Musician-activist Tom Morello

Musician-activist, a k a The Nightwatchman—whose new CD is “World Wide Rebel Songs”—explains how the injustices in the world have made it into his music and shares what the soundtrack for the nation’s current progressive struggle should include.

Famed for his unique style, Tom Morello is one of the most influential guitarists in modern rock. He's played with the bands Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave and, since '04, has performed as a solo acoustic artist, combining activism and music under the pseudonym The Nightwatchman. Known for his outspoken politics, the Harvard alum co-founded Axis of Justice, an organization that focuses on peace, human rights and economic justice issues. His latest alter ego CD, "World Wide Rebel Songs," is his first featuring a full electric band.


Tavis: Good to have Tom Morello, aka The Nightwatchman, back on this program. The former Rage Against the Machine guitarist and Audioslave cofounder is out now with a new solo project called “World Wide Rebel Songs.” From the project, here is some of the video for the song, “Black Spartacus, Heart Attack Machine”


Tavis: I love this throwback stuff. (Laughter)

Tom Morello: Yeah.

Tavis: Isn’t this cool? I love this. I love this throwback stuff. How you been, man?

Morello: I’m well. It’s good to see you, sir.

Tavis: Good to see you. I know you’re well, because I saw you on “Bill Maher” recently. You were on fire, man. (Laughter)

Morello: Be careful. On your show, I might tell you what I think.

Tavis: Yeah, this is PBS, though.

Morello: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: Brian, who’s my floor guy, is also Bill’s floor guy, and you really were on fire. What’s got you so upset?

Morello: (Laughs) What’s got me so upset.

Tavis: Angry Black man.

Morello: Well, there’s a lot of injustice in the world, Tavis, and it’s what I sing about in my music and what I try to confront in my life as an activist, and this new record, this new Nightwatchman record, “World Wide Rebel Songs,” the genesis for this record was both an act of injustice and an act of great heroism.

It was about a year and a half ago that some of the lower-grade guitars made by Gibson and Fender, they used to be made in a factory in Seoul, Korea. The workers in that factory formed a union. For forming that union they were all fired. The factory was shut down, it was moved to China.

So these Korean workers, who are in desperate need of financial help, came to the United States looking for help. I offered to play a benefit show for them, but the day before the benefit show the earthquake in Haiti happened. So these Korean workers, who were in desperate need of money for their wives, their children and their strike fund, voted to donate 100 percent of the proceeds from their benefit show to the relief effort in Haiti.

That’s the little bit of the world that I’d like to see, a little bit of the world that I fight for in my songs. So I wrote the song “World Wide Rebel Songs.” It became the title track for the new Nightwatchman record.

Across the globe right now you’re seeing people, poor, working class people, standing up for their rights.

Tavis: What’d you make of the fact – I’m pausing here because I’m struck by the story of you doing something for one group and they decide to pass it on, pay it forward to another group.

Morello: Yeah, that’s right.

Tavis: What do you take away from that?

Morello: Well, it’s that there’s hope. There is hope that in these dire economic times where – it occurs to me that the people that own and the people that run this world really don’t deserve to. They do so in the name of profit. They often do so in the name of greed, without regard to human rights, without regards to environmental sanity.

But those Korean workers, they had a different view. They’re like, “We’re going to help our brothers in need, who we’ve never met, from halfway around the world,” and that’s a little bit of the world that we can have.

I think if you can envision it, you can make it happen – but you’ve got to fight for it.

Tavis: I don’t want to repeat this on PBS, but it was appropriate for HBO, of course. But the comment you made about the president needing to – how shall we say this – man up? That’s a kind and generous and charitable read of what you said on HBO.

Morello: Sure, sure.

Tavis: Your sense, though, of what he needs to do in this moment that’s got you singing these kinds of songs?

Morello: Yeah. A lot of us, we thought, we had hoped this was going to be a different kind of president, and that perhaps because he looked like a different president, he talked like a different president. But for two years I was the scheduling secretary for U.S. Senator Alan Krantz, and he was a very progressive member.

Tavis: Democrat in California.

Morello: Yeah, yeah. In working in the internal gears of the Democratic Party I got to see just what huge influence money has. There is this nexus of moneyed interests and political power that has swallowed our society whole, and the people that pay for it are the people on the bottom rungs of the ladder. Not just our society, but around the globe.

That’s why you’re seeing these austerity measures across Europe causing such conflagration there, from Greece to Spain, India, Israel, the UK, to Madison, Wisconsin, people are standing up for their rights because they don’t like the way this world is being handled.

Tavis: What do these kinds of songs do? What do they put out in the universe in troubled times like these?

Morello: Yeah, yeah. Well, growing up, music for me was something that really steeled my backbone for the struggles in my life around issues of race and class, and I think they can do the same things now.

In our country there’s never been a successful progressive struggle that did not have a soundtrack, whether it was the civil rights movement, workers’ rights movement, women’s rights movement. There’s got to be songs at the barricades, and those are the kinds of songs that I try to write.

Tavis: Aside from you, obviously – you’d be the first person that comes to mind for who’s on that soundtrack – when you think about the soundtrack of the ’60s, you and I could do this all night. If we wanted to play a game, we could go back and forth.

I’d name one song; you’d name another song on the soundtrack of the ’60s, those turbulent times. What kind of stuff or artists – you can answer any way you want to answer – do you think will be historically looked back on as being on the soundtrack of these times other than Tom Morello?

Morello: Well, certainly during the Bush era you couldn’t swing a cat and not hit somebody who was writing a song about (laughter) economic inequalities and the war in Iraq. But now I think there’s a little bit of a disillusionment and malaise, but people are coming out of that. From artists like Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen to newer bands like Rise Against.

There’s always the bubbling hip-hop, while maybe not at the top of the charts, but groups like Boots Riley and The Coup are singing songs about these times as well. There’s still a band lingering around called Rage Against the Machine who throws their hat in the ring from time to time. (Laughter)

Tavis: Speaking of that band, what’s the update on that band of late?

Morello: Well, Rage Against the Machine tours at a rather gentlemanly pace. We played one show in 2011. (Laughter) We don’t want to exhaust ourselves. But it is a band that’s very much active, and my hope is that there’ll be more music in the future and shows in the future.

Tavis: What is this solo thing? This is project number four now.

Morello: Yeah, yeah, this is the fourth record from Nightwatchman.

Tavis: Nightwatchman, yeah. What’s the solo thing doing for you right about now at this point in your career?

Morello: Well, I started doing it almost 10 years ago as kind of an antidote for my arena rock life. I wanted to be able to do something that was intimate, something that was exclusively a solo endeavor that was very pure in its intent and where every lyric – but now, like when you’re in a big band like Rage Against the Machine it’s like this big army that kind of goes to war using rock as its cause.

With The Nightwatchman, it’s guerilla warfare. It’s sniping at the fascists from the sidelines and from the rooftops, and I like how mobile I can be, too. Like for example when the union uprising was occurring in Madison in February, I saw that one day on TV and I was there, playing in front of 100,000 people in the freezing cold on the steps of the capitol building the next day.

Tavis: Is there a price that Tom Morello pays for that?

Morello: Now that I have two children, two boys under two now, and there’s definitely a balancing act that takes place. My second child was about to be born the day I went to Madison, and I looked at my wife and she knew what I was thinking when I was watching that protest on TV. (Laughter)

But we agree that our boys are going to be union men, and that on the one hand I think it’s crucially important to be present in the lives of your children. They are my most important cause that I fight for. But I also feel an added responsibility that I want to leave them a better world than this one that we have now.

I don’t want to leave this mess around for them to clean up. I want to swing absolutely as hard as I can to straighten things out before they get to the age where it starts hurting them.

Tavis: You went to school where?

Morello: Harvard University.

Tavis: Exactly. I raise that because I’m curious as to your take on the culture, the elite culture in our society. It seems to me that as a guy who came out of Harvard, I would think at least what they’d teach you all privately is thou shalt not speak ill of another Harvard alum.

Morello: (Laughs) I don’t know about that.

Tavis: Obviously, if they taught that, you didn’t get that lesson.

Morello: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: You flunked that class, obviously. (Laughter) In all seriousness, talk to me about what you do coming out of that privileged educational background of Harvard and Cambridge and that so much of what you say is an assault, an attack, a direct affront – legitimate and I think necessary – against the kind of elite – and I’m not trying to bash Harvard here – but the elite that run this country.

Morello: There’s a lot of elements to Harvard. The credo of the university is not “Protect other Harvardians,” it’s “Veritas,” which in Latin means “truth.” It’s also the name of my home studio, where this record was recorded right now, Veritas Studios.

But to me I went on mostly a full – I have a one-parent household; my mom was a public high school teacher. So the one thing, just to clarify that, the one thing about Harvard, the reason I went there is because they had the most diverse student body and they were need-blind in letting people in. So the educational experience goes well beyond that.

But bashing the elite is what I’m all about in my music because they absolutely don’t deserve the privileged position that they’re in, and we’re seeing this around the globe right now. I think that there is something very latent in the United States, from the Occupy Wall Street movement that’s going on now to the huge union demonstrations we saw in Madison.

People think something’s just not right here. There’s something not right in the water. While it’s intangible how exactly we’re going to attack it, people are starting to try.

Tavis: President Obama almost two weeks ago gave a speech, as you know well, at the Congressional Black Caucus, where he uttered that now-infamous phrase, “Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying,” and there has been for the last couple of weeks now great debate inside the African American community and beyond about whether the president went too far, was wrong to have insulted that audience.

What do you make of the fact that for folk who thought they were being insulted, others were cheering while he was offering the insult once he went off teleprompter?

On this program last week I got in some trouble by asking rather forthrightly whether or not this president would ever similarly speak to our Jewish brothers and sisters, our Hispanic brothers and sisters on immigration, the gays and lesbians, certainly not Wall Street – stop complaining, shut up, stop grumbling, stop crying. He would never utter that kind of speech.

I raise that only because I’m curious as to whether or not when the president says, “Stop complaining, stop grumbling, stop crying,” whether that’s your read or whether or not you think it’s the exact opposite, that not enough people are speaking up, never mind race, color, creed or economic background?

Morello: I think the president should stop complaining and stop grumbling and stop crying himself. You know what? Why can’t he shut down Guantanamo Bay? He’s complaining he can’t do that. Why can’t he fix this economic malaise where the global economy was torpedoed by the malfeasance of Wall Street and not one of those bankers is in jail?

The president’s not like – he hasn’t shut down Guantanamo Bay. I’d say those animal cages would be better filled with some of those Wall Street bankers. Let’s put them in the orange jumpsuits with the black hoods. (Laughter) And the people that deny us healthcare, which kills – lack of adequate healthcare kills tens of thousands of Americans a year, much more than on 9/11, even.

Those are criminal – that sort of poverty that is created by that economic malfeasance of the super-rich creates devastating impact for the poor and working class in this country. Where’s the president on those issues?

First of all, as someone who has experience working in a progressive Democratic office, I’m not waiting for that. When real substantive change happens it’s the people who watch your show, they’re the ones that make it happen. It’s people whose names are not highlighted in history books. They’re the ones that stand up in their place and time to make change.

So whether or not the president’s calling out this community or that, frankly, that’s almost immaterial to me. My music is made for the people who are willing to stand up to change this world themselves.

Tavis: What is, to your mind, the pain threshold of those people that listen to your music?

Morello: The pain – (laughs). I think people are reaching it now. They’re certainly reaching it. In a way, the title, “World Wide Rebel Songs,” was prescient. I wrote this before there were uprisings in Athens, Spain, the UK and Wisconsin, these songs were written.

So I think that you’re seeing on a global scale people willing to go to varying degrees, but I think that we’re going to see, hopefully in the next winter and next spring, as we head more into the election cycle, these issues bubble to the surface. We head into that recall for the Wisconsin governor that you’re going to once again see tens of thousands of people in the streets.

Tavis: Troubled times do call for troubled songs, songs that unsettle our souls and our spirits unapologetically, and Tom Morello provides that in his new project. The latest from The Nightwatchman, “World Wide Rebel Songs.” Tom Morello, I appreciate your witness and I’m glad to have you on this program.

Morello: Thank you very much. Always a pleasure, sir.

Tavis: Good to have you here, my friend.

Morello: Sure.

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Last modified: October 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm