Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Audible
Tom Morello On Storytelling & Rocking Out, Mixed-Race Identity, The 2020 Election & More
What's Tom Morello been up to during the pandemic? "I’ve been primarily spending my time keeping my 97-year-old mom, 89-year-old mother-in-law, wife, two young kids, a couple of dogs, and myself healthy and sane with mixed results," he tells GRAMMY.com via email.
This is not exactly what the GRAMMY-winning guitarist had in mind for 2020. Morello and his Rage Against The Machine bandmates were supposed to go on an energizing 40-date reunion world tour that was to stop by Coachella, but both were canceled due to COVID-19 earlier this year.
Now, he's adjusting and making music. You can listen to "Stand Up” and “You Belong To Me” out now with "with more coming," he says. While you can't hear his electrifying guitar live, you can hear him rock out and share stories in Tom Morello at Minetta Lane Theatre: Speaking Truth to Power Through Stories and Song, a partnership with Audible.
In an email conversation with GRAMMY.com, Morello told us how he feels that this partnership is his next great challenge. He also discusses how he feels about this year's presidential election, his mixed-race dentity being ignored by the media, his advice on making a difference and more.
How have you primarily been spending your time in lockdown?
I’ve been primarily spending my time keeping my 97-year-old mom, 89-year-old mother-in-law, wife, 2 young kids, a couple of dogs, and myself healthy and sane with mixed results. I’ve also been working on a plethora of new music including the recently released “Stand Up” and “You Belong To Me” with more coming.
How are you feeling in general in the run-up to this incredibly important presidential election?
Frankly, I’m pretty anxious about the 2020 Season Finale. We are at a dangerous historical juncture for our country and for our planet with impending proto-fascism and environmental destruction looming. It’s time for all hands on deck if we are to find that light at the end of the tunnel.
How has not being able to traditionally tour and perform sitting with you?
Not being able to tour is sitting with me very poorly. I was scheduled to be on an extensive global Rage Against The Machine jaunt currently and was very much looking forward to that. But, it’s important to not tour again until it is safe for the band and fans and crew to gather. A socially distanced mosh pit is not for me.
How did your partnership with Audible come about?
Throughout my career, I’ve assembled countless different artistic iterations. From the arena and stadium rocking of RATM and Audioslave to the agit folk propaganda of The Nightwatchman at the barricades, to the visual and sonic overload of The Atlas Underground, I’ve always enjoyed undertaking new and challenging creative ventures. The idea of a one-man Off-Broadway performance featuring story-telling and shredding guitar was very appealing to me and an exciting challenge to tackle.
How did working with T Bone Burnett add to your Audible performance experience?
T Bone’s considerable wisdom and laid-back demeanor helped ease the transition for me for this unique kind of performance. His suggestions were very helpful and he’s a cool cat.
How did you decide which personal anecdotes felt most important to include in the storytelling portion?
I’ve always been a storyteller, whether it was around the cafeteria table in school, at the campfire with acoustic guitars, or in the back room of the Rainbow Bar & Grill, I’ve been known to spin a yarn or two. My life and career has been a crazy patchwork mosaic of unexpected experiences and challenges. A lot of those stories make for moving, rocking, or outrageously embarrassing punchlines. I thought very hard about how to get at who I am as an artist, a guitarist, a son, a husband, a father, and an activist and then sprinkle in some death-defying high-wire shredding solos.
You say in the "Practicing Guitar" selection that: "they say no great art can be made without a chip on your shoulder." How, in brief, does this resonate with you?
That probably could have been rephrased as “no great art can be made without father issues.” I’ll show him!
We're living in one of the most politically divisive/active times in recent memory. What's your advice to the average person who wants to educate themselves on the issues and make a difference?
The principal issue that you need to educate yourself on is that YOU are the one that can make a difference. History is not something that happens, history is something that you make. Every progressive, radical, or revolutionary change that has ever happened in the history of this country was caused by average, ordinary people standing up in their place and time. Those people had no more courage, power, intelligence, creativity, or money than anyone reading this right now. They just did it. I’ve always believed that we should aim for the world we really want without compromise or apology. The world is not going to change itself, that’s up to you.
You've often spoken of being "the only black kid in an all-white town, the only anarchist at a conservative high school, the only heavy metal guitarist at Harvard University, and the only Ivy League Star Trek nerd in the biggest political rap-rock band of all time." Too often, the music industry does not showcase Black musicians' complexity as artists and people (see: the "Urban" category). To what extent do you still experience this? What work is there left to be done?
It is indeed a concern and it has been a frustration throughout my career. Because I don’t play what is stereotypically referred to as “urban music,” the music I do make is virtually ignored by industry, press, radio, etc. that features Black artists. Musicians, like myself and Slash for example, while we ply our trade in rock’n’roll we are of mixed race and that fact is often completely overlooked, not only by the industry but by fans. I cannot tell you how many times “die-hard fans” have expressed their outrage and disbelief via social media whenever I reference being Black. It causes a cognitive dissonance that sometimes upsets them greatly. There is a very broad, deep, and nuanced range of music that is created by African-American musicians that often goes unrecognized as such. And all of this is quite surprising, given the fact that the genre of rock’n’roll from Chuck Berry to Fats Domino to Little Richard was launched by African-American artists.
Words by Jennifer Velez. Interview by Rachel Brodsky.