Interview Tom Morello: A Rebel With A Cause

Chris Cope tracks down the Nightwatchman himself for a lesson in politics.

Tom Morello is a bona fide rock legend. His trademark riffs and signature guitar leads found in Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave’s back catalogue are known the world over. When he’s not tearing up his electric, he’s playing political folk under the name of The Nightwatchman, recently unleashing his fourth release, ‘World Wide Rebel Songs’ – and he’s even had time to tour the UK too, supporting Rise Against. We caught up with the man himself out on the road at Glasgow’s O2 Academy to find out more.

You started off The Nightwatchman in coffee shops. Did you ever think you’d be playing large venues like this?
I never imagined that when I began it. I started during the Audioslave days as way to weave my ideological underpinnings into my music. We’d be playing arenas on the Audioslave tour, but on days off I’d look in the paper for open mic nights. One thing that it taught me was a fearlessness in performance. With Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave, you’ve kind of won before you’ve even entered the hall. Everyone knows every song, they have a t-shirt, and they’ve been listening to it since they were a kid. Every Nightwatchman show, almost without exception, people are unfamiliar with the material, so it’s a matter of commanding their respect and getting them into the act by the end of it. It’s a different kind of challenge, but it is very fun.

What do you think the shelf-life of The Nightwatchman is?
The thing that makes a good rock band is the chemistry, the interplay of the musicians, the abilities and personalities that make the end result greater than some of its parts. With a solo endeavour, what makes it good is the purity. You get to really see who that person is. So my only criteria for the music that I write is to be honest and try to make it rhyme, and this is something I can do forever.

So are you a poet in that sense?
Well… yeah. Well, not a poet in a Chaucerian sense, but I think that the idea is to tell the truth as you see it, and if you’re a musician, you tend to do that through the poetry that’s contained in the lyrics.

Do you think music is one of the best ways of putting political views out there?
I think that’s true. There’s something in the combination of rhythm, harmony and rhyme that speaks to something in the human DNA, and speaks to the reptilian brain. When it all adds up, it really feels like the truth, in the way that a college lecture or even a book can’t. It’s an excellent conveyor of ideas and emotion.

The first Rage Against The Machine album, for example, is pretty angry. Have you still got that anger in you?
Well Zack is the lyricist for that record, so if you’re referring to the aggression in the vocals and lyrics, he’d be the better one to ask, but certainly the music vents a kind of anger as well that is at the forefront. On the one hand it is anger against injustice, and on the other hand, if you’ve been to a Rage show, it is a celebration of a community confronting injustice.

Rage Against The Machine can play in front of a hundred thousand, but The Nightwatchman is a lot more intimate. How easy was it to go from massive arenas for example to this?
Well The Nightwatchman is in some sense a cure for arena rock, but one is not less intense than the other. That connection, whether you have it with one person or in a coffeehouse with 12 people or tonight in front of two thousand people, it is pretty intense. That is the drug that musicians get off on. When you’re being heard and felt in that way, that is why I do it.

So is that why you get up in the morning?
There’s a lot of different things. Between April and October of this year, I have had a child, put out two Nightwatchman records, written a comic book and played a Rage Against The Machine show at the biggest venue in California. So there’s a lot of reasons to get up.

You need to take a break.
Exactly! That’s what I keep telling my wife. I will do after this run.

Have you been to the Glasgow Occupied protest today?
I was going to right before this interview, but apparently they moved. There was no Occupy Leeds, but I’ve stopped by every Occupy in every city I’ve played in both the US tour and this one. I love the fact that it is really a grassroots endeavour - it’s not led by political parties or unions or anything. It’s a spontaneous global uprising against the inequalities of an unjust system.

What was your take on the recent London riots?
I followed that rather closely. Not having first hand knowledge of it, I certainly wouldn’t excuse any sort of harm done to innocents, but to think that it’s not possible to examine the economic underpinnings is ignorant. The UK has the greatest gulf of economic inequality in Europe right now - there is 20% unemployment of youths aged between 16 and 24 years old. Are those contributing matters? They may or may not be, but it is like ‘Oh, the hoodlums have been let out of their cages!’, and I don’t think that’s entirely the case.

Do you think people who don’t engage in politics are missing out?
I don’t know about missing out. The ones that are missing out are ones that have political convictions and don’t act on them. Rage Against The Machine casts the net wide - it’s music that appeals to people beyond the political left. Those who are not political sometimes come to politics through the band, and that’s great, and some never do, and that’s okay too. But The Nightwatchman stuff, it tends to be more preaching to the converted.

I’ve got to ask about Rage Against The Machine. Everyone wants to know if there will be a new album somewhere in the future.
I promise you that if at some point there is a Rage record, we will let people know. The reason why you don’t know about it right now is because there isn’t one.

It’s admirable - most bands in your situation would reunite for a massive world tour and pocket millions.
For better or for worse, it’s a band that’s never responded to what other bands do. It’s never acted in that way in any shape or form.

It’s fair to say you’re one of the more highly regarded guitarists of your generation. You’re a big influence – do you feel pressured because of that?
The short answer would be no. In my guitar playing I just try to channel the truth and lose myself in it. What comes out - on a good day - feels right and connects with the audience.

Where does your style come from?
The underpinnings of it are from my hard rock upbringing. I grew up on metal bands and hard rock bands. Randy Rhoads was my favourite guitar player, and he was a very disciplined musician as well. I was practising eight hours a day. But, the reason why I actually picked up a guitar was punk – The Clash, Sex Pistols, and the disregard for musical theory. A third component would be when I found my own voice on the instrument. The path that was less trodden was to make a guitar make sounds that don’t sound like a guitar, and then make music out of that. And once I started down that path, I haven’t really turned back since.

You’ve used things like pencils and stuff like that.
Yeah, lots of odd household devices.

Do you apply that to other things in life - are you constantly thinking outside the box?
Well, there are artists like John Coltrane, who I think is a very political artist in that he challenged the conventions of a genre. Growing up I read a hundred times in guitar magazines, ‘It’s all been done before’. What? Why is it? Maybe you’re just lazy. I looked at the electric guitar as an instrument that was relatively new on the planet, and it shouldn’t be penned in by what Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and Eddie Van Halen had done before. Let’s see if there are any other possibilities for this piece of wood, steel strings and electronics.

Any last words?
I’ve always enjoyed being in Glasgow. More power to the Occupy Glasgow movement - Occupy US has your back. This is one of the first places that really embraced Rage, back in 1992/93. It was funny, back then there was a time when we were almost like a teen idol band - we were on the cover of every magazine every week, so you couldn’t walk around. I remember going out book shopping in Glasgow and this crowd of kids – this was before people could like Twitter about it – were sleeping in the hotel. Back in Los Angeles I was living on the border of homelessness - I had five roommates living in one room. I’d come home and say, ‘You’re not gonna believe it man, I went to Glasgow!’

The Nightwatchman’s new album ‘World Wide Rebel Songs’ is out now via New West Records.

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