Morello Rages On With Audioslave

February 25, 2003



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 band?

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 force.

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 []. 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 Axis agenda?

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 Hussein.

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 of that.

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!