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Tom Morello on music and politics:
"You start with a spark"

June 8, 2007 | Pages 12 and 13

TOM MORELLO is an outspoken musician and political activist who has played in the bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Recently, he has been working on a solo acoustic guitar project he calls The Nightwatchman. Morello spoke to Socialist Worker's KRIS JENSON and KEITH ROSENTHAL about The Nightwatchman and his album One Man Revolution.

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WHO IS the Nightwatchman, as opposed to Tom Morello?

IT'S DEFINITELY a part of me that I've discovered through writing and performing these songs.

Originally, I was playing at an open mic night in Los Angeles, and I didn't want to sign up as Tom Morello, because then people would be yelling for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave songs, and I was doing something completely different. I wanted the space to push out as an artist without having my work as the "Daywatchman" haunt me.

So I chose that as a moniker. It seemed to fit the material I was writing, and it also was a way to explore the more shadowy recesses of my psyche in relative safety.

WITH YOUR reputation for playing electric guitar, was exploring these other regions the motivation behind doing an acoustic album?

YES. I'VE always been a fan of heavy music and of rebel music. Originally, that was heavy metal music when I was a kid, and then it became punk rock with bands like the Clash, and then it was hip-hop with Public Enemy.

It was only in more recent years that I realized that sometimes the heaviest music is made with just three chords and the truth, and that the right couplet can strike a damaging blow for social justice as much as anything played through Marshall stacks.

YOU'VE DESCRIBED your album One Man Revolution as a "Bob Dylan in reverse" moment, and you can hear some Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger influences. Was this tradition a big inspiration?

MY FAVORITE guitar player of all time is a guitar player with no existing recorded works--that would be Joe Hill. It was his example and his quotes, like "A book or a pamphlet is read one time, but a song is sung over and over again"--this idea of music as a glue of solidarity to bring people together and to inspire on an almost intangible level.

That was always an important part of what I wanted to do, ever since I started playing guitar at 17 years old. I didn't choose to be a guitar player--it chose me, and that was my curse [laughs]. Then, once I was stuck being a guitar player, it's been my ongoing mission to find ways to weave my convictions into my vocation.

THE TONE of the album seems dark, but at the same time bittersweet and hopeful--specifically the song "California's Dark," with the line "You start with a spark and the fire can grow."

I THINK you've given a really accurate review of the record right there. The entire record turns on two lines within it.

One is the song "The Road I Must Travel"--the final couplet is "There's a sign along the highway/But it's too dark now to read," which is maybe a less optimistic way of looking at where we're headed. Then there's "Maximum Firepower," which is, in a way, the Nightwatchman's national anthem. There's the line "If you take a step toward freedom/It'll take two steps toward you."

Those are the things that are at war within me; if not an optimist, I've always been one who's willing to go down swinging [laughs], and the Nightwatchman doubly so.

As far as what I do in "California's Dark," it's not about the LA riots that happened before; it's about the LA riots that might happen again.

It's my personal experience, literally and figuratively. I literally stood along the side of the road among rattlesnakes. It's my literal journey from Libertyville, Illinois, to moving to California. It's also my ideological journey going from being just a suburban kid to an aspiring activist.

WHAT ABOUT "Flesh Shapes the Day," which says, "I support my troops/They wave black flags and they wear black masks"?

I'VE PLAYED "Flesh Shapes the Day" at hundreds of union rallies, demonstrations and antiwar marches, and what struck me is that most of the songs that were sung at these events were songs from the '60s or even earlier. And I thought, "We need songs for now!"

The Nightwatchman needs to write songs for today, and they need to have "Si se puede" in them, and they have to address the anarchist black bloc and the Zapatistas.

I would be at some of these rallies, and the streets are lined with these awful stormtrooper cops waiting to smash everybody's heads, and I'd see like a hundred of these anarchist kids with their flags and I thought, "Well, those are my guys! We might be alright!"

WHAT ABOUT "Union Song"?

I WENT with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle on an anti-globalization, anti-media consolidation tour. We would play daily in front of hotel workers, and we were tear-gassed at the Free Trade Area of the Americas riots in Miami.

And in all these events, I thought, "I don't have the right song to play for today." So I got back from the tour with my T-shirt still smelling of tear gas, thinking, "I need to get something together for the next one."

Yes, that song is my personal experience with the history of the labor struggle in this country--it's ongoing. The first time I played it was when grocery workers were striking here in LA, and we were doing some benefit concerts for the strike fund.

And it occurred to me that the future of the working class isn't going to be decided in the halls of Congress--it's going to be decided in a Vons parking lot, and I'm going to be standing in that parking lot playing that song.

THERE'S BEEN a seismic shift in people's political consciousness, and it's reflected in literature, film and music. What role can musicians play in popular consciousness and struggle?

FIRST, I'VE noticed that, too. It seems that you can't swing a cat these days and not hit a band with an anti-Bush song.

For years while I was in Rage Against the Machine, I was asked, "Why are you guys the only band?" We were all fired up about the Clinton administration! So now, it seems that every CD I've come across shows this, whether it's Nine Inch Nails, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, the Coup's new record, even Linkin Park.

I think this shows that not just artists are disgusted by what they've seen over the course of the last seven years or so, but everybody's disgusted. And some of them happen to have access to recording studios. Culture can play an important, even crucial, role in helping to build to a critical mass of change.

My concern is that this administration has done so much damage internationally, domestically, environmentally, that it may take generations to undo.

People laugh about that YouTube vignette of Bush standing on the aircraft carrier with the "Mission Accomplished" banner behind him, like that's a joke. Well guess what--that's not a joke. The mission was accomplished. Afghanistan has lost. Iraq has lost. The United States has lost. Halliburton has won. Mission accomplished.

He doesn't care that his approval rating is around 27 percent. The damage is already done. So I applaud artists and musicians stepping forward. Hopefully, it will spark and galvanize their audiences, or push them toward greater revolutionary fervor.

That alone isn't going to turn the tide. It's by action, mixed with those words and songs, that we'll see a future that's brighter than the one that Bush has sketched out for us.

YOU ONCE said "A good song should make you want to tap your feet, but a great song should destroy cops and set fire to the suburbs." Do you mean that in terms of its content?

NOT NECESSARILY. I think that great art should always be dangerous. I think that a John Coltrane solo can be just as devastating as a System of a Down antiwar rant.

Art that challenges convention is the art is most exciting and worthwhile. That can mean explicitly political lyrics if it's done in the context of a great band or a great hip-hop song, or it can mean things that are artistically challenging--like a John Coltrane or Charlie Parker solo that can make you think things are possible that yesterday you didn't think were possible.

If that's true in the realm of music, it might very well be true in the realm of society as well.

TELL US about the Axis of Justice.

AXIS OF Justice is a nonprofit political organization formed by Serj Tankian, the singer for System of a Down, and myself. It's been in existence for about six or seven years now, and the idea is to bring fans of music, progressive-minded musicians and local grassroots organizations together to fight for social justice.

The genesis of the organization was about seven or eight years ago when I went to an Ozzfest show and was appalled by the number of White Power tattoos I saw people very comfortably displaying at the show. Ironically, that day on the main stage, every single band had at least one non-white member in it. It made me think, "Hey, this is my music, too. How dare they?"

The next year, System of a Down was headlining, so Serj and I formed Axis of Justice to have an antiracist booth at all of the shows. Since then, it's grown to be almost spiraling out of our control. If you go to axisofjustice.org, you can get some idea of what goes on, but we try to do a number of things--from serving the communities we're in by helping the poor with soup kitchens and free stores, to organizing fans of our music who are looking to plug in.

For 15 years, fans of my music have said, "How do I get involved?" And it's a question that I sympathize with, because I grew up in a little suburb outside of Chicago and was really wound up about apartheid and death squads in Central America, and all I could do was go to a KISS concert. I didn't know what to do!

So we try, via the Web site, to hook up aspiring activists with local organizations. There's a myriad of other things--a reading list, a movie list and lots of other stuff. It also serves as an alternative news source, for people to keep up-to-date with the world and provide an alternative to something like Fox News.

DID YOU have a particular audience in mind that you were trying to reach with One Man Revolution?

THAT'S A good question. I think, on the one hand, that audience will encompass the people who were Rage Against the Machine fans for the right reasons, and there may even be a new audience--perhaps people that shied away from my Marshall stacks work. Whether it's fans of Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen, they may find themselves liking this as well.

I actually don't know. I've played these songs in front of a tremendous variety of audiences.

I went on the subtly titled "Rock Against Bush" tour with these four hardcore punk rock bands. Here are these 15-year-old high school kids who just want to jump up and down, and here comes Old Man Morello, with a nylon string acoustic guitar, like "Children, now I know your dad might like my other band, but I'm going sing some folk music for you." And it went over great!

I was playing at these rallies in front of political crowds, and kitchen workers might not know Audioslave. So in ways, I think it's going to find that audience, and I'm excited about that prospect.

IS THERE some significance to just a voice and a guitar that you were trying to achieve, as opposed to the heavier sound?

DEFINITELY. ONE part is that there's a practicality to it that cannot be overestimated. If my friends at the anarchist collective in San Francisco are holding a benefit concert for bail money for some of their comrades who were arrested at a demonstration, and they want Audioslave or Rage Against the Machine to play, it's this behemoth that has to get going. You have to have a band meeting, decide if this is something you should do, get a tour manager and get all this stuff moving.

As the Nightwatchman, I just pick up my guitar, and I do it. I can drive there. It's definitely music that is literally on call--if the Batman light shines in the night, there can be the Nightwatchman sign, and here I come! It can be very effective in that way--like I'm the fire department.

DO YOU have any books or albums you are reading or listening to now that you can recommend to our readers?

I FELL in love with the new Arcade Fire record, and I love the new Bright Eyes record. Each of those records go beyond just sounding like great music, in that they tap into something in the--I don't know--reptilian brain, where it feels like "This is important" and there's a truth within.

That's what you get when art is good and music is good--you get this truth that goes beyond statistics, and those two records I've been feeling this very much.

As far as books, I can recommend Cinderella's Big Score by Maria Raha. It's about the women of punk and the indie underground--it's really interesting. Another is Secrecy and Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq by Robert Parry. Those are the two nonfiction books that I can recommend.

Someone asked me to write a song for The Kite Runner, which I just started, and it seems very sad. I haven't finished it, so I can't yet give a review or a recommendation, but that's what I'm reading.

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