November 7th, 2003
By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic
Tom Morello is synonymous with political rock. As the lead guitarist with Rage Against the Machine for nine years, he helped define social and political activism with volume and energy. Once Rage morphed into Audioslave, the politics were set aside, even though Morello, who was raised in Libertyville, remained an outspoken activist on a range of issues.
Morello’s fans will see his quieter side this fall when he tours as his alter ego, the Nightwatchman, a solo acoustic songwriter performing songs in the vein of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. He’s on the bill of the Tell Us the Truth Tour, which unites like-minded politicos like Billy Bragg, Boots Rile of The Coup, Lester Chambers of the Chamber Brothers, Steve Earle, Jill Sobule and Mike Mills, bassist-singer with R.E.M. (Sobule and Earle will not play the Chicago stop Sunday at the Park West.)
Onstage and off, the tour will shed light on recent issues like the war in Iraq, fair trade and media consolidation. Morello, 39, talked last week about the tour and his new life as the Nightwatchman.
Q. One of the issues your tour is raising is media consolidation. In Chicago, the Daily Herald was the only newspaper that covered the public hearings held last April to discuss the FCC’s pending decision to ease up its ownership regulations, which would radically change the media landscape in this country. Not a single corporate-owned Chicago media outlet was there, including the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times.
A. There you go! That’s the thesis of the Tell Us the Truth Tour in a nutshell. By unifying the issues of fair trade and media consolidation, this tour draws connections between bad policies and bad journalism. When presidents and politicians lie, the job of the press is to expose and challenge the lies. When the press fails, the lies become laws. The point of the Tell Us the Truth Tour is to make other people make those connections and show them that activism can change the policies of the country.
Q. Why did you think a music tour could be a forum to talk about these issues?
A. For one thing, the people who listen to our music work for a living. And many workers are losing out in these trade deals. One of our duties as concerned musicians is to bring this issue to larger audiences. The media should be telling their stories. The media failed to do its job. We’ll be doing onstage what the media has been neglecting to do, which is to tell the truth. Also, As America prepares for the 2004 presidential election, which will define not just the course of a single country but the world, the American people are being denied with increasing frequency the information that sustains democracy. It’s time for activists and America’s working families to get informed and to get angry and to get active.
Q. What’s the format of the show?
A. There’s a wide array of grassroots organization at the shows. The music is about three chords and truth. We’ll be playing together and separately. One of the things I think is crucial about this tour is that it’s contemporary. It’s not some ’60s throwback, (as in) we’ll be holding hands and singing “Kumbayah.” This is bringing together very diverse artists with very diverse backgrounds and audiences who have similar political leanings.
Q. You’re primarily known as a loud rock guitarist so, besides the politics, it’s a chance to hear you in a solo acoustic setting. How did you get interested in writing quieter songs?
A. With some friends in Los Angeles playing some open mic nights and coffeehouses. Through that, I developed a body of work that very much seemed like an extension of my political life. And also it went beyond that. When you tap the vein, you don’t know what will come out. It’s political music done in a very established tradition from (early century labor organizer and songwriter) Joe Hill to Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylans “The Times They Are A-Changin” to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” That kind of music has always been my favorite kind of music. I’ve always felt music doesn’t have to be loud and have distorted guitars in order to be heavy. You look at some of the artists I’ve talked about. Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” is as dark and as heavy as anything in the (’80s thrash metal band) Venom catalog. There can be a great deal of power in intimacy. And what the Nightwatchman’s doing is to try to tap into that.
Q. When you were first playing coffeehouses, did playing quietly open up a new side of your musical self you didn’t know existed?
A. Completely. It’s not something I ever expected to do. It started when I was reading a biography of Joe Hill. And I saw the lyrics to a song, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.” The music was not there, just the lyrics. On a whim, I picked up my acoustic guitar and made my own little melody to that and thought it sounded all right. In my life a constant is, “I ain’t scared.” So I started writing a couple of songs and knew a few friends that played at the open mic night and went and joined them. One of the inspirations for the Nightwatchman is every year there is a teen homeless shelter in Hollywood here. I go down and bring my dog down and shake the kids’ hands and they pet the dog and I feed them turkey and whatnot. And they have a talent show and I emcee the talent show. At the talent show there was a young man who sang a couple songs. And he didn’t have a great voice but he meant it like I’ve never seen anyone mean it. I thought, “That guy, he’s on an uphill path and he has the courage to go out there and sing what he feels.” And I thought maybe I could do that, too.
Q. Do you plan on recording any of these new songs?
A. I don’t have plans to do that right now. The Nightwatchman was called to fight media consolidation and smash globalization and will answer that challenge. Beyond that, we’re working on new Audioslave music.
Q. He sounds like your own personal superhero.
A. (laughs) The Nightwatchman doesn’t answer questions.
Q. Don’t you think this tour may just be preaching to the choir?
A. I think one of the important parts is to galvanize the troops. There has not been an overtly political tour with a diverse cast spearheading important contemporary issues like this in memory. The last one was the Amnesty International Tour in the ’80s with Peter Gabriel and U2. I don’t know if there are too many people who have Lester Chambers, Billy Bragg and Audioslave all in their iPod. We’ll definitely be bringing together different tribes under the banner of progressive change.
Q. What songs are important to you in that they were written about one thing but over time because universal enough to talk about other issues?
A. There’s a wide variety, from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” to the Clash’s “White Riot” to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” to Billy Bragg’s “There’s Power in a Union” to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Rebel music is not genre specific.
I don’t know if we may together or individually play cover songs. We will be playing some together and individually. It will be solo acoustic. There may not be an opportunity to most as some of you may like but you never know.
Q. Is this a way to get back to political music after your days with Rage since Audioslave is not a political band at all?
A. I don’t know if it’s a way getting back, but I think it’s an extension of my political self. Music is compelling when it develops naturally. Rage Against the Machine developed organically. As did Audioslave. The Nightwatchman happened the same way. You can’t predict an outcome. For instance, for some of the Nightwatchman songs, I could have say down and said, “Time to write a political anthem.” But when you check out the Web site, some of the lyrics are very different from that. When you tap a vein you don’t know what direction it’s going to bleed. That’s when compelling music can be made.
Q. For a musician with such a strong activist side, what was the defining moment for you during the Iraq conflict in which you had enough?
A. It was clear to me not long after 9-11 that the Bush administration, in a really immoral way, was going to use that tragedy to further its own geopolitical and domestic ends. And that is a real shameful bit of business there. In the name of power and oil, there are a lot of dead American kids who are dead because of the lies the Bush administration foisted down our throats that went unreported in the media and have now been laid bare. And there are an unknown number of Iraqi people who didn’t deserve to die. The message we’re carrying across party lines, ethnic lines, gender lines, demographic and geographical lines is that simply all people want and deserve is to hear the truth.