Photo: Sean Ricigliano
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 nylon-string acoustic; that''s what I do all my writing on, whether it''s rock riffs 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 staffer Kevin Mills stepped in to track Morello''s first 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 definitely 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.”
Tom Morello on working solo vs. being part of a band
There are certainly stylistic differences between your Nightwatchman records and the albums you''ve made with Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine. What''s the difference in terms of the process of making those different kinds of records?
There are myriad differences between doing a solo record and a band record. With Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, those are democratic enterprises, and both the musical and personal chemistry is what makes those bands what they are. That exists in the studio as well as in every aspect of those bands live. While the creative process is always a collaborative one, the reliance on musical and interpersonal chemistry really comes to the fore in a band setting in the studio. Whether it''s in the rehearsal studio or the recording studio, it''s constantly bouncing ideas off of one another, and you come to an end result that none of the four members would have come to on their own. And when the band chemistry is good, as is my belief it was in those two bands, it''s something greater than the sum of the parts.
Doing solo stuff, what you sacrifice in chemistry I believe you make up for in purity. The Nightwatchman records are my vision exclusively, and while the Freedom Fighter Orchestra, who are my backup band on the Nightwatchman records, is very collaborative, at the end of the day, every note, every word, every nuance is one that I personally oversee.
How do you like to work when you''re functioning as your own producer?
On the one hand, I try not to overthink it. I listen to some of my favorite recordings, which are the Woody Guthrie records and the early Bob Dylan, where you can clearly tell there''s not a tremendous amount of overthinking. You write your song, make sure you mean what you say, you play the to the best of your ability, and there''s your record. I''ve gotten much more comfortable in the producer''s seat, both sonically and in terms of arrangements and choosing different instrumentation, but I never really let that cloud what I think is at the heart of any good recording, or great recording; it''s just, let the songs speak for themselves. Write a song that you believe in and get in the studio and sing it.
Kevin Mills on working with what you''ve got
How do you take the knowledge and techniques you''ve gathered working on staff at a longtime high-end studio like Henson, and apply that to a project in a personal studio, where the environment and the tools are more limited by space and budget?
Generally, by being more flexible when you don''t have those perfect tools.
I guess it really comes down to listening—using your ear to judge. When you''ve worked at one of those big commercial facilities that has everything at your disposal—you''ve heard those high-end microphones and high-end mic pre''s and stuff that is more difficult to afford on an independent budget—you know what those things do and can use your ears to try to manipulate sound to achieve the same results. The important thing is listening carefully to the source material—to the bass amp or the guitar amp or the drums—and making adjustments, whether that means positioning the mic a little bit farther from the kick drum to get more of the body of it on the outside, or helping the singer work the mic, maybe move away from it when they''re going to get a little bit loud, just to help you not overcompress things going to tape… I mean Pro Tools!
There''s a lot you can do when you know what you''re going for. You can make things sound great with hundred-dollar mics. Obviously, it''s a little easier when you have the money to spend and can afford some vintage gear or some of the more expensive new items that are being made that are great-sounding. But then you have some of the cheaper things like these Golden Age mic pre''s and compressors: $300 a-piece for the mic pre and 400 a-piece for the compressor. I''ve compared them against the Neve mic pre''s that they''re supposed to be the knock-offs of here at Henson, and they don''t have some of the low end that the Neves have, but they still sound really great for $300. Compare them to what you would be spending: possibly $2,700 dollars for a 1073, and that''s just the mic pre without the power supply that you have to buy, too, for it to work. There is a difference between these two things, but it''s not as much as you might thing. If you know what you''re going for, there are things out there that are fairly reasonable in price but sound great.