Rock in a Hard Place
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Tom Morello is one of the leading political musicians of our day. "People will read a book or pamphlet only once, but a song they can sing again and again in their heads," he says.
The son of a Kenyan anti-colonialist and an American public high school teacher, Morello grew up in Libertyville, Illinois. After graduating from Harvard in the mid-1980s, he moved to Los Angeles to become a musician.
Morello may be best known as the innovative guitarist for Rage Against the Machine, a politically charged rock band that was one of the first to meld heavy metal and rap. Rage Against the Machine lent its name and time to various causes, from the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, to boycotts of sweatshop labor. Their liner notes read like a political website, and they performed at the protests outside the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, where the police broke things up afterwards with tear gas and rubber bullets.
In 2000, singer Zack de la Rocha left the band. Rage Against the Machine has not played since that September. Morello now plays in Audioslave, along with Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden fame. They released their 2002 self-titled debut to rave reviews and are currently writing songs in Los Angeles after spending the past year on tour.
Although he is recognized for his shredding electric guitar playing, Morello recently began performing folk songs as the Nightwatchman. In a deep baritone, he sings dark, somber tunes accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. The Nightwatchman debuted nationally during the Tell Us the Truth Tour, a multi-city circuit that focused on media consolidation and economic and environmental justice.
I met up with Morello on a brisk November day in Madison, Wisconsin, on the opening leg of the Tell Us the Truth Tour. He was wearing what I call Midwestern chic: a blue long john shirt with a T-shirt over it, jeans, black gym shoes, and an IWW baseball cap. After the interview, he greeted his mom, Mary Morello, an activist in her own right, in the hotel lobby. She had traveled up from Illinois to see her son perform.
When did you first learn guitar?
Tom Morello: I started kind of late, when I was seventeen. I got the Sex Pistols record, and had the punk rock epiphany of "I can do this, too." Prior to that, I was a big fan of heavy metal music, which involved extravagance. You had to have huge walls of Marshall amplifiers and expensive shiny Gibson, Les Paul guitars. You had to know how to play "Stairway to Heaven" and have a castle on a Scottish loch, limos, groupies, and things like that. All I had was a basement in Illinois. None of that was going to come together for me.
When I heard the Sex Pistols and the Clash and Devo, it was immediately attainable. I thought, this music is as good as anything I have ever heard, but I can play it this afternoon. I got the Sex Pistols record, and within twenty-four hours I was in a band.
Tell me about growing up in Libertyville.
I integrated the town. It is an entirely white conservative northern suburb of Chicago and I was the first person of color to reside in the town. My mom and I moved there in 1965. She was applying to be a public high school teacher in communities around the northern suburbs. In more than one of them, they said, "You can work here, but your family cannot live here." They were explicit about it. I was a one-year-old half-Kenyan kid, and they told my mom, "You're an interracial family so you can live in the ghetto in Waukegan or go to North Chicago or somewhere like that." Libertyville was the first community that allowed us to court real estate agents to find an apartment.
And even then, the real estate agent had to go door to door in the apartment complex where we rented to see if it was OK with people. One reason we succeeded, I think, was because I'm Kenyan. They could use that. Kids would come up to me in fourth grade and say, "I've been meaning you ask you this, and I don't know how to say it, but are you the prince of Africa?" Seriously. This rumor followed me through my college years. I was nineteen years old, I was on a date, and this kid says, "I don't know how to say this but are you really the prince of Africa?" I think that germ was started by the original real estate agent who was trying to sell the family to the locals.
What's your mom like?
My mom trekked. What gave her wanderlust, I don't know. She grew up in a town smaller and whiter than Libertyville called Marseilles, a coal-mining town in central Illinois. It's spelled like Marseilles, France, but pronounced Marsales. In her twenties, she just decided that she would, by herself, go around the world. She lived in China, in post-World War II Germany, Japan. Just everywhere.
She was teaching in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection. She immediately abandoned all of her fellow white schoolteachers. She met my dad there, and was there for Kenya's independence. They moved back to the states.
My dad was part of Kenya's first U.N. delegation, and that's why I was born in New York City. They divorced, he moved back to Kenya, and she moved back to Illinois. My dad has been one of the beneficiaries of neocolonialism and inherited an enormous tea plantation on which he lives today. He's done very well for himself. He's not such a good letter writer to his son.
But your mom is still an activist.
My mom has been tremendously political her whole life. She was involved in the Urban League and other civil rights organizing in the Chicago area. For twelve years, she ran an organization called Parents for Rock and Rap, which is kind of the anti-PMRC, for those readers who remember the Parents Music Resource Center fronted by Tipper Gore. My mom combated pro-censorship forces on Oprah, CNN, and radio talk shows. She befriended Ice-T and 2 Live Crew and people like that. For another ten years, she taught adult literacy at the Salvation Army, and now she volunteers her time in underprivileged schools.
She's a great lady, and she gives spirited introductions to Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. My mother, who looks very much the part of the retired suburban high school teacher, will get on the stage with a militant fist raised high and say, "Please welcome the best fucking band in the universe."
Rage Against the Machine is overtly political. Audioslave does not have politically charged lyrics. How did that happen?
There are many overtly political bands that do not sell fourteen million records like Rage Against the Machine because the first thing they have to take care of is the musical chemistry. You can have all of your politics lined up and all of your analyses together, but it's got to be a great rock and roll band.
And the way great rock and roll bands happen is organically. The convergence of those four musicians made a band called Rage Against the Machine that had a political content. Had we started out saying it must be a, b, c, d, trying to shoehorn ideas and music into a little box, it wouldn't have worked. When bands do that, it's either derivative or it's not compelling.
With Audioslave, the four of us got in a room and we said, what's this going to be? We're not going to try to be Rage Against the Machine; we're not going to try to be Soundgarden; we're going to see what develops. It developed musically, very successfully for us, in a way that felt just great in the room.
For me, Audioslave didn't have political content. And that's when I formed Axis of Justice. It's important to me to have both great rock and roll and to be able to fight the power on a daily basis. That's where that divergence happened, to do my politics via Axis of Justice and my music via Audioslave.
What is Axis of Justice?
Axis of Justice is a nonprofit political organization formed by me and Serj Tankian, singer of System of a Down. We formed the organization a little over two years ago to build a bridge between progressive-minded musicians, fans of rock and rap music, and local grassroots organizations.
For ten years in Rage Against the Machine, kids were asking me, "I love your band. I feel motivated. How do I get involved?" We formed this organization to answer that question for the kids who were basically like I was. I grew up in a small, conservative midwestern town. I had these ideas in my head but there was nothing to connect to. I wouldn't have known if there was an anti-nukes rally happening in the next town over.
So we send an Axis of Justice tent on anybody's tour that asks, free of charge. We organize the booths at the shows. We invite local grassroots groups and speakers. We play videos. And kids come. At Ozzfest two years ago and Lollapalooza last year we had the most educationally intense twenty-by-twenty space ever in a rock and roll show.
Why did you decide to organize at Ozzfest?
At Ozzfest a few years ago in San Bernardino, I was appalled at the number of white power and Nazi tattoos that people were just flying, like it was OK to do. Every band on the main stage was multi-ethnic, from Ozzy Osbourne's band to System of a Down. I thought, you know what? This is my music, too. I think we should have some representation at the show. When we set up Axis of Justice at Ozzfest, it was a tremendous success. The only problem we had was that the organizations didn't have enough literature to give away.
How did you get involved with the Tell Us the Truth Tour?
I've been a fan and friend of Billy Bragg for a long time, and he contacted me and asked me if I wanted to participate in a unique concert tour where it's explicitly political. It brings together really diverse artists, from Lester Chambers to Steve Earle, Mike Mills from REM to Boots Riley of the Coup, to me doing my Woody Guthrie impersonation. There hasn't been a tour like this since the Amnesty International tour fifteen years ago.
You performed as the Nightwatchman, which is a break from your previous work. How did you start playing solo acoustic folk?
The Nightwatchman is my political folk alter ego. I've been writing these songs and playing them at open mic nights with friends for some time. This is the first time I've toured with it. When I play open mic nights, it's announced as the Nightwatchman. There will be kids there who are fans of my electric guitar playing, and you see them there scratching their heads.
But it's something that I enjoy doing. I look at it more as an extension of my politics. Then again, some of the songs are not explicitly political. It really helped me grow as an artist and songwriter. Once you prick the vein you never know what is going to come out. You could aim for all union songs and you find yourself in other territory.
I've read than an ambition of yours is to unionize rockers and rappers.
That's correct. There is a musicians' union, but it doesn't respond to the savage shafting that rock musicians and rap musicians get. If you play for the L.A. Philharmonic, they make sure you get your scale. But in our music, I could sign you today to a contract that says I get everything and you get nothing. There is no recourse. There's a cabal of record companies, management companies, entertainment firms, booking agencies, and concert promoters. They are the slumlords of the music industry. We artists rent a room. Sometimes you get the fleabag room, sometimes you get the penthouse suite. But all those people have been having dinner together and have been scratching each others' backs long before you put your band together, and they'll still be there long after they drop your band. The structure is set, and it's not artist friendly.
What if you looked at the Billboard Top 200 and got the Dixie Chicks, Metallica, Audioslave, System of a Down, Ja Rule, and DMX to say we're on strike. We're not going on tour. We're going to stop. We're going to take another 7 percent of the already hurting music industry away by withholding our labor until we change the rules. What would happen then? I don't know, but I'd like to see.
Explain how the basic record deal is not artist friendly.
Today if you sign a record deal with any of the majors or indies, this is what happens. They give a budget to make your record. Say it's $100,000, which they lend you. You make your album. You spend some of the money on guitars, and some of it on a recording engineer. Now your record contract says, for the sake of argument, you get ten cents on the dollar -- which is not an unusual amount -- and the record company gets ninety cents on the dollar. Now that $100,000 they gave you to make that record, you owe them back. You pay them back with your ten cents on the dollar. So they're in the black long before you've broken even. You might sell half a million records and be in debt to your record company. Unless you reach a certain threshold where you can increase that ten cents, artists are just dicked all the way around.
Prior to Rage Against the Machine I was in a band called Lock Up on Geffen records. We had the exact same deal that I just told you about. I'd go back to Libertyville, and people would think I was a millionaire, and I could not afford Ramen. I was on a $7 a week food budget with my big record deal.
Did you ever have a political awakening?
I think that when you are black growing up in an all-white town, the politics happen on the playground the first day. People start name-calling and what not. And your mom explains what that is, and she either gives you the Malcolm X speech or the Martin Luther King speech, depending on the day and the size of the opponent.
There was a political atmosphere in my home that I took for granted. We had pictures of Jomo Kenyatta [first president of Kenya] and Kwame Nkrumah [first president of Ghana] up in the house. When I got to high school and started studying world history and U.S. history, I heard a different perspective on world events and that made me challenge a lot of things.
When I was sixteen, twelve or so IRA hunger strikers died, including Bobby Sands. I had a little Irish Catholic in me, but I didn't know much about the Troubles. But I knew these were kids who were about my age who were literally dying for a political cause that they believed in. I was looking around me, and we had some kids who were trying to lose weight to make the wrestling team and others who were focused on the homecoming stuff. That was the time I thought beyond the walls of my high school and the culture that gets drilled into you.
You introduced the Clash into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What was that like?
The Clash is one of my favorite bands of all time. Rage Against the Machine had played shows in front of a quarter of a million people and I was far less nervous than in that room of a couple of hundred. It was right after Joe Strummer's passing, as well, so it was an emotionally charged evening. One review of my speech said that it was probably the most over thought speech of that night, perhaps in the history of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Absolutely -- I wrote about eighty drafts of it.
Growing up, alternative media was not part of my life. It wasn't where I got my news. I got my news from Clash albums, frankly. I thought the Sandinista record had more accurate and vivid portrayals of U.S. policy in Central America than Tom Brokaw was giving on the news. And it fired my imagination as well.
Can you be subversive and patriotic?
Was the women's suffrage movement subversive? Yes. Was it patriotic? Yes. Was the civil rights movement subversive? Yes. Was it patriotic? Yes. Was the quest to have an eight-hour workday or to get children out of coalmines subversive? Yes. Those ideas were insane when they were first raised. But they were clearly patriotic, with a small p. I think that dissent and broadly defined subversion is a crucial historical strain in America. All progressive change has come from that.
Are you feeling any backlash for speaking out against the war in Iraq?
No more than usual. I guess some artists like the Dixie Chicks had a tremendous media backlash. But having controversial left opinions is nothing new to me in my work. Especially with the war in Iraq, I thought it was very important to help galvanize young people who are in my audience.
There's only been a few times in my history as a musician and an activist where I've ever felt "the Man" push back. One of them was the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Clear Channel banned all Rage Against the Machine songs from all their radio stations. They faxed this memorandum to all the stations that listed specific songs that could not be played, including John Lennon's "Imagine" and the Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me." The only artist whose entire catalog was singled out was Rage Against the Machine.
How do you reconcile being anti-corporate and being on a major label?
Rage Against the Machine sold fourteen million records of totally subversive revolutionary propaganda. The reason why is that the albums were released on Sony and got that sort of distribution.
You have two choices. I admire bands like Fugazi that take the other route. They are completely self-contained and independent. But if you do that, then you have to be a businessman. Then I have to sit there and worry about the orders to Belgium and make sure they get there. That is not what I'm going to do.
We've had, in Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, complete artistic control, 100 percent over everything. Every second of every video, every second of every album, every bit of advertisement comes directly from us. I don't even look at it as a tradeoff. You live in a friggin' capitalist world. If you want to sell 45s out of the back of your microbus, God bless you. And maybe that works better, I don't know. I'll see you at the finish line.
Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor for The Progressive.