In his guise as the Nightwatchman, Tom Morello explores personal despair and political activism
Nobody could accuse Tom Morello of failing to put his money where his mouth is. Rage Against the Machine's groundbreaking guitarrista was engaging in direct action back in the '80s as a political-science student at ultra-conservative Harvard, and he hasn't stopped protesting since, famously tangling with riot cops and sucking up a lot of pepper spray and a little jail time over the years for his frontline activism. And he's done all this while scaling the heights of fame and fortune in the Babylonian world of American rock music, first (and again) with Rage, and then with Audioslave.
While there's merit to the old debate concerning the basic incompatibility of the two positions inhabited by Morello—self-described socialist and rock star—he definitely has his PR in order when the Straight reaches him at his home in Los Angeles to discuss his solo guise as the Nightwatchman, an alter ego that he's previously characterized as "the black Woodie Guthrie". On the topic of receiving the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 2006, you might even say he sounds a little rehearsed.
"Well, I've got a couple of Grammys, but they had to move over on the mantle when I got that," he starts. "First of all, I have to qualify any comments by saying that the people who deserve the award for the union activities I was involved in are the rank-and-file workers who stood countless hours on the picket lines and organized. I was happy to donate whatever resources I could conjure up in the cause of social justice—so I'm not giving it back—but the real heroes are the people who are maybe not represented on the Billboard charts."
To his credit, Morello doesn't flinch when his feet are held to the fire a little bit. "There's going to be a spectrum of what people get out of it," he responds when asked if the very idea of a "protest singer" has any real currency left in a culture that has carefully commodified everything, including resistance to it. What was that Joe Strummer line about "turning rebellion into money", again?
"The case is probably even more broadly drawn with Rage Against the Machine," he admits, "where some people just like to rock, some people just like the guitar solos, and other people are committed anarcho-syndicalists. But I think that culture is a vitally important weapon in the struggle for human rights and that the inspiration that I've felt in my life from groups like the Clash and Public Enemy is invaluable in helping me form an identity as someone who's gonna stand up against injustice."
All that said—and allowing for the measures Morello has taken to donate a percentage of his merch sales to local shelters and food banks on his coming tour—what's interesting about the Nightwatchman's new album, The Fabled City, is its development away from the stark polemics and rudimentary arrangements of the 2007 debut One Man Revolution. The title track uses horns, sturdy piano, and a pounding backbeat to colour its tales of everyday revolutionaries defeated once again, while Morello whips up a Celtic party for the future closing-time anthem "Saint Isabelle". And Rage fans will be delighted to learn that he puts his nimble fingers to work for an inspired mandolin solo in the Gogol Bordello-leaning territory of "The Lights Are On in Spidertown".
Having kept his most notable gifts in check for One Man Revolution, as if innovative musicality might be too decadent for such a righteous enterprise, Morello and his producer, Brendan O'Brien, seem to have restored some balance on a good chunk of The Fabled City.
"Having established the ”˜three-chords-and-the-truth' political-folk integrity on One Man Revolution, I felt much more comfortable blurring the lines between what I do as a singer-songwriter and what I do as a rock guitar player," he explains. "So when Brendan and I sat down and started going through these songs, many of them felt better fleshed out. There's even a little Rage-like riffage on ”˜Whatever It Takes' or an Al Di Meola-like solo on ”˜The Lights Are On in Spidertown'."
There's also a powerful despair radiating through the album, explicitly in tracks such as the Hurricane Katrina lament "Midnight in the City of Destruction", or the dour "Gone Like Rain", where "victory is measured in a coyote chewing his leg off to get out of a trap".
"Considering the events in my personal life that happened before and during the making of it, I think the despair is palpable," he admits, revealing that he lost two family members, four friends, and his dog in the 18 months between records. "But it's measured," he offers, rejecting the idea that The Fabled City reflects a situation in his country that might appear unassailably hopeless at this point. "On One Man Revolution, it was about storming the barricades," Morello says. "[But] I never use the word ”˜hopelessness'. I think this record is picking through the ashes for those embers, and for hope through music, and through the fight against injustice. And that's what I found when I stood on-stage during these really difficult, emotional, bad times. The connection that I felt with these songs, and with the audience, it felt like things may not be okay, but tonight we're doing something that matters, and we're gonna have a motherfuckin' good time."
Still, there's no mistaking the tone in Morello's voice when talk turns to the album's spookily oblique closing track, given the double-edged title "Rise to Power". After cataloguing the ways in which the song's protagonist tries and fails to make an honest difference in the world, Morello hisses, "The whole world is watching, and there's a gunman in the tower."
What does that mean?
"If I told you what it was about, they'd put us both in jail," he answers.
The Nightwatchman plays the Commodore Ballroom on Wednesday (November 5).