Published Sep 26, 2011Tom Morello may be best known for his pulsating riffs and inspired solos with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave ― two bands that rose to great prominence, captured numerous awards and eventually led to Morello earning the prestigious label as one of the "100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time" by Rolling Stone. Quite a resume. But the Harvard graduate and social advocate is not content to rest on his laurels. His solo persona, the Nightwatchman, is his acoustic outlet used to rally the people and fight world injustices. He recently released his third solo album World Wide Rebel Songs and sat down with Exclaim! to chat about it.
You recently came of a touring stint with Incubus, how did that go?
It went really well. Incubus was actually very important in pushing the Nightwatchman out of the nest. Years ago we played an Amnesty International benefit show in Portland, and this was before I had any recordings. Incubus reported back to our mutual producer Brendan O'Brian and was like, "Have you ever seen this thing that Tom Morello does where he plays acoustic guitar and puts his fist in the air a lot?" So Brendan called me up, checked it out and started recording together. So it was nice to spend some time and say thanks to the Incubus boys.
What was the genesis of World Wide Rebel Songs?
I started writing it just over a year and a half ago. It started with the title track. The people who make the low end Gibson and Fender guitars used to work in a factory in Seoul, Korea. The workers there attempted to unionized, were fired and the factory was shut down and moved to China. A typical move. So those out of work Korean guitar makers came to the States looking for help. I offered to play a benefit show for them. But the day before the show, the earthquake in Haiti happened. So these Korean workers who were in desperate need for money for their families agreed to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from their benefit show to the Haiti relief effort. They travelled 6,000 miles to give money away to people who needed it more. It was a glimpse into the world I'm fighting for and the world I'd like to see. Due to their selfless act of international solidarity I wrote the song "World Wide Rebel Songs" that day, played it that night at the benefit show and that was the kick-off point for this album. And for the first time I recorded with a full backup band ― the Freedom Fighter Orchestra. This is the first Nightwatchman album that bridges the electric guitar work I've done in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, with the acoustic singer/songerwriter Nightwatchman persona.
Was it difficult to make that switch?
I certainly wouldn't have done it with the first record. I wanted to establish something that was wholly independent sonically from the world of Rage and Audioslave. But this is now my first Nightwatchman record. I've made as many Nightwatchman records as I have Rage Against the Machine records, and this is the 14th record of my career, so if I'm not going to be comfortable in my skin at this point when will I ever? [laughs]
Do you still feel like you're growing into the singer/songwriter craft?
I think you're always growing. But one thing I'm blessed with is a tremendous amount of false confidence. I've played hundreds and hundreds of shows, from immigrant rallies with no English speakers to opening up for hip-hop groups and punk groups where no one knows any of the songs I'm playing ― which is very different from the worlds of Rage and Audioslave where everyone knows every nuance. One thing that has taught me is a fearlessness in performance and a fearlessness artistically; I'm going to do what I do. Back to the Korean workers for a second, in that song and in that moment it was a glimpse of the world that I'd like to see: I try to create a little bit of that in every show. And it's interesting trying to forge that. For example, at the Incubus shows most people don't know the song "One Man Revolution." But the challenge is to forge a little bit of that world I'd like to see in a crowd that's not expecting to go there. And they went there.
How do you do that?
A lot of good natured bullying [laughs]. And I play to my strengths. I'm not going to win American Idol and I'm not going to be asked to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, but no one is going to have more conviction on the microphone about what they're doing. I can convey that I mean every note of it. Sometimes it's a journey, you don't get it from the first note. But we played two weeks of shows and by the last note everyone is there [with me].
The bio for this record says you didn't come into this writing process with a theme, you want the songs to lead you. Where did they lead do?
Well, certainly toward a more fleshed-out instrumentation. From the punk gospel of "Speak and Make Lightening" to the song I wrote together with Ben Harper, "Save the Hammer for the Man" ― I joke that we're the half-black Everly Brothers of punk folk ― those are things that materialized in the studio. We didn't sit down and decide to be the half-black Everly Brothers of punk-folk [laughs]. The luxury of being able to work from my home studio is that there's more time to do everything. I have a very punk rock ethos ― I like to capture the moment and move on. We're not making The Wall here! But if you record a song over two days rather than two hours, you're able to test the possibilities.
Those two songs you mentioned are the ones that really stick out in the album. What are the stories behind them?
Well, I never sit down and say, "Now I'm going to write a Nightwatchman song." I just try to keep the antenna up ― whether I'm driving or hiking I make sure my BlackBerry is handy to jot down whatever comes up. Most of the Nightwatchman songs, from all four records, are about exactly the same thing: Is it possible to find personal redemption through the medium of fighting for justice through music? All of them contain that, and those two songs certainly do. "Save the Hammer for the Man" ― for a lifetime of poorly thought-out choices and sin and regrets, can you be redeemed through your vocation? And "Speak and Make Lightening" is a phrase from the great Rastafari Yellowman, and that's how he'd describe his poetry. And that's what I attempt to do. And it fits the one way I've described this record: it's Johnny Cash meets Che Guevara meets a Marshall stack [laughs].
You've definitely added more solos in this album.
Yeah! I thought, "Let's give the people what they want." A little bit of sugar to make the medicine go down.
You mentioned that you and Ben Harper are like the half black Everly brothers of punk folk. You joke about it, but how much, being in the rock world, is race and ethnicity on your mind at this stage in your career?
There is a stark dividing line in my life as a brown skinned rock guitar player, and the dividing line was the band Living Colour. Prior to that I didn't play a single gig, whether it was my own band or a cover band, where someone didn't yell out for a Jimi Hendrix song, without exception. I love Jimi Hendrix but I couldn't admit it! [laughs]. But the dividing line was Living Colour. They were the first commercially successful black rock band. Now in the post-Lollapalooza era you have Armenian bands and you have to have someone from Sri Lanka as a bass player! But it has been a non-issue for some time and I'm grateful for that. There's much less apartheid now in rock than in the late '80s.
What are you hoping people take from this new record?
It's not something I'm overly concerned about. I've done my job. Infused in these songs is the truth as I see it, both personal and global. If there are things in these songs that can steel the backbone of people, whether in a personal struggle or a class struggle, than I'm pleased for that. But I look at it like I've made this record, I've put it out in the world and I'm not going to tell people how to react. But there is that spoonful of sugar on this record ― there are a lot of guitar solos and riffs on this record. But you're not going to confuse me with being a member of the Tea Party [laughs]. There's still plenty of medicine to go with the sugar.
The cover is quite striking, how did it come about?
It's a homage to Phil Ochs' live album Gun Fight at Carnegie Hall. And that's my wife on the cover. She was like, "I'm not letting any other bitch get on the cover!" She's afraid some 20-year-old tart is going to be down there grabbing my leg all day [laughs]. But now that it's come out she's like, "I can't believe I did that."
Speaking of your wife, how difficult is it at this stage in your life to balance being a husband and father with your music career?
It's gotten much more difficult now that I have two children. This is the longest I've been away since my first son was born. It's a challenge. My father was never there when I was growing up, so I'm very conscious about being present everyday for my kids ― whether it's via Skype or on the phone. You can't be out in the world fighting for social justice and deny your family the personal justice they deserve. So it's still a balancing act I'm working out. My wife has some pretty strong opinions on it [laughs]. But I'm an artist, so I have to do this because it's who I am. I'm not going to take that John Lennon five-year vacation, but I will say this: fighting for social justice on a local and global level is more important than ever now that I have kids. It's not just like I have to be home sometimes and I have to rock sometimes ― they have to have all of me that they deserve and that I didn't get as a kid from my dad, but also I have to give them a better world than it is right now. I can't be on the sidelines for either one.
Is it ever a lonely experience to help people rally together with your music, but then have to move on to the next city while they continue the fight?
It's not lonely. It's the place I feel, with the exception of my kids who are a new thing that I'm figuring out, as connected as I've ever felt. I was the only black kid in a white town; I was the only socialist in a conservative high school; I was the only rock and roll guitar player at Harvard University; I was the only Harvard graduate in a rock'n'roll band. I've always been this odd, different person. When I was first playing coffee houses as the Nightwatchman, there'd literally be ten people in the room and they're all aspiring artists who just want to get up and do their thing. But, even in those early nights, it was the first time I really felt connected. It was this lake of gasoline waiting for a match, and I was like, "Shit, maybe this is what I was made to do." They say there are no second acts in America, but this is like my second act.
Is it difficult to find the hope you need to keep fighting for social justice?
I see hope everyday. When I tell that story in concert prior to playing "World Wide Rebel Songs," and get to the punch line that [the workers] gave the money away even though their families would go hungry, that's where I see hope. The human response to suffering is sometimes the thing that redeems us. Their sacrifice didn't just help the people in Haiti, it helped them; it helped everyone in the room during the benefit show; it will continue to help people when they listen to "World Wide Rebel Songs" if it matters to them. That's encouraging. This album I describe as rousing hopelessness, but there's rousing in there too [laughs].
Throughout the record there are Biblical references sprinkled throughout.
Yeah, I was raised Catholic ― it never leaves you.
Are you saying these things sarcastically or in jest?
Heavens no. I went to Mass every Sunday from my first memory until 15 when I announced I wasn't going anymore. And at the time I sat there waiting to go home and read comic books. But it resonates. Those stories shed light on the human condition in a way that is often very effective. And they're interwoven with the DNA of western culture. You can reference Judas's kiss and that means a thing that everyone knows. It's never jest. But that is part of what I draw from; it's part of my experience.
Speaking of comic books, you have your own graphic novel coming out.
That's right, Orchid. Illustrated by local hero Scott Hepburn, who's from Toronto. The first issue is out October 12 and it's a 12-issue arc. I'm very thrilled about it. Of course what I needed to do was to take on another huge artistic project with limited financial recompense [laughs]. But I loved doing it. About three years ago I decided I had a story to tell. It took a while to figure out the right time and place to tell it, because I didn't want to be another Hollywood jackass with a screenplay, which is the first thing people think of. But I collected comics as a kid and comics have come a long way since I put them down. I wanted to tell a tale of epic grandeur, like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or Steven King's The Stand, but infuse it with a class consciousness, which I felt those were always missing. The heroine is a 16-year-old street prostitute who's part Suicide Girl, part Joan of Arc. It's set in a dystopian future where humans are no longer the top of the food chain. And I'm scoring each issue ― there's one song per comic.
Why not take your story and create a concept album?
That's a good question [laughs]. The visual component was important. I thought about sitting down and writing the 600-page novel but I didn't have two years to do that. And graphic novels are a collaborative project, not unlike being in a band. It took a year to find the right illustrator. Some of the big names of comic illustrators through their hats in the ring but it was never the right chemistry.
Was it tough trying to write from a female perspective?
No. I was raised by my mom, although that's not the perspective I'm writing from. When I first moved to Hollywood, I moved with dreams of joining some Sunset Strip hair metal band, until I realized none of them wanted a black guy without big hair in their band, no matter how much I could shred. But what I didn't realize when I moved to Hollywood was that there was the Sunset Strip scene and then the East Hollywood scene. That was where bands like Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers came from. Those people and the fans of those bands accepted me, and a lot of those people were drug addicts and prostitutes. I knew the character of Orchid. They were damaged, but there's a tremendous amount of warmth and humanity in those people. They were the ones who accepted me. They said, "It's OK you're black, you shred bro! Let's hang." [laughs]. So I draw on some old friends.
It's interesting how that must have shifted your perception of people. What has being in this industry taught you about relationships?
A great deal. You grow up with your set of parents, or your one parent in my case, and your circumstance. I wrongly assumed that everyone has a similar experience. I was blessed to have a supportive pillar of strength in my mom growing up. People have different experiences. Everyone looks at the world in a very different way. One of my contributions to the dysfunction of Rage Mach 1 was the insensitivity of how other people see things. I thought everyone must look at the world the way I do, that's the most logical way [laughs]. But it's been very instructive and sometimes painful. It's been a journey where I've learned a lot from, grown from and now I can be a better band mate and friend to anyone I come in contact with.
Is there anything about you, or the bands you've been in, that hasn't quite been communicated to your fans may only see you in a certain light?
Certainly with Rage Against the Machine there's a great sense of humour between all four members of the band that isn't demonstrated on record. And we're all very competitive ping pong players!
Whose the best out of the four?
Zach. I beat him once; it was like when the college team beats the pro team. He's really good. Anybody in any band, get your money out ― I got my money on Zach.
OK, so the dreaded last question that *must* be asked: are there any Rage plans for next year?
There are no plans for next year. You're forced to ask, I'm forced to answer: If there's going to be more Rage Against the Machine recordings, which there is not, or shows, which none are booked, we'll let you know. It's not going to be kept secret. [laughs]