Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on “Speaking Truth to Power” at Minetta Lane Theatre

     September 2, 2020

The Audible Original Tom Morello at Minetta Lane Theatre: Speaking Truth to Power Through Stories and Song is a moving personal story and musical journey that highlights everything from his childhood to the social activism and guitar mastery that he’s become known for. Weaving a live narrative that is both spoken and played, Morello explores the role of music in social and cultural movements, which is clearly evident in his seminal work with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, along with the countless other musicians that he’s collaborated with, over the years.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Tom Morello, who has truly solidified his place as one of the elite guitar virtuosos of our time, talked about why he wanted to tell his story in this way, being a Star Trek-loving Ivy League nerd in the world’s biggest political rock/rap band, doing five summers at a Renaissance Faire, how Rage Against the Machine first formed, his powerful drive to create and make stuff, what led him to start experimenting with the guitar, and the type of music he listens to at home.

Collider: I listened to this and was surprised at how emotional it made me. It was really terrific to listen to your story, in this way.

TOM MORELLO: Oh, well, thanks.

How did this come about? What led you to want to tell your story, in this way?

MORELLO: There are a number of projects that I’ve been involved in recently, from my MasterClass to a photo book of my life (Whatever It Takes), and putting out a guitar with Fender, that have been projects that are related, in some ways, more to my life than to specific songs. For years, I’ve been spinning campfire yarns, and some friends and family who I worked with were like, “You should really put all of that together, as a way to tell your story.” I’m very comfortable and confident in front of an audience, talking and telling stories, and then mixing that in with some shredding guitar, felt like it would be a fun thing to do and a way to connect with fans from different generations.

Had there ever been any talk, over the years, about doing a film documentary about any of the bands or your life, or did you always want to do something different, if you were going to do that?

MORELLO: Of course, there are countless offers to do documentaries about countless bands that I’ve been, but I liked this because I was able to really shepherd the whole thing. If you listen to it, there’s a lot of stuff that’s brand new, that you didn’t know. It’s a uniquely American story, in a way, that has some very international elements to it. The whole show begins with something that is patently the truth, and that was that I was the only Black kid in an all-white town, and the only anarchist in a conservative high school, and the only spandex-wearing heavy metal guy at Harvard University, and then the only Star Trek-loving Ivy League nerd in the world’s biggest political rock/rap band. You could stop there and then play a solo, but I decided to go a little deeper.

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Image via Audible

How did you end up doing five summers at a Renaissance Faire? Was that something you did by choice, or was that out of necessity?

MORELLO: I was pressed into servitude? First of all, I don’t like the pejorative tone of, “How did you end up there?”

No judgements. It just surprised me.

MORELLO: To this day, it’s the best job that I’ve ever had ever had, in my life was. I was a big fan of The Lord of the Rings books and was really mesmerized by the world that they created. And then, when I discovered there was a job that would perhaps allow me to continue living in a world, not dissimilar from that, I jumped at the chance.

It seems like a hell of a fun time. It was just unexpected to hear you reveal that.

MORELLO: The funny thing is, living in my own skin for 56 years, it’s hard for me to even imagine that it’s surprising ‘cause I am so super Renaissance Faire, at the core.

You talk about how Rage Against the Machine was formed because you answered an ad that drummer Brad Wilk put in the paper, and you called. What made you decide to call him, and what was that conversation like?

MORELLO: I had been in a band, called Lock Up, prior to Rage Against the Machine, and Brad had actually auditioned for that band. I thought he was a great drummer, and he would have been my choice for that band, but it just didn’t work out. And then, that band broke up. Here’s the thing, the band that I was in, prior to Rage Against the Machine was a band that played the game. We were all so excited to get a record deal that we did what the producer told us and what the A&R person told us, even though it ran counter-instinctive to our artistic truth. And then, as the band was deteriorating, we auditioned some drummers, and that’s how I met Brad. The day that Lock Up broke up, I remember hanging up with the singer and, before I got up off the couch, I called Brad and said, “Do you wanna jam?” I just thought he was a great musician and a great dude, and we had a chemistry, from the very first time we played together, that I felt could go places.

One of the things that I really noticed with this is that you don’t get negative and don’t drag anybody. You talk about the reality of your father’s absence and you talk about band break-ups, but you instead focus on the next step. Was that something that was important to you, in telling this story? Did you intentionally not want to focus on the negative?

MORELLO: I don’t think it’s something that I intentionally did in the show. It’s something that I intentionally do in my life. I’ve always had a real active and powerful creative motor. I just wanna create and make stuff. From the earliest days, in the earliest playground baseball, I’ve always wanted to be the guy that makes the line-up. Our players aren’t as good as them, but we can put them in the right order. Curating has always been something that’s important to me. So, whether it was doing the show, or doing my solo career, or in a collaborative effort with the band, that’s always something that I’ve been very blessed with. All bands come and go. I don’t think it’s anything to dwell on the negative. It’s something to be like, what new possibilities might arise?

I’m sure at the time there was some frustration that it took such a long time between Rage records, but it also pushed you to work and collaborate with other musicians. When you look back on that time, do you see that almost as a blessing now? Does it feel like playing with so many different people helped you grow, as a musician, in ways that you might not have otherwise?

MORELLO: My whole life, from the time prior to Rage Against the Machine, through that, and through Audioslave, the collaborative intersections with different musicians have been so wonderful and have built this mosaic of a career that I never would have guessed could occur. I’ve played, on stage and on records, with Pete Seeger and the Wu-Tang Clan, both with absolute authenticity. From stadiums playing heavy metal to anarchist bicycle shops in Berkeley with 15 people raising bail money, it has been crazy. The decision that I made, on that day when that band Lock Up broke up, was that I would never play another note of music that I didn’t believe in, and have acted in my music and in my life, and the shows I’ve played and the off-Broadway shows that I’ve recorded, in a way that tried to keep true to that north star.

Having seen you play live in concert, over the years, in various bands, you seem like you’re in your own world when you’re playing the guitar. You can tell that it’s something that’s very deeply important to you.

MORELLO: I haven’t really had a choice. I didn’t choose to play the guitar. It chose me. It’s a calling. It’s a real calling that I heeded, and I still heed, to this day. It’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. It’s a blessing because I’ve practiced my 20,000 hours, and I’ve unlocked creative doors that have allowed me to express myself and make records that have connected with people, and that’s all fantastic. But I’m a guitar player, so I’ve had to find outlets and ways to weave my convictions into this vocation, whether it’s telling a life story or it’s the social justice work. It’s not like I just sat down and went, “Okay, here are 50 different options of a career that you can be in.” I’m a guitar player. There’s one chair at the table, and it’s a guitar player chair. I have to sit down in that, and then make the best of it, and weave my interests and passions through that portal.

You make sounds with a guitar that I’ve never heard before, and I’ve never heard anyone else come close to doing what you do, at any time since. What inspired you to want to be so experimental, and how did you know that would even work?

MORELLO: It was a journey. I started playing late. I started playing at 17, and I had never heard of another guitarist who made an album that started playing that late, with the exception of Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil to get good, and given my Catholic upbringing, that didn’t really seem like a great option for me. It started with the 10,000 hours of practice. I was practicing eight hours a day, 365 days a year, in this almost hamster-in-a-hamster-wheel way that obsessive. I would finish my studies at night, at Harvard, around midnight, and I practiced until six in the morning, every day. It was real madness. Then, I was aping the guitarists that I admired, like Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, and people like that. It really wasn’t until I moved to L.A. that I started practicing the eccentricities in my playing. At the time, everybody had this Eddie Van Halen guitar, which was really cool. It had just one knob, volume, and it was awesome. I didn’t have that guitar. The guitar I was stuck with had a bunch of knobs and a toggle switch that switched between the knobs. I was fiddling around, one day, my junior year in college, and I realized that, if I put one of the pick-ups on zero and the other one on 10, and I used the toggle switch between them, it functioned like a kill switch and sounded a little bit like DJ scratching, or I could make it sound like a keyboard, and then I would apply the different effects pedals to that. At first, it was a gimmick, but then I began practicing my eight hours a day of that. That wasn’t on any records. And then, I deconstructed the instrument. Electric guitar is a relatively new instrument on the face of the planet. Every interview of my favorite guitarists would always say, “It’s all been done on the guitar.” Well, has it? And how do we know? You said that, but do we really know? And so, I just began looking at it as a piece of wood with six wires and a few electronics that could be manipulated, in a wide variety of ways. It was a very humble set-up. I only had a few effects pedals. But once I got on that, I was like, “Okay, I’m the DJ.” One of the principle influences, that I talk about in the show, was that I began looking outside of music for mood board influences, and one of them was the racehorse Secretariat, which sounds insane to everyone, much like the Renaissance Faire sounded insane to you, but it made perfect sense. The idea isn’t to run fast. It is to destroy the sport you’re in and to make it be like, “Well, they’re all running that way. I’m gonna do something that’s gonna be entirely different than what they’re doing.” And then, the blinders were off and all of these sounds were just low-hanging fruit. It was easy, after awhile. I came around to the realization that the sonics could be manipulated in a wide variety of ways, with a very simple set-up and that just looking at the instrument in a different way would create albums worth of brand new sounds.

You’ve done plenty of shows with Rage, where your audiences have sung along with every word of every song, but what was it like, with this, to perform the instrumental for “Killing in the Name Of,” and have the audience singing along with you? How does it feel to experience that?

MORELLO: I’ve spent many years as a solo folk music performer, and the sing-along is a huge part of that world. I dunno that Pete Seeger invented it, but he certainly perfected it. So, in this show, I was weaving together the different aspects of my performance history, and one of them is being able to stand on a stage, by yourself, and with your voice, or their voices, be able to tell a compelling story. That certainly felt like it would be a good part of the night.

Is there a song or a band that’s influenced you or meant something to you that would surprise people?

MORELLO: I’ve surprised you, at every turn, with the Renaissance Faire, so it’s hard for me to really say. Because I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin with my likes, I don’t know what might surprise other people. I’m trying to think of ones that the average, hard rock fan might find objectionable. I love Lady Gaga. I love Twenty One Pilots. In my house, I listen to a lot of classical and a lot of jazz, and Saturday nights is disco night. People imagine me, cranking Korn, 24 hours a day. That just doesn’t happen. No disrespect to that particular band, but that’s not what I’m listening. I have kids. I have a nine and a 10-year-old, so they introduce me to music now. Music was very tribal, when I was growing up. You’d pick your tribe. I was of the metal tribe, back then, and you hated all other kinds of music. With them, they know Kendrick Lamar and KISS, and they know Taylor Swift and Woody Guthrie. There’s no barriers between the genres, and I think that’s pretty healthy.

Tom Morello at Minetta Lane Theatre: Speaking Truth to Power Through Stories and Song is available on Audible now.

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.

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