Over the course of the last year, the metamorphosis undergone by Tom Morello has proven to be nothing short of historically significant. Upon the heels of a headlining performance at Coachella, the once-disbanded Rage Against The Machine has seemed to be gradually making their radical presence known on the concert circuit once again. Add to that the recent breakup of Morello’s post-Rage project, Audioslave, and it would seem to anyone who follows the guitarist that the road has been paved for a full-blown Rage reunion of revolutionary proportion – but don’t count on it.
In recent years, Morello has developed a folk-rock alias, known only as The Nightwatchman, who has taken the political ferocity of Rage Against The Machine to venues across the nation. The resurgence of Rage has certainly garnered a degree of media coverage that would put that of The Nightwatchman to shame. However, as far as his creative energies are concerned, Morello’s attention span couldn’t be any more focused on The Nightwatchman. Following the release of The Nightwatchman’s first studio product, One Man Revolution, Morello has picked up his acoustic guitar, and taken his newly developed alias on the road, performing at venues ranging from coffee houses, to festivals as large as Bonnaroo.
After Rage broke up, due to what Zack De La Rocha (vocals) attributed to a “decision-making process” that had “completely failed,” Morello and his former-Rage cohorts developed Audioslave. The super group featured the instrumental section of Rage, with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden on vocals. Although the project was commercially successful, it was seen by many as nothing more than a poor substitute that lacked the explosive energies of both Rage or Soundgarden.
So after the recent disbandment of Audioslave, Morello’s current emphasis on his solo project has seemed to provide relief from what insiders might attribute to “front man fatigue.” With The Nightwatchman, the songs, the decisions, and the provocative stage-banter are all made by one man. Given Morello’s record with his two ex-front men, it appears as though it will take more than a few one-off Rage shows to distract him from his work as The Nightwatchman.
Following The Nightwatchman’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival, Glide was fortunate enough to catch some prolific words with Morello during a round-table discussion. His spirits were high following a performance that many critics on hand sited as a highlight of the weekend, and Morello was eager to discuss all there was to know about the evolution of The Nightwatchman. More than that, he gave everyone on hand a unique understanding of where he planned on taking his one-man revolution.
Where are you going to go with the revolution? How are you going to make it practical?
I think that it’s my responsibility, as an artist, to tell the truth as I see it in my art. I’m also willing to shoulder the additional responsibility of mixing my twin passions of music and activism. I run a non-profit organization called Axis of Justice, which brings together fans of music, progressively minded musicians, and local grass roots organizations in the cities we play, to fight for social justice issues together. In the years I’ve been playing with Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, many fans have asked me how they should get involved. We try to answer that. So if you live in Rhode Island, and are concerned about workers rights, environmental issues, or peace issues, you’re two clicks away from local organizations that you can get involved in. In addition to that, we have an online radio show by Serj Tankian of System Of A Down and myself. We play rebel music, interview interesting characters such as Howard Zinn, to Mumia Abu-Jamal from jail. We have a weekly thing now where we have Cindy Sheehan, and my mother Mary Morello who do a blog by mothers who are concerned about the state of things. And it’s all on axisofjustice.org.
The work you’re doing as The Nightwatchman is pretty far from the music you’ve created with Rage Against The Machine or Audioslave. Which project do you feel has been more politically effective?
Well certainly Rage helped to radicalize a lot of youth around the world. At the same time, it’s a rock and roll band. If you’ve seen the movie Spinal Tap, it’s not fiction, it’s real. It’s hard to harness the tumultuous internal relationships in the band, and to have the most impact as a social justice crusader. By doing The Nightwatchman, it has allowed me to musically, and message wise, be on a mission. It’s very pure and direct. And as an artist, it makes things very easy, because I’m the only one that gets to vote [laughs]. So I greatly enjoy doing this. I’ve got at least a couple more Nightwatchman records worth of stuff already done.
At what point did you get the idea to do a solo project?
The first time I ever got the idea to stand on a stage alone and sing songs was on Bruce Springsteen’s Ghost Of Tom Joad tour when he came through Santa Barbara. I was kind of overwhelmed by the impact, and by how heavy that kind of show could be. A couple of months later, I MC’d a Thanksgiving talent show at a teenage homeless shelter called Covenant House in Hollywood. There was this kid who sang a couple of songs. He had a real down and out story, and a really hard life. So he got up there with an acoustic guitar, he didn’t have the greatest voice, but he sang with more conviction then I’ve ever seen. So I thought, “I’ve got an acoustic guitar, I’ve got a couple of ideas in my head, why am I so scared to go out and do this?”
So were you looking to perform in a different context or did you initially see The Nightwatchman as a more politically capable forum for your art?
For me, it originally felt like a balance for my arena rock. I came off of these Audioslave tours, playing for 10,000 people a night, and then I’d go play these open mic nights for ten people. The songs I was writing, they mattered to me. I felt like an amateur, but it was something I wanted to cultivate. And it grew from there. Billy Bragg asked me to go on tour with him and Steve Earle. Then I went from playing for 10 people a night to two thousand people a night. I made myself available to all left-of center organizations, and played hundreds of union rallies. These people didn’t know what I did for a living. They didn’t care that I was in Rage Against The Machine or Audioslave. They just knew that I was there, playing a show for them. And for me, that gave me more of the connection that I felt was missing from my music. And things just sort of snowballed from there.
These days, you can go to a music festival and go two or three days without hearing political issues come to light. Given the current political climate in this country, is that bothersome to you?
I wouldn’t say I’m bothered. If you’re an artist without political convictions, I’m not critical of that. But at the same time, if you do have political convictions that run contrary to the mainstream, you shouldn’t be afraid to let people know. And that’s not just artists. People in their work should express their convictions. Whether its for the publication you’re writing for, or if you work for Subway Sandwich’s and want to unionize, if you do have convictions you shouldn’t be afraid to express them. That’s how the world changes. Frankly, it doesn’t change by getting the right administration in office because there have been really horrible war criminals in office from the Democratic Party as well [as the republican party]. It changes by people you don’t read about in history books, who take the wheel of history in their hands, and standing up for their rights.
Have you ever had a problem with a record company trying to prevent you from expressing your political convictions due to fears of a media backlash?
No, because I’ve sold thirty million records, so they let me do whatever I want [laughs].
Do you ever feel that with The Nightwatchman, you’re performing for an audience that’s self-selecting and as a result, you may not be delivering a message to a new demographic?
Absolutely. But I’m not worried about it. I’m unapologetically preaching to the converted because the converted need a good kick in the ass. Those of us who know better are not doing enough. Why there are not barricades in the streets, and the White House not ringed with pitchforks and torches is beyond me. The idea with these shows is that with one venue, one night at a time, with every 3-minute song, and every hour-long set, we liberate territory, and take America back.
You’ve said more than once that The Nightwatchman is where the majority of your creative efforts are being directed. As more and more concerts by Rage Against The Machine have been announced, is it fair to assume that we might be seeing your Nightwatchman persona begin to trickle into your performances with Rage?
I try to keep a firewall between those two worlds. Right now there are six more Rage shows in the US. Those are all the plans we have for now. There may be more shows planned later, but that’s all we have right now.
Do you think that by incorporating your Nightwatchman persona into a Rage show, it could prove to be beneficial to a Rage fan that has been traditionally turned off to folk music?
I think that would be a complicated… I really like the fact that I don’t have to, you know… Rage… Bands are at their best when they’re democratic, and Rage definitely operates that way. I think about the fact that Zack [De La Rocha] writes the lyrics and I do the guitar, and I think that’s something that works.
So is it fair to say that there needs to be a firewall between the two projects?
For me there does. I like the Nightwatchman to be completely independent of Rage.
Since you’ve been performing as The Nightwatchman, have unresponsive crowds been something you’ve had to deal with?
Oh hell yeah… At a lot of those early coffee house shows, I’d be playing in a venue where the Cappuccino machines have been louder than the PA. The one thing this project has done for me is that it’s taught me to be fearless in my performances. Whether its playing in front of eight people who don’t care what I’m doing, or playing amidst teargas, which has happened about a dozen times thus far. For me, it feels like making music for the right reasons, outside of the normal comfortable parameters of being in a successful rock band. The hotel workers at LAX were striking for higher wages and more benefits. So they called and asked if I’d play three songs, and I said “fantastic.” Then they asked, “Would you mind getting arrested with us, because this is going to be the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Los Angeles.” And I’m like “no problem, I’m down… wait, what did I just say.” So for me, that’s what I feel like I should be doing with my life. Although, I’m currently on probation, so right now, I’m not getting myself into any trouble.
Do you think that for a music festival like the Dunkin Donuts Newport Folk Festival, which has a significant history of incorporating politically progressive artists, that by welcoming corperate sponsorship, they’re damaging their ability to be politically effective?
I don’t know if it tampers with the festivals ability to be politically progressive…
So you don’t think people will think less of a festival as a result of sponsorships?
Sure, they’ll think less of it. It feels funny to me. It doesn’t feel right, but I understand that sometimes to keep the doors open, you have to usher in the… What is it? Dunkin Donuts Festival? Or PETCO Festival? I don’t like that. I’ve never done any sponsorship, from guitar strings to tour sponsors, but donuts are good too.
To expand on that, hypothetically, if the day came where we saw a Halliburton Newport Folk Festival, would we ever see The Nightwatchman on the bill?
I think that would be unlikely [laughs]. But I also think it’s an issue of accountability. As far as a corrupt sponsor, I don’t think it’s just the artists’ responsibility to hold one accountable. For me, I would choose to be a musician instead of a spokesman for a goofy-ass product. But much like I’m disappointed that the audiences aren’t ringing the White House with pitchforks, I’m disappointed that fans don’t always hold their artists accountable for stuff that seems iffy.
Do you feel that other artists such as yourself, who stray towards the left end of the political spectrum, are having a significant impact on the state of political affairs?
I’d have to ask, did the Clash have an impact? They did on me. They changed my life. I wouldn’t have been on any of those picket lines if it weren’t for them. And Public Enemy, they changed my life. I think both Rage, and the Nightwatchman are more explicitly involved in grass roots organizing. Axis of Justice runs soup kitchens in downtown L.A. three times a week. I grew up as a big fan Huey Newton, and the Black Panther Party, so we try to use that model of serving the community that you’re in first, and then challenging the powers that be to try and create a different and better world.
Plenty of folks feel that the most efficient way of shocking people, and getting through to them is by working outside of the spectrum of art, and by being as direct as possible. How do you feel this relates to your experiences as both a guitarist, and as a political activist?
I’ve been pretty unfettered in expressing my opinions since I was 16 or 17 years old. I come from stock that is not afraid to speak their mind. Whether it’s my mom, who for 12 years ran an organization called Parents For Rock And Rap, the Anti-PMRC, or from my fathers side of the family. My great uncle was Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, who led the independence movement against Great Britain. My whole family was involved in throwing the British out of Kenya, so to say that Bush is a war criminal, that’s something that’s sort of within the parameters as acceptable discourse… and it’s supportable.
There was a lot of talk in the media following Rage’s performance at Coachella, regarding statements made by the group that Bush was a war criminal who should be hung. More recently, at a New York performance, the group made statements that referred to Iraqi insurgents as “freedom fighters” and seemed to condone their killing of occupation forces. Do you feel these statements were misunderstood and blown up in the press? Or do you think a press who just disagrees interpreted them accurately?
First of all, Zack made those statements, and the statement made at Coachella seemed pretty clear. Is the president a war criminal? He is. Crimes against peace… first-strike aggression against a sovereign nation without just cause or the approval of the UN Security Council is the highest war crime. George W. Bush has done that twice. Torture is a war crime. It’s a crime against humanity. The killing of civilians, the 4,000 civilians in killed Fallujah, these are crimes that people in the past have been hung for. So what Zack said is something that in a lot of corners of the world is rationally discussed in coffee houses and bars, but here, it sounds like you’re talking about little green men from Mars because the press is so cowed and beholden to corporate interests.
So do you agree with Zach’s July 28th statement in New York that referred to Iraqi’s as freedom fighters, and praised them for “standing up” to U.S. forces?
I didn’t… you’d have to read… I didn’t hear exactly what he said, but that’s not what I heard. Not to paraphrase, but that’s not what I heard. I think he was encouraging resistance in this country to imperialist measures with the same sort of fervor that people around the world have been resisting with. But I didn’t hear it clearly so I don’t want to… [Pauses].
Do you think its possible for a guy like Dick Cheney, who drastically disagrees with your politics, to nod his head, and groove out to The Nightwatchman’s tunes?
[Laughs] I think that would be unlikely. You kind of can’t get around… my politics are a big rock in the stream to get around. But I don’t know. I wouldn’t begin to guess what Dick Cheney’s musical tastes are like.
Top and bottom photos by Sean Ricigliano