Funk-Rock Freedom Fighter
Tom Morello on Downbeats, Dedication, and Deconstruction
By Matt Blackett
Its one of those days when Los Angeles really does seem like a city of angels. Warm, sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and - thanks to a week of strong winds - no smog. Driving to Tom Morello's house in the hills, I'm passed by a succession of Ferraris and Porsches, assuming all the while that the Rage Against the Machine guitarist will live in a palatially pimped-out pad. Not true.
His house appears to be the most modest on his street - very cool, but not ostentatious. In the driveway is the same Chevy Astro Van that he drove from Illinois 15 years ago. That vehicle is the emblematic of recurring motif for Morello - the idea of going with what you know. He still has the same Kiss posters on his wall that he had as a teenager. He plugs into the very Marshall half-stack - with the exact same settings - that he has relied on for every single Rage Against the Machine record, his pedalboard has remained virtually unchanged for years, and he continues to mine the same Black Sabbath-meets-Led Zeppelin-meets-Public Enemy riff quarry that he made his name with. Yet, despite all this same-old, same-old, Morello is one of the most vital and innovative guitarists today.
Since their self-titled debut in 1992, Rage has spawned countless imitators, but few can match the band's fervor, intelligence, and honestly. And you could make a compelling case that none of the current crop of "hip-hop and roll" contenders can touch the depth of groove that Morello and company consistently deliver. The latest Rage Against the Machine offering, The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic), finds that band delivering extreme dynamics, otherworldly noises, and plenty of what Morello calls "the big rock riff." Sitting around talking guitar still seems to be a favorite pastime for Morello. Despite his super-serious publicity photos, he is an affable, self-depreciating guy who is open-minded and quick to laugh. Guitar in hand, he talked, joked, and riffed for hours. Along the way, he provided insights into his songwriting, sound creation, and what it means to be heavy.
Its tough to turn on the radio without hearing rap metal. What sets Rage apart?
Well, from a rhythm guitar perspective, my influences are Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Some of the bands that might share our hip-hop influences seem to come more from the Pantera/Metallica school.
What about from a lead guitar perspective?
A lot of bands have that Nirvana aesthetic where guitar solos aren't cool. They're young enough that they didn't have to endure that gunslinger mentality of the mid 80s, where it was "shred or get off the pot." I was immersed in that. I had to run those races, and that influences my playing a little differently.
What besides the guitar makes Rage different?
It's the chemistry. Long before got together, many of these riffs were in existence, and I jammed them with some of alterna-rocks finest players. But none of the riffs sounded remotely as heavy as they did at the very first Rage rehearsal.
Let's talk about the latest record. Whats the sound that opens "Testify?"
That's my Tele in dropped D tuning with a slapback delay, through a Whammy pedal set to a [flat 7]. I'm rocking a wah pedal back and forth to give it a tornado sound. As I go through the sweep of the wah it creates all these overtones that make the sound pretty hectic.
How many guitars are on that tune?
On the main riff there are two - the Tele on the neck pickup, and a Les Paul overdub. I played them both through my 50-watt Marshall. For the disco part in the breakdown, I used an Ovation Breadwinner through a Line 6 Flextone. At the store where I got my very first Kay guitar, the Breadwinner was the top of the line, and I said to myself, "I'll have one of those someday!" I now own two.
Do you use a time-based effect on the intro to "Guerilla Radio" to create the sixteenth-note pulse?
Yes, but it was put on after the fact. I go the idea after we had tracked it, but we didn't play to a click, so there was no way to do it mathematically. We ended up triggering a delay and a gate to every snare hit. Live, I use a tremolo pedal to get that sound.
Do you ever record to a click?
Occasionally, yeah. It's really up to our drummer, Brad [Wilk]. Some of the more straight-forward hip-hop grooves, such as "Mic Check" require a steady beat from beginning to end, so we'll track those with a click. For the most part, we just get in the room and play. My favorite rock songs speed up and slow down - I like that push and pull.
What are the other tones in "Guerilla Radio"?
The phased sound before the solo is an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone. The solo is two tracks. On one part I'm using a Talk Box and triggering the notes with the toggle switch. The second part is the Whammy pedal set one octave up, with a wah and the toggle switch effect.
You do a lot of that toggle-switch gating.
Yeah - like a DJ thing. With the exception of my Tele, all my guitars have two volume knobs so I can have one all the way on, the other all the way off, and then toggle between them.
What other songs do you use that technique on?
On "Calm Like a Bomb," I do it for the verse part, but it's a little different. I played it on this cheap, pawnshop guitar that is miswired so that no sound comes from the middle position of the 3-position switch. That gives it a much more rapid, hummingbird-wing on-off effect. I'm hammering and pulling off between an open B and the B at the 12th fret, hitting the toggle switch, and sweeping the Whammy pedal over a two-octave range. In fact, you can hear the same toggled lick without the Whammy pedal in the breakdown.
Is it tough to keep those parts in time?
I'm not overly concerned with playing time! (Laughs) For some parts, I can take lots of liberties with the timing - like the solo to "Sleep Now in the Fire." For that, I'm standing right up against the amp and getting feedback. I use my left hand on the vibrato bar to change the pitch of the feedback, and I hit the toggle with my right so these wild pitches jump in and out randomly.
What's going on with the weird section in "Born as Ghosts"?
That's one of my favorite solos of all time! I wanted it to lurch between two wildly different sounds. The first noise I call "termites" and it was done with an Ibanez guitar. I brought Ibanez one of my guitars that had really screwed up electronics, and asked them to figure out how it made all the non-guitar noises. I said, "Bottle that and put it into a guitar for me." They managed to harness the cacophony of a broken pick-up and put it on a knob, like an internal noise generator. I turned that on and rocked the wah to give the termites some teeth.
That has to be the least-requested option of all time.
Oh yeah! [Laughs]. It's twisted all right.
How did you make the more ethereal sounds?
I double tracked them with a Whammy pedal. I envisioned a solo that would combine the chomping termite noise with a smoother, more melodic part. During the mix, I "conducted" the solo by switching back and forth between the two recorded parts.
How do you come up with all your sound effects?
I hesitate to dissect the process because they really just fell from the trees. I stumble upon them, then I record them onto my little cassette recorder. I have this noise chart where I write down the settings so I don't forget them.
How did you get started making all these noises?
When I was 19, some of my friends were aspiring filmmakers. One day we just said, "Let's make a movie today." So we did a trilogy of horror films, and I did the soundtracks. At that time, I was all about the Phrygian mode and scales. That experience really pushed me into creating sounds. It also made me learn how to get the most out of my little 4-track. That was a formative experience.
What draws you to the whole weird-noise thing?
It's a wide-open road. Once you get off the beaten path of chords and notes, any noise can be its own microcosm of songwriting. There is a deep library of songs that go from G to C. There is not a deep library songs that use a toggle switch and a wah pedal. The possibilities are limitless with just those two things. Add an Allen wrench that you use to bang on the strings, and your options grow exponentially. I love that.
What about adding pedals to come up with sounds?
Guitarists come up to me all the time and say, "Dude! I've got this amazing new pedal that does all this stuff!" And I'm here with the same greasy pedals I've had for years, because I'm still finding a tremendous amount of variety in this small setup. I like that challenge.
What makes a tune heavy?
It has to do with how deep the groove is. Its not about playing fast or scooping mids. I mean, all my super-heavy riffs, were tracked with single-coil pickups, so the heaviness has to come from they playing. It's a totally natural, instinctual part of the band. From the first note we played, we instantly sank into this really heavy, funky groove.
Even though its natural, are you aware of what's going on with the groove - like playing on or behind the beat?
That's another thing I consciously try not to analyze for fear of losing it! I'll tell you a story of how to ruin a perfectly good groove. Our first record was produced by GGGarth, who is a great guy. He decided that I play behind the beat, and that was unacceptable. So without telling me, be did some sort of calculation - "Tom plays this many milliseconds behind the beat" - and edited my tracks in Pro Tools until they were dead on. I came in, took one listen, and said, "What happened? The tracks don't sound like me or the band anymore. Change them back!" He did.
What did you learn from this?
That its how the music breathes when we're in the same room that makes the groove happen. That's what makes it deep and heavy and funky. Doing some calculation to concoct perfect time only sterilizes the groove.
So you guys must record with everyone in the same room?
With very few exceptions, its guitar, bass, and drums cutting basics in the same room - sometimes isolated, but most of the time not. Every mic bleeds into every other mic, and we always record to tape.
What do dynamics contribute to your sound?
Dynamics are a big part of the heavy factor for us. They've become an innate part of the songwriting process - the quiet parts that build the tension that triggers this huge release that makes 10,000 kids jump up and down.
Can you tell in rehearsal which parts are going to make the kids jump?
I can tell when I'm in my living room with an acoustic guitar. I can see it.
You really hammer the downbeat in most of your riffs. How much of a rule is that?
Its not really a rule, but you'd be a fool to stray from it - Its good enough for James Brown! In all the music that's richly satisfying to me, the ones are huge and unrelenting, and you don't have to be a guitarist to feel them coming. Everyone knows when the one drops.
Some of the repeating figures on your records sound like they're looped.
Nope - no looping. I always play them.
Who do you feel is doing creative work these days?
I really like the latest Nine Inch Nails record - I think its an achievement. It was done totally different from how we record - its very meticulous. I really respect how Trent Reznor works, because that kind of work ethic is just not there for us. We get a couple of takes down and then its off to the PlayStation!
We asked that same question of Joe Satriani and John Scofield and they both named you.
Wow, Man - that is just over the top. I'm humbled. I mean, I got Surfing with the Alien when I first moved to California, and I listened to it religiously. For him to say that is just amazing.
On "Take the Power Back" from your first record you play a "real" solo with lots of notes. Could you see yourself ever doing that again?
Oh, I am absolutely not ruling that stuff out. In my heart of hearts, I still have a lot of Al DiMeola in me!
So are you rock ambassador to the hip-hop world or are you the hip-hop ambassador to the rock world?
That's interesting. Because we're a rock band with electric guitars - something you will rarely hear on an urban station - we're often new to the hip-hop bands we tour with, like Wu-Tang, Gang Starr, and Public Enemy. When those bands finally hear us, they're won over. So I guess we, as a band, are sort of rock ambassadors. I don't think hip-hop needed any help getting into the suburbs, though. Its done a pretty good job on its own.
You used to binge-practice on DiMeola and Yngwie licks, and then you went on to do your own thing. What do you say to the kids who use you as their starting point?
It depends on what your goals are. Guitar players start playing because they like other guitarists, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with emulating them. Its very satisfying. I remember the afternoon I could finally play the solo to "Detroit Rock City" - that was a great day! But if you want to be an artist with your own voice on the instrument, you've got to go after that. I discovered something after digging a big trench trying to follow in the footsteps of players I liked - the very thing that drew me to them in the first place was the fact that they were unique. It was their personality that made the music interesting. Having said that, I do not hear a lot of bleeps and bloops that I recognize, but that's cool. It's a great privilege to be an influence.
Do you feel any added pressure or responsibility now that you are an influence?
The only responsibility is to be true to yourself - to make music you really believe in
Tom Morello Talks Up His Influences
Jimmy Page - "When I was 12, Jimmy Page gave me the desire to rock. He created this vibe that was so much bigger than the stifling little suburban town that I lived in. Hearing his music made me aspire to greater things."
The Sex Pistols - "The Sex Pistols made me want to be in a band. Their music wasn't about castles and dragons and groupie-filled limos. They were these regular, working-class guys playing simple stuff that was as powerful as anything I'd ever heard. I remember thinking, ‘I could this tomorrow!' And I did - I was in a band 48 hours after getting Never Mind the Bullocks. I couldn't play an E chord, but I was in a band."
Randy Rhodes - "It was his dedication. I had a Randy Rhodes poster that I would stare at when I was practicing four, six, eight hours a day. I got a real commitment to the instrument from him. I picked up guitar because of punk rock, but I got the desire to excel at it from Randy Rhodes."
Dr. Dre - "When Rage formed, Dr. Dre's album The Chronic was happening. I had been noodling around with the toggle switch, going after more eccentric sounds. All of a sudden I was able to emulate the things I heard on his records, which made me dig he stuff even more. Listening to Dr. Dre pushed my playing away from traditional guitar approach."
Liam Howlett of the Prodigy - "What I got from Liam is the way he looks at texture, repetition, and tone. I love the way he thinks about sonic possibilities and creating songs out of sounds."