"This is the first Rage Against the Machine release of any kind in 12 years," Tom Morello says of XX, a 20th anniversary box set including their remastered 1992 debut album and original demos. The set also features DVDs capturing full live shows, from their first public performance in October 1991 at California State University in Northridge to their 2010 gig at London's Finsbury Park. "That to me is the more staggering number than, 'It's been 20 years since the record came out.'"
The set may be the band's only activity for a while: there are currently no plans to record new music or tour. "If it were up to me, I would've made two records a year," Morello says. "As it is, we have just three records of original material over 20 years." Later in the interview, he adds, "Whether or not we ever play music again in any capacity is unknown. I'm grateful for the music we played together, and thank goodness the cameras were rolling." In this exclusive Q&A, Morello discusses Rage Against the Machine's place in music history, why they aren't touring and his relationship with singer Zack De La Rocha.
Did you ever get emotional watching the old footage?
Yeah, in some ways, it's bittersweet. It's like, the very singular and combustible chemistry that made Rage Against the Machine the force of nature that it was, was the same thing that kept us from producing more. If it were up to me, I would've made two records a year. As it is, we have just three records of original material over 20 years. It's a testament to the strength of that material and to the mythos of the Rage live shows that there is an interest 20 years later in people looking at it. What this box set does is celebrate the exciting fusion of genres and politics that is Rage Against the Machine. It is something that is able to be a victory lap for fans of the band – and it's also a reminder for me of work left undone.
What is there left to accomplish for the band?
In some way, it's the 20th anniversary of the first record, and that specific cauldron of ideas and where we were on the graph of music history. Rage was maybe the first in that first wave of post-Nirvana bands. [There are] things that preceded Nirvana – Jane's Addiction, Soundgarden to a certain degree, Living Colour . . . commercially successful, but I believe it was Nirvana that convinced record companies for the first time in their history to just leave the artist alone. I'll tell you, they sure as hell didn't understand Rage Against the Machine, but they knew that if they got out of the way, it was going to be best for everybody.
Were you guys big Nirvana fans?
The first time I heard Nirvana was back when Tim [Commerford] played them for me at an early Rage Against the Machine rehearsal. They cranked that thing in the truck, and we listened to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," like, 15 times. I mean, now it's a song and a band and a record that is oversaturated in a way that I don't know that I'm ever going to get off on "Smells Like Teen Spirit" again. But I remember that first night, very clearly, those guys cranking it up. We were moshing around in the parking lot of our rehearsal space.
Is the 20-year milestone weird to think about? Does it feel that long?
Maybe I haven't entirely processed it. On the one hand, it feels like time has blown by. On the other hand it feels like lifetimes ago that we were writing those songs together in that small San Fernando Valley rehearsal room. It's sort of bizarre either way. On the one hand it seems like a very quick continuum, even with the seven-year break [from 2000 until 2007].
Here's the thing: this is the first Rage Against the Machine release of any kind in 12 years. That to me is the more staggering number than, "It's been 20 years since the record came out." The reason why we're doing this is very clear and simple: it's for our fans, which I believe are the single most dedicated, wild in concert, and patient fans maybe in the history of rock music. It was past due that we really did something that honored their commitment to us over the course of 20 years.
How did the band assemble the box? Did you all sit in a room together, getting nostalgic?
The job of sculpting the content was Rick Rubin's, who executive produced the package. There was so much stuff to go through, we left that in his hands. We drew out the guidelines. We wanted it to be every video, the first concert, Finsbury. But when it came to organizing the packaging, we left it in Rick's capable and objective hands.
Has Rick given you direction on where he thinks Rage should go in the future?
[Laughs] Maybe I shouldn't laugh at that. I don't know that there's much direction to go. There's no plans, no current direction of anything, so I guess the answer is no. It was my great hope that we'd celebrate the 20th anniversary with a five-continent world tour. But short of that, this box set that celebrates the 20-year span of Rage Against the Machine is something that will hopefully be very satisfying for longtime Rage Against the Machine fans as well as turn on new fans to what the band is all about.
Why is it so difficult to stage a Rage tour at this point?
We'd have to agree to go on one. Once a year, the band meets and very seriously discusses and turns down awesome offers to tour the world. That's part of the program. I'm very grateful that we did agree to do is this box set, which we're very, very proud of. Some of those early videos, you know, we're playing these clubs for 25 people. I remember that period very, very well. I had been in a lot of bands before Rage Against the Machine, bands that had tried hard to make it, and with that band, with Rage, it just spontaneously combusted. It immediately connected with something in the reptilian brain of fans of rock, hip-hop, punk, metal, activists in a way that was global right off the bat.
Are there any bands right now you think could reach the heights Rage did?
Here's the thing. When Rage finally did break, and sort of created a genre of music, the audience that we created was then served by bands that may have had some of the sonic ingredients, but completely lacked the politics. They may have been artistically lacking in other ways, depending on your subjective point of view. You'd think that in the wake of Rage's success, in the course of the last 20 years, there'd be other examples of bands that were able to fuse genres with political content. And there hasn't been any. I think that really just speaks to the very, very unique musical and personal chemistry of the four guys in Rage Against the Machine. That band could've happened nowhere but Los Angeles, and it could've happened in no other way than with Zack, Tim, Brad [Wilk] and myself.
I'm curious – what is your relationship with Zack today? When was the last time the band got together and played music in a room?
Oh, I mean, we communicate fairly regularly, and my relationship with those three guys is what it's been for some time. I love them. I consider them brothers and brothers-in-arms, and whether or not we ever play music again in any capacity is unknown. I'm grateful for the music we played together, and thank goodness the cameras were rolling at that first show at Cal State Northridge, and it's been very hard. For me, as a fan, not just as a member of the band, it's some of the most exciting stuff I've ever had the pleasure to hear, let alone to be a part of.
So L.A. Rising [the band's own 20th anniversary festival last year] might've been the last Rage show?
Every show we've ever played might've been the last. [Laughs]