There was a gag order on Tom Morello for the past five years, and it’s name was Audioslave.
The former Rage Against the Machine guitarist made a well-known deal with Chris Cornell when they formed Audioslave not to write any of the politically bombastic music that Rage was known for. Now that Audioslave has officially ended, Morello has gotten back to his activist music with a vengeance.
The Harvard-educated rock vet, 43, performs as a solo singer/songwriter act that he created on the down-low while still in Audioslave in order to kick out his political jams. The first Nightwatchman CD, “One Man Revolution,” comes hand-in-hand—or, rather, fist-on-fist—with the handful of Rage reunion shows this summer, including one next month in East Troy, Wis.
Talk about sharp contrasts: One night a small Minneapolis club, a month later the largest amphitheater in the Midwest. Talking by phone from a Boston tour stop, Morello said he relished the differences.
Did Audioslave end because you wanted to focus on activist music, or are you doing this because Audioslave ended?
As far as the actual making of the record, I did that because it was clear we were not going to be proceeding with Audioslave. So it helped me to analyze my priorities. I decided I’m just going to be involved in music that expresses my world views, and that left me open to making a Nightwatchman record and to the idea of doing Rage Against the Machine shows.
Say that Bush lost in 2004, and Congress was doing its job, or whatever you think might’ve made things better. Do you think you’d still be doing this?
Sure. Bad presidents make for good music (laughs), but issues of social justice don’t go away when there’s a Democratic administration. I would certainly still be doing it, but the marked downturn in our country’s fortunes made it seem more like something I had to do.
At the risk of asking for a CNN sound bite, how do you summarize your message or the things you hope to accomplish with the Nightwatchman?
Two things. First is the personal one, which is to continue to push myself as an artist and make music that is honest and music that I believe in. And as far as what the Nightwatchman does out in the world: At best, it’s a battering ram for social justice. While my arena-rock bands were designed to create mosh pits in arenas and fields, my Nightwatchman music is designed to create little mosh pits in your mind. And while it may be, in some ways, preaching to the converted, the converted need a kick in the ass. Those of us who know better have sat on the sidelines long enough. This record is a kick in the a—. This record is a soundtrack to action.
Can you pinpoint one or two of the most fulfilling moments so far as the Nightwatchman?
I try to approach every show like it’s my last and try to play every song with the conviction it’s the last time I might sing or play. When music and meaning come together, there’s a feeling that borders on grace. It’s something that doesn’t add up in sort of a rational equation, but you know it when you’re in the room. I felt that at times throughout my music career, and I feel it almost every night at these Nightwatchman shows.
What’s it like for you playing these smaller venues after so many years of big?
The people there in those small rooms are the ones who—given the right circumstances—are going to go out and change the world. The allure of the big, loud rock band is it casts the net wide through kick-a—riffs and shredding guitar solos, and through that people are drawn to the message. With this, you can’t get around the message. So the people showing up are the ones I’m most pleased to have there.
Is it true you’ve had some Iraq War vets as opening acts?
I’ve been a long time supporter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and at my recent show in D.C., about 35 members of that organization came and spoke. They speak with an unassailable, authoritative voice having been there and fought for their country and watched their comrades die, and they’ve come back to tell the story about how the Bush administration’s policies are criminal. Theirs is a story worth hearing.
Nobody’s ever going to question your guitar-playing, but some have questioned your singing voice. Are you making the point that you don’t have to be Bono to raise your voice?
(Laughs) Yeah, and you don’t have to be in the final three on “American Idol.” None of my favorite rock `n’ roll singers would ever be asked to sing opera, from Joe Strummer to Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan. I guess Bono is the exception, because he’s a guy people really do love his singing. But very rarely do people with great voices have much to say. I don’t know why that is, but that seems to be the case.
What roll did rock music play in shaping your political beliefs?
It definitely helped me make connections. It was the Clash principally, and later Public Enemy. I think it’s one thing rock music can do very successfully: It has the ability to break free from the artificially imposed parameters of what’s OK to say and do. On the nightly news, they have to worry about advertisers and which corporation owns their station. The same goes for newspapers in a lot of cases, too. In music, you can be unfiltered. I always knew that Joe Strummer was telling me the truth as he saw it. I wasn’t always sure that Dan Rather was, or even my high-school history teacher.
Rage Against the Machine shaped a lot of young fans’ beliefs. How did these reunion shows fit your scheme of things?
Well, so far we’ve only played the one show at Coachella, and it was a great time for both band and audience, from what I could tell. I think there’s about six more this summer. We’re at this historical juncture. It’s important for people who don’t like the direction that the country is going in to speak up, and Rage Against the Machine has a catalog of songs that sound like they were written for 2007.
Why not more shows?
Um, why do more? (Laughs) We’re just happy to be doing the ones that we are. So far, we enjoyed the one show, so we’re gonna play a few more. And that’s all we have plans for right now.
Chris Cornell is in Minneapolis a few nights after you. Any opinion on his new record?
I’ve heard it, and that’s part of what’s great about where we are in our career is we can make the music we want. These Nightwatchman songs would not have been appropriate for Audioslave, and that’s why I made the solo record. Same with him. I think that he’s probably much more comfortable with a band of hired hands than a band of equals, and that’s fine. He has earned that right.
Where do things stand between you and Chris?
I haven’t heard from him in many months, almost bordering on a year now. We didn’t hear from him when he quit the band, and we haven’t heard anything since. But it’s OK. I think our time together was great. We made records that we’re all proud of and had fun making, and we toured and had a great time doing that. In a way, we very much helped revive one another both personally and musically. And when he decided to quit the band, that opened the door for me to make this Nightwatchman record, and for Rage to reunite. So it’s all good.
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