At just what point does the personal become the political? The guys in Rage Against the Machine may wear revolutions on their sleeves, but Sandy Masuo meets them in Los Angeles and halfway around the globe in Australia to find four men wrestling with the past.
A soothing summer night has settled over the streets of Melbourne on the southwest coast of Australia. Filmy clouds are curled around the skewed constellations and the midnight blue South Pacific is slowly shifting in the timeless ritual of the tides. A few blocks away from the beach, the doors of the Palace nightclub swing open and an ambient backwash sloshes out into the evening air - the familiar blend of gritty punk rock pumping through the house sound system, high-decibel chatter, and stale air saturated with the sweat of a sell-out crowd crammed to the rafters and still agitated by the Jesus Lizard's opening set.
Inside, beefy guys are rippling under their T-shirts as they mill about, spoiling for another mosh, while skinny surfer dudes sporting the usual bottomless tans and clothing emblazened with cryptic words like Billabong and Quicksilver shuffle past. A lone Gothic couple - she in stretchy lace and a dog collar, he in a Sisters of Mercy T-shirt - sway in an embrace near the edge of the stage, coolly oblivious to the increasing temperature and dwindling amount of breathable air.
Several intrepid individuals are already surfing the pit and little knots of jostling bodies skirmish here and there. Finally Rage Against the Machine hits the stage, and the opening strains of "Tire Me," from their as-yet unfinished second album, detonate the rest of the crowd. The moshing ebbs and flows from song to song along with the intensity of the rhythms driven by bassist Tim Bob and drummer Brad Wilk, but the electricity in the air is constant. The ends of the strings on Tom Morello's guitar quiver and twitch behind the tuning pegs as if channeling the crowd's evergy into his own astringent sounds. Zack de La Rocha, a livewire himself, negotiates the volatile sonic currents with a kind of abrasive grave, leading the audience through the snarling catharsis of the lyric from "Killing in the Name" - "Fuck you I won't do what you tell me" - almost crooning in the prickly lulls of "Know Your Enemy," then spitting out the bitter mantra, "All of which are American dreams" with a vehemence that might have made Johnny Rotten flinch. Even the pauses between songs are more ominous than restful.
In the four years that have elapsed since Rage Against the Machine made their incendiary debut, they've been praised for their sonic ferocity and lauded and lampooned for their strident, far-left politics. They spent nearly three years trekking back and forth between the US and Europe, where they seem to have struck a chord with young people who are as critical of American culture as they are. They've wrestled with the evil machinery of the medium they set out to hi-jack - form concert promoters to management and media. They spent the winter before last sharing a house in Atlanta, a kind of social experiment which was supposed to foster what Morello describes as "a happy Partridge family situation" that would yield their much-anticipated follow-up album, but instead left them with a more intimate understanding of the personal tensions that drive the band. As the age old adage goes, that which doesn't kill you makes you strong, and after much ado, and some essential time apart, they finished their brawny sophmore effort, Evil Empire.
Where the band's eponymous debut was a high-impact collision between punk, hip-hop, and metal, Evil Empire spends less time reveling in the extremes, instead twisting them together into an equally intense but more unified whole. With the exception of a few conventional solo intreludes, Morello has deconstructed his guitar work into a smattering of primordial noises, leaving Tim Bob the task of welding them together with Wilk's weighty rhythms and de la Rocha's visceral vocals. As for his words they are as ardent and confounding as ever - always compelling, but mostly becasue of the gut-level emotion between the lines. A cagey, pensive undercurrent runs through even the most fervent moments.
If Rage Against the Machine was a provocative political wake-up call intended for the youth of America, then the four individuals behind it have spent four years grappling with the intellectual and emotional repercussions they stirred up in themselves.
"I don't think any of our songs emanate from a place other than my personal [experience, and] my political views tend to reflect this," de la Rocha says over a pot of tea in the art gallery annex of the Onyx Cafe in Los Feliz. In the silent room, the 26-year-old exudes the quiet side of the charisma that makes him so riveting on stage. He's a man with an agenda and he knows how to use it, graciously allowing the conversation to veer into murky personal waters only to rein it in and work in a few more facts about the cause that has captured his imagination for the past two years: the peasent uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Since the Zapatista revolutionaries first made their stand in 1994, he's helped organize a delegation of college students and activists to visit Chiapas, given presentations to high school students and been involved with various organizations - notably the El Paso, Texas-based National Commision for Democracy in Mexico, USA - established to raise funds and support.
"I know," he says with a smile, when reminded that this interview is supposed to shed light on the band, not on the ongoing struggle for land-ownership rights in southern Mexico. "But it would make it worthwhile for me to do this."
De la Rocha's parents separated when he was one year old and he spent the early part of his childhood shuttling back and forth between Irvine, the Orange County suburb where his mom lived, and the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of east Los Angeles that was home to his father, Beto, who was a member of the Chicano art collective, Los Four.
"They were artists who realized that art as a medium is also very political by nature," he explains. "He would do a series of paintings for the United Farm Workers depicting, like, Mexican history to make it visible to the public. He and the other members, Carlos Alamaz, Frank Romero and Gilbert Lujan all tried to document that and make it accessible to the community, and I think that's what we're trying to do with music."
In 1983, de la Rocha's father suffered a nervous breakdown. He destroyed over half of his work and dropped out of the art world entirely, falling into a downward spiral of obsessive religious behaviour.
"I would go to see him on weekends down in Lincoln Heights and be forced to sit in a room with the curtains drawn and the door locked," the younger de la Rocha haltingly recalls. "He forced me to fast. I went through some really intense stuff." Eventually, unable to cope with his father any longer, he stopped visiting him and stayed with his mother in Irvine, perhaps the whitest city in Southern California. Though his mother, of mixed heritage, had been as attuned to Chicano politics as his father, the break with his father and the resultant loss of some close ties to the Chicano community - coupled with the usual trials of adolescence - brought on serious culture shock.
"Living in Irvine, I was pretty much the exception to the rule," he recalls. "The rule for Chicanos was you were there because you had a mop or a broom in your hand or a hammer, or filled baskets of strawberries. For me and my mom, who was a student who got her Ph.D. in Anthropology, there were just so many contradicions that I had to face. Those things started a process for me which was intensely introspective and questioning of everything around me... I feel kind of somewhere in between those worlds. There's this duality, because I'm constantly having to juggle between those two cultural experiences."
For de la Rocha, the story of Chiapas is more than a just cause to rally around. The struggle between the people and the government of Chiapas is a parable for the same conflict that he sees happening around the world and right here at home. It's become an activist concern that binds together the contradictory elements of his life.
"It's like part of a healing process to be able to express those things, and every personal conflict you experience does have political ramnifications," he says. "They do have a political source. For example, I've created a personal distance from my father. We still maintain a relationship, but I don't know if I can relate to him in a way that I'd like to, based on his [mental illness], although, because of the current destruction of social gains made by people in the '30s and '40s, i might be forced to take care of him eventually.
"It was really amazing," he continues, "because I think that when he kind of saw that the direction I was taking [with the band] was converging with a lot of the things that he was involved in in the '70s, it brought him out of his seclusion a little bit. He actually started painting and writing again. I didn't expect him to be able to find his way through that. But the music and what I was doing with it reaffirmed the things that he once held important. That to me was just amazing. It fulfilled a void in me that had existed for a long time."
For Tim Bob, who's known de la Rocha since elementary school (where de la Rocha introduced him to the bass), the personal/political equation isn't quite so simple. Though he witnessed de la Rocha's identity crisis first hand and empathetically recounts his friend's political awakening, his own personal trials have led him to his own conclusions.
"I don't think there's a conflict between the actual music and the message," he offers somewhat softly, from the sofa in the living room of his house in Venice. "I think the words bring out parts of the music that I maybe wouldn't hear and the music brings out parts of the words that I wouldn't hear.
"It kind of sucks," he continues, becoming more animated, "because somehow the music has almost taken a back seat to the politics of the band. Me, personally? I'm totally into issues, but at the same time it's hard for me, because I started playing bass because I wanted to play music, not because I wanted to be a politician. And it's really difficult because now every time I do an interview, it's always a political thing and I feel like it's really hard for me to say something that's potent politically, because I've got a couple of guys in my band who are sooooo into politics. Like, what else can I say that Tom hasn't already covered in his ten years of political science and studies? I could read a book a day for the rest of my life and still probably not know as much as Tom knows about politics.
"I think to a certain extent it's harder to be personal than it is to be political. It really is. It's like, you can get the knowledge to be politcal, and learn, and then you're political. You understand it and now you're a political person, but to be personal - sometimes it takes tragedy in your life in order to become somebody who understands things on a personal level, and that's kind of the story of my life...my life up until I was like, 20 years old is kind of a blur."
The youngest of five kids, Tim's dad is an aeronautics/space engineer, (" He works on the smog shuttle," he says, careful to note that every space shuttle launch does more damage to the ozone than a year of auto manufacturing.) His mom was a mathematician in the pre-computer days when number-crunching was still a human endeavor. She developed brain cancer when he was seven years old, and by the time Tim Bob was in third grade, he recalls, she could no longer comprehend the math problems he was bringing home from school. She succumbed to the disease when he was 20, but it had long since taken its toll on the family. His father divorced her and remarried, and Tim's mom ended upi living with one of his sisters in Sacramento. The family gradually disentegrated.
Working his way through his past over the last few years has stirred up a wealth of pain and anger, much of which he vents through drawings, poetry, and music. He's still trying to work up the gumption to share his art and words, but they often reveal a side of himself that he doesn't feel comfortable with.
"I have a lot of anger towards certain things - for example the police. I understand what they're all about and I don't like what they do to people, and I draw pictures of what I would like to do to them," he says, clenching the couch cushion beside him. "And it's not good things. It's mean, horrible things. But for some reason, it's like a spiritual thing for me to draw. Some day I'll display my art for people to see, but right now it just kind of scares me."
Music, however, is an old friend, and his grey eyes brighten when he talks about his new love, jazz.
"That's an upright bass," he says indicating the hulking black shape parked in front of the kitchen. "I actually have two of them, and that's where my time goes. Into that. Playing jazz...Jazz is coming back around again. It needs to come back around and people need to realize how amazing it is, and how much more musical it is than rock music. It really is. I can't even tell you. It's beautiful. Rock is different. I've met a few really, really good jazz musicians and they go, 'What's your band all about?' 'Well, it's really cool music and we have like this really wonderful political message that's over top of it.' And they're just like, 'Whatever. There's no room for politics in music.' I've heard that a few times from jazz musicians. Like, 'What are you thinking? Music is music, politics is politics and they're not the same and they're not meant to be together.' And I'm kinda leaning more and more towards the philosophy that, okay, Rage Against the Machine is something different than music. It's an educational thing."
"A Rage Against the Machine show is not a college lecture," a jocular Tom Morell declares over a slab of grilled salmon at a sunny Italian restaurant in Melbourne. Rage is staying at the hotel next door between their Big Day Out date and the Palace show. Though he's quite gregarious and an animated speaker (undoubtedly a holdover from high school drama days), it's more of a challenge to suss out the personal subtext of Morello's politics. Time and time again he deftly diverts the conversation back to the core issues that concern him - media as opiate of the people, excapist music as opiate of the people, cherished myths of American history as opiate of the people.
Like de la Rocha, Morello's childhood was informed by politics in theory and practice. Unlike de la Rocha, it was less of an experience fomented by internal conflicts than an external one informed by his family legacy. Morello's parents met when his mother, who taught school at various US military bases abroad, was sent to teach in Kenya. Morello's father was part of the Mau Mau uprising that led to Kenya's independence from Great Britain. Though they went their separate ways when he was a toddler, it was an amiable split, and knowledge of his father's vocation was as much a part of his upbringing as his mother's participation in the Urban League and other civil rights causes.
"I integrated Libertyville," he says. "I was literally the first person with brown skin to live in the town. When we moved from New York, where I was born, we came back to her home town of Marseiller, Illinois. I was like one or two years old, and she was looking for a teaching gig. There were places that would hire her - my mom is white, by the way (Italian and Irish) - but being an interracial family, we couldn't live in the actual community. So they'd find some, like, ghetto or slum for us to live in where she could teach in the high school. Libertyville, to its credit, had a school board that was willing to allow the dangerous interracial family into its midst."
Morello spent much of his adolescence trying to reconcile his growing love or rock music with the ideologies that preoccupied him as a result of his upbringing in a "red household."
"I beleive that culture and politics are inextricably linked and that there is no such thing as apolitical music," he asserts. "Like it or not. Artists don't necessarily realize that and some choose not to look at it that way. Some are naive. But escapist music is very political in upholding the status quo. That culture shapes the social landscape and makes certain things are okay. You may not hate gay people, but if ten of your favorite rap artists are constantly singing homophobic songs, it contributes to an atmosphere in which it's okay to dislike gay people. So in that sense all music is political.
"Aside from that," he continues, "that's not why I started playing guitar. I loved Led Zeppelin and I loved KISS. I loved Midwestern 7-Eleven parking lot rock. That's what I was all about as a 13-year-old. That was coming from a very different place then, but the thing that I always found wanting in those songs, even as a young lad, was lyrical content. It was like, 'Well, this is a bunch of great riffs and I am being rocked by it, but it's about dragons and sorcerers!'"
Eventually he left Libertyville for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he avidly pursued both his political and rock interests at Harvard University, graduating in 1986 with an honors degree in political science and an intense obsessive/compulsive guitar regimen. Armed with his diploma and his axe, he headed west for Los Angeles to pursue his rock 'n' roll dream, only to discover the nightmarish realities. After a long succession of "soul-crushing jobs," including a failed attempt at substitute teaching and a stint as scheduling secretary for senator Alan Cranston, he joined a band called Lock Up which did a brief dance with Geffen Records and then found his way to Rage, which has become the culmination of his interests in media manipulation, 7-Eleven parking lot music, punk rock and hip-hop.
"It's probably as fortunate a circumstance as any in my life to be able to hook up with the other three guys in Rage Against the Machine in order to make something that does combine what I think are some of the best elements from each of those genres into a unified whole," he says. "In a way, when you're in the middle of a band with the background noise that is band politics and making a record and rehearsing for a trip, you don't really notice, but I've really appreciated it on this tour. The band chemistry that we have is something that's really good to be a part of."
It's hard to imagine the brass rail bar at the swanky and prophetically-named Rockman's Regency Hotel Melbourne full of rampant rock musicians, but rumor has it that, less than 24 hours ago, assorted members of the Jesus Lizard, Porno For Pyros and Alice In Chains (among others) were party to a prank that culminated in some poor sould being duct-taped to his bed and covered with shaving cream. At the moment, however, it's stocked with a more sedate, business class crowd buzzing over the over-priced booze. The only rock star in the joint is a reluctant Brad Wilk.
"Everyone in this band kind of has their own views, and I think that I'm kind of cynical," he confesses from a plush chair bathed in the not-quite-Muzak. "But I'm not the sort of gloom rocker sitting in a corner in the dark going 'This sucks.' I mean, I know it sucks, but, you know, that's normal."
"I think I have too much empathy," Wilk ventures. "Tom believes that as well about me. I find myself stuck in between situations, and instead of coming to a decision based on what I feel, I'm always looking at everyone else's feelings, and how it's going to effect every person. It just makes things really difficult. I really wish I could just be a fucking asshole sometimes."
That he isn't one seems to be a function of the pessimistic optimism it seems he was destined to inhabit from the moment he was born, 27 years ago in a hospital/ sanitarium in Portland, Oregon. The family - his parents and older brother and sister - moved around a lot, following his father's jobs, which ran the gamut from bookie to jeweller. Talking about his father, who died shortly before Rage Against the Machine's 1994 Lollapalooza stint, is still difficult for Wilk, but working through it has ultimately helped put his life in perspective. "I'm trying to live my life and find happiness in pretty basic things and not put a whole lot of emphasis on money either. That was everything to my father, and I saw it kind of ruin him. It made me really try and appreciate the things that don't cost money, which are the things that should be appreciated anyway."
Wilk is philosophical about his itinerant formative years, pointing out that it prepared him for life on the road. He developed a certain sense of detachment within, as much a reaction to repeated relocation as being caught between two religions - Catholicism on his mom's side and Judaism on his dad's.
"Right there, that puts some questions in your mind," he says with wry understatement. "Contradictions. It just seems to me that the one thing that everyone had in common - everyone I knew, anyway - with religions was fear. The fact of the matter is, we have no idea where we came from. That's just the way it is, so it just kind of makes it irrelevant to me. When it came down to it, a lot of the reason why people would seek out religion was fear. And there just are no concrete answers."
Which is not to say that he doesn't appreciate the objectives of Rage Against the Machine, which are nothing if not concrete. It's just that in the cosmic scheme of things, the tribulations of a few people - or a few civilizations - don't amount to a proverbial hill of beans.
"Before I was in this band, I was kind of in the same boat as a lot of people," he concedes. "Not necessarily sedated by the media, but I didn't know of any outside sources of information. And my eyes have been opened a great deal. But it's hard for me to sit here and say that I'm as politically motivated as, say, Tom would be, 'cause I'm not. My main reason for being in this band is music. When I was in the third grade and I was at the batting cage, and I heard 'Fly Like an Eagle' on the radio, I knew that I wanted to play music, and that's why I'm doing this. Everything else falls very closely behind that. I think what we're doing as far as just opening people's eyes is definately important, and I think it goes hand in hand with the music."
Because conflict makes good copy, Media tends to focus on Morello as the indefatigably articulate way-left spokesman and de la Rocha as stormy frontman. For better of worse, it's always been very clear where this band's head is at. As for where it's heart is at, Wilk offers these insights.
"First of all, if you're in a band and you're playing music, you probably need attention," he says. "If you're out doing that, you probably like attention and lack it, and then the whole ego thing plays into it."
"That sort of thing will fuel a band, and I know it has kind of made us the way we are, why it's so intense. Everyone's trying to outdo each other, so you can reach this level, but it's important to keep in mind that you're in this together.... I remember our first band rehearsal after not seeing each other for three months - just the look around the room when we were playing songs. It was kind of like everyone had this real boyish kind of smile on their faces, kind of nervousness, but it was almost a comforting feeling. Knowing that what we have is really important to all of us."
"But, you know," he continues, as the volume of the chit-chat and clinking glasses in the bar swells, "when ou get a bunch of people together in a room, the intelligence level kind of goes down to the lowest common denominator. I don't mean that in a bad way, really, at all. I just think that a lot of times when people go to a show - this sounds really stupid and basic, but people want to be rocked. You know? As simple and stupid as that sounds, I think there's a whole lot of truth behind it. They came to be rocked," he pauses, amused at the inevitable conclusion. "And we will rock you."
When the firestorm at the Palace is over, de la Rocha turns to the audience and says with calm sincerity, "Thank you very much." The cheering and bellowing gradually abate, and a smattering of people make for the doors. The majority of the crowd continues to stew, whooping their desire for more music in the time-honored rock tradition. The rhythmic chant of "Rage, Rage, Rage" breaks into cheering when Rage resumes the stage, launching into "The Wind Below" from Evil Empire with the same scorching energy as before. They segue into "Freedom," the closing track from the first album. The song builds to a nervy and feedback-laced lull into which de la Rocha howls his parting pronouncement, "Your anger is a gift." With Rage echoing in their heads, the audience spills into the cool darkness outside.