Sitting in a sushi dive on the unfashionable end of Melrose Avenue, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello is experiencing what can only be called the calm before the storm.
It is T-minus two weeks before the new record, The Battle of Los Angeles, comes out and three weeks before the band's tour begins. This means Morello has very little time to sit in quiet reflection before all hell breaks loose. Given both his acclaimed guitar experimentation and his controversial political activism, Morello seems to invite chaos. It's a condition he's comfortable with. Raised in a mixed-race family (of a white mother and a Kenyan father), Morello is probably the only bonafide hard rock hero with a degree from Harvard. And Morello's been poking the hornet's nest since 1991, when he first started Rage Against the Machine. Their two earlier albums, 1996's Evil Empire and 1992's self-titled debut were separated by years due in part to the band's sometimes-volatile chemistry, and also their busy calendar of activist activities. (Singer Zack de la Rocha routinely went off to work with the rebel army in Chiapas, and Morello has donated endless hours to his favorite causes, including combating sweatshop labor.) And now the rock band thing is about to begin again. Battle rocketed to number one its first week on the Billboard album chart, and the world continues to rage for Rage, snapping up concert tickets in record time. But on this particular day, Morello is unhurried, savoring these last few minutes of relative quiet.
Guitar.com: So you went to Harvard?
Morello: Yessss, maam!
Guitar.com: Does that seem odd now, with the way your life's turning out?
Morello: Not really because that was just my experience. It seemed like a proper goal for me, growing up in Libertyville, which was a predominantly-white affluent suburb of Chicago, with my skin color and with my family's political outlook. I always felt like I had to reach outside the community. My mom grew up in central Illinois, and traveled all over the world. She met my father who was Kenyan. After Kenya became independent in '63 they moved back to New York where I was born. They parted ways and she came home to Illinois to be a teacher. She found that in many areas she could teach, but could not live in the community because we were a family of mixed race. But in Libertyville we could.
Guitar.com: That would certainly explain a lot about your political views.
Morello: Yes, I had experiences of racism and bigotry at an early age.
Guitar.com: When did you get into guitar-playing?
Morello: Well, I majored in social studies at Harvard but my true major was rock guitar playing. I didn't pick up a guitar until I was 17, but I knew when I was 19 that's what I wanted to do. But I was at Harvard, so my three roommates became investment banker, doctor and teacher at NYU.
Guitar.com: Did you take music courses at Harvard?
Morello: No, the music major you wouldn't want to touch with a 20-foot pole!
Guitar.com: But you felt like you needed to finish your education at Harvard rather than devote yourself full-time to playing guitar?
Morello: I had the opportunity [to become a full-time musician] the summer after my freshman year, when I auditioned for some bands at home in Chicago, and at the time to me they seemed like the Rolling Stones even though they were really just crummy cover bands. I was able to play in bars I was too young to drink in. and I could have chosen to stay there and keep playing but I thought, "I got into Harvard. I ought to finish what I started."
Guitar.com: And you also worked from within the government, for Alan Cranston?
Morello: That was after I graduated, in California. I loaded up my van -- which I still drive, incidentally -- and moved west seeking my fortune. And I found myself totally unemployable because all my work experience had been playing guitar in rock bands and Renaissance fairs -- the wandering minstrel.
Guitar.com: No! Tom Morello in green tights and elf shoes?
Morello: (laughs) All that crap, yes. Doesn't look very good on the resume. So the Cranston job was a day gig, and it allowed me to rock in the evening. Oh, and he was one of the most progressive senators you could find issue-wise. As far left as you could be and still be electable. But it was also a very disconcerting experience. I got to see the internal workings of the political machinery and it was grim. He was a great man with all these ideals but spent all his time phoning up rich guys for money! even when we would stop for gas.
Guitar.com: Who were your early politically rocking role models?
Morello: First the Sex Pistols. I was in a band 48 hours after buying Nevermind the Bollocks. I literally could not play a chord on the guitar, and I heard that record and it was like, "Here we go!" I got a guitar when I was 13, but took a couple lessons and all I wanted to play was "Detroit Rock City" by Kiss and "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin. They tried to teach me to tune a guitar and learn scales and I thought, "What's the point?" My mom was mad. But I got the Sex Pistols record [when I was 17], and within two days I'd taught myself enough to play in a band. That was music that was both powerful and attainable. And the Clash, too. Here was a band that did great rock but where politics collided with great music. The Clash was a lot more honest about the U.S. policy in Central America than Dan Rather was.
Guitar.com: What new music are you digging, if any?
Morello: I like the new Nine Inch Nails record. Also, I really enjoyed the Springsteen concert this week. It was amazing, just incredible. When I was in high school, when I had friends who said they were going to see him I'd say, "Are you out of your mind? All that money and he's not even heavy metal?" And I went through an anti-Bruce phase when Born in the USA was popular. because I hadn't really listened to the words and there were some songs that were really syrupy- sweet and I thought, "That is really whack-ass shit." But then he was on HBO or something doing an Amnesty International concert from Brazil, and I couldn't believe what I saw. It was so moving. Nothing like those dumb "Glory Days" videos. And there were 200,000 people there and it was like he controlled the crowd with all the intensity of, like a small Jane's Addiction show. So I had to go out and buy his albums. The first one was Darkness on the Edge of Town, and I thought, "Wow, this is pretty good!" And then I got Nebraska. And I went from there until I had them all.
Guitar.com: How did you end up doing a cover of "The Ghost of Tom Joad?"
Morello: Well, I was just a huge fan of the record, it was my favorite of the '90s. And we were having one of those times when we were all gonna pick a cover song to try, and that was my choice. And the looks that I got from the band! "Okay, he wants to do a Springsteen song." But of course we had to get his approval.
Guitar.com: What did he think of your (metal-rap) interpretation?
Morello: (laughs) Well, I was terrified of his reaction because I was such a fan, you know? But I think it came out great. And he got back to us in twenty minutes. He really liked it. I actually had the opportunity to talk to him after the show (in LA) and I apologized to him for ruining his song.
Guitar.com: What took so long to complete The Battle of Los Angeles? Most bands book a studio for certain months...
Morello: Oh, heavens no. That would be too efficient (laughs). A lot of it has to do with how we relate as a band. When we make our best music, it's like we're tapping into something that exists deep inside us as a band, whatever intangible musical chemistry there is between us.
Guitar.com: Does is also have to do with creative tensions between band members?
Morello: It changes from time to time. This record was really a healing process for us. I enjoyed seeing everyone and going to rehearsal and writing the songs because from the very beginning, we felt like we were onto something here, that this would be our best work. So our mission statement was not to just make the best Rage record, but to make the best by a country mile. So where there are always musical differences, when you allow them to flourish it pushes the product in a direction you might not have expected. We wanted a DJ in the band but didn't have one. So early-on I became the designated DJ. It made me think about guitar in different way, change my style.
Guitar.com: Are you saying you used to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen?
Morello: Absolutely. I practiced eight hours a day. Not seven hours and 54 minutes a day, eight hours a day. It was like an obsessive disorder. Don't forget, I began as the punk rock guitar player who refused to learn anything from anyone! If you tried to show me a bar chord I would avert my eyes, like I would turn into a pillar of salt. And then I became waist-deep in guitar excess hedonism, working up from two hours practicing a day to four to finally eight. And I'm not kidding when I said it was a disorder. I could have a fever of 102 and have an exam in the morning at Harvard and still have three hours to go, and I would do it. Many were concerned among my friends and family!