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Tom Morello Swings His Hammer

The Audioslave guitarist on making hard-rocking, ass-shaking music -- and standing up for your rights

April 27, 2006 4:30 PM ET

With gutsy musicians like Neil Young and Green Day using the stage to protest the war in Iraq and the current state of American politics, Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello has gone beyond the Bush-bashing call of duty. For one, there's his work with the Axis of Justice, the non-profit he co-founded with System of a Down singer Serj Tankian with the mission of uniting music and grassroots political organizations in the fight for social justice.

When the social injustice Bat-light beckons Morello becomes "the black Robin Hood of political folk music," changing into his acoustic alter-ego, the Nightwatchman. Stepping up to the mike armed with an acoustic guitar and some fifty songs, Morello's played for striking grocery workers in Los Angeles, supported the Immokalee field workers boycotting Taco Bell's farming regulations, gotten tear-gassed jamming for 10,000 steel workers at the free trade protests in Miami, and sung to some 50,000 union members protesting outside the Republican convention in New York. And then there's this weekend's Amnesty International Concert with Incubus in Portland, Oregon, to raise awareness about the genocide in the Western Sudan's Darfur region. "Those feel like important battle grounds for songs to be sung," says Morello.

All these have made the Harvard alum the 2006 recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award.

"A very strong vein in American music is protest music," adds Morello, who also made his voice heard with the politically charged songs of his former band, Rage Against the Machine. "From Bob Dylan to Public Enemy to Rage Against the Machine, the important subset of American music in troubled times brings out some of the best and most inspiring art. Some songs are a mirror that reflects your emotions or society, but a great song is a hammer that shapes the time you live in. With the Nightwatchman, that's my endeavor: to swing that hammer with all my might."

But when Morello takes off his Nightwatchman suit, he's still swinging that hammer with Audioslave -- like on the new track "Wide Awake," off the band's forthcoming third album, Revelations. "It's probably Audioslave's most political song to date," Morello says of the tune. "The song deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the horrible way the administration has let down the people here."

While frontman Chris Cornell previously told Rolling Stone that Revelations is going "into more of a soul/R&B direction," Morello wants to clarify. "First of all, it's a big, hard rock record," he says. "While it's kicking your ass, you can shake your ass to it at the same time. It's a rock record with a funky bottom."

Working with producer Brendan O'Brien (Bob Dylan, Stone Temple Pilots), Morello says he went beyond his usual electric guitar setup, picking up vintage axes and amplifiers to meld the band's rock with what Cornell called his new "Seventies funk and R&B-flavor vocals." "Chris has never sung better then on this record," Morello assures. "It's got a bit of the blue-eyed soul singer going on. It's basically like Led Zeppelin meets Earth, Wind and Fire."

Along with "Wide Awake," some of the twelve songs in the can for Revelations include the title track, the "jammy" "Original Fire" and "Moth," which Morello describes as an "anthemic, Wagnerian, heavy opus."

But while Revelations is already mixed, Morello says the "plenty-of-jams" album will not see release until later in the year.

That said, fans can't complain. It's not as if Morello and Audioslave have been sitting around surfing YouTube all day. Sure, it took three years to follow their 2002 self-titled debut, but the band has seriously picked up speed: Their sophomore record, Out of Exile, and its supporting tour were hardly wrapped before Audioslave got back in the studio.

"We're all playing at the top of our game. We've made three records in five years, which is half the time it took Rage Against the Machine to do the same," says Morello, laughing at the thought.

"When I was growing up, my favorite bands -- Led Zeppelin or whoever -- would make two records a year," he adds. "It's, like, strike while the creative iron is hot!"

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