When it comes to guitar-based rock, Tom Morello says he’s “raging against the dying of the light.” The Rage Against the Machine guitarist touches on the fraught future of his chosen instrument, among many other topics, in a recent interview captured in both our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast and the RS Interview: Special Edition video series.
“In the early Nineties, everyone was convinced that guitar music was done,” says Morello, who’s also looking back at his career in a new photo book, Whatever It Takes, and an Audible release, Tom Morello at the Minetta Lane. “And that DJs could now sample guitar so you never need another guitar player. So I thought, well, let’s see what happens if I play their shit on my guitar with two hands and a Marshall stack. Let’s see if I can make DJs outdated. I was unsuccessful in that! But it was a way to fuel the fight. With the Atlas Underground record [in 2018], that was another way of like, I want to make guitar as heavy as it’s ever been, and as contemporary as it’s ever been. I’m continuing to work on heavy guitar music that is looking to the future.”
“I love riff rock and I love guitar solos,” he continues, “but I’ve also made 19 records already and I don’t want to repeat myself in that regard. Whether guitar music goes the way of jazz and becomes something that is relegated to clubs, if there are ever live shows again – I’m not so sure that’s the case, though, because prior to COVID, whether it’s Rage or Foo Fighters or Chili Peppers or Nine Inch Nails, those acts were still selling a lot of tickets. And so I’m hopeful that there will be future generations that connect to what I believe is the greatest instrument ever created. There’s nothing at all, ever, like that feeling of strapping on an electric guitar, hitting the distortion pedal, and playing that chord. It resonates in the reptilian DNA in a way that nothing has ever done.”
Morello also discusses some of the public’s oft-bizarre confusion about his racial identity and politics. He’s still not quite sure, he says, why some fans have trouble understanding that he’s Black, especially given the overt racism he faced growing up: “It is a very, very curious thing. Growing up in Libertyville [Illinois], there was a noose in my family’s garage. This other time, these guys opened up a car trunk, and they had a noose and were using all the words you might imagine one would use to describe the only black kid in all-white town. They invited me to get in the trunk. I was like a unicorn. People would constantly be touching my hair and openly questioning whether I could possibly be their intellectual equal. And then later on, I’m in a rock band that has songs that are on stations that predominantly play white artists and my vernacular is not stereotypically urban. And whenever I reference being Black on Instagram or Twitter, there is a percentage of my fans that freak the fuck out. They’re like, ‘You are not Black!’ Like, on Homecoming night when I showed up at the door in Libertyville, I was fucking Black! They’re like, ‘You’re lying.’ I don’t know what to tell you!”
At least as disconcerting for Morello are the purported fans who don’t seem to understand the utterly obvious fact that Rage Against the Machine were always a radical, left-wing band. “Everyone should sit down and Google cognitive dissonance and see where they may check that box in their life,” he says. “Paul Ryan, of course, was the poster boy for that. Conservative prick Paul Ryan proudly boasted of being a Rage Against the Machine fan. It’s not uncommon. I will say this, just to be clear, all fans are welcome. And there’s no political litmus test for listening to or liking the music at all, because I have seen the redemptive power of music in people’s lives. And in my own, I mean, I grew up on the most misogynist, devil-worshipping metal music… And then it was music like the Clash and other bands that that connected with me in a way that teachers didn’t and revealed a truth to me that changed my life. And so I encourage people of a conservative bent to listen to Rage or Atlas Underground or wherever. But, you know, be careful, because that little spoonful of sugar might have some medicine attached to it.”