Hypocritical, wealthy idealogue or true revolutionary? Whichever he is, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello is one of rock's most innovative guitarists of the Nineties-and the Guitar World editors Artist of the Year.
By Charles M. Young
The most obviously weird thing about Tom Morello is that he has become, simultaneously, both the number one God of Heavy Metal Thunder and America's highest profile Marxist revolutionary. The guy can make his guitar (either a stock Telecaster or a homemade mongrel) sound just like the overthrow of capitalism: vast tears in the social fabric, the fury of peasants storming the police station, the lamentations of the rich as their estates are plundered, the exhilaration of newly snatched freedom. All this from six little strings amplified by a dilapidated Marshall 50-watt head on a dilapidated Peavey cabinet with a few well-tromped pedals out front. He likes to "embrace the limitations" of this setup and is reluctant to "poison the wellspring" of his creativity with any new toys.
Son of an American school teacher and a Mau Mau revolutionary from Kenya, Morello grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, where he developed a taste for Kiss and Black Sabbath in grade school but didn't stick with the guitar until his late teens when punk rock came along. At the age of 19, while enrolled at Harvard, he decided that the guitar would be his life, even though he felt he had absolutely no natural talent. He compensated by practicing four hours a day during the school year, eight hours a day during vacations. After graduating in 1988, he moved to Los Angeles, reasoning that most of the music industry was based there. The gamble paid off: Rage Against the Machine got signed to Epic after just a few shows, before Tom, Zack, drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim-with-various-last-names got to know each other well. Their self-titled first album stunned the world with its innovative meld of metal and rap in 1992, and then they proceeded to get to know each other a little too well on those early tours. They released Evil Empire in 1996, again stunning the world with their colossal riffs and uncompromising lack of interest in cars and babes.
Morello, 32, has the social skills to charm even his ideological enemies and could have made a butt-load of money if he'd gone to law school instead of embarking on this much riskier career of music and revolution. He is acutely aware of the many absurdities surrounding his life and enjoys them all. He laughed all the way through this interview.
GUITAR WORLD: When Rage Against the Machine played in New York, I noticed you had Che Guevara painted on the front of your speaker cabinet. Was that a Peavey "Che Special Edition" or your own customizing?
TOM MORELLO: No, that was my own instigation. Peavey has not yet come out with a Che model, although, as the Clash said, "the future is unwritten." We've considered Che a fifth band member for a long time now, for the simple reason that he exemplifies the integrity and revolutionary ideals to which we aspire. He was an amazing example of courage, a guy with humanitarian ideals and the will to act on them. He went from being a medical student and doctor in Mexico City helping the lepers, to overthrowing the horrific Batista dictatorship in Cuba, to fomenting revolution in Africa, to Bolivia where he was murdered by the CIA. Everywhere there was injustice, Che showed up. That's a pretty good resumé.
GW: After the revolution, how would you rearrange the guitar business?
MORELLO: The problem isn't people who make guitars. The problem is wage slavery. America touts itself as the land of the free, but the number one freedom that you and I have is the freedom to enter into a subservient role in the workplace. Once you exercise this freedom you've lost all control over what you do, what is produced, and how it is produced. And in the end, the product doesn't belong to you. The only way you can avoid bosses and jobs is if you don't care about making a living. Which leads to the second freedom: the freedom to starve.
GW: You have a Harvard degree. Wage slavery was less of a threat.
MORELLO: Untrue. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was wholly unemployable. I could not have been more overqualified. I just couldn't get a job. I was unwilling to enter into career paths where a Harvard degree typically leads you, where you have to devote your life to the corporation. I wanted to devote my life to music and needed a day gig, for which I was wholly unprepared. I did telemarketing, and mind-numbing temp work. For months, my job was alphabetizing and filing. Basically, I was treated like a dog. Right now, the biggest employer in the United States is a temp agency, and I got to experience that first hand. Insecurity is such good business. When you have to call up every morning at seven to find out if you have a job or not, there's no way you're going to be organizing a union or trying to get a higher wage. Those of us without computer skills were making four dollars an hour. That's wage slavery, and I was happy to escape.
GW: I'd like you to make the case for what you support, rather than just what you oppose. What does socialism have to offer the average music fan?
MORELLO: First of all, you have to come around to a different way of thinking. It's very fashionable now among intellectuals and politicians to claim that history is over, that the world is no longer amenable to radical change. We know better. We prove otherwise at every show. But in order to disentangle yourself from that way of thinking, you have to perceive how people become their commodities. They find their soul in their automobile, or their stereo, or their guitar.
People tend to think that if the worker and boss enjoy the same TV shows, or own some of the same commodities, then that represents the disappearance of class antagonism. But the splendor of Beverly Hills could not exist without the sweat shops of Indonesia, and without the layoffs in Flint, Michigan. Or, for that matter, without centuries of black slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, numerous imperialist wars, foreign death squads, fascist dictators supported with our tax money. That's what props up the consumer paradise of Melrose Avenue. Americans are fans of democracy, right? In the sphere of life that has the most to do with who you are, and what you do on a daily basis, there's no democracy whatsoever. There is no more hierarchical pyramid of control than the multinational corporation.
GW: The great success of our propaganda system is having convinced the average American that working in a system like that is freedom.
MORELLO: Right. And then that deluded belief system is manipulated by politicians to incite poor white people against poor brown people. If they only knew what a tiny percentage of their tax money goes to alleviate poverty, while almost everything else is just subsidies for the multinationals. I live in Los Angeles, where some people live in palatial estates and some people live in soaking cardboard boxes. That is morally wrong, and addressing that problem would be job one in any future society. Regarding the music business, it's almost laughable that interviewers are still asking how we reconcile our beliefs with being on a major label. We would happily sign to the socialist record label that would distribute our propaganda to the four corners of the globe, but those are not the historical circumstances in which we were born.
GW: I don't know anyone who's been on a small indie label for an extended amount of time who isn't screaming about getting screwed out of his royalties. There's nothing about a small indie label that addresses any of the problems inherent in capitalism.
MORELLO: Please write that. Quote me saying that.
GW: It's like that in journalism, too. The big publications aren't monolithic. And you have to make certain compromises with the system to get your work out there.
MORELLO: Whether it's an article or a song, the bottom line is: Are you telling the truth? Does it come from the heart and connect with the people who are listening to it? Everything else is irrelevant.
GW: You're also getting your message out through the press. We couldn't be talking like this in a mainstream publication.
MORELLO: We're flying below the radar, yeah. A few months ago, Time magazine asked a bunch of people to provide advice for President Clinton during his second term. I thought, "Okay, I've got some ideas I wouldn't mind having printed in Time magazine." It was a really interesting experience. I suggested that Clinton was too busy vying with Newt Gingrich for the teat of Wall Street to listen to my advice. But if he did listen, he might begin by calling off this disingenuous campaign against rock and rap lyrics and not to use art as a scapegoat for the failures of capitalism. They changed it to an innocuous anti-censorship quote. They completely neutered me.
GW: I keep seeing articles where people are declaring that grunge is dead. Do you have any deep thoughts on the life or death of grunge?
MORELLO: No, no. That kind of ghettoization is convenient for journalists, but it doesn't mean anything. The great positive development in music for the last seven or eight years is that it's now okay for people who like hip hop to also like Soundgarden. Ten years ago you couldn't do that. If you were a metal fan, you hated black music. Or you liked rap and you had to hate college rock. It's very healthy that those lines have blurred. You have to give credit to those bands who made it happen: Run DMC, Living Colour. They introduced suburban white audiences to hardcore inner city music and made it okay for African American musicians to play rock and move units.
GW: So you're not worried about the future of the guitar?
MORELLO: I spend precious little time worrying about the future of the guitar. I don't strain too much on that one. But I do worry about my own guitar playing. It's important to me to keep pushing. What's amazing to me is that when I used to practice eight hours a day, I sounded more like other contemporary guitar players like Randy Rhoads. Now that I practice very little, I tend to sound more like myself. Whenever I pick up the guitar, there's some new noise that surprises me. My Noise Chart is filling up with some interesting things for the next recording.
GW: Your Noise Chart?
MORELLO: Yeah, I've always kept it. Whenever I stumble across a new idea on guitar I write it down and how I made it, because I've lost a lot of good stuff in the past by stumbling across some cool noise on a practice tape and being unable to duplicate it. So I keep this Noise Chart to remind myself how I made a particular sound.
GW: Could you share with us one new cool noise?
MORELLO: This one's kinda weird. It's like a siren organ. I play it with the Telecaster, have the delay set really short, and rub an Allen wrench towards the bridge on the D string, and finger different notes on the left hand. It sounds dope. On 95 percent of the shows during the last tour, we'd write a song onstage at some point. Just go for it. Somebody would start and seven minutes later it would be over, with varying degrees of success. But it was really challenging. Timmy or Brad would usually start with some eerie hip hop groove or churning beat, and I had to come up with the coloring. Most of what's on the Noise Chart comes from accidents during sound check or the live set. Like I'd forget to turn the delay knobs back from where they are for "Vietnow," and-uh oh-I'm in the middle of "Bullet in the Head" and the knobs should be different, but let's go for it. It's those little bends in the road where you discover new sounds.