This interview was originally broadcast on Leeds Student Radio and recorded on November 3rd 2011.
Riding off the back of a momentous Christmas number 1 with his band Rage Against The Machine, guitar god Tom Morello is taking on the more humbling task of acoustic protest music with his alter-ego The Nightwatchman. I caught up with Tom before his show supporting Rise Against at the O2 Academy Leeds to find out about Rage Against The Machine’s future, life growing up in LA, and influencing a new generation of musicians.
Nathan: How long have you been performing under your new moniker, the Nightwatchman, and why?
Tom Morello: Well I’ve been Nightwatchman music since the early 2000s, and originally it was when I was when I was in Audioslave. While Audioslave was not a politically-oriented band, it provided me with an outlet for my ideas via music, but it’s grown to be much more than that. Worldwide Rebel Songs is now the fourth Nightwatchman record, and now I’ve made as many Nightwatchman records as Rage Against the Machine, so this is not some vanity project or a side project, it is something that I take very seriously. This new record is prescient in a way; it’s called Worldwide Record Songs in a time where worldwide rebels are occupying cities around the globe.
Nathan: Your music is now more acoustic-based as opposed to heavy rock, why is this?
Tom: Initially the first couple of Nightwatchman records were very acoustically-oriented and there was some notable backlash. The second that you begin pandering to popular tastes, you lose your artistic soul. I’ve always been a fan of heavy music, but it was over the course of the last decade or so that I realised that sometimes three chords on an acoustic guitar and the truth can be as heavy as a wall of Marshall stacks. On this record, I’ve combined the two worlds. I’ve really melded the two worlds of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave to the acoustic Nightwatchman stuff, both on this record and with the live backing band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra.
“The second that you begin pandering to popular tastes, you lose your artistic soul. I’ve always been a fan of heavy music, but it was over the course of the last decade or so that I realised that sometimes three chords on an acoustic guitar and the truth can be as heavy as a wall of Marshall stacks.”
Nathan: What’s the story behind your newest record, Worldwide Rebel Songs?
Tom: The first song that I wrote for this record is the title track called Worldwide Rebel Songs, and it was about a year and a half ago that I wrote the song. There was a factory in Seoul in Korea where they make the low-end guitars for companies like Gibson and Fender. The workers in that factory formed a union, and when they formed a union they were all fired and the plant was moved to China, so these out of work Korean guitar makers came to the United States looking for financial help.
I offered to play a benefit show on their behalf, but the day before the show, the earthquake in Haiti happened. So these Korean workers, who were out of work and desperately needed money for their families and their strike fund, voted to donate 100% of the proceeds from their benefit show to the earthquake relief effort in Haiti. It was such a selfless act of international solidarity that I wrote the song that day, performed it that night, and it became the starting point for this record because it’s a reflection of and a window into the kind of world that I’d like to live in, and the world I fight for in my music.
Tom has been visiting the Occupy sites across the UK, inspired by similar protests in the US.
Nathan: Are the songs based on your own experiences and observations?
Tom: I think sometimes the converse is true. I think for songs to resonate, very rarely will I sit down and say here is an episode and I’m going to write a song about it. For the most part the songs are very personal, and I think that’s when they can be the most impactful, and also the most true.
I don’t sit down and say I’m going to write a song about Guatemalan labour unions, I’ll sit down to write a song and dig around in the silt of my own disturbed psyche, and then whatever comes forward may have political content, but because it’s personal and it’s real, that’s when it rings true.
Nathan: Do you feel you have any responsibilities as an artist?
Tom: I think the one responsibility you have is to be true to yourself as an artist, and once you do that you let the chips fall where they may. I visited the Occupy sites in all the cities that I performed in, and that was very inspirational to see.
This is not my music influencing the world, this is the happenings in the world influencing me, and I’m inspired as an artist by what people are doing. Some of them may have a background in Rage Against the Machine… studies or something like that, but it’s something that feels very organic and is inspirational.
“This is not my music influencing the world, this is the happenings in the world influencing me, and I’m inspired as an artist by what people are doing.”
Nathan: You grew up in LA, could you tell me about your upbringing?
Tom: I didn’t come from a family with much money, my mom was a public high school teacher and was a single parent, it was not an affluent existence and I received a full scholarship to Harvard, so that’s how I could go there. But still I was alone in a city where I knew no one and had literally no money. But it was eye-opening; you can always learn something new.
And I thought at 22 years old I had it all figured out… And then I met this, to an outsider what would be perceived as a bizarre and maybe even dangerous community, but they were lovely. They weren’t just decent, they were lovely, and open. I would never have been able to be in a band like Rage Against the Machine had I not made those friends back in the mid-80s.
Nathan: Speaking of which, are there any future plans for Rage Against The Machine?
Tom: Rage Against the Machine likes to tour at a very gentlemanly pace, we played one show last year so we’re not exactly taxing ourselves. Currently there are no plans, ever since the band reformed in 2007 we’ve had no manager, no record company, no attorney, we have none of the infrastructure that bands have.
It’s kind of like a local band of friends who occasionally decides to play a show or do a tour. I’d like to thank anyone who was involved in making Killing In The Name a Christmas Number 1 a few years ago, which was an extraordinary event for a song that’s almost 20 years old. There are no plans for a reunion right now, but there may be in the future.
Rage Against The Machine played a victory show at Finsbury Park in 2010, following their momentous Christmas charts victory against the X Factor’s Joe McElderry.
Nathan: What were your thoughts on the X Factor campaign spearheaded by your own song, Killing In The Name?
Tom: That was interesting because on the one hand it was a flippant and sarcastic sort of finger-up to the X Factor’s monopoly of hopelessly crass, bland, commercial music being jammed down the country’s throat. On the other hand, it was a brilliant example of how people acting together can change circumstances pretty dramatically and topple tyrants… and the X Factor tyrant was toppled!
At the time there was nothing going on in the world of Rage Against The Machine, and we were not involved until the last few days of the campaign, and I got some emails from some friends over here and they said “do you know what’s going on?” and I just said “I have no clue, bro!” And so I was very glad that we got involved, and the Finsbury Park show, the victory party, was one of the highlights not just of my musical career, but of my life. It was pretty awesome.
Nathan: What would you say are some of the highlights of your career?
Tom: One of the early highlights was when Rage Against the Machine played Reading Festival in 1993. We had been a small club band in the United States opening up for House of Pain, and here we’d only played the smallest venues like downstairs at Nottingham’s Rock City.
Then we came back to play Reading, and in the interim period and unbeknownst to us the band had become very popular. So we played Reading Festival, and we crushed it! I was living with five roommates in this one bedroom apartment in Hollywood and I came home I said “you guys aren’t gonna believe it, I was over in Reading and there’s 50,000 people jumping around to these songs that I wrote in this living room”, and they’re like “oh yeah, sure bro!” At the time there was no YouTube so I couldn’t prove it to them that it’d really happened!
And a secondary thing, but no less important, when I began doing the Nightwatchman stuff and started playing open mic nights, I was very confident playing a stadium or an arena playing in front of a lot of people on electric guitar, but it was when I began singing, began writing lyrics, began performing for half a dozen people in these open mic nights, it was at first very intimidating. But the connection I made at those shows felt even greater in some ways than playing those larger venues, and it really encouraged me to continue with this. And now here I am on my fourth record, playing these shows around the world has been pretty unexpected and great fun.
“I was living with five roommates in this one bedroom apartment in Hollywood and I came home I said “you guys aren’t gonna believe it, I was over in Reading and there’s 50,000 people jumping around to these songs that I wrote in this living room”, and they’re like “oh yeah, sure bro!” At the time there was no YouTube so I couldn’t prove it to them that it’d really happened!”
Nathan: Muse are a band heavily influenced by Rage Against The Machine, and often play your riffs in their live shows. What are your feelings on being an inspiration to other musicians?
Tom: I’ve been acquainted with Matt Bellamy since the earliest days of Muse, I think he came to an Audioslave show long ago. I’ve been a fan of Muse since their inception, it’s a great band, it’s a band that has a Rage Against the Machine influence but clearly they’ve done their own thing with it. It’s completely different. I appreciate that when it drops down to the big heavy riff rock, there are other elements that are different from Rage that are very spectacular as well. I get embarrassed when artists cite me or the band as an influence, but Muse are great.
Players could challenge Tom Morello to a guitar battle in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.
Nathan: How do you relax when you’re not working?
Tom: I don’t do many of the traditional rock star things to begin with, I have a two year old and a six month old, so to relax I go to sleep because I’m up with those kids early every morning!
Nathan: What’s it like to play in England?
Tom: England is really the first country that embraced Rage Against the Machine, it’s the first country where we had a hit record, where people responded. I’ve always had a particularly warm place in my heart for England.
Nathan: You wrote music for the first two Iron Man films, just on a final note, are you involved at all with Iron Man 3?
Tom: The reason I was involved in the Iron Man movies was that Jon Favreau, director of the first two, was a close friend of mine, and he’s not directing Iron Man 3 so I haven’t got the call for that one yet!