Tom Morello, Former Led Zeppelin Cover Band Lead Singer, Never Had a Groupie
Tom Morello in New York City, 1993. Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Tom Morello in New York City, 1993. Photo: Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Most of the extras on the Rage Against the Machine 20th anniversary deluxe box set, which is packaged like a slick coffee table book, are lost on me. The demos, the two DVDs of live shows, the vinyl record, the fold-out poster of the band posing in front of an ice cream truck, the booklet of blurry pictures and Chuck D describing Rage as “an angry Sly and the Family Stone battling Jimi Hendrix via turntables on a speeding bus driven by James Brown with a rapper screaming at him from the passenger seat”; it all seems a bit excessive and navel-gazing. I love the band — or at least I loved them in the early ’90s, before they accidentally spawned nü-metal, and white guys rapping over guitars became unbearable — but I don’t know that anybody save the official Rage Against the Machine biographer needs this many versions of the same ten songs.

My cynicism, however, isn’t strong enough to withstand the pure joy of hearing the original record again. It is, in a word, awesome. In two words, it’s fucking awesome. Does the remastering make any sonic difference? Probably, I don’t know. When you’re playing anything this loud, does it matter? What’s really remarkable is the emotional effect. I’m 43 years old, long past the age of youthful ire and righteous indignation at everything and nothing in particular. At 20, being angry came easy. These days, meh, whatever. I can’t even muster the energy to get angry about bad sitcoms anymore. But when I put on the Rage reissue and get to that part in “Killing In the Name Of” where Zack de la Rocha mutters “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me,” slowly building to a scream while Tom Morello works his guitar wizardy, I’m bouncing around the room like I did twenty years ago, shouting along and doing a sloppy air guitar. It’s not a pretty sight (my body has more moving parts then it did in 1992), but it’s goddamn cathartic.

Harold Ramis once told me about his early days doing political comedy, and it sounds pretty similar to why I (and probably a lot of people) couldn’t and still can’t resist that first Rage album. “It was a form of entertainment for me,” he said. “I loved getting pissed off at injustice. I didn’t do anything about it, I just liked the feeling of being pissed off.” Rage Against the Machine reminds me how much fun it is to get really, really pissed off and scream “take the power back” over wailing guitars.

I called Tom Morello to talk about the reissue. He was calm and funny and rational and not prone to bursts of fury based on emotion; in other words, the complete opposite of every Rage Against the Machine song ever.

Box sets are tricky things. It could be argued that it’s just a way to get fans to buy an album they already own a second time.

If the only thing that was included on our box set was an unaltered version of the first record that you already bought or downloaded illegally on your iPod, then yes, I’d agree, there’s no reason to do it. That’s not what this is. This is a thank you to our fans around the globe, with a motherlode of awesome Rage Against the Machine concert footage, the original demos, video of the first ever Rage Against the Machine concert. We wanted to give our fans everything that they deserve for sticking by us for so long.

Were you at all reluctant about putting out a box set?

Oh heaven’s no. There’s no reluctance. I’m not even sure I understand the question. Why might one be reluctant?

The Barenaked Ladies have this song called “Box Set.” Have you heard it?

Um …

Probably not. One of the lyrics is “I never thought words like ‘product’ would ever leave my lips.” That’s the first thing I thought when I heard Rage Against the Machine was releasing a box set.

That is not an attitude to which I subscribe.

You don’t think the box set is a product? It costs like $100.

Have you seen it? Have you seen the Rage deluxe box set?

I haven’t. I own the original.

You haven’t? You haven’t seen it?

I’m sorry. It’s a little out of my price range.

As a journalist, I don’t think you have to go buy it. You’re entitled to one, and I would love for you to get it so that you can report on it. Ask one of our handlers to send you the deluxe box set. Then you’d have an idea of what we’re actually talking about here.

I’m sure it’s awesome. I’m just talking about box sets as a genre. Even an amazing box set is still a repackaging of old things.

But we’re talking about two full DVDs worth of content. It’s every video we’ve ever made. The original twelve song demo, it’s never been released before. It’s an insane amount of great Rage Against the Machine material.

The original album came out in 1992, which seems like an eternity ago.

It really does.

Is there anything about the 2012 Tom Morello that would surprise the 1992 Tom Morello?

The fact that I’m married and have children is not something that I would have necessarily predicted twenty years ago. Those two tremendous personal feats certainly eclipse some of my professional accomplishments.

Would the 1992 Tom Morello approve of a 2012 super deluxe box set of his band’s record?

We had limited commercial ambitions when we formed Rage Against the Machine. We didn’t think that we’d be able to book a club show due to the genre mixing of the music, the ethnic composition of the band, and the lyrical contents of the songs. There was no precedent for those three things on a stage in Los Angeles or certainly on a radio station or in record stores.

Rage Against the Machine in London, 1992. Photo: Sony Archive/Getty Images

Did you catch Paul McCartney fronting Nirvana at the 12-12-12 Sandy relief concert?

No, I didn’t see it. I watched some of the concert and taped the rest of it, but I haven’t seen the Nirvana part yet.

Rage’s album came out the same year as Nevermind. And you reminisced recently about hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time. So I wonder if news of Nirvana’s new lead singer makes you cringe or curious.

I didn’t see it, so I can’t really comment on it. What did they do?

They did an original song. It was good, but it felt weird that they were calling themselves Nirvana. It wasn’t Nirvana. It was some guys who used to be in Nirvana and a guy who used to be in the Beatles. You can’t have Nirvana back as a thing anymore.

What you’re never going to have back is Kurt Cobain.

Exactly, yeah. What if, for instance, Rage Against the Machine reunited, and replaced you with Keith Richards on lead guitar? Would you be okay with that?

Well, here’s the difference. The four members of Rage Against the Machine are alive and well. Since 2007 we’ve played shows. The shows we’ve played in the last couple of years were some of the best we’ve played in our twenty year history. I don’t think there’s a danger of that in this case.

So you’re telling us there’s a Rage reunion on the horizon?

Um …

I’m kidding, I’m kidding.

One thing I think is darkly amusing is that it’s news that Rage Against the Machine isn’t playing shows or making records. That’s like saying it’s news that they haven’t discovered the Loch Ness Monster. Like, no, we haven’t been playing shows, and we’re still not playing shows. We haven’t made a new record since 1999, so I don’t know that it’s news that we’re not making records.

“That was never the issue. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their political affiliation, to enjoy Rage Against the Machine. The power of the music speaks to people regardless of their ideological bent. The difference with Paul Ryan is, if you’re going to put yourself forward as someone who’s going to enact policy that’s going to harm 99.9% of Rage Against the Machine fans, then I’m going to have something to say about it.”

I also want to ask about the Nightwatchman, your political folk alter ego, which also sounds like the coolest superhero name of all time.

Absolutely.

Why the pseudonym?

When I wrote the first batch of Nightwatchman songs, I was trying them out at open night mics and coffee houses around Los Angeles, and if you’ve ever been to an open mic night, you have to sign up. I didn’t want to sign up as Tom Morello. That would bring a certain set of expectations. I was forging a new musical persona, I didn’t want people screaming out for “Bulls on Parade.”

Although admittedly an acoustic version of that would be insane.

Sure, sure. So with the name, at least at first, I was sort of hiding behind it. But it grew into its own thing, and now I’ve made as many Nightwatchman records as there are Rage records. And it’s a very meaningful and important part of what I do creatively.

But just hypothetically, if Nightwatchman was a superhero, what would his special powers be?

Slashing fascists with three chords and the truth.

Holy crap. You didn’t even hesitate.

[Laughs.]

I see no reason why we shouldn’t get Stan Lee on the phone right now and make this happen.

Exactly. Please do.

All that’s left in this story is an arch nemesis.

Well, Paul Ryan has already thrown his hat in the ring in that regard.

Watch Nightwatchman perform “Maximum Firepower” live:

He needs a super villain name. Something like … hmm.

That’s a tough one.

The Nefarious Rape Apologist?

I like it.

Did he ever respond to your Rolling Stone essay, calling him out on his Rage fandom?

Nope.

Not a phone call or email?

Nothing. I did put a Rage box set in the mail to him. Now that he has a lot of extra time on his hands, maybe he can pay more attention to the lyrics.

With the election behind us, do you care what somebody like Paul Ryan thinks about your band? Does it matter if he, or anybody, likes Rage Against the Machine but doesn’t really understand it?

That was never the issue. Everyone is welcome, regardless of their political affiliation, to enjoy Rage Against the Machine. The power of the music speaks to people regardless of their ideological bent. The difference with Paul Ryan is, if you’re going to put yourself forward as someone who’s going to enact policy that’s going to harm 99.9% of Rage Against the Machine fans, then I’m going to have something to say about it. Especially if in multiple interviews you’re trying to act cool by saying Rage is one of your favorite bands, I’m sorry, you just put the golf ball on the tee, I’m going to swing at it.

His policies aside, you can’t control how people interpret your music, can you?

Not really, no.

For whatever reason, he thought Rage’s songs jibed with his world view. Either he’s not listening to the lyrics or he’s grossly misunderstanding them. Do you feel like it’s your responsibility to make sure the message isn’t lost?

Listen, people are drawn to Noam Chomsky lectures for a very specific reasons. He attracts a kind of a preaching-to-the-choir audience. Rage is not that. Rage is first and foremost a roaringly kick-ass rock n’ roll band, and then there’s a lyrical content that presents a world view that some people agree with, and some people learn from, and some people ignore. There are a lot of people who just like to throw elbows and mosh in the pit and exercise on their P90X while listening to it. Paul Ryan was one of those, and that’s fine.

I read something on Wikipedia about you, and I couldn’t find information about it anything else, so I assume it’s probably not true.

Probably. What was it?

Your first band was a Led Zeppelin cover band?

Wow. Yeah, that’s true. When I was 13 years old, I was in a cover band called Nebula. I was the singer because my voice hadn’t changed to the rich baritone you hear now. And I was able to squeak out the Robert Plant wails on “Heartbreaker.”

I’m trying to imagine you with long, flowing blonde locks.

I had a ’70s full-on J.J. Walker afro.

What about Plant’s too-tight skinny jeans?

It wasn’t jeans. It was full-on disco. I had the brown lift shoes and Italian horn necklace, the John Travolta satin shirt open to the navel. I was 12, 13 years old at the time.

This is just so confounding on so many levels. Led Zeppelin was all about raw sexuality, which couldn’t have less to do with Rage Against the Machine.

Yeah, well Nebula was about raw puberty.

Do you miss that? Do you miss playing songs that are just about fucking?

[Laughs for what seems like a full minute, but is probably much less.]

Should I take that as a no?

I think that territory is pretty well covered by other bands. I don’t think iTunes or the record stores are looking for one more R&B crooner.

Did Rage ever have groupies? Or even women with furrowed brows who wanted to come backstage and talk about unions?

First of all, it was a rare female fan we had at our show. So no, that was never really part of the ethos.

You have no mudshark stories?

Quite the opposite. On a few occasions, Zach or I had to stop the show because we saw abuse happening to women in the pits. We weren’t about to let dudes think it was an excuse to touch women inappropriately. That’s just not going to happen at a Rage show. We’re not going to play, we’re just going to leave the stage unless that stops right now. On more than one occasion we did that. And the lesson was learned.

I forget who said it, but somebody claimed that you can tell how a person makes love by the way they play their guitar. Is that true?

So the fact that I carry my guitar high and tight?

I guess it means you’ve got some crazy Kama Sutra moves.

[Laughs.] My experimental guitar playing might be giving me away.

Rage Against the Machine XX 20th Anniversary Edition is out now on Sony Legacy.

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