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When doing covers like Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill A Man,” for the Renegades album, how did you balance lending your own touch and doing justice to the originals?
All of the music, except for maybe one or two songs, was written pretty independently of any lyrical content. So, we basically wrote songs with strong riffs and good arrangements that we thought were rocking and Zach decided what he was going to sing on. The riffs on “Maggie’s Farm” were written as a cool Rage Against the Machine riff or jam and it later had the Dylan lyrics applied to it. It was about writing and developing the music and tone that was original and reflected our band, but still enabling the lyrics of the original artist to shine through—that’s the tough part of doing cover songs.
What attracted you to the Marshall JMC 800 head and Peavey cabinet combo?
The reason behind that was I had to record a demo for my band on the weekend and all my gear got stolen out of my van. I only had a couple days to replace the gear and I went to the local music store in Hollywood. I went in there and they only had one Peavey cabinet, so I bought that. They had two heads, a Marshall and something else. I was suspicious of the something else so I bought the Marshall and that was it. It worked on that demo and I’ve loved the sound from that combo to this day—no magical rhyme or reason, but it has worked out for me quite well.
For years I was seeking out this miraculous tone and I was banging my head against the wall trying to get all this horrible rack gear—which I thought made my sound worse—and cab/head combinations, but nothing really worked. Finally, I went back to the Marshall head and Peavey cabinet. I was at rehearsal and I spent at least four hours tweaking knobs just a hair this way and a hair that way to a point where I felt the sound was reasonable, and I marked those settings. This happened in ’88 or ‘89 and those markings are the same ones I’ve used to this day. They are the same markings/settings I used at every show and every record I’ve ever made.
If you were sent to a desert island—that happened to have electricity—with one guitar and one effect, which would they be?
Wow, that’s a very good question. If I had to choose just one guitar and it had to be an electric, I’d have to say the “Arm the Homeless” Frankenstein-guitar because we’ve been friends for a long time. And if I could only pick one effect pedal… there is quite a variety of sonic flavors, I’d probably choose an echo-style pedal because I think that would sound best since I’d be mournful out there all alone on the desert isle.
I know that one of your other passions, dating back to your Harvard days, is politics. Obviously, this can be polarizing in music; how do you react to people who might say you should just be a guitar player?
Well, I mean I’m a guitar player who lives in the United States. In the United States, we have what we call the Bill of Rights, which includes the freedom of speech. So, first of all, I’d remind them that we have that freedom and if they prefer a totalitarian society where musicians aren’t allowed to speak on political matters, they need to find to another country because it’s not this one. And don’t get me wrong, these types of criticisms only come from people who have dissenting opinions and thoughts. The argument that musicians need to be just musicians not fully express themselves usually stops once they find someone who agrees with them. Whether it’s an actor like Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger or a conservative artist, we should all agree that we should be able to speak our mind freely, even if we disagree on politics, war or even music.
Another passion that I happen to share is a never-ending admiration for the Cubs. With another playoff sweep under their belt, what’s your take on being a Cubs fan?
As Cubs fan know, we keep finding out that there is no basement. You think you’re at the bottom, but the elevator keeps going down. It’s incredible. This year, I was cynical from the start while everyone was saying “This is the best Cubs team ever.” That doesn’t matter—we are the Cubs. If you give us the greatest team ever assembled, we’ll find a way to screw it up.
I equate it to having a vengeful girlfriend who builds you up with all that love during the regular season, then come playoff time, she kicks you in the balls and takes your rent money, but you just can’t find it in your heart to leave her.
Exactly man, it is like a train-wreck of a relationship that you just don’t know how to end. Every time she lets you down, you give her one last chance.
What can we expect from Tom Morello in 2009?
Well, I know for sure that I’ll be doing a lot of Nightwatchman dates in the coming year and continuing the Axis of Justice organization [axisofjustice.org] that I run with Serj Tankian [System of a Down]. I got a pretty large cache of Nightwatchman songs that I haven’t released yet so I’ll definitely continue writing and recording. Also, I had a great time playing Rage Against the Machine shows over the course of the year and half and I have no doubt that we’ll continue to do more of those in the future.