Tom Morello: Walking the Walk

Listen to Rage Against The Machine on Rhapsody
and The Nightwatchman on MySpace...

By: Kayceman

Tom Morello by Sean Ricigliano
Tom Morello isn't like the rest of us. While getting his degree in Political Science at Harvard University (he graduated with honors), Morello somehow found the time to teach himself guitar. But, he didn't just learn how to strum some chords; he invented an entire style of playing that changed the perception of how the instrument could be used. Morello may not have been the first guitar player to make his axe sound like a turntable, but he certainly mastered this sonic approach.

However, it's not the many "Best Guitarist" awards or even his Earth-shattering style that makes Morello so special. There have been many groundbreaking guitar players and there will be many more. What makes Morello stand out is his ability to take what he learned in school, from his family (his great uncle was the first elected Kenyan President and his mother a Civil Rights activist) and his experiences growing up as the only colored kid in town, and put it all into action through his music.

Tom Morello from View Images
When Morello co-founded Rage Against the Machine in 1991 he never thought they'd get signed, and certainly never planned on being a star. They were just four pissed off musicians who needed to make music that meant something. Rage was a volatile beast that eventually imploded when frontman Zach de la Rocha left the band in 2001. Following the demise of one of that decade's most influential, thought-provoking bands, the remaining RATM members formed Audioslave with Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. While commercially huge, and certainly worthy of the time and energy, Audioslave never had the political bite of Rage.

With the world in as bad of shape as it's ever been, Morello needed to get back to his roots. Yes, he's a musician, but he's also an activist, revolutionary and freedom fighter. Rock songs with big hooks and massive riffs are great, but Morello has a message and he needs to scream it. Enter The Nightwatchman. Formed in 2003, this is Morello's "political folk alter-ego" and features him stripped down with an acoustic guitar and a slew of protest songs. As our political and social climate continues to deteriorate, we've also seen the reunion of Rage Against the Machine, something Morello swears is no coincidence. Performing together for the first time in seven years, Rage is back, and perhaps we need them more than ever.

With the demise of Audioslave, the return of Rage and a very successful Nightwatchman tour, JamBase sits down with a very busy Tom Morello to pick the brain of a man who truly walks the walk.

JamBase: I wanted to just start with the path from groundbreaking guitar man of Rage and Audioslave to Nightwatchman. What prompted the stylistic change?

Tom Morello - The Nightwatchman
Morello: Over the course of the last five or six years I've become a big fan of this genre of music. There are plenty of rock & roll bands that use walls of Marshall stacks but still sound weak as pudding. Yet there are artists like Johnny Cash and early Bob Dylan, Nebraska-era Springsteen and Woody Guthrie, that with an acoustic guitar, three chords and the truth, are heavy as Everest. That music has become more appealing to me. I started about four and a half years ago playing these songs at local open mic nights and coffee houses around L.A., as a way to, I don't know, assert my independence from my arena rocking existence. It can get comfortable when you've got hit songs on the radio and an arena in every town, and I wanted to play music that was very activist oriented and that was very action oriented.

JamBase: Now was there any specific event or something that really spawned the initial thought to do this?

Morello: Yeah, there was, actually. I was hosting a talent show at a teenage homeless shelter called Covenant House in Hollywood and there was this one kid who got up there, he might have been 19 or 20 years old, and he had a lot of problems. He got up there and he sang two songs with as much conviction as I've ever seen anyone sing. And I thought to myself, "You know, I've got a guitar. I've got a few ideas in my head, and if this guy can run it up the flagpole, what's keeping me from doing that?" So, I wrote my first batch of songs and then shortly thereafter started playing open mics around L.A.

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