Tom Morello

Tom Morello

Among the demon­stra­tors at this winter’s protests in Madi­son, Wis., was Tom Morel­lo. The gui­tarist, named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 all-time great­est gui­tar play­ers, is more wide­ly known for his high-adren­a­line gui­tar riffs with Rage Against the Machine and, for a short while, Audioslave. But in recent years, his musi­cal per­sona has become more solid­i­fied with The Night­watch­man, his solo acoustic alter ego that packs just as much hot rage against social injustice. 

On a blus­tery Feb­ru­ary 21 out­side the Wis­con­sin capi­tol, Morel­lo roused the crowd with Union Song,” a track from his Union Town EP. All pro­ceeds ben­e­fit­ed the Amer­i­ca Votes Labor Uni­ty Fund, via save​work​ers​.org. Through­out this year, he has per­formed at sev­er­al ral­lies in union bat­tle­grounds — not just in Madi­son, but also in Flint, Mich., and Cleve­land, Ohio — adding fuel to the work­ers’ fire and offer­ing both moral and finan­cial support. 

The Har­vard grad­u­ate is a proud son of a union mem­ber. He was raised by Mary Morel­lo, a sin­gle moth­er who taught for near­ly three decades at a pub­lic high school in Lib­er­tyville, Ill. The cru­sad­ing gui­tarist keeps a busy sched­ule strum­ming for pro­gres­sive social caus­es. In 2002, he formed the orga­ni­za­tion Axis of Jus­tice with Serj Tankian, of Sys­tem of a Down, to help mar­shal resources for grass­roots democ­ra­cy. In 2008, Morel­lo kicked off the Jus­tice Tour, a recur­ring nation­al con­cert tour that has fea­tured mem­bers of Pearl Jam, Jane’s Addic­tion, The MC5, and Rise Against.

The Nightwatchman’s fourth and lat­est album, which was released on August 30 this year, is World Wide Rebel Songs. Ear­li­er this month, Morel­lo spoke with Chica­go-area jour­nal­ist Jane Huh by phone.

Pol­i­tics

You’ve vis­it­ed some of the country’s union strong­holds and took part in the ral­lies. From your per­spec­tive, what’s the state of labor unions today? 

There is a fero­cious class war going on, but for the most part it’s being fought by one side. In Madi­son, peo­ple fought back on a scale that I haven’t seen in my life­time. There were more peo­ple in the streets than there were in Cairo as [the Egyp­tians] were depos­ing their tyran­ni­cal dic­ta­tor. I’ve played at hun­dreds of demon­stra­tions, but in Madi­son, I saw some­thing I’d nev­er seen before. It was union cops and anar­chist stu­dents on the same side, shoul­der to shoul­der. It was steel­work­ers and old hip­pies, fire­fight­ers and nurs­es all pulling togeth­er to stand up for their rights, explic­it­ly as workers. 

In the after­math of the bill kind of being snuck through and the recall elec­tions — my take is that it felt, in the occu­pied capi­tol and on the streets, like absolute­ly any­thing was pos­si­ble. And I think, frankly, it scared the shit out of some parts of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty and maybe some of the var­i­ous orga­nized lead­er­ships as well, because they were afraid that the riv­er might run its banks. They didn’t want it to be Cairo. They didn’t want it to be the reac­tion the Greeks, the Spaniards, the Lon­don­ers have had to the aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures. They want­ed to divert that tremen­dous amount of torque into these recall elec­tions that were going to hap­pen many months away and reframed com­fort­ably with­in a process that wasn’t going to get out of hand. I played in Madi­son again on Labor Day and felt that same fight­ing spir­it that was there in Feb­ru­ary. It’s not dor­mant. It’s right there below the sur­face just wait­ing for the next wave. 

Per­son­al

Why are these issues sur­round­ing unions per­son­al to you?

My mom was a union, pub­lic high school teacher for almost 30 years in Lib­er­tyville, Illi­nois. And the town the Morel­los come from is called Mar­seilles in cen­tral Illi­nois. It was a coal-min­ing town. My great-grand­fa­ther and his broth­ers were coal min­ers, and union was a big part of life there. So I grew up in a union house­hold. I’ve been a mem­ber of the Musi­cians Los Ange­les Local 47 for 22 years. I’m a mem­ber of the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World as well. So I take this fight very personally. 

This right-wing attempt to sweep away a cen­tu­ry of social progress, it comes as no sur­prise. But we’ve got to fight back. Those rights are not going to be main­tained. And they’re cer­tain­ly not going to be advanced if we sit on the side­lines, and if we play pol­i­tics as usu­al. That’s a game that, frankly, we can’t win. You can­not put your stock in elect­ed offi­cials. When real pro­gres­sive, rad­i­cal or rev­o­lu­tion­ary change hap­pens, it comes from below. That’s what you see with the Arab Spring. That’s what you see right now at the uni­ver­si­ties in Chile. It’s peo­ple stand­ing up for their rights in their place, where they work, where they go to school, in their com­mu­ni­ty, in their coun­try, in their time. That’s what I fight for in my songs, and that’s what I hope to see. 

Speak­ing of those glob­al exam­ples, World Wide Rebel Songs was inspired by a group of Kore­ans who worked for a gui­tar man­u­fac­tur­er, right?

These Kore­an work­ers, work­ers who actu­al­ly man­u­fac­ture the low-end gui­tars for com­pa­nies like Gib­son, Fend­er and Ibanez, attempt­ed to union­ize. They were all fired. The plant was shut down and moved to Chi­na. So these Kore­an work­ers who were in des­per­ate need of mon­ey for their fam­i­lies and for their strike fund came to the U.S. look­ing for finan­cial help. I offered to play a ben­e­fit show for them. But the day before the show, the earth­quake in Haiti hap­pened. And so these Kore­an work­ers who had trav­eled 6,000 miles and were in dire need of mon­ey for their wives and their chil­dren vot­ed to donate 100 per­cent of the pro­ceeds from their ben­e­fit show to the Haiti relief effort. It’s that kind of self­less act of inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty … that’s a win­dow into a world that I want to live in, the kind of world I’m fight­ing for in my songs. So that day of the Kore­an ben­e­fit show, I wrote the song World Wide Rebel Songs,” and played it that night. It was the start­ing point for this record. 

So just being a wit­ness to this kind of char­i­ty inspired the rest of the whole album? 

Yeah. It was recon­firmed when I was play­ing in Madi­son. I got this amaz­ing e‑mail from one of the orga­niz­ers of the demon­stra­tions in Cairo. It was very poet­ic, but I’m going to para­phrase it. He said there’s some­thing in the air from the Mid­west to the Mid­dle East. Tyrants are falling. Change is com­ing. We’ve got your back. We’re watch­ing what you’re doing. We hope you’re watch­ing what we’re doing. We’re all in this togeth­er. Let’s do it. I was like, how do they know what’s going on in Madi­son? They were right in the midst of the fren­zy there, and they found me to deliv­er the mes­sage to the work­ing peo­ple of Madi­son. So that gives me a great deal of hope that on a glob­al scale, there’s this … desire for human rights, free­dom and dig­ni­ty in the work­place that peo­ple are will­ing to fight for. 

Has being a father (of two boys under two years) height­ened the sense of urgency and out­rage over social injus­tices?

It’s sort of a dou­bled – edged effect. On the one hand, it’s very impor­tant for me to be present in their lives in a way that my father wasn’t present in my life. On the oth­er hand it makes me that much more deter­mined to give them and chil­dren like them around the globe a plan­et where there’s more jus­tice. I see in them such tremen­dous poten­tial. As a father you want to fos­ter that poten­tial and give them every oppor­tu­ni­ty to be the peo­ple they were born to be. Bil­lions of peo­ple around the plan­et are denied the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being the peo­ple they were born to be because of crush­ing pover­ty. That’s not a shame, that’s a crime. 

Media

What is the Jus­tice Tour? Is that in con­cert with the union protests? 

I do a year­ly thing called the Jus­tice Tour in which I bul­ly my musi­cian friends to play shows with­out any finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion for var­i­ous social-jus­tice caus­es. This year we focused on both inde­pen­dent media and went to some of the places where the work­ing peo­ple were … to help put a lit­tle more wind in the sails of the unions strug­gling in Flint, Cleve­land and Madison. 

Why the focus on inde­pen­dent journalism?

One of the lessons learned, when I came back home from my time in Madi­son, was how inac­cu­rate­ly it was being report­ed in the main­stream cor­po­rate media, which should come as no sur­prise. Some of the indi­vid­u­als who per­son­al­ly own the major media out­lets are polit­i­cal­ly com­mit­ted to destroy­ing union­ism. So, on this tour the mon­ey went to ben­e­fit the Nation Insti­tute, which fos­ters inde­pen­dent media that tells the news of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, for the peo­ple. And I think we need a lot more of that. 

What media out­lets and authors do you fol­low to keep track of what’s going on? 

[Axis of Jus­tice has] a small staff, where it is their job to cull news from around the coun­try and around the globe. So I basi­cal­ly go to my web­site [axisofjus​tice​.net] to see what they’ve come up with today. But gen­er­al­ly I read news from around the spec­trum. By read­ing the same sto­ry that’s cov­ered in The Nation, The New York Times and Fox News, it gives me a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the world and how it’s real­ly oper­at­ing, pars­ing out the pro­pa­gan­da, whether sub­tle or overt, rather than sim­ply read­ing a pro­gres­sive pub­li­ca­tion that I know I’m going to agree with. 

How does music tack­le polit­i­cal­ly charged subjects?

There has nev­er been a suc­cess­ful wide-scale social jus­tice move­ment in this coun­try with­out a musi­cal sound­track, whether it’s the work­ing class strug­gle, the civ­il rights strug­gle, the peace strug­gle. Music and cul­ture have always been a crit­i­cal com­po­nent in both voic­ing and ampli­fy­ing strug­gles for social justice. 

I was trans­formed and encour­aged by the music from groups like The Clash and Pub­lic Ene­my, who made me feel less alone in my world­view as well as cre­at­ed com­pelling art. And that made it seem like change was pos­si­ble and that change could sound kick ass at the same time.

So whether it’s with Rage Against the Machine or with The Night­watch­man, I’m con­scious­ly work­ing in that tra­di­tion. First of all, the music has to be com­pelling. No one wants to lis­ten to a Noam Chom­sky lec­ture with a hip-hop beat behind it. The artistry is para­mount in order to con­vey the truth that you’re telling. 

Are there enough sim­i­lar musi­cians with polit­i­cal guts and sophistication? 

Sure. From artists who’ve been around a while like Steve Ear­le and Bil­ly Bragg, to the new­er artists like Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes and Rise Against. Some­times the artists that are mak­ing con­fronta­tion­al music are not always at the top of the charts, but they are cer­tain­ly there and plentiful. 

I didn’t choose to be a gui­tar play­er. That chose me. So once I’m stuck in that voca­tion, it’s my respon­si­bil­i­ty to find a way to weave my ideas into what I do. I think that’s everybody’s respon­si­bil­i­ty — whether you write for a mag­a­zine or go to school, whether you’re a car­pen­ter or plumber, a teacher or a long­shore­man — not to leave the integri­ty of your beliefs behind when you go to work. That’s how you change the world. You bring what you believe into the thing that you do. 

Cul­ture

So what’s your take on the cur­rent pop music scene? I mean, does it need a kick in the ass? 

(Laughs.) The world needs a kick in the ass. The coun­try needs a kick in the ass. Does music need a kick in the ass? Of course it does. But hav­ing bad music at the top of the charts is noth­ing new. And I don’t think it’s indica­tive of any par­tic­u­lar recent malaise. It’s just that pop­u­lar tastes often grav­i­tate toward the least com­mon denominator. 

The Night­watch­man sounds like it draws inspi­ra­tion from a num­ber of Amer­i­can folk singers. What inter­est­ed you about the folk genre?

That tra­di­tion of folk music, from Phil Ochs to Woody Guthrie to Pete Seeger, of course the ear­ly Bob Dylan … and John­ny Cash, I would add him also, that’s the tra­di­tion of three chords and the truth. The music, while it’s only played on acoustic gui­tar, can be dev­as­tat­ing­ly heavy.

On this new Night­watch­man record, I play an exten­sive amount of elec­tric gui­tar. It’s the first time I’ve real­ly bridged the worlds of Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave with the folk music. 

Inter­est­ing. Sim­i­lar in a way to Bob Dylan’s trajectory.

Yeah. This is my fourth Night­watch­man album, and the first three have been pre­dom­i­nate­ly acoustic. So for quite a while I was kind of Bob Dylan in reverse. I went from being an elec­tric gui­tar hero to being a strum­ming folk trou­ba­dour and some from my fan base was not hap­py about that. 

Will there be a Rage Against the Machine show soon? (The group came togeth­er for an LA show over the summer.)

We like to tour at a very gen­tle­man­ly pace. We played one show this year. That’s all that’s on the books for now. If there is going to be more Rage activ­i­ty in the future, it will not be kept secret. We’ll let every­body know. 

What’s the dynam­ic of play­ing with Rage like these days?

We’ve been play­ing Rage shows since 2007, and the dynam­ic is dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent in that we get along well. I mean, one thing that’s changed is that there’s a much clos­er bond of friend­ship between the four of us. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that the band rocks like hell and peo­ple go crazy when they see it and feel it.

—Jane Huh, Sep­tem­ber 302011

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