Tom Morello, The Nightwatchman: Still Watching

By , Contributor

The Nightwatchman has been lurking in Tom Morello's psyche for decades, just waiting for a propitious time to show himself. Dangerous, prickly, and poorly behaved with a monomaniacal mission to fight for social change aping his avowed forebearers Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and  "Nebraska"-era Bruce Springsteen, a few years ago he took over the controls and convinced his rock star host to release three discs.

So far, One Man Revolution, an album that has been described as a mind meld of Johnny Cash and Che Guevara; the more-fleshed out One Fabled City; and his new EP, Union Town out on July 19, with all profits benefiting The America Votes Labor Unity Fund via the Coalition to Save Workers.

This alter ego not only doesn't play mind-bending electric guitar like his famous host, who was the founding guitarist in such platinum-selling arena rockers Rage Against Machine and Audioslave, but this alternative personality has done a reversal of Dylan in Newport and strums a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar, and sings - something Morello has never done outside of a hot shower - often in front of only eight people in a dark bar. If that weren't enough, he insists on referring to himself in the third person. Both of the personas speak to us about the importance of uniforms, under-intellectualizing, and the Clash.

You've been in Rage Against Machine and Audioslave; names seem to be really important to you in all your bands. In The Nightwatchman, what have you been watching for?

Well, the name began innocently enough. I was playing open mike night around the Los Angeles area and wanted to sign up anonymously. There are certain expectations that come along with the name Tom Morello, and since I wasn’t going to be playing Rage Against the Machine or Audioslave songs or shredding on the acoustic guitar, I wanted a moniker to hide behind. But as I developed a body of material, the songs seemed to very much fit the moniker.

But you still picked the name, you know? You could have picked anything and any pseudonym, so why that? Why did that particular name resonate?

It frankly wasn’t that conscious a decision. Many of the things, from the lyrics of the songs to riffs that I’ve written throughout my career, come out of the ether. The Nightwatchman was something very much like that. That it occurred to me, and it seemed perfect.

Given the body of the material and the subject matter and the title of your first album, One Man Revolution, about music making a difference, and your upcoming appearance at the benefit concert to support disaster relief efforts in Japan and non-nuclear groups worldwide, would it be correct to assume that the Nightwatchman's job is watching and reporting?

Yeah, but  I think art is healthiest when it is not over-intellectualized. It’s kinda like as an artist, you put the antenna up and whatever comes down from the heavens or the ether is often the best stuff. If you sit down consciously, “now I must determine a name for this project,” it’s likely to fall short.I think that’s how you get to the truth of the matter. In Arthur Koestler’s great book Darkness at Noon, he refers to it as the “oceanic sense,” and it’s something that resonates in us that does not come from the frontal lobe.

Lou Reed always said he works that way, or how else would he have come up with the strange lyrics in "Candy Says."

Yeah, exactly. I mean I wrote a song called  "House Gone Up In Flames" when I had a 104-degree fever in an Italian hotel room, and it’s probably my favorite song I’ve ever written. And when I finally...first of all, I don’t recommend being very sick in Italy.

Oh, yeah, I know. I have been very sick in Germany so I know what you mean.

Yeah, yeah. Well, Germany, actually they got me a little closer towards health when I was in Germany. But you know, I looked at that page of words afterward and I was like, I have no idea where this came from but it’s certainly true.

Oh, I know, it’s funny. That's so very Joey Ramone. He wrote "I Want to Be Sedated" when he was in the hospital getting severely burned. There always is an element of autobiography in everything you do. You never sang before this, never in any of your other bands, are you finally comfortable with that?

Now, I am. Originally it was a bit of a struggle. I’d never really sung. I began my career as a professional singer at 36 years old. And not even, professional would be a strong word. For the first 250 shows I didn’t receive any financial compensation and all the money went to various charities and benefits.

Why do you think that music makes a difference?

Well, I mean the notion that music makes a difference is something that’s just personal experience. I mean music clearly made a huge difference in my life, and the Clash was telling the truth. NBC News was not, when I was growing up. It was the music of the Clash and Public Enemy that resonated with me and made me realize that there was a world that was bigger than the small Illinois suburb that I grew up in, and that there were dangerous truths that needed to be revealed. And now as the Nightwatchman it’s my job to reveal as many dangerous truths as possible.

Do you feel that you want to talk about yourself in the third person?

Oh, I didn’t see that. It’s funny, it’s been part of the gig since I started it. Frankly, I enjoy doing it, and it’s always helped me kind of keep it, I guess in the same way that—I don’t know, I’m trying to think, there’s an analogy. Kind of the same way that Alice Cooper used to distance himself. I think his real name is Vincent, and he obviously did it to distance himself from that character. Well, the Nightwatchman, I’ve never considered a character, it’s certainly part of me that is not always on display.

You know they say speaking in the third person is a symptom of narcissism.

The Nightwatchman doesn’t think about things like that.

What does the Nightwatchman look like?

He’s a damn handsome man.

Come on.

But there’s definitely ... when performing Nightwatchman activities there’s always a uniform involved. It’s not like I’d show up in my t-shirt and shorts like I would for an Audioslave interview or something like that.

So what do you show up in? Is it different onstage, or is it different in interviews? Tell me about the attire.

It’s like I did all of my Nightwatchman shopping in one fell swoop at this bargain basement store here in Los Angeles. I think I got four shirts, three pairs of pants, a pair of suspenders, and some combat boots, all for I think $65. That was about four years ago.

Of all your three projects, is there one that is most you?

Oh, certainly this. Certainly this. The difference between being in a rock band and doing a solo project is that in the rock band if it’s good, you get chemistry. And everyone submerges themselves in this collective, and if it’s good, it’s greater than the sum of its parts, right? But with a solo endeavor, there’s a purity of vision and direction that you can never approximate in a rock band that functions as a democracy. And that’s why on the one hand Led Zeppelin’s great. That’s why on the other hand Bob Dylan’s great, for very, very different reasons.

What is  one thing that would surprise fans about you?

Something that would surprise fans about me... I don’t know, I haven’t been too secretive about  my, you know, Dungeons and Dragons past, love of Star Trek, obsession with the Chicago Cubs. I kind of air it out. Like my love of cheesy heavy metal. I don’t keep much in the closet, you know?

How about one thing that would surprise fans about Zach de La Rocha?

I would never talk about that, you’re in the wrong interview right now. Well, all right, that gives me more impetus to think of something on my own.

Exactly, that was the idea.

I mean since the earliest days of Rage Against the Machine where I’ve been known, I’ve stopped pretending about anything. I’ve stopped trying to fit in. I’ve stopped trying to in any way have any sort of cloak of cool about me.

Union Town will be released on July 19.

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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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