Guitar Hero takes on a whole new meaning when it’s said in the same sentence as Tom Morello, The Nightwatchman, because the line between art and activism, and even his own identity, is virtually non-existent. While speaking with one of the most beloved guitarist of our time a few weeks before his show at New York’s City Winery, he confesses, “The more I dig in the depths of my psyche, sometimes it’s not clear to me which is the mask. Is it the Nightwatchman character who sings these dire songs of existential retribution or is it the jovial person on the telephone with you now?” It’s that personal push and pull is what makes The Nightwatchman’s latest releases, Union Town and World Wide Rebellion Songs so vibrant and undeniably magnetic.
Tom’s latest Nightwatchman CD, World Wide Rebellion Songs, is as complex and rousing as he is; a family man who can go and protest when needed, a Harvard scholar who joins a rap-rock band. Mainly, it taps into the tender compassion that’s required when being strong and determined enough to defend the helpless or perishing. This time on World Wide Rebellion Songs, The Nightwatchman marries the gritty purity of singer/songwriter acumen to a fuller sound made possible by the Freedom Fighters Orchestra. A band consisting of Dave Gibbs on bass, Carl Restivo on guitar and piano, Chris Joyner on keyboard and Eric Gardner on drums.
The May 2011 release, Union Town, is a direct reaction to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union stance. In any incarnation, Tom Morello’s music and message is a blaring call to action, or at the very least, a new awareness that no one can afford to ignore in this day and age.
Union Town was inspired by playing in front of the Capitol Building in Madison, WI. What goes through your mind when you’re playing in a setting like that, it must be vastly different from playing in a theater or arena? Is there a fear of getting arrested?
Yeah, well fear of getting arrested has never stopped me before. When I went to Madison, it was in the midst of the union uprising there and there were 100,000 people in the streets. There were more people in Madison than there were in Cairo on that particular day. My wife was about to give birth to our second child, and I was watching the events unfold on the news, and I said to my wife, “Honey, the Nightwatchman is needed in Wisconsin.” She said, “Well, our boys are going to be union men, so I guess you got to go.” So I got on the first plane, and I was so inspired by what I saw there. I’ve played hundreds of demonstrations, but I’ve never seen nothing like that spirit of solidarity on the streets of Madison. So I came back and was inspired to do the Union Town EP and donate 100 percent of the proceeds to the union struggles across the country.
That’s so admirable, my father is a member of the UAW, Local 259. So I really appreciate you lending your voice to that cause.
Yeah, it’s like there is this hardcore class warfare being fought in this country, but it seems like it’s only being fought by one side. Unions are the one outlet that working class people have to stand together, otherwise this is going to be a country of the corporations by the corporations and for the corporations, and frankly they don’t deserve it.
That’s true, and to have an artist of your caliber defend the unions just speaks volumes.
I’m happy to do it.
You make such a sacrifice of leaving to play this show when your child is about to be born, that’s dedication.
Well, he held on actually. Thank goodness he held on.
The World Wide Rebel Songs full-length is different for you since you have a full band this time. How did that decision come to be?
Yeah, well this is the 14th record of my career, so if I am not comfortable in my artistic skin at this point, I don’t know that I ever will be. The idea for this record was to be one part Johnny Cash, one part Che Guevara and one part Marshall stack.
I wanted to combine the best of what I do as an electric guitar player, and I realized that I could do that without loosing any of the integrity of the singer/songwriter genre. I wanted to play riffs on this record, play solos on this record, but still keep it grounded with the dark matter that is the Nightwatchman material. I’ll tell you what was very inspirational in that regard: It was the first time that I played the “Ghost Of Tom Joad” with Bruce Springsteen. That was the first time that I sang with an electric guitar in my hand and I realized that I could combine those worlds.
Talk about trial by fire! On World Wide Rebel Songs, “God Save Us All” is a very powerful song. The line, “We are all what we feared” is very gripping.
We are all what we feared. This is kind of a record of arousing hopelessness in these dark and desperate times. What I write about for the most part, it’s not dyadic songs about stick-it-to-the-man. What I write about is… is it possible to find personal redemption through the struggle for justice by playing music? And I don’t know. This is my forth Nightwatchman record, and the more I dig in the depths of my psyche, sometimes it’s not clear to me which is the mask. You know, is it the mask? Is it the Nightwatchman character who sings these dire songs of existential retribution or is it the jovial person on the telephone with you now? It gets all mixed up, and to me, it makes for interesting records.
It is very dimensional, and on a social level, today it was announced that they are freeing the West Memphis Three, and there were several musicians helping their cause.
Yeah, I haven’t followed that case closely, but the one thing I do know is there was prejudicial behavior in the courtroom, because that one kid was kind of an alternative kid, and it was held against him.
It’s just so thrilling to see justice being served like that finally.
I mean, there are those victories that can be very sustaining. The first song that really kicked off this World Wide Rebel Songs was the title track, and it was a little bit more than a-year-and-half ago, [Korean workers] who manufacture the low end Gibson and Fender guitars, they unionized. The plant was shutdown and moved to China. They came from Korea to the United States to try to raise money for themselves, their families and their strike fund. I offered to play a benefit show for them, but the day before the benefit show, the earthquake in Haiti happened. So these down-and-out workers from Korea who were really in dire financial straits voted to donate 100 percent of the proceeds of their benefit concert to the relief efforts in Haiti. That was such a great act of international solidarity that I wrote the song “World Wide Rebel Songs” that day, sang it that night, and it became the jumping off point for that record. The idea is in the music, and in the concert, to try to create a little bit of the world that you’d like to see. To try to create and reflect a little bit of the world that you would like to see.
The theory of being the change you want to see in the world. It’s chilling to hear a story of people who have so little to give to those who have even less.
Right, and it stands in such stark contrast to some of the people who have everything and just want more and more and are willing to crush those who have nothing to get it. That just stands in pretty stark contrast.
I’d like to touch on the comic book you wrote; you’re really a powerhouse of creativity.
I like to keep busy. It’s called Orchid, it comes out in October on Dark Horse Comics. I wanted to create an epic story that has the scale of Lord Of The Rings or Star Wars, but it was fused with class consciousness, something that I found missing from those tales of kings and princesses. It’s the story of a 16-year-old street prostitute who becomes the Spartacus of whores. It takes place in the future when humans are no longer at the top of the food chain. One unique element of it is that I am doing the soundtrack for each issue of the comic. You get the comic book and you get free musical score that comes along with it.
That sounds like it could be made into a film, would you consider that?
That’s not the intention; I didn’t want to be another Hollywood jackass with a screenplay. I just had a story, and the one thing about doing it via the medium of a graphic novel is the creative control. I’m writing it, no one else is writing it. I am writing the comic and the music, and I like the feeling of being able to steer it the way that I want. It’s a different imaginative outlet that combines with some of my interests.
How long has that been in the works?
I have been working on it for the last three years. It’s coming out this October, and it’s a 12-issue story arc.
You debuted it Comic Con, correct?
Yeah, we announced it at Comic Con. I had never been before. It was pretty crazy.
Amazingly, in the midst of all this, you played a benefit show with Rage Against The Machine.
Yes, we did, but it was not a benefit show. It was our own festival show called L.A. Rising. We put it on in part to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the band, which is this [month]. It was pretty cool; we picked all of the bands and the activist organizations, and the reeducation camp that we had there. We did this big stadium show without any sponsorship; it was like pirates took over the coliseum.
Congratulations on that as well. Would there ever be another record in the works?
Well there is not one now. Right now, it’s all Nightwatchman all the time, but Rage is clearly a band that doesn’t overwork itself. We’ve played one show this whole year.
The Nightwatchman will play City Winery in NYC on Sept. 1. For more information, go to nightwatchmanmusic.com.