Rage Against The Machine Guitarist Tom Morello Sets The Record Straight

Interview by Cheryl Botchick

To ready its fans for the November 2 release of the colossal The Battle Of Los Angeles, multi-platinum quartet Rage Against The Machine threw down at a handful of club shows (a "club," in RATM's case, being a venue that holds thousands) in early October. A couple of days after an utterly blistering set at New York City's Roseland Ballroom that saw the hall's entire floor turn into a frantic mosh pit, we nabbed a few minutes with band guitarist Tom Morello, and asked him to sort out some of the band's head-scratching contradictions.

CMJ: You consistently play to massive crowds that react in a completely crazed, visceral way to your performances. It's quite bizarre, because basically, in a sense, you're a protest band.

Morello: Yeah! How weird is that? [laughs]

It's shocking. The thing that's strange about it -- and admittedly this is generalizing -- is that it seems like a great deal of the crowd is not even aware that the band is so fervently political. And if they were aware of your politics, they would completely disagree with you. They'd think that you were crazed pinkos.

[laughs] Now that would be a fine name for a band, right there! Shame we didn't think of that one.

How does the band feel about that, though? So much of what Zack [de la Rocha] is singing about is intensely political, but a lot the crowd consists of a bunch of big, meathead guys trying to beat each other up.

First of all, I'd say that -- though it's certainly not 100 percent -- there's a tremendous amount of positive reaction that we get for the politics of the band, regardless of the music. Just on a numbers level, the ranks of, say, the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee or the Anti-Nazi League or the Zapatista Solidarity Group have swollen because of things like being listed in our liner notes. And then, too, we get an enormous amount of fan mail which borders on being testimonials of conversion. Things like, "I was originally drawn to your music because it rocked me, [but listening to the lyrics I found] it made sense to me in a way that other rock didn't, and I've gone on to form my own underground newspaper" or whatever. But I think that -- and I'm going to answer your question about the meatheads in one second! I haven't forgotten about that! -- there's a tremendous amount of our audience that are really intelligent folks. They're intelligent and angry, or even just disgruntled people with whom it resonates, because I was one of those. When I was [a kid] in the Midwest, I listened to heavy metal music. I listened to Kiss and bands like that because they rocked me. But then when I heard bands like The Clash or Gang Of Four or, later, Public Enemy, it was like, "Whoa!" It resonated with me in a way that other music didn't. It steeled me, even for just my own small struggles for justice in my school, and helped forge me into a person that wanted to pursue activism at a bigger level. But with regards to the people who just come for the rock, I've never seen that as a downside. We don't play music that is for intellectuals in coffeehouses, you know? We're a tremendously visceral, rocking band. Part of what fuels the rocking nature of the band is our passion about the politics, so it's connected. First of all, we don't hide our political persuasion very well. I'd disagree with you that some people just "don't know." In every song and on every t-shirt and in every video, there's no question.

Very true, but sometimes when people sing along with Zack on songs like "Bullet In The Head," you have to wonder if it's just like a cool video game or something to them. The band's not guilty of it because, you're right, you guys don't hide it at all.

We don't. But I'm also not apologetic for those fans, either -- those who just come to it for the music. Because in the whole cultural fabric, there's a lot of rock. And there's a lot of rock that's misogynist, and there's a lot of rock that's just totally escapist. And there's precious little rock that is true rebel music. So I think it's necessary to have that kind of beacon out there that's at least, well, broadcasting the message from our dogstar or whatever. [laughs]

Then you also have the other side of the coin, on which people are critical of your label affiliation. It seems like no matter what activist work the band does, your critics keep bemoaning, "If Rage is so anti-establishment, then why are they on a Sony label?" What is the band's official response to that?

Oh, I've had years of forging that response! [laughs] First of all, that question has never once come to the band from anyone who is involved in political activism. That only comes -- you're asking it as a third party, so you're excused from this -- but it only comes from smug rock journalists and it only comes from, for the most part, your middle-class people who may have some sort of indie rock elitist credentials, but beyond that have done jack shit in the world of political activism. Leonard Peltier doesn't care what label we're on. We've been able to introduce his case to an entirely new generation of young people, which increases the pressure, through letter-writing and emails and what have you, on President Clinton to try to get an order of clemency. The Anti-Nazi League in Europe doesn't care what label we're on, because when it comes time to hold a benefit show, we draw enough people to help put bodies in the streets the next day to throw bricks at fascists. They don't care. At all. It's tactical as much as anything else. You have two choices when you're a band with political ideals: You either put your head in the sand and you sell 45s out of the back of a truck and you're very proud of yourself for how pure you are, or you engage the world and you do your best to make strategies to effect real change. First of all, there's very little precedent for what we're doing. There's not a map for revolutionary rock bands on major labels who sell nine million records. "Oh, we just do what they did!" [laughs] There's no precedent for it, so we're figuring out elements of it on our own. But when that criticism comes from people who just don't know anything about what it's like to try to get even a quarter of an inch on page 52 of the paper about their cause or about their struggle, and Rage Against The Machine can put it on the front page or can fill the Continental Airlines Arena [in New Jersey], it just shows a shocking lack of perspective. And you also have to ask yourself, too, that if you're an author or something, a person who's writing about political things that matter to you and anti-establishment issues, do you not want your books sold in places people buy their books? Do you wanna write each book out by hand?

Like a monk.

Right! [laughs] Like a monk! And just be very pure about it. Well, then God bless you and best of luck to you in your work, but we've chosen another path, and haven't lost a night's sleep over it.

You guys do get asked that a lot, don't you?

Ugh. [exasperated laugh]

But rock critics especially will ask that, because in order to do what they do well, they have to approach the band from an intellectual standpoint, and it seems like an obvious contradiction.

Sure. And you know, I totally understand why they ask it, but I think it's just because we stand out like a sore thumb because of our politics. A better question might be to all other bands on major labels: Why aren't you doing something with the tremendous amount of exposure you have to effect some sort of change? Rather than just attacking a band that is using it for some sort of political goals. Why not look at all the bands that aren't doing that?

On a bigger level, CMJ's reporting base consists almost entirely of college students, and we're wondering what issues you think will most affect them in their lifetime? And what would you suggest as recommended reading for them?

Funny you should ask: There's a recommended reading list printed on the inside foldout of Evil Empire. There's a bunch of books sort of thrown in there, and those were just the ones we could get approval for in time. On our Web site, www.ratm.com, is the more complete list. But if you had to start with one thing, if it is possible to just name one thing, it would be The [Noam] Chomsky Reader. It's an excellent beginning point. It gives you sort of an overview of how [things work], from your media to your government to your educational system. That's an excellent tome in that it sort of takes the blinders off of what's really the internal workings of society; where the power is and how the pyramid structure of corporate power affects your life. That's a good start. As far as the issues that will affect their lives, I think the issue of illegitimate authority is always a present one, whether it be in your home or in your school or in your community. It certainly can be in your workplace and in your country. It should be struggled against wherever it rears its ugly head. Part of why I always thought education, at least in high school, was bereft of almost any meaning, is because I felt completely disconnected from the history that I was a part of. You know what I'm saying? It's like, history's a bunch of names and numbers and white dudes who killed a lot of people. And it had nothing to do with you. Whereas what history really is, especially the history of progressive change, is the nameless and the faceless who are angry about some injustice and try to make their lives better by fighting back. And that means it's you. And that means it's me. And that means it's journalists and it's carpenters and it's whoever. Change doesn't come from the benevolence of "great men." It comes from regular people who have the courage and the tenacity to fight back.