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"It's Like Playing in 12 Different Bands" Tom Morello on 'The Atlas Underground Fire'

Needing a creative lifeline in the midst of the COVID pandemic, Tom Morello turned to his musical friends, and emerged with one of his most ferocious records to date.

To say that Tom Morello is something of a prolific musician is probably putting it rather lightly. With millions of album sales to his name, some of the greatest guitar riffs ever played written by his hand, and with a career that has seen him working with some of the greatest figures in modern music, it’s no secret that any new release from Morello is greeted with rabid excitement from his legions of fans.

Almost three years ago exactly, the world was treated to a new record from Morello. Dubbed The Atlas Underground, it was the first album released under his own name, and arguably his most collaborative record to date. Featuring the likes of Knife Party, Portugal. The Man, GZA, RZA, Steve Aoki, Tim McIlrath, and Marcus Mumford, just to name a few, it was a kaleidoscopic release which saw Morello using collaboration a litany of artists from a wide variety of genres to simply create an entirely new musical genre.

And it worked, with the record illustrating just how much strength Morello found within collaboration. Of course, the question would remain for fans: would he ever do it again?

Ultimately, this answer came forth by way of a global pandemic. Stuck at home with his plans for 2020 sidelined thanks to COVID-19, Morello found himself in search of a creative outlet. Starting recording guitar lines onto his phone, he soon realised just how much of a lifeline working with other artists was. As such, his reaching out to fellow musical minds soon snowballed, resulting in his 21st studio album, The Atlas Underground Fir.

A collaborative, genre-defying album much like the first, the record sees Morello enlisting the talents of Bring Me The Horizon, Phantogram, Dennis Lyxzén of Refused, Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, and others to craft a record as powerful as it is eclectic, and monumental as it is varied.

To celebrate the release of the record, Morello spoke to Rolling Stone Australia about the creation of such an album, and the lifeline it provided him across these past two years.

Firstly, congratulations are in order for the new record. It’s a stunning release and one you must be excited to finally share with the world?

I am, I’m really proud of it. I came out of a real period of creative desperation, in a way. During the first four months of lockdown I didn’t touch a guitar, I had zero inspiration whatsoever. And I had a lifetime – from the time I was 17 years old until March of 2020, it had been a non-stop, manic life of making music. Writing, performing, recording, releasing music. And it all ground to a halt and I was sort of staring down the barrel of no shows and no recording for the foreseeable future, and trying to figure out who I was in that circumstance.

And inspiration came from a very unlikely source. I was reading an interview with Kanye West where he said he’d recorded vocals to a couple of his big hit records into the voice memos on his iPhone. And I was like, “Really?” So I started recording guitar riffs onto the voice memos of my iPhone and they sounded fantastic. I was sending them to producers and engineers, all around the world, and all of a sudden during the time of this cloistered, lonely isolation with no connection – and there was no human connection – I began forging these rock ‘n’ roll penpals from around the globe. Some were old friends, some were people I had only heard on Spotify. And I began creating this community.

There was no thought of, “Let’s make a record” – it was just a lifeline, it was an anti-depressant, it was a way to get through Tuesday [laughs]. I’d come up here in the midst of keeping the grandmas alive, keeping the kids from going crazy, and just record some big, rocking riffs into my phone. And it was almost like a roulette wheel: “Who might I like to work with today?” And I would just send it to a Palestinian DJ or Bruce Springsteen or Phantogram or Damian Marley and kind of say, “Do you want to make a song?”

“There was no thought of, ‘Let’s make a record’ – it was just a lifeline, it was an anti-depressant, it was a way to get through Tuesday.”

You mentioned there was no plan for a record at first. When you wrapped up the first Atlas Underground album, did you find yourself saying, “I want to do this again at some point”? For an artist like yourself, collaboration must be such an enjoyable experience, but it also must be so much more hard work than making an album in the studio. 

In a way, yeah, but certainly during this point in time there was no choice. This is the 21st studio album of my career and most of those have been made with four people in a room, just looking at each other. And you can’t make a record like that. So the glass half full way of looking at it was, “How to be creative and expressive, and to push myself as an artist and guitarist during a time when none of the normal ways of doing that exist?”

So that became the exciting challenge; asserting myself as a guitarist during a time I wasn’t going to be able to play guitar for anybody. It became part of the mission.

Given the level of freedom that creativity allowed you during the time, do you think you would’ve made the same album had a pandemic not been taking place?

Never, nothing close. Again, there was no plan to make the record, it was just like, “Here are some songs, thank God that there are songs.” And whether it’s working with the Bloody Beetroots or a great young producer named Zakk Cervini, I would make songs. And then Taylor Momsen reached out and she wanted to do a song for a Pretty Reckless record, Dennis DeYoung from Styx, K.Flay, The Struts reached out. So I would just come up here and be like, “Okay, I’m going to burn a solo on a Struts song today. That’s a wonderful diversion.” Or like, “I’m going to play a riff on a K.Flay song.” And then some songs of my own started to [arrive].

I put out an EP called Comandante where I did a duet – a guitar shredding thing – with Slash, I put out an EP with the Bloody Beetroots called The Catastrophists, and all these singles with these other artists. Then I was like, “I’ve got like a music making factory going on here. I could really bear down and make” – what seemed like the obvious choice – “the next Atlas Underground record.” And these connections made a funnel into a cohesive and coherent curated work.

“This record is both very much a solo record and very much a collaborative record.”

Apart from recording guitars on your phone, how much was really different in the recording process this time around? Because the first album, you couldn’t exactly get in the studio with everyone, and that would’ve been a similar case here, too.

While it wasn’t a ‘four guys in a room recording songs’ experience with the first record, a lot of… like, RZA and GZA were here in my studio and we were able to talk about [the song]. I guess Marcus Mumford, we did do that song remotely, full dad-rock on that one. But Gary Clark Jr. and I, we were here for three hours jamming, so there was a lot of that intimate musical human connection that forged the original Atlas Underground record. There are plenty of artists on this record that I’ve never met in person [laughs]. Maybe a Zoom call or maybe only via email, but I embrace that: that’s this record.

This record is both very much a solo record and very much a collaborative record. It’s a solo record because it’s my electric guitar that’s the North Star that guides it, and it’s the common voice on each of the tracks, which span a number of different genres. But it’s like playing in 12 different bands, and the chemistry of the individual collaborations transcend any idea that had, and make it into something very unexpected. I was able to completely let go of the type A part of me that asserts itself often [laughs] and go like, “Great! Phantogram responded to this. I gave them seven ideas and they responded to this one; let’s go with that!”

Sama’ [Abdulhadi] I sent her – she’s a great young Palestinian DJ – a bunch of my stereotypical Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin riffs and she said, “I don’t know what do with these” [laughs]. I was like, “Thank you for your honesty. Why don’t you send me something, like, pretend you’ve never heard a note of music I’ve made,” and she sent me a like, eight-minute long Arabic trance track. I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s awesome. How do I respond to that?” And I put on my [John] Coltrane, Charlie Parker ears and improvised over this thing three times, and then she applied her production genius.

That was actually the one song that stood out the most to me, because it sounds so unlike anything else on the record. For one thing, it’s the longest, but it also has a totally different vibe to it.

And it’s not an accident that the record starts and ends with instrumental tracks. It’s very important for me to sort of assert, in a time when I was now self-identifying as a caretaker, a plumber, a dishwasher, that I am a guitar player, and I’m doing my damnedest to make a record that goes toe-to-toe guitar-wise with any record I’ve ever made before.

And that was important, because writing and recording music is not just about creating music, it’s about self-creation at the same time, too. It’s like, “Who am I? Who do I become through this process?” And fully aware of that, I was like, “I am a guitarist.” And with the full assertion to 11 that the electric guitar doesn’t just have a past, it has a future, and that a record like this is hopefully going to help shape that future.

You’d mentioned with the first album that you basically wanted to create a new genre of music, much in the same way that Jimi Hendrix was creating his own musical style in his prime. Was the same motivation at play on this record too, or was there a different focus?

Yeah, I felt that that record’s mission statement was sort of accomplished, and with this alloy between analogue Marshall stack, bare-hands rock’n’roll and EDM bass drops, you don’t know… Because my guitar playing has always been super left of centre and sometimes sounding like electronic instruments when it’s just six strings. But [the mission was] to create some alloy where you don’t know where one begins and the other ends. And that’s certainly at play on this one, with the Phantogram song, “Harlem Hellfighter” – the song that starts the record, with “Naraka”, with “Charmed I’m Sure”, and with “On the Shore of Eternity”.

But I was also like, “This song has to reflect what’s happening. These songs have to reflect what’s happening now.” I’m not going to force a square peg into a round hole. What’s happening now is that we are alone and these are desperate times. So the Chris Stapleton song “The War Inside”, the Bring Me the Horizon song “Let’s Get This Party Started”, and the Phantogram song “Driving to Texas” fully embraced the ennui and the crazy darkness of these times that feels very honest, and I wasn’t going to ignore it.

“Writing and recording music is not just about creating music, it’s about self-creation at the same time, too. It’s like, ‘Who am I? Who do I become through this process?'”

When it comes to collaborating with these artists, is it difficult to find the ‘middle ground’ between your two respective sounds? 

I think that has a lot to do with having a curatorial ear, and just because you like two different genres doesn’t mean those two genres aren’t going to sound shitty together. Let me tell you, there’s plenty of rock rap out there that’s just hellishly unlistenable. So, first of all you’re working with artists that hopefully are great and have taste, but also I’m really cognisant of the fact that I want to create something that pushes the guitar into the future. That word ‘alloy’ is key. It’s not some sort of Frankensteined thing where it’s like, “Here’s the rock part, and now here’s the EDM part, and go forth.” It’s like, “How do we find a chemistry working together that creates something impactful and powerful and stands on it own?”

That’s undoubtedly what you see on the album, but there’s also a few names on there that some folks might be surprised to see you working with. For example, most Rage Against the Machine fans won’t necessarily be into Chris Stapleton. But the way it sounds on this album, it feels entirely organic.

I’ve always been completely immune to what people want [laughs]. 21 records in; I could give a shit [laughs]. The North Star has always been very clear and a vow I made to myself in the late ’80s was never to play a note of music I didn’t believe in. Sometimes those records with my partners have sold millions and millions, and sometimes they’ve sold thousands and thousands. But that’s okay, I sleep well at night knowing the music I make comes from the soul. And that’s certainly the case with this record.

“A vow I made to myself in the late ’80s was never to play a note of music I didn’t believe in.”

I’m certain any artist would agree that integrity is key to making music you believe in.

Yeah, otherwise you’re working in some kind of weird factory. I know musicians that do, they play big rooms and play songs they don’t particularly love.

To look at one of the bigger headlines of the album, there’s the cover of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”. Now, you’ve long had an affinity for Bruce Springsteen, and you and he obviously both know Eddie Vedder. But how does a song like this come about? Is there any decision-making process behind its inclusion, or is it just that it’s a classic rock anthem?

It was actually the last song that was recorded for the record. In 2014, I was playing guitar in the E Street Band in Australia, and we were in Perth, the home of Bon Scott. I went to go pay my respects to Bon Scott’s grave, it was late at night – about 11:30 at night – and I was disappointed to find there’s no eternal flame lighting the way to Bon’s grave. It was very anonymous and I couldn’t find it.

And out of the mist, this motorbike comes whirring along, and this heavyset fella wearing a German World War II helmet and a T-shirt that reads ‘I don’t give a shit, but if I did, you’re the one I’d give it to’. And I thought, “That guy is going to know where Bon Scott’s grave is.” [laughs]. And he does, he leads me there, I pay my respects, and I go back to the hotel. I see Bruce and I’m like, “Bruce, do you think there’s any way that the spiritual world of the E Street band and the spiritual world of AC/DC might overlap?” And he’s like, “I’m going to think about that.”

“I’m really cognisant of the fact that I want to create something that pushes the guitar into the future.”

So we started rehearsing “Highway to Hell” at soundchecks over the course of the next couple of days and found ourselves in the Melbourne football stadium. Eddie Vedder happened to be there and he was on a solo tour of Australia, and I knocked on Bruce’s dressing room door and said, “We’re in Australia, we’re AC/DC is king. Where the song ‘Highway to Hell’ is an unofficial anthem of rock ‘n’ roll liberation. What if we open the set with ‘Highway to Hell’ with Eddie Vedder singing lyrics?” And he was like, “That’s a good idea.” And we did, and it was an apex moment in the history of live rock ‘n’ roll.

So during this time of absolute isolation, and a time where the memory of that kind of electric, tribal connection felt like a part of the distant, distant past, I wanted to try and bring that lightening strike onto this record with two of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singers of all time singing one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.

I also find it interesting this is the second Australian song you’ve covered with Springsteen, because you recorded “Just Like Fire Would” with him some years ago. It feels like a nice full-circle moment.

Yeah, as we were on that tour he would pick a song from each city. I think we did “Stayin’ Alive” as well on that tour, and each city there would be a new one. I’m not sure if it started with “Highway to Hell” or ended with that, but it certainly was a highlight playing those songs.

Tom Morello’s The Atlas Underground Fire is out now.