The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine Fame — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss (#591)

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with musician, singer, rapper, songwriter, and political activist Tom Morello, best known for his tenures with the rock bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. The interview is from my 2017 TV show Fear{less}, which was produced by Wild West Productions, the TV and film production company spearheaded by actor, producer, and former podcast guest Vince Vaughn.

Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Musicor on your favorite podcast platform. You can watch the interview on YouTube here.

The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine Fame — Fear{less} with Tim Ferriss (#591)


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Tim Ferriss: I’m Tim Ferriss, author, entrepreneur, angel investor, and now TV host. I’ve spent my entire adult life asking questions then scouring the globe to find the answers. On this show, I’ll share the secrets of pioneers who have faced their own fears. We’ll dig into the hard times, big mistakes, tough decisions, and how they got through it all. The goal isn’t to be fearless. The goal is to learn to fear less.

Welcome to Fear{less}. I’m your host, Tim Ferriss. And on this very stage, we’ll be deconstructing world class performers of all different types to uncover the specific tactics they’ve used to overcome doubt, tackle their hardest decisions, and ultimately, succeed on their own terms.

So my guest tonight is a revolutionary, and I mean that literally, his musical talents have resulted in the sale of more than 25 million albums and garnered two Grammys. Rolling Stone has recognized him as one of the greatest guitarists of all time and yet, he’s only had two formal guitar lessons. He’s a founding member of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, The Nightwatchman, and Prophets of Rage. Please welcome to the stage, musician, singer, songwriter, and author, Tom Morello.

Tom Morello: Hello. Thank you very much.

Tim Ferriss: You guys ready for a show?

Audience: Yep. Yes.

Tom Morello: I’m glad.

Tim Ferriss: So thank you so much for taking the time.

Tom Morello: My pleasure. Thank you.

Tim Ferriss: First and foremost, we’re going to start with a video.

Tom Morello: Okay.

Tim Ferriss: And then we’ll work backwards from there.

Tom Morello: Sounds great.

Tim Ferriss: All right. Let’s take a look.

Tom Morello: A smattering of greatest hits and barnyard animal noises. Good start to bang it out.

Tim Ferriss: What is it like to try something for the first time and then go present it to others? Whether it’s to your bandmates or to an audience?

Tom Morello: Yeah. Well, when you pick up a guitar, you do so because you like guitar playing and guitar players. So, the natural instinct is to play like your favorites. In my case, it was sort of my punk rock heroes and then Randy Rhoads and some of the heavy metal guitar players and amassing that technique. It wasn’t until maybe late in my college career, when I was saddled with, at that time everybody liked the Edward Van Halen guitar because it only had one knob on it, the volume knob, that was the cool thing.

I didn’t have one of those. I had a guitar with a whole bunch of knobs on it, so it was quite uncool. But one of the knobs that did have on it was a pickup selector switch, which chooses between the two, which pickup you’re going to hear sound out of. And I found that if I manipulated that, the toggle switch with one of the pickups on zero, the other on 10, it worked as kind of a kill switch. Then I could play notes here and it sounded like it was a staccato kind of playing that I had never heard a guitar make. Then I began practicing the eccentricities in my playing. And once I got out of the rut of thinking that I needed to sound like other guitar players, the horizons were wide open.

And the nail in the coffin of traditional guitar playing for me was an early Rage Against the Machine gig in the San Fernando Valley. We were opening up for two cover bands and the cover bands had very technically talented guitar players. They shred like crazy and played beautifully and brilliantly. But I thought to myself, “If I’m on a bill with three other guitar players who have that level of useless technique, I don’t need to be the fourth one.” And so I veered the ship dramatically towards concentrating on the eccentricities in my playing and things that were very unique and then trying to forge into music.

Now that did not always meet with popular acclaim, both in my band and in the world at large, because I’d play guitar with a pen or with an Allen wrench, which is the thing that you use to kind of change the tuning on it or/and then I began rather than trying to, rather than practicing other guitar players’ licks, I would just look at the world of sound. And sometimes, I would sit in my apartment and just listen. And if there was a lawn mower outside, I’d do my best to approximate that. If there was a television program about World War II or about the lions of the Serengeti, whatever was coming out, I would just do my best to approximate it. And while I couldn’t play those sounds exactly, I was amassing a catalog of noises and textures and rhythms that were totally unconventional. And then building them into the rock and roll songs of Rage Against the Machine.

Tim Ferriss: I remember the exact moment, the exact room where I first heard Rage Against the Machine. It was, I want to say, 1992. I was in Japan, first time overseas for the first time, as an exchange student and I was in my bedroom and some of my friends had sent me the first Rage album. And I remember listening to it and I was always a metal head. And I was like, “What the fuck is this?” The sound was so unique. And we’re going to back into that, so we won’t dig into that part of the chronology right now, but I like your hat.

Tom Morello: Thanks. It’s been a good year.

Tim Ferriss: It’s been a very good year. So, where did your parents meet? I think this might be a good place to start.

Tom Morello: Yeah. My mom comes from a small coal mining town in Central Illinois called Marseilles, Illinois. It’s spelled like Marseilles, France, but it’s in Central Illinois, so it’s pronounced Marseilles. And for some reason, my mom is a single woman in the mid 1940s, left to travel the world by herself for about 20 years. She taught all around the globe and eventually, found herself in East Africa, teaching in Kenya where she met my dad.

Tim Ferriss: And you were born in the US.

Tom Morello: I was born in the US. Yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: So, they — 

Tom Morello: They parted ways. And my dad was part of a first UN delegation. And then they split, he went back to Kenya, she went back to Illinois.

Tim Ferriss: Have you ever explored why your mom decided to travel the world by herself?

Tom Morello: Yeah, it’s a question that she hasn’t been able to answer to my satisfaction. My mom is 93 now and I still ask her that periodically. But there’s something sort of unique in her constitution that made her boldly, she lived in Spain, Japan, Germany, right after World War II, East Africa. She was fearless in her travels. And I’ve inherited at least a pinch of that.

Tim Ferriss: Libertyville. When did you move?

Tom Morello: Yeah, so we lived for, as a single mom now living in the big city, she moved back where she had support from family. And then the challenge then became finding, my mom was overly qualified to teach world history and US history, not just from her travels, but from her studies. She had a master’s degree. Found it difficult to find a place for us to live because this was 1965 and while the high schools in the northern suburbs were happy to have her as a teacher, they warned her that we, as an interracial family, meaning me, a half-African one-year-old, and her, an Irish-Italian white lady, would be unwelcomed to dwell within the city. Should she teach there, we have to live somewhere else.

And the real estate agent though went, had to go door-to-door in the apartment building where we were renting, to ask permission from the other tenants, letting them know that this was going to be an interracial family. How they sold us to the locals was basically saying, “Look, this is not an American Negro. This is a very exotic African child.” And that worked swimmingly well until I was old enough to date their daughters. And then you could be the king of Nigeria and no dads are going to be into that.

Tim Ferriss: They’re like, “All right, plus one for exotic, but I have bad news.”

Tom Morello: So that was my introduction. I literally integrated the town of Libertyville, Illinois, according to the real estate. That prior to my arrival, there were no people of color residing within its borders.

Tim Ferriss: And that was at one?

Tom Morello: It was at one, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: How would you describe growing up in that town, in that part?

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah. Well, it was, I mean, on the one hand, it’s this idyllic Chicago suburb. There’s, you can ride your bike. There’s, you can fish. There’s fields to play football in and it has a tremendous public high school system, public school system, but then every once in a while there might be, you might find a noose in your family’s garage.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Did that actually happen?

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah. I saw a couple nooses growing up. One was in the garage when I was 13. Other was when I was 15, just walking past the Brown’s Chicken. And so that was a part of, those were threads in the cloth of growing up there, which I kind of took for granted. I had great friends and great experiences, but it was not a racist-free environment.

Tim Ferriss: How did your mom, if she did, encourage you to respond?

Tom Morello: Well, yeah. I mean, my mom remains the most radical member of the Morello family to this day. And I was at a daycare place, I was probably four years old and there was an older kid, a couple of years older, who was race taunting me and beating me up or being very physical with me on a daily basis. I’d come home to my mom and she, at four years old, taught me about a fellow by the name of Malcolm X. She said, “You must stand up. You must stand up.” Let’s hear it from Malcolm X. You must — the story gets pretty dramatic. So, she said, “You have to stand up for yourself. You have to stand up against racism, wherever and whenever it rears its head.” I’m like, “Mom, I’m four.”

And she’d say, she gave me like some, the person had a particular litany of epithets that they were calling me. And so, she gave me, I had to memorize something to say back, I forget. It was like cracker ass, cracker something like that. I don’t know what it was. I didn’t know what any of the words meant, but I’m like, “This sounds like there’s going to be trouble tomorrow, Ma.” And then she like balled up my fist and said, “You go at him.” I’m like, “This sounds horrible. This is a big kid. Horrible.”

So, I’d go there like dreading daycare the following day. And I’m there and the kid’s on me in there, N wording me and they’re attacking me. And I’m like, “You acker ass smacker,” whatever. I can’t really remember. And I’ve taken on, I start going at him and it causes such a ruckus that — I’m losing the physical battle, but it caused such a ruckus that the person who ran the daycare for the first time paid attention to the disagreement. And I got to, with smug satisfaction, watch as the young racist child’s mouth was washed out with soap in front of the whole crew. And I went, “There might be something to this Malcolm X.”

Tim Ferriss: What effect did that have on you? And I know that sounds like a very generic, maybe boring question, but — 

Tom Morello: Well, I mean — 

Tim Ferriss: — as someone who didn’t grow up with that.

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah. Well, people ask, like, “How were you politicized?” And it wasn’t from reading Noam Chomsky in high school. It was recognizing that there was grave injustice on the playground. And that’s something that was, it’s part of my DNA was that I had a very sort of strong base of support in my home and a feeling of self-worth that came in sharp contrast to, and I had many good friends. This was not — there was Klan in Libertyville, but it was a lot of great friends and a lot of great teachers and a lot of supportive people.

But I did come up regularly against people who did not think, because of the color of my skin, I was as smart as they were, I was as good as they were, that I was as decent a person as they were. But I came, I had and my spine was steeled by the love, care, and resilience of my family to know that I’m just as good as anybody in the room. And so, well. And so it was with confidence that I went into sometimes the troubled stuff that came up.

Tim Ferriss: Do you self-identify as black? Is that how you identify yourself?

Tom Morello: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, I’ve thought. I mean, well, I’m genetically half white as the only black guy in an all white town, I was the blackest black, black ever guy. None more black, man.

Tim Ferriss: So when did music enter the picture?

Tom Morello: Yeah, I loved rock and roll from the time, maybe 11 or 12 years old. And Kiss was my first concert and it dovetailed with my love of comic books and sort of the superhero elements. But then the aggression of the electric guitars of the bands like AC/DC and Black Sabbath, I was full 7-Eleven, suburban parking lot metal, all up and down the line. And I loved music. And I actually played in a band when I was 13 years old as a singer. Before my voice changed, I was able to do a pretty good Robert Plant impression. But when it descended into the rich milk chocolate baritone you hear today, it was clear that I was not going to be auditioning for AC/DC, so I had to switch to guitar.

Tim Ferriss: I mean, I’ve had the experience, I think like a lot of kids, my first album ever bought was Master of Puppets.

Tom Morello: Sure.

Tim Ferriss: And I’m like, “All right.”

Tom Morello: Those are hard songs. [crosstalk 00:13:38] — 

Tim Ferriss: “I’m going to be Kirk Hammett.” Lo and behold, demoralized a few weeks later, so I had to stop.

Tom Morello: Yes, yes, yes. There’s a lot of opportunity to be demoralized when beginning guitar. When I first purchased my guitar at 13, it took me four years to actually play it. But I took a couple of guitar lessons. I wanted to learn Led Zeppelin and Kiss songs, so I plunked down my $5 at the music store and said, “Teach me these.” And they said, “No, son. Today, we have to learn to tune the guitar.” That sounded like a huge waste of time to me. So, I said, “Bring it on. I’ll put in my dues. I’ll put in a week’s worth of dues and learn how to tune this thing.”

So I came back the next week. I said, “Now, it’s time for ‘Detroit Rock City,’ right?” It’s like, “No, this week we’re going to learn the C-major scale.” I’m like, “I’m out. That is some BS, man. That’s a waste of everybody’s time.” And so the guitar sat in the closet for four years. And at 17, I had the punk rock revelation that many do. Until that point, all the bands, I loved that it seemed, it was completely inaccessible. I had a basement in suburbia on which to practice and these guys had castles on Scottish lochs and groupies and limos and guitars that cost $10,000. And I had a $50-guitar on a basement.

When I got the Sex Pistols cassette, I was literally in a band within 24 hours of purchasing the cassette, without knowing how to play one note on the guitar. I ran into the Libertyville Drama Club and announced, “We’re going to be a band. I’ve got a guitar, so I’m going to be the guitar player. The first three of you that raise their hands are in the band, regardless of musical experience.” So three guys raised their hands, I mean.

Tim Ferriss: And then at that point, how did you — 

Tom Morello: Well, we wrote songs. There were three bands in my high school, and one of them was Destiny and that was the pretty boy band. They got all the ladies. They played Styx, Kansas, Journey, and they just owned the school. And then there was the bad boy band, Epitaph and now, they covered Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and they would not stoop to play a school function. It was garages with ripped jeans and weed. And we all admired them from a distance. We were all afraid of them and admired them.

And then there was The Electric Sheep, my band, the drama club band. And we didn’t have the technical ability play other bands’ songs, so we had to write our own. So, from day one, we were writing our own and from that band, two of the founding members of that band went on to form Rage Against the Machine and Tool, so we were vindicated in the end.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Did you want to be a guitarist, or was it just —

Tom Morello: I wanted to be a part of it in some way.

Tim Ferriss: Part of music.

Tom Morello: And then I had a guitar and then the thing about punk was it’s like there was no longer a barrier. It’s like the bands that I liked, like The Clash and The Sex Pistols, with no musical experience, my level of technical ability was not too far distanced from theirs and yet, they were my favorite bands making the best music that I had ever heard. So, I had a formative experience seeing the band, The Clash, which was my favorite band of all time, playing at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. And in my high school band, The Electric Sheep, I had a sort of a cheap Music Man amp on a chair in my mom’s basement, where we would practice. I saw The Clash play at the Aragon Ballroom.

Now, I’m used to seeing these bands play these huge venues with walls of Marshall stacks. Some of which are dummy cabinets, but I saw Joe Strummer on stage of the Aragon Ballroom and he had exact same cheap Music Man amplifier that I did on a chair on a stage of the Aragon Ballroom and that was the revelation that made me realize it’s not, “Oh, I can do this someday,” it’s like, “I’m doing it. He’s doing it. We’re all doing it. We’re all just in bands.” And that felt pretty good.

Tim Ferriss: What was the process like of teaching yourself guitar?

Tom Morello: The guitar at first was an instrument to be in a band and then, it later became a calling. I had many varied interests, but it was when I was about 19 years old where it’s sometimes you choose the thing and sometimes a thing chooses you. And I really felt the guitar chose me. I had no choice in the matter. And then, I applied my OCD to the instrument and was practicing it sometimes up to eight hours a day, 365 days a year.

Tim Ferriss: Are you doing it by ear? Are you just trying to mimic or you — 

Tom Morello: Entirely by the ear, yeah. I never really had the ability to, I never had the strength of learning songs off record. The other thing, to sort of, to a psych 101 analysis of why I fell so deeply into that, I think as a grown up looking band, it was a matter of control. There are a lot of things sort of been growing up that I did not have control over. There was sort of a race issue. There was maybe a romantic, sort of a deficit issue. Things that you just didn’t have control over.

Tim Ferriss: Sure.

Tom Morello: I had control over this. It’s my will and my will alone that will determine the outcome of what happens if I apply myself to this. It’s just me that makes the decision here, and that was very, very appealing. And then when you start playing two hours a day, you notice the tide rises quickly. So, you bump that to four hours a day and all of a sudden, it’s like everyone around you is marveling at — 

Tim Ferriss: What you do.

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And when you go to eight hours a day, that’s when it kicks in pretty heavily.

Tim Ferriss: Now, clearly, a well-spoken guy. How did Harvard enter the picture?

Tom Morello: Well, I was the first person from Libertyville, Illinois to ever go to Harvard. No one had ever applied before. So after then, after I got in, the flood gates opened and now, it’s recognized as the bastion of intellect and culture.

But you all suspected it might have been.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I mean, you just need one exception to the rule, right?

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: I mean, to show what’s possible. What were the most important things, if anything, that you took from that experience at Harvard?

Tom Morello: At Harvard, I think one, there are some lifelong friendships that came out of it and also, the reality of you have to take risk. If you’re going to change the world. There was a big anti-apartheid demonstration. We built a shanty town in Harvard Yard during the graduation when all of the alum come — 

Tim Ferriss: Of alumni.

Tom Morello: — and are asked to give a lot of money back to the university. And we completely ruined Harvard yard by a Soweto-like shanty town in the middle of it. And we’re all threatened with expulsion or this, that, or the other. You just have to make a choice, like are you going to do the safe thing. Are you going to do the thing that’s right?

Tim Ferriss: So you graduate. Did you continue with the poli sci?

Tom Morello: Yeah. I graduated in political science and then, like I said, it was a calling. I had an interest, but music and rock and roll was a calling. And I knew as soon as I graduated, I was going to move to Hollywood because that’s where the rock magazines told me I needed to go to pursue my dreams.

Tim Ferriss: So then what?

Tom Morello: So I loaded up the Chevy Astro van and drove, and drove into the sun, with all my crap in the back and a dream in my pocket and a thousand dollars and a dream.

Tim Ferriss: Was your mom supportive?

Tom Morello: I should have paid better attention in Ec 10 because a thousand dollars lasted about four days when I moved here. And all of a sudden, I was destitute.

Tim Ferriss: What did your — 

Tom Morello: Yeah, my mom was very supportive. I mean, given her history of kind of bucking convention, it was not surprising, but she was completely supportive. And I’ve got a Harvard degree and I’m going to go move to Hollywood to try to play rock and roll. She’s like, “Great.”

Tim Ferriss: Rock on. Did you have any plan B in your head?

Tom Morello: There was no plan B. I arrived in Hollywood with big ideas about how I was going to form my dream band. I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be, but I knew the groups that I liked then were RUN-DMC, Aerosmith, Public Enemy. I wanted it to be political. And so, I naively put out ads in all the local press saying, “Shredding guitar player seeks awesome Marxist front man. Influences RUN-DMC and Iron Maiden.” I did not get a lot of replies to that. I did not get a lot of replies to that.

So I had, on my apartment in Normandie, I put the little thing outside the door with basically applications to join my band. My band that does not exist and that no one’s heard me play a note of music, but somehow you’re going to walk up these stairs in an apartment in Normandie, sit on the landing, and “What are your contacts in the music industry?” That went very, very, very, very poorly.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about the exotic dancing.

Tom Morello: I got one thing to say about that. The rent ain’t going to pay itself.

Tim Ferriss: So I have so many questions.

Tom Morello: You got a bachelorette party? I’ve got a cassette tape of “Brick House.”

Tim Ferriss: So, I know the show, I gave you this whole thing on Fear{less}. I which want to ask a thousand questions about this. So, the first is what was your stage name?

Tom Morello: There was no stage name.

Tim Ferriss: There was no — 

Tom Morello: It was a duo. It was like we had sort of a — it was bachelorette parties.

Tim Ferriss: A duo?

Tom Morello: It was a duo. It was me and another dude. We had a routine.

Tim Ferriss: Do you have any signature moves?

Tom Morello: They’re lost to the dusty anals of time.

Tim Ferriss: The burning mound of VHS tapes that you confiscated.

Tom Morello: There were signature moves. It was we would arrive in suits with some lame excuse as to why we’ve barged in on this bachelorette party.

Tim Ferriss: “Oh, excuse me. We thought this was the such and such.” Right.

Tom Morello: Cue “Brick House.” And then just off to the races.

Tim Ferriss: When did you first hear Lock Up?

Tom Morello: I was playing in some, I joined some bands just to be in bands that were not particularly good bands. But there was a band, a local band called Lock Up. It was playing at a place called Al’s Bar in downtown L.A. It was a life-changing moment. I saw what then became my favorite local band. It was a band that combined, it was sort of elements of The Chili Peppers and it was funky. It was hard and it was new. It was what alternative music would later become, but was bubbling around in the underground in Los Angeles.

Later, I happen to be rehearsing in the same place as this band Lock Up. They heard me playing through the walls. When they got rid of their guitar player, we connected and I joined that band. And that band eventually got signed to Geffen Records, which was my foot in the door to the record industry.

Tim Ferriss: When you guys got signed, what was the response?

Tom Morello: Well, I mean, it’s the brass ring. It’s the thing you’ve heard about. You think when you’re in suburban Illinois when you get a record deal that you’re a millionaire.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Tom Morello: Exactly the opposite. Exactly, let me tell you. If you were penniless before, now you’re in debt and penniless to the record company. And every clichéd bad dicking that happens to artists happened to that band. They tried to manipulate and change the band’s sound to make it more commercial. Moneywise, we’re completely screwed over. At the end of the day, we had like a second guaranteed album that we were going to, “We didn’t make it on the first one, but we’re going to try this time.” They just said, “We’re going to drop the band right now and you don’t have the money to sue us, so too bad.”

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

Tom Morello: And that was that. And I thought, “Well, I tried.” And I had my grab at the brass ring, it didn’t work out. So that being the case, I’m just going to make music. I’m a musician. That’s what I am. I’m just going to make music that I believe in and not care about getting a record deal or any of that anymore.

Tim Ferriss: So, Rage Against the Machine. Coming together of those band members, how did Zack come into the fray?

Tom Morello: Well, Zack and Tim have known each other since they were kids and grew up together. And it was just sort of a fortunate combination of musical convergence. Brad and I played together for a while. Then he knew Eddie Vedder, he left to play with a fledgling version of Pearl Jam for a minute. So, during that time, I met Tim and Zack and Brad came back. And finally, we got in a room in August of 1991. I think it was the first time the four of us were in a room together.

Tim Ferriss: How did you develop, I mean, some of what we saw in the beginning. Were you already there or were you looking for inspiration in other places?

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah, a lot of, I mean, the left of center guitar playing that, the barnyard animal noise stuff, while I had some of those arrows in my quiver, it really wasn’t until Rage Against the Machine when I was the DJ in the band. It was a band. We probably put on the records, “All sounds made by guitar-based drums and vocals,” because there are a lot of sounds on those records that are not traditionally associated with guitar-based drums and vocals.

And I was very much influenced by Terminator X of Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad that produced those records and by Jam Master Jay and by Dr. Dre. The sounds on those records, rather than practicing Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix licks, I would try to approximate the sounds that I heard on those records. And while I wasn’t always able to get them exactly right, it just put my mind in a completely different place and maybe look at the instrument of guitar in a very different way. It’s a relatively new instrument on the planet. And there’s no reason to assume that it has predetermined limits based on the records in your collection. And it’s just basically a piece of wood with some wires and a few electronics that makes sound and you try to make sound in different ways and then make music out of that sound.

That became, I started practicing in an entirely different way and it helped form a sound that felt like it was authentic. If you’re challenging the boundaries of any genre music, you’re bursting, you’re saying what came before is not all that there has to be. There can be something beyond that that is yet unimagined. If you say, if you do that in a musical context, you can also do that in a societal context. And so, part of exploring those sounds was not just because I like to hear a guitar make a quacky noise, because it’s trippy and fun to do. But also it really challenges the boundaries of what has come before in the instrument and perhaps leads the idea that we can challenge boundaries beyond music.

Tim Ferriss: When did you know it was working? And then how did your experience with Lock Up change how you did this?

Tom Morello: Yes. Well, I knew it was working. The first time we ever performed in front of other humans was at a house party in Huntington Beach. And I had been in a lot of bands and been to a lot of shows, seen a lot of bands, I never saw an audience respond to music the way that people responded to Rage Against the Machine at the first show ever played. It was like the parents were out of town. We knew five songs. It was maybe a friend of Tim and Zack’s living room in Huntington Beach.

We played, the first song we ever played in front of people was a song called “Take the Power Back.” And a pit started in the living room. They thrashed the living room. Went ape for five songs then we just played those same five songs again. And they went double ape shit, so that’s how it went. And I’ve never felt anything like it. And that’s how it was from day one. With that, I mean the chemistry of that band was like that from day one and the reaction was like that from day one.

Now, when it came to interacting with the evil music industry that I had been burned by, I think it was very helpful to have that experience because I didn’t care. I knew what it was like. Having a record deal doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t mean anything, so there was nothing to hold over our heads. They would call up, record companies, managers, publishing company. Everybody would call up and say, “We’d like to take the band to lunch.” I’d say, “We’re not interested unless you fax me over a document that says in every, any transaction we ever have, the band has 100% creative control over what they do and veto power for anything that you do, then we’ll have lunch with you.”

Tim Ferriss: Did you guys have a financial cushion or anything like that at that point?

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I had a futon cushion, but I did not have a financial cushion. No. We had between us then I think we had one job and two cars.

Tim Ferriss: Was there any disagreement in the group about how to take those calls or not take those meetings?

Tom Morello: I mean, we talked about that stuff. I had been through it before.

Tim Ferriss: You had been before.

Tom Morello: And I was maybe a few years older than them, but it was all, the decisions were collaborative. There is an excitement when heads of record companies come down and offer you the world. But we dampened down that excitement and took our time making a decision.

Tim Ferriss: When did you pull the trigger?

Tom Morello: Well, we met, there was a fellow by the name of Michael Goldstone, who had signed Pearl Jam, who was ascendant at the time and he saw us play. And he said something that no one else had said. I mean, people wanted to sign the band based on a two-song cassette. And he came in and said, “I’m not sure I want to sign your band.” I thought that was an interesting thing for someone to say. And that opened a discussion. And he was very in. He was the fifth Beatle for the beginning. He was a very important collaborative partner.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s take a look if we can. I just want to take a look at one of the videos we have for Rage Against the Machine.

[Video plays of Rage Against the Machine performing “Bulls on Parade” in concert.]

Tim Ferriss: I remember thinking at one point when I had seen footage of a number of performances and every time I saw it, I think I remember thinking to myself, “This is the only band where I’m wondering if the audience is going to tear the stadium auditorium to pieces.” What was the magic there or what was the nerve that struck?

Tom Morello: You’d have to ask them. I mean, they’re making it.

Tim Ferriss: But if you had to speculate, I mean.

Tom Morello: Well, I mean, I think that the shows were just so insane. They were so incendiary. And Zack is a tremendous, tremendous musician and lyricist, but as a front man, he’s the greatest. He’s the punk rock James Brown. He’s the greatest as a lightning rod on stage. And there is a meaning to the band’s music that transcends it being a great rock and roll band. The other is, it’s a great rock and roll band. That’s how people are like, “Oh, how are the politics…?”

If you don’t have that vehicle and it’s this chemistry that naturally happens in the way that the four of us played together, almost from the very first rehearsal, certainly from the very first couple of shows to that, which was, I think, Woodstock ’99, that it gives off an aggressive energy that allows this kind of, this feral release. There’s something about music that is, there was music before there was spoken language. And there’s something in our reptilian brain that responds to a communal gathering with rhythm. And that’s just something that’s in from campfires and mammoths. And when you get that combination of rhythm and a rhyming couplet and a gathering of the tribe like that and you do it right that something like that happens.

Tim Ferriss: Were you nervous at all before ’99 Woodstock?

Tom Morello: Before that actual concert?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Tom Morello: No. I mean, that concert devolved over the course of time.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Tom Morello: I will give you a couple other instances though that were, where there was a real barrier to, like a fear barrier. One was in the early 2000s, I began doing, playing acoustic songs under the moniker The Nightwatchman. And I would go to, I began signing up at open mic nights under that name, so I wouldn’t sign up under Tom Morella because there would be an expectation of playing “Bulls on Parade.”

And I would play these Dylan-esque, Woody Guthrie-esque, political folk songs. And, at this point, I had played in front of millions of people live and I was terrified playing in front of eight people who weren’t particularly listening to my songs anyway with a latte machine grinding in the background. But would I remember the lyrics because I felt very vulnerable.

When I’m on stage with Rage Against the Machine or Audioslave, if my guitar were to snap in half, the show would still be great. They’re going to be fine, but when it’s just you and your guitar and the intimacy of that moment, it was terrifying. And through time, I’ve learned to do that.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s pull up a video of Nightwatchman, because I think it’s a good contrast to what we’ve seen already.

[Video plays of Tom Morello as The Nightwatchman singing “The Garden of Gethsemane”]

Tim Ferriss: So, I wasn’t worried about the audience tearing out seats and rioting in that. It’s very different. It’s a very stark contrast.

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Before, say, a performance that or any performance for that matter, what are your rituals or routines preceding that to get yourself?

Tom Morello: Well, there’s still a bit of a anxiety barrier. And while all of my rock and roll work is done stone sober, there’s a level of technique involved in that I must be very, very present for. There’s a lot of Jameson involved in The Nightwatchman performances, truth be told.

Tim Ferriss: Jameson therapy. I’ve heard about that. It’s like [inaudible].

Tom Morello: There’s a bit of the anxiety about sort of remembering lyrics and this, that, and the other that goes away when it sort of dampens down those voices.

Tim Ferriss: Enough to get courage.

Tom Morello: It’s like, “You’re going to forget your verse. You’re going to forget the lyrics.” But those, I mean, I began doing that because, well, I love playing in rock bands. And rock bands allow a chemistry that no one person can put forward on their own. I like the purity of the solo singer songwriter thing, too. And it’s also, you can do it guerilla style. I’ve played it hundreds, dozens, thousands of protests and marches. And you just need an acoustic guitar and a plane ticket or a bicycle or a ride over there. And I really liked that kind of independence of spirit.

And I always was a fan of heavy music. And when I discovered the early Dylan, the Springsteen Nebraska record, the Woody Guthrie stuff, the Johnny Cash acoustic records that it dawned me that there’s no heavier music than some of that. The Metallica Black Album is super heavy, but Springsteen’s Nebraska goes toe to toe with it, with no amplifiers in sight.

Tim Ferriss: What led to the end of Rage Against the Machine?

Tom Morello: Well — 

Tim Ferriss: What were the contributing factors?

Tom Morello: — Rage Against the Machine has had two lives. I mean, while it was a band that professed solidarity in our music, we were never able to manifest it almost from day one within our own ranks. And I wish that I could tell you the conflicts were political ones. They were just you watch Spinal Tap, all the stuff, every rock band, there’s only four or five boxes to check. We had three of the four.

But I mean, and my contribution to it was I was always super type A. And had sort of the musical, the political, the record goal in mind and would not, and would sometimes turn a deaf ear to the feelings of my bandmates. I’ve learned that lesson through the years. That’s a very important, you have to get that right first or none of the rest of it matters. And so, in 2000, Zack quit the band and we formed a band called Audioslave, but Rage reunited in 2007, played shows for a few years, which was very nice to do.

Tim Ferriss: The question that I wanted to ask all night was how did you end up having a reunion with your father?

Tom Morello: Well, I basically met my father when I was 34 years old. He had not had anything to do with our family growing up. And throughout my life, my mom had sent to the P.O. Box that they had in Nairobi in the early ’60s updates on me. “Your son graduated from high school. Your son went to college. Your son got a record deal,” this, that, and the other. And it never heard, never heard back decades of not hearing back.

So, we went to Kenya for the first time. My first time to Kenya when I was 34 years old and my mom had written to my dad, who she hadn’t heard from in decades said, “Please meet us at the airport.” So we’re flying into Nairobi and my mom tells me, it was like, “Mom, he could be dead 25 years and certainly, doesn’t have the same P.O. Box as he did back then.” She’s like, “Oh, I’ll bet he’ll be there to meet us.”

So, we land, he’s not there to meet us. But we arrived at the Hotel Intercontinental where there’s a note from him, “Sorry, I couldn’t meet you at the airport. I’ll pick up for dinner tomorrow at 8:00,” which was stunning. And I realized not only am I going to see my father for the first time in a very long time tomorrow, but that he had received all of that stuff through the years and had not commented on it.

So, we met and it was crazy because those of you who are blessed with having two parents, you’ve seen them before. I’ve seen mine, so I look a lot some combination with the two of them. And it went fairly well, somewhat awkwardly, but he had received, he commented on some of the music, not the music so much, but some of the lyrics and the music. And he had remarried and I had three half brothers who we were never allowed to meet and did not know that we existed. And that wasn’t awesome, so we exchanged a few terse letters after that. And I thought, “Well, at least I got to meet my dad,” and that’s that.

It turns out that one of my half brothers, unbeknownst to me, was attending Georgetown University. This is at a time when search engines were being discovered and whatnot. And he was a computer guy and he put in his father’s name to some developing search engine and to his surprise, a hundred articles referencing a man with his father’s name and a similar biographical background was referred to by a guy named Tom Morello, who was the guitar player of a band called Rage Against the Machine. And serendipitously, it was the same week when Rage was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. So he went to the newsstand and saw a guy in that band that he just read about who looks more like his dad than he does.

And he managed to find me and we had an interesting discussion and the toothpaste started to get out of the tube. And I began to meet my kin and I learned their name. It turns out there were a couple of first cousins who were attending Pepperdine University. And so I met them. My brother, Segeni, is his name who discovered me, calls up our dad back in Kenya with the phone call my dad thought was never going to, crazy as it is. So, this will give you some indication into how the Kenyan male would react to such thing. “So, dad, what do you know about a guy named Tom Morello?” And this is how my dad responds. If he doesn’t talk about it, it doesn’t get talked about. And that’s the end, that’s the end, that’s the end.

So, but my then girlfriend and now wife are very charming people and we’re now friends with the family. The brothers have come. They have stayed at our house. Everybody’s great. And we go to my brother’s graduation at Georgetown. The attendees at the party will be myself, my fiancée, my brother Segeni, our dad, and his wife, who doesn’t know anything about anything that’s going on.

Audience: Wow.

Tim Ferriss: What could go wrong?

Tom Morello: So we’re sitting at dinner and my brother has taken great relish at each step of the way in the reveal.

Tim Ferriss: The reveal.

Tom Morello: And now, the biggest reveal of all is about to happen and he announces.

Tim Ferriss: So, he’s like the illusionist.

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: He’s like, “Oh, wait. It gets better.”

Tom Morello: He announces at that dinner that this is his brother. And at first, people think that, “Oh, like you’re bro.” He’s like, “No, my brother like biological brother, like my dad’s son, brother, mom.” She couldn’t have been more gracious given what must have been a pretty stressful dinner for her and he maintained his silence throughout.

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It all turned around and he welcomed me to the family. He apologized to my mom and thanked her for raising a good kid and it kind of opened the door to, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: What catalyzed that shift in him?

Tom Morello: I think it may have been the passing of his younger brother, who was an advocate, but then his older brother is the uncle who we know. And again, there’s sort of a hierarchical at my uncle’s 80th birthday and he announced that his younger brother, my dad, would now introduce his family to everyone. And I think he was just trapped then. And it took a lot, it took a lot, but he did it.

At the end of the day, he did the right thing. And he sat me down. He asked for my forgiveness. And since I’ve had kids, he’s very much in their life. And they’ve melted him in a way that is really lovely. He just had his 88th birthday now and he came to my wedding and stuff. So, it’s been really, really lovely to connect with that side of the family that I never thought that I would have.

Tim Ferriss: So we’re going to shift gears a little bit.

Tom Morello: Yep.

Tim Ferriss: And go to audience questions.

Tom Morello: Sure.

Tim Ferriss: If you weren’t a guitar player, what would you do for a living?

Tom Morello: Well, my twin passions have always been music and politics. It would certainly not be something in conventional two-party politics, but I would probably be working as a community organizer or something like that.

Tim Ferriss: This next one is from Facebook. If you had to teach someone guitar in three months, what would the curriculum be?

Tom Morello: Yeah, yeah. I was a guitar teacher for a while during my semi-homeless days and what I taught this, the lesson that I learned when I took those bad guitar lessons where they wanted me to do the boring stuff, I applied that when teaching brand new guitar players. In the first guitar lesson with every student, regardless of their skill level, I would teach them to write a song. They would write a song in that first guitar lesson and try to smash that barrier between there’s these mythical gods who make music and then there’s you who one day might hope to touch their shoes.

“You’re a songwriter today. I’m going to teach you two chords. You decide what order they go in and how long you play each one. Boom, you’ve written a song. You and The Beatles now are both songwriters.” And I would see in them this click like, “Holy crap, I can write something.”

Tomorrow, you might write another one. And that’s what I’d give them as their homework. You write another one for next time. And then, you’re going to have a catalog of six songs in the first three weeks of your playing guitar. And we can work on the other stuff along the way, and it’s called playing guitar. And that sort of enthusiasm comes from early successes.

Tim Ferriss: What are the biggest wastes of time that you see novices making — like diligent ones? What are the wrong things to focus on?

Tom Morello: Yeah. Well, I’d say it depends on what you want to do and who you want to be because I believe there’s a clear delineation between musicians and artists. And if you like I said, when you start playing guitar, what want to do is you want to sound like, so you’re trying to be a musician. I love Angus Young. I want to play Angus Young songs. At some point, are you going to go beyond? You have to make a determination. And many people are delighted and content to be able to learn and play their favorite songs and jam along with the radio.

But if you have a vision that goes beyond aping the technique of your favorites, then you have to take a different step. And that is a step into risk and a step into the unknown to say, “This is what has come before. Now, I’m going to write my own songs. I’m going to take a risk that people are going to hate those songs. And I’m going to take a risk of putting myself out there.” It’s not like, “Hey, check it out. I can play Van Halen.” It’s like, “Hey, check it out. I wrote this song that includes my Van Halen influence and this, that, and the other, and here it is.” And that’s the only way that art grows and as an artist, that’s the only way to grow.

Tim Ferriss: What would you say, I guess maybe that’s the answer. But the follow-up to that would be if you were say teaching a 9th grader or a 10th grader, really talented and they’re like, “I want to be a creator. I want to be an artist.” And they get up there and they just bombed crickets, maybe booing.

Tom Morello: Everyone, yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re not alone in that. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: What would you tell them before or after?

Tom Morello: Yeah. Well, I’d tell them, first of all, you’re bombing, the one thing you have in common is with everyone, I’d say name the five artists who you love the most. And I would ensure them that all of them have bombed as bad or worse as they just did then. And then it’s a matter of, sort of what did you learn from this? And maybe there’s a lot like basement music heroes. You have to play with other people that helps you in a way. You have to play in front of people that helps you in ways. And that you do that over time and you will amass a — you will have the opportunity to discover who you are as a musician and/or as an artist.

Tim Ferriss: What books, if any, have you gifted the most to other people?

Tom Morello: Well, certainly the one book that I’ve gifted the most in my life was a book that I first read when I was 15 and I reread it almost yearly. It’s a book called Watership Down and — 

Tim Ferriss: Watership Down.

Tom Morello: I’ve read books that have been more serious political tones in my time, but the heroism, courage and friendship exhibited in that book among a number of rabbits. It’s about rabbits, but it’s about much more than. And it is the single most breathtakingly exciting book that I’ve ever read as well, Watership Down.

Tim Ferriss: Watership Down.

Tom Morello: It’s Richard Adams, a strong endorsement for that book right now.

Tim Ferriss: Do you have a quote or quotes that you live your life by or think of often?

Tom Morello: That’s a very interesting question. Give me a minute.

Tim Ferriss: And we can come back to it.

Tom Morello: Sure. No, no, no. I’m going to have something for you. There is a quote written by Joe Strummer of The Clash. I cut this, I wrote this down, put on my refrigerator as a youth. It says, “Are you taking over or are you taking orders? Are you going backwards or are you going forwards?” And I would look at that on my refrigerator and I would try to answer those four questions for myself every day.

Tim Ferriss: That is good. That was really good. What purchase of a hundred dollars or less, and this is all rough, in recent memory has most positively impacted your life?

Tom Morello: Purchase of, in recent memory? Well, I can tell you one purchase was — 

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, anything that comes to mind.

Tom Morello: — $40 Canadian dollars. I’m not sure what the — 

Tim Ferriss: Exchange rate is.

Tom Morello: — exchange rate is, but I bought a guitar off a pawn shop wall in Toronto years ago in the early ’90s. I just liked the look of it. It’s like made of plywood. It’s not even really made of wood. And that was the only guitar I used on a song called “Tire Me” on the Rage Against the Machine Evil Empire record, which was the band’s first Grammy.

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

Tom Morello: That was $40 Canadian dollars well spent.

Tim Ferriss: Can you tell us about Prophets of Rage?

Tom Morello: Prophets of Rage is the band that I am in now. It consists of B-Real from Cypress Hill, Chuck D and DJ Lord from Public Enemy and Timmy C and Brad Wilk from Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. And it’s a band that was formed in the tumult of the 2016 election. It’s a band that will continue into the future. The two things that we can be certain of is that looking forward is that there will be injustices in the world. We can also be certain there’ll be resistance to those injustices and that resistance needs a soundtrack and it will be provided by Prophets of Rage.

Tim Ferriss: Should we pull up the video?

Tom Morello: Sure.

[Video plays of Prophets of Rage performing their single “Prophets of Rage.”]

Tim Ferriss: That is good.

Tom Morello: Dangerous times demand dangerous songs. And when we formed this band, that was our first ever public performance, which was a free show for the homeless people on Skid Row. We wanted this band from the onset to not just talk the talk, but to walk the walk. Our first eight shows, any show, which we charged a dollar for, all of them went to local homeless charities in the cities that we were in. And the shows that were free shows we’re on Skid Row and were at Norco Penitentiary in Southern California and at the protests outside of the RNC. So, it was like it’s a band we wanted. It’s in set from day one we wanted it to like live it like we were going to play it. And so, that’s a very exciting band to be in.

Tim Ferriss: If you had a huge billboard, you could put a few words, short message on it for the world to see, what would you put?

Tom Morello: A few?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, short, just a short message. People who are driving, texting, being idiots, yeah.

Tom Morello: “Whoomp! There it is.”

Tim Ferriss: We could work with that.

Tom Morello: Or “The Chicago Cubs are the 2016 World Champions.” That will be it, too.

Tim Ferriss: I think there are a lot of artists out there, new creators who want to impact the world. And maybe they’re intimidated, maybe they don’t think they can. What would you say to those people?

Tom Morello: That all they have to do is take a glance at history. And the first thing to do is ask yourself, you’re saying artists exclusively, “Has any art ever affected you?” That’s the first question. And I know for me, it was bands like Public Enemy and The Clash that they didn’t necessarily change my mind about things, but they made me, they connected me to a bigger world than the one of Libertyville, Illinois.

It made me think, “Oh, there’s other people that see things the way that I do.” They’re not my teachers. They’re not the governor of my state, but they’re musicians and they have an audience. And when I go to see their show, all of a sudden there’s a community that’s beyond my suburb or my job at the Dairy Queen or wherever.

And so I would say that any time you broadcast your soul artistically, be careful because somebody may be listening and that you can make a connection that you wouldn’t otherwise. Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Morello.

Tom Morello: Thank you very much. Thank you very much, man.

Tim Ferriss: Thank you so much.

Tom Morello: Thank you very much.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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