An Interview with Tom Morello

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Tom Morello is asked in almost every interview when or if Rage Against the Machine will ever tour/record/write new music. For years the band’s guitarist has answered: there are no plans at this time.

But Morello has become a prolific songwriter/solo artist in his own right as folk-acoustic act The Nightwatchman, has worn various hats as producer, songwriter and collaborator, and even created a comic book, Orchid—a delicate name for the series’ tough female heroine. Earlier this year, Bruce Springsteen hired Morello as an E Street Band fill-in for temporarily absent Steven Van Zandt. And he’s working on a rock solo record that he promises will include a lot of screaming guitar solos.

His music comprises more than just big riffs, however. Morello frequently performs at protests or benefits in support of numerous social and political causes, and his brief Twitter (@tmorello) tag line captures him succinctly: “Feed the poor. Fight the power. Rock the f*ck out.”   

—Robin Grearson

I. TWITTER FEEDS

BLVR: Do you feel that music should be free?

TM: I find it ironic that now water is more expensive than music. Here’s the way I look at it. On the one hand, record companies can’t go crying when they’ve gouged consumers for decades, charging exorbitant prices for CDs that cost 29 cents to make. On the other hand, when music is free, musicians starve.

 I feel fortunate to have made records during an era where people actually bought music. But I have friends in struggling up-and-coming bands now that will certainly never be able to pay the rent, because music has been devalued.           

BLVR: You always seem confident in trying new directions. Have you always been a fearless person?

TM: Whenever I set out in a new direction, whether it’s with a new band or being a frontman or writing a comic book or entering into movie scoring or anything like that, I wouldn’t say that I do it fearlessly, but I would say that I do it all the same. I think that new artistic challenges help you grow both as a person, as an artist, and then they feed back into your other work, and tend to magnify it.

BLVR: Would you say that comes from nurture or that anyone can develop that?  It was a theme in Orchid, that the main character, Orchid, doesn’t know what she’s capable of.    

TM: That is one part of the blessing of my particular upbringing was, you know, I was raised confident. My mom’s very confident, and even though I was in a town where I did experience racism in school, I was always like, fuck that, I’m smarter than all y’all!, you know? I can play guitar, I’m good at baseball, I’m smarter than you guys. So I always had that kind of armor. I think that carried over into adulthood. 

BLVR: What do you think about Edward Snowden?

TM: Well, I have another name for what they’re terming whistleblowers, and that’s righteous heroes. From Bradley Manning to Snowden. They’re people of conscience who are unwilling to turn a blind eye to the crimes of our government. And thank goodness for them.

BLVR: Would you say your political views have changed over time?   

TM: I’d say that one area where my political views have remained unchanged is that, I am opposed to the government spying on everybody.

BLVR: Under the loose definition that seems to be in place, would the government consider you a terrorist worthy of spying on specifically?

TM: I think you might be considered a terrorist for asking the question! It can be so broadly defined now. And the thing is, you’re not privy to those decisions. Anyone who expresses any opinion can be considered a terrorist. It’s beyond Orwell. Like, Orwell was conservative compared to what the Obama administration has done.

BLVR: Where do you find out what is going on? 

TM: It’s more and more through social media. I always read the front page of The New York Times, I always read The Nation. I’ve got a bunch of Twitter feeds that I read. And one of the ways that has become a very democratizing way to get the news is from the front lines. Like, I’ve been learning about Turkey and Brazil from people on the streets in Turkey and Brazil who are sending YouTube videos and firsthand correspondents, and I don’t have to wait to go through the filter of some anchor who’s paid by a mega-corporation to say this or that.                       

BLVR: How do you think someone who wants to be active and see things change should be participating at this point? Like, if they show up somewhere, they’re going to get tear-gassed or pepper-sprayed, and so how do you—    

TM: People have been gassed and pepper-sprayed for a long time. If you want to change the world right now, it’s not so much a secret how you do it. You put the secrets of a criminal government on the Internet. You turn out by the hundreds of thousands in the streets of São Paulo or the tens of thousands in Istanbul. The people who are out there with their hands on the wheel of history are not hidden right now.

II. DANCING IN THE DARK           

BLVR: Orchid’s post-apocalyptic world is described as “a world where power flows through those who have weapons and money.” Aren’t we there, too?

TM: (Laughs) It’s a pretty thin metaphor, wouldn’t you say?

BLVR: Maybe hers isn’t such a futuristic world?

TM: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, we live in a bit of a bubble here. There are literally billions of people on the planet who live in an unimaginable poverty that’s not in any way different from the plight of the people in Orchid. And you can’t have the splendor of Rodeo Drive without the sweatshops of Indonesia; those two things go hand in hand. The system itself is fundamentally flawed in a way that perpetuates that imbalance. I tried to tell that story in Orchid with a lot of exciting monsters and chases and battles and whatnot. But the underlying thesis is, you only really need to look out your window.

BLVR: Okay, but, should somebody be responding to the injustice they see with violence? I mean—

TM: What is poverty, if not violence. You know? Like, the number of people who die every year from starvation and from hunger and poverty is in the tens of millions. Imagine if there was an Al Qaeda attack that killed tens of millions, how that violence would be condemned. Poverty is curable, but it’s just not done, because it’s not profitable. And that is the kind of violence that’s perpetuated on humanity.

I myself am a very, very peaceful person. Throughout our history, from our own American revolution to the resistance against apartheid in South Africa, to labor strikes in the US, people have resorted to violence to achieve a more progressive society, from time to time. You know, I’m sure there’s six drones over my house right now as we’re talking on the phone (laughs). So in that regard, while we may be outgunned, there certainly are more of us than there are of them.         

BLVR: Do you have a favorite Springsteen moment or show from the tour?        

TM: Yes. I just went on tour with Bruce Springsteen in Australia, so that would be sort of a penultimate Springsteen moment for me for three weeks, on the Wrecking Ball tour. It was pretty spectacular. And I just have to say, one of the highlights of that was when, Bruce always dances with someone from the audience during the song “Dancing in the Dark,” a la Courteney Cox circa 1985. But about midway through the tour, signs starting popping up for people who wanted to dance with me. So during one of the shows, Bruce pulled somebody out of the crowd, and…I freaked ‘em.

BLVR: Just a one-time thing?

TM: There was just one [time], dancing. I think after everybody saw what a great dancer I was, they were afraid that I might upstage the rest of the show, so they didn’t ask me to do it again.

BLVR: I have one Rage Against the Machine question. I am wondering if you can tell the story of the band playing “Killing In The Name” live on the radio in the UK a few years ago.  

TM: Sure, yeah, yeah, it’s a convoluted story to tell. For five years in a row, the winner of Simon Cowell’s X-Factor show in the UK had the number-one Christmas single. In the UK, the Christmas single is a big deal that people wager on like the Kentucky Derby, and everyone sits down on Christmas morning and listens to the countdown, culminating in the biggest song of the year, which is the Christmas number one. Some fans, some Rage fans outside of London, started a Facebook campaign to make Rage Against the Machine’s at-the-time-17-year-old song, “Killing In The Name,” the number-one song instead of the X-Factor song. And after a heated competition, it eventually won, selling the most downloads in one week in the history of United Kingdom and upsetting the X-Factor winner. In the midst of all that, even though it was a wholly people-sponsored campaign, Rage got involved and performed on a BBC morning show, sort of the equivalent of a Good Morning America radio show, where we were asked to play “Killing In The Name.”

BLVR: And you were asked not to sing the chorus of the song, to censor yourselves. What were you thinking when they asked you to do that? 

TM: Yes. Well, I was in my car and I was talking to the guy on the phone, and they were concerned, and they just wanted to make sure. And, I think I was just laughing to myself. Like, The part of the song you want us to censor is, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” You’re telling me to censor it. The part that says “Fuck YOU, I won’t do what YOU tell ME.” (Laughs). It was really hysterical, and it turned out to be, of course, a highlight of the performance and left a lot of jaws on the floor across the UK.

Robin Grearson once asked Tom Morello what he felt was the worst possible question to ask during an interview. And made a point not to ask it here. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Thought Catalog and The Millions, among other publications.

Illustration Credit: Casey Jarman