Tom Morello – What Rock’n’Roll Has Taught Me

The Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave/Street Sweeper Social Club guitarist talks corruption, nudity, and his past as an ‘exotic dancer’.

When you’re skint, you’re not above anything.

When I graduated from Harvard and moved to Hollywood, I was unemployable. I was literally starving, so I had to work menial labour and, at one point, I even worked as an exotic dancer. ‘Brick House’ [by The Commodores] was my jam! I did bachelorette parties and I’d go down to my boxer shorts. Would I go further? All I can say is thank god it was in the time before YouTube! You could make decent money doing that job – people do what they have to do.

Rock’n’roll should be as inclusive as possible.

Street Sweeper Social Club [Morello’s new project] is more than a band – it’s a social club. Everyone is invited and the bar for entry is very low. Merely rocking to our jams is a ticket for admittance. It was part of our mission statement – we wanted it to be revolutionary party jams. We wanted to make a record that you could shake your ass to while smashing the state.

The artists that have best captured that vibe are the ones that have made little if any distinction between artist and audience – whether it be folk singers like Joe Hill or bands like The Clash. Throughout my work, I’ve tried to engender the idea of ‘We’re in this together’ and these albums or concerts are not some kind of tutorial on globalisation, it’s a wicked-awesome party that will be inspiring too.

If you’re gonna do something illegal, have an escape route.

I’ve always looked at my music as more of a mission than a career. Some days, my mission is to play 16 songs at a rock concert. Other days, it’s to stand butt-ass naked with some electrical tape over my mouth at an anti-censorship protest. The day that Rage Against The Machine appeared naked at Lollapalooza [in 1993] to protest about the PMRC was one of the more harrowing things we did.

The crowd were throwing quarters at us! We figured out that we had about 15 minutes until the police came. So I went to the one place where a running, naked black man wouldn’t seem out of place – and that was the tourbus of [ska-punkers] Fishbone. I settled in and watched Star Wars while the police were outside.

Protest music shouldn’t just be for tough times – it should be constant.

Bands like Street Sweeper Social Club are more crucial than ever because it’s important to not be lulled into a torpor by the optimism that comes from having a President that reads above a third grade level. I think the bar was set so horrifically low over the past eight years that there was this sigh of relief after Bush left office. But through that sigh of relief, we’ve seen what I think is the biggest financial crime in history by people who have broken the economy and then come for handouts to bail them out.

We’ve also seen an expansion of the war in Afghanistan. For those who want a more just world, there’s still reason for optimism because we don’t have this Attila The Hun-type character in the Oval Office. But change doesn’t come from the top, it comes from people like readers of NME who stand up for their rights where they live, work and go to school.

That’s why acts like my new band are even more necessary at junctures in history like this. When Rage Against The Machine were together, one of the questions I’d get asked is why we were the only protest band. We weren’t the only band like that – but we were probably the only ones having hits. During Bush, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a band singing a hit song about Iraq. It’s very important to have people in the world of culture offering dissident voices at all times – it was true under Clinton, it was true under Bush, and it’s certainly true under Obama.

If I wasn’t a musician, I definitely wouldn’t want be a politician.

I kind of stumbled into working with Senator Alan Cranston [a progressive Democratic Senator in California during the ’80s] and was his scheduling secretary for about two years. I never had any real desire to work in politics but if there was any ember burning in me, it was extinguished working in that job because of two things: one of them was the fact that 80 per cent of the time I spent with the Senator, he was on the phone asking rich people for money.

It just made me understand that the whole business was dirty. He had to compromise his entire being every day. The other was the time a woman phoned up the office and wanted to complain that there were Mexicans moving into her neighbourhood. I said to her, ‘Ma’am, you’re a damn racist’ and she was indignant. I thought I was representing our cause well, but I got yelled at for a week by everyone for saying that! I thought to myself that if I’m in a job where I can’t call a damn racist a damn racist, then it’s not for me.

BOOTS RILEY IS THE BEST RAPPER THAT YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF. “Very early on when we started this band, Boots [Riley, singer in SSSC and also frontman of agit-rappers The Coup] called me up and asked me what direction he should take the lyrics of the ‘Street Sweeper Social Club’ album and I told him to just be himself. I think he’s a brilliant lyricist; the venom and satire and subtlety of what he writes is pretty astounding. Part of the conscious decision to bring this band to life was to rectify the fact that Boots doesn’t have a big enough reputation as an artist or an activist. Plus, he’s got some genre-defying dance moves and an amazing hair-do!”