Tom Morello: Science Friction
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.
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