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.
GW And the fact that Chris is recording the theme song to the next James Bond movie…
MORELLO …has no bearing on anything. As long as Chris brings his game to this band when it’s time to play, that’s all that matters. We’ve made three studio albums in less than half the time it took Rage Against the Machine to do the same. This has been the most tremendously prolific and artistically fulfilling period in all our lives. [slight pause] See, here’s the thing: I find it unfortunate that I have to spend time dispelling industry rumors when I’d rather talk about, you know, “hot licks” and stuff. [laughs]
GW I hear you. But even so, the rumors persist. Why do you think that is?
MORELLO I don’t know. I wish I could trace the rumors andfind out who starts them—and why. I guess part of it stems from the fact that we don’t have shows booked yet. People magnify everything and look for trouble where there is none. Since day one of this band, there’s been this pall over us. It’s like people are just waiting to strike the death knell for Audioslave. But they’re going to have to wait a long time.
GW In other words, Time’s winged hoof beats aren’t clattering up to your rehearsal studio?
MORELLO I haven’t heard that sound, no. [laughs] We’re as committed to this band as we’ve always been. We just do things the way we want: we make records when we’re ready, and we tour when we want. Rage was the same way.
GW When you look back on Rage Against the Machine, what memories come to mind?
MORELLO [smiles] When I’m in my car and a Rage song comes on, I turn that shit right up! [laughs] Personally, it was a very turbulent experience, but musically, I’m very proud of our accomplishments.
GW Something I’m trying to get at, though: Why is it, whether it’s Rage or Audioslave, that in-fighting remains the central story? No matter who’s at the mic, it seems that you, Tim and Brad are a fractious bunch.
MORELLO Listen, there’s no band worth its salt that doesn’t have a healthy dose of dysfunction and crazy behavior. I don’t care if you’re a garage band or a stadium band, you’re going to have your fights. With us, people seem to hear about it more, for whatever reason.
GW Could it be that you guys just like to fight? Say, have all the members of Audioslave punched one another yet?
MORELLO [loud laugh] No, no, no! It hasn’t come to physical violence yet; it’s only mental violence.
GW But you graduated from Harvard. Debate classes, Jedi mind tricks—didn’t that equip you to settle band disputes?
MORELLO [laughs] When you’re in a band, there’s no bigger bull’s-eye on your forehead than a college degree. [imitates a band member] “Don’t talk to us that way, Mr. Harvard.” No virtue goes unpunished in rock and roll.
GW Not that Rage was a grunge band per se, but it seems as the seminal bands from that era—Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, the surviving members of Nirvana—don’t talk about those days. Do you think we haven’t reached the grunge nostalgia point in our culture?
MORELLO I think you can take that whole period—Jane’s Addiction circa ’88 through the early Nineties—and call it one of the most fertile and exciting periods in the history of rock music. Jane’s, Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, Rage, Alice, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden—those bands had their feet in underground artistry, and they were made up of smart guys. Also, they loved to play arena-ready hard rock. It was the friction between those conceits that made music that we had never heard before: smart, heavy metal riff-rock married with trippy, industrial sounds. But without exception, all of those bands were tortured. If you grow up loving Fugazi and hating arena bands, and then you find yourself playing arenas, well, that can affect you. Sometimes you kill yourself. Or you anesthetize yourself. Or you don’t make a record once but every five years.
With the case of all of those bands, there was that conflict, which created this amazing artistry. The problem was when the audience became huge and the bands didn’t deliver; their ambition didn’t match their talent. And in that void came all of the horrendous, seventh-rate rap-rock bands, or the Eddie Vedder sound-alike bands and the Nine Inch Nails rip-offs. A lot of them sold zillions of records, but they were all absolutely forgettable.
GW Given your thoughts on the early Nineties, I take it you don’t subscribe to the notion that rock music reached its apotheosis during the Sixties and Seventies.
MORELLO It’s all about perspective. You and I, as adults, have a different perspective than a kid growing up right now. The music that changes you when you’re 12 to 19 is so powerful. For me, it was Led Zeppelin, the Clash, Public Enemy. To a kid nowadays it might be AFI or Muse. What’s sad is the current career arc of bands. Bands don’t even make it to their third album anymore. I feel very fortunate with both Rage and Audioslave that I’ve been able to build a body of work.
GW Let’s continue our stroll down Rage memory lane. Are you still in touch with [former Rage Against the Machine frontman] Zack de la Rocha?
MORELLO I actually ran into him recently at a demonstration to save South Central’s farms. It was great to see him. We only got a chance to talk briefly—there were a lot of kids around, and everybody wanted to take pictures. But it was nice after all these years.
GW Do you know why it’s taken him so long to put an album out?
MORELLO No idea. I wouldn’t have a clue.
GW If you could point to any one thing, what was at the root of friction within Rage?
MORELLO [shakes his head, sighs] Personally and creatively, Rage was very volatile. We had a certain dynamic. It came out onstage one way, but behind the scenes it was totally different.
GW Tell me the truth: When Rage imploded, did you think you were sunk?
MORELLO Actually, no. People forget that I was in a band before Rage called Lock Up, which had a failed release on Geffen Records. At that time I thought the dream was dead. I was 27, I’d worked so hard to get a record deal, and now it was over. And that’s when I formed Rage Against the Machine, a band with zero commercial ambition.
And lo and behold, when Rage went away, there were people in some quarters that sold the three of us—Tim, Brad and I—short. It was even suggested that we be a backup band for either Macy Gray or Ozzy [laughs], and I remember thinking, Why doesn’t everybody just hold on? Let us figure things out. And then we started playing with Chris Cornell.
GW Only a handful of successful bands have replaced singers and retained their audiences: Black Sabbath, Van Halen, AC/DC…
MORELLO But those bands kept their names. When Chris joined, the last thing we were going to be was Rage Against the Machine. So is there a precedent for a band like ours? I don’t think so. On the first AC/ DC tour with Brian Johnson, they played “Highway to Hell.” Van Halen with Sammy Hagar? They did songs that Dave used to sing. On the first Audioslave tour, we played no Rage or Soundgarden songs.
GW It’s interesting to me that, when Sammy joined Van Halen, Eddie’s playing— his entire sound, in fact—seemed to change. With Audioslave, I don’t hear your own guitar playing as having changed so much. However, the band has adopted more of a linear approach to song structure. Was that to accommodate singing over rapping?
MORELLO Definitely. In working with a melodic vocalist, certain changes are necessary. And I agree with you that there is a common thread of my playing from Rage that runs through Audioslave. It’s a weird thing: When we became Audioslave, I did not overintellectualize the playing process. We started just like any other garage band: four guys in a room, writing songs. It was a liberating feeling, and we knew instantly that it was going to be a different and fresh creative experience from anything we’d had before, because we were all mutually supportive of one another’s ideas.
GW And that wasn’t the case in Rage?
MORELLO No. While the results were often quite rocking, what went into it was open warfare— mind-game warfare. With Audioslave, the floodgates opened right away. I didn’t have to worry that somebody might shoot my ideas down. I didn’t worry that we might not write a second song. Sure, we argue, but the arguments are productive. And it’s great to know that if I have an idea I’m in love with, the other three guys are going to give it a fair shake. Passion breeds passion.
Take “Original Fire,” for example, which was a riff I had in my head since the Lock Up days; it had never found a home or the right situation. We started jamming on it, and the song became something dramatically different from what I originally envisioned. Brad came up with this Motown-meets–hard rock beat, and the song became alive.
GW You know, there’s this obscure little band—you might have heard of them—called Sly & the Family Stone.
MORELLO [laughs] Exactly! Believe me, that didn’t escape us for a minute. I just think that’s the way Brad, when he started pumping out that double-time beat, heard the song. And Brendan jumped on the sound and helped us expand on it. I’ll tell you, when Timmy kicked in with that “Chocolate Thunder” bass lick, suddenly it was like, “Damn. Well, all right!”
GW Did you have reservations about doing a dance song? Let’s face it: The hard rock community has never been known for its proclivity for booty shaking.
MORELLO [laughs] No, no, that never entered our minds. Every record we’ve ever made, we’ve made for ourselves.
GW Are there ever times when you, Tim and Brad get together to play and you forget what band you’re in? Do you ever jam and say to one another, “Wait, this sounds too much like Rage”?
MORELLO [laughs] No, that’s never happened. I mean, on the last tour, we played Rage songs, but it felt very much like we were tying a thread of our previous band into our present and future. It was like, “Here we are, rockin’ some Rage Against the Machine jams, and Chris Cornell is handling it.” And then we’d play some Soundgarden songs—and hey, look who’s singing! On that tour we played Rage songs, Soundgarden songs, Temple of the Dog songs, songs from two Audioslave records, and brand-new Audioslave songs we had just written.
GW But no Lock Up songs? That’s shocking!
MORELLO [laughs] No! No Lock Up songs. Sorry, everybody.
GW Say, do you still keep your Noise Chart? [The Noise Chart is a journal in which Tom documented his effect settings so he wouldn’t forget them.]
MORELLO The Noise Chart! You know, I had tried to ween myself from it during the past few years, but it kind of came back on this record. Right before the initial burst of songwriting, I spent a few days tinkering around with my old graphs and charts. So, yeah, the Noise Chart made a strong return recently.
GW Why would you want to ween yourself from using something that’s worked so well for you?
MORELLO Well, that’s just it. I thought I relied on it too heavily; I wanted to get more into spontaneity in my soloing and songwriting rather than preparation. Using the Noise Chart led to different results—not necessary better, but different. I felt I had to explore working without a net, so to speak. But yeah, on this record, I did some preliminary charting and plotting, and I think it worked out fine.
GW At what point did you realize that you were creating sounds that other players weren’t? Or did you simply make a conscious decision to dare to be different?
MORELLO There were two specific moments I can point to: The first was in college, where I would sit in my dorm room torturing my long-suffering roommate by practicing Grim Reaper riffs. [laughs] I would play “See You in Hell” and test the limits of his tolerance—and sanity. But one night I was fiddling around with the toggle switch while working my wah-wah pedal, and I guess it produced some way-out sound, because my roommate walked in with this withering look on his face and said, “Oh, no! Did you get a keyboard, too?” [laughs] At that moment a little light bulb appeared over my head.
The second epiphany happened in the early days of Rage when we were opening for two cover bands at some college afternoon concert. I was watching the sound check, and between these two other bands there were three guitarists, and they were lightning-fast, liquid shredders. As I watched them I thought: Three shredders at some dumpy college gig in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon? There doesn’t need to be a fourth one. I don’t need to run this race. That was it. I decided that I wasn’t going to be a shred king anymore. Instead, I was going to be the DJ in Rage Against the Machine. I started listening to the sounds around me, thinking, How can I approximate, you know, what the gardener is doing now? The guitar is capable of so many different sounds. I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface of what it can do.
GW I remember a Rolling Stone interview in 1982, where no less than Pete Townshend predicted the end of the guitar. The Eighties synth bands were all over the charts at the time, and he posited that microchips would replace the guitar in 10 years. How could he have been so wrong?
MORELLO [laughs] Well, Pete’s always been a provocateur. He has this kind of buckshot approach to his statements. Hey, sometimes you’re gonna hit the duck, sometimes you’re not. I remember reading that quote, too, and thinking, Pete Townshend says the guitar’s going to be dead? Oh, no! But after my initial shock, I took that comment as a personal challenge, and I thought to myself, Oh, so you think the keyboard is going to replace the guitar? Well, I’m going to make a keyboard out of my guitar. So there! [laughs] Same thing when they said that DJs were replacing guitarists in bands. I said, “Hey, I’m going to be the DJ in my band, and I will out-scratch any DJ in my path.” It was a zealous mission I carried with me.
But at the time, even when I was starting to formulate this new sonic agenda for myself, I still carried some of that gunslinger mentality with me.
GW Each one of your solos is like an esoteric guessing game in which listeners are left wondering, How did he do that? Do you think your higher education produced your cerebral approach to guitar playing?
MORELLO If my higher education lent anything to my playing it was a matter of discipline. I was able to apply the same discipline to learning the instrument that I would to, say, studying political science. Whether that meant playing for eight hours a day, I was able to do it, and I was able to do it with an odd, Joan of Arc–like commitment.
But once I got off that well-trodden path of scales and chords, it seemed as though the horizon was vast. Then it became questions like “How can I make my guitar sound like Dr. Dre’s music?” or “How can I sound like the Crystal Method?” But all with a simple, simple setup; I never reached for gear, ever. I think the only time I went outside of myself was when the DigiTech Whammy Pedal came out, and that was because it was a harmonizer pedal that I didn’t have to read a manual to use. [laughs]
GW The difference between you and someone like, say, the Edge is that he formulated his sound to compensate for his technical limitations, whereas you could play shred guitar but chose not to.
MORELLO Part of that, like I said before, was the result of the failure of the band Lock Up. I felt like my dream of being a rock guitarist had died. I was never going to be in Guitar World. By practicing eight hours a day and shredding, it still didn’t work out for me. So I simply said to myself “Okay, now I’m going to do what I want to do.” [laughs] I knew I was on the right path when I started alienating band members and producers. If they said, “What the hell are you doing?” I knew it was an idea worth pursuing. Even recently, when we were cutting “Original Fire,” I remember Brendan O’Brien saying, “All right, when are you going to play the real guitar solo?” And I was like, “Dude, I just did.” [laughs]
GW Okay, let’s talk about the new album. Brendan O’Brien, whom you had worked with in Rage, produced Revelations. What are the main differences between him and Rick Rubin, who produced Audioslave’s first two records?
MORELLO Well, I should point out that Brendan mixed Out of Exile. As for the main differences: Rick is an all-encompassing producer, meaning he’ll tell you if you’re wearing the wrong pants! [laughs] During preproduction, he spends enormous amounts of time with the band working on songs, and then he kind of goes away until it’s time to record. While tracking, he’s a harsh taskmaster when it comes to getting the right takes. Then he disappears again until it’s time to mix. When he’s mixing, he puts everything under a microscope. The guy doesn’t cut one corner. He makes sure every song is perfect.
Brendan, on the other hand, works at a very accelerated pace, and his emphasis is on the sound. He’s a great engineer; you’ll never spend 10 days tweaking the snare drum or five days trying out Strats. You go in the studio, nail a take, and you just know it’s going to sound amazing. His energy gets results, too: we made this record in five weeks, from beginning to end.
GW Did those five weeks include the writing?
MORELLO No. We took about a month to actually write the songs. After coming off a really rocking European festival tour, we wrote about 20 songs. Then we went on a North American tour and rocked quite a few of those songs in arenas. We had never had that kind of experience before, where every night would be a world premiere of another new song. That tour was a blast, so our confidence going into making this record was quite high.
GW In the song “Revelations,” are you manipulating the guitar’s volume control knob while you play the solo, or are you using a volume pedal?
MORELLO [smiles] Neither. That’s me playing with the toggle switch. It’s really amazing what you can do with the toggle switch. So many players never touch it in a musical way, and it offers so many possibilities. The other thing that made that solo sound cool was the amp combination I used, which was my regular setup—a 50-watt Marshall 2205 head and a 4x12 Peavey cabinet—doubled with a 100- watt Fender Bassman head and an Orange cabinet. There’s a delay sent to one while the other is dry, so the sound is being ping-ponged between them. Actually, that was a Noise Chart solo.
GW In “One and the Same,” you go from a dreamy, Cream-like solo section, very reminiscent of “I Feel Free,” to a pretty nutty Eighties metal shred run. You’re becoming known for such skylarking juxtapositions.
MORELLO On that song, I wanted to lull you into submission and then give you a nice jolt. We gave that song quite a road test in arenas across America. The second part of the solo was a blast to play—just full-on, Chopsville, “Hello, Randy Rhoads” metal.
GW On “Sound of a Gun,” what kind of acoustic are you playing in the verses?
MORELLO That was one of Brendan’s nice old Martins he let me use. I have this crummy old acoustic, but nobody ever lets me use it in the studio. And I couldn’t argue with Brendan: his Martin sounded amazing.
GW How are you doing that crazy solo in the song? It doesn’t sound so much like scratching as it does…
MORELLO …like squawking. That’s a ring modulator, which makes a kind of squawking sound. I liked it because it sounds like a duck. [imitates a duck, rather uncannily]
GW Is Chris Cornell playing guitar on the new album?
MORELLO No. He just wants to concentrate on singing.
GW In the studio, did the band lay down the basic tracks together and then add overdubs? Is there a set pattern?
MORELLO I don’t believe there’s an exception to this, but it’s Chris, Brad, Tim and I in the same room—there is some separation between us, but we don’t worry about that too much—and we’re playing together as a band. To me, being seated off by myself with headphones on is no substitute for what it feels like to see Tim’s hand hit that cymbal.
On this record, I was a lot looser about the guitars and amplifiers that I used. Ordinarily, I’m very militant; I only want to use my crappy old setup. Brendan, of course, has tons of amps and gear. I tried one of his Vox AC30 reissues and it sounded amazing; I wound up using it quite extensively, actually. And then he’s got all these moldering old brown amps of no known make or model, which we blew up to the point of no return. [laughs] A lot of fun.
GW Listening to your acoustic playing on “Until We Fall” made me wonder what acoustic players you listen to.
MORELLO They tend to be folk guys: Woody Guthrie, Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle…
GW I heard you on Steve Earle’s radio show when you were doing your Nightwatchman gig. It was great to hear you singing and playing an acoustic. Your voice reminded me of Johnny Cash.
MORELLO Wow, thanks. I’m going to continue with the Nightwatchman. It’s probably been the biggest creative leap I’ve ever undertaken. To write and sing protest music, whether I’m in front of 50,000 union steel workers or 25 anti-globalization kids, it’s great. I was inspired to do it when I hosted a teen talent show at a homeless shelter several years ago. This kid got up there and sang two songs. To be honest, he didn’t have anything goin’ on; he didn’t have the greatest voice. But man, this kid meant it. I got chills. I thought to myself, Hey, I’ve got ideas and I’ve got a guitar, so what the hell is keeping me from going up there? So I got my courage up, went to a few open-mic nights and started doing my thing.
GW Back to the new record. How did you record the riff to “Somedays”? Was that double- or triple-tracked?
MORELLO That’s doubled. Also, on the third chorus, I beefed up the wall of sound with the Les Paul.
GW What were your main electric guitars for this album?
MORELLO I always use my Arm the Homeless and Soul Power Strat-style guitars for songs that are in A440. If we’re doing a song in drop-D, I go for my Eighties Telecaster. There were a plethora of guitars that Brendan brought to the studio; I was particularly taken with this Gibson [ES-]335, a guitar I had never played before. That hard-rocking sound on the song “Revelations” is the 335.
Oftentimes, I try to look for orphan guitars to use. It’s funny—the 35th guitar in the studio and hands-down the worst thing I’d ever seen was this beer company promotional guitar that showed up on the tour bus one day. It was a Les Paul—and I love Les Pauls, of course—but it had this absolutely hideous, screaming orange Budweiser logo on it. [laughs] But one night in the studio, it was late, and Brendan and everybody were sitting around playing that shooting game… I forget what it’s called.
MORELLO Halo! Thank you. Anyway, I was trying to amuse myself, so I went into the parking lot with the beer guitar and a lighter, and I set the enamel of the guitar on fire. I was surprised that it burnt very slowly. So there I am, having a fine time, watching this Budweiser logo burn, and after a while it didn’t look so bad anymore. Then I took some steel wool to it, sanded it down, and it looked beautiful. The next day I had another idea: DiMarzio. So I called up my guitar tech and asked him to get me the Ace Frehley DiMarzio pickups—you know, those blackand- white humbuckers? We slapped those in, and all of a sudden the guitar was awesome! It looked great, sounded great. I used it all over the album.
GW Is that the guitar I’m hearing on “Shape of Things to Come”? There’s a really cool Black Sabbath vibe on that song.
MORELLO That’s the burnt Les Paul all right.
GW The solo is pretty metaled-out.
MORELLO That was one of those solos where it was late in the day and I thought, Let me just play a rock and roll solo. It was the mood I was in at the time, but it fit the song.
GW The solo in “Jewel of the Summertime”—what’s going on there?
MORELLO That was another fight with Brendan. [laughs] I remember him rolling his eyes on that one. He kind of smeared some sound on it in an attempt to dampen the shine. It’s two guitars, double-tracked, but I didn’t match them perfectly; it was more about the rhythm than the actual notes. I did this fast, hummingbird-like picking with my right hand. I think one guitar track is unaffected, but the other one is raised a fifth. I love that solo.
GW Has there ever been a solo you couldn’t recreate live?
MORELLO There was one that gave me trouble: “Voice of the Voiceless.” It’s on the Battle of Los Angeles album. The solo kind of sounds like bagpipes. I had an Ibanez guitar specifically made for live shows to recreate that sound. I had them put the technology of the Whammy Pedal into the guitar so that I could get the feedback out of the amplifier and then manipulate the Whammy. It was just some nutty thing I came up with.
GW Ordinarily, though, you try to come up with solos you’ll be able to play live?
MORELLO Yeah. But even with solos that are maybe better left as studio creations, I can usually figure out ways to play them live. “Guerilla Radio” was a challenge, because the way I did it in the studio and the way I play it live are completely different. On the record, it’s double tracked: there’s a talk box on one track, and on the other track I’m playing different notes through a wah. I thought it would be impossible to play live, but I figured out a way by setting the wah and the Whammy Pedal to different intervals, and then I play with the toggle switch.
GW When you were using the talk box, were you tempted to bust out with “Rocky Mountain Way” or “Livin’ on a Prayer”?
MORELLO [laughs] No, no, no! None of that. But I do believe the talk box is an untapped resource. There are some new sounds I might be able to coax out of that thing. Time will tell.
GW You mentioned using a ring modulator. Are there any other new additions to your effect setup?
MORELLO No. You know, I don’t even know where that ring modulator went to! My setup is pretty much the same as always: a Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal, a DigiTech Whammy Pedal, a Boss Digital Delay pedal, a DOD EQ pedal, an MXR Phase 90 and a Boss Tremolo pedal.
GW When you play live, are there any new guitars you’ll be bringing along?
MORELLO Well, there’s the burnt Les Paul and the 335. The other guitars will probably be my old favorites: the Soul Power guitar, the Eighties Telecaster, Arm the Homeless…
GW How about your amps?
MORELLO Live, I’ll be using the same main rig that I’ve used for years: the Marshall head and the Peavey cabinet. You know, my guitar tech and I have never opened up the back of that cabinet; we’re too superstitious. We’re like, “All the speakers still work. Leave it alone!” [laughs] And I might bring the Vox AC30 reissue. I have to take it to the rehearsal room and see how it sounds.
GW Okay, Tom, now it’s time for a little theme-based, bonus round of questions. The theme is: I’ve read that you don’t like the Beatles.
MORELLO [loud laugh] Oh, boy! Much like Pete Townshend, I enjoy provocative statements. “Don’t like” is strong. “Overrated” is a better way of saying it.
GW Let me just name a few songs and get your reactions.
MORELLO Sure. Fire away.
MORELLO A fine, whiny song about being too rich and living in England.
MORELLO “Revolution” is okay. It’s an important song, but it doesn’t stand up against the 25 best Led Zeppelin songs.
GW “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
MORELLO Beautiful. Gorgeous. I wouldn’t call it a rock and roll song.
GW I can’t imagine the activist in you not responding to John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth.”
MORELLO Um, that’s not the Beatles.
GW Fair enough.
MORELLO [laughs] See, here’s the thing that I object to: the decree that one must accept the Beatles as the greatest rock and roll band ever. They wrote beautiful songs with lovely melodies and were intellectual beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. But they were hardly a rock and roll band. “Helter Skelter”? Awesome jam. That’s one.
GW What about “Come Together”?
MORELLO [thinks] I’d say that’s two. Two’s not bad.