Set It Off

When Zack de la Rocha left Rage Against the Machine in a well-publicized bout of musical and personal differences in October 2000, his bandmates Tom Morello, Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford didn't waste any time recruiting former Soundgarden belter Chris Cornell and forming the outfit they've unfortunately named Audioslave. They did waste a lot of time making an album, but the band's self-titled debut, finally released last November, rocks like a hurricane that used to concern itself with politics but would rather just be about burning gasoline and stuff now, thank you very much. We called Morello on tour in Tokyo and raged with him for a spell.

Dallas Observer: After Rage's breakup did you, Brad and Tim know immediately you wanted to keep playing together?

Tom Morello: Oh, definitely. We have an irreplaceable musical chemistry together, and just because Zack left, there was no reason to throw that away. Zack leaving actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we were at the time facing the prospect of a very long Rage Against the Machine hiatus while Zack went to do his solo record, so by him leaving, it actually just completely freed us up to not have to wait around. And we started right away figuring out what we were gonna do, and that ended up with us working with Chris Cornell, which has turned out tremendously for us. Immediately there was a four-person chemistry that was very dynamic; we all had the feeling that lightning had struck twice, because we wrote 21 songs in the first 19 rehearsals, and none of us had ever experienced anything like it. We wrote and recorded more new music in eight months with Chris than we did in the previous eight years with Rage Against the Machine.

DO: How did the band sort of take shape?

TM: Well, we kind of backed into the situation. Our friend and producer Rick Rubin suggested we jam with Chris. Rick's a big fan of both Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, and as a fan of rock thought that would be a jam session that might bear fruit. So we just kind of innocently started playing with Chris, and at the end of the first week we had written three of the songs that would later appear on our album; by that time it was really pretty clear that we were gonna be a band. It was so easy to write songs that felt pretty powerful, and we never looked back.

DO: Had you guys been into Soundgarden before hooking up with Chris?

TM: Oh yeah, definitely. Soundgarden, and the Badmotorfinger record especially, was very influential to Rage Against the Machine. I think that Soundgarden, along with Jane's Addiction and Living Colour, probably more than Nirvana, were responsible for changing the face and the shape of hard rock music--Living Colour in breaking through the hard rock color barrier and Jane's Addiction and Soundgarden in fusing hard rock music with an intelligence and an artistry and an integrity that was found in more underground music. Soundgarden was very vital in that regard, and was very influential.

DO: When had you first met Chris personally?

TM: Rage Against the Machine played a few shows on the 1996 Lollapalooza with Soundgarden, and at that time we crossed paths and met, just very briefly. Chris and I had remained friendly since then--he'd been to a couple of barbecues at my house and stuff. But that was really about it until we started playing regularly together.

DO: When did Audioslave first begin to jell as a band? Rehearsing, playing live, recording?

TM: It really happened rehearsing. We didn't play any cover songs, we didn't play any of the songs of our previous bands; we just started writing songs together, and it happened so smoothly and easily. After the first month of playing together we had almost two CDs' worth of material, so it was quite obvious to us that we were onto something.

DO: Has that new chemistry changed the way you, Brad and Tim work together?

TM: Definitely. There's been a positive shift in that regard, I think for two reasons: One is musically, in working with Chris--first of all, someone who was there every day and enthusiastic about being there every day--and the fact that he's one of the greatest singers in rock, you know? It challenged us and broadened our musical scope considerably, and made it really musically exciting to come to rehearsal every day. And secondly there was such a positive and supportive atmosphere of mutual respect in the rehearsal studio that I think it encouraged everybody; we gained a confidence that no matter what idea anybody brought in, we were gonna be able to make it into a fine song.

DO: Was that excitement missing from Rage's final days?

TM: Well, Rage Against the Machine made three studio albums over 10 years; the metabolic process of songwriting was as slow as a glacier, and the fact that Audioslave was writing literally a song a day was so different for us, and so encouraging. As a musician what you wanna do is you wanna play and write music, and we were able to do it in a way and at a pace we had never been able to do it before.

DO: Rage had a pretty unique relationship with its audience--you turned a lot of kids onto politics as well as music. What's the early response to Audioslave been like from your perspective?

TM: We've only played a handful of shows, but the audience's response has really been amazing, especially because at these shows we're playing entirely new music--we're playing our new record plus a cover song or two. One thing that's been interesting is that a lot of the fans in the audience are too young to have been Soundgarden or Rage Against the Machine fans; their introduction to Tom Morello, Chris Cornell, Brad Wilk and Timmy C. is Audioslave, and that's really pretty great. It's not like some oldies-revival act playing the county-fair circuit.

DO: Are you getting the chance to indulge parts of your musical personality you didn't get to in Rage? Parts that may have been overshadowed by that band's politics?

TM: No, I don't think that the political content ever left other elements underappreciated. I think that each band has just followed its own path. For me, as a political activist as well as a guitar player, it's presented a brand-new opportunity in forming Axis of Justice with System of a Down's Serj Tankian. Pouring my political energies into that, we've basically followed through on the promises made by Rage Against the Machine; our motto with Axis of Justice is, if you don't like what you see on the news, then make news of your own. With Rage Against the Machine I think that we did a fine job of encouraging and inspiring people to find out more and to act on their own behalf, and with Axis of Justice we are acting on our own behalf in fighting for social justice.

DO: What about Audioslave's instant profile? The experience has been totally unlike a typical new band's.

TM: I do not take it for granted. There's not a lot of precedent for artists merging from two genre-defining bands and getting the start that Audioslave has. Already, the Audioslave record had sold more copies than the Chris Cornell solo record and the last Rage Against the Machine record put together, you know? That's something that none of us take for granted; the special chemistry and musical relationship that the four of us share is lightning striking twice, and we're very appreciative of that.

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Mikael Wood