Striking a blow for freedom
Alt-rock | Tom Morello's politically charged Nightwatchman persona a departure from his Rage and Audioslave days

April 8, 2007


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 supergroup Audioslave.

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 Coke.

"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 Anti-Flag.

"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 Feb. 15.

"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."