Tom Morello on Tool and Creating ‘Mosh Pits in Your Mind’ [Interview]

Story by Anne Erickson

Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on the Nightwatchman

Best-known for his blazing mix of hard rock wrath and hip-hop inflection in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, 47-year-old guitarist Tom Morello was moved, in 2003, to tote an acoustic guitar and harmonica and play intimate coffee houses and clubs across the U.S. as his alter ego, the Nightwatchman. Since then, he’s released several albums and played hundreds of benefit shows, always bringing self-penned songs that reflect his political and social beliefs.

Morello’s new Nightwatchman album, World Wide Rebel Songs, has him bringing full-on, electric arrangements and a full orchestra, a la the Freedom Fighter Orchestra. World Wide Rebel Songs is Morello’s 14th release and his fourth album with the Nightwatchman, which ties his number of albums with Rage Against the Machine.

Morello checked in to talk about his current, three-date Justice Tour alongside Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath and MC5’s Wayne Cramer, keeping in touch with Tool’s Adam Jones and why the Nightwatchman “creates mosh pits in your mind.”

You’re currently on the Justice Tour with Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath and MC5’s Wayne Cramer. What’s the goal of the trek?

We’re playing cities across the Midwest that are union towns under siege. All of the proceeds will go to the Nation Institute, to help bolster independent media and media outlets that are of the people, by the people and for the people to battle what, in my view, is the dissemination of a lot of misinformation and right-winged propaganda by the corporate media.

How did you select the cities for the tour?

We’re playing Cleveland, Flint and Madison, and these are cities seeing some really hard economic times, where the unions are the last line of defense. There’s a vicious class war being fought in this county, but it’s only being fought by one side. There are people who want to sweep away working class rights, but the Nightwatchman aren’t taking it. I grew up in a union household. My mom was a union high school teacher, and for 22 years, I’ve been a member of the Musicians Union and the Industrial Workers Union, so this fight for me is very, very personal.

When did you first meet Tim McIlrath and Wayne Cramer?

Tim and Wayne were performing with me on the steps of the capitol building in Madison on that freezing cold day in February when we played in front of 100,000 people and got frostbite. [Laughs] Tim and his band Rise Against have long been supporters of social justice issues, so it was no surprise when he showed up to Madison and it’s no surprise that he was agreeable to go on the Justice Tour.

Is it true that a talent show at a homeless shelter inspired you to start the Nightwatchman?

Yeah, that’s how it began. I was hosting a talent show at a teen homeless shelter in Los Angeles, and this one kid got up — he was maybe 18 years old and really down and out and had a pretty rough life story — but he got up there and he played his two songs as if everybody’s soul in the room was in stake. He meant every word of it. I was like, “I have a guitar. I have a couple of ideas in my head.” And I thought, “Maybe I should sing a song.” [Laughs] So, I went home and stated working on some material and got up the courage to start.

This was the height of Audioslave playing these big arenas across the country, and I would get up the courage on days off to go sing at an open mic night here and to try out a couple songs at a country western bar there, and pretty soon, I realized I was having an artistic connection with the audience doing the Nightwatchman stuff that was as powerful as anything I’d done with Rage Against the Machine.

You put a video on YouTube a few months back playing the Google Les Paul, and it went viral. Did you think it would get such a big response?

No. [Laughs] Somebody just mentioned to me the day before that it was going to be Les Paul’s birthday, so I did my best to make something that sounded crazy, and it’s funny that it went viral.

World Wide Rebel Songs dropped about a week ago. What are you most proud of on the album?

This is the first time on a Nightwatchman record where I really brought the electric guitar along. My backup band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra, has helped flush the songs out in a way that’s very different from the starker, earlier Nightwatchman records. And I really let it rip on this record: there are guitar solos, there are big riffs. This is my fourth Nightwatchman record and the 14th record of my career, and at this point I feel comfortable combining the electric guitar wizardry without losing the integrity of the folk music and message that’s at the core.

How would you compare Rage and the Nightwatchman who both, in their own way, fight for social and political change?

I’ve always been a fan of heavy music, and the music of Rage Against the Machine is certainly heavy and creates mosh pits in the arena and the stadium. The music of the Nightwatchman creates mosh pits in your mind, and it’s heavy in a very different way. On this record, though, World Wide Rebel Songs, it gets pretty heavy with electric guitars, too.

Do you keep in touch with some of the bands who rose to prominence in the ‘90s along with Rage Against the Machine, like Tool and Pearl Jam?

Yeah, I do. Adam Jones from Tool and I actually went to high school together in Illinois, so I see him from time to time. Today, I’m actually playing a Nightwatchman show with Incubus and the guys of Jane’s Addiction. So, yeah, it’s not like we have class reunions, but a lot of those bands live in Los Angeles, and we stay connected over email.

What’s next for both the Nightwatchman and Rage Against the Machine?

It’s busy right now, with the Nightwatchman record coming out. I’m really proud of it, because it’s the the 14th record of my career. Now, I’ve made as many Nightwatchman records as Rage Against the Machine records. So, this is not a vanity project or a side project: This is something to which I’m fully committed and just love doing it. And now that I’ve melded the electric guitar playing with the acoustic guitar playing, it really combines all the things that I love about playing music. So, I’m looking forward to touring with this deep into next year, and as for Rage, we don’t have anything planned at the moment.

More on Morello: Tom Morello’s first comic book in his new series with Dark Horse Comics, Orchid, arrives Oct. 12. (Photo credit: Sean Ricigliano.)

 




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