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All the Rage again

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

I’m speaking toward a deeper sentiment that I feel and I know a lot of people feel. Most of the songs have to do with redemptive moments that come in the face of some real indignity. And that’s the current that I’m trying to tap into, because I think that for a lot of people -- for the real participants who’ve been left out of the debate, who live in the shadows and work at car washes and are forced to cross the border and are struggling and facing the real economic consequences -- they’re often left out of the debate, on the right and the left, because of the language they speak or even the terminology that they use. They’re out working every day, facing the real consequences of living in this country.

So it stems from my own frustration. It stems from seeing how things have been developing politically, and watching so much dissatisfaction and people very upset about the way the country is going. And watching all of that frustration steered back into a more traditional political process. The problems stem far deeper than anything that Brother Obama can address, and eventually people are going to have to respond.

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On the surface, some of these new songs seem very anti-religious, including the single.

I don’t see it as an anti-religious song. I see it as the West has been using Christianity as a way to justify its actions when in reality, those figures, Christ and Muhammad, were rebels. These two religious figures have been co-opted to justify power, although they fought against the abuses of power and the expansion of empire. It’s almost like, what would Christ and Muhammad do?

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What do you think of the state of political art now? Sometimes it seems to have really died down, what with a mainstream full of teen pop and reality television.

I’m listening to things all the time. There have been eight years of the Bush administration and the decline of real wages, and people are responding. It’s unfortunate that more conscious artists or political artists in general haven’t been heard in the mainstream. But I think back to when I was going to hardcore shows and I saw the Bad Brains, those moments resonate and are life-altering moments. Those people who were at those shows have become artists or activists as a result of having their perspective shifted. . . . So I don’t necessarily feel that music within the mainstream is always an indication of the political frustrations that exist beneath the surface.

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How do those two elements of your own life -- activism and music-making -- intersect or diverge now?

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I don’t think the separation is valid, especially in these times. . . .

Participating in the Son Jarochos work [his activist work with urban farmers in South Central Los Angeles, which included playing folk music with the group Son de Madera] felt more community-based, more collective. I was part of a collective voice and not on my own as an artist, and something about that attracted me.

It’s so funny, I’ve read a couple things someone said that there were bets being placed on who would finish their album first, Axl Rose or me. One joke was that Axl was calling his record “Chinese Democracy,” and that there would be democracy in China by the time he finished! I laughed when I considered calling this record “American Democracy.” But I kinda spoke too soon on that!

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It’s an election year here in the U.S. Did that factor into your decision to debut new music now?

I’d be lying if I said it was coincidental. I think that it’s an interesting moment. The lowest approval rating in the history of any presidency -- and for Congress. There’s this interesting rupture developing, and I think it’s a healthy one.

To watch the Democrats, who were really our only institutional obstruction to this extremely rightward swing, fall in lock-step behind this new imperial fantasy that became reality, that was a pivotal moment. A lot of people began to question the whole nature of both parties. Now more than ever, there’s a more fertile ground for artists to try to reveal the nature of both parties, who are mainly the public relations team for transnational corporations.

Barack is clearly the most viable candidate, the most intelligent, the one with the most forward-thinking position, but I would hate to see the flames of discontent be watered down by rhetorical visions of hope and change, when historically those things have only come from immigrant workers or people fighting against segregation, or against the second-class position of women.

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You’ve been touring with Rage again. What is your relationship like with those guys now?

So much has changed. When you get older, you look back on tensions and grievances and have another perspective on it. I think our relationship now is better than it’s ever been. I would even describe it as great. We’re going to keep playing shows -- we have a couple of big ones happening in front of both conventions. As far as us recording music in the future, I don’t know where we all fit with that. We’ve all embraced each other’s projects and support them, and that’s great.

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Can we look forward to some live Lion gigs in the near future?

Definitely. I’ve always hoped that a project I was involved in could be a little more spontaneous, set up on a block and play. Me and Jon see eye to eye on doing that.

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Meanwhile, Rage is playing in Minneapolis the same night the Republican convention happens in St. Paul. What do you anticipate for that show?

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You’re gonna have to come and cover it. I think we both know what we expect. Good shoes would help. And you might wanna dip that bandanna in some vinegar.

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ann.powers@latimes.com

For the full interview with Zack de la Rocha, go to www.latimes.com/zack

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