Rock Sound
Rage Against the Machine - Fighting Their Own Battles

Words: Matt OíConnell

Rage Against the Machine are finally back, with the release of their third album "The Battle of Los Angeles." A typically passionate affair, itís the best thing theyíve done, and for once theyíre prepared to talk about it. But not too muchÖ.

Getting an interview with Rage Against the Machine is tantamount to scaling Everest. Notoriously publicity shy, theyíre hardly rivaling Chris McCormack in the ligger-about-town-stakes. So when they arrived to play a one-off show in London, the entire European press were out in force. If you were lucky, you could interview one member. If you were very lucky you could get two. But not at the same time. Fortunately, we ended up with lead singer Zack de la Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello. 15 minutes to bombard each with questions, before a bell rings signaling the end of your round. Itís like a quiz show, except you donít win a toaster, and there arenít any jokes.

Zack de la Rocha

rs: Why have you changed your mind about talking to the press regarding the music?

I think initially there was a conscious effort on my part, given the nature of pop culture and the way that it sucks everything up, pacifies it and makes it non-threatening, to make sure that the ideas of the band and the actions, not just the words, were considered first before we engaged in further discussion as to what the music meant. I think itís very dangerous for a band because we have to enter the marketplace and thereís a clear line between the promotion of a product and the promotion of an idea. To me it was very important to protect that and also set an example as a songwriter and as an activist that the message is important.

rs: Do you think that by not doing promotion, your message hasnít spread to as many people as possible?

Well, I think that through the lyrics I make my message very clear. And to me, you allow people to interpret that themselves. I do not enjoy being a public personality. Itís not something I feel is conducive to accomplishing what we want to accomplish. In fact, I think that philosophically the idea of public personality is ridiculous. The daily inquiries into my personal life, and to other artistsí personal lives, becomes tabloid. And what then becomes missing from that is the hope that music can still effect change. So I think that whatever happens to the ideas of a band if they are to engage directly in political struggles and correcting injustice, itís important to realize that public personality has nothing to do with it.

rs: The first album seemed to be a catharsis of anger, whereas "Evil Empire" was a bit more introspective. How do you see the new record?

Well Iím very close to it at the moment as I recorded the last track a couple of days ago, so I havenít had too much time to reflect on it. But I think this is far and above the others in terms of its ability to fuse the elements of hip hop, punk rock and urban Detroit rock music like MC5 and Iggy Pop. And there are moments where I think Iíve allowed more of my personal experiences to become part of the record.

rs: Are you comfortable with that?

Um..no! (laughs) Absolutely not. But thatís the most exciting thing of all, to take those risks. And it cannot only be an opportunity to challenge people, to engage people, and to politicize people but also itís the opportunity to take risks. Music can be therapy and thatís important too.

rs: Itís no secret that Rage have had huge personal and musical differences, especially with "Evil Empire." Youíre refusing to do interviews together at the moment. Does that mean the tensionís still there?

Well, weíve overcome a great deal. The tension for me really revolved around the idea that as a songwriter and as a poet I wasnít being recognized. I had written over half of Rageís music as well as the lyrics and I was having a hard time hearing that the effort on my behalf was being reciprocated and recognized by my band members. And also we approach music so passionately and we took so much time off, based on our political activities outside of making music, that we kinda created our own versions and ideas of what a great record would sound like. When we got together we approached the record in a way that allowed tensions to become more a part of the process. But I think thatís part of every bandís experience, ultimately it drives it. I remember going into making that record and hearing the sounds that were coming out and hating it, despising it. Being a great artist is a form of great frustration and Iím not sure Iíll ever be completely satisfied. But that keeps me going, even though at the time we were considering calling it a day. The other thing that kept us going was the knowledge that we could raise awareness and address issues, and engage young people politically.

rs: So which is more important to your life, music or politics?

I think Iím equal parts an artist and activist. One fuels the other. If my relationship to music is strained then my desire and my energy to participate in politics is also strained. And so what Iíve been able to do is to create an equal balance between the two. So despite all the trappings of being a popular artist and being in this rock and entertainment world, I maintain my focus.

rs: Rage Against the Machine have been very big influences for the last five or six years on the American rock scene. The whole rock/rap crossover really took off after your first album exploded. Do you feel responsible for the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit?

Um, indirectly, yes, but to say the Rage Against the Machine were primarily responsible for that sound is a little misleading and a little ignorant of musical history in the States. Because there were so many bands fusing hip hop and punk rock, for instance, Michael Franti in San Francisco or Anthrax and Public Enemy, or KRS-1 rhyming over an AC/DC remix, thereís a very clear history. What makes us unique within the convergence of that music is the fact that we did it with live instrumentation and that we drew upon the lessons that Bob Marley and Public Enemy and The Clash passed on in terms of seeing music as a weapon.

rs: Do you feel responsible for the kids who hear your message and then go too far in political activity?

I think that given the fact that weíre living in a time where the political parties are engaged in a very conscious programming to disinform and to disenfranchise and to keep young people from coming to their own conclusions of the social reality of living in America, and also the fact that they see war, mass destruction and ethnic cleansing as a priority in their policies, then we have to engender some response. And with the very destructive forces that young people often find themselves engaged in, RATM and our message is a reaction to that. I donít think Iím being irresponsible in confronting that and giving young people the opportunity to confront them as well.

rs: Does an artist always have to be provocative to stay vital?

I think an artistís major responsibility is to tell the truth. If the truth is provocative and draws a reaction, then the people who are reacting have to figure things our for themselves.

Tom Morello

rs: It seems that thereís a whole new enthusiasm in the band at the moment.

Absolutely. Thereís a greater solidarity in the band which grew out of making this record, because it really gave us the opportunity to become friends again. So while our musical tastes are still very different, when weíre able to synthesize them without the waters being muddied through personal problems we make our best music. And I believe this album is the best yet. Itís got the anger from the best punk rock, the deepest funk from the best hip hop and itís something that weíre tremendously proud of. I still get the same kick that I got when I put on a Kiss record when I was 16 as I do from Rage. Iíve played with many different musicians and with many other bands, and there is nothing that comes close to Rage. Itís unique. Standing on a small stage or in front of thousands, thereís nothing like the rush you get when those choruses come in.

rs: Do you feel very different to the rest of the American rock scene?

Well when we came out in í91 there was no-one like us, but of course thereís a whole genre now of rock/rap bands. A lot of the hard rock part of Rage comes from Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, whereas those newer bands draw more on Metallica or Pantera. I canít criticize bands for maybe stealing our sound. I mean, weíve got influences too. I would hate Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath) or Terminator X (Public Enemy) to hold a grudge because Rage Against the Machine are guilty of a liberal borrowing of some of their sounds.

rs: One thing youíve done on this record is incorporate some of the big best stylings of the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy, especially in the rhythms. Do you find them inspirational?

Yeah. I know that Iím looking further and further afield than just traditional blues based guitar rock. So the Prodigy have been a big influence on my guitar playing. There was a time in the late 80s when people believed synthesizers would make musicians obsolete and in my naÔve way I thought Iíd do my best to make synthesizers obsolete (laughs). Then with the hip hop revolution where you could sample and use turntables it seemed that musicians would become obsolete so with growing confidence I thought that I would make turntables and DJs obsolete. And now with techno Iíve given up and learnt to use their ideas to push my guitar playing into new places so itís exciting for me.

rs: How do you feel that your individual crusades benefit from the band?

The platform that having a new Rage Against the Machine record gives us means we can really show people how to be a revolutionary rock band. Weíve had some success building bridges between our audience and the grass roots organizations that we endorse, but I think we can do a lot more. You see, thereís a culture in American now where you blame young people; Woodstock, the Columbine massacre. And itís nothing new Ė each successive generation is blamed for societyís ills. And now the music that kids listen to is demonized along with them. President Clinton made a hugely hypocritical statement after Columbine when he went on TV and said we must not use violence to settle our differences. 48 hours later a US Tomahawk missile blew up a bus of elderly women and children in Yugoslavia, and they also blew up a hospital. Thatís a war crime. So in America you scapegoat computer games and Marilyn Manson, and ignore the rest. Theyíre terrified for instance of the gun lobby so they blame everyone else. President Clinton blows up hospitals, Marilyn Manson dresses up and sings in a scary voice. Whoís the demon there?

Good question. The battle lines are drawn. Which side are you on?