Tom Morello: Still Raging After All These Years
With a cast of unlikely collaborators, The Atlas Underground is Tom Morello’s rock-and-roll Trojan Horse.
Tom Morello is sitting in the posh second-floor lobby of New York’s SoHo Grand Hotel. It’s been a busy 24 hours for the famed guitarist—a night earlier, the Rage Against the Machine co-founder played a 10-year anniversary show for his label Mom + Pop and, thanks to a surprise sit-in with noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells, he walked away as one of the evening’s star players. He also treated fans to a short-but-sweet two-song set, offering a taste of his new LP The Atlas Underground as well as a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
“It was The Ghost of Tom Joad that really began my interest and love of folk music,” Morello recalls in the sunlit lobby. “In part, it helped me leave the nest and become a fledgling, radical, folk troubadour in my Nightwatchman career.”
Morello and Springsteen have a long, shared history. Looking back, Morello admits he didn’t connect with The Boss’ pop offerings like “Born in the USA,” but pensive records like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town provided a natural entry point and, thanks to Springsteen’s salt-of-the-earth lyricism, he found a kindred spirit. “It felt like this guy could very well be from Libertyville, Ill., my hometown. And I connected to the hopefulness and the frustration of that kind of cloister existence.”
Later in his career, Morello would emulate Springsteen on his Americana-leaning records as The Nightwatchman and eventually tour as an auxiliary member of the E Street Band. Today, he considers Springsteen a close friend. In fact, Morello adds, he has tickets to his critically acclaimed Broadway show tonight. “Although, I’m sure I’ve heard most of his stories in a bar somewhere,” he laughs.
Wearing a black Cubs hat and a black T-shirt, Morello doesn’t fit in with the socialites and business-people who mill around him in the SoHo establishment. He wears a medal of Saint Isabelle—the patron saint of the sick and the poor—around his neck, and he speaks candidly about his inspiration for his most recent LP, the first that he’s ever released exclusively under his own name.
Morello calls The Atlas Underground a “fully curated work,” and he already had an unflinching “sonic and thematic vision” for the project from its earliest stages. Like the titular Atlas, who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, Morello gave himself an almost impossible task. He wanted to create an entirely new genre of rock-and-roll—a sound that “combines Marshall Stack fury with all the electronic wizardry of today and then meshes it with a wide variety of like-minded artists of different genres.”
The key was to find the right cast to bring it to life. “It started with the EDM guys,” Morello explains. “Knife Party and Bassnectar and Pretty Lights and Baauer and Steve Aoki. The one thing they all have in common, I was surprised to find, is that they were all Rage Against the Machine fans. And I heard it in their work. Hints of it—in the tension and the release, the huge drops and sometimes the aggressiveness of the beat—and I thought, ‘Well what if we just replace some of your synthesizers with my electric guitar? We might be onto something.’”
And, certainly, The Atlas Underground romps through a wide swath of musical territory. Relying on Morello’s souped-up guitar as its hard-rock anchor, the album’s diverse roster includes RZA and GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Killer Mike, Big Boi, Vic Mensa, K. Flay, Marcus Mumford, Portugal. The Man and more. “It was an incredible journey slipping into each of those artists’ worlds,” Morello says.
Blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. also makes a cameo. For the track “Where It’s at Ain’t What It Is,” the two guitarists jammed for over three hours at Morello’s home studio in Los Angeles. “He brings up a very different sensibility in me, and perhaps I do in him, as well,” Morello says of Clark. After sorting through hours of “rocking, Hendrix-y jamming,” Morello pulled snippets of the marathon session with engineer Nico Stadi and asked himself: “How can we turn this into a riff that destroys both the mosh pit and the dance floor?” The result is a pulsing house anthem—a mutated rock-and-roll beat that sounds unlike anything either artist has put on tape.
According to Morello, Clark was just as surprised to hear the newly edited riffs. “He was like, ‘Wow, I remember what we played,’ and I was like, ‘This is different, isn’t it?’” he laughs.
The Atlas Underground clearly presents a new side of Morello, one more willing to wade into unexpected genres and try on different musical hats. In one of his favorite analogies, he compares the album to a Trojan Horse. By rounding up chart-topping artists and embracing the more techy sounds of today, The Atlas Underground is his covert vehicle to get the electric guitar back to the sonic forefront.
“The fact that young people now are drawn to Ableton rather than to practicing four hours a day, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a fine compositional tool,” he admits. “But the joy, power and liberation that an electric guitar brings is lost with the current generation.”
Morello wanted to challenge himself as a guitar player and as an artist, but his true motive was to “inflict my guitar vision on a new generation via this vehicle of The Atlas Underground.”
As someone who proudly spent much of his adult life rehearsing eight hours a day, he knows his skills are sharp, both onstage and in the studio.
“In my opinion, there are two ways that you can make great music,” he explains. “One is a collaborative process, where the chemistry between the individual musicians creates something that neither of you could create alone; it’s a new creature. Another way to make great music is with the purity of vision, which solo artists from Bob Dylan to Springsteen have. They follow the North Star, unhindered by outside voices. On this record, I tried to get the best of both worlds: having a vision for what it was going to be and curating all the individual moments. It’s a solo record, but each of the tracks has their own life.”
The guitarist conceived the LP’s cover image along with its auditory elements. Depicting a winged hippopotamus rising above a storm, the artwork embodies the disparate musical palette he was working with.
“This is my 19th studio record and most of those records have had either politically militant or ironic covers,” he explains. “This music is different. I want this to be very clear that you’re entering a different experience with The Atlas Underground.”
Like the flying hippo, Morello adds, The Atlas Underground possesses a strange combination of gravity and buoyancy. The closing “Lead Poisoning,” for example, combines themes like police brutality and gun violence with elements of rap, hip-hop, rock and EDM. Yet, with a build-up-and-drop structure, the song is definitely designed to be danced to, or, more accurately, raged to. Despite its weighty content, Morello still wants it to soar.
The Atlas Underground tour is also quickly coming into focus. Morello wants each performance to be a “holistic experience,” and while he doesn’t plan on bringing any of the album’s guests on the road, he has enlisted creative director Sean Evans (who spearheaded Roger Waters’ recent Us + Them outing) to create something that’s “more art-installation than traditional rock-and-roll show.”
And Prophets of Rage, Morello’s Rage Against the Machine crossover project with Chuck D and DJ Lord of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill, is also waiting in the wings. “We’ve recorded about half a record’s worth of material and, when we get home, we’re going to figure out the plan,” he says.
No matter what he’s working on at any given time, Morello remains dedicated to his longstanding mission of raising political consciousness through music. “These are really desperate times that demand desperate songs,” he says solemnly. “I’ve always thought my responsibility is to weave my convictions into my vocation. As a guitarist, as a songwriter, as an artist, that’s where I am. From Rage Against the Machine to The Nightwatchman to Prophets of Rage to The Atlas Underground, that’s where I plant my flag.”
Between a new album, Rage Against the Machine’s recent nomination for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the onslaught of political insanity that we’re all faced with daily, it seems like almost too much for one person to bear. After all, Morello started writing music in the Reagan era, and it’s been a long, bumpy road since then.
After almost three decades of environmentalism, activism and raging against the machine, isn’t he exhausted?
“The way to not get exhausted is to recognize how the world changes,” he counters. “To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of history bends toward justice. It’s a long bend. Sometimes it bends the opposite way, but the only way that things change are when we change them. You either sit on the sidelines and let other sons of bitches drive the planet into a ditch or you’re the one who does it. The person reading this does not have any more or less power, courage, creativity or intellect than anyone who has changed the world in the past. Voting is fantastic but change doesn’t come from the wisdom of presidents or the Supreme Court. It comes from people standing up in their place and time and demanding it.”
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.