Tom Morello might not like the idea, but in this post-modern age of anti-technical rock, heís become something of a guitar hero. As the sonic leader of the rockíníroll juggernaut known as Rage Against the Machine, Morello, like few other guitarists in the 90ís, has embraced the instrument as a way of life, a kind of wooden lung, through which he breathes ideas, passion, brute strength, and ideology. Rage singer Zack De La Rocha might use actual words, but Morelloís guitar fluency expresses his views with equal eloquence, articulating the kind of firestarting ideas his singer favors. When you hear him play, his notes, chords, and ungodly gobs of noise rival any singer in terms of visceral emotion. Without uttering a word, Morello turns Rage Against the Machine into a rampaging experience of intellect and might.
Through the years, Morelloís development as a player Ė from novice punk rocker to aspiring shredder to grinding heavy Ė could serve as a blueprint for every young guitar player. His playing habits, based on passion, drive, and an incredible work ethic bordering on obsession, read like the definitive formula for success as a rock guitarist. Follow that formula and, though thereís no guarantee youíll end up selling millions of records like Morello, youíll certainly find yourself at an intensely high playing level, and an impressive musical commodity to boot.
His playing on The Battle of Los Angeles proves that Morello Ė a 35-year-old socialist with a Harvard degree- has reached a special place. And heís not afraid to talk about that place, how he got there, what itís like to be there, and where heíll go next. Listen and learn.
The crazy sounds and intros on the new album Ė are those the moments you live for as a player? Arenít those the times that get you into the heat of your creativity?
On this record, at this stage in my playing, and in our musical development as a band, that creativity comes naturally. Exotic sounds butted up against big riffs is the currency we deal in as a band. So rather then say, "Ah, the beginning of "Testify", what a rich moment!" I feel those beginnings and those sounds are ripe apples dropping from the tree.
Did you ever think this is where you would end up as a guitar player?
The answer to that would be no. Itís been a natural evolution; for the longest time until I was in RATM, I was unable to, for the most part, write music that I loved. I was in a hundred bands, writing a thousand songs, but it wasnít until this band and the interplay with these musicians that I could write the music I loved. For all the countless hours that I have practiced playing guitar in my life, Rage is just something that came together without any particular rhyme or reason. Now I can regularly toss out stuff I love, whether itís the riff on "Bombtrack" from the first record, or "Sleep Now in the Fire" on this one. I have somehow been able, with the combination of Tim (Bob) and Brad (Wilk), to write music that greatly pleases me. Then, on the other side of the coin Ė those odd noises Ė really feels very comfortable. Itís what naturally spills out. In preparation for this interview, I was looking at a noise chart that I had in the studio while doing this record. It helped me remember solos and noises. Back then, it was almost a bible to refer to, but now it looked very outdated. "Oh, how remedial that one was." Now, itís just a case of strapping on the guitar and letting the stuff sort of "leak out."
That must mean your growth continues unabated.
I donít know if itís necessarily growth. Itís feeling comfortable with this style of playing, growing and getting in touch with the subtleties of it, as opposed to going, "Okay, here is a noise that sounds reminiscent of something off of "The Chronic." Itís now a matter of which shades of the lawnmower sound I want to inflict on the listener!
Would it be safe to say that you had been in a search for what you found in Rage?
Absolutely. I think it has to do with both personal development as musician and finding a unique bunch of people to play with.
Is it kind of magic?
Absolutely, from the very first rehearsals in 1991, when we were playing this first couple of songs we wrote Ė "Bombtrack," "Take the Power Back," and maybe "Know Your Enemy." Different combinations of us had jammed those riffs with other musicians, but when the four of us played it, and Timmy kicked in the distorted bass, Zack was losing his mind, and Brad pummeled his stripped down drum kit, the sound just blasted off. You just had to go "Shit!" Even then , we still didnít know whether is was going to connect or whether it was going to be our own little private pleasure, until we played live. When we did, the magic was immediate.
That must have been really gratifying.
It was shocking! It was really, totally shocking! During our first couple of club shows, we amassed a rabid following. It was amazing how quickly people learned the words to the songs. One guy from each show was obviously telling 20 more guys about us, based on how the shows grew from the start.
To what did you owe that immediate success?
There was a kind of feral intensity at those shows due to the political content. It was like a scorched earth policy at the little club, as if to say, "You donít have a clue what youíre in for right now!"
Is your relationship with the audience confrontational and antagonistic, or are you looking to join together with them?
Itís never confrontational. The relationship that I have with the RATM audience is the most satisfying relationship Iíve ever had in my life. Itís really incredible. Even when the band hasnít been getting along so well, that thing with the audience has always been intact and precious. We can walk out onstage, and, before even playing a note, the connection is unbelievable.
It must have been really satisfying, especially in light of how the band had difficult interpersonal relationships going for a while.
Itís never Ė even during some of our darker personal days Ė affected that time we spend onstage.
Tell me about those darker personal days.
Okay. But Iíll preface it by saying that the personal element, the whole relationship thing, is completely uninteresting. So many bands have similar problems. Itís nothing new Ė nothing you havenít seen on Behind the Music a dozen times. To me, it actually saddens me that it has become part of the bandís story and part of every interview. Compared to the musical element of it and the political element of it, and all of the things that I find so richly interesting, thatís sort of the boring corner of it. Itís part of our history, and itís like "Yeah, sometimes folks donít get along." Is that a good press angle? Not really.
These are stumbling blocks that make a band stronger.
It can. One thing that I have always completely disagreed with is when someone says, "Itís the bandís internal tension that makes the music great." Bullshit. We made three records in eight years. We wrote 12 to 15 songs in the first month that we knew each other and were getting along like peas in a pod. And those songs include "Killing in the Name" and "Bullet in the Head." The better the band is getting along, the better the music is.
How must input do you have in the lyrics?
Zack has always been very open to our ideas. Everybody has complete confidence in him to come up with the lyrics and the poetry that ideologically defines what the songs are about.
Has there ever been anything that you two did not agree on, politically?
In the whole history of the band, there may have been one conversation in eight years when I thought something wasnít right. We talked about it and were done with it.
Has there been an opportunity for the band to write something less strident, less political?
I think thereís a great deal of sensitivity in our songs. We sing about things like solidarity, resistance, and struggle. Those things are every bit as much a part of the human experience as love and break-ups and cars and nookie, but it is a corner of human experience that is often neglected in the realm of pop music. There are plenty of bands that cover the other end of it.
Do you think youíve gone to the extreme end of pop?
Yes, absolutely. I think the lyrics and the music of Rage is extreme, and I think necessarily so. You donít treat extreme illnesses with mild medicine. We are completely unapologetic about that.
Letís talk gear.
Itís the same setup that Iíve had. Thereís my 50-watt Marshall, a 2205 head with a Peavey cabinet. On hand, I had a little Music Man combo amp, one of those little Line 6 combo amps, and a Pignose. [Producer] Brendan OíBrien is neck deep in vintage gear, and when he realized, I was going to use only my stuff, he gave up and we just set up my little stuff.
You donít buy into that whole "vintage gear" thing?
I donít have anything against it. Itís just not an interest of mine.
Is the technical side important to you?
No, not at all. Iím just now wired that way. I donít have the aptitude. When I was first signed to a major label with a band called Lock Up, they insisted that we go out and get gear. But for me, it was horribly intimidating. "I have to get gear? What kind of gear would I get? How would I plug it in?" Everyone else went hog wild, and I guiltily went to Guitar Center and picked out a piece of rack gear. I didnít understand the manual, and I seemed to ruin it just plugging it into the effects loop on my amplifier. It ruined the sound. Now it just gathers dust.
Do you lean on your tech for that?
Pretty much. My setup is so easy. Itís five effects on a pedal board, my amp, and my cabinet. I think I bring six back-up guitars out on the road. Itís pretty straightforward.
Tell me about those guitars.
For the songs in Drop D tuning, I use the stock Telecaster. For the ones in standard tuning, I use that mongrel "homeless" guitar. Each one of those has a back-up, and then I use a double neck for "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and a little Canadian pawn shop guitar on "Calm Like a Bomb."
Your stuff is pretty, um, modest. Is it that way because you donít want to seem extravagant or hypocritical?
No, there is no sort of ideological reason. I just think my setup sounds awesome, my gear sounds awesome. And Iím perfectly content with it. Part of my makeup as a musician, despite the weird sounds, is inherently conservative. In order for me to be able to let my musical imagination run to extremes, I like to have a lot of the variables, like gear, locked down. I like to know itís always going to be that amp and those treble, midrange, bass, and distortion settings on this amp. Itís always going to be those effects pedals. Itís always going to be these guitars as the cornerstones of the physical end of the music-making. Because that stuff is locked down in place, it allows me the freedom to explore on the strings and the toggle switch. Just the thought of all that chaos caused by constantly bringing in new gear makes me nervous.
Itís too much information?
I think is has more to do with the player. Timmy, for example, has gone through six of the seven greatest bass sounds I have ever heard in my life, each one from different rigs and different setups. Heíll start from scratch, burn one to the ground, and begin again with the new basses and amps. To me, thatís terrifying. I figure "donít take points off the board!"
You play through a half stack, whereas some guitarists go out there with a full one. Why?
One thing Iíve always liked, from our earliest club shows to playing huge festivals, is rolling out there with a half stack. Weíve played with Metallica, Aerosmith, Smashing Pumpkins Ė all of whom have these incredibly huge amplifier sets Ė and our crew rolls out the half stack, the Peavey cabinet! I like that. It was a lesson I learned at my old music shop, the Music Gallery in Highland Park, Illinois, where I used to buy my gear as a lad. I read my share of guitar magazines and saw the photos of the impressive amplifier setups these bands had. So I thought, "Iím gonna need one of those." And the guy behind the counter said, "Well, you donít really need one of those stacks. They just stick a mic up to any speaker and make it as loud as you want it." And I said, "Really? Thatís all you gotta do?"
You can still rattle eyeballs with your modest little setup.
Yeah, we can fill an arena with sound pretty well with that half stack.
What about your effects?
I use a digital delay pedal, an EQ pedal that I use exclusively for a boost when I need to go to "11" on solos or for the end of songs, a flanger pedal, a wah-wah pedal, and an original DigiTech Whammy pedal.
Your practice habits are getting to be famous. Can you tell us about them?
They were intense. There were a few crossroads in my history as a guitar player. A key one was when a guitar-playing friend of mine back in Illinois communicated to me a simple sentence that would change my life as a musician. He said, "Youíll get better if you practice just an hour a day without exception." I just took that to heart, and over time I was able to form chords and learn songs better. With that victory in hand, I said, "What if I practiced two hours a day?" And I found that development, the growth curve, seemed to be exponential. I was improving more than twice as much at two hours a day. So I said, "Well, if thatís the case, how about four hours?" Then, finally, eight hours a day.
Eight hours a day of practice?
In my four years at Harvard, including summers, I probably missed two or three days of practice. Even then, when I missed a day, I suffered a tremendous amount of guilt. Iím telling you this not in any sort of joking way. It was a very unhealthy practice regime, as if I had some kind of disorder. People would say, "Tom youíve got a fever of 102, you have an exam at 8:00 in the morning, and itís 3 a.m." And Iíd say, "Yeah, thatís cool, only two more hours." It was unshakable. I wouldnít shave five minutes off of it. Not even 45 seconds. Iíd watch the clock. Itís part of my makeup. With me, once certain things are set, theyíre set in stone. Practicing all that time was key.
You started playing late, so you must have felt you needed to make up for lost time.
Right. I started playing at 17 years old. None of the guitar players that were my heroes started that late. I panicked. I was way behind.
But you were able to make up for it.
I had to.
Do you have any other obsessive disorders in your life?
Yeah, my band. I have no real practice regime now. Itís really different now. When I play guitar, it feels completely creative and free; there are no weird psychological shackles on my playing that were once there.
All that practice must have stunted your social growth.
Iím sure it did. There were areas where I felt less socially together. I donít think the guitar playing stunted it. I had this relationship with my guitar that made up for other human relationships.
When runners donít run, they almost feel sick with guilt. Was that you?
Completely. When I was younger and went on vacation, I brought a Gibson Explorer with me in this tremendously heavy case. I didnít even know what a gig bag was back then. So Iíd lug this thing around Europe with my mom. It was like carrying a body around. But Iíd practice, whether we were at a bus stop, or wherever; Iíd log my time.
Did you ever think guitar playing was not going to be part of your future?
Did you ever see The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years? I felt like one of those kids who said, "This is what Iím going to do if it kills me." Thereís that excellent montage where the interviewer asks, "What if you donít make it?" And the answer was, "Well, thatís not an option." She says, "Whatís your Plan B?" And the answer is, "There is no Plan B." I had no Plan B.
With your drive, you sound like you would have succeeded not matter what you chose to do.
I can be pretty driven. But thereís something unique about the guitar that really pushed me over the edge Ė because until I played guitar, I dabbled in dozens of different things. I drew, I wrote, and I acted; there was a wide variety of stuff that I dabbled in, but I fell hard for the guitar. It was really like a virus.
What did you draw?
A lot of it was lizards and snakes, the things that high school kids like to draw. I liked to draw all that Dungeons & Dragons stuff, too.
You never wanted to stick with any of those other abilities you had?
I wasnít a poor actor, and I wasnít a poor writer, but I was a poor guitar player. I was awful. I was really awful. But thatís the thing I just decided I really had to do. I had no natural ability. I mean none.
What were those early playing days like for you?
I couldnít play many songs in high school. Just my own. There were guys who could play anything by anybody, but couldnít write to save their life. But in high school, it was a mark of shame if you couldnít cover the Doobie Brothers. You werenít getting chicks. Period. Okay? Here we were: a weird punk rock band with Devo influences Ė not high on the food chain. The ladies were having none of it.
What else did you learn early on?
One thing that I learned later that I would have liked to have known earlier was the fact that there are worlds of difference between practicing Ė rehearsing in your garage or bedroom Ė and playing in front of people. There is no better way to become a better player than live. Weíd practice super hard, then play live, and our collective playing level would drop by about 80%.
Why is that?
There are nerves and all sorts of technical variables involved that you donít have in rehearsal. And thereís a certain vibe playing a song beginning to end that you need to go for in front of the audience. My playing and confidence grew exponentially when I was in a bunch of crappy bands that actually played out regularly. It wasnít the must so much as just playing in front of crowds. I see it all the time, bedroom shredders get on the stage, and itís not happening. Itís an important part of learning.
How much of what you do is considered shredding?
(Laughs) Precious little, I hope. There are a couple moments that are clearly super-technique driven. All of it is informed by my practicing. But rarely is it "going for it." The solo in "Know Your Enemy" is pretty shred-worthy, but itís a different kind of shredding.
Most of itís almost anti-shredding.
Itís hard for me, after growing into the skin of my own playing, to understand what I do. I have a very different set of ears. To me, listening to other bandsí guitar solos just seems kind of whack. Theyíre just notes, right?
Thereís real percussion to your technique.
The band is tremendously groove-oriented, so it uses percussive sounds and repetition, which seems to complement the overall sound really well. I get off on that, things that repeat in a machine-like way. That, butted up against the stock big riffs, makes for an interesting sound to me. I try to cop the best bits from industrial music, electronica, and hip-hop.
How do you incorporate something like electronica into the Rage sound?
Itís really a process of osmosis. Iíve never sat down and listened to an electronica CD and gone, "Oh, yeah, thatís it!" Itís more the vibe and and the genreís irreverence for the clichťd ideas in pop music, with its typical chord changes and hooks. Electronicaís much more about dynamic and diverse flavors in tone. Itís amazing to hear Prodigy and the way they work with tone and flavor. Itís fast notes that repeat in a simple kind of way. When I take a solo, I donít take you on a journey. Itís not like, "Come with me and explore the medieval hinterlands, courtesy of my guitar." You get this weird burst of fast notes, and then you get exactly the same thing four more times in a row. We ainít going nowhere but here!
Everyoneís always talking about the death of guitar rock, or the birth of this or that.
I always hated when people would say in guitar magazines that guitar playing was doomed, that itís all been done. If only I had a dollar fifty for every time I read it in a guitar magazine. I remember not too long ago when synthesizer technology was developing rapidly, they were predicting guitars would soon be outdated, I, being the arrogant college student, said, "Iíll show them. Iíll make the synthesizer outdated by emulating the keyboard." Then, I had similar bravado when hip-hop was coming on strong, and DJs were gonna make guitars outdated. They could sample the guitar, they said, rendering it useless. So I said, "Okay, Iíll make the turntable outdated!" Iíve always been on a personal mission to save the guitar.