Tom Morello has braved riot police in foreign countries, floored arenas full of alternately astute/slack-jawed onlookers in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, and graduated (with honors) from Harvard’s political science program. Dude’s as unflappable as his whammy slams are recognizable. But even Morello isn’t entirely fearless. Indeed, after spending parts of the past several years writing songs outside of his famed rock outfits, Morello found he was afraid of his own voice.
"I began my singing career at 36 years old," he explains. "I remember nothing but pure terror. I've played thousands of shows as an electric guitar player, but playing in front of eight people and a latte machine was a terrifying experience. But, at the same time, it felt like everyone in the room's soul was at stake. That's when I knew that this was something I was going to pursue."
This is the Nightwatchman, the acoustic folk-punk alter ego Morello's created to, quite literally, voice his worldview over landscapes that sound far removed from the effect-heavy machinations he made his name on.
"There are plenty of bands that employ Les Paul guitars and Marshall stacks and are about as heavy as a cup of vanilla pudding," says Morello. "On the other hand, there are artists that employ little more than an acoustic guitar, three chords, and the truth, and are devastatingly heavy."
With a knack for speaking in powerful, memorable slogan-prose, it's clear that Morello, the son of a Kenyan-American revolutionary, knows how to win over a crowd, even if he's no politician. Accordingly, the guitarist asserts that political icons Malcolm X and Che Guevara equally inform the Nightwatchman, as do artists like Woody Guthrie or Bruce Springsteen. The common thread is that all of those individuals were courageous in their convictions—a characteristic Morello recently exhibited as the only American performer on hand to protest last month's G8 summit in Germany. And though he was forced to flee in haste after a typically incendiary performance brought the threat of police force, it was just business as usual for Morello.
"It's not the first time the old Nightwatchman's been tear-gassed," he laughs. "Being arrested for civil disobedience is nothing new. I'm on probation right now. I don't know if it's exhilarating or terrifying. It's about following your convictions. You can't let those sons of bitches get away without a counterview being heard."
Using that dialogue as a mandate, Morello continues to tour his One Man Revolution, an album of quiet riots that's as much a call for accountability as it is revolution. And now that he's honed the Nightwatchman's live show in front of larger audiences—opening Michael Moore's speaking engagements and touring with artists like Anti-Flag and the Coup—Morello's ready to flash his songs for anyone who'll listen, so long as they'll think, too.
"We don't see riots in the streets daily, barricades being thrown up, and the White House is not rained with torches and pitchforks," Morello coyly acknowledges. "And that's because the Nightwatchman hasn't played enough shows. When the Nightwatchman leaves town, it's going to be the People's Republic of Portland that's left in the wake."