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 saveworkers.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.
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.
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.
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 [axisofjustice.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.
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 30, 2011