Interviews & Features

Raging And Rocking With Tom Morello

The guitar wizard talks Prophets Of Rage, Audioslave and more…

By Gary Graff
September 22, 2017

Prophets Of Rage caused a sensation when it emerged last year — and with good reason. The supergroup fused the instrumentalists from Rage Against The Machine with MCs Chuck D of Public Enemy and B Real of Cypress Hill for a potent, politically charged ensemble that provided a potent counterpoint — and more non-partisan than most realized — to the political rhetoric of the last U.S. presidential election. It’s also another showcase for guitarist Tom Morello and his usual cinematic soundscape of six-string generated sounds, from pounding power chords to shredding lyrics to otherwordly sonics that stretch the parameters of guitardom. Prophets Of Rage recently released its first full-length album, a 12-track affair produced by Brendan O’Brien, and Morello sat to talk about his latest band as well as his own work and Audioslave, including this year’s death of frontman Chris Cornell…

FGPO: We finally have Prophets Of Rage album. That was always the intent, yes?

Morello: That’s correct. It was a great chemistry we felt onstage during the Make America Rage Again Tour [in 2016] and we crossed our fingers and hoped that that chemistry carried over into the songwriting room. And it did. We wrote 10 songs in the first two weeks we were playing together, and [the album] was so exciting, so fun. It’s the most collaborative and fun band record that I’ve been involved with since the first Rage record.

FGPO: What kind of adjustments were necessary to make Prophets a studio band?

Morello: Well, we got very cocky and confident onstage playing all those shows, and we were like: “OK, what’s it like when there’s not 12,000 people there, and we’re just in a room?” And everyone was so egoless and open to one another’s ideas, and there was this kind of shared belief that in order for this band to be great in the studio we have to let it become itself.

FGPO: As opposed to when you were playing material from all of your other bands?

Morello: Exactly. Playing live we were engaging with the legacies of Rage and Cypress and PE. In the studio we forgot all that. It was like: “What is Prophets Of Rage?” So one day I might come in with a couple of riffs or Timmy [Commerford] might come in with a couple of riffs, and B and Chuck were very open to thematic ideas and would point out in the music we were playing what the responded to. It was really free-flowing.

FGPO: Did working with this particular group of players bring anything out of you that you never expected you would do?

Morello: Certainly from a guitar-playing perspective, I went outside of my comfort zone in a lot of different ways. I’ve used the same gear for a quarter of a century, practically, and I’ve made a lot of records with that gear. I thought this time I’m gonna let go, from the guitars I’m playing on this on down.

FGPO: So what did you play on the album?

Morello: I used on this album both the most expensive and the least expensive guitars I’ve ever played on record before. I borrowed Brendan O’Brien’s fancy ‘50s Telecaster that should be in a museum somewhere; I’m not a guitar collector in any way, shape or form, and I always think it’s [questionable] to put stock in the age of an instrument, but I gotta admit that one sounded fucking great. And then I also played my very first guitar that I ever bought for $50 at Rigoni Music in Libertyville, Illinois, a Kay guitar, a barely tunable instrument that sat in the closet for decades. I pulled it out and had my guitar tech kind of make sure it stayed together, and I played that all over the records. So we went to both ends of the spectrums.

FGPO: Did you try different amps, too?

Morello: Yeah. Brendan always brings a lot of amps, but I had this old kind of ‘80s Music Man Twin and this little beat-up kind of practice amp, I don’t even know what it is. It’s like a Fender Bassman tiny practice amp. And Brendan had a bunch of little tweedy amps. He brings his stuff every time; He’s a collector of gear, so there were these little kind of old tweed amps that we put the guitars through.

FGPO: Did you employ anything different in getting these very unique sounds you always have?

Morello: Well, y’know, the one thing that I’ve been precious about through my guitar-playing career is I just use the same pedals that I’ve had my whole life and try to continue to get new sounds out of those pedals. This time I broke with the etiquette and allowed a few visitors in, including this pedal called the Swollen Pickle, which is like a distortion overdrive pedal. You just turn it on and everything goes batshit crazy. I used it on some of the days I was playing solo, and it’s like the running of the bulls in a pedal. You just try to keep in front of it and try to stay alive.

FGPO: Were any of your riffs around from before, maybe with Rage or Audioslave, just waiting for their time?

Morello: Not really from the other bands. “Living On The 110” was one that I had in mind for awhile, but it went through a dramatic metamorphosis when Tim and Brad [Wilk] got ahold of it and then the push and pull of the arrangement with the other guys, and then Brendan gets in there. But that’s one when I was out hiking one day and I had to run home and kind of mouth that riff into my computer to make sure that one didn’t get away. And I think “Radical Eyes,” that riff came up in a jam during the Make America Rage Again Tour. But the rest was constructed full cloth from the rehearsals.

FGPO: You caused a stir recently by suggesting there was unreleased material from Audioslave that might come out. Any updates?

Morello: Y’know, I told the interviewer at the time that I just regretted saying that, ’cause now I’m gonna have to talk about it in every interview from now on. There’s no new news; we recorded music for Audioslave records, and we recorded more songs than made it on those records. I’m certain at some point it will come out, but right now there’s no plans for it. We had talked about it when Chris was alive, and we thought at some point there’ll be the right time to put something out. Now I don’t know that there’s ever a right time to put it out, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t come out, I guess.

FGPO: It’s been more than four months since Chris’ death. How has the grieving process evolved or changed for you?

Morello: It’s a horrible loss for those who loved him and for the world of music. He was a lovely person and one of the most talented people in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, so it’s a tragedy. We’ve been playing an a Capella version of “Like A Stone” at our shows, which we do as a tribute to him. We were just going to do it one day, and then it felt like it was healing, in a way, for everybody. It felt like a public mourning and celebration. It’s not just like listening to “Black Hole Sun” in your car or Instagramming; it’s like all of us together singing his beautiful melody and kind of expressing our love for him to the heavens.

FGPO: You’re working on a new solo album, too. What’s it going to be like?

Morello: It’s a big rock record that’s been percolating for some time, and I hope to have the music done before the end of the year and out in 2018. I would say it’s got big Morellian riffs and some of the hardest EDM producers, and then a lot of collaborations that range from Wu Tang to Pussy Riot.

FGPO: So how great is it that you’ve reached a point where you have such a defined sound it could be described as Morellian and people know exactly what that sounds like?

Morello: [laughs] I don’t know if that’s great; it’s part of my general lexicon, but I’m pleased to hear that. Lemme tell ya, at rehearsals the last couple of days there’s been a few pretty badass Morellian riffs, so I think the Prophets Of Rage songwriting may continue as we kick off this record. It feels like there’s a pretty fertile period of ideas that are still there. I have kind of figidity fingers; if there’s a break, maybe B takes a smoke break or something during rehearsal and I’ve got a guitar in my hands already, there’s no reason not to play something, and odds are that’ll spark some new idea for us to work on.