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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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
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.
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.]
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
politics and music, with great success
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
Addicted To Noise: So, when you say you've paid for it, you've
given money to ...
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.
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
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
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.]
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.
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.
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.