Tom Morello and Boots Riley Interview
November 06, 2006
INTERVIEW BY JASON SONGE
I stopped by the Monteleone Hotel yesterday to interview Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave's Tom Morello. Morello was named by Rolling Stone as #26 in their top 100 guitarists of all time list. Also on hand for the interview was Boots Riley, the humorous flowmaster of disaster for The Coup, a hip hop duo from Oakland. Morello and Riley were in town to play a benefit concert for the Tipitina's Foundation, the Arabi Wrecking Crewe, and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic that also featured Steve Earle, Alison Moorer, Mike Mills, Corin Tucker, Bonerama, and Al Johnson. The concert was organized by the Future of Music Coalition, which Boots and Tom have done concerts for in the past. During this interview, I also talked to Future of Music Coalition founder Jenny Toomey for a second. Tom and Boots are known for their political activism.
Jason Songe: How did y'all get involved with the Future of Music Coalition?
Tom Morello: A couple of years ago I was asked by my friend Billy Bragg to do a tour that was sponsored by the Future of Music, which was called the Tell Us The Truth tour, which was gonna address the dangers of media consolidation and the FTAA meeting in Miami and the protests surrounding it. The show zigzagged across the country to bring awareness to those two issues. It was on that tour that I met the empress of Future Music, Jenny Toomey, and it corralled a great combination of diverse musicians that were united idealogically. We all became good friends--me, Boots, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Jill Sobule, Mike Mills, Janeane Garofalo. Since then the Future of Music has succeeded in wrangling me into a number of different causes.
JS: Jenny, you might be a better person to answer this. What's the purpose of the Future of Music Coalition?
Jenny Toomey: The Future of Music Coalition is a non profit that works on education, advocacy, and research. We know there is tremendous change happening because of transition, and there's changing in law, and there's changes in legal precedent, and there's changes in technology and technical standards, and we wanna make sure that when those decisions are made, they benefit musicians so that it's easier for them to make their music and get paid for their music. We have a full time economist that does studies for us that we can then use when advocating for less radio consolidation or better record contracts for artists. We have someone on the staff who does free guidance for artists that wanna get health insurance 'cause we know that's a huge problem for musicians. We testify before congress and the FCC and the copyright office. We do big conferences to get all the major folks talking about stuff publicly cause our big concern is that most of the new structures that artists are gonna live with are being decided behind closed doors from powerful entities that don't always have the artist's best interests at heart. The more you can make it happen out in the sunlight the more likely it is that artists can ask for what they need.
JS: Does the Future of Music have anything to do with bringing New Orleans artists back to New Orleans?
JT: This specifically(concert) does. We were doing a meeting about a bunch of media issues that are happening in the next year so these artists(Tom and Boots) know about it because they're such advocates and so articulate. We're trying to figure out ways to get them excited or worried about what's going on next year and get them prepared to do work on that, but while we were down here, it seemed stupid not to see what's happened to our musician friends and try and raise money to help them. That's what the show is about tonight.
JS: Cool. Thanks. Have y'all been back in town since the hurricane?
Boots Riley: Yeah, I have. We did a show and we also got a tour by a local organization, and while New Orleans retains a lot of magic that it had for me--it was one of my favorite cities, a place I said I'd move to one day. It was always one of those places that if you asked for directions people wouldn't tell you, they'd just show you. They'd say, "Follow me." Although it retained a lot of magic, and maybe that magic was in memories for me, it was really sad, not just the physical devastation but the emptiness. The void that's there from the people that were walking around before.
JS: It's still there. It's pervasive.
BR: It's quite different now. That's why I think that talking about rebuilding New Orleans can't be without the discussion of repopulating it with the same people.
JS: How are y'all approaching the concert differently from other concerts you've been a part of?
TM: There will be individual and collaborative performances. There are two New Orleans artists, Bonerama and Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, that are playing with us, as well. Some of those combinations we're gonna work out at soundcheck in about an hour or so. We're not really sure how different the performances are gonna be, but it's something I'm really looking forward to. It's a precedent we set on the other Future of Music tour, where we throw ourselves into unfamiliar musical territory, where, like, I'm Boots back-up band on nylon string acoustic guitar.
BR: And...you know...I was just gonna say a joke, but I messed it up(Jason, Tom, and Jenny laugh. Different slashing and choking noises are made).
JS: We got time.
BR: (completing the joke) And he's got a tambourine on his foot.
TM: I'm a one man band. Steve and his wife, Alison Moorer, are gonna play, and there are gonna be some spirited songs we play together at the end. A part of it is really flying blind. The spontaneity is gonna be in the spirit of New Orleans music, so we'll see if we can rise to the occasion.
JS: Are y'all gonna be doing any Nightwatchman(Tom's solo project) stuff?
TM: We're gonna be doing more Nightwatchman stuff than they can take. That's what my set is gonna be.
JS: I went on YouTube and saw y'all performing at the 2004 Taco Bell protest. I enjoyed that. Is the reason you use your acoustic instead of your electric because you're aligning yourself with the folk protest songs and artists from the past?
TM: Yeah. That's part of it. Some of my favorite music is acoustic music, whether it's Johnny Cash or early Dylan or Nebraska-era Springsteen. Stuff like that. Also, though, it gives you an opportunity to get on an airplane and come and play a show without a band meeting and without a PA. You can do it with a harmonica and a guitar. Boots and I could perform on a street corner, or we could perform in a stadium with that setup, and that's something I really appreciate about it. You can move fast and stay one step ahead of the law at the same time.
JS: In April(talking to Tom) you received the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award. What did that mean to you?
TM: It was very meaningful. It was for participation in different labor struggles. In my realm of rock fans, I help to shed light on important issues. The true heroes of those struggles are the people you don't know, the people who don't make records and talk about it in Rolling Stone. They're the rank and file of the various unions and their supporters. I've had the great good fortune to have Grammy's and things like that, but the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award was more meaningful to me because it's for something--at the end of the day when you look at your credits and debits, I've got a lot of debits, and that's one that's in the good column.
JS: A lotta debits? We're not gonna talk about debits.
TM: After Bourbon Street the last few times...(laughter all around)
JT: I feel like we're about to get into ex-wife territory.
JS: Yeah, I know. It woulda been really easy, but...
TM: I've worked up a new song for tonight. It's called, "Litigious."(laughter all around)
JS: Tom, last month you were supporting the rights of immigrant hotel workers and you got arrested. You've been arrested a few times before. Do you still worry about the consequences, like it coming up in court, or has it become a run of the mill thing for you?
TM: I don't worry about it. It was in support of hotel workers rights, many of them who are immigrants, and they really got the shaft in Los Angeles, particularly in the airport corridor there. It was the largest act of nonviolent civil disobediance in the history of Los Angeles. Over 400 people were arrested, and thousands more protested in the streets and blocked the entrance to the airport. People have certainly fought harder and suffered worse in the name of a cause, and if my doing it can help it get on MTV.com and help people to know to boycott particular hotel chains and bring the plight of the workers--especially Boots and I, we stay in a lot of hotels. We see what those hotel workers lives are like, maybe more than the average person. It was a small thing that I could do to bring their struggle more into the public light...I had to shank a dude for some cranberry juice(laughter all around). I was very thirsty.
JS: You musta been very, very thirsty.
TM: I used my one phone to call KROQ to tell them what we were doing. I said, "This is Tom Morello from Audioslave. I'm in jail. Can you put me through to Kevin and Bean?" They're the morning show guys. It was funny. They were like, "Oh, oh, is it really Tom? Hold on." They put me through and the guys were like, "Are you in jail?" And I said, "Yeah, the cranberry juice shanking incident just occurred."(more laughter)
JS: This question is for the both of y'all. Do y'all believe the best way to impart change is from the inside out or the outside in?
BR: There's no way to be outside the system. You know. But do I think it has to happen through direct action? Definetely. This system is based on dollars and cents and what they can make off of people. The negotiations and compromises that happen happen with being able to threaten that economy and being able to threaten their ability to make money so that they can make that decision--do we give in to the workers needs and the people's needs--it's gonna cost this much if we don't. Otherwise it's just asking and begging. While that sometimes gains support of other people, the direct action of shutting things down or even the threat of being able to shut things down is when the change is able to happen. Even the things that are seen as small reforms like social security and affirmatrive action and any other things like that, they didn't happen because we voted the right person in. They happened because they were scared of people taking over and shutting things down because it had been happening already. I always say this--you could have the most right-wing politician that people scare into making some good policy decisions and you could have the most progressive politicians, and I'm name checking people that are actual good people at heart and in politics like Ron Delhams and like Barbara Lee. If the people aren't behind them, there's not much they can do. Even Barbara Lee, after she made that vote, she was verbally backpedaling until people in the Bay Area said, "We support you on this."
JS: I'm not familiar with Barbara Lee. Can you explain the vote you're talking about?
BR: Barbara Lee voted against giving George Bush a blank check for the war. She was the only vote. She's a congresswoman, and she represents the Bay Area. Afterward, she was on the radio saying, "Well, I voted saying they could go to war, because that was gonna anyway, but I only voted against not being able to have a check and balance on the money." She was trying to seperate herself from being totally anti-war until people in the Bay Area said, "No, we're down with that. We'll ride for you," and then she came out being fiercely anti-war. I'm not downing her for that. I'm saying that's how it works. In the end, even if you're playing the electoral politics game, it comes down to people being able to shut a building down or stop the flow of money in this business or that business.
JS: (Looking to Tom) Did you have anything to say?
TM: I worked for two years as an aide to a U.S. senator, so I got to see really what it's like on the inside, and it was U.S. Senator Allen Cranston, and while he was probably one of the most progressive senators in the history of the U.S. senate, he spent the vast majority of his day calling up rich guys and asking them for money. And that might not come for free. Despite the fact that he was really good on environmental issues and sort of human rights in Central America, he was beholden to these monied interests that end of the day ties in. It's not the schoolteachers who are getting his campaign or the person he supports in Louisiana's campaign off the ground, it's the guy who runs Heinz Ketchup or whatever, and those people have a political agenda that's gonna be different from maybe yours and maybe mine and certainly Boots.
JS: As far as tonight, is there gonna any Coup, Rage songs or Audioslave?
TM: There's gonna be some surprises.
JS: Is Bonerama preparing for some Rage?
TM: That I don't know.
BR: Tom's gonna rap "Testify."(laughter all around).
TM: We gave Bonerama a CD of songs to prepare, and we'll see if we figure it out later.
It's gonna be the Coup acoustic tonight.
BR: And I'm gonna be on flute...we actually had a nightmare where we had a flute player on one song come up, but she got so hyped off the crowd's energy, that she like broke it down into her own solo and started singing, "We want the funk..." started doing her own show, in the middle of which, then soloed again, in the middle of which did a plug for her next month's worth of gigs(laughter all around)
TM: I'll be at the Starfish Lounge Thursday, and on Friday...
BR: And I'm standing in her ear like, "You gotta go." And I'm seeming like, you know, 'cause the crowd sometimes is like, "whatever," you know? They're being nice and I'm seeming like the bad guy...
TM: Like, "I wanna hear more about this over here, away from the mic."
BR: Her name was Kimberly Jackson.
TM: Why are you giving her more attention?(laughter starts again).
JS: In '91 you(talking to Boots) along with some others founded the Mau Mau Rhythm Collective. At what point did you become more than just a fan of music and realize you could use it to get your political ideas across?
BR: I was in this organization, and we would go every week to the Double Lock projects in San Francisco, working around some vague shit like, "Fight racism!" Something that didn't really work--I mean didn't really have a goal. But we knew a lot of people there. One day when we weren't there, there was a woman called Rocie Hawkins, and she had two twin 8 year-old sons. The police said that her 8 year-old songs were selling drugs or whatever, and they started questioning her, and it turned into beating her down and beating down her eight year-old sons at the same time. Bloody, in the middle of the Double Lock projects. The whole projects came out, gathered around them, because what had happened two weeks before was that someone got beaten by the police and not taken to the hospital, and they died in police custody. So, people wanted to take her to the hospital themselves. They gathered around, the police got scared and start shooting in the air and call for back-up. Of course, if you've ever had a gun shot around you, the first thing you think is, "I could die." You forget everything else and you run away, so the whole crowd ran away. At some point, though, during that running, they turned around, came back, fought the police, got Rocie Hawkins, took her to the hospital. By the end of the night, there were three police cars turned over, and the police ran away, a couple of them without their guns. None of this was in the newspaper the next day. When we came back, that next Sunday, we heard this story over and over, and sometimes little pieces were different, but what I told you was what over 50 people consistently told me. The one thing that really changed my mind about what I could do with my music--they said that at the time they were running away from the police, this was in the summer of '89, someone chanted "Fight the power, fight the power!" This was the song that was on the radio at that time. Everybody knew from that song, from the other people 'cause the chant went on, this was the thing to do. Even though they were scared, they knew they hadda do the right thing right then. I saw what place music could have and decided to do it seriously.
JS: That's a great story.
TM: Yeah, it is. I've never heard that one.
JS: What about you, Tom?
TM: I grew up liking heavy metal music, but I had political convictions, in part because half my family is Kenyan, was some of them were literally Mau Mau. They fought British colonialism in east Africa. Then I discovered bands like Public Enemy and The Clash, and it was a more accurate, like The Clash's snapshots of information about US foreign policy were more accurate than the ones I was getting on the nightly news and resonated in a way that was more true. I shifted from KISS and Alice Cooper being my favorite bands to wanting to actually see what I could do. For me a real crossroads moment was when I saw The Clash play at The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. I was playing in this little punk rock band and had this little amp and my number one hero of political rock music was Joe Strummer of The Clash and he had exactly the same amp on a chair, propped on a chair, exactly like mine in my mom's basement. He had this little Music Man Twin Amp on a chair, and it made it all seem--oh, you can just do it. It's not something other people do. We're doing it. It's already happening. And it made it seem possible. I never thought there should be a ceiling to anything you can do, whether it's music or...you can win the world, you know what I mean? It's not by just having a number one record. There's no telling what a band can do. There's no telling what a journalist can do. And to try and take the Mau Mau influences, whether it was Che Guevara or Emma Goldman, and take the ideas of revolution and societal transformation into the world of music and see what happens. Though my favorite bands like The Clash and Public Enemy were very inspirational, I thought there were possibilities beyond what they did to combine the inspiration of great music with practical activism and motivation to see what could happen, and with Rage Against The Machine, we toyed with that.
JS: You did more than toy with it.
TM: We were somewhat successful.
JS: I think so. What's more important in the end--the music or the message?
BR: If I'm speaking to you in Portuguese, and you don't speak Portuguese, then I might as well not even be saying the message. If I have something nice to say it to you but I have a gun to your head, I might as well not even be saying it. I think it's hard to seperate it. I hate bad political music.
TM: I think that's important point. Go on.
BR: You have to be an artist in order to--you have to care about how you're doing what you're doing. Even as an organizer, when it's not even art, you have to--form and content are very much intertwined, and when you think one is more important than another, that's when you lose.
TM: People would often say during the days of Rage Against The Machine, why aren't there more political bands? There's lots of them. Some of them aren't connecting with a large audience. Rage, first and foremost, was a great rock band that was also political. Were it not for the fact that it kicked ass as a rock band, we wouldn't be talking about it now. There wasn't just the message--oh, someone is talking about the Zappatistas, I will run to the concert. That wasn't it. It had a visceral quality and an artistic quality, and regardless of the message, was a compelling one. Because of the music was able to cast the nets wide and bring in a disparate audience that hadn't necessarily been exposed to those ideas before.
JS: Boots, there's a lot of humor in your lyrics, like in the song "Let's Make a Baby before Bush do Somethin' Crazy."
BR: Yeah, my early political training was with some old English radical union organizers, and their thing was like, "If you can't drink with a bloke, how the fuck are you gonna get him to go on strike and risk his life," and full of looking at the ironies of the world, which is what exposes me to contradictions. That's how I think, that's how I talk. I didn't even realize it was humorous until an article came out after "Steal This Album." They were like, "What Riley does is very humorous." To me, that's like, lyrically, those little ironies, that's good poetry and lyric writing to me. That's just how I talk about things to friends.
TM: In his lyrics Boots is very successful in taking concepts down to a street level or a personally interactive level where you can relate to it very much.