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Westword: In preparing for this interview, I read a lot of articles and reviews that have been written about Audioslave. So I want to start out by issuing an apology on behalf of my profession.
Tom Morello [following a long peal of laughter]: A long overdue apology, my friend. Long overdue.
Audioslave, a cooperative that features guitarist Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, and vocalist Chris Cornell, late of Soundgarden, has prompted a torrent of ink during its brief life span, and understandably so, given the severe shortage of intriguing, built-to-last rock stars on the current scene. Too bad much of what's been written and reported about the combo has been unremittingly moronic, for reasons that have everything to do with preconceptions and laziness. In short, most of those who've attempted to tell this tale have taken a cue from pop-songwriting hacks by relying solely on the most obvious hooks.
Here's one theory that may account for the coverage. Audioslave is a supergroup, and because supergroups usually suck (Blind Faith, anyone?), scribes were sharpening their scimitars even before the act's self-titled debut appeared in November 2002. But when Audioslave turned out to be a solid piece of work, the journo-pack shifted its approach, predicting that since most supergroups are short-lived (Blind Faith, anyone?), Audioslave would combust in short order. A self-fulfilling element was added to this prophecy by stories that cast doubts upon the closeness of the bandmates, not to mention narratives that implicitly accused Cornell of trying to take over the quartet. After all, correspondents hinted, even the most rudimentary mathematician could figure out that Audioslave's music should be three-quarters Rage to one-quarter Soundgarden, and when things didn't turn out that way, it meant that the sort of political infighting known for ripping supergroups apart (Blind Faith, anyone?) was obviously a factor already.
Such speculation seems a bit loopy, but it rings true to Morello. "That basically covers my last six months of doing press," he says with a chuckle. "It's been a surprise, in a way, because from the standpoint of the four individuals in the band, we've known what's been going on the whole time."
Simply put, he declares, "Audioslave is a brand-new band. It's not an amalgamation of previous bands. You could call us the first supergroup garage band, in that Audioslave was formed just like any other band that practices in a high school basement is formed -- by friends making music together. So while all of us had been in previous bands, we were really starting from day one, year zero, in putting this thing together. And yet, when the record was coming out, we discovered that a pall was cast by the history."
Past achievements likewise caused expectations for Audioslave to climb to skyscraper heights. Morello calls Rage and Soundgarden "genre-defining bands," and that's hardly hyperbole; the former was arguably the first outfit to incorporate hip-hop into metal without alienating riff lovers, and the latter laid the groundwork for the Seattle grunge movement that ultimately unleashed Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and more. Asking Audioslave to accomplish similar feats straight out of the gate in order to be viewed as a success is unrealistic in the extreme, especially considering the amount of time it took for Rage and Soundgarden to receive their due.
"That's the hilarious part," Morello says. "Because I remember the press's reaction when Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden were first formed." He effects a comically whiny critic's voice: "'Rock and rap together? Are you cra-a-a-zy? They'll never play that on the ra-di-oooooo.' And with Soundgarden, they would go" -- that voice again -- "'It's like Led Zeppelin, but they're out of tune. They seem so un-hap-py, and they're not wearing sequined robes.'" He cackles before noting, "That's the way it was, which is why it's so funny ten years down the road to have those bands be seen in this kind of iconic way."
Morello's wry sense of the absurd may come as a shock to anyone familiar with Rage, a notoriously somber four-piece. Then again, he was the instrumental backbone of the band, not its mouthpiece. The nephew of Jomo Kenyatta, onetime president of Kenya, Morello came of musical age in Los Angeles, developing a startlingly distinctive guitar style that mated meaty power chords, a funky sense of time and the ability to make noises using six strings and an amplifier that most of his so-called peers couldn't approximate without a synthesizer. Audioslave's sleeve notes that "all sounds" were "made by guitar, bass, drums and vocals" -- a point of clarification necessitated by his preternatural skills.
In the early '90s, Morello joined forces with Zack de la Rocha, a frontman with an equally distinctive family background: His father, Beto de la Rocha, was a muralist who celebrated Chicano culture and identity as part of a political art collective dubbed Los Four. Along with Commerford, a pal of de la Rocha's, and Wilk, a drummer who once backed up Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, the pair formed Rage, whose first album, 1992's Rage Against the Machine, was as incendiary as its cover photo, which pictured a man on fire. Politically informed music wasn't in vogue at the time, so de la Rocha's blistering left-wing commentaries on cuts such as "Bombtrack," "Killing in the Name" and "Bullet in the Head" came across as fresh and relevant.