Rage Against the Machine Articles/Interviews

Notes from Underground

Rage Against the Machine plots a revolution

By Charles M. Young

So there’s obedience to the machine. There’s handwringing at the machine. There’s holding your nose and cooperating just enough to make a living from the machine. There’s holding our nose and cooperating just enough to make a living from the machine. There’s watching television in a stupor at the machine. There’s endless psychotherapy and new age bromides at the machine. And there’s suicidal depression at the machine. Then there’s Rage Against the Machine: vocalist Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Timmy C., and drummer Brad Wilk. Since their self-titled first album came out in 1992 and sold almost four million copies, they have indeed expressed a lot of rage against the machine. In their lyrics as in their name, they’ve resorted to poetic indirection mainly to stuff a large collage of ideas into a small space, not as a method of creating the usual dreamscapes onto which the audience can project any meaning it pleases. You might wonder about an occasional reference, but mostly their meaning has all the clarity that anger brings to an issue as it obliterates quibbles and obfuscation.

The cover of their first album was a photograph of a Buddist monk burning himself to death to protest the American invasion of Vietnam. It’s horrible to look at, probably cost them a lot in sales. In the alternative climate of 1992, you might have mistaken it for a sick joke. But it wasn’t. It signified that Rage was dead serious in a way that few other bands have tried. Most of those who have tried screwed it up, sounding like heavy-handed essayists in the wrong art form. Rage Against the Machine has created music so heavy it can bear the weight of their lyrics, giving metal a political content it has mostly lacked since the demise of the MC5.

Their new album, Evil Empire, is, if anything, even more animated by a sense of history as a “cancerous mess” metastasizing in our midst. “Vietnow,” about terror as a “product,” basically makes the point that the war never ended. The single “Bull on Parade” denounces American militarism, while the video depicts the connection between revolutionary art and revolutionary action. The music careens from brain-rending guitar squonk to monster riffing over a rhythm section that can be measured only on the Richter scale. At this writing they haven’t decided how to go about touring, but it’s reasonable to assume that benefits for the right causes will be a part of it.

“Yes, that is an easy way to be an activist,” says Tom Morello in an office at the Sony complex in Santa Monica. In the current publicity blitz he’s the point man, as de la Rocha, notoriously skittish about interviews, prefers to let his lyrics do the talking. “That’s why bands have convictions beyond a pale belief in human rights need to take it another step. That is why we did that video ‘Freedom’ for Leonard Peltier (the imprisoned American Indian Movement leader) and got it on MTV. In Europe the major thrust was working with the Anti-Nazi League for two tours. The National Front in England had just elected its first member to Parliament, and we found a great deal of apathy there, as opposed to 15 years ago when the Clash was out there supporting the miners’ strike. We did a couple of shows that culminated in street action where the kids in Brixton were demonstrating to the Nazis that their fear tactics wouldn’t work. We played a small part in that. And I’m writing a book-25 short biographies of radical figures who have been marginalized in U.S. textbooks. I saw the need for it due to my own academic experience in public high school in Illinois. They had one paragraph about Malcolm X in my history book and nothing about the Black Panthers-two crucially important examples for young blacks in specific and young people in general. Had my mother not been radical, I never would have learned about them.

“I hope to make the point that history is an ongoing process which you and I are making right now, like it or not. Whether you’re sitting in front of you TV set watching or on the street throwing a Molotov cocktail at the LAPD, you are playing a role in an ongoing historical process. It’s the effectiveness of corporate public relations that keeps people atomized and thinking they can play no role other than passive consumer.”

The progeny of an improbable marriage between an American school teacher and a Mau Mau revolutionary from Kenya, Morello did most of his growing up in Libertyville, Illinois, a Republican suburb where his mother, a single woman with a child of interracial origin, was nonetheless able to find a job.

“My mother was teaching on military bases. She met my father in Kenya during the insurrection. They were married when Kenya became independent in 1963. He was part of the Kenyan delegation to the UN, and I was born in New York. When they were divorced he went back to Kenya and she went back to Illinois. We went to Kenya for the first time just a couple of years ago, so I met him really for the first time when I was 28.”

What’s your father doing now?

“He owns a tea plantation. He did pretty well after independence. Whatever.”

So he’s not a revolutionary anymore?

“No, sir. Nor are most of them. But I still had some heavy moments in that museum, seeing what was going on in my family just a generation ago, watching my mother search for herself in a photograph of the independence day celebration. And I got some great tapes-music of the Mau Mau. Interestingly, the music shops could be found only in the seediest sections of town. I don’t speak Swahili, but I was able to get some of the titles translated. It was pretty clear they were very unhappy and something was going to change. Maybe you can hear some of that on the Rage record as well.”

You can also hear his taste for heavy metal, which started in grade school as he became a big fan of Black Sabbath and Kiss, for whom he retains an amused affection. The academics came easy and led straight to an acceptance at Harvard. Music didn’t come so easy, leading to two guitar lessons at the age of 13. The teacher thought he should learn how to tune up and play a major scale, which was a total drag when he just wanted to play “Black Dog.” He didn’t touch the guitar again until discovering the Sex Pistols at the age of 17 in 1981. The very next day, without even knowing how to play an E chord, he was playing in a punk band. This would soon change in college.

“I made the decision to be a guitarist at Harvard when I was 19. Thereafter I had no choice in the career I was going to pursue. And I was doing my best to incorporate my politics into that. The guitar playing got unhealthy, became a real compulsive disorder. I had no natural ability as a guitar player. None. Zero. So I had to fight for every inch of the fretboard. And since I started late, I had to make up for lost time. During school I’d practice two to four hours a day. If I finished studying at one, I practiced until four. If I had a fever of 102, I still practiced until four. When school was out, I practiced eight hours.”

On the last album you had that notification in all caps: NO SAMPLES, KEYBOARDS OR SYNTHESIZERS USED IN THE MAKING OF THIS RECORDING. Is that true of this one too?

“Oh yeah. But first of all, no one in this band has anything against sampling. I think the sampling revolution that came about because of hip hop is every bit as important as the Sex Pistols coming along and convincing people that you didn’t need much technique to make music as powerful as any music ever made. That’s righteous and right on. I love that music, and industrial music. The reason we put that statement on is that we make music that sounds like that but isn’t made like that, so you should know that. It’s not an anti-sample manifesto. We’re just making those sounds in the context of a punk rock band.”

Rage Against the Machine has this weirdly asymmetric setup: One side of the stage groans and sags under megatons of mondo-colossal bass cabinets, and the other side sighs with relief under Morello’s frayed 50-watt Marshall head, single dilapidated Peavey cabinet with a few pedals (DOD delay, Ibanez flanger, Crybaby wah, DigiTech whammy, and a customized Ibanez delay) scattered on the floor. His main guitar has been through so many neck, pickups, and whammy bars that he just calls it a “mongrel.”

“This works for me. Within the context of those pedals and that speaker cabinet, I’m still able to come up with stuff that’s fresh to me. That’s how I like to play and I don’t want to mess with it. If I had to justify not buying new equipment, I think embracing limitation encourages a more rapid development of your imagination. I just take the same crappy four pedals I’ve always had and combine that with the wood of the guitar, the properties of the strings, the proximity of the pickups. There are orchestras of music in that, which would go untapped if I just bought some new equipment.”

An anarchist in high school, a communist (that’s a small c) in college, now a nonsectarian socialist with hopes for a revolution, Morello has always raged against the machine. He and Rage, however, had to absorb the same lessons about the machine in the music biz that every new band learns the hard way. Object of a major bidding war after just a few shows, Rage found itself in the spotlight before the four musicians knew each other well. Touring for two years straight after the first album came in ‘92, they put off dealing with a lot of personal problems that exploded when it came time to record again.

In October ‘94 they moved from Los Angeles to a house in Atlanta in hopes of creating some new music. Isolating themselves with one rent-a-car in a town where they knew nobody seemed like a good idea at the time, but it almost tore the band apart as they developed Rage Against the Other Guy’s Personal Habits. Meanwhile, they began having severe doubts about their manager, Warren Entner, who had a penchant for flying first class while the band flew in coach. They hadn’t heard from him for a year before the Atlanta fiasco, and they got no wise counsel or even a phone call during it. When they played the KROQ Weenie Roast back in L.A., Entner (who declined to be interviewed for this article) played in the radio station golf tournament but didn’t attend the concert that night. They discovered that management hadn’t been responding to their mail, leaving them with a backlog of thousands of unanswered fan letters. (They’re now sending their cover of NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” to everyone on their mailing list as an apology.) And they had a strong intuition that they weren’t taking home as much money as they should.

“We figured that since he obviously wasn’t interested in us, we’d just part ways,” Morello recalls. “He’d been an absent manager, not a malicious manager. Then after doing nothing for us, he wanted a million dollars to be let out of his contract.” Faced with the possibility of difficult litigation, and seeing other bands who were paying a percentage of their income to deadbeat managers after parting ways, they settled by paying him $400,000.

The important question, though, is: Will we be seeing any more shows like the one in Philadelphia where they opened Lollapalooza by standing onstage naked with “PMRC” painted on their chests?

“I don’t know. We’ll see. Those things are best a surprise when they happen. Only our touring manager knew beforehand, because we wanted him to have bail money in case we got arrested. The entire show was just us standing there naked for 15 minutes. The crowd seemed to find the spectacle quite titillating for the first five minutes. Then the irritation factor began to set in as the guitars fed back. The last five minutes, they were very hostile. Then we sort of disappeared into the dressing rooms. I think the Philadelphia poice were too busy railroading Mumia Abu-Jamal to bother arresting us.”

What goes through your mind when you’re naked in front of 40,000 people?

“Well, we took it very seriously. This was a serious anti-censorship protest. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, how embarrassing-I’m naked onstage.’ As the crowd got angry, we knew it was working. You need to be angry about you First Amendment rights being eroded, or you will not be allowed to hear the work of dissident artists.”

“Want me to be perfectly frank with you? The size of my penis-that’s what was going through my mind in Philadelphia,” says Timmy C., wincing in a juice bar on the Santa Monica promenade. “It looked like I’d just stepped out of the ocean. I swear to God, it’s bigger than that. So, I was thinking, ‘I wish I’d worn boxer shorts before instead of briefs,’ because briefs kinda like constrict me. I took them off and it was this. . .half roll of nickels.”

However his equipment behaves under stress, Timmy C. more than makes up in equipment: The two Ampeg SVT-II Pro heads sitting astride the megatons of mondo-colossal Ampeg cabinets that are to Morello’s setup what the World Trade Center is to a Greek diner. But we’re talking more than phallic compensation here, though, as his amps solve a specific artistic problem. Recorded at Cole Rehearsal in L.A. under very live circumstances (meaning minimal separation of the instruments, so everyone had to be happy with his performance on a take), the new album needed some oomph during the instrumental sections. With no rhythm guitar when Morello shifted into soloing, and Tim adamant that adding rhythm guitar later sounded bogus, they needed more noise from the bass. Yet whenever Tim hit his distortion pedal, producer Brendan O’Brien (who also worked with Pearl Jam) would bum out because they’d lose the bottom.

“Why don’t you get an A/B box?” O’Brien suggested. It changed Tim’s life. When he wants distortion now, he shifts from his normal warm bass tone (A) to both amps playing simultaneously (A and B), the second amp set with the drive knob up so they get distortion with no drop out in the bottom.

“My problems are solved,” exults Tim, who favors a couple of Fender Jazz basses with P-Bass necks and Hipshot D-tuners. He’s also enthusiastic about his Rickenbacker eight-string. “When I hit the box, it’s like a second bass player joining the band. Every other bass player who hears it, they just go, ‘Oh, my God, that’s the most awesome sound I ever heard.’ I swear, it’s the best thing I ever did. And it’s so loud. I can’t turn the volume knob over three. I’m excited to play live, just cause of my amp. I only wish I would have done this five years ago.”

For a couple of seasons he enjoyed bashing peope as a defensive end in high school football, but eventually even that gave way to the bass. He still practices obsessively, aspiring to be an old fat guy with a jazz band someday. He also aspires to move to Denver to be closer to the Broncos; he figures that if he wasn’t playing music for a revolutionary socialist rock n’ roll band, he’d be the Unabomber.

“Everyone should own an AK-47, because someday we may have to use it,” he says. “Violent overthrow is the only way there will be a revolution in this country. Right now, people need to speak up. That’s why Rage is a cool band. We’re getting the message out there, and I hope other bands will be influenced by us to say similar things. It’s important to reach kids when they’re young, before their minds are made up and they think that history is this bullshit you learn in school.”

“Tim will hit that A/B switch, and it’s louder than loud has ever been,” says Brad Wilk, who plays a Pork Pie drumkit with UDW hardware and Zildjian cymbals. “It’s like, ‘Dude, I love you. I’m not saying anything bad about you. You are the God of Thunder. You’re a great musician. But you’re scaring everybody. When you’re playing ten times louder than everybody else, can you hear what I’m playing even a little bit? I love you. Seriously. But you’re blowing my hair off.’ I just wish I had an A/B switch for my drums.”

Standing in the batting cage during Little League practice in third grade, Wilk heard Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”; it was one of those defining experiences. He knew he wanted to be a musician, and thereafter found respect and refuge in his drums. Mystically connected to the number three, which has appeared at important turning points in his life, he most admires drummers-Elvin Jones and John Bonham-for their mastery of triplets.

How close did the band come to breaking up in Atlanta?

“I thought it might happen. But there was always a voice in my head asking why. There was such animosity that breaking up felt like the easy way out. It’ll always be day by day. I hope we can stay together because we haven’t reached our potential yet.”

“I never thought about anything being censored until I saw a cop show a PMRC film at a PTA meeting,” says Mary Morello, mother of Tom, on the phone from Libertyville. “The PTA is just a big network for the PMRC, you know. The cop said anyone could pick up the video at the police station, and it just seemed wrong to me, so I spoke up.”

And she continued speaking up, founding Parents for Rock and Rap in 1987 (long before Tom was a star), appearing regularly on radio and television, and publishing a newsletter (Box 53, Libertyville, IL 60048) that keeps tabs on Tipper Gore and her minions in the machine. Winner of this year’s Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award and active in numerous community causes, she doesn’t talk about her former husband except to say he was “very intelligent. Tom has great genes.

“I raised him to be free. When Tom went to England and got his first framed album, he gave it to me to say thanks for the way I raised him. He’s a wonderful person.”

How do you raise children to be free?

“You accept them as they are and love them. A lot of parents say that’s what they do, but they have a hard time with it.” Musician June 1996

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