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Exclusive: Tom Morello on Touring and Recording With Bruce Springsteen

Mark Metcalfe, Getty Images

When Bruce Springsteen asked Tom Morello to join the E Street Band for a tour of Australia last year, the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist couldn’t have known that filling in for Steve Van Zandt onstage would also land Morello on Springsteen’s next album.

Yet there he is, playing guitar on eight of the 12 tracks on ‘High Hopes,’ and sharing lead vocals with Springsteen on one, a robust new version of ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad.’ “It’s been an epic journey,” Morello tells Ultimate Classic Rock from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s learning a new batch of Springsteen songs for the next leg of the tour, making sure he has the songs on ‘High Hopes’ nailed down and working on a solo album.

Morello took a break to talk about what it’s like to tour with the E Street Band, his contributions to ‘High Hopes’ and how Springsteen inspired him to tap into his folk-protest side.

Springsteen doesn’t play the same set list every night.

You’re telling me! [Laughs]

So how do you even start preparing to tour with him for the first time?

I’m at a unique disadvantage, in that many of the other people onstage have been playing those songs for 40 years. I’d been playing them for about 48 hours. For the last tour, Bruce gave me a master list of about 50 songs, and that just covered the first show. And then for each subsequent show, he’d send me a list of four to eight for that night. . . . It was pretty nerve-wracking for the first couple of days, but then I relaxed, and the shows went great. And even though I may not be familiar with all of the intricacies of every one of his 600 songs, I’ve heard all of them, with the possible exception of the Detroit Medley, which is the one I didn’t do so well on last tour.

What was your introduction to Springsteen? Were you a longtime fan?

No, I was a latecomer. I grew up on metal and then punk and then hip-hop, and I didn’t really get it until, it was probably ’86 or ’87. When I first thought there might be something there for me, it was the Amnesty International tour, there was a live special from Buenos Aires, and I watched that because I was a big fan of Peter Gabriel and was surprised that someone named Bruce Springsteen was headlining the event. It was an epic show, and I realized the depth and the power — it was smart and it was moving and it was stadium-rocking, and I got the ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ cassette the next day and realized I was in for a treat digging into the catalog. That record and ‘Nebraska’ were my two favorite records. It really spoke to my Midwestern existential ennui, you know? [Laughs] It felt like, ‘That guy understands, man. S—’s not right.’

For you, someone who has been a longtime proponent of s—’s-not-right . . .

[Laughs] That’s right. Even from those records, where his politics had a lower-case “p,” I felt I felt that the person singing them was a brother in arms. It was the ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ record that was my impetus to begin my solo acoustic career. I had never been a folk singer-songwriter. But that record, particularly the songs ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ and ‘Youngstown,’ and then when I saw that tour, it felt like it was as heavy as any metal concert I had been to. It was kind of a north star, like, “I’ve got ideas in my head and poetic notions and I know a few minor chords, so I’m going to start singing them.”

What do you feel like you bring to the E Street Band?

I try not to over-intellectualize it. My No. 1 job is to not mess it up. The E Street Band is one of the greatest live bands of all time without me in it. So don’t f— it up, first and foremost. And then when Bruce gives me the nod, blow the roof off the joint. That’s the way I look at it.

You’ve played with Springsteen occasionally over the years. How did that first happen?

The first time we played together was 2008 in Anaheim. We had run into each other in a studio and he said, “You should come play with us sometime,” and I went home and checked the schedule. It was a surprising night. I rarely as a grown man get nervous before a performance. I’m often excited, but I rarely get nervous, and I was really nervous. I was about to play onstage with the E Street Band, and Bruce had modulated the key of the song for the electric version and I thought it might be out of my range, and I was sort of stewing downstairs with a half-empty bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey, then went up there and played it with them. It was like, “Holy s—, what just happened in this room?” It was a combustible chemistry, and I’ve had the honor to relive that chemistry a number of times over the years, and that began a musical relationship that has culminated in playing eight songs on this record.

When did you realize you were making an album?

I just originally got sent the song ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’ to play guitar on, and Bruce really liked what I did, and then sent me a couple more songs, and a couple more songs. Then, the day before I left for the Australian tour, we tracked ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ in Los Angeles. No one had said this was a record. Bruce just kept sending me songs. Then one day in Australia, I went up to Nick DiDia’s studio in the hinterlands and recorded ‘Harry’s Place’ and some more stuff on ‘American Skin’ and I did the solo on ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ up there, and maybe a few other things. Then when we were in Sydney, the full band recorded ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Just Like Fire Would.’ That was a pretty exciting day.

How did you approach recording ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad,’ given that you’ve played it with him before?

That one, the challenge was to approximate the live awesomeness of that song. The rhythm track, especially Max [Weinberg]’s drumming, felt so explosive, so I’ve got to make sure that my guitar business on here is the greatest guitar playing I’ve ever done. [Laughs]

Were you already finished recording when you became aware these songs were in consideration for an album?

The first time it really, really sunk in was, we were on the plane ride back from Australia, and Bruce was at his computer with his headphones on for the entire 16-hour flight, and at that point he was talking about sequencing. I was like, “Sequencing: I know what that means.” But when I came back, I still played on more songs. I think I redid the ‘Harry’s Place’ solo and ‘Heaven’s Wall,’ as well.

You suggested ‘High Hopes,’ a Havalinas cover, as a song to play on tour. What prompted that?

I was driving home from somewhere late at night listening to E Street Radio and the song ‘High Hopes’ came on. I was familiar with the song, though I hadn’t heard it in a while, and it just sounded to me like something we could destroy in a live setting. It felt like that horn riff lent itself to a guitar riff, and it felt like something that was funkier than you normally hear the E Street Band get, and I felt like if I was given the nod, I could play some guitar on that thing that would be very fun.

Were there particular Springsteen tunes you were keen to play?

Some of my favorite parts of the catalog are the ones that are not so electric guitar-based. I love ‘The Promise,’ I love ‘Magic.’ A lot of the downer acoustic ballads are some of my favorites. ‘The Hitter,’ I love. I tried to be as prepared as possible. I remember as a kid having an argument in somebody’s fake wood-paneled basement about what was the greatest song of all time, and at the time, I came firmly down on the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ front. And the opposition came down on ‘Born to Run.’ . . . That is something I reflected on when I was standing at the front of the stage in Sydney, Australia, with Bruce Springsteen, playing that descending riff in ‘Born to Run’ with the roaring E Street Band behind us, and I thought, “You know, that other kid may have been right.”

Next: 10 Best Rage Against the Machine Songs

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