Tom Morello: "You start with a spark"

Issue 

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 US Socialist Worker's Kris Jenson and Keith Rosenthal about The Nightwatchman and his album One Man Revolution.

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 favourite 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.

What about "Union Song"?

I went with Billy Bragg and Steve Earle on an anti-globalisation, 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 27percent. The damage is already done. So I applaud artists and musicians stepping forward. Hopefully, it will spark and galvanise their audiences, or push them toward greater revolutionary fervour.

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 anti-war rant.

Art that challenges convention is the art that 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 organisation 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 organisations together to fight for social justice.

The genesis of the organisation 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 anti-racist booth at all of the shows. Since then, it's grown to be almost spiralling out of our control. If you go to http://www.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 organising 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 sympathise 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 website, to hook up aspiring activists with local organisations. 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.

[Abridged from the US Socialist Worker. Visit http://www.socialistworker.org.]