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Tom Morello: 'Springsteen Concerts Are Orthopedically Exhausting'

Guitarist describes recording and touring with Bruce and the making of new album 'High Hopes'

Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello perform in Sydney, Australia.
Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
January 3, 2014 9:55 AM ET

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello first played with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at an Anaheim, California, gig in 2008. "It was the first time I can remember offhand when the show came to an absolute standstill," says Springsteen manager Jon Landau. "What he did on 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' was so unexpected, so thrilling. Bruce tends to move pretty quickly into the next song, but he couldn't because the crowd wouldn't let the applause die down." 

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It was the beginning of a close friendship and musical partnership between Springsteen and Morello that culminated last year when the Rage guitarist subbed in for Steven Van Zandt on an Australian tour. They recorded new tracks between shows and Morello continued to work on new material when the tour ended and Van Zandt returned to the band. Morello plays on eight songs on High Hopes, which is due out on January 14th — and will be streaming on the CBS website January 5th. We spoke with guitarist about the process. (Read our first exclusive interview with Springsteen about the LP here.)

Let's go back to the very start. How did you first learn that Bruce wanted you to play guitar on the Australian tour?
It's been a long time, but I believe that Jon Landau called me. I was very excited, and then immediately intimidated by the idea that I'd have to learn 600 Bruce Springsteen songs. [Laughs] I knew that Bruce's process for choosing a set list keeps everyone on their toes. Having seen so many Bruce Springsteen shows, I was like, "Oh my gosh. If I'm onstage three-and-a-half hours a day, that could be a challenge." And it was. But it was great.

How did you prepare?
Bruce gave me a list of 50 songs, and just to be clear, my strength is not learning music. [Laughs] I've never been particularly good at that. There are some guitar players that are virtual jukeboxes. I am not one of those. I had a list of 50 songs and three months before the tour was to begin, I buckled down and got to learning those 50 songs. It was a challenge and a great learning experience. I really got inside Bruce's catalog and saw the internal workings of his songwriting.

Did he ever call a song onstage that you didn't quite know?
Oh, dude! Those 50 songs were just for the first show! [Laughs] I had three months to learn 50 songs, and before the second show he texted me seven new songs to learn. I had about an hour and 45 minutes to learn those. And the next day it was a few more. Sometimes he takes requests from the audience. People wrote those signs. Finally, I just relaxed. I think there were 10 shows over the course of that Australian tour. We played 78 songs in that time. I think I got 77 of them right.

Which one did you mess up?
There's a song called "The Detroit Medley" that I was not familiar with. When he pulled the sign out my first thought was, "medley of what?" I then made the mistake of getting a little too cocky, so when the medley shifted to the second song, which was in a different key, I was kind of blissfully jamming along in the wrong key for a while. 

I'm sure standing onstage with those guys and playing the "Jungleland" guitar solo must have been surreal.
Oh, yeah! Probably the most out-of-body experience moment was that descending line in "Born to Run." I mean the "bam bam bam bam, bam bam bam bam bam." Bruce and I would be standing next to each other rocking that in front of an arena. . . . I discovered Bruce in my early twenties. I had not grown up on it, but when I did discover it, I went all in. All the cassettes that I listened to when I moved from Illinois to California were Bruce Springsteen cassettes and to later find myself on stage in Brisbane rocking "Badlands" was just a trip.

When during this process did talk begin of a new studio album that you would play on?
I don't know that there was ever talk of a new studio album. Before the tour, I was sent the song "American Skin (41 Shots)" to play guitar on. I did that in my home studio and Bruce seemed to like that very much. Then they sent me a couple more songs to have a go at or to solo on.  

The day before I left for Australia, we tracked "The Ghost of Tom Joad" in Los Angeles. It was me, Max [Weinberg] and Ron Aniello. We just did the basic tracks for that song and I sang my verse. But these studio sessions just kept occurring [laughs] without any formal notion of what we were doing. My assumption was just that "Bruce is always recording music." So it was fantastic that I was asked to be a part of it. I was psyched. 

I think we were in Brisbane on the first night of the tour. I got a message one night saying, "Hey, can you be in the studio at noon tomorrow?" And I'm like, "OK, [laughs] what are we doing?" And I was sent to some studio and played on X number of tracks. There may have been something I played on before where Bruce wanted me to add a solo with some direction. And then the whole band went into the studio to cut "High Hopes," which had become a staple of the live set at that point. And "Just Like Fire Would."

But Ron Aniello wasn't on tour with you, right?
No. Nick DiDia recorded the stuff in Australia. 

How many separate studios in Australia did you guys use?
Just two. I was in Brisbane by myself. And then the whole team rocked those songs live in the studio in Sydney. That was just one day. I'm not sure if there was any re-recording. 

The whole band was in the studio? 
Whole band. Backup singers, horn sections . . . Everybody.

When the tour ended did you guys keep recording? 
Oh yes. The songs kept coming and I kept rocking them. I worked on a number of different songs back in Los Angeles.

Did Bruce tell you at any point it was going so well he was going to make it an album?
I got the notion when we were in Australia that this was coalescing into what was going to be a major release. He seemed really psyched about what was being recorded and it sounded great. 

It's a pretty eclectic mix of covers, older songs and studio outtakes. That's a pretty unique approach to an album for him.
To me, it feels like a timeline. While the writing of the songs may be pretty eclectic, it feels like a pretty cohesive whole to me. It feels like such an honor to be part of a Bruce Springsteen record. I played on Wrecking Ball, but I'm playing a lot and singing on this one. Duetting too.

I can't think of another instance where a guest sings an entire verse on a Springsteen song, though I guess that Michelle Moore rapped the bridge of "Rocky Ground." Still, it's a pretty huge honor.
Absolutely. And I'm not a casual Bruce Springsteen fan. I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan. It's a tremendous honor to be able to collaborate in that way and to be asked to keep lending my guitar to songs is something I would have never dared to dream. But I'm happy to do it, man. 

How much studio time did you do after the tour ended? 
There were a few more dates in the studio, at least two or three Los Angeles dates and prior to Australia, I did the stuff in my home studio. And then afterwards I went out to a couple of studios.

Did you know these cover songs before the tour? Did you know "High Hopes?"
In December of 2012 I was driving around Los Angeles and listening to E Street Radio on SiriusXM. The song "High Hopes" came on and I had heard it before, but I was reminded of what a jam it was. I thought that might be a fun one to play. So in the middle of the night I sat in my driveway and I texted Bruce and said, "What do you think about 'High Hopes' for the upcoming thing?' He put that in the set. It just felt like a potential riff-rocker. It felt like it was a little in my wheelhouse of riffage, and I thought it would just be fun to rock out.

It's interesting that 'The Ghost of Tom Joad" has had such a long afterlife. It was the title track to an album from almost 20 years ago.
Well, I think it was one of Bruce's best songs and it really cuts to the core of his social justice writing in a way that it tells a story. The song tells a very human tale, and the musical accompaniment of the song invokes the very different ends of the struggle for social justice spectrum. There's a plaintive ballad, which feels like a lament. And there's the full-bore rocker that feels like a threat. 

"American Skin (41 Shots)" obviously took on another meaning after the death of Trayvon Martin.
Sure, absolutely. That song to me was the most challenging one. It was also the first one I did. Normally I'll go in there and tinker with a song a bit and try to capture inspiration and see if the world likes it or not. But that song just didn't come together for me. I went back to it a couple of times, and I'm glad that I did because at the end of the day I was really pleased with how the guitar solo and the rhythm stuff came out. But that one felt like it was work. I had to really work on that one.

Do you think you'll be playing a lot of these songs on the upcoming tour?
I would hope so. They're good songs.

With Steve back now, that's a lot of guitarists. How are you going to divide up the parts?
Well, I'll have a better indication of that once rehearsals begin in Cape Town. I'll be brushing up on the catalog before that though. 

Do you think the tour is going to continue through the year?
I have no idea. You'd have to ask Bruce. All I know is about the southern hemisphere ones.

But are you down for more shows if they come? 
Hey, I have yet to say no to a Bruce Springsteen inquiry with regard to playing songs or playing shows.

I think back to 1992. Imagine how hard it would be to explain this situation to somebody back then.
How do you mean?

Bruce was at a low point in his career and Rage was so intense and new and different from what he was doing. You'd need to say, "Bruce is going to re-form the E Street Band, but Steve Van Zandt will have to go to Norway to film a television show you can only watch on your computer. Bruce will bring in the guitarist from Rage to take his place . . ." It would just seem insane.
Yeah, it's pretty trippy. But I can only reiterate that it's such an honor. And now I've played at a bunch of shows and until Australia last year, I had played one song with the E Street Band and on a few occasions maybe a few more. Standing on stage and seeing Bruce work up close is pretty amazing.

All of them. Sometimes I feel like Max Weinberg is putting in more work than anyone. Playing drums like that for three-and-a-half hours is really intense.
Yeah. It is indeed three and a half hours. In the hotel bar after one show we were comparing notes. I was like, "Rage Against the Machine shows were exhausting, but the band never played longer than one hour and 20 minutes in its history." They were cardiovascularly exhausting shows, but the Bruce shows are orthopedically exhausting. 

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