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Tom morello 5

A Promise and a Threat: The Mission of Tom Morello


There are few more perfect encapsulations of rock ‘n’ roll’s rebellious spirit than the output of the American band MC5. Unpolished, uncouth, raucous, and raw, it distills everything that made rock music a powerful—and in the eyes of some, terrifying—force for cultural change.

The band’s notorious pull-no-punches approach to their recordings and live shows from the 1960s onwards meant there was always a simmering sense of threat within their music. This would go on to inspire many musicians following in their wake, but perhaps none took it to heart more than Tom Morello, the guitar wizard behind Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave.

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“Every single album that I’ve made, there’s always been one song that had the working title of MC5, and it was always the fastest and most raw song,” Morello tells me, as we sit down to discuss his music, inspiration, and the instruments he uses to create. “It was (MC5 guitarist) Wayne Kramer’s Strat sound that I was always trying my best to emulate.”

Morello is, of course, referring to Kramer’s use of the Fender Stratocaster, a line of guitars that this year celebrates its 70th anniversary. However, in a move that seems strange for someone so clearly enamoured with numerous Strat players over the decades, Morello didn’t add the Stratocaster to his arsenal until his career was already well established.

Throughout his enormously successful time with Rage Against The Machine, Morello’s primary weapon of choice had been a Frankenstein of a guitar, constructed using parts from various shred-friendly ‘80s instruments and emblazoned with the slogan ‘ARM THE HOMELESS’. Looking back on Rage Against The Machine’s split and his subsequent formation of Audioslave with vocalist Chris Cornell, Morello remembers that he made the purposeful decision to pick up a Stratocaster with a view to expanding his sonic palette and supercharging his creativity.

“I didn’t start playing a Stratocaster until Audioslave formed in 2001. I’d never played one, and it was really a conscious decision. Like, new band, new sound,” he says. “I was looking for a way to express myself differently than I had in Rage Against The Machine and my other collaborations. So I thought, well, with the Strat, there’s certainly a lot of landscape to cover there. And then I found one that fit my needs, I customised it somewhat, and the day I brought it home I wrote ‘SOUL POWER’ on it, which was both a promise and a threat.”

Whether he is indeed making promises, threats, or both, Morello has maintained a determination not to coddle his audience. From Rage and Audioslave, to his Nightwatchman project and the albums made under his own name, every stage of the guitarist’s career has seen him refuse to to rest on his laurels. Instead, he’s challenged himself and his audience, staring down fans and critics alike.

“Every time I go in the studio, every time I go to make a record, every time I go to play a show, I want to not just match or bow to past accomplishments. I want to surpass them,” he says resolutely. “I want my creativity to keep going.”

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Fortunately, Morello’s creativity shows no sign of flagging. Even at the time of our conversation he’s working on a new album, which is the next phase in his ongoing mission to re-establish the guitar’s power in a modern context: “One of the reasons why I did the three Atlas Underground records—a trilogy of releases Morello made between 2019 and 2021—and this new record I’m working on, which is very guitar-oriented as well, was to prove that guitar not only had a home in the current pop and hip hop landscape, but that it could kick people’s asses in that landscape by not being just married to the way that guitar has existed before.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with traditional rock songs, metal songs, whatever. Nothing wrong with that. But the electric guitar is a relatively new instrument on the planet and I think that there’s a lot of territory that is still underexplored or even unexplored.”

Morello’s determination to “kick people’s asses” might lead you to visualise a creative process that includes the setting up of stacks upon stacks of amplifiers and turning them all up to 11. However, that attitude of “If I can’t make people listen then at least I can deafen them in the process” is increasingly redundant. And as I recently learned from an unexpected source, it couldn’t be further from Morello’s actual creative process.

“He told me he writes everything on a nylon-string acoustic,” Fender CEO Andy Mooney revealed to me a few weeks ago as we sat together in his Los Angeles office. “But he said, ‘When I get the right riff on a nylon-string acoustic, I know it’s going to sound really great on electric.’ And he told me that if he gets a really great riff, he can can imagine the audience jumping up and down.”

This revelation certainly gives tracks like “Bulls On Parade” and “Killing In The Name” something of an unexpected origin story, but then it makes sense when you consider that those songs were written before Morello had the resources to indulge his every creative whim.

When I ask him about this, Morello is more than happy to confirm: “A lot of those big Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine riffs were written late at night on an unamplified guitar. But just sort of knowing that it sounds like this at almost zero decibels, with the particular band chemistries that I’ve been blessed with having, I know what it’s going to feel like when it’s turned up to 11.”

If nothing else, it’s an extremely valuable skill when you also have kids in the house.

“Absolutely crucial,” Morello laughs. “Although at the time it was apartments with seven roommates and whatnot.”

While Morello has undoubtedly walked a long road since writing those mammoth early Rage Against The Machine riffs, his commitment to his instrument and causing a stir continues undiminished. Despite all the time that’s passed, he remains an unquestionably steadfast keeper of the rebellious, guitar-fuelled flame MC5 helped kindle in him all those years ago. Long may it burn.