Over the last four years, Tom Morello has been leading something of a double life.
To most folks, he’s beenAudioslave’s virtuoso guitarist — nothing more. But when his band hasn’t been in a recording studio or rattling the rafters of packed arenas on the road, Morello has been moonlighting as a folk-singing activist, performing in small California coffeehouses and elsewhere under the moniker the Nightwatchman (see “Tom Morello Rages Against A New Machine On Solo Acoustic Tour” ).
And in that time, Morello has penned a number of protest songs, which he recorded last year with producer Brendan O’Brien (Incubus, Rage Against the Machine) over four days in an Atlanta studio. The end result, One Man Revolution, is Morello’s first solo offering and drops April 24.
“The Nightwatchman is the black Robin Hood of 21st century music,” the guitarist proclaimed. “This is material I am very proud of, and due to the troubled times we live in, it seemed like it was an appropriate time to get this music out. Some people might say it’s kind of preaching to the converted, but frankly, the converted need a kick in the ass. Given the situation in our country and around the world, the fact that the White House is not ringed with pitchforks and torches means that people are not either paying enough attention or following through with how aghast they actually are.”
According to Morello, the Nightwatchman “is a reaction against illicit wars, a reaction against first strikes, torture, secret prisons, spying illegally on American citizens. It’s a reaction against war crimes, and it’s a reaction against a few corporations that grow rich [off] this illicit war while people beg for food in the city streets” — in short, it’s a figurative middle finger directed squarely at the Bush administration.
Likewise, a reaction to the current state of affairs inspired the revival of Morello’s other rock collective, Rage Against the Machine. The band — Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, drummer Brad Wilk and frontman Zack de la Rocha — will reunite after seven years of dormancy, to close out this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, on April 29. on April 29 (see “Rage Against The Machine To Reunite For Coachella Festival” ). The three-day festival will also feature performances by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Arcade Fire, Interpol, the Arctic Monkeys, Ghostface Killah and Björk, among others. It will be Rage’s sole reunion gig — at least for the foreseeable future.
According to Morello, Rage’s re-formation seeks to “deliver a knockout blow to the Bush administration. And hopefully, one night in the desert is all it will take. They’re teetering, so …”
Morello said Coachella organizers have been trying to convince the band to re-form for the fest “for as many years as they’ve had the festival.” While he has said in previous interviews that a Rage reunion was unlikely, and the band has continually turned down the Coachella offers, Morello said the time was just right for a Rage return.
“Is it coincidence that in the seven years that Rage Against the Machine has been away that the country has slid into right-wing purgatory? I think not,” he said. “It occurred to all of us that the times were right to see if we can knock the Bush administration out in one fell swoop, and we hope to do that job well. This administration has done enough damage that it may take generations to undo. This is an administration that believes it’s beyond the laws of the land, which is fine for emperors, but not so great for presidents. One thing this president isn’t above is the laws of physics, and there is no action without reaction. And we’re part of that reaction.”
Morello isn’t sure what the future holds for his Audioslave, saying that for the moment, the Nightwatchman is his principal focus. “To me, it seems that the world needs songs of rebellion and revolution right now. It’s exciting, man,” he said of the Coachella gig. The Nightwatchman will also be taking the festival’s stage on April 28.
The Nightwatchman was born inside a coffeehouse in L.A. in front of “eight people and a whirring latte machine.” Morello and a group of his songwriting friends would get together and perform for each other, which took some getting used to, the guitarist said.
“I have complete confidence standing with an electric guitar, rocking huge riffs in a full arena, but I was absolutely petrified playing in front of 12 people, anonymously, in these little coffee shops,” he confided.
For Morello, the hardest thing about performing as the Nightwatchman was learning how to sing — on One Man Revolution, Morello’s voice recalls a young Leonard Cohen, before the thousands of cigarettes and glasses of tequila.
“It was really a trial by fire for someone who had never sung and performed solo,” he said. “I’ve, for 15 years, been playing loud experimental rock music, and have [reverted] to the purity and the commitment of this kind of acoustic music.
“I’ve always been attracted to music that was dark and heavy, and it has really dawned on me over the last five years that music doesn’t have to be loud,” he continued. “Guitars don’t have to be played through Marshall stacks in order to make the heaviest and darkest music that happens on records like [Bruce] Springsteen’s [brooding 1982 classic] Nebraska or the early Dylan records.”
One Man Revolution, Morello said, boasts two kinds of songs — ones that were written for specific political issues and agendas, and others that could speak to other kinds of social injustice. He wrote “Union Song” for workers’ rights, and was inspired to craft the track after performing during a steel-workers’ rally.
” ’No One Left’ was written in the aftermath of 9/11,” he explained. “There were lots of songs written in the wake of 9/11, but no one wrote that song. No one wrote about how the loss of a daughter or of a father or of a mother knows no borders, knows no political or religious affiliation — that that pain is universal, and should inform decision-making. Many of the songs on the record come from a very different place. When I started writing lyrics, I just put the antenna up, and whatever came down — whether it’s dark tales of bitterness and retribution like ’Battle Hymns’ or prophecy like ’California’s Dark’ or existential warnings like ’House Gone Up In Flames’ or ’Flesh Shapes the Day’ — those are songs that I’m not sure where they come from, but it worries me a little that they come from inside of me.
“It comes from accepting something I always suspected,” he continued. “I was the only black kid in an all-white town growing up. I was the only anarchist in a conservative high school. I was the only heavy-metal, punk-rock guitar player at Harvard University, and I was the only Harvard grad in an underground Hollywood band. Now, I am one of only a few committed activists in a commercialized pop-music world. And so, I think making this record was a very important step for me.”