Photo: Travis Shinn
Tom Morello On His New Album 'The Atlas Underground Fire,' Working With Eddie Vedder & Bruce Springsteen, And The Liberating Power Of The Electric Guitar
Especially because he didn't start until he was 17. Doubly especially since after he learned scales, he spent eight hours a day working on "animal noises." Good thing Morello is on Zoom right now, so GRAMMY.com can finally ask him if it feels odd to be revered this way.
"Why, yes I do," the two-time GRAMMY winner and 10-time nominee responds, deadpan. "As someone who reveres the guitar as an instrument of expression and salvation and liberation and power and something to hide behind—I didn't choose to play the guitar. It chose me."
So, when the Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Prophets of Rage guitarist decided to combat the lockdown blahs by recording a bunch of tunes with his musician friends, there had to be one throughline: The electric guitar. His other voice. And that's what binds The Atlas Underground Fire, his new set of originals—plus an incendiary cover of AC/DC’s "Highway to Hell" with high priests of gruffness Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen.
Other than that fist-pumping tribute to what he calls "one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of all time," The Atlas Underground Fire, which arrives October 15, embraces metalcore ("Let's Get The Party Started" with Bring Me The Horizon), country ("The War Inside" with Chris Stapleton) and Middle Eastern sounds ("On the Shore of Eternity" with Sama' Abdulhadi).
Thanks to you-know-what instrument, what would be a disparate grab-bag of tunes sounds like a whole—even though everyone was physically separated due to COVID-19. Read on for an enthusiastic, in-depth interview with Morello about all things music and why he thinks Rage Against The Machine—who will ride again in 2022—successfully welded rap to rock.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
I like your mandolin back there. The Fall book is a nice touch.
Thanks! Are you a Fall fan?
I'm not the biggest Fall fan. I'm more of an appreciator of the Fall than I'm an enjoyer of the Fall.
What's your favorite outré cult band that you stand by?
[Without hesitation.] Sisters of Mercy.
I was so mesmerized by the voice and attitude of that band that clearly did not care about anything that was not dark.
They're on the list of bands I really want to like, but I haven't found an entrance to them.
Have you tried Floodland? Floodland is the jam for Sisters of Mercy. That record, top to bottom.
For sure. Are they just straight-up death rock?
No, it's sort of a forerunner of gloom. There's almost a techno element to it as well. But try Floodland. One of the reasons why I appreciate that band is the singer [Andrew Eldritch] has a rich, dark, milk-chocolate baritone voice like myself.
Give me a band you love where it confuses people that you like them.
The list goes on and on. There are no dirty secrets in regard to what I like. I love Lady Gaga. Because I'm not embarrassed by any of my tastes, it's hard to even think of anything. Back in the day, people assumed I only listened to rock/rap bands. I was like, "Mmm, that's not the case."
As if you just listen to Public Enemy on loop all day.
The first thought I had while listening to The Atlas Underground Fire was that AC/DC doesn't get enough credit. They're not just a macho rock band—I think of them almost as a dance band.
You're absolutely right about that. I think the interesting thing is they deal in only major keys. For a band that almost exclusively sings about the devil, that's a very unusual combo platter.
If there was ever an alien invasion and there was an intergalactic battle of the bands for the sake of saving humanity, I would put AC/DC forward as our champion and feel really good about our chances.
I feel like they get lumped in with other hard-rock bands, but they stand alone to me.
It may be a slightly generational thing, but AC/DC is a stadium band in most of the world. So, they do get a lot of love. But I get what you're saying: It might not be a contemporary love. But they're one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of all time.
Tackling "Highway to Hell" with Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder was no small task. The genesis of that song was: I was on tour with Bruce and the E Street Band in 2014, in Perth—the home of Bon Scott, the singer of AC/DC. Outside of Perth, there is a literal highway to hell! It's the highway that stretches from Bon Scott's small hometown outside of Perth to the local pub where he and his bros would go get hammered. So there is a highway to hell.
I was trying to pay my respects to Bon Scott's grave in this little Perth cemetery in the middle of the night—and I couldn't find the grave! And out of the mist came a motorbike, and sitting on the motorbike was a heavyset dude with a German WW2 army helmet and a T-shirt which read "I don't give a shit, but if I did, you're the one I'd give it to." I'm like "That guy is going to know where Bon Scott's grave is!" And sure enough, he did.
Composite image of Eddie Vedder, Tom Morello and Bruce Springsteen. Photo courtesy of Tom Morello.
Later, I saw Bruce in the bar and was like. "Do you think that AC/DC and the E Street Band might overlap in any way?" Over the course of the next couple of days, we started rehearsing "Highway to Hell" at soundchecks and found ourselves at a big giant soccer stadium in Melbourne.
Eddie Vedder happened to be there because he was on a solo tour, and we opened the set with "Highway to Hell" with Eddie Vedder! It was an apex moment in the history of people going absolutely apes*** at a concert.
And as I was making this record with a lot of young, inspiring, exciting artists, from Phem to Sama' Abdulhadi, from Grandson to Phantogram, to Chris Stapleton, to Bring Me The Horizon, I was like: I want to make a song with my rock bros and try to bottle the incendiary magic of that one night on stage, where one of the greatest bands of all time, AC/DC—songs of all time, "Highway to Hell"—sung by two of the greatest rock 'n' roll singers of all time.
Do you lean more Bon Scott or more Brian Johnson in your fandom?
I've got to tell you: I lean Bon as a lyricist. In a genre not exactly known for great lyrics, I believe that Bon Scott is a great lyricist. No disrespect to Brian Johnson, who stepped into some enormous shoes and made the band bigger than they ever were.
I love how after Bon's passing, they not only found the perfect replacement but didn't even miss the cadence of album cycles. The next album—Back in Black—came out right on time.
That record came out and sold 20 million copies. [Editor's note: Back in Black has sold more than 50 million copies to date.]
There's something in the DNA of that band. There's an Angus Young quote where a snarky interviewer had cornered him. He was like, [Smug affectation] "So! People say that AC/DC has made 10 records that sound exactly the same. What do you have to say about that?" He said, "That is bulls***! We've made 11 records that sound the same!"
Getting Bruce and Eddie together is like the ultimate dyad of grizzled male singers. It's two of the gruffest to ever do it.
[Laughs.] I mean, it's two of the kings of rock 'n' roll! On an AC/DC song. I'll take it.
I don't get the sense of you guys saying [Momentous voice] "We three are going to make history by paying tribute to the greatest band of all time." It sounds casual.
Exactly. Jamming on one of their favorite tunes. It was the last song I recorded for the record. I had all these futuristic artists, and I put the track together and sent it to Bruce. I just said, "Hey, remember when we did this? Let's get Eddie and do it!" Within 48 hours, he did two takes. It sounded fantastic. I sent it to Eddie and he was like, "Done!" And that was it.
When I think of Bring Me the Horizon, I think of the larger metalcore universe they're part of. What is it you love about them? What makes them stand out?
I really love that they unapologetically fly the flag of roaring electric guitars —you know what I mean?
I firmly believe that the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever invented by humankind, but it's an instrument that doesn't just have a past—it's an instrument that has a future. And on these Atlas Underground albums, I'm trying to forge that future by having my guitar playing as a North Star, touching on these different genres—from Chris Stapleton to Phantogram to Bring Me the Horizon—which is an important part of it, because it's a band that's not afraid of huge riffs.
One of the unique components of this record is that it's a global record. The record was made entirely—for my part—isolated and alone in a studio, recording all the guitar parts into the voice memo of my phone. But Bring Me the Horizon was in Brazil and the UK; Refused was in Sweden; Sama' Abdulhadi was in Palestine; Bruce Springsteen was in New Jersey.
Mike Posner recorded vocals for his song while in the midst of summiting Mount Everest. He recorded vocals between 20 and 25,000 feet for the song "Naraka." So, in some ways, it was a solo record because I was completely alone, but it was also a global net of collaborators that helped me find a path for my guitar in exploring the future.
Most people are probably asking you about the collaborators, but tell me about the tunes and what you wanted to say through them that you hadn't before.
In order for a record to breathe true, it has to be authentic to the time. So, I didn't sit down and say "I'm going to write 10 songs about Guatemalan labor unions and—go!" It was like, "What resonated?"
Two songs that are on two opposite ends of the spectrum are Chris Stapleton's "The War Inside"—Chris is a great dude who I met at the Chris Cornell memorial. He pulled a great melody out of the ether, but our Zoom session to write a song together—the first two hours of it —was basically kind of therapy.
We were talking about what it's like to try and keep the grandparents alive and the kids from going crazy while doing Zoom school. Trying not to drink ourselves into oblivion while doing all that, and combatting that. "The War Inside" is that therapeutic conversation that led to that song.
The Bring Me the Horizon song ["Let's Get the Party Started"], on the other hand—which sounds like this big, rock anthem—is about the other side of the coin. During times of anxiety, you can party yourself into the grave.
I can't think of anyone else who would bring Phantogram and Damian Marley onto the same record.
[Hearty laugh.] To me, that all makes perfect sense! [Phantogram's co-leader] Josh [Carter] and I worked together on the lastAtlas Underground record, and he and Sarah reached out. He had an idea, endeavoring to make the spookiest song of the last decade with "Driving to Texas."
Damian Marley, we've jammed together a few times on stage. I sent him that track and wanted to see what his Rasta gravitas and everyman lyrical perspective would do on a song named after a quote from a 1970s Planet of the Apes movie.
I've been around long enough to know that most musicians don't put much stock in genre distinctions. Even if one is pop and one is reggae, these are all just singers you love.
Yeah. And the thing about making a record like this—which is both a solo album and a collaborative album—is that it's my responsibility as the curator to provide a unifying voice. My unifying voice is my guitar.
So, whether it's kind of a haunting, electro, Phantogram world or roaring Bring Me the Horizon world or the Arabic trance of the Sama' Abdulhadi song, the North Star has to be something. In this case, it's the electric guitar.
Is it strange to find yourself on lists of guitar innovators? "Charlie Christian! Jimi Hendrix! You!"
[Laughs.] Yes! Do I find that strange? Why, yes I do. As someone who reveres the guitar as an instrument of expression and salvation and liberation and power and something to hide behind—I didn't choose to play the guitar. It chose me. And I didn't start playing until late; I started when I was 17 years old.
The only other guitarist that I had ever heard of who made [records] who started that late was Robert Johnson, and he had to sell his soul to the devil in order to get good. Given my Catholic upbringing, that wasn't an option, so I just had to practice my ass off.
Back in the early days of Rage, did you think you were doing anything innovative with the guitar? Or were you like, "That sounds cool"?
I self-identified as the DJ in the band. For my first 10 years as a guitar player, I practiced scales eight hours a day. Then, in my next 10 years as a guitar player, I practiced animal noises eight hours a day. So, yeah, there was a real conscious shift in direction and trying to create—not just a different vocabulary—but, from scratch, make up a language, like talking on the guitar.
A singer/songwriter friend of mine once told me that, to him, the guitar is nothing but a tool for writing songs. But I feel like you might be on the opposite end of that thinking.
He's not entirely wrong, but I look at it as a colleague, in a way. In the same way that a chemical reaction between any two musicians transcends what either could create alone, the guitarist is that collaborator. It's not just you.
Each day, I would go into the studio and intentionally choose a different guitar to create with on that particular day. It just takes you in a different place—whether it's the tone, whether it's the feel of the strings on that particular day. But it's a colleague you're collaborating with on that particular day, where the outcome is not predetermined.
As far as your synergy with your fellow musicians, do you think of it in terms of "swing," even though we're not necessarily talking about jazz?
For sure, having the great blessing of being able to play with Brad Wilk over the course of three decades.
There was one point really early on when this local heavy-metal Hollywood band had their drum set, which had 95 kick drums. We rented the space in front of their drum set. There was barely enough room for the two of us to stand there, but I remember playing with him, and the way he played beats and my right hand worked, he swung that stuff so hard and it felt so heavy.
The Beatles and Stones also had to go to "rock school," in a sense. Before they wrote originals, they had to learn Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard songs. Is there something to be said about that barrier to entry?
I would say absolutely not. One of the silver linings of lockdown is that I began teaching my nine-year-old how to play guitar. I took two lessons when I was 13 that made me not play guitar for four years. I was sensitive to the fact that it's a delicate time!
He knows maybe a handful of chords, but he's a great improvisational soloist over pretty much any chord change I throw at him. I'm basically a rhythm guitarist in my home, and here, he's a little 10-year-old shredder, whether we're doing funk or jazz or Hendrix or heavy metal.
The short answer is: You don't have to learn s*** to play great. Now, there are different routes to being great. And one of those routes is learning all that s***. But it's not the only route.
I happen to love all that music, but maybe it could be a speedbump for somebody.
And then you're out! You're out forever! That's how it was for me. I wanted to learn "Detroit Rock City" by Kiss and "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin. That stupid teacher wanted to teach me to tune the guitar and the C-major scale. And I was like "I am out."
Rage Against the Machine performing in Belgium in 1994. Photo: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images
To you, what's the relationship between rap and rock? I would think they'd have a very fruitful partnership—and in some cases, including with Rage, they have—but it's experienced kind of a tortured synthesis.
A "tortured" history—you've chosen a very apt term to describe it. For me, Run-D.M.C.'s "King of Rock" was the bridge. It was music with every bit of the power and more of the swagger than anything in my heavy-metal catalog. And then, you can maybe count on one hand the successful hybrids of those genres.
We could probably spend a long time deciding what to attribute that to, but I think each of those genres is hard enough to be great on its own. Finding an overlap of greatness in those genres is an absolute unicorn.
It's one of the great blessings of Rage Against the Machine to have Zack de la Rocha, who is not only a very talented musician but a brilliant mind and great rapper who also understands the awesomeness and fury of punk rock music.
That's not a combination that comes along that often. Commercial success aside, that chemistry has been hard through the ages to duplicate.