Tom Morello: Science Friction
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]
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