Born and raised in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Tom Morello will
always be best known to legions of rock fans as a supreme shredder --
the musician who developed a new vocabulary for lead guitar by evoking
falling bombs, bursts of machine-gun fire and scratching turntables with
'90s rap-rockers Rage Against the Machine and the post-alternative
The 42-year-old musician has always worked just
as hard as a political activist, however -- he is a co-founder and
driving force behind the organization Axis of Justice -- and for the
last four and a half years, he's quietly been building a solo career,
singing and playing acoustic guitar as the Nightwatchman. On April 24,
Epic will release his first album as a one-man band, and "One Man
Revolution" is as much of a surprise for his rich baritone and
minimalist but moving songs as it is an expected forum for his views.
"The event that kind of pushed me out of the nest to begin with was
the day after the 2004 presidential election, where I thought, 'I really
enjoy doing the arena rock, and also the organizing and educating work
of Axis of Justice, but I'm a musician, and I really need to be using my
voice as a musician to strike a blow for freedom,'" Morello says,
laughing. "That's when I really got the idea in my head that I would
make a record, but it was still a secondary thing. It was really only
about seven months ago when there was a reorganizing of priorities.
"I played an Amnesty International benefit show with Incubus up in
Portland, and Incubus was in the studio with Brendan O'Brien [Pearl Jam,
Bob Dylan, Neil Young]. They came back and gave a favorable review of
the Nightwatchman show to Brendan, and he called me up and said, 'What's
this Nightwatchman thing?' So I sent him some demos and he called me
back the next day and said, 'Let's make a record.' And I went down to
Atlanta and made the record down there."
As the Nightwatchman, Morello draws on his personal experiences to
add resonance to his rousing calls to arms: "On the streets of Havana
/ I got hugged and kissed / At the Playboy Mansion / I wasn't on the
list," he sings in the title track. But it's never easy for a
successful musician to reinvent himself in a world where record
companies prefer their artists to stick with the expected, and he laughs
again when I ask if he feels like Coca-Cola when it tried to launch New
"That's why it was important to me to have a real firewall between
this and, like, the Daywatchman. I would always do it anonymously; I
would never do it under my own name. Part of that was hiding behind it,
because I had never sung before, and I was just trying to remember the
words to the songs. But it was a process: I gained confidence doing
that. So then it was opening up for Billy Bragg and Steve Earle, then
opening up on Michael Moore's speaking tour, and then playing with
"After that, you just couldn't stop me, because one thing this has
taught me is to be absolutely fearless in performance, whether it's in a
theater full of 16-year-old high school hard-core punk-rock kids, or a
seated audience there to hear Michael Moore speak, or being tear-gassed
at the FTAA demonstrations in Miami. I believe in every note I'm playing
and every word I'm singing, and I just will not flinch."
Morello is also generally unflinching in interviews, but the
Nightwatchman is uncharacteristically sketchy when asked about his other
endeavors at the moment. After three increasingly disappointing albums
released between 2002 and 2006, former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell
recently announced that he was splitting with Morello and the rhythm
section of Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk. "Due to irresolvable
personality conflicts as well as musical differences, I am permanently
leaving the band Audioslave," Cornell wrote in a statement released on
"As far as Audioslave goes, I have yet to hear from Chris Cornell,"
Morello says, chuckling anew. "I understand he's left the band; I have
not yet heard from him about that."
Around the same time, however, Morello, Commerford and Wilk announced
they were reuniting with the long missing-in-action singer Zack de la
Rocha for four Rage Against the Machine reunion shows, including
appearances at the Coachella Festival on April 28-29. "Right now, there
are only the four Rage Against the Machine shows -- there are no plans
beyond that -- but I'm very excited to do them, and it's sounding great
in the rehearsal room," is all the guitarist says about that, though I
do try to draw him out on how the bands fit in with his solo career.
"I tell ya, whether you're talking about Rage, Audioslave or the
Nightwatchman, each of them has scratched a very important itch for me.
With Rage Against the Machine, I really believed in the music and the
mission, but the band always got along horribly, and daily existence in
the band was really difficult. With Audioslave, it was like a beautiful
trip to Jamaica, where everyone enjoyed the music and enjoyed each other
and we were able to function as musicians in a setting that felt great
on a daily basis.
"Doing this Nightwatchman stuff, it feels like total freedom. ...
With this, my anarchist friends call me from San Francisco -- there's
been four arrests and they need to do a show for bail money -- and I
just drive up there!"
Indeed, the logo on Morello's Nightwatchman Web site depicts a lone
figure marching with a guitar case, and he'll be strolling into his old
'hoods for two shows next week, performing at Lake Forest College on
Friday and at a "Carnival and Parade for Fair Food, Real Rights, and
Dignity" sponsored by the Immokalee Workers on Saturday. (See
"My thoughts about the Nightwatchman are summed up pretty succinctly
in one of the lyrics in the song 'Maximum Firepower': 'If you take a
step towards freedom / It'll take two steps towards you,' " Morello
concludes. "This is music that I've believed in from the first time I
put pen to paper, and again, it was seven months or so ago where I had a
chance to really look at my priorities, and this is what I want to do.
... It really feels like one night at a time, at every single show, I'm
creating a little bit of the world I'd like to see."