Given the fairly overwhelming level of attention being placed on Rage Against The Machine's resurgence in the aftermath of Audioslave’s demise, maverick guitarist Tom Morello – AKA The Nightwatchman – has been free to slink in through the back door, with little fanfare, to let loose his debut solo LP, One Man Revolution.
Morello is now battling with an acoustic guitar as his primary weapon of choice: the sound might be entirely different, but putting the world to rights is probably his stock-in-trade now more than ever, as DiS swiftly comes to realise...
So Tom, when you returned to the stage with Rage recently, Zack de le Rocha broke the seven year silence during ‘Wake Up’, where he spat: “This whole rotten system has become so vicious and cruel that in order to sustain itself, it needs to destroy entire countries and profit from their reconstruction in order to survive - and that's not a system that changes every four years, it's a system that we have to break down, generation after generation after generation…” Stop me if this is a silly question then, but whom, if indeed anybody, would you lend any kind of credence to on your side of the pond when the 2008 US presidential election heats up?
Well it can’t get much worse [laughs], quite frankly, than what we’ve seen over the last six-and-a-half years. But at the same time, no matter who’s in office, it doesn’t alleviate our responsibility to continue to fight for issues of social justice, human rights, health care, environmental protection and workers rights. Those are issues that don’t go away whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in office. You can’t just wish upon a star where you vote and then you kind of shrug your shoulders for another four years. That’s not how it works, that’s not how change happens. Even if we’re fortunate enough to get out from underneath the boot heels of the Bush dynasty, I don’t think we can breathe a sigh of relief, because the Democrats have proved to be – much like your Labour party – just as…
…Grown from the same soil?
Exactly – they’re just as dodgy as the right-wing candidates, in part at least. Our system is entirely funded by money; the electoral system is entirely beholden to a few rich corporations and a few rich people who are able to donate the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to get elected president.
So there are no players involved with any idealist, romanticised principles similar to Ralph Nader’s, say, who give off even a remote scent of possibility in a democratic context?
Not really. We basically have a one party system here, where there’s one corporate party with two shades of indifference [laughs]. One party’s maybe a little bit more honest in their willingness to ravage the planet for profit and the other one’s just kind of sad and weak – and those are the choices we have every four years, so I’m not willing to sit back and just hope for the best. I think that it’s our job to just keep fighting for a future that’s not as dim as the one that they would shove down our throats.
In keeping with that spirit, you’ve set up Axis of Justice in recent years. In what way does the organisation manifest itself?
In a number of different ways the organisation has been in existence for around seven years – you can check it out at axisofjustice.org (click for link). We try to do a number of things; first of all, it’s important for us to serve the communities that we live in, and so that means helping to feed and shelter and clothe the homeless and hungry where we live, the people who are ground down to a pulp by the system, and who there’s no help for through official channels… we do our best to help around here. Then, to supply an alternative source of information – on the website we’ve got great people who work around the clock to provide an alternative news source, something that’s very different to what you’ll get from the corporately controlled media. Also, there are very specific issues that we try to highlight and provide an answer for, to music fans who want to get their hands dirty with real grassroots political activism. Whether they’re peace issues, environmental issues, prisoner of war issues, there’s a healthy dose of causes that you can get involved in by simply visiting the website. And then when we travel, whether it’s Nightwatchman shows or whether it’s Axis of Justice shows or whatever, a portion of every ticket goes towards our endeavours which we split with the local city where we’re playing.
Are there any plans to expand the Axis initiative beyond the US?
Part of the problem is that it’s run by me and Serj Tankian, and we have pretty busy lives outside of running the organisation. I think that European chapters of Axis of Justice are long overdue, and all it takes is people who are willing to get together to start them. We’d be happy to help you or your readers do that.
I'll have to check with a few people. Do you feel like you’ve achieved real tangible results since the organisation came into existence?
It’s all part of an ongoing struggle. Until we overthrow the Bush regime and stop war crimes being committed in our name on both sides of the Atlantic, the struggle goes on. My only goal on this tour is to liberate one venue at a time, one night at a time. That’s the whole point of doing music like this. It’s doing music for the right reasons. Whether it’s playing solo shows or shows with other likeminded musicians, whatever their vocation – mine happens to be as a guitar player and now as a singer – this is about speaking out in an unflinching way about the injustices you see around you and the ones that are being perpetrated, whether it’s by your own government or someone else’s.
Say that infrastructure was gone. Picture this scene from a parallel universe: Morello and the Axis of Justice take over the Oval Office and all the old oil tycoons are out on their arses. What’s first on the agenda?
In my country? The first thing we’d do is immediately change the national anthem to Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land’. I think that’s an important first step – a country needs the right song and with that great class war anthem of Woody Guthrie’s we would restore the censored verses that they didn’t teach you in the third grade. That, I think, would be the first order of business and that would definitely set us on the right path.
And outside, on the Whitehouse lawn, or on the pavement of Downing Street, there’s a bill of politically charged musicians and speakers from across time taking to the bandstand. Who would you put up there to inspire the masses?
My ideal line up? Well you certainly couldn’t do any better than having Joe Strummer in any incarnation headlining the bill. Commandant Joe is always my favourite vote as someone who really walked it like he talked it, so he would definitely headline the bill. I think, as far as speakers go, I always enjoy hearing what Nelson Mandela has to say… talk about someone who walked it like he talked it, from spending 25-plus years in jail to becoming the leader of a free South Africa. I don’t think there’s any more inspirational a story than that guy’s.
Given the strong reaction to your old band’s comeback and the retaliatory mood in general that an event like Coachella perhaps covertly encourages, do you believe that attendees continue to look beyond their own doorstep once a festival is over?
There’s certainly ample fuel for the fire: bad presidents make for good music and I think that we’ve got one of the worst presidents in history, so I expect this music to be great. Culture is an important component of any social movement: it can provide inspiration and it can provide a sense of solidarity, but it can’t do it on its own. You have to go beyond the 50,000 people a day at Coachella – those who came to the festival already pissed off about what they see going on in the world and those who left even more pissed off – as it’s then their responsibility to do something about it. I think that the commercial culture we live in is very atomizing, because you’re either alone in front of your computer screen or you’re alone in front of your video games or you’re alone in front of your entertainment television, like a passenger on the train that is your country. And if that train is headed in the wrong direction, people have to realise they have the power to throw the conductor out the window and change the direction.
In your own efforts to do so, your sentiments have literally been beamed onto millions of those televisions with a recent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. An important platform, then?
Oh, absolutely. In playing with a big arena rock band you’re able to reach the masses. I guess – with the first Rage album coming out in ’92, in a 15-year career of Rage and Audioslave being able to reach millions of people with rock 'n' roll music – this music that I’m playing now kind of separates the wheat from the chaff. Whereas Rage and Audioslave cast the nets wide and then found converts within those great numbers, this is music that is in a way preaching to the converted but – guess what – the converted need a kick in the ass. It’s the converted who have been standing on the sidelines while your government and my government have been complicit in war crimes and complicit in the rollback in civil liberties. So this is a record that’s searching for true believers and zealots and willing people to stand up and fight the power.
Say you hadn’t picked up a guitar in order to facilitate that fight. Given your background as a Harvard graduate, which other career path might you have gone down?
I did work for two years as a scheduling secretary for a United States senator, Alan Cranston. So I got to see firsthand from inside the belly of the beast and, even though he was very progressive in his politics, he spent most of his time on the telephone asking rich guys for money and none of that money comes for free. So, if there was any chance that I was going to be involved in standard electoral politics, that idea got flushed down the drain right there. And my heroes have never been congressmen; my heroes have been people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X or the Black Panthers or Gandhi or Emma Goldman, people like that who stood outside of the mainstream and helped to change the world because they were radicals, not because they were conformists.
Given that the alternative music scene you emerged from claimed so many casualties at the height of its power, who do you look upon as your own contemporaries these days, ideologically speaking?
There are many musicians who are just as pissed off about what the Bush administration does as the rest of the world is. Every record that comes across my desk, from Arcade Fire to Bright Eyes to Nine Inch Nails, to you just naming something: every new record seems to have some point of view about what’s going on in the world. But at the same time I think that’s indicative of the desperate times that we live in, and that indignation needs to be tethered to action. That’s not necessarily musicians’ responsibility, that’s everyone’s responsibility. Since I was 17 years old and first played in rock bands and first started to become a political activist, I’ve encouraged people to – in an unflinching and uncompromising way – raise their voice, to speak out in their vocation against injustice, and I finally decided to take my own advice and make this record. This is going to be my voice: every note, every chord, every lyric; it’s gonna be me telling the truth as I see it.
As far as One Man Revolution goes, there’s a strong influence from guys like Billy Bragg, Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen. How did you come to narrow down the sound to match the Nightwatchman persona?
I think those are all astute observations there, and my love for this kind of music probably began with Billy Bragg. It was in hearing those early rebel records of his and sharing the stage with him several times when Rage and Billy Bragg played together and then, later on, seeing some of the Springsteen solo acoustic shows… I was blown away by how powerful, how moving, how humorous, how inspirational just one man with a guitar, three chords and the truth could be. I’ve always been a fan of heavy music and I’ve always been a fan of rebel music and it only dawned on me in more recent years that you don’t need a huge wall of Marshall stacks to be heavy. Sometimes the right lyrical couplet can be more cutting than a barrage of guitar overdubs.
At this point in time it seems like you’ve got the best of both worlds at your fingertips. What’s your vision for the future?
I’ve got much extensive Nightwatchman touring to do and I’ve got a catalogue of about 55 Nightwatchman songs that I feel really good about, so there’s going to be many more Nightwatchman albums. That’s the plan. I really love doing this music and I love the fact that it feels like a mission as much as it is a career and to have that independence too. I just wrote a song for Michael Moore’s new movie, Sicko, which is coming out pretty soon. Having the freedom to express myself anywhere, anytime, whether it’s an anti-war rally or whether it’s for a movie that I believe in or whether it’s for people at a club show or a huge festival, it does feel like this is what I should be doing right now.
And, in terms of Rage, do you see life beyond the upcoming shows with Wu Tang Clan this month and the one-off with Queens of the Stone Age in August?
Right now we only have plans to do those, but that’s not to say we won’t play more shows beyond that...
For all this revolutionary intent, it seems that the skilful art of diplomacy is not lost on Tom Morello. Whether or not Rage Against The Machine are here to stay remains to be seen but, with the Nightwatchman on shift, it doesn’t look like this one-man revolution will be resting on his laurels anytime soon. The end prize is just too huge.