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Aggression, rage, tension and flat-out venting fuel Rage's live shows, too, both onstage and in the pit. De la Rocha perpetually looks like he's gonna kick your ass. And the pits are some of the intensest you'll find at a rock show these days. But since Rage is so much about messages, you have to wonder if the moshing hordes are picking up any of it. When you're flailing away, survival is probably more on your mind than Chiapas is.
"A tremendous number of people have picked up on the politics of it," Morello insists. "We hear from them every day. The glut of mail and e-mail we receive is astounding. But I think our audience in general is a very intelligent one. There are always gonna be people who are just coming for the aggression in the music, and that's perfectly fine—we don't play this elitist music that's for New England coffeehouses. It's not this kind of political folk music for the converted. But some of the people who come for the rock will leave with something very different than what they came with. When you sell 9 million records, you can't expect there to be 9 million ideological adherents. And that's okay—if you get 10 percent of them, that's still 900,000."
Rage isn't some Stalinist dictatorship, Morello makes clear, in which you have to believe everything the band trumpets or otherwise get shunned. People get out of Rage what they want to get, he says. "In the same way, I can talk about my own experience. I was very much a fan of escapist heavy metal. I loved Kiss, Sabbath and Aerosmith—stuff like that. Then I discovered the Clash, and I loved the rock of that, too, but their music also had something else in it that resonated with me in a way that made me feel like part of something bigger, like this community that went beyond my small Midwestern town [Morello was raised in Libertyville, Illinois], so it also helped to give me more resolve in the things that I believe in."
The band members back up their words with action, regularly performing benefit shows for causes that can use some hard cash. That's gotten them in trouble, though the kind that's to be expected when you hold less-than-popular opinions. In January, Rage organized a benefit for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and former Black Panther on death row for murdering a Philadelphia police officer. Many questions have been raised about Abu-Jamal's conviction and how it was obtained; Amnesty International, among several other groups, has called for a retrial. Cops, though, are convinced the original verdict is the right one. So Rage became the target of a boycott by several police groups—which, of course, brought lots of free media attention for Mumia's case. Despite various threats, the show went on, and Rage raised $80,000.
"We raised awareness about the case, and we also made a lot of enemies," Morello says. "But for a band like Rage Against the Machine, if we're doing our job right, that's gonna happen. When no one's paying attention, then we'll know we haven't been active enough. But the bottom line is if you want to have justice in the United States, then you've gotta have cash; it's really that simple. There are zero rich people on death row in the U.S.—zero. And that was one of the main problems in Mumia's first trial. There was no money to do any of the forensic tests that would have exonerated him at the time."
Tickets for their upcoming tour are a little more expensive than they've been in the past, Morello says, because they plan to use the extra money for activist causes and charities in each of the cities they play in, continuing their get-something/give-something-back belief. Rage made $400,000 opening shows for U2 on their 1997 PopMart tour, but Morello says they kept none of it and gave it all away to organizations that needed it more than they did. "We want to raise a lot of money. That's one thing that rock can do, and it's so easy," he says. "People pay money to see it, and you can use that money to enrich yourself, or you can use it to benefit other people and other causes."
The record-company publicist cuts in on our chat—when you're in a band that's as big as Rage, your time is spread pretty thin. One more quick question: "Is Zack a fun guy to hang out with? He never looks too happy. Onstage, he always acts like he's just gonna go off."
Morello laughs. "That's probably one of the big misconceptions about our band, that we have no sense of humor. But there are some funny guys here. It's nonstop entertainment."
De la Rocha may be funny, but he sure isn't talkative. Morello does most of the band's interviews, but de la Rocha is fairly press-shy, reasons for which likely stem from an incident several years ago when he agreed to talk with a British journalist, so long as he didn't print anything about his estranged relationship with his father. But the reporter printed all of de la Rocha's personal business anyway. We would've loved to talk with de la Rocha, him being from Irvine and all—yo, Zack! We're really, really swell people here!—but, understandably, when you're the vocalist in one of the biggest bands in the world, you don't have to talk to anybody if you don't want to. So we tracked down some folks from back in the day who knew de la Rocha when he was going to University High School, where he palled around with fellow student and eventual Rage bassist Tim Commerford.