Tom Morello Talks '90s Alternative and Nu-Metal
When it comes to the electric guitar, Tom Morello has been breaking the rules since his early days with Rage Against the Machine. The axman talks about the Nineties alt-rock revolution and his latest iconoclastic musical projects.
The early Nineties produced many guitar heroes, but perhaps no one had the impact of Tom Morello. As Rage Against the Machine’s axman, Morello displayed not only a strong grasp of metal and punk guitar riffage but also an idiosyncratic sense of tone and hypertechnical sonic mayhem. Using a range of effects, including a Dunlop Cry Baby, an Ibanez DFL Flanger and—most notably—a DigiTech Whammy Pedal, Morello produced otherworldly squeals, barnyard growls, and synthetic DJ scratch tones that were uncannily suited to Rage’s mash-up of metal, punk and hip-hop. On tracks like “Bulls on Parade,” “Killing in the Name” and “Renegades of Funk,” Morello pushed the boundaries of the instrument and the genre in which he worked his magic, influencing other musical innovators looking for new avenues of creative expression.
And to think it all started with the toggle switch on his Gibson Explorer. “Everyone else had those really cool Eddie Van Halen guitars with only one knob,” Morello says. “So I thought, I might as well make use of these knobs, since I can’t afford a different guitar right now. That was when I stumbled on the toggle switch. I combined it with a wah-wah pedal, and all of a sudden there was a noise that I had never heard a guitar player make. It sounded more like a sort of synthesizer.
“I went from having a sneaking suspicion to feeling certain that the odd guitar playing was my voice on the instrument, that it was the thing that I had in common with the guitar players I liked—a uniqueness. I just ran with that, and have been running with that ever since.”
When Rage began a seven-year hiatus in 2000, Morello continued to explore his instrument with Audioslave, featuring Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and even expanded his range on acoustic guitar in the guise of his alter ego the Nightwatchman. Rage have been back in action since 2007, but the Nightwatchman lives on—and is apparently evolving into something of an electric guitar hero on his latest album, which Morello has just finished mixing. Tentatively titled Worldwide Rebel Songs, it’s due out sometime in 2011.
“The first song has no acoustic guitar,” Morello says. “And it’s certainly the first Nightwatchman record with blazing Randy Rhoads–style solos. Of course, there are the dark murder ballads about retribution and bitterness that are the Nightwatchman’s stock in trade. But this time I just realized that I could loosen up and incorporate more of a complete picture of who I am.” He laughs. “It’s definitely not austere folk music.”
According to the guitarist, the new album was informed by his annual Axis of Justice benefit tour—where the motto is “Feed the Poor, Fight the Power, Rock the Fuck Out”—as well as his performances of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” live with Bruce Springsteen on a number of occasions throughout 2008 and 2009. “That was the first time I’d sung and played electric guitar,” Morello says of the latter. “It convinced me that I could do it.”
The Nightwatchman isn’t all Morello’s up to: Street Sweeper Social Club, his rap-rock outfit with Boots Riley of the Coup, recently released an EP that includes covers of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” and “Mama Said Knock You Out” by LL Cool J. In addition, Rage just played their first-ever South American dates. “I couldn’t be more pleased with how we’re playing and getting along right now,” Morello says. “It’s great to have that be a positive part of my life.”
Morello took a break from his activities to talk with Guitar World about his varied roles as a guitarist and Rage Against the Machine’s role in the Nineties alt-rock revolution.
GUITAR WORLD Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Street Sweeper Social Club, the Nightwatchman… You seem to alternate between playing guitar with rappers and with singers. How are the two experiences different?
TOM MORELLO When you’re playing with an MC as opposed to a singer, the first difference is that you need to pay less attention to the harmonic interplay between the melody and the chord changes. You’re creating a sonic texture for someone to flow over, as opposed to chord changes for someone to make melodic choices against. That was actually one of the exciting challenges when we began Audioslave, because in Rage we’d written with a particular template that I think helped the band have a unique sound for a rock band: we rode the one in the same way that rap music and James Brown’s music do, then combined that with super-heavy riffs. We never worried, Is it a cliché to go to the fifth? We’d never go to the fifth; we’d just stay on the one the whole time for maximum power.
Audioslave gave me the chance to branch out and try new things, to be very conscious of the fact that there was a great singer singing over the top of everything. With Street Sweeper, it’s kind of a combination of the two. While Boots is a rapping MC, there are big vocal hooks that are sung by the band, as well. We consciously write music that will allow for choruses where we can sing our asses off.