Tom Morello: Protest You Can Rock To (Interview)

Ed RampellCategories:Music

Rock Cellar Magazine

Tom Morello photo by Paul Moore

During a 2011 appearance at an Occupy L.A. rally Tom Morello – an original member of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave – wore a cap with the logo of the Industrial Workers of the World, the early 20th century militant union nicknamed the “Wobblies.”
Why? “Because I’m a Wobbly,” Tom answers matter-of-factly.  Indeed, Morello is becoming the modern-day version of the  IWW songwriter immortalized in the ballad famously sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock: “Wherever workingmen defend their rights, It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”
It surely seems that at every Occupy protest, every union protest, perhaps every public protest – “it’s there you’ll find Tom Morello.”  Like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Dylan and Springsteen before him, Morello -“The Nightwatchman” – has carefully carved out a space for himself in the pantheon of working-man folk-singers. The singer for the “every man” is simply… “everywhere.”

Tom Morello – Background
Like President Barack Obama, the 47-year-old Morello has a Kenyan father and white American mother, an Illinois background and attended Harvard.
Morello is the grandnephew of  Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta.  His part-Masai father, Ng’ethe Njoroge, belonged to Kenya’s U.N. delegation.  His mother Mary Morello was called a “socialist” by Rolling Stone and she founded Parents for Rock and Rap to counteract Tipper Gore’s efforts to restrict music in 1991.
His band Rage Against The Machine went on to be ranked #33 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock, and Rolling Stone rated Morello #26 on its 100 Greatest Guitar Players of All-Time.
Joining forces with Dark Horse Comics and Canadian illustrator Scott Hepburn, Morello is writing the post-apocalyptic comic book Orchid, which debuted in October 2011. His most recent solo album World Wide Rebel Songs is full of Morello’s trademark hard rock rollicking rhythms and rabblerousing lyrics, and Rock Cellar Magazine gave it “co-protest album of the year.”
Morello sat down with us earlier this year for an always-interesting chat.  While Woody Guthrie’s guitar was emblazoned with the slogan “This machine kills fascists,” the Nightwatchman’s guitar bears the watchword: “Whatever it takes.” Tom Morello is surely the minstrel of rebellion.

Tom Morello; photo by Sean Ricigliano

Q: You were one of the first national figures to respond to the recent battles over unions in Wisconsin. Why did you go there?
Tom Morello: The struggle for union rights, particularly for public sector union rights, is one I take very personally. My mom was a public high school teacher in a small town in Illinois for almost 30 years. We didn’t have a lot of money but we had enough to put food on the table because my mom was a union high school teacher. So when these rightwing governors began attacking people like my mom (laughs), I took it very personally, and the “Nightwatchman” had to spring into action!

photo: Tom Morello; instagram

I actually was at home in L.A. and watching the news on TV with my wife, watching the huge protest in Cairo, and then the next story was that there were 100,000 people in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. I had to rub my eyes and make sure I wasn’t seeing things, and I realized I had to be on the next plane.
Q: What was the atmosphere like in the crowd..?
TM: I’ve played at hundreds of demonstrations, but I’ve never seen anything like that. It was the greatest outpouring of diverse solidarity that I’ve seen. The capitol building was occupied by firefighters, steelworkers, anarchist students, old hippies and families; it was Packer fans and the unemployed, kind of all together, pulling in the same direction. It was very encouraging. As soon as I got back home I wrote the song Union Town and put out the Union Town EP and donated 100 percent of the proceeds to the America Votes Labor Fund, to help with the battle to maintain collective bargaining across the country.

Bruce Springsteen & Tom Morello – The ghost of Tom Joad (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2009. Tom Morello’s solo KICKS ASS.)
Q: Tell us about Union Town.
TM:  I wanted to do as much as I could as fast as I could when I got back.  I was in the midst of recording another album, World Wide Rebel Songs; I wanted to do something that was very specific for the cause. So I gathered together my backup band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra, and in four days we banged out some new punk-tinged renditions of old union favorites, like Solidarity Forever and Which Side Are You On? and three original compositions: Union Town, A Wall Against the Wind – which is an ode to May Day – and a live version of Union Song, that was performed in Capitol Square, Madison.

One of the things that’s very encouraging about this whole Occupy Movement is that it is not steered from above, in any way. It’s very grass roots, it’s steered from below. I have a feeling if the energy of the resurgent labor movement, fighting for its life, was to merge with this growing Occupy Movement, that could be a very potent combination.
Q: What’s your take on the Occupy Movement and moving forward?

TM:  There’s a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction with the status quo. The fact that these Occupy Movements are explicitly class-based is something, is a big difference from previous protests – maybe antiwar, fall under kind of this general umbrella. But the fact that they’ve identified the 1% (laughs) as the villain is a real change.
I’ve played at Occupy Vancouver, Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Wall Street and Occupy L.A. – the whole “Occupy America Tour.” And the one thing all of them have in common is this deep dissatisfaction with the way that those who own the planet are ruling it, and this groundswell of solidarity that’s very diverse.  It’s not just old hippies and anarchist punks – it’s the community. And many people are participating in demonstrations for the first time in their lives.

(photo © Adrian Garro / Rock Cellar Magazine

Q: Then you followed that up with the “Justice Tour…”
TM: The Justice Tour were stops in some of the glamorous Midwestern towns of Flint, Michigan, Cleveland, Ohio, Madison, Wisconsin and places like that, where I basically bully some of my good friends via Blackberry into playing shows where the artists make no money and we donate the proceeds to worthwhile causes. We wanted to play these towns where working class people need maybe a little bit more wind in the sails for the coming struggle.
Q: What can other artists and musicians do to help galvanize these protests?
TM: Frankly, that’s not a great concern of mine. I don’t sort of look at musicians as a ghetto-ized separate community from the rest of the community. The better question is: “What can you do to help?” Whether you’re a musician, carpenter, longshoreman, student, whatever. I know what I’m doing: I stop by in each one of these places, maybe play a few songs, say a few words, invite a few of the occupiers to my show and continue to fan the flames of discontent!

Morello with Joe (The Clash) Strummer’s guitar at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

One thing I know for sure: There’s never been a successful progressive, radical or revolutionary movement in this country that hasn’t had a great soundtrack. Between the Union Town EP and this new record, World Wide Rebel Songs, these songs were prescient, in a way.
Q: Who are your musical heroes and why?
TM: Certainly, there’s a wide variety of them from folk music. It’s people like from Woody Guthrie to Joe Strummer, from Bruce Springsteen to early Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, people who used their music as a battering ram for social justice. I’m very unapologetic about that. I think first and foremost, it has to be compelling musically.

People are not going to be drawn to a college lecture set to chords. So, I use the experience that I have had in a Rage Against the Machine audience – I try to craft songs that are going to be valuable artistically, and try to infuse them with a message.
Q: What’s your current status vis-à-vis Rage Against the Machine?
TM: Rage Against the Machine tours at a very gentlemanly pace. It’s a band with no infrastructure. There’s no manager, no attorney, no record company; nothing like that. Like migratory animals, when the spirit hits us, we will move again.

Rage Against the Machine: reportedly a favorite of Republican veep candidate Paul Ryan. As yet unconfirmed.

Q: What’s your definition of  “The Nightwatchman?”
TM: (Laughs)  The Nightwatchman is me! It’s a moniker I began playing under back in 2001 when I was applying my craft, honing my craft, at open mic nights around the L.A.  area.
Q: Among other things, you’re working on a comic book. You’ve described your book Orchid as “like Lord of the Rings meets Battle of Algiers…?”
TM: (Laughs) It’s an epic fantasy story, but it’s infused with class consciousness. The heroine is a 16-year-old street prostitute who becomes the “Spartacus of whores.” She’s one part Suicide Girl and one part Joan of Arc, set in a dystopian future where humans are no longer at the top of the food chain. I’m also writing a soundtrack for each of the issues, so you get music for free when you buy the comic book.

Orchid: “Ravenous robotic beasts! Deadly combat!”

Q:  What do you think of Obama’s presidency?
TM: (Laughs) I worked for two years as scheduling secretary for U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, so I have no delusion of what even a progressive Democratic politician is going to be like, once they’re in office. Senator Cranston was a very nice guy and fell on the right side, in my view, the good side of a lot of issues, spent most of his time on the phone asking rich guys for money. So, I don’t believe real substantive progressive change can come from above.

I’ve never been a fan of waiting around for some president or Supreme Court panel to wave a magic wand and set things right. If change is gonna happen, we’re gonna have to do it ourselves.

Q:  Is it true that John McCain said he was a fan of Rage Against the Machine? 
TM: I’ve never heard that.  I hesitate to comment on it, because it sounds like rumor.  If John McCain is indeed a Rage Against the Machine fan I’d say that he’s welcome in the mosh pit, anytime.

The Nightwatchman – Fighting for Truth & Justice!

Q: In describing World Wide Rebel Songs you said “wanted to capture a vibe midway between Johnny Cash and Che Guevara, murder ballads and Molotov anthems.”
TM:  That’s the intention; it’s grounded in this roots music, but it also contains my ear-splitting, electric guitar playing and is infused with an unapologetic dose of class warfare. And in this day and age, those are the kind of songs that need singing.
And I wouldn’t put any limitations on what the Occupy Movement can do or what people’s movements can do around the globe. I think that a lot of young people are realizing they do have their hands on the wheel of history and they can turn it in any direction they so choose.
(Pick up Rage Against the Machine’s recent reissue XX by clicking here).
UPDATE: At press time for this article, Tom Morello was hotly trending in the news due to the revelation that V.P. candidate Paul Ryan is supposedly a big fan of Morello’s band Rage Against the Machine. Before Rock Cellar Magazine could get a comment from Tom to add here, Morello wrote a 450-word rant in Rolling Stone against Ryan and his political policies. Read more about it here: Tom Morello Rages Against Paul Ryan.

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Pick up Rage Against the Machine’s discography in our online store now!


  • Good job says:

    Good post, keep

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