"I let my rock work do the cool thing for me, which means in my private life I can be whatever the hell I want": Tom Morello is a Star Trek nerd and proud of it

Tom Morello backstage (headshot, 2011)
(Image credit: Joby Sessions/Total Guitar Magazine)

The Harvard-educated son of an African guerrilla-turned-ambassador, Tom Morello founded rap-metal activists Rage Against The Machine in the early 90s. Since then Morello has also been a member of Audioslave, recorded with artists ranging from the Prodigy to Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty, and has devoted his energies to any number of social causes. In 2011 we spoke to him about his “political folk alter ego” The Nightwatchman, and his post-apocalyptic comic book series The Orchid


Is it tricky balancing your inner folkie with the metal guitar hero persona? 

This was the first Nightwatchman record where I wanted a clear line of demarcation between my work as a troubadour and my guitar hero/Rage Against The Machine audience. A couple of years ago I did an electric version of [Springsteen’s] The Ghost Of Tom Joad with Bruce Springsteen and it was the first time I’d ever sung with an electric guitar in my hands. That helped break down a few barriers. 

Is the hard-core folk mafia suspicious of you as ‘the metal guy’? 

Ha! I actually think the opposite is true – the rock crowd is breathing a sigh of relief at last. The Nightwatchman credo has always been one part Johnny Cash and one part Che Guevara, but now it’s also one part Marshall Stacks. 

One of the new songs is called Facing Mount Kenya. Your dad fought there in the Mau Mau uprising against the British in the 50s, and your great-uncle was imprisoned and later became the first Kenyan president. Was insurrection always in your blood? 

There were always politics in my home, though it took me a while to realise that not every household in the American suburbs had pictures of African revolutionaries on the wall. That juxtaposition of family history and the place where I grew up sharpened my view of the world. Conflicts about race and class were part of my DNA. I don’t know if I was destined to become an activist, but there was certainly some predetermination involved. Fortunately, with growing up in the suburbs, hard rock was king. In every convenience store parking lot there were muscle cars blaring out Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and AC/DC. So that became a huge part of me too.

Rage Against The Machine were as notorious for their hardline activism as they were for the music itself. 

That band was born out of very desperate circumstances. My involvement with Rage came from the ashes of believing my career in music was over. I was in a band [Lock Up] that had been signed to Geffen Records but it didn’t work out. We went under and I was done. All my rock dreams had come crashing down. 

So I vowed that if I wasn’t going to be able to be a rock star then at least I should just play music that I love – unapologetically and without compromise. I remember a moment very early on when Rage were doing a showcase for the people at the record company, who really didn’t give a shit about us. They came down to our grimy rehearsal studio to watch – and Rage rehearsed with exactly the same energy level as we had on stage. 

So we’re there doing our thing, and you could just see these poor record executives, who were used to bands like Mr. Big, absolutely clasped against the wall with their dental work undone. What topped it all was when one guy asked: “So is this the direction you’re heading?” 

Rage Against The Machine played a free gig for 40,000 people at Finsbury Park in London last year. How much money did you lose on that? 

It was never a matter of not making money, it was a question of us paying for it. I mean, we purchased every portapod that day and it ended up costing us millions. But it wasn’t a loss, let’s make that perfectly clear. Rage threw a party and we bought all the beer.

Why did you decide to write a comic book? 

Music and comics were my twin obsessions as a kid. I grew up loving Kiss, Alice Cooper and hard rock, though a lot of the lyrics bore no relation to my real life. Similarly the exploits of Iron Man, the Avengers, the Incredible Hulk and X-Men were amazing to read, but weren’t something I could relate to either. The idea behind Orchid is that I can combine the epic grandeur of stories like Lord Of The Rings or Stephen King’s The Stand with a healthy injection of class consciousness. Those epic stories are traditionally about trying to get the king back on the throne, while the ordinary people are still suffering. I want to redress that. 

You’ve written a comic, you’ve appeared in Star Trek twice – are you the biggest nerd in rock? 

Ha! I realised a long time ago that this might just be the case. But I let my rock work do the cool thing for me, which means in my private life I can be whatever the hell I want. Look, there are some major nerds out there, y’know? There are hordes of us. I’m lucky though, cos the cool stuff I do acts as my cover. 

Did you follow the phone-hacking scandal over here? [In 2011 the News Of The World newspaper ceased publication after an investigation revealed that journalists at the paper had hacked the phones of numerous public figures and private citizens]

Not on an hour-by-hour basis, but I have a general understanding of it and the fact that bad people are still doing bad things. 

Do you think Rupert Murdoch’s problems constitute a body blow to his media empire? 

Not sure about that. Let me say that our aims have become very moderate if the closure of one newspaper constitutes a major blow to the empire. 

Tom Morello's European tour begins in Belfast on June 12. For dates and tickets, visit Morello's website. This interview originally appeared in the subscriber edition of Classic Rock 163, published in October 2011.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.