Pop ’N Hiss: Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire

Strife Under Pressure
Pop ’N Hiss: Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire
Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Zack de la Rocha onstage in 1994.

With a title taken from a Ronald Reagan quip about the Soviet Union, Rage Against The Machine’s second album, Evil Empire, was created under pressure so intense it damn near killed the band.

After a successful 1992 debut and songs like “Bombtrack,” “Freedom,” and “Killing in the Name” blew the minds of the multitudes, intense touring earned them worldwide attention. But, three and a half years later, drummer Brad Wilk, bassist Tim Commerford, vocalist Zack de la Rocha, and guitarist Tom Morello felt the weight of expectations from fans and their record company; they had to record again.

The band itself didn’t make things easy with the personalities of its three prickly, opinionated members – especially Harvard grad Tom Morello, whose famously Type-A personality compelled him to abandon guitar clichés and forge a unique musical vision.

“The nail in the coffin of traditional guitar playing, for me, was an early [Rage] gig in the San Fernando Valley,” Morello recalled on Tim Ferriss’ Youtube show in 2022. “We were opening for two cover bands that had technically talented guitarists that could shred like crazy and played brilliantly. But I thought, ‘If I’m on a bill with three other guitar players who have that level of useless technique, I don’t need to be the fourth.’” That shift in consciousness became a movement in “nu metal,” rap, and heavy guitar through the ’90s.

“There’s a clear delineation between musicians and artists,” Morello added. “At some point, you must go beyond being delighted to play your favorite songs. You have to take a step into the unknown to say, ‘This is what has come before, and now I’m going to write my own songs. I’m going to take a risk and put myself out there, and people will hate those songs.’ So, I veered the ship dramatically towards concentrating on the eccentricities of my playing and things that were unique. To that end, I decided to rail against the accepted rules of shred guitar, which in my opinion were making every six-stringer sound the same. One night, I decided to be the DJ in Rage, but I was going to do it on guitar. Discovering how to scratch on the guitar and work the toggle switch like two turntables was key.”

For Evil Empire, producer Brendan O’Brien took on the task of moderating explosive disputes while packaging the band’s diverse influences to everyone’s satisfaction. The process was grueling and initial sessions, in Atlanta, were a disaster, so they took a break.
Wilk recalled how touring had taken its toll.

“The first record came out, and we went on the road for three years straight, living together on a bus,” he told the L.A. Times in 1996. “When you do that, it’s pretty easy to get sick of each other. We went in to make the second record, and all the personal differences we swept under the rug suddenly came up.”

The band fought so violently in the studio that they briefly broke up before gathering again in L.A. in March of ’95. Rejecting state-of-the-art joints, they pursued a rawer approach at Cole Rehearsal Studios.

“We thought, ‘Why spend $2,000 a day in some fancy studio trying to re-create the great vibe we have right here?’” Morello told VG. “We knocked a hole in the wall, rented the room across the hall, and ran wires through the hallway.

Rage Against The Machine 1994: Gie Knaeps/UPPA/Zuma.

“We weren’t going to go in and play in a studio that had no environment whatsoever,” added de la Rocha. “You get in some places, and it’s like walking into a dentist’s office.”
Basic tracks and lyrics were composed and recorded simultaneously as the band pulled together.

“We recorded the rhythm tracks live, needing only a few takes to nail it,” said Morello. “We rarely used click tracks. Instinctive speeding up or slowing down can make it much more exciting.”

“Bulls On Parade” was a group effort displaying Commerford’s syncopated bass, de la Rocha’s trance-inducing swing, and a wicked guitar solo from Morello creating turntable sounds. The opening riff, he says, was initially written as the coda.

“When Brendan heard it, he zeroed right in on it and said, ‘Why don’t you try beginning the song that way?’ It was exactly what the song needed,” Morello said. “That’s why he’s Brendan O’Brien.”

Criticism of military spending gives way to lyrics about the Zapatista uprising and wealth inequality, as on “People Of The Sun” and “Down Rodeo,” while “Vietnow” showcases Wilk’s groove and feel as Morello gets gnarly with a Jimmy Page-inspired riff. Morello used his “Arm The Homeless” superstrat – a Performance Guitars body with homemade neck (dug out of the dumpster at Nadine’s Music Store in Hollywood), Ibanez locking vibrato, and EMG pickups. His rig was – and remains – a 50-watt Marshall JCM 800 2205 going into a Peavey 4×12, fronted by an MXR Phase 90, DOD FX40B Equalizer, two Boss DD-3 Digital Delays, a DigiTech WH-1 Whammy, a Dunlop GCB95 Cry Baby Wah, and a DigiTech XP-300 Space Station.

With de la Rocha’s lyrics providing a banquet of food for thought, Evil Empire skyrocketed to #1 in the U.S. and ultimately went triple platinum while “Tire Me” won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance. Fanning the flames of activism as a musical alternative for spoiled suburban kids moaning about first-world problems, Morello’s concussion-inducing riffs were the carrot, while de la Rocha’s high-velocity rhymes and passion enticed listeners to examine their worldview. Are you an ally, an enemy, or willfully asleep?

“It was a long process,” Morello laments. “I had the musical, the political, and the record goal in mind, and sometimes turned a deaf ear to the feelings of my bandmates. I’ve learned that lesson through the years. That’s very important. You have to get that right first, or none of the rest matters.”

Lesser bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit garnered huge success trailing in the wake of Rage Against The Machine, but its influence is unquestionable – not bad for four leftists who criticize multi-national corporations, cultural imperialism, and government oppression – and were even banned from “Saturday Night Live.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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