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.


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 [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. 


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

Limited Time: