Rage Against the Machine were just two shows into their 2022 Public Service Announcement Tour reunion tour when frontman Zack de la Rocha tore his Achilles tendon during a frenetic rendition of “Bullet in the Head.” He managed to solider through the rest of the North American leg by sitting on a road case in the center of the stage, but they wound up cancelling the remainder of the tour so he could properly heal.
“I hate cancelling shows,” de la Rocha wrote in an October 2022 letter to fans. “I hate disappointing our fans. You have all waited so patiently to see us and that is never lost on me…I hope to see you very soon.”
Fans have heard virtually nothing more from the band in the five months since de la Rocha posted that letter, even when the group was nominated once again for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in February. But guitarist Tom Morello phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about the aborted tour, the Hall of Fame, his future solo plans, and the murky future of Rage Against the Machine. If you’re looking for a definitive statement about that, you’re not going to get it. But we did everything possible to pin him down.
Where are you calling from?
I’m at home in my studio. I’m working on new, exciting music of my own. It’s been a very fruitful period. I’ve been very inspired by my 11-year-old son. I’ve been relegated to being the rhythm guitar player in my family now because my 11-year-old can shred circles around me. I’ve been inspired by him. He’s been writing some riffs, and I’ve been writing some riffs. It’s been fun.
Let’s start with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Voting ends next month. How do you feel about where things stand?
Well, I’m a big proponent of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I like the idea there’s somewhere on the planet that celebrates music. This is Rage Against the Machine’s fifth nomination for the Hall of Fame. The thing I share, with many fans of many bands, is that if the Rock Hall is going to be inducting artists of so many diverse genres, there are a lot of artists from multiple genres that deserve to get in.
It would be a great place to be. I certainly think Rage Against the Machine, among a lot of other bands, deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I imagine it’s taken so many ballots since there’s a fair amount of older voters. Some of them probably aren’t used to elements of hip-hop in rock, and many of them probably simply don’t know your music since Rage didn’t have actual Top 40 singles they would have heard on mainstream radio.
I won’t speculate. I do know there’s a funny mix of people that do the voting. It’s people that are already in. There’s an age component. There’s a leaning mainstream component as well. I think that Willie Nelson deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and artists from various genres do as well. If you saw any of the Rage Against the Machine shows last summer, you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument against us.
How was that tour from your perspective?
It was great. Having not played shows with the band in 11 years, you just don’t know what it’s going to be. I knew pretty early on in rehearsal that we were going to sound fuckin’ great. But what is the audience going to be? Will it be dads in Dockers with cell phones out? [Laughs] There’s no knowing. The crowds were feral. The band had never played better. We’d never sounded better. It was a reaffirmation of the power of Rage Against the Machine, and the transcendence of Rage Against the Machine as a live act.
I was on the front rail at opening night at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin. I really felt that. What did it feel like to you to walk out and kick into the opening song after all that time?
Alpine Valley is where I saw a lot of my shows. It was the nearest shed to Chicago. That’s where I saw Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and the Scorpions growing up. And I was able to bring my kids on tour. They are 11 and 13. I was able to say, “Hey, dad sat in this seat for that show.”
It was really great. When I walked out and played the first notes of “Bombtrack,” I could tell the room was hot. There was an anticipation in the air that was pretty powerful. I had all the confidence in the world that we were going to play great. We were very well rehearsed. And I knew the chemistry we had going back to that first rehearsal in August of 1991. That really wasn’t a thing. It was just, “How is it going to translate in this hour in this year?” And it was absolutely decimating.
You incorporated videos that showed police violence and asylum seekers. It brought the show into the present in a very visceral way.
That’s right. We had never engaged in any sort of production before. We spent a lot of time with some talented people shooting that footage and assembling a show that had all the raw, visceral, punk power that Rage Against the Machine is known for, but it had a dynamic visual element as well.
So you get to the second show, and Zack injures his foot midway through. What was going through your mind when you realized he was hurt pretty badly?
Well, the irony is that I had just recovered from a ruptured Achilles. I was in rehearsals on crutches. I recognized the gait. But Zack toughed it out that night. And for the next 17 shows, he was more compelling as a frontman sitting on a box in the middle of the stage than 99 percent of the frontmen in the history of all time.
It was completely unexpected, but the fact that he soldiered on … and he didn’t just soldier on, but he was able to be that electric, compelling, powerful transmitter of truth that he is, while remaining fairly immobile, was fairly impressive. I didn’t hear from one fan that felt the show was diminished in power by one percent.
Was there any thought of pushing back the rest of the dates after that second show until he recovered?
I don’t even recall. It was just making sure that he was alright. We didn’t know what the thing was. I didn’t want to diagnose it. But I had just gone through that. I was familiar with the severity of the injury. I was very proud of him that he soldiered on and completed the leg of the tour.
I saw you guys in Cleveland too and thought it was better with him seated, crazy as that sounds. It allowed him to focus all his energy on the vocals and was just explosive.
It was absolutely explosive. It was different and unexpected for the band, and for him as a frontman. It felt, in some ways, almost heightened. And that was in room after room. At the first couple of shows, however, we were like, “What is this going to be like?” The third or fourth show was a festival [the RBC Ottawa Bluesfest] somewhere in Canada in front of about 90,000 people who just went bananas. It felt like the power of the band was undiminished.
You really showed the durability of those songs. Sometimes you hear a song that’s 30 years old and it feels 30 years old. It feels purely a product of the time it came out of. These songs are different.
Yeah. I’d go further than that and say those songs feel both sonically and lyrically more relevant now than they ever have. The themes that we weave through the mind, the mash-up of sonics, it didn’t in any way feel nostalgic. It felt like electric and very present in the now.
Many fans presumed the tour would head to Europe as planned, and Zack would continue to sit on the road case until he was able to stand. Why didn’t that happen?
Doctor’s orders. I don’t know all the details, but there’s dangers of flying. There’s danger of blood clots and all that. I wasn’t in the room. But it’s not the optimum care to be on the road with a newly-ruptured Achilles.
Can I check a couple of boxes surrounding the US tour and some misunderstandings around them? I just want to go through a couple.
One, there’s a lot of ridiculous people who disapprove of Rage’s political outlook, who were not at the shows, who…just to be clear, no fans at any show in the history of Rage Against the Machine have ever had a vaccination requirement to be in the room. Ever. People say that and it’s just foolish.
Second, in regards to ticket prices…I think by this point, I think everybody is familiar with the awful idea of dynamic ticket pricing. There was that big uproar with Springsteen and this one and that one. Just to reiterate, every ticket for the show was $125 with the exception of about five to ten percent of tickets, which we did the dynamic ticket prices with, and gave away every cent.
Every penny over $125 went to charities in those cities. In New York City, we raised over a million dollars for activist organization charities. There was a total of about six or seven million raised on that tour in what was basically a Robin Hood tactic. I wanted to say those things out loud since there was a lot of misinformation in the world about those two things.
Right. Clearly, you could have charged more than $125 for ticket and still sold out everywhere.
That’s correct. And scalpers are the bane of every band’s existence because it’s some third party that’s just ripping off your fans. We competed with them and served the poorest of the poor in each of the cities where we played.
Once Zack is healed up, can you guys get back on the road?
We’ll see. If there is to be any more shows, we will announce it as a band. I don’t know. I know as much as you do, honestly. Right now we’re in time of healing. I’m in a time of making music and doing a bunch of stuff.
To bring it back to the Hall of Fame conversation, if there never is another show, I think that this tour made the case. It’s not about how much you tour. It’s about what it’s like during those moments when you do. Rage Against the Machine has played 19 shows in the past 12 years. And the resonance of those 19 shows feel, in talking to fans, like those were historical events that furthers the idea of what that band is like live onstage.
Is that band on indefinite hiatus? What term would you use for the current state of Rage?
There is no term. Rage Against the Machine is like the ring in Lord of the Rings. It drives men mad. It drives journalists mad. It drives record industry people mad. They want it. They want the thing, and they’re driven mad. If there are Rage shows, if there are not Rage shows, you’ll hear from the band. I do not know. When there is news, it will come from a collective statement from the band. There is no news.
You say you don’t know, but aren’t you in touch with Zack? Are you asking him how he’s doing and whether or not he wants to carry on?
The conversations I’ve had with band members since the tour have been about life. It’s hard for me to explain. I understand that in this interview, it’s at the top of your list, your Lord of the Rings check list. It’s hard to explain, but when you’re in it, it’s never been like that. It’s a band that made three albums of new material, that tours very intermittently. It’s a unicorn in a way. Much of the time, there’s not a position the band is in. You know what I’m saying?
I guess. But you had 38 shows on the books that you cancelled. I’m no doctor, but I’d imagine any ruptured Achilles heel would be essentially healed after a year, at least well enough to tour. A lot of fans in Europe, especially ones that had tickets, are really jonesing to see you guys.
There are fans everywhere that are jonesing. [Laughs] There are fans all over the world. Do Rage Against the Machine fans around the world deserve to see the band? Yes. Of course they do. Would the times benefit from a culturally, spiritually, rocking-ly, potent band like Rage being onstage? Of course. I don’t have news for you on that. I apologize. There’s nothing internal in our discussions that says either yes or no.
Let me phrase it like this then…are you hopeful there will be shows in the next year or two?
[Big, long laugh] My only answer to that is “bless your heart.” [Laugh] Let me say, if there are Rage Against the Machine shows, I will be the guitar player. And of course I would love that! It’s awesome. There’s nothing like that feeling.
Put up the link in your story to “Killing In The Name” from Finsbury Park. Put up “Testify” from The Battle of Santiago. You can feel it. You can see through a scratchy fan video that there’s never been anything like that in the history of music. There’s nothing like it, man.
They are some of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen. I’ve gotta be honest, though. Some fans will read this interview, think you’re being somewhat evasive, and conclude that Zack has lost interest again, or something else is going on you’re not saying. They’ll make all sorts of presumptions…
I can’t help that. [Laughs] There’s no…It’s hard to even describe it. But when Rage Against the Machine is going to tour or break up or hold a seance on the Joe Rogan Show, you’ll hear it from Rage Against the Machine. Until such a time, there is not news.
So it’s not a hiatus…
[Big laugh] I want you to re-phrase the question as many ways as you can. [Laughs] I think I said it very clearly. If Rage Against the Machine was going on a hiatus, Rage Against the Machine would say, “We’re going on a hiatus.” That has not happened. I will say that I understand and respect the frustration. There is a sort of frustration to not knowing when you’re in the band! But that’s led to a lot of great music.
I really appreciate you humoring me since I know this is annoying…but why not just call Zack and ask how he’s healing and whether or not he wants to play more shows next year?
I know the trajectory of the healing and whatnot. But it’s so hard to describe this, dude. Nineteen shows in 11 years. Three albums in 30 years. It’s different than any other situation you’ve ever interviewed. It has a very, very different dynamic. All I can say is the love I have for those dudes and that music is complete. The honor that it is, or those times we have been onstage together, is like nothing else.
For me, everything from day one, pre-dating Rage Against the Machine, is about the music, and it is about the mission. Those are things that Rage Against The Machine is able to put the hammer down, and do like no other band.
An argument for Rage Against the Machine to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is that there has never been a band with politics that radical on the top of the charts. It’s not close. It’s not close. That is rarified air. The engine in me doesn’t turn off when Rage isn’t onstage. The album I’m working on now will be my 23rd album. I’m super psyched. I’m going to be playing shows in Chile and Brazil and Italy and Belgium this summer with no less commitment to that music and message than any of the five sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden.
What did you do when Europe got cancelled?
When Europe got cancelled, it was very energizing for me. I came home and someone tweeted me from the United Mine Workers in Alabama who had been on strike for over 500 days. They said, “Hey, Mr. Working Class. Why don’t you come down here and help us?” I got right on a plane and walked the picket line and helped with some fundraising efforts.
I came home in the middle of the North Hollywood Stripper Club Strike, the only unionized strip club in America is in North Hollywood where strippers are picketing out front. I went and joined their picket line and helped amplify that. Then the United Farm Workers, who I’ve been a fan and supporter of for decades now, were trying to get a bill passed that would allow greater fairness and justice in the world place. I helped with that.
The energizing wave of that tour carried on in a very significant way to help reinvigorate the mission and message of a life’s work that pre-dates Rage Against the Machine in some ways, but was really amplified by the experience of being on that tour, and making the most of it going away.
Tell me more about these upcoming solo shows.
It’s a solo tour with my band, the Freedom Fighters Orchestra. It’s places I’ve been dying to get back to since the pandemic, where some of the most passionate and wild fans in the world are, in South America and Italy and places like that. I cannot wait to play.
I saw Jack White play a small show recently in Los Angeles. We have something in common in that we’ve both been in a lot of bands. The way that he weaved and synthesized a life’s work into a very cohesive and compelling whole was very inspiring to me. I was like, “You can take the whole thing and make it all one.” I’ve always sort of segregated a bit, whether it’s the acoustic Nightwatchman stuff or EDM-leaning Atlas Underground stuff. But that was very inspiring. I’m going to be rockin’ South America and Europe.
On the Springsteen tour happening right now, Steve Van Zandt got Covid and missed a show. And then Nils Lofgren got Covid and missed a show. If they had both gone down at the same time, do you think you could have parachuted in last minute and helped out without any rehearsal?
Oh, hell no! I learned 250 songs for that tour. [Laughs] Maybe with the appropriate cheat sheet. Maybe. But no. I worked really, really hard to get ready for that, and it’s been a few years. I mean, if they played “The Ghost of Tom Joad” seven times in a row, I’d be ready. [Laughs]
The Hall of Fame induction is usually around November these days. If Rage does get in, do you think you guys will come and play?
I will definitely be there. Beyond that, we haven’t discussed that. That’s really putting the cart before the horse. I would hope so, though.
On the Wikipedia page for Rage, should it say Rage “are a band” or Rage “were a band?”
[Big laugh] I would refer to the official Rage Against the Machine statement on that point, in which there’s none! [Laughs]
I’ll leave it there, but I’m really hoping those cancelled 38 shows can happen at some point. There’s such a hunger for it.
Yeah. Me too! You can count me high on their number. And while I understand a lot of the focus has been your forensic investigation into the un-findable, in this historical moment, I think it is important to anyone in any line of work to stand and deliver. This is a very dangerous time. It’s kind of all hands on deck.
In dangerous times, the world needs Rage…
That is one powerful, potential solution to the problem. I won’t argue with you.
We can leave it there. Sorry I kept grilling you on the stage of Rage. I’m sure that was annoying.
That’s okay. I was warned that such a grilling was coming. I’ve been one quarter of the owner of the ring for 30 years. I understand the frustration. We just don’t operate like other bands.