Guitarist details first album's troubled recording sessions
Tom Morello, now in the midst of a furious nostalgia kick celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut and its timely deluxe reissue, opened up to LA Weekly about the band's "raw wound" while recording the landmark LP's second single: "Bullet in the Head."
That early cut was the only take from Rage's 12-song demo that eventually made the 10-track album, according to the guitarist. "We did try to re-record it and there was an argument over which version to use," Morello said. "The one that we had recorded with the studio was more polished and reflected some arrangement changes that were arguably better, but there was something in that initial demo take that felt so right, like a raw wound." He added, "We just couldn't get better than that."
Despite that confidence, Morello said the Los Angeles foursome kept their expectations low. "The underground bubble of what was to be known as alternative music had not popped, but it was fermenting," the Nightwatchman said. "When we were writing these songs, there was no expectation of ever even being able to book a club gig, let alone get a record deal and make a platinum album people would be talking about 20 years later."
Surprisingly, Morello revealed that Epic never blinked at the songs' fiery lyrical content. "There was never any resistance," he said. "The record label actually suggested 'Killing in the Name' as the first single, which contains the line, 'Fuck you I won't do what you tell me' 16 times and one 'motherfucker.' They knew that this was not a band that would craft pop hits. It was also the label's suggestion to not edit lyrical content for video or for radio, which is why it exploded outside of here. 'Killing in the Name' and 'Bullet in the Head' were hit songs across Europe, South America and Japan where there were less stringent censorship laws."
One area that RATM did struggle with, though, was the recording process. "The one thing that was a challenge for us was that the band was already on fire live and we had some trouble capturing that in a studio setting," Morello said. "What really broke the ice was we invited friends and family and played the set a couple of times through, not like we were trying to make a record, but were rocking at a show. Doing that was how we got half of the takes." Ferocious fan-favorite "Take the Power Back," in particular, was "one that always felt tough" to the guitarist. "The one that you hear on the record we actually may have sped up a tiny bit to goose it in the energy department."
"I think that we wasted time in the studio trying to dial in on hi-hat sounds and guitar tone, then recreate something that was spontaneously happening anyway," he continued. "We were at our best when we played the songs live in the studio, which after that is how we recorded every record." Rage went on to release three more albums: 1996's Evil Empire; 1999's The Battle of Los Angeles; and 2000's Renegades. Though the '90s rock icons have reunited for a few sporadic shows since 2007, Morello recently denied rumors that the band will be recording a fifth full-length.
Stream the 20th Anniversary Special Edition of Rage Against the Machine XX over at Revolver.