Slave New World
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.
These screeds were often one-dimensional, as well, but the vital playing of Commerford, Wilk and, most of all, Morello more than compensated for this drawback on disc and on stage. During its first national tour, Rage established itself as one of the best live acts of its era, and as the years passed, the passion of its performances never flagged. In May 1997, the band served as the opening act for U2 at Mile High Stadium, and in the face of weather as nasty as any at a major Colorado outdoor gig that decade, de la Rocha and company put on a show that was hotter than a nuclear reaction. So scorching was Rage that Bono would have been excused for staying in his dressing room until the crowd dissipated -- and in retrospect, he probably should have.
Unfortunately, the raw talent with which Rage overflowed never truly translated into the sort of artistic growth of which it seemed capable. The players issued only two other collections of original material -- 1996's Evil Empire and 1999's The Battle of Los Angeles -- and even though both sport some astonishing offerings, they largely stick with the formula established on their first platter rather than building upon it. In some ways, Rage's 2000 studio farewell, a batch of covers dubbed Renegades, is actually the band's most satisfying CD, if only because the array of songs -- from composers as disparate as Bob Dylan and Eric B. & Rakim -- provided far more musical and lyrical variety than anything else in the Machine catalogue.
By the time Renegades hit stores, de la Rocha had departed for a solo career that's apparently still in a conceptual phase. But Morello, Commerford and Wilk felt no need to split, and they began trolling for a new comrade. After an initial dalliance with B-Real of Cypress Hill, they took the suggestion of Renegades producer Rick Rubin and contacted Cornell, who had been on his own since April 1997, when the members of Soundgarden officially dissolved their partnership in favor of individual projects. In the years that followed, Cornell put out an album under his own name, 1999's Euphoria Morning, that was more low-key than many observers anticipated. When it failed to find an audience on par with the one that embraced Soundgarden's most popular LP, 1994's excellent Superunknown, he slipped from view.
Cornell had a modicum of supergroup experience, having sung for Temple of the Dog, a 1990 tribute to late Mother Love Bone screecher Andrew Wood, and according to everyone concerned, the chemistry between him and the Rage refugees was bubbly from the beginning. But when arguments over profit potential erupted among assorted managers, Cornell backed out -- a key bit of evidence seized upon by journalists interested in characterizing Audioslave as more of a business merger than a band.
Somehow, the subsequent decision by all parties to sack their representatives and sign up jointly under a single firm is seldom taken into consideration. Neither is the quality of the disc the musicians made, which has a more sophisticated flow than anything Rage ever managed, taking listeners through a myriad of emotions instead of only a handful.
"We wanted to make the kind of record that was a listening experience from beginning to end," Morello acknowledges. "We weren't trying to pad out a few singles with some filler. We wanted it to be like some of our favorite records -- Led Zeppelin IV, the Clash's London Calling -- where you can drop the needle on the first song and go on a journey with the band."
Some stops on this trip are more rewarding than others; the album has some slack moments. But almost every cut, from beefy workouts like "Set It Off" and "Exploder" to more contemplative numbers such as "I Am the Highway" and "The Last Remaining Light," gives off a steady glow of intelligence and earnestness that Morello sees as a link to the musicians' better-known work. "One of the things I've found among the fans of our other bands is that they were drawn to those bands because the music was made with honesty and integrity," he says. "And that's exactly what we've done with Audioslave."
As a bonus, Cornell adds a dash of contrariness to the proceedings. "Cochise," the first song and single on Audioslave, is a great radio track complete with a clacking, wheel-of-fortune intro courtesy of Morello that expands into a monstrous guitar groove over which Cornell wails with feverish aplomb. But it also contains lyrics that seem aimed directly at Rage-a-holics who miss de la Rocha's calls for revolution: "I'm not a martyr/I'm not a prophet/And I won't preach to you."
By sticking to this pledge for the remainder of the album, Audioslave stays free of the ideological straitjacket that limited Rage, yet doesn't prevent its members from exercising their duties as citizens of the world. Indeed, Morello has been a veritable free-speech poster child of late, blasting a possible Iraq attack and other policies laid down by President George W. Bush.
"The Bush administration is champing at the bit to go to war, but hasn't been able to so far because the international community recognizes what they're up to," he says. "This is not about terrorism; it's not about weapons of mass destruction. It's about oil, and it's about obfuscating Bush's horrible domestic record. While this is going on, they're sneaking through the biggest tax cuts for the rich in memory, and the deficits are going through the roof. It's very much like the Roman Empire, where they're conquering countries abroad -- Afghanistan, Iraq -- while at home, the economy's going into the toilet and there's growing inequality and unrest."
As a tool to combat these ills, Morello co-founded Axis of Justice (www.axisofjustice.org), an organization that he says "answers the question that Rage fans have been asking me for ages, which is, 'How do we get involved?' For a progressive-minded fan of music in basically any city and town around the world, we can plug you in today so you can get involved in environmental issues, peace issues, anti-racism. If you're a victim of physical or sexual abuse, you can get help right now from Axis of Justice.
"From an activist standpoint," he goes on, "Axis of Justice has gotten more tangible political work done in the last year than Rage Against the Machine did in ten. So I don't think it's necessarily the function of a band -- even Rage -- to be wholly consumed with political organizing. And there's definitely a benefit to having the music and the political action separate, because Axis of Justice is unfettered by the inevitable Behind the Music blowups that happen in all rock bands." After another round of laughter, he says, "It's like there's a firewall built between them. Band's not getting along, so the benefit concert is canceled? Won't happen."
Neither, Morello says, will the swift breakup of Audioslave, despite persistent predictions to the contrary. "I think that will slowly be put to rest. To me, it's very clear that Audioslave is a band that's here to stay, that we've made a fine rock record, and that we're coming to your town soon. Our show in Denver will be our first full-length concert on American soil -- and when you see the band play, all doubts will be dispelled."
And if they aren't? Then Morello deserves another apology.
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