Tom Morello: Science Friction
From jarring guitar noises to creative differences, Tom Morello thrives on dissonance. In this GW exclusive, the AUDIOSLAVE guitarist talks about freaky tones, fractious band mates and his group’s funked-up new album, Revelations
Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine December 2006
Aside from the tapping on computer keyboards and the low hum of telephone conversations, all is quiet within Guitar World’s office. Suddenly, an ear-quaking, rib-vibrating squeal splits the air—breeeeeeep! breeeeeeep! breeeeeeep!—like a robotic whooping crane gone mad. GW staffers lurch and look up from their desks, stricken by the discord. For a heart-stopping second, everyone looks alarmed. And then they remember: Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello is in the house, ensconced in the magazine’s studio, where he is filming some of his distinctive, synapse-altering riffs for the Guitar World CD-ROM. “That must be Tom trying out some crazy new sound,” I say to editor-in-chief Brad Tolinski. We both laugh, relieved. Which is when a recording comes over the office public address system: “We are currently running a test of the fire alarm system. There is no emergency. We repeat: there is no emergency.”
We don’t know what Morello thought of the sonic intrusion, but if on some future solo of his you hear something like a piercing fire alarm, you’ll know the probable source of his inspiration. Morello’s visit is twofold: in addition to taping the GW CD-ROM, he’s here to talk about Revelations (Epic), Audioslave’s brilliant new album, and to dispel the host of rumors that have accompanied news of the group’s imminent release. According to the incessant internet buzz, Audioslave, the band that has offered Morello succor after a decade of Rage Against the Machine–related migraines, is toast, a victim of drug-andalcohol- fueled infighting and God knows what else. “So many rumors, so little time,” the 42-year-old Morello cracks during an interview earlier in the day. “It’s nice to know that people are talking about the band. I just wish that the stories weren’t so negative. We’ve done so much in such a short period of time. Why aren’t people talking about that?”
He has a point. Since their 2001 debut, Audioslave—Morello, along with fellow ex- Ragers bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, plus ex-Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell—have sold millions of albums and downloads worldwide (they’ve probably racked up a few ring tones, too, for those who count such things) and become a major concert draw (their historic 2005 concert in Havana, Cuba, was the first by an American rock band). Despite these accomplishments, the band is routinely marginalized and viewed, in some quarters, as nothing more than a “project,” a notion that leaves Morello puzzled. “Three rocking albums in five years. What more proof do people need that we mean it?”
Revelations should do the trick. Produced by Brendan O’Brien, whose production credits include Pearl Jam, Korn and Rage Against the Machine, the album stomps and swaggers with authority. The title track packs enough resonance to stampede cattle a thousand miles away, while the song “Somedays” features riffage so solid that it qualifies as a veritable Zeppelin two-by-four. The album’s titular piece, and its lead-off single, is “Original Fire,” a wicked Sly & the Family Stone pastiche that could get heads banging and butts shaking. On this track, the rhythm section of Commerford and Wilk, usually an impenetrable fortress, is sinuous and playful, so much so that one can even picture the ever-brooding Chris Cornell boogying down a line of Soul Train dancers.
The beauty of Tom Morello’s playing on Revelations lies not only in the Homeric array of darts and dives that have become his signature style but in the unexpected, graceful efficacy with which he performs. Each of his solos combines the euphonious and cacophonous, rendered with a whiplash poetic flair, a fullness of feeling that amounts to its own kind of bounty. But for all of the meticulous plotting that goes into his work, the results never seem foreordained. They are, quite simply, aural paradoxes.
Morello himself is something of a contradiction: a fierce, scaldingly talented rock and roller who holds a political science degree from Harvard. A man who’s made his mark in the anything-goes world of show business but whose idea of a good time is attending a city council meeting. A man who can speak with equal zeal (and command) about Led Zeppelin riffs as he can the need for the egalitarian society. When it comes to activism, most celebrities are content to merely write a tax-deductible check, but Morello puts his music where his mouth is, appearing at rallies in the persona of the Nightwatchman (check out nightwatchmanmusic.com), an acoustic guitar–wielding social avenger who performs truth-to-power songs in the spirit of Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg.
“Anger is a gift”—so went a line from one of Rage Against the Machine’s most famous songs. And for the members of that band, anger was the gift that kept on giving, leading to the group’s eventual downfall. But the Tom Morello who shows up five minutes early for his appointed interview time (apparently, he never got the memo that three hours late has become the customary norm) is anything but irritable.
And despite the funereal air surrounding the status of Audioslave, Morello radiates the kind of sweetness one might associate with an unusually content veterinarian in some mythical TV heartland. He laughs easily—sometimes a chortle, other times a raucous roar— and one finds himself laughing, too, if for no other reason than his laughter is infectious. Charismatic, erudite, a mixture of gravitas and giddiness, Morello’s creative soul might reach for places unknown but his head is planted squarely on his shoulders. Even while ordering lunch, he eschews the standard rock-star fare of sushi and Cristal in favor of a tuna sandwich and Snapple. Hell, he even shares his bag of chips. You don’t have to try to like him; you just do.
GUITAR WORLD So it’s all over the internet: This is Audioslave’s last record with Chris Cornell. He’s in rehab again. He’s resuming his solo career. What’s really going on?
TOM MORELLO Here are the facts: If Audioslave were going to break up, you would hear it from me. Yes, Chris is making a solo record. No, he’s not in rehab. And no, the band has not broken up.