International Clash Day: Interview with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Prophets Of Rage

International Clash Day, Interviews
Owen Murphy
Photo by Moses Namkung

When it comes to combining punk and politics, west coast rockers Rage Against the Machine immediately come to mind. Starting with their 1992 self-titled debut album, the band became known for their fiercely leftist lyrics and how they viewed music as a vehicle for social activism. Not only that, but like The Clash, the band was known for combining styles of music -- in their case, rap and rock. So, for International Clash Day, we knew we had to speak to founding member and guitarist, Tom Morello.

In September 2017, Morello released a self-titled debut LP with Prophets of Rage, a project featuring Rage Against the Machine bassist and backing vocalist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk; Public Enemy members DJ Lord and rapper Chuck D; and rapper B-Real of Cypress Hill.


Do you have any favorite lyrics from The Clash?

Well I mean there's certainly a part of one song that made a huge impact on me in the great Clash anthem "White Riot" -- Joe saying, "Are you taking over or are you taking orders? / Are you going backwards or are you going forwards?" When I heard that, I wrote those four lines down, I put them on my refrigerator, and I answered those four questions for myself every single day. To this day, I try to remind myself of those questions to see where I'm at.

photo by David Atlas


Why do you consider The Clash important?

Well, I mean, they combined some of the great historical elements of rock n' roll in that there was performance, there was the kind of passion and an out-of-body craziness of a Little Richard, they had great costumes, you know -- they had some of the touchstones of rock n' roll, but they had a heart and a belief in a more humane and just world that was the driving engine of their music. That's what differentiated themselves from almost every other band in history and why they could immodestly proclaim that they were "the only band that mattered"; because during that time, and maybe during this time, it's true.

The street populist poetry of Joe Strummer rang with a kind of honesty that I wasn't hearing on the nightly news or in classrooms of my high school and then they combined it with this broad global musical vision. They began as an all-pistons-firing punk rock three chord band, but then they broadened to like they're -- much like with Public Enemy -- it's like the music itself was revolutionary. They were a punk rock band that refused to fit the mold of punk rock and they embraced music from, you know, the United States, music from Latin America... the themes were global. They introduced the word "Sandinista" to high schools across the United States and Europe.

While they had a lot of the same touchstones as rock n' roll, it was done with a spirit that was counter to what the typical rock aesthetic was. They would let fans in free to their shows. They were on the side of the fans, they were on the side of the people; it was deeply meaningful for me as a young rocker. They were the first non-heavy metal band that I gravitated towards and it was the cover of the "London Calling" album that some kid brought into high school one day and I was like "Oh, that must be a great metal band. Look at that bad ass cover, that guy smashing his bass!" He's like, "Well it's not exactly metal." I was like, "Well it looked metal enough to me, may I borrow it?" So I brought it home and I dubbed a cassette of it and completely fell in love with this different kind of music because they were expressing a worldview that did not exist in any of the metal songs that made me first like music.

KEXP is celebrating International Clash Day all day, both online and on the air; click here to see more KEXP interviews and articles.

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