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All the Rage again

Zack de la Rocha discusses his new project, his old project and (of course) politics.

August 12, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

These DAYS, the rock scene is low on mysterious figures. As the music has lost its countercultural edge, many of its champions have transformed into average celebrities, happy to speak into any microphone that wanders by. That's not true of Zack de la Rocha: The Rage Against the Machine vocalist is the rare rock star who keeps his distance from the hype.

De la Rocha is as famous for his radical politics as for incendiary poetics. Between his retirement from Rage in 2000 and his recent reunion with the band, he's limited his public appearances to the occasional rally or benefit show. His musical output has been spare too: Only a few songs have seen light.

But this summer, the 38-year-old Southland native is back and seemingly unstoppable. He has a new musical project: One Day as a Lion, which pairs him with drummer Jon Theodore. . . . One Day as a Lion's self-titled debut EP, on Anti- Records, hit No. 28 on the Billboard charts with minimal media attention and is gaining traction nationally on rock radio. A full release will come in the fall.

De la Rocha has also found a way to embrace Rage again. A 2007 Coachella appearance marked the band's return as a live unit, and its shows have become major events. Earlier this month, Rage blazed through a set at Lollapalooza in Chicago, and the band has just announced a Sept. 3 Minneapolis date, which will serve as a protest against the Republican National Convention occurring simultaneously in St. Paul.

This burst of activity has even inspired De la Rocha to break his media silence. He spoke Monday by phone about the current state of political music, his creative process, and the future of One Day as a Lion -- and Rage Against the Machine.

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How did One Day as a Lion come about?

I've known Jon for several years now, and I saw some of his first performances as a member of the Mars Volta. It was clear that music in L.A. was never going to be the same now that he was here! I've worked with some great drummers, but I hadn't seen drumming like that in a long time. So I immediately felt compelled to . . . pick his brain and find out what kind of music he was interested in.

Jon had a friend named Troy Zeigler, who now plays with Serj Tankian, and Troy had this very small rehearsal space where he would teach drum lessons. A couple of summers ago, Jon and I went in there to talk to Troy. He wasn't there. Jon sat down on one of the students' kits and started playing. The room was filled with random instruments -- there was percussive stuff, these old metal amps that hadn't been used in ages, and a dusty Rhodes keyboard with some broken keys. I plugged in through an old amp and ran it through this messed-up delay pedal that had a trigger on it and we immediately started playing. It felt like two people having a conversation using whatever phrases were at our disposal. We had to document it.

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The EP came out with basically no hype. What was the strategy in releasing it that way?

I wish I could say there was a strategy involved. We felt that the collection of songs we had chosen had resonated with us and it was really something we wanted people to discover on their own. That's been missing from music, in a way; we've been marketed to so much, rather than people discovering something and picking it up.

When I heard Public Enemy for the first time, it was on the soundtrack for the movie "Less Than Zero," tucked between a Madonna song and some other '80s rehash. I was in a friend's car, he put the soundtrack on and I thought, "What is this junk?" When it got to "Bring the Noise," I had that kind of urgent reaction where you just had to stop what you're doing. It sounded like breaking news.

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You've worked with many collaborators since leaving Rage, including Trent Reznor and DJ Shadow. Did what you learned from those experiments factor into Lion?

To an extent it did, and it didn't. When I left Rage . . . first off, I was very heartbroken, and secondly, I became obsessed with completely reinventing my wheel. In an unhealthy way, to a degree. I kind of forgot that old way of allowing yourself to just be a conduit. When I was working with Trent and Shadow, I felt that I was going through the motions. Not that what was produced wasn't great, but I feel now that I've maybe reinvented the base sounds that emanate from the songs.

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The first single is called "Wild International." That implies global politics from the get-go. How does your work fit into that scenario?

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