Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine Talks "XX", Recording with Maynard James Keenan of Tool, Early Shows, The Nightwatchman, and More
Mon, 17 Dec 2012 09:47:14
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When Rage Against The Machine dropped their self-titled debut, rock music and hip hop changed forever.
The shockwaves that the album sent through the '90s music scene still reverberate. You can feel the intensity of Rage's impact in countless bands to follow, but it's never been matched. That impact also yielded one of the most fervent fan bases in history. They've stuck with the group since day one, and their enthusiasm has never dwindled. Now, 20 years since the album hit, Rage Against The Machine have unveiled the Rage Against The Machine - XX (20th Anniversary Edition Deluxe Box Set as a "thank you".
This box set includes the original album re-mastered with bonus tracks from the era, another CD including the band's original demo tape which was sold at early shows along with other demos, a DVD with their free concert at Finsbury Park in 2010, music videos, and another DVD with the band's first live set and other performances. Plus, there's an incredible booklet.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine talks XX, recording with Tool's Maynard James Keenan, early shows, what's next for The Nightwatchman, and more.
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the first Rage Against The Machine album?
Well, I haven't really thought about it as a standalone record for quite some time. Since 2007, Rage has played shows periodically, and we really focus on the set list, which contains a lot of the songs from the first record, of course. Revisiting that period of 1991 when we were writing the songs and 1992 when the record came out, it was a revelation. This is a record that's got some of the greatest all time hard rocking protest jams that ever came through a microphone and a Marshall stack. The impetus behind doing this box set was very clear. It's a "Thank you" to our fans. While other bands say it, with Rage Against The Machine, it's true. We have the greatest fans in rock music and the most dedicated, passionate, and patient, who we really wanted to do something special for. The stuff we've compiled for this box set is pretty incredible. From the 40-page book to the very first Rage Against the Machine concert during lunchtime at Cal State Northridge where all of those songs got their live debut on that one afternoon to the Finsbury Park 80,000-person blowout to all of the videos and demos, it's pretty great to revisit all of that stuff. For example, "Mindset's a Threat" came up on my iPod the other day. I was listening to it going, "Wow, how did we leave that off the first record?" [Laughs] There are jams up and down pretty much.
Was the idea always to merge activism and music?
While the world view expressed in those songs is shared by us, it's Zack de la Rocha's lyrical potent poetry that differentiates that set of tracks from any "rock rap" that came before or after. I've always had the twin passions of music and activism. They really came into a head-on collision with Rage Against the Machine and the meeting of Tim, Brad, Zack, and myself.
What song impacts you or speaks to you the most?
I've heard the record a lot—and a lot more lately [Laughs]. I'm proud of it up and down. It's an album that had pretty humble beginnings. We wrote those songs without any expectations of having a record deal, playing club shows, or anything. It's the uncompromising and uncompromised nature of the music that's the reason why it struck a chord on a global scale.
The record opened up the boundaries for the guitar. What's the catalyst for your playing style? Is it an urge to try new things or sounds in your head?
In some ways, it was a perfect storm. I came out of the metal gunslinger guitar player mold. When I was practicing eight hours a day, it was scales. I wanted to play like Randy Rhoads and Steve Vai. Around the time of forming Rage Against The Machine, I started concentrating on the eccentricities in my playing. I still had that cache of technical ability, but I began applying it to being the DJ in the band and looking beyond the normal parameters of blues or metal riffing and taking the techniques I had amassed but looking at very different sonic directions. One of my contributions to that record is tilting what was traditional guitar playing on its head and stuff you probably never heard come out of a Marshall stack before.
Down the line, your playing became even more otherworldly. On this album, there's an element of classic shredding balanced with that spacey quality. It's a bit of a bridge.
Yeah! A big part of my playing at that time was 32nd notes. If you can play like that, do play like that [Laughs]. That's how I thought. Then, the Dr. Dre influence, Barnyard Animal influence, and Terminator X influence creep in. For my guitar playing, the key was that it wasn't just shredding or crazy noises, but it was grounded in that huge Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath riffage. That's the meat and potatoes of it. It was funky. The grooves that Tim and Brad laid down were so elastic. If you watch that Finsbury Park footage, you see 80,000 people elevating. It must've registered on the Richter Scale up to Scotland on that show. That's because of the synergy the four of us had.
It feels like the L.A. scene at the time was rock music's last big revolution. It spawned Rage Against the Machine, Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tool, and, later on, Korn.
Certainly, Tool and Rage Against The Machine were helpful in each other's formations. First of all, we were good friends. Sometimes, we were roommates and whatnot. There was a healthy competitive edge in the first shows. We played a lot of club shows. Some of the footage on the DVD is us opening for Tool. We'd see the latest batch of songs they'd written, and they would see the latest batch of songs we'd written. Then, we'd play a show together where we'd want to be better than we were the last time. Sometimes, we'd get the better of them. Sometimes, they'd get the better of us. It really helped to sharpen our rock knives on the flint of each other's bands [Laughs].
How did "Know Your Enemy" with Maynard James Keenan on vocals happen?
The funny thing about that is the reason why Maynard sings on that song is originally Perry Farrell was scheduled to sing on it, and we couldn't find Perry on the day we were recording "Know Your Enemy". We called him up like, "Hey Maynard, can you come down and rock this?" Of course, he did a spectacular job he did on that. He improvised what he did in the studio. It's become a classic part of that song.
What was the creative atmosphere like in Los Angeles?
There wasn't one scene. There were two competitive scenes. There was the Sunset Strip. It was the end of the hair band scene, but it was still going strong. There was this pay-to-play scene in those clubs. On the Eastern side of town—like Crescent Heights and east, there was the scene that Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Fishbone had begun. There was a second wave of bands with Tool and Rage Against the Machine. We didn't have to pay money to play. You could develop an audience and maybe make gas money to make it to rehearsal the next day. We used to go out every night and check out every band. Every band would come to our shows. It was a mutually supportive scene. I think Rage Against The Machine and Tool were the last couple of bands that made it out of there.
Releasing XX, did you get to reflect on the time a lot?
Yeah, it was a real whirlwind. There was a dichotomy between what was happening overseas and what was happening in the United States. It took Rage a long time to break in the United States. It did not take a long time to break in the UK. In part, that's because they had more lax censorship restrictions and we refused to edit the lyrical content of the songs. The first two singles were "Killing In The Name" and "Bullet In The Head", which have a whole lot of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me"-s and "motherfucker"-s in them. There wasn't the same kind of FCC clampdown overseas. We were a huge band outside of the United States, while we were still opening for House of Pain at club shows in the U.S. It was pretty weird. We must've toured Europe six times on that first record and went around the United States without any break between these long tours. While we did a tremendous amount of press, we were out there on a mission. Every night, we were just destroying places. If Rage was opening up for you back in those days, we'd say, "Good luck" because people may not have known who the band was before the show, but they certainly knew afterwards.
Were the performances particularly intense while recording?
It was difficult because the shows we were playing were just en fuego [Laughs]. When we got into the studio, we initially had a great deal of difficulty capturing that feeling of what we were hearing back through the speakers. Footage exists of this, but it was really dark. When we had the breakthrough, we invited friends and family down to the studio, and we basically just played our show live in the studio twice. That night is when we got at least half of the basic tracks for the record. Afterwards, that's how we made all of the other Rage records, playing live in the studio. We thought we had to make it in the traditional way you make records. We were going out there and playing these shows that were just explosive. Then, we got into the studio like, "Okay, now, we'll record the hi-hat! Now, we'll record guitar overdub number one". It just didn't sound like the band. So we went in there, rocked it, and it sounded like Rage Against The Machine.
Was there a definitive show in America when you felt the band had blown up?
Yeah, there was a moment. We didn't suspect it at the time. It was Lollapalooza 1993. We were the opening act. We were the first ones on stage, and we were playing the football stadium in Philadelphia. We came on stage naked with the letters "PMRC" across our chests and duct tape across our mouths to protest the pro-censorship Parents Music Resource Censor. We stood up there for 15 minutes while the guitars fed back butt ass naked. We didn't play a note of music, and that was the end of the show. The first five minutes, the crowd was very excited about it. The second five minutes, the crowd was very confused by it. The last five minutes, they were booing and throwing quarters at our dicks [Laughs]. The record company was enraged because they had brought down all of the honchos from New York City. People were enraged. That was the first domino falling in the United States. It was when people learned the name Rage Against The Machine and had a feeling this was a different kind of band.
What's happening next with your solo material?
I've got a new batch of Nightwatchman songs that I will begin recording or figuring out in the new year. This will be my fifth Nightwatchman record. I'll have made more Nightwatchman records than Rage Against The Machine records when this one comes out. I feel pretty comfortable playing anything under the Nightwatchman moniker now. I've got a lot of pretty killer Morellian riffs up my sleeve to go with the spooky folk songs. I've got to figure out where this one is going to go, but I'm not going to hold back with the electric guitar playing. It's something I love to do, and I think I'm going to explore it a lot more with the next Nightwatchman record.
What's your favorite Rage Against The Machine song?