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Tom Morello at the Grammy Museum: Political activism, music biz lessons and what about another Rage album?

April 1, 2009 |  7:36 am

Tom_morello_kggdncnc_250 Prior to Tuesday evening, when Tom Morello was last seen on stage in Los Angeles, he was spearheading a benefit for various homeless advocacy groups at the Fonda Theater in Hollywood, performing with the likes of Wayne Krame and Slash. The one-on-one setting Tuesday night at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles was a bit more grown-up than a rock 'n' roll show, but the Rage Against the Machine member stayed on point, and even brought a little unpredictably to the recently opened nonprofit institution.

The Grammy Museum launched with a politics-in-music exhibit titled "Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom," and the discussion, led by the museum's executive director, Robert Santelli, neatly tied in with the theme. With a nod to one of the artist's at the centerpiece of the exhibit, the night closed with Morello, who rose to prominence as one of the alt-rock era's most adventurous guitarists, leading the 200-seat theater through a determined take on Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." Disregarding the nervous glances from the small security staff, the suburban Illinois-raised artist instructed the audience stand and jump through the final verse.

Before the rousing finale, however, Santelli led an engagingly thoughtful discussion through Morello's career, focusing largely on the influence of politics and activism. Everything from schoolyard racism to the music business to Morello's thoughts on President Obama were touched on. As Morello pointed out, there's more than one similarity between the artist and our nation's 44th president. In addition to ties to the Chicago area, both were born to a Kenyan father and white mother, and each did time at Harvard in the '80s.

Yet Morello hasn't stepped aboard the hope express, viewing all politicians with skepticism. Asked for his take on the election of Obama, Morello said he's optimistic but quickly tempered the positivity. "At the same time, you have to look at the facts on the ground," he said. "Tonight there are 75,000 homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles, and over 10,000 homeless children on the streets of the Los Angeles. And we're still talking about how much of a bailout the auto industry is going to get."

Santelli attempted to get at the events that shaped Morello's worldview. While raised in a socially-aware, activist family -- his father was Kenya's first ambassador to the United States and his schoolteacher mother founded the anti-censorship group Parents for Rock and Rap -- Morello shared firsthand accounts that influenced his career.

Painting himself as the nerdy high schooler, Morello spoke of the moments when he realized there's a "much bigger world" than middle-class suburbia. While reading about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, he contrasted those images with the world around him "There were kids in the Libertyville High School starving themselves to make the wrestling team," he said.

His music career also began in earnest in high school, with Morello's self-described "drama-club band" the Electric Sheep becoming one of three bands at the school (the other two: Destiny and Epitaph). Influenced equally by the Clash and "fantasy heavy metal bands," Morello said a trip to Chicago's Aragon Ballroom to see the Clash inspired him to get serious, as he noticed that lead singer/guitarist had a similar guitar/amp set-up. "The wall evaporated," he said. 

Finding topics to write songs about was never challenge, and tackling socially conscious music was Morello's goal from Day One. "I didn't have limousine parties with groupies," Morello said. "I did have trouble finding a job."

Morello's latest project, Street Sweeper, a collaboration with the Coup's Boots Riley, will open for Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction on the act's summer tour.

Other notes from Tuesday's chat:

--  A fan asked when Rage Against the Machine would record a new album. The answer: Not anytime soon. But fans shouldn't feel too saddened. "There may be some more Rage shows in the future," Morello said.

--  Name of one of the bands Morello played in at Harvard: Bored of Education.

--  Contracts in the music business are largely meaningless. Morello's pre-Rage band, Lock Up, released on album for Geffen Records in 1989 before being dropped. Morello said he went out of his way to ensure that the band's contract guaranteed that the act would be allowed to record at least two albums regardless of the results of the first. When Morello pointed this out after being cut, he said the label responded with this: " 'We know it's guaranteed but you don't have enough money to sue us.' That was my welcome to the music industry."

--  Morello noted that Rage Against the Machine was a band that didn't "pay its dues," being signed after its second show. But the band's musical personality was clear early on. While rehearsing in the San Fernando Valley, a local factory worker would listen in on rehearsals. His review: " 'This music makes me want to fight.' "

--  Did Rage Against the Machine ever consider toning things down and dropping the politics? "There were countless things that were argued about," Morello said. "Whether or not to make an album about love wasn't one of them."

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Tom Morello. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times