ATN talked to Rage's Tom Morello about music, politics and the finer points of touch football
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De La Rocha Album 2000

By Gil Kaufman

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(( Tom Morello. ))
Photo: Michael Goldberg

It's tempting to think that when Rage Against the Machine aren't vilifying sweatshop owners, petrochemical megacorporations and crooked cops in the recording studio, the Los Angeles quartet is huddled in dark rooms poring over leftist manuals, preparing their next assault on the American oligarchy.

Chances are, though, that like a lot of other young men in their late 20s, they're playing video games or tossing a football around. At least according to guitarist Tom Morello, who says there was more frivolity and downtime than fans might expect during the recording of the group's incendiary third communique from rebel territory, the recently released The Battle of Los Angeles.

Continuing what has been an unprecedented run for a platinum (one million-selling) band whose politics fall just to the left of those of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the new album upholds the group's uncompromising stance.

Combining the cadence of hip-hop, the crunch of heavy metal and the snarling politics of punk, Rage take on crooked cops (on the album's first single, "Guerrilla Radio"), sweatshop labor ("Maria") and car culture and oil companies (offering a harsh indictment on "Testify"). And, even at a time when teen pop from the likes of Britney Spears and 'N Sync has a stranglehold on the charts, The Battle of Los Angeles debuted at #1, managing to beat out Mariah Carey's latest.

Formed in 1991 by Morello, singer Zack de la Rocha, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, the band released its eponymous debut in 1992. Rage followed in 1996 with Evil Empire, which debuted at #1 thanks to such galvanizing hits as "Bulls on Parade" and the band's relentless touring and legendary high-energy live shows.

Rather than rest on the laurels of superstar status and multiplatinum success, the group used its high visibility to stump for a number of causes, with de la Rocha making frequent trips to Chiapas, Mexico in support of the rebel uprising in that state and Morello speaking out about sweatshop labor. The Battle of Los Angeles also features a pair of references to the case of imprisoned journalist and convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, for whom Rage played a benefit show on Jan. 28. The proceeds from that show will help pay for Abu-Jamal's recent court appeals.

Morello is an amiable Harvard graduate who has carved a niche as one of the most inventive guitarists of his generation — he uses only his hands and a guitar to create otherworldly scratching sounds and turntable-like effects. Morello took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to discuss the new album's message, the electricity of Rage shows and why he thinks fingers were pointed in the wrong direction following the Woodstock '99 debacle.

The Interview

Addicted To Noise: I've heard you guys talk about how Zack's lyrics sometimes come last in the process of assembling the album. How does that work for you when you guys are putting the music together? How do you get a sense for how the songs are going to end up if you haven't got the lyrics yet?

Tom Morello: Even if we don't have a finalized version of the lyrics, we still rehearse the songs with Zack, so we know how the vocals are going to go. You know what I mean? 

Addicted To Noise: Like a scratch vocal just to hold space?

Morello: Yeah, he's freestyling the lyrics, so you know which parts are gonna be rapping, which parts are gonna be ferocious, which parts are gonna be whispered. So you can tailor and arrange the song to the vocals, even though there might not be a final lyric sheet.

Addicted To Noise: How close are his freestyles to what actually gets put down on album?

Morello: As far as the actual words on the page, often they bear little resemblance to the final lyric. I think the chorus in "Mic Check" was very similar to the first jam, though. And I think "Maria" had some strong similarities to the final product, but for the most part it was kind of jamming and freestyling.

Addicted To Noise: Were these sessions much different from how you have recorded in the past? Was there anything you tried to change up this time around?

Tom Morello: Evil Empire was recorded in our rehearsal studio, so it was a little bit different than when we recorded at A&M studios in Hollywood. But the recording sessions during the three and a half weeks or so that we recorded the music were tremendously relaxed. We had a great time. We tried to record a song a day and I think that we recorded 15 instrumental tracks and we took some days off. We spent a lot of time playing touch football during the process.

Addicted To Noise: Which I don't think people can really picture, given the sobering results on the album. You do "Maria," play a little touch football, "Guerrilla Radio," some more touch football ...

Morello: A lot of video gaming around, that sort of thing. [laughs.]

Addicted To Noise: Do you think people have this image of the band as being really serious and intense all the time?

Morello: Yeah, they do. When we're playing our songs, whether it's in the studio or whether it's on stage, we take it dead seriously. But as far as the lives of the band members 24-7, there's probably more frivolity than you might guess ... certainly more touch football than they guess. [laughs.]

Addicted To Noise: How has your guitar-playing changed over the years? Have you seen it develop in different ways?

Morello: Yeah, absolutely. Now it feels very much like my voice. I found my voice on the instrument. The combination of the big riffs and the odd noises I feel really comfortable with. Before, on the first record, we were playing hip-hop music and I was kinda designated DJ, right ...

Addicted To Noise: On the guitar.

Morello: Yeah, on the guitar. And as I continued to explore that and be intrigued by the new noises and the odd rhythms, the repetitions and the textures that were sort of coming from the nontraditional side of my guitar-playing ... That part kind of eclipsed the more traditional elements of my guitar-playing, to the point that, in the last few years, it's just how I hear music now. And it seems like once you take off the blinders, or rather the constraints of "usual" guitar-playing, the horizons are pretty limitless with what you can do on the instrument.

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mixing politics and music, with great success
Photo: Danny Clinch

Addicted To Noise: Do you see what the band is doing now as having a goal that's more social, political, musical? Are those goals much different from when you first began the group?

Morello: The possibilities definitely are a lot wider. When we first put the band together, we were very much a rock band in a small North Hollywood rehearsal studio with some ideas, you know. [laughs.] Nine million records later you realize that there's a possibility to ... not a possibility, because it's been an ongoing process and there have been tangible results along the way ... but you realize the potential for realizing those ideas and continuing to push forward and finding ways to meld the band's influence with the band's convictions, and that's an ongoing process. We just got back from playing a show in Mexico City a couple days ago, which was just off the hook as far as being where the music meets the politics. The show was opened by a speech from [Zapatista guerrilla movement leader] Subcomandante Marcos, via videotape, in part about the situation there in Mexico, in part about Rage Against the Machine and the audience. And it was really incredible. And as we were walking offstage Zack said to me, "When people raise the finger and say, "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" it resonates in a different way when you're facing some of the things that they're facing there, as opposed to what they're facing in maybe Peoria, Illinois. But it's a healthy sentiment in Peoria, too."

Addicted To Noise: You guys have been very heavily involved in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. "Guerrilla Radio" makes references to him ... How do you feel about his case?

Morello: Well, there was a tremendous victory just the other day where there was a stay of execution granted. So, it will go on to the federal appeals process where, for the first time in the history of the case, there will be the opportunity to have a hearing. And it's not going to be the biased Pennsylvania courtroom. There's room for optimism. In 1995, when the execution was overturned, it was in large measure due to the tremendous amount of national and international pressure, and so the same is needed again.

Addicted To Noise: Do you feel like you guys have done anything to help this process?

Morello: Yeah, well, we've done one thing: we've helped pay for it. [laughs.] 'Cause in the United States justice costs money — that's why there are zero rich people on death row, zero.

Addicted To Noise: So, when you say you've paid for it, you've given money to ...

Morello: For this federal appeal process, which is coming up — the benefit concert that we played in January was to fund it. It was some ... I don't know what the figure was, but the tens of thousands of dollars that were raised for that are what is going to pay for this federal appeals process. If that money was not there, you just can't compete in the courtroom.

Addicted To Noise: The band is known for this heavy guitar-rock sound. But on this album there's a couple songs that have a more pronounced hip-hop feel to them. "Mic Check" almost feels like the first real straight hip-hop thing you've done in a long time, where Zack's boasting like an old school rapper. Where did that come from? And was it influenced by some groups you play with, like the tour with the Wu-Tang Clan?

Morello: Hip-hop has always been ... We've always had one foot firmly planted in that world. From songs like "Bullet in the Head" and the verses of "Township Rebellion" and even earlier songs like "Clear the Lane" that appeared on our first demo. We haven't just toured with hip-hop bands, we've integrated some of those sounds and flavors into our playing. But "Mic Check" is a song which is very straightforward hip-hop. That song developed out of ... I think Zack was playing a drum beat in rehearsal during some downtime, or before Brad arrived at rehearsal. And Timmy came up with that bassline. The song is one similar riff the whole way through, in the way that many fine hip-hop songs are. That song came together pretty quickly.

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Photo: Lisa Johnson

Addicted To Noise: Both "Guerrilla Radio" and "Maria" make references to sweatshop issues. The video to "Guerrilla Radio" especially. I know that's something you've been really interested in, but was it important for you to make that part of this album's message?

Morello: I think that it's less a matter of personal preference and more that that's one of the more glaring issues facing us and one that our audience can relate to. The demographic that is targeted by the clothing manufacturers who employ sweatshop labor is the same demographic that buys Rage Against the Machine records. A couple of years ago when we were involved with the Garment Workers Union Unite ... Actually the video itself — the sweatshop workers in the video are real union members from the Garment Workers Union. No one from central casting is in that.

Addicted To Noise: What does the song "Guerrilla Radio" mean to you? When you hear it, what does that make you feel?

Morello: Well, first of all, it's a rocking jam. [laughs.] And that can't be discounted. But I feel that Rage Against the Machine has operated like a guerrilla radio station, broadcasting communiques from behind enemy lines since 1991. I think that that's pretty clear.

Addicted To Noise: Chuck D was in here the other day and I was saying, "Chuck, you've been trying to rage against the machine" for years. But your band has managed to do it in a way that few bands have, with a message that's harsh and really intense. Why do you think you've been able to do that?

Morello: It's unclear. I was reading ... We did this interview for George magazine lately and the writer put something on paper that I sort of felt, and sort of suspected was true, but I never saw it put so bluntly. That Rage Against the Machine really is, in some ways, a band without ... I'm not talking musically, but with regard to the activism, a band without peer. It's a band that is much more radical than U2, it's a band that's more popular than The Clash was and it's a band that has sustained its musical and political anger for a considerable period of time.

Addicted To Noise: So, those were his words?

Morello: Yeah, those were his words. That's not me. [laughs.]

Addicted To Noise: But they rang true?

Morello: No, it was all his words and it made me think elements of that are true and it was shocking. One, I don't think we're as good as those bands, you know, U2 or The Clash or whoever. But that is a good question, and it's one I don't have an answer for. I think it boils down to two things: one is that there is a musical chemistry in this band which is phenomenal. Mostly by luck and partly by design, Timmy, Brad, Zack and I have come together to write songs in a particular way that connects with an audience. But the second part of it — I think the crucial element is part of what fuels that engine — are the band's convictions. On the one hand, it's a fine rock 'n' roll band. But on the other hand, the game gets elevated because of the passion which underlies the music.

Addicted To Noise: People have expected this to be a really big record this fall. What are your expectations?

Morello: I think that we have completely fulfilled our responsibilities and that we've made the record of our careers. Just like when we were in that North Hollywood rehearsal studio, before anyone had heard our music, we knew that we were getting off on this music that we were playing. And we knew that it was totally rocking us and that it was completely uncut and uncompromising and that's our job. If it sells 10 or 10 million copies, that's not really in our hands.

Addicted To Noise: Are you guys doing anything special for the millennium, for the New Year?

Morello: No, I think for the millennium, you really have to ... you have a choice to make: you either have to be naked with your head on fire and a shotgun in Bali, or else you have to spend time with friends or family around the fireplace. And I'm choosing option B.

Addicted To Noise: As far as getting your energy up for these shows, for a show like Woodstock, for instance, how do you do that? What do live performances mean to you guys, versus when you're recording the album?

Morello: The main difference is our audience is there and I've never seen a more rabid, feverish audience than ours. And seriously, everywhere, from Mexico City to Manhattan to wherever, it's like grabbing a live wire when you step onstage with Rage Against the Machine. I'll tell you the story I was going to tell you really quickly. In 1989, the band I was in, Lock Up ... [Jane's Addiction leader] Perry Farrell asked us ... They were playing a New Year's Eve show, and Perry asked us ... that was 10 years ago? Wow, crazy. But Perry asked us to impersonate Jane's Addiction. So the lights would go off and they'd say, 'And please welcome Jane's Addiction!,' and it would be my band, you know, me with a [former Jane's guitarist] Dave Navarro wig, the singer with little braids [like Farrell's], and we'd play "Pigs in Zen." So it was a joke on their audience, right? So, we stepped out on stage and it was dark enough so that the audience clearly thought that it was the band and I have never felt anything like the rush and the electricity. It was really like grabbing a live wire standing on that stage — from the incredible intensity. We did our little joke. They came out and finished the set and I walked offstage going, 'Man that is like unbelievable.' I had never experienced anything like that onstage in my life. In Rage Against the Machine, we get that every night. Sometimes it's times two, sometimes it's times three of what it was that night. So it's really very incredible.

Addicted To Noise: What did you think about what happened at Woodstock? How did the band feel about it? Also, how do you think you fit in with bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit, whose audiences seemingly like the same type of music, but reacted in very different ways there and aren't getting the same message from those bands?

Morello: Woodstock, I thought it was ... I was only there for about four or five hours. My impression of it was sort of through the media's veil. I think that the sexual assaults that occurred were horrific and inexcusable. But, in general, I thought the media coverage was grossly unfair and youth-bashing and tried to vilify an entire generation because of a couple of idiots there. And I thought it was ridiculous how they were saying it was this horribly violent event that was a betrayal of the principles of Woodstock. When everyday — whether it's police murders of unarmed citizens or President Clinton's Tomahawk missiles blowing up children's hospitals outside of Belgrade — there are acts of real violence, that are real betrayals of principles, which get one-tenth of the column inches.

ATN - Vol 5, No 12 -  Dec 1, 1999

Last Updated April 13, 2000