For Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave and most recently Prophets Of Rage, music is not just there to be enjoyed: it’s a political and moral weapon. Whether it’s bringing Wall Street to a standstill for Rage’s Sleep Now In The Fire video, setting up the Axis Of Justice group with System Of A Down’s Serj Tankian or standing silently naked onstage for their entire time-slot at Lollapalooza in 1993 to protest against the censorship of the PMRC, he’s always led by example when it comes to standing up for social justice.
Brilliantly, though, he combines being an all-round awesome human being with being one of the greatest and most recognisable rock guitarists of all time, breaking through with RATM (and laying the foundations for rap-rock and nu metal in the process) in 1991 after they formed in California with Zack de la Rocha on vocal duties, Tim Commerford on bass and Brad Wilk on drums. This year, that band minus Zack teamed up with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord and Cypress Hill rapper B-Real to become Prophets Of Rage, another band burning with revolutionary spirit. Here, Morello lets us poke about inside his brilliant mind…
WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN?
In Harlem, New York. On May 30, 1964. I am an only child. My mother, Mary Morello, met my dad, Ngethe Njoroge, in Nairobi, Kenya. They then moved to Harlem where I was born. When I was about 18 months old, my parents split up. My mother got a job as a teacher in Libertyville, Illinois, which is where I was brought up.
SO HOW COME YOU’RE NOT KNOWN AS TOM NJOROGE?
Because my mother felt the name ‘Morello’ would be a lot easier for everyone to pronounce. And it made sense to take that name as I was living with her.
YOU COME FROM A VERY POLITICALLY ACTIVE FAMILY. WHEN DID YOU FIRST BECOME POLITICALLY AWARE?
Oh, at a very early age. My mother founded the Parents For Rock And Rap organisation, which was an anti-censorship lobby. My dad was a freedom fighter for Kenyan independence (part of the Mau Mau guerilla movement), and then became his country’s first ambassador to the UN. And my great uncle was Jomo Kenyatta – the first president of Kenya. So I very quickly picked up on political activism and fighting for the rights of others. We have photos of people like that all over the walls of our house. I was the only black kid in the town as well, which made things kinda weird for me. This was a very conservative small town, and I was always arguing with teachers about their entrenched views on life because they were wrong! There were also a few of us at the school who ran an underground paper, dealing with subjects like South American death squads and the evils of apartheid.
WHEN DID YOU FIRST GET THE BUG TO BE A MUSICIAN?
I can tell you exactly. When I heard the Sex Pistols album, Never Mind The Bollocks, on cassette. That made me feel like, ‘Hey, I can do this as well!’ Within 48 hours I had formed a band at high school called Electric Sheep. That was in 1981. Adam Jones of Tool was also in the band, playing guitar. There were three bands in our school. One was a pretty-boy pop band, the second was a bad-boy metal band, and then there was us. The others were covers bands, but we did our own stuff. To be honest, we weren’t good enough to do covers! We sounded like a cross between Devo, The Clash and the Pistols. But it didn’t last long. I do recall that we had song titles like Salvador Death Squad and Five Buck Whore. Even in those days [I was] mixing up politics with more earthy ideas!
HOW DID YOU IMPROVE AS A GUITARIST?
I’m an obsessive-compulsive person, and once I was hooked on the guitar I just practiced all the time. I took it to college, and just kept at it – eight hours a day. There was something very controlling about being able to play this instrument with six wires, made out of wood. I got into playing the guitar comparatively late in life – 16 or 17 – as compared to so many of my heroes. Therefore, I had to work a lot harder at getting any good. I’d say that I’m also a conservative player.
WHAT WAS HARVARD LIKE FOR SOMEONE WITH RADICAL POLITICAL VIEWS?
I think I’ve always thrived on uncomfortable situations. I was the only black kid in Libertyville. The only pinko in the school. The only rock musician at Harvard. The only Harvard graduate living in a punk rock squat in Hollywood… so I think the fact that I studied political sciences at Harvard felt natural to me. I was still subversive in my own way. For instance, building a shantytown in the courtyard of the college to emphasise the evils of apartheid, and embarrass the powers-that-be.
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YOUR FIRST JOB AFTER GRADUATION WAS WORKING FOR A US SENATOR…
Yes. Senator Alan Cranston. But it took me a while to get that job. I came to Hollywood with $1,000 in my pocket. That was soon spent and it took me months to gain employment. It was a real eye-opener. Cranston was, possibly, the most left-wing Senator ever in America. And yet even he had to compromise to satisfy the big money people who control electoral politics. There’s just no getting away from this.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ASPIRATIONS TO STAND FOR THE SENATE?
Definitely not. As I said, it’s run for the benefit of the billionaires who fund it. The way things are right now, you can do much more outside of mainstream politics.
YOUR FIRST PROPER BAND WAS LOCK UP. HOW DID YOU GET THE GIG WITH THEM?
I was living in a squat with Adam Jones – yes, him again – and one night he dragged me down to see this band called Lock Up, who immediately became my favourite local band. Quite by chance, they rehearsed in the same location as my band at the time. When they were looking for a guitarist, the guy who owned the rehearsal rooms recommended me; he’d heard what I could do through the walls. So I ended up as the guitarist in my fave local band. Very cool!
HOW DID THIS LEAD TO THE FORMATION OF RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE?
We did one Lock Up album for Atlantic – Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes in 1989 – but were so screwed over by the music business that we quickly split up. Brad Wilk had auditioned to become the drummer in the band just before the end so he and I stayed together and were determined to do something very radical.
RATM WERE HEAVILY MOTIVATED BY A POLITICAL AGENDA. WERE YOU SURPRISED AT THE SUCCESS YOU HAD?
Absolutely. The goal for Brad and I was to make music that was so extreme, lyrically and musically, that not only would we not get signed, but we’d never even get a gig! The politics were so radical, and we found in Zack de la Rocha [vocals] and Timmy Commerford [bass] like-minded spirits. So we were stunned when our debut album came out in 1992 [Rage Against The Machine] and sold so well. I guess our first big break came when we met Body Count’s guitarist Ernie C. He liked what we did and our 10th gig was opening for that band at The Palace in Hollywood – that was freaky! I don’t think anyone had ever seen a band like us before – the black guitarist and the Mexican-American frontman with dreadlocks. It was so much against the norm in rock music. And our lyrics were very confrontational.
DO YOU THINK RATM CHANGED PEOPLE’S ATTITUDES?
Not as much as we should have. We sold 15 million records with an uncompromising political agenda, yet I don’t think we had the ambitious courage to take it as far as we should have done. Unfortunately, there was a dysfunctional element in the band, and that held us back. We only did three studio albums, when we should have done seven or eight. I love what we did, and like to think it inspired a lot of bands today to be more radical, but to me it was a missed opportunity.
AUDIOSLAVE ISN’T VERY POLITICAL THOUGH IS IT?
We realised very quickly that Audioslave couldn’t be as politically motivated as Rage. It had to be allowed to become its own entity. Brad, Timmy and I agreed to stay together when Zack quit in 2000. No arguments, or bust up, he wanted to do his own thing. We never auditioned anyone – we just got together with Chris [Cornell] and it worked. But it was also clear that Audioslave was not gonna be a political extension of Rage. That’s when I decided to do the Nightwatchman project. It’s a solo acoustic thing where I push my political viewpoint [and] get to play both my own songs and do covers of the likes of Steve Earle, Billy Bragg and Anti-Flag. It’s odd. I can go onstage with Audioslave, in front of thousands, and never become at all nervous. But I then pick up my acoustic and play before 10 people in a coffee shop and I’m very nervy. It’s as if every one of those 10 have their souls at stake. I love the schizophrenia of my situation. In any band, you have to be prepared to compromise. With The Nightwatchman, I am in complete control.
YOU STARTED THE AXIS OF JUSTICE WITH SERJ TANKIAN OF SYSTEM OF A DOWN. WHAT’S THAT ALL ABOUT?
We had something with Rage called the Rage Against The Machine Foundation. We gave a percentage of every ticket sold back to the communities where we played to buy food and shelter for the homeless. In 2000 I went to see System at Ozzfest, and was amazed at how so many of the fans had Nazi and white supremacist tattoos. Ozzfest itself was multi-ethnic, but these fans certainly were not. The next year, Serj and I set up the Axis Of Justice anti-racist booth at all the locations to combat this mentality and the organisation has grown from there. Our aim is to bring together musicians, fans of music, and grassroots political organisations to fight for social justice and human rights.
AWAY FROM THIS SERIOUS STUFF, YOU’VE BEEN IN STAR TREK, HAVEN’T YOU?
I’m a huge fan of Star Trek, and through knowing one of two people, got the chance to appear in one episode of Star Trek: Voyager [playing a crewman], and was a bad guy in the film Star Trek: Insurrection. I did have some lines in the former, but none in the latter. In fact, if you didn’t know I was in it, then you’d miss me. I was so heavily made up. Am I serious about acting? Not really. My criteria are: is it Star Trek, or do I know someone involved? The actor Vince Vaughn is a friend of mine, which is how I got a part in the movie Made. I would never audition for a role.
IN THE WAKE OF 9⁄11, ARE AMERICAN BANDS MORE POLITICALLY MOTIVATED?
I’d say just the opposite. There’s a kinda McCarthyism in the US right now. Bands are afraid to stand up and say what they feel, because they’re in real danger of being isolated and ignored. There are exceptions, of course, in people like Bruce Springsteen, but they’re untouchable anyway. You go to so many towns, and the media is tightly controlled – one paper, one radio station – so it’s tough to get across any viewpoints that aren’t staunchly conservative. However, I do have high hopes that, through the internet, the truth will come out.