YOU MIGHT THINK THAT BEING A POLITICALLY SAVVY, half-Kenyan, Harvard-educated dude from Illinois would have Tom Morello thinking about a run for the presidency. You’d be wrong, but not because he’d have to take a massive pay cut. “If you are committed to fighting for human rights and real progressive change,” Morello explains, “that does not come from within the system. I’ve always felt much more comfortable outside that barbed-wire fence, throwing musical Molotov cocktails in.” And that’s just what he’s done as the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and with his protest singer alter ego, the Nightwatchman. Despite the similar political bents of the two projects, however, Morello initially kept those two characters very separate, not attaching his name or any of his RATM bombast to his dark and brooding acoustic doppelganger. But his latest release, The Fabled City [Red Ink], is actually credited to Tom Morello The Nightwatchman and it does find the reluctant guitar hero blending his two personae, at least a little. The tour for the album will blur those lines even more, as he details: “Half of the show will be the stark Nightwatchman with his reaper at the ready and the other half will hopefully feature even more expansive playing than either my Rage or my Audioslave work.”
Woody Guthrie’s acoustic kills fascists. What does your nylon-string do?
My nylon-string does whatever it takes, as is emblazoned on the front of the guitar. I figure that’s a fine moniker to bring into battle when you’re playing music to combat injustice.
Why did you decide to attach your name to this record?
One of the things I felt much more comfortable doing on this record was expanding the musicality of it, incorporating some of my riff rock and some left-of-center soloing. That’s predominately why the record is under the name Tom Morello The Nightwatchman. On the first Nightwatchman record I was hesitant to use my given name because people might expect a metal-fusion opus. The Fabled City is not a metal-fusion opus, but it does contain elements of my Rage world. That doesn’t have so much to do with effects, but more that the songs are given a broader rock treatment. From “St. Isabelle” to “The Lights Are On in Spidertown,” there’s a broader musical palette.
The tune “Whatever It Takes” does have a lot of effects on it, though.
True. That’s still a nylon-string guitar, but it’s run through some of my electric guitar effects. There’s an octave divider and an MXR Distortion+ that was sitting around the studio.
Talk about the tremolo-picking solo in that song. Did you play that in real time or is there some kind of gate on it that makes it spit out those machine-gun blasts?
I played it in real time but it’s multitracked, with four or five guitars playing almost random harmonies of the melody in those little bursts.
How did you view Brendan O’Brien’s role as the producer?
He really fills in the gaps for me. I’ve been very comfortable and confident writing and recording rock riffs, but when it comes to getting the best out of me as a singer, making sure the songs are in the right key, and working the arrangements to help the lyrics have the most impact, he’s great at that. The engineering process is very fast and furious because Brendan realizes that the magic is in the take, not in the mic. He knows that creating an atmosphere that’s as comfortable as possible is the key to getting the right take. We used some mics just because they happened to be nearby. The “Spidertown” solo might have been a Shure SM57 or 58 right up on the guitar. That’s another great thing about working with Brendan: I don’t have to think about any of that. I have to come up with songs and performances but I don’t have to concern myself with the sonics. I was a huge fan of Brendan’s work with Pearl Jam before I worked with him in Rage and Audioslave. I’ve never had a better time in the studio than I had making these two Nightwatchman records.
Speaking of the “Spidertown” solo, did you cut that on the basics or was it an overdub?
It’s an overdub, but I will absolutely track solos on the basics. I’ve done that many times in the past. On this record there are some live harmonica solos but I don’t think there are any live guitar solos. For this one, I did two takes and kept the good one. I don’t think Brendan was there. Nick DiDia, the engineer, and I were doing some work and I thought I would go for almost an Elegant Gypsy-era Al Di Meola feel. I like the way that turned out. The Di Meola in me is coming out a little bit, and it’ll come out even more on the tour. I’ve started to feel very comfortable with that. My chops are up!
Did you play the arpeggios on “Lazarus on Down” fingerstyle or with a pick?
That’s fingerpicking, although I have no nails. I chew them down to nubs. That song called for something both delicate and frightening, and I think the arpeggios set the tone for the song. I’ve always fingerpicked, although I haven’t put it on record very often. My main practice guitar since I was 20 has been an acoustic. Over the last ten years, the one guitar that’s always in my house that I wrote all my rock riffs and my Nightwatchman songs on is a nylon-string. Fingerpicking on that is a big part of my practice regimen and my campfire playing.
How did you come to play mandolin on “Gone Like Rain”? How are your mandolin chops?
About three years ago I did a tour with Steve Earle, who is a fantastic mandolin player. A hundred years ago, as a teenager, I worked at a Renaissance Faire playing mandolin, so somewhere in the recesses of my brain there was a little bit of that. I had to buck up for this record and do some practicing, because it’s an instrument that’s kind of counterintuitive to me, but I got it together for a few songs. I love the tone of it and how it mixes with the nylon-string. I’ll see how brave I am on tour, but I hope to play a song or two on mandolin.
Who are your favorite players for combining great guitar work and a heartfelt message?
In terms of heartfelt message, that’s pretty broad and there are many. As far as real guitar players who bring that sort of message, there are very few. I admire the guitar work of Jack White and Bruce Springsteen, and Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. They’re not shredders, but I do admire their playing. In the pantheon of what might be described as protest music, I don’t know if there’s ever been a singer-songwriter who was fighting injustice with music and also shredding his or her ass off.
What about Hendrix?
Hendrix obviously gets a 10 for guitar and, within his catalog, there are songs that get to the core of the protests of the era, although that message wasn’t usually at the fore. Hendrix did do a very unique thing that I also try to do. It’s summed up by the Chuck D lyric, “The rhythm, the rebel.” It’s the idea that the music can be just as revolutionary as the lyric. Making a dramatic, radical, and unexpected change for the sake of the art and for the sake of the message is a political act and Hendrix got that. He hit the nail on the head. I try to capture that in my electric and my acoustic playing. Maybe that’s my calling.