From the inside, Tom Morello’s studio looks like any garage band’s rehearsal space. Instruments cover most of the floor space, while amps lean against walls. There’s a sofa and a table, bottles of water and posters on the wall. It’s no-frills. It’s all about the music.
But the devil’s in the details. The house is situated up in a beautiful spot in Laurel Canyon, with views for miles. One can only imagine who lives behind each door. And even in the house, a closer look at framed pictures on the wall and there’s Morello performing with Bruce Springsteen. And oh look, that guitar has “Fuck Trump” taped onto the back. Yeah, it might look like any other band’s rehearsal space, but it isn’t.
Further, when the guitarist enters the room, his physical impact is striking. Decked out in the sharpest of suits, the Harvard-educated Morello is the epitome of suave. Slender and impeccably groomed, he confidently strides in carrying a polished wooden cane that he picked up during one of his trips to Cuba, shakes every hand warmly, and then works the photo shoot like the pro he is.
He jokes throughout, and asks the occasional question. He knows the drill and is as accommodating as anyone we’ve worked with in the past. But it would be a mistake to misinterpret that working sheen for any sort of apathy, or to consider him “just another musician.” Morello is as informed and aware as he ever was about world events, and he’s still pissed. His finger is firmly on the pulse, and his inner rage is still his driving force.
He’s also motivated, artistically, by a constant desire to try something different. His new solo album, The Atlas Underground, sees the guitarist team up with a variety of musicians from different genres (hip-hop, EDM, folk-rock, etc.) and fuse it all together into a cohesive piece of work that sounds fresh and new. In a similar fashion to the way Renegades offered a blueprint into what made Rage Against the Machine tick, The Atlas Underground, and the artists featured on it, deliver a glimpse into Morello’s current state of mind.
“The idea was really to forge a fresh genre of music,” he says, visibly leaning back into the interview. “People had combined some guitar with EDM before, but there’s never been a record that’s committed to it, and committed to excellence in that regard. I wanted to forge a sonic conspiracy of these diverse artists, many of whom are like-minded, and make a brand-new alloy of Marshall stack fury and EDM drops. That was the north star that guided the project.”
And by God, that’s what he’s done. He’s not the first to fuse electronic music with rock & roll by any means — one listen to the Wax Trax! catalog, The Prodigy, and many more would attest to that. But the manner in which he approached this, to use various forms of music as a starting point and create something new rather than blending them, feels slightly different. The soundtrack to the much-maligned Spawn movie, which saw Morello join forces with The Prodigy on a version of “One Man Army,” would be the closest reference point.
“I also produced a Crystal Method album back in the day, Tweekend, so those were forerunners of it,” Morello says. “I remember talking with Crystal Method and I loved that the combination felt like it was a brand-new thing on the planet. It was heavy and funky, and contained all the tension and release that I loved in rock & roll music, but it was very forward-looking. I told the guys in Crystal Method at the time, ‘If you guys didn’t work so slow, I’d join your band.’ But it took so long with all the computer stuff.
“Here we are some years later, and that idea’s always stuck in my mind. I more recently discovered Knife Party, Bassnectar and Skrillex, all of whom are big Rage Against the Machine fans. I heard similarities in arrangement and power in their music, and I thought, ‘What if we replace their synthesizers with my Marshall stack and go for it?’?”
Morello is clearly excited about this album. Musicians generally are keen to discuss their most recent project during interviews, but this feels different. We’re talking about a guy who has made it his business to show the world that there are really no limits to the sounds that can be created with an electric guitar and the help of a few friends. Sitting within the confines of an accepted genre box has never interested him. Further, this project has been marinating in his mind for a long time — Morello laboring away in secret while working with Prophets of Rage and Springsteen. And now, he gets to unleash it on an unsuspecting world.
“I’d say the first song, ‘Battle Sirens,’ really encapsulates the idea,” he says. “I sent them [Knife Party] a riff box — about 10 big guitar riffs and some crazy guitar noises, squeals and soloing bits. I just said, ‘Use this as the raw materials.’ If those riffs and ideas were the Ansel Adams black-and-white photograph, I said, ‘Give me the Picasso of that. Shatter the mirror, and send it back in a way that is unexpected.’ For me, it felt really great to be able to have very talented collaborative partners who process music in an entirely different way than I do.”
It’s a thrilling project, successfully bringing Morello’s vision to life. The list of names involved, and their stature, suggests that this was no easy thing to pull together. Morello says that, in each case and with each track, the process was different.
“The Bassnectar, Big Boi, Killer Mike song [‘Rabbit’s Revenge’], we did here,” he says. “The lyrical thread that goes through the album is social justice ghost stories. I wanted to have a conversation with each of the lyricists about how they wanted to present that. Take that as a backdrop and say, ‘Where does your mindset fit in?’ Big Boi and I went around the constant drumbeat of slaying, murders of African-Americans, by the police. Marcus Mumford and I Skyped the song from here. Then there was a Wu-Tang day in the studio. A million different ways that these songs have come together. I wanted to challenge myself. Not just with the music but the process. Getting far outside of a safety zone and letting each song find its own way.”
The title of the record is extremely fitting. Atlas, of course, was the mythical figure who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders endlessly. Meanwhile, Morello views the underground as a “clandestine organization bent on fomenting insurrection.” That combination doesn’t just suit this solo album but Morello’s entire career thus far.
Morello did previously mention in the press that he was aiming to make a Jimi Hendrix–inspired record, a comment that led many to assume he was going to release something very blues-rock. Rather, Morello was looking to channel the great man’s pioneering spirit.
“The three components are: Otherworldly guitar playing,” Morello says. “Guitar playing that is outside of the norm. Check. The one thing that Hendrix had that is unique among extraordinary guitar players is he had songs that were on the radio. His guitar genius was exposed to the masses by ‘Foxy Lady.’ He also looked great, played great and lit shit on fire. But it was ‘Foxy Lady,’ ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary.’ So the idea is that, in some ways, this record is a Trojan horse. In a world where the radio and the charts are devoid of electric guitar, devoid of rock & roll, to make a rock & roll record that sneaks through the gates, in a way. Third, Hendrix’s thing was blues-rock. In 2018, it’s electronic wizardry, and I thought, if I could combine those elements, it would be the Hendrix of now.”
While his approach to that concept is new with The Atlas Underground, that innate desire to effectively reinvent the rock & roll wheel has been in his makeup from the get-go. Certainly from Rage Against the Machine’s beginnings, and even before that in his band Lock Up (which featured, at various times, Brendan Mullen of The Masque Club and DH Pelligro of the Dead Kennedys, among others).
“In Rage, I was the DJ,” Morello says. “Prior to ’91, I had spent my eight hours a day practicing scales, trying to be Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, and there was a moment in the San Fernando Valley, a very, very early Rage gig where we were opening up for two cover bands. And between those two cover bands, there were three guitar players who were awesome shredders, like jaw-dropping technique. I thought, ‘If I’m just the fourth crappy, shredding guitar player on this insignificant bill in the Valley, that’s not a race that I want to run.’ That’s when I began concentrating, practicing the eccentricities in my playing rather than what I was hearing on other people’s records. The horizons were endless, because I was creating my own alphabet and vocabulary of sounds to write songs and make solos.”
It’s still weird to hear Tom Morello discuss the merits of traditional guitar heroes such as Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, but it also makes sense that he started on the same square one as most other players. It was the branching off that makes him special.
“I named my son after Randy Rhoads,” he says. “Rhoads Morello. That was the poster on my wall. I had that gunslinger mentality. When I moved to Hollywood, I was expecting it to be this Mecca of extraordinarily talented musicians, and it was instead the era of Faster Pussycat and bands that had an appeal, but I couldn’t do anything like that. There’s nothing in my being that can do anything like that. I had an early grim experience where I called a guy in Music Connection, metal band, and we connected. We’d set up time to rehearse and his manager called me back shortly after and said, ‘How long is your hair?’ At the time, I had kind of a Lionel Richie, black man’s mullet. It was not particularly long, or heavy metal attractive. I described it to him, and he’s like, ‘I’m sorry, we have an image thing we’re going for, and we have interest from agents so we’re looking for a specific thing.’ I’m like, ‘You haven’t even heard me play.’ He said, ‘Well, are you willing to wear a wig?’ I was like, ‘Has it come to wigs already? Can’t we jam a Mötley Crüe song first?’ That didn’t work out. I didn’t get the gig.”
It’s for the best. Regardless of what type of music you like individually, the idea of Morello wearing a wig and ripping out sleaze-rock riffs, quietly doing whatever he’s told by a big-ego lead singer and controlling managers and agents, playing ball, is soul-destroying. Morello is and has always been an ideas man.
“I had the idea, around that time, to deconstruct the instrument,” he says. “In every guitar magazine, there’s one guy spitting the mistruth that everything’s been done on the electric guitar. I’m like, ‘It’s a brand-new instrument on the planet. Maybe everything’s been done on the bongo.’ I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s just a piece of wood, some electronics and six strings, and there’s some effects pedals, and you can create sounds in different ways. Once I took the blinders off, that you can go from Chuck Berry to Eddie Van Halen and that’s it — those are the parameters — then I was off to the races. I’d play the guitar with an Allen wrench or with a guitar jack. It was a very limited amount of equipment, but applying my imagination and creativity, I continue to find a world of sounds.”
So that’s what he does, and frankly there’s nobody better at doing it. Morello is highly respected by the very best — indeed, live appearances with Springsteen & the E-Street Band led to Morello appearing on eight of the 11 tracks on the High Hopes album. And the Boss doesn’t work with just anybody. When you add Springsteen’s name to that of Zack de la Rocha (RATM), the late Chris Cornell (Audioslave) and Chuck D (Prophets of Rage), Morello has worked with, in his words, “a Mount Rushmore of frontmen.” That trend has continued with the new record.
“It’s a strong hand of cards,” he says. “On this record, I hoped to be surprised. Vic Mensa I saw a couple of years ago play Lollapalooza. He’s the next generation of revolutionary rappers. He put on a show and it felt like an important political moment in the history of Chicago, onstage. Leikeli47, too — what a ferocious voice from the underground that I wanted to be involved with. Then you’ve got Wu-Tang. These guys are sitting here talking about astrophysics and police brutality, and it all came out in the vocal booth.”
Morello says that, while there were some collaborations that scheduling couldn’t permit in time for The Atlas Underground, there absolutely will be another solo record. Writing has continued, and this process of reinvention is ongoing. Meanwhile, his acoustic Americana/folk project The Nightwatchman is on hiatus but he is planning on revisiting that side of himself, too, stating firmly that, “The Nightwatchman will rise again.”
And then, of course, there’s Prophets of Rage. Not only is that band still an active concern but Morello says that they were just recently in the studio together completing a batch of songs. The guitarist says the new music is sounding great, and that they are challenging themselves to not make the same album again.
“In Prophets of Rage we call ourselves iron men, but Tom Morello is truly the Man of Steel,” says POR and Public Enemy icon Chuck D. “He’s a cultural alloy made up of a whole bunch of different talents and wisdom that holds us together. It’s overstood that Tom is one of the greatest guitarists of all time. We’ve long known of his innovations in music and great mind but, for me, to see it up close is unbelievable. He is clearly a rock star, but his humility is something else. He is resilient and punctual and he amazes me because he has an understanding of the whole thing. He’s like Professor X of the X Men. And it’s an unbelievable luxury to work with him.”
Meanwhile, Morello smiles while admitting that he’s in touch with de la Rocha, teasing, “Let me tell ya, if a Rage Against the Machine show breaks out, count me in.”
Of course, we knew that there was little mileage in even mentioning Rage to Morello right now, but the state of the world in 2018 practically demanded that we did. It feels like we need that band more than ever. Morello is, of course, still dedicating a huge chunk of himself to issues of social justice, and Prophets of Rage pull out classic RATM tunes live. He’ll always speak out.
“The cast of the [new solo] record in a way speaks to the times,” he says. “It’s different genres, different ethnicities, different genders, different ages, who have come together in solidarity to make a cohesive, powerful musical statement. That, in and of itself, is a statement. Beyond that, rather than having a litany of issues of 2018 to check the boxes, I wanted to tell ghost stories and to let the voices of past struggles inform the present and shine a beacon toward a more just and humane future. So whether it’s those killed by police, whether it’s a prisoner on death row, whether it’s in Leikeli47’s brilliant lyric for ‘Roadrunner’ someone crossing over from Mexico. It’s those voices who do not have names, they’re not in history books, and they do not have Instagram accounts.”
We ask Morello if he’s frustrated as he looks around today, at emboldened white supremacists and misogynists in positions of power. Does it feel like nobody was listening back in the ’90s? Morello is measured and pragmatic in his response.
“I would say, imagine where we’d be if that hadn’t happened,” he says. “There are two constants. Rage formed in the Bill Clinton era and we were fired up about shit that was going down then. The two constants are that there’s going to be injustice, people who will put profit before sanity or the health of the planet. The other constant is that there’s going to be resistance to injustice. In music, there are a lot of links in that chain. I’ve endeavored to forge another link through my career with Rage, Axis of Justice [the political group Morello founded with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian], Prophets of Rage, my work with Bruce Springsteen and The Atlas Underground record. The way I’ve always looked at it is, I didn’t choose to be a guitar player. That chose me. It was a calling I had at 19 years old, so I’m stuck for better or worse. And now, it’s my job to weave my convictions into my vocation. That’s the role that I play in this battle.”
It’s a battle that, Morello knows, sometimes has to be fought on the inside. Tribalism doesn’t necessarily solve anything. Still, it raised a few eyebrows earlier in the year when Prophets of Rage announced that they were going on tour with Avenged Sevenfold, a band that has publicly offered right-wing views in the past (even if they made the decision to keep politics out of their music some time ago). In the end, the tour didn’t happen due to A7X frontman M Shadows suffering with some vocal issues, but Morello saw it as an opportunity.
“I’ve discussed this with them,” he says. “They’re Orange County lads, and they formed that band when they were very young. I’m not going to pretend to speak for them, but I know 10 years ago or whatever, there may have been one or two quotes that were pulled. But I was looking forward to that tour, because in a way it was going to be a gathering of the tribes. There’s nothing wrong with having people of differing musical or political opinions in the same arena. I think that’s a great opportunity.”
He’s right, of course. As progressives, the opportunity to speak reasonably and intelligently to people on the other side of the aisle should be grasped. Nothing is gained by preaching to the choir.
“There are people in bands I’ve been in who have different opinions on this, but I think it should be a big tent,” Morello says. “I grew up on misogynist, devil-worshipping heavy metal music, and then it was groups like The Clash and Public Enemy that reminded me that there were a different set of ideas that could be expressed with great music. So why should an audience in 1994 or 2018 be denied that same opportunity? I can’t go to the grocery store without running into someone who was turned on to a set of ideas by one of the bands that I’ve been in, and they’ve become a public defender or a brick-throwing anarchist. Music can be very impactful that way. For me, there’s no ideological litmus test to either playing on the record or attending the concert. Now, be careful, you might learn something if you do either one of those things. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
Whichever band he’s performing in, the world is a far better, more hopeful place with him in it. He’s a bona fide role model — steadfast and emboldened in his opinions, loyal to those close to him, and determined to provide a voice for those who don’t have one. And he knows how to truly communicate with those he doesn’t agree with — to reach them on a deep level.
We should have the opportunity to see him in the flesh, performing music from his latest endeavor, very soon. He just needs to figure out how to present it.
“Before the end of the year, I’m doing a bunch of like ‘evening of intimate insights,’?” he says. “A glorified record-listening party for fans to hear the record before anyone else has heard it. I’ll be regaling with tales throughout my career, and I’m gonna bring my guitar and shred my ass off. It’s just kind of a potpourri evening, grounded in the record and how it came together but also a fun night of playing guitar and having a beverage. 2019, we’ll do the Atlas Underground tour, and we’re working that out now. From the lineup, you can’t expect every collaborator to be at every show. Without giving too much away, Sean Evans, who did the artistic direction for Roger Waters’ The Wall tour, is working with me to put together an event that will, in the same way that we challenge conventions on this record, challenge conventions of what a rock show is.”
At this point, we would expect nothing less.