As the leader of Rage Against the Machine, one
of the most successful hard-rock bands of the alternative era,
Harvard-educated 38-year-old Libertyville native Tom Morello emerged not
only as one of the most influential musicians of Generation X, crafting a
whole new vocabulary for the electric guitar, but as one of the most
eloquent and outspoken political voices that rock has ever produced.
Now Morello is back with a new group,
Audioslave, and a self-titled hit album that finds him joining forces with
Rageís rhythm section (drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford) and
former Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell. The group is in the midst of its
first American tour (it plays a sold-out show with openers Burning Brides at
the Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine, at 7 p.m.
Wednesday), and itís gearing up to serve as one of the key acts on the
revitalized Lollapalooza tour this summer.
I spoke with Morello about the band and his
political activities during a recent trip to his new hometown of Los
Angeles, two weeks before the start of the Audioslave tour.
Q. After such a long period of rehearsing and
recording, how does it feel to finally be hitting the road with your new
A. We just got back from a tour of Europe and
Asia, and the audiences were really amazing for a couple of reasons. One was
that they were so receptive of entirely new music. The other was that it was
great to be finding our footing as a live band. Weíve only played, in our
history, six full-length shows, and then a few of these radio shows and TV
shows and what-not. Itís amazing how quickly itís come together as a live
performing unit, and Chris has just been great. Heís never sounded better,
and his voice is just amazing.
Q. Does Audioslave feel like a real band in the
way that Rage was after playing together for so long?
A. It feels in some ways more like a real band.
Thereís a much greater solidarity and camaraderie between bandmates than I
think we ever experienced in Rage Against the Machine, and that really
translates onstage. Itís interesting, because there were times in Rage
Against the Machine where I often felt like I had a much closer relationship
with the audience than I did with people in my band. And now thereís such a
unity among the band members that itís a pretty compelling live rocking
Q. Was it difficult for Cornell, after being the
leader of Soundgarden and then a solo artist, and you, having been the sonic
architect of Rage, to subsume your egos in order to work together in a new
band? Iím thinking of this in relation to Zwan, and Billy Corgan trying to
create a genuine band in the wake of the Smashing Pumpkins.
A. I think that once we started playing in a
room together, it was very obvious to Chris and obvious to us that this was
something that we could not ignore. We had been huge fans of Soundgarden,
and I think that probably more than Nirvana, they were a huge influence on
popular music. It was uncompromising, unironic hard rock, and intelligent
and credible and full of artistic integrity.
Q. Rock íní roll desperately needs a response to
9/11 and the current rush to war. Where are the rock bands of Generations X
and Y on these issues? A lot of people were counting on you to address this,
but youíre doing it on the side, not in the music.
A. My first answer is that you need to look no
further [than the political action group I helped form], Axis of Justice [www.axisofjustice.org].
I donít consider it any sort of sidebar project; itís absolutely as
important as the band that I play in.
Q. Do you see Audioslave as a way to forward the
A. I think theyíre mutually supportive.
Q. Well, I recently got a call from you mom,
[Libertyville resident and nationally renowned free-speech activist] Mary
[Morello], and she was chiding me for saying that a recent Indigo Girls
concert that I reviewed was the only rock show Iíve seen where the artists
openly addressed the pending war with Iraq. I just donít hear rock bands
singing about these issues, and that includes Audioslave.
A. I think you have to look no further than the
next single by System of A Down [which is led by Serge Tankian, another key
player in Axis of Justice]. Actually, Serge and I are on our way over to the
radio stationówe now have a syndicated radio show called the Axis of Justice
Radio Networkóand this Saturday, System is filming a video with [documentary
director] Michael Moore at the big anti-war demonstration here in Hollywood.
Theyíre going to do exactly what youíre looking for. The Axis of Justice
installations have been at all of the Audioslave, shows and they will be at
this upcoming Lollapalooza tour as well. I agree with you, and no one loves
political content in great music more than I do, but there are a lot of
bands out there, from Dead Prez to Anti-Flag to the Coup.
Q. When Audioslave is onstage, to what extent
are you making the connection to Axis of Justice in the lobby?
A. Only to the extent that it is talked about in
the press and itís prominently featured and everybody who walks into the
show walks past the booth. While there is political content to some of the
songs on the Audioslave record, Chrisí stage patter is not the same as the
MC5ís. I think itís important for each band to develop along a path that is
natural, and kind of straitjacketing him into opinions or emphases that he
may not be comfortable with isnít right. At the Berlin and Tokyo shows,
Chris did speak out against the impending war. I think that part of the
osmosis that has happened with our band and is happening with others as
well, especially if you get outside of the Fox News-controlled media here in
the U.S., is that the populations of Europe and Asia think that our
government has gone absolutely out of its mind. Theyíre much more afraid of
George W. Bush now than they are of Saddam
Q. Bush talks about
killing people with this sort of gung-ho Old West rhetoric.
A. Yeah, exactly!
[Laughs] And he has an enormous arsenal of weapons of mass destruction at
the disposal of his third-grade education. Itís really pretty terrifying. So
it continues to be a two-pronged attack. On the one hand, I think that the
entrance to the minds of music fans is first and foremost great music.
Thatís indispensable. You can certainly make that argument for, like, John
Coltrane or Charlie Parker. You begin to think the impossible is possible
when you hear it in music or art or in sport even. But at the same time,
Axis of Justice is a grassroots political organization that is musicians and
fans of music that are actually working to change the world. Itís not just
singing about it or talking about it, itís doing it. And thatís where my
political energies have been focused.
Q. The press has tried to make it into a sort of
thing where Cornell just doesnít want to deal with the politics. When you
and he sit down, is he on the same page politically? Not that all of the
band members need to be; part of being political in rock is thinking for
yourself. But where does he stand?
A. Heís definitely along the same lines. What
was very important to Chris was to not be perceived as the new singer of
Rage Against the Machine. Chris has a long and excellent history of singing
and writing great lyrics, and he didnít want to be shoe-horned into having
to rap about the Zapatistas [as former Rage singer Zach de la Rocha did].
Thatís very understandable, and the band has developed along a musical path
that we all couldnít be more excited about. That was the natural development
of the music, and that being the case, it has forced me individually to find
a political outlet that has grown into something that has been much more
satisfying than weaving politics into the band. Weíve gotten more real
political organizing done via Axis of Justice in one year than we did in 10
years of singing about it in Rage Against the Machine.
Q. Does it ever get tiring for you that
journalists want to have these conversations with you about politics while
they short the fact that you are one of two or three guitarists in your
generation who are taking the instrument some place totally new?
A. You know, itís all part of a dayís work.
[Laughs] Iím happy to talk about both, but it is sometimes refreshing to do
the guitar magazine interviews because thatís my special tribe and I enjoy
talking about picks and strings and stuff like that, and it is a relief
sometimes to not have the burden of talking about, ďDid Audioslave almost
break up?Ē and ďWhat are your feelings on the Middle East?Ē But I think
thatís a very important of the gig, so Iím happy to do both.
Iíve never subscribed to the very narrow opinion
that the electric guitar is spent as a groundbreaking musical force. The
electric guitar is still a very new instrument on the planet. I know that in
my playing, Iíve only witnessed the tip of the iceberg. I think there are
limitless possibilities when you are able to think outside of the narrow
constraints of what is traditional guitar playing. I started out with
traditional rock guitar hero influences like Randy Rhodes and Al Di Meola
and people like that, then through the years with Rage Against the Machine,
I was basically the DJ in the band. My influences were Dr. Dre and Jam
Master Jay and looking to hip-hop and electronica, the textures and rhythms
and sounds. I tried to incorporate those as best I could on an organic
instrument, which pushed my playing in a completely different direction.
Now itís kind of like completely off the map. I
donít turn my nose up at any influence, whether itís trying to tap into the
transcendent vibe of a great race horse like Secretariat or a comedic
performance or the sound of the vacuum cleaner in the next room. You can
incorporate any of that into six strings, a piece of wood and a few
electronics and see what comes out, and I have yet to find any limits to any
Q. I hear some John Coltrane in your playing on
this record. Who is the one musician, not necessarily even on guitar, who
you can always go to and find yourself driven to pick up your instrument and
push it somewhere new?
A. Pushing it somewhere newÖ I definitely donít
look at it in those terms, because Iím comfortable with using a musical
vocabulary that is outside of the norm now, so it doesnít occur to me to
think, ďOh, now Iím going to come up with a weird noise.Ē Thatís kind of how
I hear the guitar now. Itís pretty rare for me to get inspiration from other
musicians now. Iíve listened to some Wes Montgomery lately, but there are
very few musicians that I will tune into to be inspired as a lead guitar
player. I sort of look within myself for that stuff. When Iím playing guitar
in a room with a couple of effects pedals and a toggle switch, I just see
what happens, and crazy stuff often does.
Q. Do you think the revitalized Lollapalooza
tour will be able to recapture the sense of community that existed in the
early days of alternative rock?
A. I think youíre definitely gonna find it;
whatís more, I think this is gonna be better than the previous tours.
[Lollapalooza found and Janeís Addiction leader] Perry [Farrell] and I had
extensive discussions about this before we decided to do it, and it was
important to us that it not be a rehash of past glories. It had to start
with great music and a lineup that is gonna be diverse and challenging and
that people will really be thrilled to go see. It has to be bands that are
going to lay down the jams that are going to make it the best tour of the
summer. Once that was in place, it was a matter of talking about what the
concert outside of the music was going to be like. Perry has some great
ideas for the groundsóthereís going to be a big Axis of Justice installation
there as wellóand already weíve been talking with [tour mates] Jurassic 5
and Incubus and the Queens of the Stone Age and the Janeís Addiction guys,
and thereís already a feeling of camaraderie among the bands.
Lollapalooza was the most important tour
to ever trek across America; thereís no doubt about it, and all of these
other festival tours that cropped up in its wake are pale imitations.
Theyíre kind of niche-mongering. Lollapalooza was not just about great
music, it was about great ideas, too, and I think that all of that is going
to be back this year better than ever.
Q. Let me play devilís advocate: Lollapalooza
was a Gen X phenomenon, and there were a mere 17 millions of us, Tom. There
are 72 million members of Generation Y, but to date, this audience seems to
view music largely as one more commodity that exists to be consumed. Whether
youíre talking Eminem, Britney Spears, or Limp Bizkit, the music has yet to
be about anything important. The new Lollapalooza could just be one
more big lucrative summer tour.
A. I disagree. Hereís one major difference: This
is the first time in American history where we have seen a strengthening and
growing anti-war movement before thereís a war. In the Vietnam era it took
five years of a gore-drenched blood orgy before an anti-war movement even
got off the ground. If youíre still here [in L.A.] tomorrow, come down to
Hollywood and Vine, and thereís an enormous anti-war demonstration
happening. I think that young people, despite the fact that thereís a kind
of information blackout about what treachery is really going on with U.S.
foreign policy, the kids are smart enough to figure it out and theyíre smart
enough to know that it just doesnít add up. What theyíre hearing on the Fox
News Network and out of the White House just doesnít smell true, and they
realize that their safety and their potential for committing the kind of
horror on innocent people that was committed on 9/11 to innocent Americans,
they donít want their tax dollars used to commit that same kind of horror
half way around the world.
One thing thatís very encouraging with my
actions with Axis of Justice is that a lot of young people are looking for
ways to plug in and get involved. Thereís a real atomization of youth
culture, whether everybody is in front of their computer screen or Play
Station 2, at the same time thereís a growing sense of community, whether
they view it as an anti-war movement or things like Lollapalooza.
Q. So you think Lollapalooza this year is going
to mean more than $35 T-shirts?
A. Oh, absolutely. It already does. I know itís
going to because the two things I can guarantee you is that Audioslave is
going to rock you ferociously and youíre never going to forget it, and that
Axis of Justice is going to be there and itís going to be the most
educationally righteous space that has ever been at a concert venue. Iíve
also heard the new Janeís Addiction record, which is amazing, and I know
that Queens and Incubus and Jurassic 5, hometown heroes of Chicago, are
going to be fantastic. Thereís gonna be a lot of great music and itís going
to be righteous afternoon in Chicago.
Q. You know Iím going to hold you to that, Tom.
A. Dude, Iím ready!