Tom Morello: Walking the Walk

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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.

 
Some nights it feels like everybody’s soul in the room is at stake.

-Tom Morello

 
Photo of Tom Morello – The Nightwatchman by Scott Fleishman

JamBase: The messages in Rage and Nightwatchman are sort of coming from a similar vibe. Everything you do, that I’ve heard, has this sort of political vibe to it. Do you find that you’re working from a similar place of inspiration when you’re doing Rage or Nightwatchman or even Audioslave?

Morello: In Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave I’m not the lyricist. So, the one thing that has been very liberating about making One Man Revolution [released April 24 on Epic] and doing this Nightwatchman tour is that every note and every chord and every word comes from me. And there’s a real sort of purity of purpose and vision that you don’t get in a rock & roll band. In a rock & roll band you get chemistry, and through the sort of submerging yourself in the collective you get something that you could never get on your own. But, what you get on your own is a singular vision, and that’s what I like about doing this.

One song off One Man Revolution that resonated with me immediately was “The Garden.” In the press materials I received you talk about growing up Catholic and some of the effects that might have had on you. Having witnessed a lot of very negative aspects to religion in America and the hypocrisy in the church, to me that’s one of the major problems in America; I’m sort of curious what your feelings are on that.

Tom Morello by Sean Ricigliano
I went to Catholic Mass every Sunday for the first probably 13 or 14 years of my life, and at the time you’re a squirming youth, just trying to get out to enjoy a nice sunny Sunday. In later years, those narratives have resonance, and in that song in particular, “The Garden of Gesthemane” is about moments of doubts and crucial choices at critical junctures. That is something that is in no way unique to the church or Catholicism. It doesn’t have anything to do with priests molesting kids. It has to do with a sort of deep human drama, and that’s what’s drawn me to some of those Biblical tales.

Now, thinking about what you do with The Nightwatchman, the folk revolutionary vibe definitely shares some similarities with ’60s protest music. There’s a lot of parallels today to the ’60s with what we’re dealing with socially and politically. I’m kind of wondering why, in your estimation, we put up a good fight in the ’60s and then a lot of hippies turned into yuppies and now we’re kind of dealing with the same thing. How do we see this movement through and actually make this world a better place for future generations?

Well, there’s two answers. One is that in playing at countless benefit shows and demonstrations, many of the songs that were performed [by other musicians] at those events were from the ’60s and even earlier. I thought, we need songs for now. We need songs that speak to what’s going on now and songs that fans of, whether it’s Rage or System of a Down can relate to in those contexts. Militant songs speak in an uncompromising and uncompromised way, and an unflinching way about the current situation we’re in. But, at the same time, the way things will change now, and in the future, is the way that things have changed in the past – by people realizing that they are agents of history. You can’t wait for the Democrats to do it for you, or for some new president or Supreme Court justice to wave a magic wand and set things right. How change – how radical, progressive and revolutionary change – occurs is people stand up for their rights where they live, where they work and where they go to school. That’s how women got the right to vote, that’s how lunch counters got desegregated and that’s how apartheid ended. You can’t wait around for your leaders to do it.

In line with this, can a song or music change the world?

Tom Morello by MyNameIsLuca.net
Music has certainly changed my world. For me, it was groups like The Clash and Public Enemy that helped me make a connection. That’s one thing that music can do, it can speak in a way that is not controlled. Like the talking heads you see on the news are controlled. The editors of your daily paper have to answer to advertisers and have to answer to big corporations that own those publications. This Nightwatchman music, I don’t have to answer to anybody. I’m going to speak the truth as I see it, in the way Joe Strummer did, in the way that Woody Guthrie did. I don’t put any ceiling on what culture or art or music can do in helping fan the flames of discontent.

 
It opened up the reassessment of my priorities and values and what it was that I wanted to do as a person and as a musician. And I decided I only wanted to be involved in music that expresses my world view and music that fights for change.

-Tom Morello on the demise of Audioslave

 

Now as Rage has sort of gotten back together, at least for the time being, is it for the same reasons you started Nightwatchman – dealing with social and political hardships; is that why Rage is coming back now?

Morello & Cornell – Audioslave
In part, it’s certainly because of the times. We’ve had kind of desperate times over the course of the last seven years, when Rage did not play shows.

Right.

It was specifically Chris Cornell‘s quitting Audioslave and that opened up possibilities. For me, it opened up the reassessment of my priorities and values and what it was that I wanted to do as a person and as a musician. And I decided I only wanted to be involved in music that expresses my world view and music that fights for change.

I did have one question about Audioslave, in regards to Chris leaving the band. I haven’t found any real definitive explanation of what happened there. Can you elaborate on what happened with that?

All rock bands have disagreements. Audioslave was no different. And often they’re quite goofy in nature. Just watch the movie Spinal Tap. Spinal Tap is nonfiction, I’m afraid. Bands are either able to get over those hurdles because of friendship or belief in the music or avarice or whatever it is that makes bands stay together, or they’re not. We were unable to kind of get past some of the disagreements that we had. But, at the end of the day, I think everybody’s better off. I think that Chris is certainly much happier working with – I don’t want to put words in his mouth – my guess is that he’s happier playing with hired musicians rather than a band of equals. I’m on this Nightwatchman tour now. I’ve never had a better time on tour, felt that a tour was more focused or about what I want a tour to be about as this Nightwatchman One Man Revolution tour, and at the same time we’re playing Rage Against the Machine shows so I think everybody wins.

There were some relatively well documented issues that drove Rage apart seven years ago. Have those sort of been rectified now that you’ve played some dates and have more lined up? How do you feel about the inter-band relationships?

de la Rocha & Morello – RATM :: Coachella 07
It’s great. I mean we weren’t going to do if it wasn’t going to be a good time and if it wasn’t going to be a positive experience. In the rehearsals and the show, things have gone great.

Do you expect to have sort of an elaborate future with Rage?

Right now we only have six shows booked.

And that’s all that there is, really?

That’s all there is right now, yeah.

What drew everybody into you was your guitar playing. Now, do you still get off on making weird noises with the guitar and exploring what you can do with that thing?

Yeah, absolutely. Right now my focus has been doing this Nightwatchman music. It feels like the biggest creative leap for me since I learned how to play guitar solos, and I’m really interested in continuing to explore that. But you know, my guitar playing has always been part of the bigger picture, and in Rage and Audioslave it was about making huge riffs and exotic sounds. The guitar playing in this Nightwatchman music is more about creating mood and texture.

Was that difficult for you, to go from those huge, bombastic guitar pyrotechnics to just be stripped down and no pedals to hide behind?

Tom Morello at a protest
No. I mean actually, the only guitar in my home for many years has been a nylon string acoustic guitar and it’s what I’ve written my rock riffs on for both Rage and Audioslave, and it’s what I wrote these Nightwatchman songs on. So, I’m pretty comfortable with the [acoustic] guitar.

One thing that I certainly appreciate about the way you operate is that you really walk the walk. You write protest songs but you also protest. Has it always been this way, dating back to when you were a young man? Were you always sort of socially and politically involved?

Yeah, it’s kind of in the blood. My great uncle was Jomo Kenyatta, who led Kenya’s independence movement against the British. My mom has been a lifelong activist and ran an organization called Parents for Rock and Rap and worked with the Urban League on different civil rights issues. So, I think it may be genetic. Ever since I was 16 or 17 years old, I’ve been involved in social justice issues. Whether it was helping to start an underground newspaper at my high school or participating in the anti-apartheid movement at Harvard University, or a myriad of labor issues and antiwar issues, it’s kind of gone hand in hand with my music throughout my life.

 
How radical, progressive, and revolutionary change occurs is people stand up for their rights where they live, where they work, and where they go to school. And that’s how women got the right to vote, and that’s how lunch counters got desegregated, and that’s how apartheid ended. So you can’t wait around for your leaders to do it.

-Tom Morello

 
Photo by Sean Ricigliano

When you write or perform a song, how important is the balance or the idea of entertainment versus message to you?

Tom Morello
I don’t know if entertainment is the right word but the musical part or the artistic part is certainly every bit as important. You have to have a good song or a good show as a vessel. Otherwise it becomes a dry college lecture or something. That was certainly one of the strengths of Rage Against the Machine – not just that the band was uncompromisingly political but that it was a kickass rock & roll band that was uncompromisingly political. What I’ve endeavored to do with this Nightwatchman material is write songs, use all of my tunesmanship in a way like early Dylan and Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie and people like that, where you gotta start with a song and you gotta put on a show, and then by the end of it hopefully there’s barricades thrown up in the streets.

Right! You know, that’s sort of something that interests and upsets me. When I watch the news, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way – I’m surrounded by people who feel this way, I often get so angry, and I don’t know why people aren’t standing in front of the White House lighting shit on fire.

Yeah, amen. I’m with you there.

In your estimation, being somebody who is sort of on the front lines, why aren’t there more people like this? When I watch clips from when John Lennon was doing shit, there were a million people in D.C. protesting. So why aren’t we like that today?

Tom Morello – The Nightwatchman by Scott Fleishman
Right, right, right. No, I definitely agree with you there, and I don’t have a good answer to that. It is surprising to me that there are not riots in the streets, and that the White House is not besieged by millions of protesters on a daily basis. We have a war criminal in the White House, literally. That’s not hyperbole. We’ve got a rollback of civil liberties, a total disregard for the environment. This planet could go away within the next 50 years if this administration’s policies are fully implemented. And yet, people kind of generally go about their daily business. What one can do, and what an artist’s responsibility is, is you have to tell the truth as you see it – one night, one show, one song at a time. It’s about liberating territory. Tonight it’s going to be the People’s Republic of San Francisco, by the time The Nightwatchman show is done.

In line with this, when you try to inspire somebody with a song, is there something you draw upon when you’re writing or performing that you feel can get the reaction out of people? Is there one specific thing that leads to enlightenment or opening of eyes?

Tom Morello by Daniel Boud
When the songs are most effective is when they’re not really written from a conscious place. That’s when you kind of get, in music and in art, to the truth of the matter, and it’s something that goes beyond, I don’t know, sort of intellectualization of music. It’s the same phenomenon of why a Van Gogh painting is more moving than a photograph of a starry night. There’s something in the reptilian brain that reacts to a deeper truth, and it’s hard to put a finger on it. And I think if you start dissecting it too much you might lose it. So, when I write lyrics, when I write songs, when I write rock riffs, whatever, I try to just let it occur and hope that thing is innate, that [the thing that] makes a connection on a deeper level is inherent in it.

Thinking about the fact that you’re knee deep in Nightwatchman and Audioslave kind of just came to an end and Rage is back on people’s minds, thinking about all three of those projects, what is the most gratifying thing about each of those for you?

Well, certainly about Rage Against the Machine it’s the legacy that that band created. I mean we wrote that initial batch of songs without expecting to be able to book a club show. Now, in the four corners of the globe, people have been radicalized by that band and that music. That’s pretty amazing. With Audioslave, it was the fact that we healed one another. We came from personal and musical situations that were very difficult and we came together as four friends who built a multi-platinum band, unexpectedly, and both personally and musically really rejuvenated one another. And with The Nightwatchman stuff, it feels like what I should be doing. There’s a real clarity to this work and a satisfaction that I get whether it’s playing in front of 10,000 steelworkers in the midst of a teargas attack or playing to 800 people a night at these club shows. Some nights it feels like everybody’s soul in the room is at stake.

JamBase | San Francisco
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