Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine (Boulder Weekly 11/5/08)
Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine is an angry, intelligent man
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
Born to an Irish-Italian anti-censorship activist mother and a father who was Kenya’s first ambassador to the United States, in some ways Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as the saying goes. He staunchly identified himself as an anarchist at a virtually all-white conservative Illinois high school before studying political science at Harvard and subsequently working for the Democratic Party in Los Angeles, which inspired him to bring his “non-sectarian socialist” leanings to rock music. And he even made an appearance as “Crewman Mitchell” on Star Trek: Voyager. But even at 44, it seems Morello is just getting started. In the ’90s, he was a major part of R.A.T.M., contributing innovative guitar and astute politics to one of the most original and important heavy rock bands America has ever produced. In the six years (2001-2007) that Rage was defunct, Morello played guitar in the more commercially minded Audioslave, which was basically Rage Against the Machine fronted by Soundgarden screamer Chris Cornell. And in the past few years Morello has emerged as The Nightwatchman, a folky alter-ego solo project that lets Morello play the protest-singer, channeling Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer. He talked about the differences between playing with the newly reunited Rage and touring heavily as the Nightwatchman in a recent Boulder Weekly interview, but it’s no surprise the conversation started with politics:
Boulder Weekly: I was in the Veterans Against the Iraq War march on Denver back in August, attended your [Rage Against the Machine] concert there that morning and marched right behind you guys for most of the day. Can you tell me a little about your experience in Denver that day and the ultimate response by the Democratic Party? I heard that Obama ended up not personally meeting with the veterans after all.
Tom Morello: The musical events surrounding the DNC were very exciting and bordering on historic. Of the 10,000 fans we played for, almost two-thirds joined us on the march with the Iraq Veterans Against the War. The veterans marched in full military uniform to the Pepsi Center, where the riot police informed them and us that we would have to continue our rally in the “Free Speech Zone,” known by the protesters as the “Freedom Cage,” as it was nothing but an empty parking lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence. The Veterans Against the Iraq War were having none of that, and the entire march moved to the door of the Pepsi Center, where the 70 veterans and thousands of Rage fan marchers were met by 700 riot police in full Darth Vader uniforms. After a long stand off, the police announced that they would be arresting the veterans and firing tear gas into the crowd to disperse it in five minutes. At that point, five officers walked off duty rather than raise a hand against the veterans. The veterans responded by announcing that they would not go quietly and that they would march directly into the police line. Fortunately, at this moment, someone from the Obama campaign had enough sense to come out and tell the Iraq Veterans Against the War that they would meet all their demands and allow them to have a hearing with Obama’s veterans’ affairs liaison. This did happen and it was a huge victory for the courageous veterans and their cause of peace.
BW: What can you tell me about the balance between getting back with Rage Against the Machine and getting on the road as a solo artist? How do you mentally juxtapose playing your impressive neo-folk at clubs with virtually commanding audiences in the tens of thousands with heavy rock music?
TM: For the last five years or so, I’ve focused almost exclusively on writing, recording and performing Nightwatchman songs. I’ve greatly enjoyed playing with Rage Against The Machine, and we will continue to play shows in 2009. Right now, my sole focus is The Nightwatchman and this upcoming tour, which will be half acoustic and half electric. The idea is 50 percent Dylan, 50 percent Hendrix, where I plan to shred my ass off.
BW: There’s a lot of talk surrounding you vis-à-vis politics, but how do you sort of settle down and focus on writing strong music and lyrics? Speaking out on the issues via your songs (à la the Clash or early Dylan) seems paramount in your career, but I’m interested in whether you ultimately see yourself as a musician first and activist second, or vice versa.
TM: I didn’t’ choose to play the guitar; it chose me. And as a teenager I knew that playing the guitar was what I would be doing as a career for the rest of my life. With that as a given, it was then my responsibility to try to weave my convictions into my music. Sometimes, the politics in music have come together, as in Rage Against The Machine and The Nightwatchman, and sometimes they’ve been separate, as in Audioslave and the Axis of Justice organization that I run with Serj Tankian.
BW: In what ways has your music and your overall consciousness changed between your first and second solo albums that might have affected the evolution of your music and message between them?
TM: The albums are quite different sonically. On The Fabled City, I wanted to try to bridge the gap between my solo acoustic work and my work with my rock band. So the arrangements are much more fleshed out and even include some riffs and guitar solos. Acoustic guitar played through electric guitar effects. Lyrically, the politics on The Fabled City are more personal in nature and reflect my quest to find hope and redemption through music and the fight [against] injustice.