Tom Morello: “The electric guitar is an instrument with a future – not just a past!”

Legendary Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave six-stringer Tom Morello on surviving lockdown, never giving up the good fight, and collaborating with some of the world’s most exciting artists for new solo LP The Atlas Underground Fire…

Tom Morello: “The electric guitar is an instrument with a future – not just a past!”
Sam Law

If it feels, sometimes, like the era of the guitar hero is fading, that’s largely due to said heroes refusing to roll with the punches. It’s an indictment that could never be levelled at Tom Morello, though. Having stomached the failure of original band Lock up, who were signed to and then dropped from the prestigious Geffen Records during a whirlwind three years of existence between 1987 and 1990, the six-string wizard was forced to face up to the fact that being a virtuoso player isn’t nearly as important as doing something new. Rising again with Rage Against The Machine, he deconstructed the instrument to its wood and wires, breaking fresh ground and winning over legions of new fans.

Thirty years since the Los Angeles rap-rockers first came together, the need to innovate and press against genre boundaries feels more urgent than ever. With rock music now facing competition from the fresh outsider sounds of EDM, SoundCloud rap and hyperpop, doubling down on what’s worked in the past is a mistake, when we should be looking at what makes those sounds so exciting and learning from it.

Increasingly collaborative as his career progresses into its fourth decade, Tom already forged into new territory with 2018’s The Atlas Underground LP. Spurred on by the isolation and stagnation of lockdown, however, he reached out to friends around the globe for its all-guns-blazing follow-up The Atlas Underground Fire, bringing together artists as disparate as Brit-metal overlords Bring Me The Horizon and New Jersey stadium-rock legend Bruce Springsteen, Palestinian DJ Sama’ Abdulhadi, Jamaican reggae royalty Damian Marley, and Detroit singer-songwriter Mike Posner – who scaled Mount Everest while putting together his contribution…

What made now the right time to return to The Atlas Underground, Tom?
“This was a record made during the desperation of lockdown. It was a life raft, a way to stay sane on a daily basis where it felt like sanity was slipping away. Between the time I was 17 years of age and March 2020, I was non-stop writing, recording and performing. All of that came to a screeching halt and for the first four months of lockdown I didn’t touch a guitar. I had no desire or inspiration to play or write. Inspiration struck from a very odd source, where I read an interview with Kanye West and he was bragging about recording the vocals for a couple of his albums onto the voice memo of his iPhone. So I started recording guitar riffs into the voice memo of my iPhone and they sounded fucking fantastic. I started sending them out to producers and engineers around the world. That became the cornerstone for this record. I never set out thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to make the next Atlas Underground record…’ It was always more like a lifeline, a way to continue to play music and connect with other musicians.”

The world is in a very different place to where it was in 2018, where you released the first Atlas Underground record. How did that affect this album coming together?
“The modus operandi for the first Atlas Underground record was that we wanted to forge this brand new alloy of Marshall stack hard rock and EDM bass drops. This time, it was more like, ‘Hey, will you make a song with me? Because I’m losing my fucking mind…’ It challenged me both as a writer and a guitarist, and it pushed me while I was completely cloistered here in the house. I built this global community of collaborators. Bruce Springsteen was in New Jersey. Bring Me The Horizon were in England and Brazil. Chris Stapleton was in Nashville. Mike Posner was in Nepal – he summited Everest during the writing of this song! Refused were in Sweden. Damian Marley was in Jamaica. Sama’ Abdulhadi was in Palestine. Where I was, every day was exactly the same – keeping the grandmas alive, keeping the kids from going crazy – and I would escape into this global rock’n’roll pen pal community, which gave birth to The Atlas Underground Fire.”

That feels like an ostensibly disparate group of collaborators. Which qualities bind them together?
“One of my favourite creative outlets is being able to curate projects like this. The things that all these songs have in common are my overarching vision of what this record should be, and my electric guitar. This record was made with a very explicit purpose in mind: to assert that the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever created by humankind, and to assert that it’s an instrument with a future, not just a past. That’s key. A lot of guitarists are traditionalists – God bless ’em, and there’re elements of that in my playing, too – but I think the guitar can go beyond what it’s has before. This is my 21st studio album, and it’s vital to continue to press the boundaries of what it’s possible for a guitar to do, what it’s possible for a guitar to be, and the audience that it can reach.”

How do you select those artists?
“It’s almost a roulette wheel way of making a record. I’d carve out the 45 or 90 minutes of the day I could dedicate to making this record, put my phone on a folding-chair beside my amp and hit the red button then come up with three, four, five riffs, or whatever came out that day. Then I’d sit there and think, ‘Who do I want to make a song with?’ Sometimes it was old friends. Sometimes I would call up a friend with cooler taste than I do and ask about the last great song they’d heard by someone I’d never heard of. That’s how I discovered phem. That’s how I discovered Protohype. Then I’d just send those artists the riffs saying, ‘Hey, I’m Tom Morello, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of me, but would you like to make a song together?’”

The album’s lead single is a cover of AC/DC classic Highway To Hell featuring Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. What inspired that?
“In 2014, I was playing with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band in Perth, Australia, the home of [late AC/DC frontman] Bon Scott and I went to pay my respects at his grave at like 11 at night. I couldn’t find the grave – K! readers will be disappointed to hear there isn’t an eternal flame guiding the way – but after half an hour, this motorbike comes out of the mist, ridden by a heavyset dude in a German army helmet and a T-shirt that said ‘I don’t give a shit, but if I did, I’d give it to you.’ I looked at him and said, if anyone’s gonna know where Bon Scott’s grave is, that guy will. He did, of course, and I went and paid my respects.

“I saw Bruce in the hotel bar afterwards and asked him if there was any way AC/DC and the E Street band might overlap while we were in Australia. He just said, ‘Maybe…’ We started rehearsing Highway To Hell over the next couple of days and then we found ourselves in this football stadium in Melbourne with 80,000 fans, where Eddie Vedder happened to be hanging out on a break from his solo tour. I knocked on Bruce’s door with an idea that we open the show with Highway To Hell – Australia’s unofficial anthem of rock’n’roll liberation – with Eddie Vedder singing it, too. We did and you can imagine [the chaos] that caused in the stadium. When I was finishing up this album with all these incredible young artists, I was thinking I need a statement – a historical moment. I wanted to recapture the magic of that night and the memory of all that connection and insanity while everyone’s sitting alone and disconnected.”

Is it fair to say that the format allows for even broader collaboration’ – from the Greta Thunberg sample in The Achilles List to your mother and son featuring on Charmed I’m Sure?
“Absolutely. The freedom of recording onto your phone factored into it, too. I was just down at my house one day working on the song Charmed, I’m Sure, which has three generations of Morellos on it, and I’ve got my then-97-year-old [now 98-year-old] mom asking, ‘What in the world is dubstep?!’ It was a way to feel alive and have fun during a time of fear and anxiety. I’d say there are three categories of songs on the record. The first are the type that you’d expect from a Tom Morello record: hard-hitting songs railing against social injustice. Songs like Hold The Line with grandson, or The Achilles List with Damian Marley, which features that sample from Greta. Secondly, there are songs that are reflective of these desperate times in which we live. Those are songs like The War Inside with Chris Stapleton, Let’s Get The Party Started with Bring Me The Horizon, and Driving To Texas with Phantogram. Then the third category – which begin and end the record – are instrumental songs which really say, ‘I am an electric guitar player, and here I am in a lock-up shredding my ass off to assert that.’ This is something that’s in my DNA. It’s who I am and what I do. And it’s proof that it doesn’t always need lyrics telling a story over the top to kick your ass!”

Speaking of those instrumentals, the opening track Harlem Hellfighter continues a tradition of you reflecting on the places you’re from to make some bold political points…
“I was born in Harlem on West 142nd and Riverside, so it just felt right. The Harlem Hellfighters were African-American troops in WWI and WWII who fought against the Huns, then the Nazis, and came home to experience terrorism against them in their own country during the Jim Crow era. Their story is very revealing of the cornerstone of American ideology, which is to demand liberty while embracing white supremacy. The Harlem Hellfighters were a powerful historical example against that. They were heroes on more than one continent and in more than one battle.”

You’ve talked about being a big fan of “suburban parking-lot metal” in your teenage years, but what were your earliest musical memories?
“I was an only child with a single mother and she was not a big music listener. But I listened to the music she had around, like records from The Temptations and that band War. My great uncle Carlo Morello was a violin player in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 40 years, so there was some classical music around too. But it wasn’t a big part of the tapestry of my young life. I found music on my own. As a comic book collector, when I first saw the KISS record Destroyer, they were my favourite band before I’d even listened to a note of their music. If I saw KISS on the cover of a magazine, I’d buy that magazine, then read about the other acts in there. Led Zeppelin. Rush. Black Sabbath. AC/DC. I had no older siblings handing me records. In the friend group, it was me discovering music.”

Discovering punk rock was a turning point, right?
“At first it was all hard rock and metal, then it was punk rock. I loved metal, but the lyrical content – stuff about the occult and groupies – wasn’t something my 13-year-old self could always relate to. The Clash and Sex Pistols spoke to me in a way that made me realise you can make music that’s super rocking, while being smart, with a point of view that I could relate to – less to do with the devil and more to do with sticking it to the man.”

You’ve always emphasised the importance of your transition from being a skilled player to being an artist. Can you pinpoint when that happened?
“The actual moment of unlocking the artistry – going beyond the technicality – may have been informed by my mother’s world travels and my uncle Charlie playing in the Chicago symphony, my work with anti-racist groups and stuff, but it really came down to one afternoon at a soundcheck for a college gig in the San Fernando valley where Rage were opening up for two cover bands. Each of those cover bands had a shredding guitar player. I watched them both soundcheck and realised that they both had crazy technique. I realised that if there are already two of those guys at a shitty gig in The Valley on a Wednesday afternoon, there doesn’t need to be three. It made me really shift perspective. I started looking at the guitar in a deconstructed way as a piece of wood with a bunch of wires and electronics. Yes, other people have played it like Chuck Berry, Eddie Van Halen and Kirk Hammett, but I realised there were other ways to play it. Plus, I’d already been dropped from a label with Lock Up. I was already done with playing by the rules, doing what the label told us, and trying to sound like other bands. It didn’t work. So I might as well sound like myself. I began creating a dialect within the world of rock guitar that I’ve been speaking in ever since.”

Did you consider yourselves a protest band at that point?
“It’s more that [RATM vocalist] Zack [de la Rocha] was – and is – a brilliant lyricist, and we happened to to find a band of four people who could unapologetically embrace these outrageous radical politics. But there was never even a thought of playing a gig, back then, let alone making an album or having other people hear the music. We had a goal of making a demo tape that was basically a record for ourselves. We couldn’t make a record with a record label because why would they be interested in us?! I reckon that was one of the biggest reasons that music connected.”

Is that the best path for young artists with revolutionary ideas?
“Absolutely. You should be the artist and the musician that you want to be rather than being the one that Tom Morello tells you to be. Because you could come up with ideas that might outflank any of mine. You have one responsibility any time that you step into the world of the arts: to tell the truth in what you do, and to weave your convictions into your vocation. That can apply whether you’re a musician, a journalist, or a carpenter… Don’t leave behind who you are in what you do on a day-to-day basis.”

Thirty years on from Rage Against The Machine’s first coming together, and 30 next year since the debut LP, how excited are you about getting back onstage together next March?
“I couldn’t be more excited. There’s nothing like that feeling of the relationship between that band and its fans. To describe it as electric would be to undersell it significantly. Especially during these dire times, it feels like a voice that needs to reassert itself.”

Was it more amusing or depressing to see people express their shock that RATM are a left-leaning band?
“I was probably equal measures amused and alarmed. The generous interpretation of that phenomenon is that it speaks to the power of the band to cast the nets wide. People are drawn to that band and other bands by the power of the music. There are others who are drawn to the message in the music. Then there are some people who are exposed to a message in that music that they wouldn’t otherwise have been. They’re forced to confront that and either agree or disagree. Beyond that, there are the people who are absolutely clueless as to what it’s about, or who cherry-pick parts of the music that resonate with them, without any understanding of what the writers intended. I think we’ve seen all shades of that. But, again, I think it’s a symptom of the successful process of creating kick-ass music that it’s not just preaching to the choir. It’s preaching to the choir, the people walking by outside the church, and the people shooting hoops 10 blocks further down the street. And it’s going to bounce off all those people in very different ways. Some of [those people] are stupider than others…”

It’s 15 years since the release of the final Audioslave record, too. How do you feel looking back on that band?
“I love that body of work. It’s hard to disentangle the positive feelings about creating that music from the feelings of loss about Chris Cornell. It is bittersweet. But as much as I was Chris’ friend and bandmate, I never stopped being a fan. Being able to hear his gorgeous voice singing over those records – and the Soundgarden records, and Temple Of The Dog, and his solo stuff – is some small consolation for the fact that he’s not here any more. The brilliance of his work will never be outshone.”

From The Atlas Underground to The Nightwatchman to your collaborations with artists as varied as The Bloody Beetroots and 5 Seconds Of Summer, is it fair to say that you’re as inspired, and motivated, now as you’ve ever been?
“This was a time where it looked like it was going to be an absolute creative drought, but I’ve written, recorded and released more music in this past year than I have during any other year in my life. And I put out a book, and an audiobook, and a Fender guitar, and a wah-wah pedal. Then there collaborations with The Pretty Reckless, Dennis DeYoung, The Struts, The Commandante EP with Slash, The Catastrophist EP with The Bloody Beetroots… It really was a lifeline during this time, being able to find and maintain a creative voice to silence the other voices that were roaring around in my head.”

What kind of artists do you look to for influence nowadays?
“I can be influenced as easily by an old Bob Dylan record as by a new twenty one pilots record. In the past, I used to consciously seek out records I had never heard to be influenced by. Now, it feels like I’m on a solo flight. I’ve made so many records and played so many guitar solos. How do I write one within that dialect which is still surprising and exciting to me?”

And, when it’s all said and done, what would you like your legacy to be?
“That would require a 10,000-feet-above perspective on things which I don’t have, because I’m still so in the midst of doing it every day that I don’t have time to reflect on the totality of it. Every day creating. Every day trying to do my best to heal the planet, fight the power, and kick people’s asses with shredding guitar solos. The rest I’ll leave to the rock historians…”

The Atlas Underground Fire is due out on October 15 via Mom + Pop

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