Tom Morello's New Sound: 'Very Hard and Very Funky'

"The model is the Hendrix of now," guitarist tells Rolling Stone as he picks up an award for his activism

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Tom Morello
Tom Morello Hiroyuki Ito/Getty

Last night, Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, Street Sweeper Social Club and the E Street Band guitarist Tom Morello received the Courage Campaign's Spirit of Courage Award in a ceremony at the House of Blues in West Hollywood, California. The award is meant to honor "someone who exemplifies courage in the fight for a more fair and just society," and Morello has established himself as a musician willing to go to the front lines of social unrest to help amplify the voices of those in need.

Dating back to his days with Rage Against the Machine, when the group performed at a benefit to raise awareness about the imprisonment of Native American rights activist Leonard Peltier (for whom they wrote "Freedom") and up through his recent appearance at the 15Now benefit in Seattle to help increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Morello has supported causes big and small. "Yes, I've spent time in jail. Yes, I've been tear-gassed," Morello says. "But the element of courage that may be reflected in this award is to – regardless of consequences – put your principles in practice in what you do for a living, and that's not always so easy to do."

Just before the event (which also honored Reverend Frank Schaefer, who has supported marriage equality and officiated a same-sex wedding for his son against the wishes of the Methodist church), Rolling Stone caught up with Morello.

What goes through your mind when you think about the Spirit of Courage award?
It is quite an honor, but I don't really look at it as, "This is an award that is in recognition of my good deeds." This is an award that embodies the hard work, struggle and sacrifice of the countless people whose names do not appear on marquees, who do not receive recognition – who do their tireless work without any anticipation of awards for the social justice causes that I've lent my music to.

"When we arrive in our utopian paradise, then I'll begin my album of love songs"

My role in these myriad of causes is, often, to show up and play some songs for the struggle. Now, people say – and I don't take it lightly – that music can be an impactful part of social movements, and it really does help to steel the backbone of people in the fight. They feel connected to the outside world when they feel lost in the difficult struggles of the day-to-day organizing and stuff. I'm a guitar player and a singer who dips in and out of these movements and these issues, and the people that truly deserve the credit are those who are there 24 hours a day, putting it all on the line.

The award honors someone who exemplifies "courage in the fight for a more fair and just society." What do you feel you've accomplished?
I think there's two ways to look at it. One is you look at the specific material gains of the campaigns that you've been involved in. There's the janitors strike in Los Angeles, which was maybe now about 10 years ago – we won. The janitors got everything that they were striking for. The Immokalee farm workers who pick produce for fast food companies, they held a national campaign – and we won. There's people whose lives are materially improved, and I played a small part in those campaigns. So, that's tangible.

What is equally important, and I think less tangible, is how music inspires. The only way that I can describe that is how music has inspired me. For me, it was bands like Public Enemy and the Clash that spoke the truth in a way that I wasn't hearing in the classroom, I wasn't hearing on the news, I wasn't reading, I wasn't hearing on television commercials. Some of my inspirations and my guiding north stars have been musical, like the Paul Robesons, Victor Jaras, the Woody Guthries. But they've also been political. They were the Black Panthers and people like that, who, in an unrepentant and undiluted way, stood up for the people on the lowest rungs of the ladder.

Is it hard to feel a sense of accomplishment when the work is never done?
When we arrive in our utopian paradise, then I'll begin my album of love songs, but until then I think you have to keep swinging the hammer. That has to do with two things: One, it's in the music that you produce. The responsibility there is to make music that's honest, and if you go through my solo catalog it's not like didactic political screed after didactic political screed – the songs are very personal, in nature.

The other side is the political part, which is where you show up to play those songs. I'm always happy to play at the big benefit things, whether it's Katrina relief or something like that, but I'm also at these anarchist bicycle shops in Oakland where there's 10 people present raising bail money for someone who got arrested at Occupy Oakland. That's the mission there.

Are there specifically anarchist bicycle shops?
There are.

But bike shops?
They bike a lot. It's a green way to travel. It's a politically correct way to travel.

You reconnected last week with your ex-Audioslave bandmate Chris Cornell at the 15Now benefit. How did that go?
It was super fun. We played some Audioslave songs. We played "The Ghost of Tom Joad." We did one of my songs, "Save the Hammer for the Man." I've always enjoyed playing with the tremendously talented Chris Cornell singing, but it was really trippy to be singing with the amazingly talented Chris Cornell, sort of duetting. It was great to reconnect, and the show was at a place that used to be known as the Off Ramp in Seattle, which was kind of a hallowed ground where Pearl Jam played their first-ever show. It was where Rage played our first show in Seattle there, so it was a nice full circle kind of thing. We raised a lot of money for a good cause.

You've been working on a solo record. What's next for you musically?
My next musical direction is going to be very hard and very funky. The model is the Hendrix of now. I want to take my guitar playing places it's never been. I want to take the musical underpinnings of what I do and blow them up and put something brand new together that's not the Nightwatchman, that's not Rage Against the Machine, that's not Audioslave, that's not Street Sweeper Social Club – it's something completely different and that feels like an exciting challenge. So while I admit that I'm addicted to the guerrilla style, one-man with an acoustic guitar approach and the mobility that gives you to instantly be on the front, I think it's time to bring out the big guns. It's time to rock.

How far along are you with this new direction?
I have a lot of songs. In the past, my process was: You have songs, you go in the studio, you record the songs. This time, I've got the songs and I'm really going to challenge myself in the presentation of those songs. I want it to feel like it's 10 steps into the future. I have one recorded and about another 19 percolating. Through the rest of the fall, that's what I'm going to be working on.

Do you have musicians lined up to work with you on that?
The Freedom Fighter Orchestra, my core band, will always be involved. Those guys are great. But the key, the guiding light of it – it's got to rock furiously, but in a way that you haven't heard yet. Aim high in both your social-revolutional expectations and your musical expectations. Aim fucking high. The Courage Campaign is going to be the last show. I got to get in the bunker and figure this record out.

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