in conversation

Grandson and Tom Morello on What Rock and Roll Means in 2021

Photos by Ashley Osborn.

It’s 2021, and if you hadn’t heard the message earlier, it’s now simply deafening. Everything is political. It’s something musicians like Tom Morello, the guitarist of the anti-establishment rock band Rage Against the Machine, have long screamed to mosh pits of loyal fans. And it’s by no means lost on a new generation of alt-rockers, releasing records in a world torn apart by greedy politicians and their zealous fanbase. In 2018, when others struggled to find words amidst a fire that just kept on burning, Grandson, the pseudonym of Canadian-American Jordan Benjamin, released “Blood//Water,” an instant anthem for a generation raising a fist to a broken system. “We’ll never get free/Lamb to the slaughter/What you gon’ do/When there’s blood in the water?” Benjamin asks over distorted guitar riffs on the gold-certified track. On Death of an Optimist (Fueled by Ramen), his first full-length album released in December, he continued his streak of angst-dripped, polemical songwriting, exploring the personal tug-of-war between blind optimism and the anxiety-inducing reality. On “We Did It!!!” (that’s three exclamation points), he sears the cult of complacent liberalism, singing, “I’m gonna pat myself on the back/’Cause I did the bare minimum/Where the fuck is my medal?/Tweetin’ from my brand new condominium.” When he’s not creating head-bangers for the TikTok era, Benjamin works with the XXResistance Fund, encouraging youth to organize toward progressive causes. He’s also campaigned for Bernie Sanders, and been remixed by Morello, the godfather of raging against the machine. On a December day, the two joined a Zoom call to discuss Bruce Springsteen, Paul Ryan doing bench press, and how resistance is as human as making out. —SARAH NECHAMKIN


TOM MORELLO: First of all, I can’t see myself. I’m a little technologically challenged. Hold on one second here.

GRANDSON: I mean, you’ve spent a lifetime raging against the machine.

MORELLO: Yeah, exactly. My Luddite abilities have coalesced. Okay, there we go. I’ve prepared a lot of questions.

GRANDSON: I’ve prepared a lot of questions.

MORELLO: That’s what happens when you get some list makers together.

GRANDSON: That’s right. You can get some over-analytical political rockers.

MORELLO: First of all, nice to see you. For those of you unfamiliar with our friendship and our rocking relationship, It was Allison Hagendorf, who runs the rock stuff at Spotify, who first turned me on to your music, and brought me to a show at the Roxy where I greatly enjoyed the enthusiasm of the youth going crazy in the mosh pit there. I did a remix for your song “Blood//Water,” which was a real joy to do. It’s a fat jam. I don’t know that I improved upon it, but I was happy to sort of give my interpretation of it. And then we worked on some additional rock, which hopefully we’ll see the light of day in the not too distant future. Having said all that, the broad strokes question I have for you, sir, is: Why does rock and roll matter in 2021?

GRANDSON: Oh, my god, dude, thanks for starting light here, man. Why does rock and roll matter?

MORELLO: I’ll be asking about your favorite breakfast cereal later on.

GRANDSON: It’s all good. I think rock and roll matters more than ever, because rock and roll for me has always been an attitude more than a particular instrument. Rock and roll will constantly be re-contextualized. And I think in a year where there’s so much uncertainty, for a lot of people, there’s been a certain helplessness. I think a lot of us feel like we are kind of arbiters of our own destiny. What the pandemic has done for so many of us is really harshly remind us that so much of our life is out of our control. So many of us are just waiting for something to happen to bring us back to some sort of new version of normal. And I think what rock and roll does is give you permission to get mad, and to feel some sense of agency over your attitude. You get to decide to smash that guitar or jump up and down. As a great man once said, “Take the power back.” More than ever, we need permission to do so. I don’t think rock and roll is the absence of doubt. Rock and roll is not giving a fuck that that doubt is there. What do you think?

MORELLO: I’m all in favor of that answer. Rock and roll has been counted out countless times over the course of the last five decades, from the groups that tried to suppress it in the 1950s to people saying once you could sample a guitar, you never needed a live guitar player again at the advent of hip-hop, to the digital creation that goes on now where everyone and their computer is a Mozart composer. The one thing that is irreplaceable is that feeling of strapping on a guitar or sitting behind a drum kit or a bass and feeling the analog might and the air behind your back. There’s something that taps into the reptilian brain, and our human DNA of a combination of rhyme and reason, and aggression and power and the communal gathering of the tribe that is the rock and roll show that’s unlike anything else. That remains unchanged. And whether it’s at the top of the charts, or whether it’s in a sort of a jazz club with 15 people in an audience and some young hesher banging their head, that is something that’s irreplaceable.

GRANDSON: You’ve been so outspoken this year, and in the past, and some of the moments in which you’ve garnered the most attention this year in social media is when you retweet or provide commentary on these moments of people on the far right who are playing “Killing in the Name Of,” “Take the Power Back,” or any of the iconic resistance-fueled music that you’ve been a part of. You see the comments saying, “Don’t these people know this is the opposite of what Rage Against the Machines stood for? How stupid do these people have to be?” My question is, do you think that art can be gotten wrong by its interpreter? Do you think that we are able to tell these people, “Hey, this isn’t what my song was about?”

MORELLO: First of all, there’s a long history of misinterpretation from Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” which seems very obvious, and much of the Rage Against the Machine catalog falls into that. It’s a testament to the compelling nature of the music. It’s not a dry college lecture. Noam Chomsky will never start a mosh pit. It’s a testament to like the power of the rock and roll. I know from personal experience, and every time I go to get a coffee or go to the grocery store, that there are people who have come to my music for the guitar solos and then later on became a public defender or a brick-throwing anarchist, because they were exposed to a set of ideas that harmonized internally in a way that they would not have gotten down with had it not been a great rock and roll song to begin with.

So, there’s a lot of Trump clowns out there who love to drunkenly mosh Rage Against Machine. And it’s cringey and embarrassing, but when you look at those mosh pits, and you wonder what percentage of the people really understand what’s going on, I don’t know that it’s 50, or even 20. But 20 on a global scale is a significant number.

GRANDSON: And those people are going on and really making something of themselves and of the messages that you guys stood for. It’s always going to be a question of, can you separate art from the artists, whether it’s famous filmmakers who have had kind of nefarious, scandalous romantic interests, or the opposite, where you have a band who is here to stand for the people, and Paul Ryan is doing bench press reps to it.

MORELLO: I believe it’s fine to ignore the message and just enjoy the music. Some may come to it, some may not. But to be completely surprised at my ideological point of view in 2020, when you’re very familiar with elements of my 20-album catalog, it’s surprising to me. One thing I’m very proud of is that our songs have been played in the streets in 2020 at the correct protests. Speaking of protests, you have a Canadian background, right?

GRANDSON: I’m a dual citizen.

MORELLO: Part of my early political understanding was there was some stuff that went on in the French separatist movement in Montreal in 1970. What I was very much aware of later is the Front de Liberation du Quebec. You’re familiar with the October scene?

GRANDSON: Sure. The Bloc Québécois.

MORELLO: Yeah, it was part of the urban guerrilla movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s, where people took matters into their own hands, whether it was the Weatherman or the Black Panthers here in the United States, or that organization in Quebec. Did any of that spark of your rebellious underpinnings echoed in the separatist movement?

GRANDSON: Well, I come from a family that immigrated to Toronto. My mother grew up in Toronto, but we’d go back and forth between Buffalo and Toronto, as many Canadians do. Having immigrated to Canada at a young age from an American family, I was relatively separated from the relationship that French Canadians have to Anglo-Canadians as well as Native American and Indigenous Canadians have to Canadian identity at large. But I do believe that in Canada, you do have more of these different political factions. You have a broader representation with the NDP party representing the further left, and you have the Tories, which are a little more of like a neoconservative party. And I do believe that, although there is conflicting ideologies in Canadian politics, there are certain parts of the Canadian identity that are sacrosanct in a way that is not true here in America. You can see that reflected in Canada’s response to the pandemic, where you had conservative politicians and liberal politicians who didn’t get along with each other, but they could all come together and agree to wear a fucking mask and listen to the scientists. And it doesn’t matter which political party those scientists belong to.

Here, I think that the political system has been gamified to the point where you have these two teams, and the political debates are like the Super Bowl or something. You can see that in the healthcare systems in both countries, things that historically came up at similar times in both America and Canada. But in Canada, they successfully fought for and unionized for the benefits of all Canadians, whereas here in America, they just gave those healthcare benefits to the unions and then work to disenfranchise those very unions. As a Canadian, I’m able to go to a walk-in health care clinic and watch my health care be subsidized by that person next to me who might have a different political ideology from me. The first protest I ever went to was actually in Montreal. They have an annual protest against police brutality, I was only 15, 16 years old. And I remember I was with my older sister, and we started following this congregation, just like, “Hey, I wonder what’s going to happen.” And the further we followed, the more you saw people start coming in with more obvious anarchist affiliations and you start seeing tear gas going off, and that’s when we kind of were like, “I think it’s time to get out of there.” But something in me was definitely kind of interested.

MORELLO: You were 15 at the time. The tear gas can wait til you’re at least 16 years old. The tear gas permit and driver’s permit come together. I have a music question for you. Who is on your Mount Rushmore of lyricists? Just off the top of your head. You have the right to change your answer later on social media.

GRANDSON: I would put Bob Marley, Bill Withers, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and then maybe Kendrick Lamar. And I might even throw Zack [de la Rocha] on there.

MORELLO: He’d definitely be on mine.

GRANDSON: What about you?

MORELLO: I’d probably go Dylan, Chuck D, Zack, and Springsteen.

GRANDSON: I think getting labeled as a “political artist” you have to work twice as hard to make room for yourself to explore more personal feelings or thoughts about relationships. I always admire those who transcended that, who could write a song about love as effortlessly. My favorite protest song of all time is probably “I Can’t Write Left Handed” by Bill Withers. It’s about a kid who goes to Vietnam and gets shot in the shoulder, and it’s just told with such empathy. But you don’t think of him as a political artist, because he just wrote great songs. And if there’s one thing I want to be known for, it’s to be a great songwriter, more than anything else.

MORELLO: Yeah. That’s one of the things that has kind of dogged me throughout my career. You get in the political cul-de-sac. I’ve been answering the same 10 questions for 30 years, because those are the 10 that you come up with when it’s the political artist. Resistance to injustice and to oppressive authority is just as much a part of the human experience as making out. And coveting a nice automobile.

GRANDSON: I think often about the hypocrisy of these politicians who feign sympathy while actively taking lobbying money to keep things the way they are. There’s these human emotions at play that are very Shakespearean that we’re talking about. We’re not really just giving you guys a laundry list of policy legislation that needs changing, or else, as you said, we would be Noam Chomsky and that’s not very rock and roll.

MORELLO: Yeah. There was some pop star in the ’80s that said, “Sometimes there’s confusion not in the artistic community, but among fans, what political music means.” This was some British pop star who was talking about  voting on whatever legislation to put up a stop sign. For me, politics is with a lowercase P. Politics is standing up to the landlord. Politics is saying yes when the Dean of Students says no. It’s these moments of owning your own life and fighting for a more just and humane world, whether it’s in your personal relationship, your relationship with your parents, whether it’s in your school, whether it’s in your place of work, or whether it’s in your country at large. That’s the way that I look at it.

GRANDSON: Absolutely. It’s a scalable concept. I always try to say at the show that no revolution is too small. Whatever fight you’re fighting is valid, and it needs to be fought. And if not by you, then by who? I think there are very few guitarists, especially in my lifetime, who can comfortably say they took an instrument and reinvented it. You mention Chuck D, and I think of some of those early experimentations you had with the wall pedal. You’ve seen to draw on turntable-ism in a way that no other guitarist was. Who influenced your guitar playing that wasn’t a guitarist?

MORELLO: I started playing late. I start playing when I was 17-years-old, and I had only ever heard of one other guitarist ever that made albums that started that late, and it was Robert Johnson, who began playing at 18. And he had to sell his soul to the devil to get good, so I was at a great disadvantage. I’m sorry, I’m Mister Mom-ming here and it’s lunchtime. [To his son, Rhoads, off camera] You okay, baby?

RHOADS: Oh, it’s not lunchtime. [Hands Morello a box of jelly beans.]

MORELLO: It’s a gift for me? Thank you very much. It’s those Harry Potter crazy beans, some of them are good and some taste like—

GRANDSON: You got to be careful with those.

MORELLO: I have no interest in popping one.

GRANDSON: He might be playing a prank on you right now.

MORELLO: Oh, he definitely was. There was a there was a glint in his eye when he came over here.

GRANDSON: I saw that. Sorry kid. I didn’t mean to rat him out. Hold on to that hair as tightly as you can, bro.

MORELLO: This is the no haircut pandemic hair.

GRANDSON: I get it.

MORELLO: So, when I was practicing my eight hours a day, I was a heavy metal gunslinger. It was Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen, and all those guys that I was trying to ape on the instrument. And it really wasn’t until the beginning of Rage Against the Machine where I began to find my own voice, and began to identify as the DJ in the band. And that opened up a lane where I seemed to be the only driver. We’re going to play a game. It’s called antonyms. I’m going to say a word, and you’re going to immediately tell me the opposite. Are you ready?

GRANDSON: I’m ready.

MORELLO: Rock and roll.

GRANDSON: Authority.

MORELLO: Bob Dylan.

GRANDSON: A caveman who doesn’t know how to write great songs.

MORELLO: 2020.

GRANDSON: Hopefully 2021.

MORELLO: Coachella.

GRANDSON: Coachella 1994.

MORELLO: Joe Biden.

GRANDSON: Donald Trump.

MORELLO: All right, that was a quick.

GRANDSON: I like that game. Alright, every year, they crown a new Rage Against the Machine. How does it make you feel when you start seeing those comparisons?

MORELLO: I’m aware of it, and I never think about it at all. I’m on a mission. I am a person making music and it doesn’t enter my bandwidth. My bandwidth is full. Most of it’s not music, most of it is raising kids and tending to grandmas during a pandemic. In the past, there was a frustration with, let’s call it the second wave of hard alternative bands. There was the first wave, which were your Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Jane’s Addiction. In all of those bands, the one thing they shared was there was a problem. And the problem was that all of those bands had one foot solidly in the world of a punk rock ethos. And a punk rock ethos didn’t let you do all the stuff that record companies needed you to do to maximize the popularity of your bands and to maximize sales and whatnot.

So there are a lot of cigar smoke-filled boardrooms where they’re like, we need to fill in the blank, but we’ll put girls in bikinis in the video. That kind of industry, that Nine Inch Nails sound, but something that’s not quite as scary as that. And that led to this kind of avalanche of the second, third, fifth-generation versions of that band, which I thought was a very fertile period in the history of Western music. But in some ways, its reputation has become diluted by the second string.

GRANDSON: It’s interesting to wonder what wave we are in, me and my contemporaries—Yungblud and Oliver Tree. There’s all kinds of great alternative music right now; it’s as good as I can remember it. And then the new school just keeps on coming. We are drawing inspiration from that first wave a lot more than the third. So, you’ve toured with Bruce Springsteen, he’s in your Mount Rushmore. What’s one great thing that Bruce taught you?

MORELLO: I learned many things from Bruce Springsteen. He confirmed for me the idea that every night, every show you should play as if everyone’s soul in the room is at stake. Rock and roll is fun. Rock and roll is a celebration. It’s nice to sing our songs. It’s also deadly important. And if you take your night that way, and if you take your career that way, it’s very meaningful to the connection that you’re going to have over the course of decades with your fans.

You see it every night. There are people who traveled to see Bruce Springsteen. You’ll see the same people in Perth that you’ll see in Peoria in the front row. And they’re very excited to be in the room on that night. They’re not as excited as Bruce Springsteen is to be in the room on that night. They’re not. An example—we were playing in Melbourne, and we’ve played three hours and 15 minutes and the hits have been played, and the crowd has been wrung every last ounce of sweat, and they’ve danced and they’ve cried during the emotional parts. They’re wrung out, and Bruce says without a hint of irony, “Are you ready to get this party started?”

GRANDSON: Fuck, no.

MORELLO: And then we played another hour. There you go.

GRANDSON: You can only hope. He’s a good dude to try and rip off because it’s a noble endeavor.

MORELLO: I have to return to some fatherly duties, but this is what we’re going to do right now. It’s a Rorschach Test. I’m going to say a thing and then you and I are going to give the immediate response to whatever the thing is. Greatest movie moment.

GRANDSON: Oh man, fuck. Leonardo DiCaprio getting shot in the head coming out of the elevator In The Departed.

MORELLO: That’s a very good one. I’m going to go with the end of Babe where the pig makes the animals go in and everyone cheers.

GRANDSON: Different places we took that.

MORELLO: Favorite book.

GRANDSON: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Phantom Tollbooth really inspired me.

MORELLO: I’m going to go either Grapes of Wrath or Watership Down. Best album of all time. What is it?

GRANDSON: Probably Nevermind.

MORELLO: I’m going to go London Calling. Best Musical.

GRANDSON: Wizard of Oz.

MORELLO: I’ll go Jesus Christ Superstar, which leads us to our next one: favorite Bible story.

GRANDSON: Oh, dude, thankfully, I don’t hold any of them too close. I don’t know, like Moses and the Burning Bush or something.

MORELLO: That’s a good one. I’ll go with the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s moment of doubt.

GRANDSON: I need to study for this.

MORELLO: No. Favorite Star Wars character.

GRANDSON: Not really a Star Wars dude, to be honest with you.

MORELLO: Star Trek? Favorite fantasy or Sci-Fi.

GRANDSON: Reality’s crazy enough.

MORELLO: Okay, that’s fine. Favorite live musical moments that you have witnessed.

GRANDSON: Oh, man. It’s personal. I’ve had a couple for sure, I got booked to play the acoustic stage right after my bigger show, and I went and there are 500 people there singing “Blood//Water.” I got too emotional, I couldn’t finish the lyrics. Everyone’s singing it for me, and I’m sitting there crying.

MORELLO: That’s awesome. My big one would probably be Rage Against the Machine, the Battle of Santiago in Santiago.

GRANDSON: You just reposted that. It looked so good.

MORELLO: It’s unbelievable. It’s like it looks it’s CGI. It’s crazy. And then on a smaller scale, there was a Nightwatchman acoustic show at The Troubadour where there were a few moments of that absolute kind of breathless pin drop quiet during the set where there’s a connection like nothing else.

GRANDSON: We are in the business of loud noise and cacophony, but there’s nothing like some silence.