GUITAR MASTER Tom Morello started using the stage name “The Nightwatchman” while his band Audioslave was at the height of their popularity. The alias became sort of a mask he would wear, to go out and play the political folk music he was writing on the side.
“On nights off between arena shows,” he explains, I would sign up at coffee houses on open-mic nights. I didn’t want to sign up as Tom Morello, because they’d be demanding that I play [Rage Against the Machine’s] ‘Bulls on Parade’ in front of the latte machine.”
In those days, Morello says, he saw a very clear distinction between “Tom Morello the electric guitar hero, and The Nightwatchman, the dark political folk artist.” But after making a couple of Nightwatchman records with producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Incubus) that split started to seem less significant.
“The first time I sang onstage with an electric guitar was in 2008 with Bruce Springsteen with his electric arrangement of [Springsteen’s stark 1995 album] The Ghost of Tom Joad. It opened my eyes to the fact that I could be effective as a singer/ songwriter and play a crazy-ass electric Tom Morello guitar solo, and not be afraid of that.”
Songs on the new album emerged over many months, from whatever corners of time Morello could carve out between his band and film-scoring projects, and raising his young family. He writes at home—lyrics before music—capturing his ideas with a cheap computer setup that he adopted fairly recently.
“I basically have the equivalent of a cassette recorder on my computer, where I literally press one button and it records.” Morello says. “I demo all of my songs that way—with no microphone, just the condenser in the computer—to get a framework. All of those demos are done with the only guitar I have in my home, which is an Ibanez Galvador nylonstring acoustic; that’s what I do all my writing on, whether it’s rock riff s or acoustic murder ballads. When the songs transform into arrangements and a record, that happens in the studio.”
A few years ago, with guidance from O’Brien, as well as engineer/mixer Andrew Scheps (U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z) and engineer/producer Thom Russo (Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton), Morello built a private studio on his property, converting a stand-alone guest house into a tracking/rehearsal space, a vocal booth, and control room equipped with Pro Tools, a 32-channel Toft console and Yamaha NS10 monitors. Engineer Tom Syrowski, who had worked with Morello since the Nightwatchman LP One Man Revolution, helped get the facility up and running. Then, when other projects called Syrowski away, Henson Studios staff er Kevin Mills stepped in to track Morello’s fi rst projects in the new studio: the Streetsweeper Social Club album (with Boots Riley), and later, World Wide Rebel Songs.
Basic tracking began with Morello playing acoustic rhythm guitar in the booth, and drummer Eric Gardner playing out in the room. “I had the drums situated in the farthest corner away from me,” Mills recalls. “In the corner opposite Eric would be the bass [which Morello overdubbed himself later], and then as you might walk from the drums toward me is Tom’s electric guitar rig. When Tom played electric live with the band, as he did occasionally, I would blanket around his amp to try to help keep the integrity of his guitar sound and keep as much drum sound out of the mics—get as much isolation as I could in one room.”
Mills captured Morello’s deep vocals with a Shure SM7 mic, through a Universal Audio LA610 mic preamp, and then straight to Pro Tools. “The SM7 is just a good all-around mic for rock vocalists,” Mills says. “Tom has that nice low end to his voice, and the SM7 captures it well.
On electric guitars, Mills used a single SM57, into an API mic pre, and then to an API 550 EQ, then through a [Empirical Labs] Distressor—“mostly just for a little make-up gain,” he says—and then into Pro Tools.
Morello played his custom “Arm the Homeless” guitar, as well as a stock Stratocaster and another custom model he calls the “Taco Bell Les Paul” because of its fabulous color scheme. Acoustic guitars were the Ibanez and a new Gibson steel-string.
“My main amp,” Morello explains, “is a Marshall 50-watt 2205 channel-switching head from the early ’80s; the cabinet is a 4x12 Peavey. This is the main amp on every record and every show I’ve played since I was in Lock Up—not prison, the band I was in before Rage Against the Machine.
“I bought this amp sort of randomly, around 1988, after my gear had been stolen, I was killing myself trying to get a ‘Randy Rhoads’ tone out of it and just failing miserably with this thing. So I spent one solid day in front of it—five hours just in front of the amp with a guitar—and I got it the best I could. I marked the settings, and I made a conscious decision: I’m done. I’m going to concentrate on creativity, imagination, making music, and writing songs. That is going to be my sound, and I’m going to work with it, and it was a very good decision.
“I’ve never chased gear,” Morello continues. “Like when a band gets their first advance [from a label], everybody runs out to Guitar Center to buy out the store. But I’ve got the same stomp boxes that I had at that same time, plus the DigiTech Whammy pedal, which I think came out around ’91; that’s the newest pedal effect I have. I concentrate on using that simple setup, and then it’s up to me.”
That said, mixer Tom Tapley did punch up Morello’s acoustic guitars during the mix on the SSL E Series board at Henson Studios (Hollywood). “I would distort the acoustics through Neve preamps and put some 1176s on them, just to give it what I felt was more of an edge,” Tapley says. “Tom wants to hear something aggressive, even on the acoustic playing.”
Tapley also treated Morello’s vocals with a good deal of compression: a Fairchild, UREI LA2A, Pultec EQP1A, and a dbx 160VU. “We defi nitely want the vocals front-and-center, because Tom has a lot of important stuff to say,” Tapley says.
“My twin passions, since I was 15 have been political activism and rock ’n’ roll, and it’s my job to put my convictions into what I do,” Morello says. “Fortunately, I have seen that music does have an immeasurable impact. I get tweets from around the globe about how, in 2011, the Rage Against the Machine record we made in 1992 was informing street protests in Cairo and the union battles in Madison, Wisconsin. I was there on that freezing cold day when there were 100,000 people in the streets [of Madison], playing Nightwatchman songs. That’s when you feel how music helps steel the backbone of people who are fighting for justice.”