It’s been almost a year since we last spoke with musician-writer-activist Tom Morello about his Dark Horse comic book series Orchid, his music, and his politics. When we last encountered The Nightwatchman himself, it was at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con where our special guest correspondent Morgan Grindstaff, a Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave superfan who is living with cystic fibrosis, spoke with Morello about Orchid. Being the genuinely nice guy that he is, Morello went above and beyond for Morgan, giving one of his guitars to the young journalist, which is the king of swag you can’t even get inside SDCC’s hallowed halls. Now, one year later, we’re back to sit down with Morello in advance of the release of Orchid, Vol. 3 in trade paperback, whether or not he wants to return to comics, and what’s next for the multitalented content creator.
NERDIST: So it’s been about a year since we last spoke to you. We had Morgan come down to Comic-Con to interview you, and you gave him a guitar, which was really rad of you. How’s the last year been for you as a writer and a musician?
TOM MORELLO: Well, how is he doing, first of all?
N: Well, I haven’t heard from him lately, but I think he’s doing well. I know he is loving the guitar.
TM: Oh good, well I’m pleased to hear that. (laughs) It took a bit of research but we found the closest possible spot to get it to him. There was this almost prisoner exchange in Jersey where they met at a gas station to deliver the guitar. It was very funny, very Sopranos-like. But the last year’s been very exciting. Been working on a lot of stuff, I mean I’m not sure where we were in the course of the comic the last we talked, but we finished 12 issues and volume 3 is coming out, which is very exciting. And I’ve been working on the score for that and I’ve just begun recently working on the next solo record, which is going to be a very rock affair.
N: Is this through Rage or Audioslave or Nightwatchman?
TM: No, this is a solo record. It may not go under the Nightwatchman moniker because it’s not strictly associated with my folk music. This is more of a loose-the-hounds, Marshall stack, guitar-shredding record.
N: Yeah you don’t really see any Marshall stacks with folk records.
TM: Yes, that’s correct.
N: So, now that you’re 12 issues out and the final volume is coming out, how has the experience been looking back?
TM: It’s been fantastic. From the outset, I had a story I wanted to tell and it was realized in a completely uncompromising way via Dark Horse and I’m very proud of it. Scott Hepburn, the illustrator, really is the MVP of the project. He’s done a spectacular job of being cinematographer for this whole world and this huge story, which we had to find some way to fit into 12 issues but it’s been a great experience and I’m glad that Orchid is out in the world.
N: Is there something, now that you have the benefit of hindsight, that you wish you knew going into it that you know now?
TM: Well, I mean, there are certain things about the pacing. This is a story that probably could have been a 1,200 page novel. So one of the challenges was making it effective within the limitations of an episodic comic book. And that’s why I really leaned on Scott and I really leaned on the kind folks at Dark Horse, who lent their support. Given my druthers, I would have lingered for, you know, 10 pages on each dialogue exchange between Orchid and Simon. And there’s kind of a mantra for successful rock songs, and it’s “please don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” And I wanted the kinetic energy of Orchid to rival the one at a Rage Against the Machine show.
N: I think it also comes through with the visuals you have with Scott Hepburn. It has something that just really sucks you in right away.
TM: Yeah, I think he did a great job.
N: How closely did you work with him to sort of craft the aesthetic of the book?
TM: Very close from the outset; This is a project that has been now, geez almost 5 years in the making from the original concept. Scott and I did a lot of mapping out to begin with, and I had a lot of very specific ideas of how I wanted things to look. But the reason he got the gig was in some of those initial sketches, he took some of those ideas I had written in my outline and he improved upon them. He surprised me in ways that made the characters, the landscape, and the action even more compelling then I had imagined it.
I mean, I don’t know what the traditional comic writing process is; much like with my guitar playing, I just sort of made it up as I went along without too much adherence to tradition. And Scott and I would plot out the next issue and give it a pretty exhaustive talking-through on the phone of the things I wanted to have happen and his concerns with space, space available to do those things. So he would send me a thumbnail mockup of the issue just based on that discussion. We’d then have another discussion of if this stuff works, if we could add more space to this, and then I would write to those thumbnails.
N: You get some really great stuff when you color outside the lines, though, so I think it’s nice that you’re not beholden to a rigid history of comic writing.
TM: That’s right, yeah. I mean, the advantage I have is that I really didn’t know better. [laughs] I say that sort of glibly in that I had someone as creative as Scott with me. I was a fan of Scott Hepburn’s work before and I think his work on Orchid has really launched him into the upper echelon of comic illustrators. He’s spectacular on this book.
N: The book sort of ends with a couple loose threads that give you a back door to return to this world should you so choose. Is that something you’re looking to do in the future? Do you have other comic projects you’re excited about?
TM: If I pursue comic projects in the future, it’ll be within the world of Orchid. There’s nothing on the block now, but we did give ourselves some wiggle room there for a potential sequel. I’ve begun to sketch out some ideas, but I haven’t committed to another large story arc at this point. There’s always a chance something might happen in the future though.
N: Well, it’s always nice to have options.
TM: The one thing, as a sort of amendment to that, the richly satisfying thing was doing the score. I’ve done a lot of score for film including the first two Iron Man movies, Pacific Rim, as well as a host of others, but I really wanted to take that skill set and apply it to comics. I was just listening to the score in my car the other day. It’s a free download with each issue; you get 4 songs with each compilation. For me, it really enhanced the experience of writing it, knowing that I was also applying my film scoring aptitude to Orchid as well.
N: Is it a markedly different experience trying to score a comic book versus a film since that’s more of an experience that readers can stop and start at their own pace?
TM: Normally, when I do the film scoring, there’s stuff that’s already been shot and beat out. Like Iron Man punching the guy or a robot hitting a monster with an aircraft carrier over a screaming guitar crescendo. What they have in common are themes, and that is what I try to create – a theme and mood that would go along with each specific issue. It’s got more of a darker, ambient feel, which is what I was going for over the sort of crushing guitar lines. Like I said, it was a very satisfying part of the book.
N: One of the things I found particularly prescient about Orchid was how it examined terrorism and how perspective informs it. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. What fascinated you about this argument and why make it such a big part of the story?
TM: I think for all humans, it’s good to pull the lens back to get a perspective on the fictional narrative that every government sells its citizens as history and to make our own choices about the right and the wrong, who are the freedom fighters and who are the terrorists. I remember my revelation came – I was in school during the Cold War era and I remember being taught very straight-facedly in my high school class that in this evil Soviet empire, in their schools, they indoctrinate the children about this national myth of their own country’s heroism and how all their enemies are wrongly portrayed as these evil barbarians. And that’s kind of what’s happening in this country now. [laughs] One thing I’ve always tried to address in my music and my writing is the question of “from what vantage point are you a hero and from what vantage point are you a terrorist?” Orchid certainly explores those issues in great detail, and while the comic may come down on one side, it leaves the door open for everyone to examine in their own time and place. Certainly in light of people like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, who are shining a light up to crimes and wrongdoings of our own government, people can make up their own mind.
N: Ultimately, what do you want people to take away from Orchid as an experience?
TM: As an experience, I was very clear with what I wanted Orchid to be from the very beginning. The aim was to make a thrilling epic narrative with my worldview couched within it. I never wanted this to be a political diatribe or polemic, and made every effort to keep to that. When I sent the first draft to the people at Dark Horse, they were a little surprised that it wasn’t more of a Noam Chomsky-style lecture. [laughs] I was like, “No, this is about the cool monsters and the huge battles, man!” I’m a sucker for the big popcorn-chomping summer movies and the epic stories of The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. I wanted it to have all of that, but infused with the kind of class consciousness that is woefully absent in stuff like that. It’s the same with my music too – whether it’s Rage, Audioslave or The Nightwatchman, the goal isn’t to do a political thing; it’s to make a great piece of music because without that magic carpet, you ain’t riding anywhere. So, that was the primary goal: to have a thrilling narrative to serve as the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
N: You get to have your cake and eat it too. I’m sure you’re super busy, but what comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
TM: The comics I’m enjoying right now are the three year old and the two year old comedian living in my house right now. With the advent of two toddlers in the home which did not exist when I began working on Orchid, my reading time has been cut back pretty dramatically. I just finished reading the Marvel series of Stephen King’s The Stand, which is wonderful. That’s the most recent comic that I’ve read, but my free time has been cut back dramatically by fatherhood.
N: Yeah, I can imagine how that might have a slight impact on your schedule.
TM: Exactly! Yeah, yeah, yeah – while at the same time trying to rock on a global scale.
N: Last question: what would be inside your ideal burrito?
TM: [laughs] Funny you should say that because there’s a burrito sitting on the counter right now! It’s a fine burrito. It’s a Poquito Mas vegetarian burrito; there’s no commercial endorsement implied in that, although I do enjoy it. My ideal burrito though would probably be a barbecued catfish burrito. I haven’t had one yet, but that’s what it’d be. I hope that one day it manifests itself.
N: That sounds awfully tasty. Thanks so much for talking to us today. Any parting words?
TM: Thank you very much to The Nerdist for being so kind. Thanks again to all the Orchid fans who have been so spectacular on a global scale in supporting this, a first-time comic writer’s work, and making it such a memorable experience. It’s a very important link in the chain of my creative endeavors, so thank you for the support.
N: Well, we’re glad you did it. Thanks again.