, it just “happens.” It feels very natural.
We just got back from a seven-week tour in Europe, and before that we did a five-week tour in the states with only four days off in between. Normally, that would lead to a few months or a month of resting before the next tour. So we had two-and-a-half months off and we went right back in and wrote 15 more songs. So we have another 27 songs that we’re ready to record. As soon as we get back, Chris’s (Cornell; Audioslave and former-Soundgarden singer/songwriter) wife is going to have another baby, and then we’re going to go into the studio and record our third record. I’m psyched to get through the third one and then the fourth one and, like I said, the fifth one. I just want to keep writing records until people realize that we are more of a band than Soundgarden or Rage, because we’ve written more records and have been around a longer time.
FN: You all cut your teeth in your previous bands, and now seem to have a more down-to-business approach. You all get along, and it seems like the band clicked immediately …
TC: We have fun writing songs, and like I said, from the very first day that we met Chris in the rehearsal room in Hollywood, we wrote “Light My Way” and we never looked back. We write songs every time we get together. That ultimately is all you gotta do. If you’re in a band, or you’re a musician, that’s all you gotta do. Just write songs and you will succeed.
FN: You’ve said that you bring a “sports mentality” to your music. What do you have left to prove as a musician?
TC: I don’t have anything to prove. But I call it the “key to the arena”—that’s the way I like to put it. I would like to have the key to the arena around my neck. Because once you have that key, you always get to go back. And right now, we’ve made two records. It took Rage a few records to start to get the key to some of the arenas around the country. But it takes a little time. And the only way to get the key is to have a catalog of music so that when people go to see you play, they know every song that you’re playing.
FN: And your reach is greater, because you’re touching more people …
TC: That’s it! So it takes time; it’s nothing that you get right away. You have to put in the time, and that’s what we’re doing. So that’s what I eyeball—the key to the arena. Because I’m fascinated that I’m 37 years old and I have a couple 40-year-olds in the band with me and another guy that’s my age, and we’re still making it happen. And we’re still doing it. And it’s still exciting. And I’m curious as hell how long that’s gonna go on.
FN: And you’re appealing to generations much younger than you …
TC: Absolutely! And that’s cool; when I look out in the audience and I see those youngsters and I see the fans that have been there for 15 years, too, you know? It’s exciting! I love our audience, I really do.
As a guy who was in Rage Against The Machine—looking out at an audience that was a lot more aggressive and almost completely male-dominated—it’s really nice to look out and see an audience that’s mixed with young and old, men and women, and people singing. To hear the whole audience singing an entire chorus of a song while we play it—and they do it perfectly—that’s unreal! We never got any of that with Rage. It’s really cool. And we have been bumping Soundgarden, Rage and Temple of the Dog songs in our set. It’s great to interject those tunes, too, and see people just jumping and doing their thing. Our show is really fun and really great!
FN: What are your favorite Rage, Soundgarden and Temple songs?
TC: We’ve been working on “Rusty Cage.” That’s been the latest Soundgarden one, and it’s really hard. It’s a song I’ve heard a million times. I love that song, but I’ve never really sat down and figured out every little nuance of it. (laughs) It’s hard! Man, they do weird odd timing, and just weird stuff. We stick to the real “knucklehead rock” with Rage—4/4 across the board. So when you throw some out-of-time stuff, it’s not that it’s hard; it’s just that it’s … hard (laughs)!
FN: Ben’s (Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd) playing differs greatly from yours. You lock in, whereas Ben will slide around and play much more loosely …
TC: Yep. He’s a great bass player and his bass lines are … unsung bass lines. I’m gonna learn “Blow Up the Outside World.” Unreal bass line! Unreal! Off the hook! It blew me away. I was just listening to it; it slides totally below the radar. You just never even think about it being a song that’s like (Rush’s) “YYZ.” It’s incredible, man (laughs)! The guy’s incredible! He played with his fingers. He just needed to jack his bass up when they would play live. That was the problem—you can’t get good tone when you have your bass at your knees. You can’t! Your fingers are not hitting the strings the right way. I used to have my bass kind of down lower and it just didn’t work out, y’know?
FN: Speaking of basses, what do you look for in them?
TC: I like Jazz basses. I’ve been playing Jazz basses with Precision Bass® necks, and I’m almost thinking that I want to switch to Jazz Bass necks, because I have one regular Jazz Bass out here on tour and I end up playing that one because it’s the most comfortable one for me. I like ash bodies. They’re more “tight.” For some reason, the low end is tighter.
Certain pickups sound better than others. I don’t know why that is. I know a little bit about it, but I don’t necessarily know exactly why certain pickups will sound different than others, when they’re exactly the same pickup. But that is the case, and I’ve listened to all my pickups—as crazy as that sounds—and put them all in different basses at different times, and marked them, and decided which ones sound better, … and A/B-ed them against other ones. And people in studios tell me that one sounds better. And I tell them that that’s the one that I marked. There’s something in the pickup. Some people don’t believe that, but, I know—there’s something in the pickups. I don’t know if it’s what was once done by hand is now done by a machine and the machine isn’t as meticulous. I don’t know whether or not they’re the ones that were done by hand and the one guy got down near the end of the wire and broke the wire, and just went, “that’s close enough,” and then welded it there and called it a day. Whatever it is, they’re all different, and it’s always nice when you get a great pickup with a tight, low end.
A lot of my basses are tuned BEAD, but a lot of them aren’t. I’ve been messing around with that tuning on the first two records, and now I’m back to standard EADG and drop-D tuning and that sort of thing as much as I can. To me, that just sounds better. I don’t know; I’m always changing up stuff and reevaluating what I’ve done.
FN: What first prompted that? How long have you been doing that?
TC: When I first came into Rage, one of the first things I did was go out with Tom (Audioslave and Rage guitarist Tom Morello) and check out all the distortion boxes, and we bought a Marshall® Guv’Nor™ distortion pedal. I started using that. Then we went in to make our second record, Evil Empire, and that’s when we were working with Brendan O’Brien. He said, “Why don’t you get another amp and start using it?” So I started experimenting with a “distorto” amp all the time, and then I’ll have my clean amp and just click the distortion on when I need it. I just started experimenting with that, and then with basses when I was a kid. I’m one of those guys who wants to know how everything works. I hate it when I have something that I like and I don’t know how it works, where if it’s broke, I wouldn’t know what to do. That bothers me.
FN: Do you drive your tech crazy?
TC: No, I’m pretty low-maintenance, believe it or not. I don’t add that much to my stuff. I try to refine it and actually make it easier to use. My basses are just Jazz basses. There are no active pickups. I believe in Jazz basses—I believe they’re the best basses you can get! There’s just so much to them—whether you’re playing on the front pickup, or the back pickup, closer to the bridge—it’s a sport. A Jazz Bass is as much of a sport as I ever could want a bass to be. A lot of times I have to go up to the front of the neck and play up front because I’m getting tired. But if I feel good, I’ll go back to the bridge and rock the entire show. It’s a sport man! It gives you so many different sounds. For the first Rage record, I used a different bass. By Evil Empire, I was on a Jazz Bass, and I never looked back. That was it, and I’ve never played any other bass but a Jazz Bass.
FN: What do you like, specifically, about the Jazz Bass?
TC: It’s comfortable. You can watch the Jaco (Pastorius) instructional video and see Jaco roll up all the pickups and roll the front pickup back and kind of like dial the sound in. That’s one thing about every Jazz Bass that I love—if you turn up both pickups all the way and then roll that front back, you kind of get that low-end “doo-doo-doo” sound, and then it goes into a (makes an open-ended “wah” sound). That’s my sound, right there. That’s it. No other bass does that for me. My hand goes there and it knows how to roll the pickups real quick and make it happen. It feels comfortable—the shape of the bass; everything about it is just perfect.
FN: Are most of your basses stock when you get them?
TC: I was putting BADASS® bridges on them at first. I don’t like stock bridges. I like a solid bridge, and for me right now, the Gotoh® bridges are really nice. They’re solid, simple and they don’t move. If you play down by the bridge a lot, like me, you start moving the saddles around. I can actually pluck the strings around the saddle a bit and it takes away from the tone.
FN: You have a pair of ’70s pickups that you really love and that the Fender Custom Shop tried to duplicate. How’d they do?
TC: They did all right. I still have those pickups that they made. When I have pickup problems and I put those pickups in, they’re always cool; they always work out. But I remember when I was A/B-ing them with the original ones. There’s something about those original ones that made them better than anything else. Those are the best two that I have. That being said, the last two basses that I got from Fender—a White Jazz Bass and a Sunburst Jazz Bass—are the best two basses that I have. Those are the ones that I most look forward to playing every night. It’s not the one that has those pickups in it; it’s the two I got from Fender that are my favorite. They sound so good and they’re so perfect for the way we sound right now. The only thing I’m bummed about is that I want one more. I’m actually waiting for one more. I want to get one more that sounds as good as the (other) two, and I will be happy forever!
FN: What is it about them? Are they stock?
TC: They have P Bass necks, (but are) just regular Jazz basses. They’re both ash bodies. One’s heavier than the other. They’re not that heavy; usually, I go with really heavy basses, but these are pretty light. They have low end, but they don’t have a ton of low end. I’m finding that that’s better for drop-D and B tuning, when there’s maybe not as much low end, and there’s more of a growl to it. Both of them have a distorted sort of growl when I play them hard, and that’s my sound. That’s the easiest sound for me to put distortion on and to make it sound even gnarlier. That’s why I love Jazz basses. They have a totally nice growl to ’em!
FN: What music has inspired you over the years?
TC: Hendrix. That’s what it’s come down to for me. When I was a kid, I was not the biggest Hendrix fan. But if I had to say what the best music is, it’d be Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys. It’s incredible. It’s undefinable—elements of punk rock, rock ‘n’ roll, blues and jazz. It’s so incredible. I hear that and it’s like, that’s it. Every band, whether they know it or not, is striving to be the Band of Gypsys. That’s the template, whether it’s said or unsaid, and that’s what it’s all about. We need to try to tap into whatever it was that they tapped into (laughs)!
FN: What’s next for Audioslave?
TC: We have another three weeks left of another tour that we’re on. Then we go home and Chris’s wife is pregnant with their second baby—and Chris’s third child—so he’s gonna take part in that. And, as soon as he’s in the clear after that, which will probably be after the holidays, we’re gonna go back in with Brendan O’Brien to record our next record, which we have ready to go. It’s exciting!
FN: With three of you living in Los Angeles and Chris living in France, how do you rehearse?
TC: He lives in France, but he just bought a house out in L.A. Chris is on the ball. I really feel like, as a fan of Cornell, he’s at an all-time high. He really is. He sings effortlessly right at the moment. During our shows, for my own vocals, I have an in-ear monitor, so I’ve got Chris in there and I hear him really good. I can tell! Whether he’s doing the Rage Against The Machine songs or Audioslave or Soundgarden, he is at an all-time high. He’s doing versions of Rage songs that I can argue are better than anything Rage ever did. You have to hear it. There are gonna be more tours, so get ready! None of us are feeling the touring blues right now. It’s sort of “on.” It’s like work that we need to do and we’re doing it!
FN: Any suggestions for aspiring bassists?
TC: Make sure you don’t play your bass down by your ankles (laughs)! Or else some guy who plays his bass up by his neck might end up playing your songs! Keep the bass jacked up to your neck. I like to see it as more of a “bib” than a “belt” (laughs again)! When you hit the strings to where they vibrate in line with the pickups instead of smacking into the magnets when it’s down low—you know what I’m saying; that’s no way to get a clean sound. That forces good technique. And good technique, whether you’re riding a bike or playing a bass, that’s how you learn how to do it right—by starting with the right technique.
And I don’t consider myself a great bass player. I do not consider myself technically proficient. I’m not Jaco. I learned how to play my instrument the wrong way and became lucky enough to become a professional musician. Then I made the choices right then and there to go, “Wait a minute—I need to learn to play my instrument the right way.” After I’d been in Rage for two years, I decided that I needed to jack my bass up. I needed to focus on that. I needed to do it right, so I changed my technique. All of a sudden, my playing got so much better. That and playing the drums. Getting a drum set at my house made me play bass so much better.
FN: Do you and Brad (Wilk, Rage/Audioslave drummer) ever switch off?
TC: We do! Brad can play bass, and I love playing drums. I don’t play any fills. I do fills on the snare drum. I rock beats, man. I love beats. I’m not afraid to rock beats all day.
FN: That goes back to Buddy Miles from Band of Gypsys …
TC: That’s it! Buddy Miles is freakin’ sick. (Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer) Mitch Mitchell too! He’s the best (laughs)! He would’ve been a better addition to the Band of Gypsys. There’s something about the controlled chaos of Mitch Mitchell …
FN: Mitchell in turn inspired Stewart Copeland, another favorite drummer …
TC: C’mon! My father-in-law and I were talking about the Police, and he was asking me about Stewart. I told him that I think he might be the best rock drummer ever! I’m a huge fan of the Police and always have been.
FN: Did you see them reunite at their Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction?
TC: Yeah. Tom was there doing some other stuff, and he had a ringside seat. Tom told me that Andy and Stewart wanted to do more songs, but Sting just said “No.” Did you see Sting’s tour where he played Police songs?
TC: He had Josh Freese on drums and played at the Roxy in Hollywood. Talk about dramatic—Stewart Copeland was standing right in the middle of the house!
FN: Are you kidding?
TC: I’m not kidding. That’s sick! You know, Josh is a great drummer, but he doesn’t play like Stewart Copeland.
FN: Nobody does.
TC: That’s the beauty of that guy. It was his band. I saw the Behind The Music (laughs)! Stewart Copeland was the brains behind the whole thing. He’s such an incredible drummer. And you’re only as good as your drummer. I’ve said that so many times, and it’s the truth. You can be the slammin’-est bass player in the world, and it doesn’t mean a thing if your drummer sucks. It really doesn’t. And Stewart Copeland is the greatest “start” or foundation of a band. That he’s able to make those beats that he plays sound like they groove even though they’re really not those kind of beats, you know? I love that!
FN: It’s interesting that you play with Brad and are so into Copeland. Their styles are so different …
TC: Oh yeah, but you’ve got to hear us go off on our Rush tangent. We bust into “YYZ.” It’s really weird—when we were kids coming up, that was the song that we had to learn. It was the same for Brad. I learned that song. That was it. I can play “YYZ.” And when I first learned it, it wasn’t exactly right. Then I’d figured it out and see them one more time. And I’d figure it out and get it right. So, when Brad and I do it, it’s right, man (laughs)! It’s pretty sick.
FN: Will it make an Audioslave set?
TC: It probably won’t, but we have played “Working Man.” We transposed it into the key of B. That’s pretty cool. Chris sometimes sings “2112”; (sings) “… the sleep is still in my eyes, the dream is still in my head …” He plays that for the crowd and people don’t even know what they’re hearing. They sure like it, though! When we played in Canada, we did a lot of Rush tribute stuff. We had little Rush bobblehead dolls on our amps and stuff like that. It seemed like the crowd didn’t even know who Rush was.
FN: Was this in Toronto?
TC: This was in every city in Canada! They don’t know. They don’t realize that Rush is the biggest band to ever come from Canada. And that the band is one of the highest-grossing touring acts ever.
FN: What about Bryan Adams and Triumph?
TC: Bryan Adams (laughs)! I gave up on him after the GQ/Vogue part of his career. I liked the regular guy that was hittin’ right when he was big. But the guy that came after that kind of tripped me out (laughs)!
For more information on Tim Commerford and Audioslave, visit www.audioslave.com.