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Interview: Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine)

on November 28, 2012, 12:02am
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rage against the machine old e1354042563333 Interview: Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine)

It’s my understanding that the band was surprised when Zack [de la Rocha, vocalist] announced his departure, but that you weren’t necessarily angry at him for leaving. With that in mind, did Rage actually break up or did the band just go on an indefinite hiatus?

No, Rage broke up. [Laughs.] Yeah from 2000-2007 we were broken up, that’s for sure. It was very healing to get back together in 2007 to play shows sporadically. Since then, with a new emphasis on brotherhood and solidarity, that’s one of the reasons why we’re able to get something like this together.

You were offered lots of money many times to reform and you finally did it at Coachella 2007.  You said it was done primarily to protest America’s slide into a “right-wing purgatory” under Bush. But what was it that finally brought you back together after so many years?

That’s a good question. I think prior to 2007, everybody, myself certainly, was very gun-shy about getting back together. While Rage had achieved some great musical successes, it had been emotionally devastating. [Laughs.] It was like “Do I really want to re-enter this?” But we found, when we did finally get back in a room, that we had all grown and were able to deal with conflict in a more mature way and appreciate how much we meant to each other both personally and musically. It was cool and so that’s why we played some more shows after that.

What lead to Renegades? Did you do a covers album because of a lack of new material due to the dynamic at the time? 

No. We were rehearsing for what would be the Live at the Olympic Auditorium record, which would document Rage’s last show before we broke up, and we wanted to have bonus material for the live record. So the bonus material was going to be some cover songs, some craftily re-worked cover songs. And then we had a blast sort of going down cover song lane and came up with an album’s worth of that material which we judged to be pretty damn rocking and put that out.

One of your songs really surprised me. “Tire Me” was never released as a single, never received official radio play, never had a video, and yet it won a Grammy for best Metal Performance. Can you explain that and do you think something like that, with little to no promotion, could ever succeed in today’s environment?

No. First of all, to this day, I can’t explain it. How in the world… As someone who votes for the Grammys, I can’t even imagine how that would get plucked out of the album’s worth of songs by Grammy voters. It’s crazy. And today, it’s hard to say. The Grammys still remain somewhat of a mystery. But it certainly would be difficult, if not impossible, for a band like Rage Against the Machine to achieve success today. We had a sustained campaign on our behalf. The band initially did very well outside the United States. It took maybe about a year and a half here in the US before there was any traction whatsoever. These days record companies are looking to sell a few ringtones and then let’s get on to the next single, with a handful of pop artists. A band like Rage would never be able to get that kind of support today.

That’s really sad, because a band like Rage can actually write protest songs. There are bands today who try to do it and it comes off heavy-handed and you guys can actually write metaphorically.

Yeah, yep. It speaks to the very unique chemistry of the band. I think that Zack’s lyrics are irreplaceable in that regard and I think he is one of the best lyricists in hip hop and rock for that reason. He’s able to take both local and global issues and set them to rhyme in a way that has set speakers on fire around the world for 20 years. That’s a gift right there. One of the things that this 20th anniversary makes me think is how grateful I am to be acquainted with the other guys in Rage Against the Machine. We created something together that we never could have on our own and it’s something that stood the test of time.

There’s never been a band as popular as Rage Against the Machine with politics that radical. You can look at some bands, there are bands that are political. Bruce Springsteen is a political artist, some of Bob Dylan’s work is political, and those artists have sold more records than Rage Against the Machine, but they’re not as radical as Rage Against the Machine. [Laughs.] And then you look at bands like The Clash and maybe Public Enemy, who certainly have expressed strong radical politics in their work, but they didn’t sell as many records.

With that said, in recent years you have said that The Nightwatchmen will be your principle musical focus for pretty much the rest of your life adding, “It really encapsulates everything I want to do as an artist.” How so? 

When a band is good, it’s good because of the band’s chemistry and everyone pitches in and creates something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. When a solo artist is good, it’s good because of its purity and because it’s a singular voice of someone. I certainly feel tremendously proud of my contributions to Rage Against the Machine and the great fortune to work with Zack and Tim [Commerford, bass] and Brad [Wilk, drums] to create a unique, molten, awesome, hip-hop, punk rock, metal political iron fist. With The Nightwatchmen stuff it’s all me. When that is heard and when that is understood it feels like a kind of connection. It’s very different from anything else I’ve been involved in. 

Aside from similar political points of view, what led to you and Boots Reilly to team up for Street Sweeper Social Club?

Boots and I became friends. We went on tour together in 2003 and while I was a fan of The Coup [Reilly’s hip-hop group], I got to see him play on a daily basis with only my acoustic guitar as accompaniment and I realized what a brilliant, brilliant lyricist Boots Reilly is. And I definitely wanted to work in some capacity with him, in part because I’m a fan and in part to try and bring his lyrics and point of view to a bigger audience.

You did an album and an EP, will there be anything else?

Yeah, I’m sure down the line there’ll be something. I love the Street Sweeper stuff and it’s fun working with Boots and the band. You know with two small children now the hours of the day I have to split between my various musical, political, and comic book projects has lessened dramatically but I’m sure at some point there’ll be a new Street Sweeper

Your father was Kenya’s first ambassador to the UN; your great uncle was the country’s first president. When did you first start to take politics seriously?

Well, when you grow up the only black kid in an all-white town, politics finds you on the playground pretty early [laughs], would be the honest answer. When I was 16, 17 years old, I started becoming more politically aware on a global scale, but the idea of wrongdoing and injustice was something that I’ve felt from a very early age with regards to the issue of race.

Now that Obama’s made it okay for Kenyans to be president in the US, have you ever considered running for public office?

[Laughs.] I think the better question would be now that I’ve made it okay for Kenyans to be on top of the hip-hop/metal/punk rock charts is Obama going to start a band?

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