In the past year, Rage Against The Machine (guitarist Tom Morello, vocalist Zack De La Rocha,bass player Timmy C [or YTimK as he's calling himself these days], and drummer Brad Wilk) have played Woodstock in Rome, NY, rocked for Tibet in Wisconsin, spoken in front of the United Nations' International Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, donated $80,000 to the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal in Philly, performed shows in the Far East and released a new album on election day in the United States. They've been around the world fighting causes, making music, making history. The Battle Of Los Angeles, Rage Against The Machine's third album in nine years, the band once again takes up arms against oppression by lashing out at lawmakers, promise-breakers and anti-humanitarians.The battle cries of Calm Like A Bomb,War Within A Breath and Ashes In The Fall prove that Rage Against The Machine rally, roister, rebel, but most of all, rage against a machine that never stops turning, but whose cogs are getting clogged more and more each year. Rachel Butera spoke to Tom Morello about the music and the mindset behind it.
On The Battle Of Los Angeles you've said you employed some sounds that are different for Rage Against The Machine, yet it's still guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Tell me a little about it.
From the bass standpoint, Timmy explored some new, low-end territory on this record. He's got a wide variety of rhythms and textures that I never heard anybody play before, which really give the songs an underpinning to the hip-hop that we play, as well as an extra growl to the stuff. Brad, too. I think his game has jumped up several levels on this record. In my court, I just continued to take the blinders off traditional guitar playing. I tried to treat the guitar not as some sacred instrument but as a piece of wood with some wire and electronics that could be manipulated in a variety of ways you may not have heard previously. The horizons are really broad when you look at the instrument that way.
The sounds may be different but the band is still ranting about the same injustices of the system. Might there ever be a time when Rage writes a love song?
Well, on the one hand, love and break-ups and cars and emotional conversations in rainy phone booths are all very much a part of the human experience and deserve to be commented on. So too, are resistance and struggle and solidarity. They are important parts of the human experience which are normally ignored across the pop continuum. The better question would be to the more escapist artist, 'Why do you ignore these essential parts of life?' rather than ask us why we don't write love songs since there are plenty of bands already covering that territory (laughs again).
What specific social events inspired the band this time around?
In the course of the last few years, I've been involved with the Garment Workers' Union, civil disobedience on their behalf andtheir struggle against sweatshops here and abroad. Zack has spent time in southern Mexico with the Zapatista rebels and is very much immersed down there as well as with the studentstrikes in Mexico. As the band grows in popularity, so too do we, it seems, become more of a threat, and we've never had more resistance, whether it's from corporations like Guess? Jeans or police organizations who have tried to shut down our shows on certain occasions.So that only means that we're doing the right thing (laughs). When they start pushing back like that you know you're on the right track.
It's hard work, and time-consuming, to be so involved. Why do you do it?
(laughs) The cornerstone of it is indignation when you see things that are wrong, whether it's in your home, your school, your workplace or your society. It's when your heroes are other than sports people--they're people who've had the courage to fight back in the civil rights movement or the workers' rights movement or the women's rights movement. You start looking at the time we live in now and realize it's not separate from the history of those struggles but very much a part of them. The future is anything you want it to be and there is no injustice that is insurmountable if you have the courage of your convictions and arewilling to take a stand.
Rage Against The Machine fans are among the most fervent. Do you get a chance to interact with them much?
Yeah, we've had the opportunity lately with this record, we've done our first in-stores and done more online, like chats and things. You get to talk to people first-hand who buy your records and that's always reaffirming. We get asked often in interviews, 'The kids don't get it, do they?'We get to see that they absolutely do. I think our audience is an intelligent one and journalists aren't willing to believe that 430,000 people go out the first week to buy The Battle Of Los Angeles and actually get it! (laughs) They think that's threatening or something.
People saw kids moshing and singing "F#*k you/I won't do what you tell me" and nothing else.
Yeah. I took my music dead-seriously when I was growing up with bands like KISS, where I loved the music and the rock power of it and later with bands like The Clash and Public Enemy where the lyrics made sense in my own life. I felt passionately about the bands I liked and I think our fans are no different from that.
The band criticizes a capitalist society yet lives in it and off of it. Do people consider that hypocritical?
Yeah, well the only people who would say that have no experience with political activism, quite honestly. If the grassroots organizations, from the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee to the Garment Workers' Union to the Anti-Nazi League in Europe, who have all been very generous with their unqualified support of our tactics had a problem with it, we would definitely listen (laughs). You labor and you slave away to try to get one column inch on page 36 of The Daily News when Rage Against The Machine can bring the case of Leonard Peltier into sixty million homes on MTV because we're on a major label--make no mistake about it. As far as tactics, it's just much more viable. We're not one of those bands that are pious rebels and into self-righteousness. Peltier does not care what label we're on, he needs to get out of jail. That takes more people, not less people. We've found a way to weave our convictions into our life's work. If we were carpenters we might do it through the carpenter's unions. If we were rock journalists, we might do it in the columns we wrote.
What do you propose as an alternative to the system?
There are a couple things that are fundamental. I think that wage slavery is a problem. Other people have to sell their lives to make someone rich in order to live. It's something we take for granted, but it's wrong. It's alleged that we live in a democracy, yet there's no real democratic control over the organizations that shape our lives--which are businesses. It couldn't be a more hierarchical structure. There's no democracy in the work place. And racism is still very much a tool to divide and conquer the people against each other. It's an old tactic thatneeds to be done away with.
What's good about the system?
There are many things that are good about America I don't know about the system. I'm very proud to be an American, there are a lot of proud traditions. Crazy Horse is an American hero, so is Malcolm X. I have fewer nice things to say about the napalmers and the lynchers and that end of America. And those are the people that tend to wave the flag a little bit more, but this is my country, too.
What turn do you think censorship will take in the new century?
I think it's a big worry. These right-wing powers, especially in our line of work, are constantly trying to strip us of our First Amendment right to express ourselves and the people's right to hear what musicians want to play and sing. And a lot of it's out of ignorance and scape-goating musicians for other problems. It's a much more difficult task for politicians to address the underlying problems of inequality and gun control, real causes of violence, than to blame Marilyn Manson for all of society's ills. There have been many attempts to censor Rage and shut down our shows, not let us play Conan O'Brien, and I think that's a danger. In the end it's not so much up to the bands, who should stand up for their rights, but it's up to the fans of music to not take for granted that they're going to be able to hear music that some people might think is controversial. They might not be able to if they just sit back. In places like Europe, who cares that there's a four-letter word on the radio? The government won't collapse. It's worse than that here, where they're not letting kids of certain ages go to concerts or they sell certain records behind the counter. A lot of it is under the guise of protecting people from the evil of four-letter words. But it's to silence artists. If the powers that be were really, genuinely interested in the health and well-being of America's youth, then they would address the real problems like education and healthcare -- we have the most children living below the poverty line per capita in the industrial world. Those are real things that are affecting their lives. Parental abuse and neglect is going to hurt more kids than any compact disc is ever going to. That's one of America's dirty little secrets that doesn't get addressed at the presidential conventions.
Although it's a year early, what do you think about the 2000 presidential candidates?
I think the same thing about all of them. I worked for a US Senator, so I've seen it from the inside. We live in such a checkbook democracy. Why shouldn't you have as much chance of becoming president as George W. Bush? Because you're unable to raise a billion dollars. You don't have as many rich friends who work in corporate offices who can give you money to buy the TV time to sell whatever slimy deception you've got to sell in order to weasel your way into the White House. I worked as a scheduling secretary for a guy who was about as progressive as you were ever going to find in the US Senate. Still, he spent all his time, almost every waking moment, calling up rich guys and asking them for cash. At the end of the day, who are the politicians beholden to? It's only four percent of the US population that donates any money to any political campaign, from dog-catcher to President of the United States. So who has access? They're certainly not beholden to the homeless and the rock journalist and the bricklayers.