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Cover Story: Tom Morello

| August 31, 2011

International Man Of Solidarity

Tom Morello is not getting Audioslave back together. We want to get that out of the way first, because just about every other project you could associate him with is live.

Rage Against The Machine played the L.A. Coliseum in July (“Rage’s one show for 2011,” he insists); Morello rearranged music for Serj Tankian’s Imperfect Remixes EP; played in the cold to support government workers in Madison, Wisconsin this year; released an EP of workingman songs dedicated to that effort (Union Town); toured with Incubus; continues his Justice Tour this fall with Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, who was with him in Madison; moves his The Nightwatchman guise onto the printed page with graphic novels he’s writing and scoring; and then there’s the new album, World Wide Rebel Songs (New West). Last year, he wrote the score for Iron Man 2 with John Debney, also worked on music for The A-Team, and reopened his Street Sweeper Social Club project with The Coup’s Boots Riley.

“I’m also raising two boys under 2. They’re 18 months apart.” And people say there are no jobs!

He won’t be moving back to Libertyville anytime soon, however, a notion he torpedoed by bringing his ultra-activist mother out to Los Angeles so she could be warm and near her grandkids. Of course, with Mom in town, Tom is free to roam. He technically still lives in the L.A. that Rage presided over and ideologically burnt down, but he’s really more international now – Bono without the camera crews.

World Wide Rebel Songs is a broad vision,” he agrees. “It’s a global vision in some ways. The settings are Tijuana, Kenya, Korea, sweatshops here in the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan. It’s woven with my personal experience in making this music that turns on the question of how to find personal redemption through fighting injustice. And the key thing about this record that is different from previous Nightwatchman albums, is this is the first record with a full backing band, The Freedom Fighter Orchestra. And this is the first Nightwatchman record with electric guitar. I wanted this record to be part Johnny Cash, part Che Guevara, and part Marshall stack.”

It’s important to note that Morello laughs when he says that. In fact, he spends a good portion of our interview chuckling. Humor hasn’t always surfaced in his work: the end of Rage was applauded by people weary from Zack De La Rocha screaming 45-minutes at a turn; Morello’s shift into Audioslave with Chris Cornell didn’t provide any levity, either.

But as the world adjusts to hearing Morello’s ocean-deep voice on The Nightwatchman albums, on World Wide Rebel Songs they’ll be dealt a looseness in the recording that runs contrary to his reputation.

Union Town is an explicitly activist-oriented record,” he explains. “It’s for a very specific type of person: to benefit, to inspire working-class people in their struggle to maintain collective-bargaining rights across the country. One of the jobs of The Nightwatchman,” a “stern taskmaster,” he kids, “is to fight for the working class, and that record is explicitly for that. I recorded and released it a couple months ago, in the aftermath of my experiences in Madison. At that point, World Wide Rebel Songs was already done. But I was so inspired by what I saw [in Madison]. I wanted to do as much as I could as fast as I could.”

He says it’s a mistake, however, to believe his every activist impulse courses through his new songs’ veins.

“For example, ‘Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine’ is about my new guitar, called Black Spartacus,” he says. “Mick Jones from The Clash referred to his guitar as a heart-attack machine. It’s about this thing: this guitar does not do slave work. It’s a comrade and a collaborator, and we’re the ones who go into battle together every night on stage. So while there’s political overtones to that, it’s about my love of this new guitar. You can go down the list: it’s personal tales and politics with a lowercase ‘p.’ I think that’s when songs ring true. If you just sit down and write a long list of beefs, that, to me, is less compelling than songs like ‘The Whirlwind’ and ‘Facing Mount Kenya’ and ‘The Fifth Horseman Of The Apocalypse’: those songs are very interwoven with personal experiences.”

Sewing intimacy into the global fabric is “The Nightwatchman’s stock-in-trade,” he says. “My father is Kenya; I grew up in a Midwestern, Irish-Italian household, but my roots are international to begin with. In touring the world with Rage, Audioslave, and The Nightwatchman, I’ve made these both personal and political friends all over the globe. We’re actually working on this thing we’re going to do right on the release of the album called ‘World Wide Rebel Tour,’ which is going to be a virtual tour of 25 countries, all at one time. There’s local content from each of the territories, and then a concert that I filmed in Los Angeles. So it’s in your home tongue and you can understand what’s happening, and the person doing the interview is from the Czech Republic or Indonesia – I wanted these songs to have a global scale, but all of them are completely grounded in, like I said, a personal experience. That’s what connects. The songs that connect the best in Audioslave and Rage and Street Sweeper are the ones people can relate to because they know that they’re real. I’m not going to win ‘American Idol,’ yet my credentials are that my words are as sincere as anyone who’s ever stepped to a microphone. I mean every note I play, I mean every word I sing. What I tried on this record was to make sure that comes through.” Then, with a grin you can see through the phone, “Plus some blistering guitar solos.”

Morello talks excitedly about WWRS melding “the best of what I do as an electric guitar player with the brooding acoustic folk of The Nightwatchman,” though the music clearly originates from the latter. “It Begins Tonight” might beg for an arena-sized hip-hop blast, but its stripped arrangement puts more weight on elements of the song that don’t move independently. The tracks also reveal a conservative streak in the guitarist; his experimental approach used to routinely steal attention from songs, but only on few occasions is he determined to draw your attention away from the core track.

“One thing that I do on this record is make use of the electric guitar as a symphonic instrument,” he says. “Sometimes you might hear on songs what sounds like keyboards or cello and strings, but a lot of that is electric guitar. I don’t have a string section in my studio. It forced my hand, in a way, like how can I use my talent as an electric-guitar player to make this record sonically diverse and head into new territory but keep it feeling very real?”

That is a genuine harmonica you hear on “Speak And Make Lightning.” But during the song’s break? Not a meteor shower.

“I’ll bet that’s the craziest solo on a gospel/country song in the history of gospel/country songs,” he laughs.

The battle waged between old Morello and The Nightwatchman on the album adds to the conflicts that define him. Rage Against The Machine spewed bile about corporate machinery from the perch of a major label. Audioslave conformed to the modern-rock radio format. And despite his fondness for collaboration (Wiki his discography and just try to get a grasp on his network), in his own words, “from touch-football games to rock bands – I’m a pretty bossy individual.” How can someone so actively campaign for unions while operating more or less alone?

“The Freedom Fighter Orchestra are friends and musical comrades that I’ve had for some time, and they can always be relied upon,” he lays out. “But, the one thing I love about doing The Nightwatchman stuff is – while it’s a collaborative effort to the extent that all of the musicians’ talents are fully harnessed – you get a purity of vision. Every note on this record, every word on this record comes from me. It’s a worldview and a musical vision that is pure.”

He continues, “The first Nightwatchman album [One Man Revolution (Epic)], I wanted there to be a clear vision between my day job as an electric guitar hero, and my night job as a spooky folk singer. I didn’t want one to bleed into the other. When I started The Nightwatchman project, I was playing open-mic nights. And that’s how I came up with the moniker in the first place: if I had signed up at open-mic nights as Tom Morello, people would be yelling for [Rage’s] ‘Bulls On Parade.’ I wanted to establish a completely different artistic identity. Now I’m much more comfortable with melding the two worlds. This record has big, Morellian riffs on it. This record has outer-space solos on it. At the core of it is the dark matter of Nightwatchman.”

Morello doesn’t exploit others’ politics as if some musical tourist: photo ops in Brazilian favelas, drum circles at the Pakistani/Afghani border, or flute solos in East Timor. He is willing, however, to draft musicians from his own sphere to help spread the message.

“‘Save The Hammer For The Man’ was co-written by Ben Harper and he sang and played guitar on it as well,” he proudly announces. “I’ve been friends with Ben for a long time – on this tour we were the half-black punk-rock Everly Brothers – but the genesis of that song came when we were playing a Justice Tour show in Chicago, and there was some weighty issue at hand: we were having problems with the band we were assembling for that night. Ben said, ‘Tom, just let me know if you want me to bring the hammer down.’ And I said, ‘Ben, save the hammer for The Man!’ At that point, we knew in the future there’d be a song.”

World Wide Rebel Songs‘ musical and thematic elements divine from two polar ends of the economic spectrum. “The genesis for this idea,” Morello explains, “came when I played the electric arrangement of The Ghost Of Tom Joad with Bruce Springsteen. And that’s the first time I’ve ever sang with an electric guitar. I realized, ‘Yeah, I can do that – and it’s effective!’ That opened the door to playing this Nightwatchman music and not being afraid to do, frankly, what I do best: shred on the electric guitar.”

— Steve Forstneger

To read the full story, grab the September issue of Illinois Entertainer, free throughout Chicagoland, or click the cover of the new edition on our homepage.

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  1. Nato says:

    I’m from Wisconsin and i think what Tom is doing is Cool. Tom is not the Bob Dylan of our time but his heart is in the right place. As for all our Probation “ofcifers” and Correctional “ofcifers” they can stop whining and go to hell and stop putting small POT offenders in jail and on probation. I know Tom Morello’s mother was a school teacher so i can see why he’s dabbling in this. Thanks for the support Tom for our teachers and healthcare workers but as for the Law Enforcement workers. !SUFFER!