Former Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello embarks on a revolutionary solo mission as “The Nightwatchman.”
Musician and political activist Tom Morello has just released his first solo album, “One Man Revolution,” as his alter ego, “The Nightwatchman.” Perhaps best known for his innovative guitar solos and heavy rock riffs, Tom Morello turns to his acoustic guitar on “One Man Revolution.” Released on April 24th, the album features thirteen politically charged folk songs including “No One Left,” which first appeared on the soundtrack, “Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11.” The songs are a musical departure from Morello’s previous work as a guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. This new album features subtle rhythms and melodies coupled with dark politically lyrical themes. The Nightwatchman has long been a staple at political rallies in solidarity with everything from striking grocery workers to immigrant marches. Tom Morello recently reunited with former Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zack de la Rocha in Chicago to perform and celebrate the recent labor victory of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers over McDonalds.
Sonali Kolhatkar and Gabriel San Roman recently spoke with Tom Morello during a break from rehearsals for the upcoming Rage reunion concert at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California.
Kolhatkar: I first saw you perform live as the Nightwatchman several years ago at the very first Media Reform Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. You performed some of the songs that are on the album “One Man Revolution,” at that particular concert. I remember that the grocery workers’ strike was still happening at that time in Los Angeles. What prompted you to take on this musical approach and even the persona of “The Nightwatchman”?
Morello: I had been playing for about a year before that and I’ve never really sung before in my life. I just felt compelled at the time. Between my work with Audioslave and my work with the Axis of Justice organization, I felt that something was missing and that was expressing my worldview through my music and my art. It began with a little song writers group that would play at open mic nights in the San Fernando Valley. I would literally come off of these Audioslave arena tours and then go sign up anonymously as “The Nightwatchman” at little coffeehouses and country western bars playing these songs in front of eight people and a latte machine. The conference in Madison that you talked about was actually the Nightwatchman’s coming out party. That was the first show that was in front of more than fifteen people. My friend Billy Bragg, who put that tour together, asked me if I wanted to play. I thought that it would be a great way to learn from him and Steve Earl, two of the best, and also to further hone my skills as a vocalist and singer-songwriter.
San Roman: When you first began performing as “The Nightwatchman” and word spread around, fans would ask you if you were going to record these songs as a solo album. At first you were against the idea, but here we are now with “One Man Revolution.” What changed your mind?
Morello: At first, this was very much a side project. As I grew to have more confidence with it and played literally hundreds and hundreds of shows from countless union rallies, peace demonstrations and various activist and charity orientated gigs, I developed a body of material that felt like it mattered to me as much as any music I had ever been involved in whether it was Rage or Audioslave. It was actually the day after the 2004 election that I knew at some point this wasn’t going to be a side endeavor anymore. It was going to be the main course. It was about eight months ago that my friend and producer Brendan O’Brien called up as he heard that I was doing this. I sent him some demos and he said, “Let’s make a record.” It was clear that Audioslave wasn’t going to be doing any touring and I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to really reevaluate my priorities. My priorities were to be exclusively involved in music that was going to reflect my opinions.
Kolhatkar: Let’s talk a little about the genre of this music. “The Nightwatchman” is extremely different from both Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Why did you use this folk tradition to express this political music?
Morello: My favorite guitar player has always been Joe Hill. Even though there are no recorded works of Joe Hill, he has always been my favorite guitar player and an inspiration. He was, of course, the early twentieth century wobbly martyr and poet-laureate of the working class. His story was always very inspirational to me. Joe Hill said that a pamphlet can inform, but music can inspire. You may read a pamphlet one time, but you’ll sing a song over and over again. That was very much my experience throughout Rage Against the Machine, but there’s a purity to the genre of folk music. I learned it from Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album and then dug back and discovered early Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. It’s just something about it when it’s done right. The right lyrical couplet can be much heavier than a wall of marshall facts.
San Roman: Songwriting is a new experience for you as “The Nightwatchman.” What is it about this current political climate that inspired you lyrically in this album?
Morello: We live in a time where our President believes he is above the law, but one thing George W. Bush is not above is the law of physics. For every action, there is a reaction. This record, “One Man Revolution,” is part of that reaction. It’s a reaction against illicit and immoral wars. It’s a reaction against torture. It’s reaction against the rollback of civil liberties here at home and it’s a reaction against the few corporations growing wealthy off these awful wars half a world away while people are begging for change in the streets of Los Angeles. The one thing, though, that did surprise me when I started to write the lyrics for this record was that there was not a single song on the album called, “George Bush is a Bad Guy.” For the lyrics, I put the antenna up and whatever came down, came down. I was surprised by the shadowy, personal content of a lot of the songs. They were not didactic in nature like I might have imagined. By leaving myself open to an emotional honesty on the record and allowing both doubt and indignation to be equally represented; I think that makes it more human.
Kolhatkar: What about the title song and album, “One Man Revolution”? Explain that phrase.
Morello: It comes from a number of different places. On one hand, growing up, I was the only black kid in an all white town. Then I was the only anarchist at a conservative high school. Then I was the only hard rock guitar player at Harvard University. Then I was the only Harvard grad in an underground rock and roll band. So while I’ve believed firmly in solidarity, in some ways I’ve always been completely alone. This adventure I’ve had over the course of the last five years of doing the Nightwatchman material has been very liberating. For example, if Rage or Audioslave wanted to do a benefit concert, we would first have to have a band meeting to decide if we were going to do it. Then we would have to hire a tour manager and lighting ring. When I do the Nightwatchman stuff, my friends who need bail money in Pacoima can call up and I just pick up my guitar and go. It very much has that free feeling. The objective was to try to be the black Woody Guthrie.
Kolhatkar: There’s a song called, “The Road I Must Travel” on this album. Does that follow up from a similar sentiment to “One Man Revolution,” that you were just talking about?
Morello: There’s a line in “One Man Revolution,” about there being a noose in my garage and that’s real. When I was thirteen years old, I was going to school one day and opened my garage door to find a noose there. The Klan was in Libertyville, Illinois when I was growing up. In both “One Man Revolution,” and “The Road I Must Travel,” I wrestle with issues like non-violence. I was always very much a follower of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. When I was in college, I made some friends who were of a more radical persuasion and we were discussing that incidence of the noose in my garage. They said, “Say you”re thirteen years old, and the Klan are coming up your driveway and who knows whether they are just going to hang in the garage just to scare you or something even worse. Would you rather turn the other cheek, or would you’d rather be in the bushes with your friends with a baseball bat”” The best answer that I could come up with to that question is in the song, “The Road I Must Travel,” where in the last line I sing, “There’s a sign along the highway, but it’s too dark now to read.”
Kolhatkar: And then there’s “Union Song.” We are coming up upon a time when grocery workers in Los Angeles may be gearing up for yet another strike in the shadow of what happened a few years ago that was so devastating to these workers. Is this song going back to your admiration of Joe Hill?
Morello: It actually stems out of many real life experiences of being tear gassed along with ten thousand steel workers at the FTAA riots in Miami, of playing for the grocery workers’ strike previously and of being arrested along with hotel workers at the LAX corridor just this past year. I would play at a lot of these union rallies and most of the songs that were being played were songs from the sixties or even earlier. I thought we needed songs for now. We need songs that are half in English and half in Spanish, songs that talk about the current state of affairs and songs to be sung on picket lines on cold nights. “Union Song,” was a song that was written from a very conscious point of view to help rally the troops.
San Roman: You’ve also been playing a series of shows both in Los Angeles at the Hotel CafÃ© and Austin, Texas at the South by Southwest music festival, in which you’ve been able to organize renowned musicians to join you onstage. It seems to me that these shows, like the Axis of Justice organization itself, provide a space for musical artists who are not known as activist artists to express themselves politically. Can you talk about those shows as a laboratory?
Morello: The Axis of Justice organization is a non-profit founded by Serj Tankian, the singer of System of a Down, and myself to bring together fans of music, progressive minded musicians, and local grassroots organizations to fight for social justice. The cultural wing of Axis of Justice has been doing these shows. What we try to do on any given night, whether it’s in Los Angeles at the Hotel CafÃ© or in Austin, Texas or wherever, we’ve done them in New York City and London as well, is to try and create a little bit of the world we would like to see in one venue on one night. All the musicians donate their time. One hundred percent of the proceeds go the Axis of Justice programs to help our homeless charities in Los Angeles, Venice and San Bernardino. People have an unbelievable experience. For example, the most recent show we had members of Motley Crue, Ben Harper, Alanis Morisette, Jill Sobule, Alexi Murdoch, Alice in Chains, and Cypress Hill all in one night on one stage, collaborating, having a great time, and making music for all the right reasons.
San Roman: We’re not too far from the much touted Rage Against the Machine reunion show at Coachella. How have the rehearsals been going and are you yet a finely honed killing machine?
Morello: I’m actually sitting at rehearsal right now and I think the other guys are wondering why the killing machine doesn’t have a guitar player right now. It’s been going great. It’s been really amazing to stand in a room, as a big fan of Rage Against the Machine myself, and hear the four of us play those songs. I had forgotten what a rocket ride to victory it sounds like. It’s going to be our first show in seven years and I’m really excited to play.
Kolhatkar: What lies in the future of the Nightwatchman?
Morello: The record came out just this past Tuesday. There’s a lot of extensive touring this summer. I’m going to play some shows with Ben Harper, solo shows, and some festival shows like Bannaroo and the Newport Folk Festival.I’ve developed a catalogue of about fifty-five songs that I really believe in so I hope to make many more Nightwatchman records. I find it very fulfilling to do and a nice balance to my electric guitar playing so the Nightwatchman is here to haunt you for a good time to come.
*** Sonali Kolhatkar and Gabriel San Roman produce Uprising, a daily morning program on KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. Special thanks to Alan Minsky. For more information and to hear the interview with Tom Morello (April, 26th 2007), visit www.uprisingradio.org.