Published Jun 05, 2009Street Sweeper Social Club. The name elicits images of persons clad in white overalls pushing their DSC buggies to a secret locale after a hard day's work of collecting tickertape from city avenues. Relaxing in massive wingback chairs, they sip glasses of bubbly and enjoy particularly pungent cigars. In truth, however, it's the latest aural assault from former Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello uniting with vocalist/MC Boots Riley of underground hip-hop sensations the Coup. Not exactly the kind of social club you'd expect, they create what Morello calls "revolutionary party jams."
Initially forming in 2006 after meeting during shared performances while Morello was promoting his solo Nightwatchman endeavour, the team has completed their 11 track eponymous debut. It is best defined as in the same rap/funk rock vein of Morello's Rage past yet is decidedly more sultry; flowing thanks to Riley's smooth, wily vocal stylings. Morello discusses how this unusual "social club" operates.
How did Street Sweeper Social Club come together?
Tom Morello: Boots and I have been friends since 2003, touring together with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle. I was Boots' backup guy, playing acoustic guitar behind him. I really got to hear his lyrics in a different setting; realize what a brilliant lyricist he is with all of the satire and venom. Over the next five years whenever I was playing a protest or putting together a benefit show, Boots was always the first one to pitch in and fly himself out to participate. When Audioslave broke up, I made him an offer he couldn't refuse. I told him, "We're in a band called street sweeper social club. It's gonna be revolutionary party jams." I handed him a cassette of tunes I'd written and told him to write lyrics for it.
What was his response?
I didn't give him a chance to say yes or no. He had to find a cassette player. That was the biggest challenge. He couldn't find one at the big stores. He even had to ask dope fiends if they'd broken in to any cars and stolen a cassette player recently. He eventually found on at Radio Shack.
So you really had this all figured out from the get-go?
I didn't even give him a chance. It was written in stone. Even the music. I produced and wrote guitar on the record. I think the Coup is great but not enough people understood it. In a different context, they might realize how great Boots is. We've still only played 20 shows in the band's history. The first show was at the School Of Rock in Hollywood for 11 year-old kids. The second was at Sing Sing maximum security prison in upstate New York. The next show was opening for Nine Inch Nails and Jane's Addiction for 10,000 people. We really jumped into the deep end.
The 11 year-olds sound like the scariest crowd.
Playing at Sing Sing was a new experience but yeah, I think between that and the 11 year-old, we're ready for anything. [The kids] were very judgmental. They're all musicians so they were watching the fretwork. While the parents and teachers were banging their heads furiously, the kids were studying the inverted minor chords.
You're really the driving force behind this whole endeavour, having written the music, recorded/produced it and so on. In the future will you maintain that dominance or open it up?
Yeah, in this band there's a very clear and workable division of labour. I write the music, Boots writes the lyrics. I produce the records, Boots designs the stage outfits. He comes up with video ideas, I write the set lists. It's very cool. I've never been in a band like this. I like it.
It sounds more laid-back than your past bands.
Every band is unique/has a different vibe musically and personality-wise. From the time I was 17 until the day Audioslave broke up, I was either trying to put a band together, in a band or trying to keep a band together that was breaking up. Since Audioslave broke up, I felt this real freedom. It was great to reunite with Rage Against the Machine and do those shows, it's been great doing the Nightwatchman records and tours and now doing this feels free and exciting to play. It's some of the heaviest and hardest music I've ever been involved in. I enjoy that freedom.
Still, you had some initial woes with the name, having changed it rather quickly. What happened there?
Initially, we were just Street Sweeper but the name was owned by a litigious person. We did some soul searching and realized that we're not just a band. We're a social club. It brings an element to it. A Street Sweeper isn't what you think it is. It's a machine gun that shoots shotgun-sized shells. It's the only firearm that the National Rifle Association is in favour of banning. That shed a different light on what a Street Sweeper Social Club is. The idea is that our music is the weapon, which we intend to be powerful enough to sweep the streets with.
Well, that gives me a new perspective on the album cover. When I first heard the name, I thought more KISS Army or Misfits Fiend Club; rockers hanging out with martinis.
Exactly! Whether you take it as someone who literally sweeps the streets or that massive firearm, either way it's a pretty interesting social club.
Being a rather political sort yourself, do you expect Boots to deliver commentary or would you want a mix of social, political and fun?
He's a brilliant lyricist in the storytelling and satire. That's what I learned over five years of playing together. Fans of the Coup know that but the world doesn't know that. He has a way of blending his personal experience to larger issues in a way that people can really relate to. It's my job as the music writer to deliver a ferocious musical bed that's the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. I describe this music - and I feel it's pretty accurate - as revolutionary party jams. You can take those words together or you can put a period between them: Revolutionary. Party. Jams.
How about the line-up? Is it just the two of you with various members for studio and others for live? You play guitar and bass on the album with Stanton Moore on drums. There are other guys for live though. It's convoluted.
On the record, Stanton Moore plays drums and I play bass and guitar. Boots does the vocals. For the live band, we had very strict criteria of what we wanted. We wanted the drummer from Gnarls Barkley. That's Eric Garner. We wanted a bass player that had at least five Tony Award nominations: David Gibbs who just got those nominations for the musical Rock Of Ages. We wanted a rhythm guitar player who was really, really good looking and that's Carl Restivo who also runs the School Of Rock in Hollywood. We were three for three. We got exactly what we were looking for.
All of this comes across as rather serious but having seen the recent Iron Maiden movie, it's tough to imagine you being so straight.
Why's that? I remember doing the interviews but I haven't seen the movie yet! What was I saying?
The interview was pretty straightforward raving about loving Maiden since you were a kid accompanied by a shot or two of you standing front row freaking out.
That's something I've never lost with the bands and artists I'm a fan of. I've never subscribed to that "too cool for school" thing. When I go to Maiden, I rock out!