Tom Morello: My life in 10 songs

From Rage Against The Machine to Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band to The Atlas Underground, game-changing guitar hero Tom Morello takes us through 10 pivotal tracks from his career…

Tom Morello: My life in 10 songs
Sam Law
Travis Shinn

Rising from the ashes of original outfit Lock Up and rocketing to fame with rap-rock supremos Rage Against The Machine, Tom Morello was arguably the ultimate guitar hero of the 1990s. Unlike so many of his shred-head peers, however, Tom has never been happy to rest on his laurels and always dedicated to deploying his mind-bending six-string skills and Harvard-educated intellect in service of championing the little guy and knocking down boundaries, both musical and socio-political.

As Tom readies the release of what will be his 21st studio recording – The Atlas Underground Flood – at the tail end of what’s been the most productive 12 months of his career, it feels like an almost impossible task to boil down such a sprawling and diverse body of work into just 10 songs, but this firebrand has never failed to meet a test head on.

“It’s challenging, because I have a lot…” he deadpans, with a bright-eyed smile, “but I’ll try.”

1. Lock Up – Nothing New (Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes, 1989)

Combining elements of glam metal and RHCP-style funk rock, the laid-back feel of Tom’s original band is a world away from the politicised combustibility with which he’d rise to fame. There are already flashes of innovative brilliance in his soul-stirring guitar work, mind…

“Lock Up was the band I was in which was signed to Geffen Records and which made one album with a horrible title: Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes. It was my entrance into the world of making records and confronting the horrors of the music industry. I was dropped from that label and kicked to the kerb with a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket. At 27 years old I’d had my grab at the brass ring. That band had done what we had been asked to do to be successful [and failed], and afterwards I vowed that I was never going to play another note of music that I didn’t believe in. Over the next 20 records, I’ve held to that vow.”

2. Rage Against The Machine – Bulls On Parade (Evil Empire, 1996)

Rage Against The Machine had already established themselves as one of the most exciting outfits in heavy music with 1992’s self-titled debut, but it was 1996’s Evil Empire that made them one of the biggest bands on Earth. Lead single Bulls On Parade was a key part of that, with Tom’s iconic opening riff striking like a baton to the skull before he fully delved into his box of tricks…

“This was the first song off of Rage Against The Machine’s Evil Empire record, which felt like a real arrival for the band in some ways. It’s also a song that featured the DJ-style scritchy-scratch guitar solo where I continued to explore and explode the boundaries of what an electric guitar could do. I was self-identifying as the DJ in that band, and I wanted to be able to go toe-to-toe with any DJ in hip-hop using my own bare hands and through my Marshall stack!”

3. Audioslave – Cochise (Audioslave, 2002)

There were equal parts nervousness and excitement amongst fans of Rage Against The Machine and Soundgarden when it was announced that the instrumental core of the former would be joining up with the latter’s iconic frontman Chris Cornell for new band Audioslave. Their first song together was gunpowder-loaded proof of a match made in hard-rock heaven...

“Cochise was the introduction to Audioslave, where Chris Cornell, Tim [Commerford, bass], Brad [Wilks, drums] and I came together. Plus, it features one of my favourite riffs that I’ve ever written. It’s also got what I consider to be one of the greatest rock’n’roll videos of all time [directed by the great Mark Romanek], lit only by fireworks, which shows the merging of these two musical forces. It was Chris’ outrageously spectacular and terrifying voice, and his rock-god presence matched up with us three players. It was such a great way to show that band to the world.”

4. The Nightwatchman – Union Song, Live in Madison (Union Town, 2011)

For all its arena-rocking quality, Audioslave was a less overtly political band than Rage. Unleashing solo acoustic ‘alter-ego’ The Nightwatchman, Tom confirmed that the need to fight the power and stand up for the downtrodden still burned inside…

“Audioslave was clearly not going to be the band for a political firebrand that Rage Against The Machine was, so I needed to find an artistic outlet for that side of my convictions. The folky protest music of The Nightwatchman persona epitomised that. Union Song was a song that I played on hundreds and hundreds of picket lines, rallies and charity shows. It was this kind of one-man revolution with an acoustic guitar, three chords and the truth. I was relentless around the globe, fighting the power one unpaid performance at a time. The version I’ve chosen here is a performance captured on the steps at Madison, Wisconsin at a huge, 100,000-person protest in freezing cold temperatures.”

5. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – The Ghost Of Tom Joad, Live in Anaheim (Magic Tour Highlights, 2008)

As American rock’s great blue-collar hero, it was hardly surprising that Bruce Springsteen held a special place in Tom’s heart. Few, however, could have predicted the searing chemistry when the two came together for a rousing version of The Boss’ 1995 acoustic classic The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Tom would become a sporadic member of The E Street Band over the next six years…

“Bruce Springsteen is one of my favourite artists of all time. I discovered him later in life, in my late-20s or early-30s, but if you asked me who was the biggest Springsteen fan in the world, I would fight anyone who said it wasn’t me. We jammed together for the first time in 2008 playing an electric version of his song The Ghost Of Tom Joad. It was one of the most electrifying moments that I’ve ever been in a room for, where the combination of the E Street Band, my guitar-playing and that song created something that outflanked all of our expectations and led to six years of playing together on and off. That song just became this kind of howling cathedral of angst and power and guitar histrionics.”

6. Tom Morello & Knife Party – Battle Sirens live at Ultra Music Festival (Single, 2016)

Tom has spoken about how first hearing the work of Australian electronic duo Knife Party (who take their name from a Deftones song and share many sensibilities with the world of rock) turned him on to the idea of the electric-guitar-and-EDM crossover that would become The Atlas Underground. This live performance at Florida’s massive Ultra Festival was the unveiling of a project that would go from strength to strength…

“This was the rebirth of me finding my voice as an electric guitarist, while also recontextualising it and trying to start a whole new genre of music combining these huge EDM bass drops with unforgiving Marshall-stack heavy metal. This performance from Ultra Festival live in front of 135,000 people was the live introduction of that sonic power. That performance really is just fuckin’ nuts…”

7. The Nightwatchman – The Garden Of Gethsemane (One Man Revolution, 2007)

Although the death of Chris Cornell in 2017 felt like a shock from the blue for much of his fanbase, Chris’ closest friends were more than familiar with his darkness within. The year after Audioslave’s final record Revelations, Tom wrote a darkly beautiful ode to his great, troubled friend…

“The Garden Of Gethsemane was where Jesus had his moment of doubt [before the crucifixion]. Long before Chris passed, it was kind of a tumultuous time when he’d gone missing for a while. In the middle of the night after being missing for a month, or three months, or however long it was, he sent me a text that said, ‘If you swallow a coin from the wishing well, your dreams will come true in heaven or hell…’ I used that lyric as the centrepiece in this song for my friend who had one foot in the shadows…”

8. Tom Morello – Interstate 80 ft. Slash (Commandante EP, 2020)

Always an advocate for exposing wider audiences to the sound of a crashing Marshall stack, it was hardly surprising to see a digitised version of Tom crop up in all-conquering video game Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock. Bringing his in-game rivalry with Guns N’ Roses axe-man Slash into the real world during lockdown, Interstate 80 delivered a six-string duel that somehow exceeded fans’ expectations…

“The Guitar Hero video game in which Slash and I appeared as avatars was the largest-selling video game in history. It opened us up to this crazy new fanbase of five-year-old kids: people who thought that we were like Mickey Mouse or Barney The Dinosaur or whatever. I played with Slash onstage many times, but we’d never recorded together until Interstate 80, which is the live guitar duel of the new century where we go head-to-head much like we did in the game!”

9. Tom Morello – Radium Girls ft. The Bloody Beetroots, Pussy Riot, Aimee Interrupter, Mish Way & The Last Internationale (The Catastrophists EP, 2021)

Emerging from the same period of fear, anxiety and uncertainty during lockdown that led to The Atlas Underground Fire, Tom’s collaboration with Italian electronic duo The Bloody Beetroots extended into the seven-track Catastrophists EP. Despite pressing into uncharted musical territory, his ethos of highlighting injustice and giving a platform to deserving artists remained at the fore…

“Radium Girls is the lead single from The Catastrophists EP I recorded with The Bloody Beetroots, and which features guest vocals from Pussy Riot, Aimee Interrupter, Mish Way from White Lung and The Last Internationale. The story of the Radium Girls comes from my hometown in Illinois where this plant that made glow-in-the-dark watches intentionally poisoned their workers to increase profits. It caused horrible deaths where people’s bones fell apart in their bodies, and the company tried to cover it up. It’s an example of how I’ve tried to weave stories from my life into a larger political context of standing up against injustice. This song also sees me work with four spectacular female artists and The Bloody Beetroots where we used a very global collaboration to talk about this very local issue.”

10. Tom Morello – Let’s Get The Party Started ft. Bring Me The Horizon (The Atlas Underground Fire, 2021)

If there’s one band in modern mainstream metal who share Tom’s genre-busting desire to give heavy music the broadest platform possible, it’s Sheffield heavyweights Bring Me The Horizon. When Tom hit them up for The Atlas Underground Fire, though, he was simply looking for them to help bring the heavy. They duly delivered…

“I think that Bring Me The Horizon are just one of the great bands of here and now. I know that they work in a lot of different worlds, but on this album with so much diversity I love the fact I have a collaborator to represent unapologetic metal. Oli Sykes isn’t afraid to scream his lungs out, and the rest of the band aren’t afraid to embrace a powerdriving riff to create a mosh that’s off-the-scale silly. I think that the song recognises the mountain of anxiety that we’ve faced during this plague-era of COVID-19, but it’s measured with the ferocious idea that rock’n’roll is a means to liberation from any conflict that you might find yourself in. It’s a celebration of that, with all of the amps cranked to 11!”

The Atlas Underground Flood is due out on December 3 via Mom + Pop Music.

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