Tom Morello has always been involved with social activism. The Harvard political science graduate is known for being the DJ-like guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Now, his voice is coming through as The Nightwatchman.
"The original goal was to provide a counterweight to my arena rocking -- to make music that expressed my point of view and that was unincumbered with the trappings of a big touring rock band," Morello says by phone before a recent show in Cleveland. After he began writing songs four years ago, his friend, producer Rick Rubin, suggested he play as many shows as possible to get comfortable with becoming a lone performer and singer.
Morello used The Nightwatchman moniker to keep his anonymity -- at least for a while -- so people wouldn't expect him to play songs by Rage or Audioslave. He made rounds at local coffee houses and open mic nights, sometimes playing for "eight people and a latte machine." Since then, he's had a song used in a film by Michael Moore and appeared at countless rallies around the world.
"I was tear-gassed at the FTAA rallies in Miami and arrested while playing a show for civil disobedience with striking hotel workers in Los Angeles," Morello says. "About 10 days ago, I was playing G8 protests in Rostock, Germany, where we had to escape by this tiny boat under cover of darkness through a police blockade on the Baltic Sea. It's come a long way from the coffee house."
He's also performed at large festivals including Coachella and Bonnaroo. The Coachella experience was especially different because of the large crowd and a much-hyped Rage reunion also on the bill.
"It was nerve-wracking but also very exciting," he says of the event. "To think that 21 years ago, I moved to Los Angeles to try and forge a career in music, and to have the most exciting musical weekend of my life occur, I feel pretty lucky."
While The Nightwatchman is the main focus for Morello since the breakup of Audioslave, Rage has continued to perform sporadic shows since the reunion, though any plans for more touring or even a new album have not been disclosed. His publicist requested questions about Rage not be asked.
He considers The Nightwatchman to be the musical companion to his social activism group, Axis of Justice. "It's a way to rally the musical troops around social justice issues," he says. "The one thing that I found is when you make music for the right reasons, it attracts goodness. It takes me back to why I started playing music to begin with." While Morello acknowledges it's a musical departure from what he's done before, he also calls it the "heaviest record I've ever made."
The album tackles a number of issues, primarly looking at the problems of the current administration. "I don't think we're doing enough," Morello says. "While we have a war criminal sitting in the White House is a double crime. Being a social critic is not a job that I take lightly. I never put a ceiling on what music can do or inspire. The wheel of history is in your hands. You just can't wait around for somebody to do it for you."
The idea of the guitarist toning down his fantastic aural displays for chords on an acoustic guitar may come as a surprise to some, but Morello says the only guitar he has in his home is a nylon-stringed classical one. "It's what I write heavy rock riffs on and the guitar that I write The Nightwatchman songs on," he says. "There's a power and intensity to that kind of music when it's done right. It's as heavy, as disturbing, as unnerving, as inspiring as any kind of music that's made with Marshall stacks."
While his bandmates often sung background for Zach de la Rocha or Chris Cornell, Morello never had an interest in that role, instead seeing himself as the DJ in the band. The Nightwatchman was the first time he had to sing in front of an audience. It came to the point where he knew if he wanted to get his message out, he had to be the one singing it.
Morello says he was always comfortable as the guitarist/side man, but was nervous when he first started performing on his own. "Experience takes care of that," he says. "When you're playing with tear gas canisters firing over your head, it puts things in perspective and it's not so scary to remember the words."
The Nightwatchman will perform at Tremont Music Hall on June 22. Tickets are $16 with $1 going to Axis of Justice.