In the fourth grade, Tom Morello was royalty. At least his classmates thought as much. They'd ask the future rock star if he was the prince of Africa. The son of a Kenyan anticolonialist and a schoolteacher who headed up the anticensorship advocacy group Parents for Rock and Rap, Morello was the only kid of mixed race in the affluent Chicago suburb of Libertyville, a burg white enough to pass for an NHL franchise. "I integrated the town," Morello once told The Progressive.
All of which is to say that Morello was born something of a revolutionary. His star turn as the scratch-happy guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, the agitprop rap-rocker group from L.A., only made it official. (The Fraternal Order of Police boycotted the band because of its confrontational political views; after 9-11, it was the only band to have its entire catalog banned from the airwaves by Clear Channel.)
So when Rage dissolved in 2000, after frontman Zack de la Rocha left the group, it came as something of a surprise that Morello and the remaining members of the band hooked up with ex-Soundgarden-wailer Chris Cornell, a man no more political than your average sock drawer. The singer's first condition upon joining the band, which he would later dub Audioslave: He wouldn't sing about politics.
For a guy like Morello, separating music from politics is like unraveling intertwined strands of DNA. Yet it came naturally with Audioslave.
"Each band has to find its own equilibrium, and in order for a band to be great, it has to be real. It never would have worked to shoehorn Audioslave into the slippers of Rage Against the Machine," says Morello, who now channels his politics into the political action group Axis of Justice, which he founded with System of a Down frontman Serj Tankian. "But for me, as a person who loves to play rock and roll and also loves to fight the power and organize, if that was not going to be the bread and butter of my rock-and-roll band, it still has to be the bread and butter of a big part of my life. And so that's where Axis of Justice came in. Audioslave is free to rock relentlessly and pursue its muse without any tether."
That freedom means not having to refer to band members' pasts. Unlike a supergroup such as, say, Velvet Revolver, which loads its sets with songs from Stone Temple Pilots and Guns N' Roses, Audioslave has yet to play any Rage or Soundgarden tunes live (though Morello hints that this may change on the current tour).
Instead, the band focuses solely on its alternately moody and overheated rock and roll, which is perhaps best described as modern classic rock. With Cornell's octave-shearing upper register set against Morello's inventive, Atari 500 solos, the band is a mix of funk and finesse, like Robert Plant fronting the Family Stone. Instead of Republicans, Cornell sings of gods and angels. Think T.S. Eliot with hotter groupies.
Next month, Audioslave will follow up its self-titled, multiplatinum debut with its second full-length, Out of Exile. The album's first single, "Be Yourself," builds slowly from politely strummed guitar and a temperamental bass line to a big, Bic-in-the-air chorus worthy of U2. Cornell, ever introspective -- he could brood over a winning lottery ticket -- sounds almost celebratory on the tune. "To be yourself is all that you can be," he wails, getting his Stuart Smalley on. The song gives a sense of being about affirmation, about these players finally getting comfortable with each other. According to Morello, this fostered a loose, productive vibe in the rehearsal room, where the band wrote its entire new record in three weeks.
"We relied much more on spontaneity than preparation in the songwriting process," says Morello, an effusive albeit bookish dude who has appeared on Star Trek Voyager twice. "Normally, I keep very detailed tapes and charts and graphs about song ideas as we go along. This time, I really didn't do any of it. The morning before rehearsal, I would just pick up a guitar and come up with an idea, or just show up and see what happened that day. I think that once we gained confidence in relying on intuition, it bore fruit. It's not like all of a sudden we discovered how to play chord progressions, but some of those inclinations were more latent in the past, the kind of stuff that you might jam with friends or strum at home or on some soundtrack project -- now you can bring those into the room and see what sort of amazing melody Chris can weave into it."
In preparation for the album's release on May 17, Audioslave is doing a month's worth of shows in theaters and ballrooms. The band's upcoming stop at the Agora sold out in days, and "Be Yourself" has already rocketed to the upper regions of the Billboard rock-singles chart. The band's appeal is simple: Its members cleverly camouflage arena-rock bluster with the alt-rock cool they earned in their previous outfits.
"The insular nature of Audioslave really helps -- our ears are not glued to the radio to see how the latest Arcade Fire single is doing," Morello says of his band's success. "We call it 'between the monitors' -- the monitors on stage. It's like, as long as you're set between the monitors, between the band members and the music you're making, everything is going to be all right. You don't really need to look beyond that."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.