Even though he's lived in Los Angeles for much of the past 12 years, Tom Morello admits that part of his heart still lies in his hometown of Libertyville, Illinois. Indeed, the first things I notice when Morello greets me in the lobby of a West Hollywood hotel is the tacky, rest-stop-brand Libertyville t-shirt he's wearing. The shirt's graphic matches four different cities with their most famous architectural monuments: Big Ben is depicted next to London; the Eiffel Tower next to Paris; the Vatican with Rome; and finally, at the bottom, there's a tiny nondescript gazebo that Morello swears he's never seen before. "I guess that stands for Libertyville," he says, laughing. "It's sad, I know, but there is really nothing to do there."
If ever there were an antithesis to the hard-partying L.A. rock-star archetype, Tom Morello, 34, would be it. When he arrived in the city in 1986, Morello had just graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in Social Studies and an undying predication for rock guitar and political activism--- partially inspired by his parents, a United Nations delegate for Kenya and a civil-rights activist. His first band in L.A., the largely forgotten Lock-Up, experienced a brief stint on Geffen before calling it quits in 1989, when Morello temporarily abandoned the guitar to pursue his political aspirations as a scheduling secretary for California State Senator Alan Cranston. But scandal and corruption toppled the Cranston campaign soon after he was hired, and Morello---having already lost his job and, subsequently, his patience with conventional politics---was about to find his best musical lead yet in L.A.
Rage Against The Machine---the band he co-founded in 1991 with vocalist Zack de la Rocha, bassist Tom Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk---not only fused street-level hip-hop with punk-rock ferocity but, much to Morello's pleasure, ultimately gained recognition for dropping a molotov cocktail of radical politics into their lyrics. "Freedom," the single that signaled the band's first major breakthrough, was an unlikely MTV hit; its video was basically an infomercial for the Ogala Sioux land dispute and the activists' pleas for the amnesty of Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier. "Radio Stations are just about choked with bands singing about love and cars," Morello explains as we pull out of the hotel parking lot and drive downtown on Santa Monica Boulevard. "Sometimes people say, 'Aren't you limiting yourselves by just talking about politics?' But I think that things like rebellion and resist to authority are absolutely as much as a part of the human experience as love and cars are, and that part doesn't get covered very much in pop music. Maybe that's because people aren't interested or because they don't think it's commercially viable. But we're interested, and somehow we've bizarrely proven that it can be commercially viable at the same time. "But ultimately," he says, "looking down at his t-shirt," the only reason I moved here was because Circus magazine said that Los Angeles was where you needed to go to rock properly."
Morello will be the first to admit that he never thought a band like Rage Against The Machine could be commercially viable, either. "A good song should make you wanna tap your foot and get with your girl," he says, rationalizing with his tongue planted firmly in cheek. "A great song should destroy cops and set fire to the suburbs. I'm only interested in writing great songs."
If there's one thing the members of Rage can agree on, it's that they don't talk to one another enough to know what's really going on with their band at any given moment. After winding up their most successful U.S. tour---an arena-level summer production that started as a double bill with Wu-Tang Clan and still managed to outdraw Lollapalooza 2-to-1 after the Clan mysteriously dropped off the tour halfway through the dates---the band put off discussing concepts for a third record. Instead they took time out, pleased that for once in their career, the tour melodrama that unfolded with the Wu-Tang Clan had nothing to do with themselves. "It was so good for us," Wilk says of the tour. "It was so great having a band like that on tour with us because it kinda took the pressure off of us for a minute. It was like all of a sudden we could look at their bullshit and not our own." Upon returning home, the members of Rage pursued separate interests: Besides recording a song with rappers KRS-One and the Last Emperor for the first volume of the Lyricist Lounge compilation series, de la Rocha, an advocate of the Zapatista movement that fights to restore land rights to the indigenous people of Chiapas, spent much of his time off in Mexico. Wilk used some of his downtime to play shows with former X singer/bassist John Doe. Commerford---who currently goes by "Simmerin' T" after retiring the nicknames "Timmy C" and "Tim Bob"---joined an independent flag-football team, built a studio with in his house, and joined Wilk and Morello for an as yet unreleased recording with Snoop Dog called "Snoop Bounce." And Morello, the band's most prolific member, spent the past two years collaborating with artists such as Perry Farrell, Joe Strummer, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and the Prodigy, and lent a guitar track to "Come With Me," the Puff Daddy-meets-Jimmy Page remake of Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." It wasn't until the band reconvened at Los Angeles' A&M studios record "No Shelter" for the Godzilla soundtrack album that the prospects of a new record came up in conversation. "We barely talked about it," explains Morello, "but for us, that works. There wasn't any real discussion with our first record, either. We just wrote those songs in the first month that we knew each other, and that was it. I'm certainly very proud of the end result, but the whole problem with the second record was that there was just too much talk going on and not enough rock during the whole process, if you know what I mean."
Morello is alluding to the band's well-publicized communication breakdowns, in particular a grievance-airing session during a writing sabbatical in Atlanta that almost sabotaged the creation of their second multi-platinum album Evil Empire. "[The media's] been saying that we're on the verge of breaking up for the past six years," he points out, "but speaking for myself, making this record has been really enjoyable. There's always gonna be some drama, of course, but considering some of the hard times we've had in the past---well, I don't know if I'd describe it as a piece of cake, but I do feel that I've reestablished friendships and that our creative chemistry is as good as it ever was. I think we're in the process of making what is by far the best of our three records and, I don't think that I've ever felt so proud to be a part of this band." Wilk agrees that the record-in- progress is taking Rage's music to a new level, but he expresses more concern with the band's long-term stability. "I've never felt a sense of security with this bans," he tells me. 'It's been like that for the past five years now, and I've prepared for it to end. Rage Against The Machine is my No. 1 priority until someone makes it their second---and it ain't gonna be me. Everyone in this band is just so talented, and I really appreciated the situation that I'm in. But even though I've never taken this for granted, I still don't think I've ever developed a sense of security from it." I ask Wilk what he thinks he's learned in the past seven years of playing with Rage Against The Machine. "That you shouldn't get so attached to things," he replies, almost wistfully.
"I really hesitate to say anything about the new record right now due to the fact that Zack isn't really done with his parts, and I wanna give him that respect," says Commerford. We're sitting in his Santa Monica living room, in which a simple country décor is accented by football helmets and bass guitars. For now he's trying to focus on anything but the new album. "Me? Shit, I tore up my tapes of the instrumental tracks]. I don't have any music at all. The next times I hear this record, it's gonna be done."
There's no doubt that Commerford is excited for Album No. 3. He marvels at how quickly this one came together: When he assembled with Morello and Wilk late last spring for a three-month writing session, the trio came up with basic skeletons for over well over and album's worth of material. De la Rocha and Evil Empire producer Brendan O'Brien came in for the last month to offer suggestions, create the final arrangements, and lay out the basic vocal melodies for 15 completed songs. The instrumental portion of the recording process started the first week of September and ended Oct. 1, which essentially means that if de la Rocha feels comfortable enough to begin tracking his lyrics by early winter, the album could be finished in time for an early '99 release. (Though the singer took time off from writing to pose for this story's photos, he declined to be interviewed until he had completed lyrics to discuss.)
"It went smoothly because we didn't let ourselves burn out," Commerford says of the initial recording sessions. "We took time out every day to just chill or to play touch football outside the studio. We'd videotape it and then watch it in slow motion---it was so perfect. It was the hardest I'd laughed in years."
O'Brien, the band's long-time friend and self-described "umpire," says that the "just have fun" mentality to which Commerford refers to was intentional. "Making the last record was just not a lot of fun," he says. "There were too many outside forces that were making it much more difficult. But I think the band sees things at a lot more eye-to-eye now, and I was trying to get as much out of that as I could."
According to all parties, the result is a much different Rage record. Where Evil Empire is more or less a "live" recording, the new album is as much about employing different studio techniques and overdubbing as it is about plugging in and pressing "record. And while they haven't abandoned their stance against using only bass, drums, guitar, and vocals, Commerford and Morello seem to have surprised even themselves with the variety of noises they've created using effects pedals, fretless instruments---even ungrounded amps. "There's one song where you'd swear we used a sample," Morello boasts, "but I was just doing guitar overdubs, and in the middle of the take, every time I clicked off my distortion pedal, this crazy Korean radio station would start coming out of my little Music Man amp. We heard that back and we were like, 'That's staying!' You'd think it was some sort of researched sample of an old Korean record or something, but we can still say it was all performed live."
Morello also credits O'Brien with creating a relaxed atmosphere, which allowed the band to take some chances. "We're spoiled with Brendan because with a lot of [other producers], it sounds like [they make recording] a lot of hard work. But it's actually fun to make a record with him. We choose microphones by color coordination! It's like, 'Oh that red mic looks really good with the Che [Guevara flag] on you amp. We'll go with that one!'" he laughs. "That's the kind of band we are. If we went in to make The Wall or something, our art would probably suffer."
"Making records with Rage Against The Machine is definitely some of the more challenging work I've done---although not necessarily the recording because, well, let's face the reality: It's a guitar, bass, drums, and a guy singing. Seriously, how hard can that be?" says O'Brien, who, in addition to producing albums by Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, also runs the Epic start-up label Fifty Seven Records. "But honestly, sometimes it's like whatever I can do to make those four guys just communicate with each other---that's what my gig is."
There's an unwritten rule in Hollywood that those who are famous should flaunt it. But the members of Rage Against The Machine are the most unassuming rock stars one could hope to meet. Because of that, they're afforded the luxury of anonymity.
"People rarely ever come up to me and says 'Hey, man, are you in Rage Against The Machine?' That happens like a couple times a year," says Commerford, now 30. "I used to bum out on that because everyone wants to be famous, but now I feel so lucky. I just do my thing one minute, and then I'll fly off somewhere and play to like 80,000 people. How can that be bad?"
Instead of flaunting their celebrity, the band remains intent on using it for greater causes. Most recently Rage generated more than $400,00 for charitable organizations by playing a two-week stint supporting U2. Then, after being refused billboard space and radio airtime to organize a boycott against Guess? Jeans for the company's unfair treatment and dismissal of union workers, Morello participated in a forceful demonstration outside of a Santa Monica department store that landed the guitarist in jail. And lately, Wilk, who admits that he never gave political activism much thought before joining Rage, has been seeking support for a musical program he wants to start at the Los Angeles Free Clinic---a local volunteer-run facility where homeless youths can go for shelter, counseling and medical attention. "There are doctors coming in and donating their time to this," he says. "You'd think there'd be enough [musicians] in this area who have enough free time to go down there and help teach some of these kidsic. When I was growing up, music was a positive outlet that I think these kids really need."
While keeping busy with these outside projects, Wilk, Morello, and Commerford are still anxiously waiting to hear how the new album will shape up once de la Rocha gets back in the studio. And even though they suggest that the wait could drag on for another two to six months, none of them express concern over de la Rocha's ability. If anything, the band place undivided confidence in their mouthpiece.
"I think he's finished a lot more than he's let actually letting on," O'Brien speculates. "I know that he puts a lot of pressure on himself to deliver-probably a lot more pressure than I'd put on myself---but that's how he does it, and he always delivers."
Morello, without question the band's optimist, confidently proposes that the new album will usher in a new era in Rage's troubled timeline: an era where more focus can be put on the band's radical political agenda than on the reputation generated from their turbulent interpersonal politics.
"I've got a feeling that this record is so good that it's gonna be so affirming for the four of us, and that's it's gonna get it back to that place where, as brothers and as comrades, we can push the envelope---from music to revolution---to do things that no band has ever done before." Morello lifts his chin from his palm, smiles, and then adds, "'Cause I already know it rocks. That's a given, baby."- -transcribed Kevin Dole