Tom Morello on how he became political
02:35 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

"It's a record with a global focus," Tom Morello says of his new solo album

Morello was No. 26 on Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Tiame" list

He talks about the racism he faced growing up in a small Illinois town

Los Angeles CNN  — 

“Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine” is the first single off Tom Morello’s new solo album, and it’s an ode to his guitar.

That’s not surprising for the Rage Against the Machine axeman, who was once No. 26 on Rolling Stone’s list of the “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.”

“I got this new steel string,” he explains, holding up his black acoustic with a bit of pride. “Mick Jones of The Clash referred to his main guitar as a ‘heart attack machine,’ and it’s black, so I called it ‘Black Spartacus.’ “

When asked if he might one day write a real love song, as opposed to one for his guitar, Morello rolls his eyes.

“Why do people keep asking me that?” he says before launching into an overtly sexual jam, worthy of a ’70s porno flick. “Try making babies to that!”

In the next room, Ben Harper chuckles.

“That guy’s made plenty of baby-making songs,” Morello says.

Harper laughs again. He knows it’s true.

The two musicians have an easy friendship. For years, they’ve supported each other’s charitable endeavors and activist causes – which inadvertently led to their first duet, the gospel-tinged “Save the Hammer for the Man.” It’s a track on “World Wide Rebel Songs,” Morello’s fourth record under the guise of his Nightwatchman alter ego.

“We were playing a show in Chicago for some union issue, and some of the other musicians on the bill were grousing about not getting paid,” Morello says. “One of the other musicians canceled the show because he had to return to his vineyard. We were on the phone kind of moaning about this, and Ben said, ‘Tom, you let me know if you want me to put the hammer down.’ And I said, ‘Ben, save the hammer for the man.’ And we’re like, ‘Hold on. One day, that must be a song!’ “

Morello says he and Harper have a lot in common, “from the ethnicity of our parents to quite a number of things.” Both hail from white moms and black dads.

“We like to consider ourselves the biracial, punk rock Everly Brothers,” Morello says.

In the home studio where the pair recorded “Save the Hammer for the Man,” the 47-year-old singer-songwriter spoke with CNN about “World Wide Rebel Songs” and how events in his childhood shaped his political activism.

CNN: “World Wide Rebel Songs” has a broader focus than your previous albums. The Nightwatchman has gone global.

Tom Morello: I was not looking into a crystal ball when writing the songs for “World Wide Rebel Songs.” I wrote the songs about a year and a half ago, and yet worldwide events have caught up with them – from the maquiladoras of Tijuana (plants that export manufactured goods), to the unrest in Europe and North Africa. It’s a record with a global focus, and it’s part folk record and part rock record.

CNN: You pick up the electric guitar, which you really haven’t done as The Nightwatchman.

Morello: This is the first Nightwatchman record where I really play a lot of electric guitar. About three years ago, I played an electric version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” with Bruce on stage, and it was the first time I’d ever sung with an electric guitar in my hands.

I realized I could do what I do best as an electric guitar player without sacrificing the integrity of the political, folk music singer-songwriterism that I enjoy very much.

CNN: Are you getting more comfortable as a singer these days?

Morello: It’s a matter of playing hundreds and hundreds of gigs, and recording four records of my material. Some of my favorite singers have been Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen – people who may not be able to hit a high “C” on the piano, but whose voices contain the gravitas that makes the music feel like they mean it.

CNN: This is a really autobiographical album, isn’t it?

Morello: While the events it speaks of are on a global level, it’s also the most personal Nightwatchman record, as well. I deal in some parts of the record with my Kenyan heritage.

Music, I think, is best when it honestly explores personal demons, and it stirs around in the silt of the psyche to find out what’s really there. And if it’s true and it rhymes, I’ll put it on the record.

CNN: There’s a song on this record, “Facing Mount Kenya,” that seems quite personal, given your family’s history in Kenya.

Morello: My parents met in Kenya. My father is African, is Kenyan. The Kenyan side of my family was involved in the anticolonial movement. My great uncle was Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, who led the movement to oust the British from Kenya. I didn’t grow up with my Kenyan family. I grew up in a small, conservative suburb of Chicago. The song “Facing Mount Kenya” explores the pride in that country and the distance from it as well.

CNN: What was it like growing up biracial in a small Illinois town?

Morello: I literally integrated the small town of Libertyville, Illinois. I was the first person of color to reside within its borders, which was confirmed when the real estate agent had to go door-to-door in the apartment building we wanted to rent, asking if it was OK for this interracial family – my mom is white and I was a 1-year-old half-African kid – to live in the apartment building.

The sales pitch was, “Well, look, he’s not an American Negro. He’s a very exotic African,” and that was something that the neighbors were like, “Oh, that’s very interesting!” – until I got old enough to date their daughters.

CNN: Were there any incidents of racism you can talk about?

Morello: People often ask how I became political, or when I became political. When you’re the only black kid growing up in an all-white town, you find your politics on the first playground that you go onto. In some ways, it was an idyllic place to grow up – but when I was 13, there was a noose in my family’s garage. There was some name-calling throughout.

You know, race is not an issue that is settled to this day. In the Northern suburbs, certainly in the 1970s, it was a hot button.

CNN: You graduated from Harvard. Then all of a sudden, you were a rock star.

Morello: The first Nightwatchman album is called “One Man Revolution.” It’s not a misnamed album. I was the only black kid in an all-white town. Then I was the only radical student in a conservative high school. Then I was the only rock ‘n’ roll guitar player at Harvard University. Then I was the only dude with a Harvard diploma in a Hollywood rock ‘n’ roll band. So in some ways, there’s always been a sense of aloneness.

But where I really felt the greatest connection – outside of close-knit family – is playing this Nightwatchman music, and in playing it live. This is a place where I feel not disconnected in any way, but very, very connected, and it’s a place that feels like home.