Tom Morello on collaborating with Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and BMTH
Tom Morello recorded ‘The Atlas Underground Fire’ with a cast of collaborators he may never meet in person.November 11, 2021
If you’re looking for evidence of the breadth and depth of Tom Morello’s talents as a guitar player, consider this. Prior to a guest appearance at the Honda Center, in Anaheim, California, with the E Street Band, he was told by Bruce Springsteen that that evening’s performance of “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” would be played in a different key from the one he was used to.
Worried that he wouldn’t be able to sing or play the song in its new register, Morello struggled through soundcheck. Drinking half a bottle of Jameson, he spent the hours before showtime practicing this new version of a track his band Rage Against Machine had recorded on their Renegades LP, from 2000. “I asked myself, ‘Can I sing a song about social justice?’” he says. The answer was yes. “And can I play a guitar solo?” he wonders. “Hell yes, I can.” Despite his nerves, that night, before 18,900 people, Morello laid down what might just be the most excoriating lead guitar part of the 21st century. (The performance can be heard on the Magic Tour Highlights EP from 2008.)
“When we finished the song, the roof came off the place,” he says. “As I embraced Bruce, I said, ‘Maybe it was in the right key after all.’”
Further evidence that Morello is the most revolutionary force on the electric guitar since Eddie Van Halen can be heard on his latest album, The Atlas Underground Fire. A wide-ranging collection comprising rock, metal, ambient, country, dubstep and more, its dozen tracks feature contributions from Bring Me The Horizon, Dennis Lyxzen of Refused, Chris Stapleton, Mike Posner, Damian Marley, Protohype and Phantogram, among others. Along with Vedder and Steven Van Zandt, Springsteen himself appears on an audacious and inventive cover of the AC/DC standard “Highway To Hell.”
The Atlas Underground Fire wouldn’t even exist were it not for the events of the past 19 months. But as the world was upended in the spring of 2020, like everyone else, Morello was required to readjust his plans for both the present and the immediate future. Alternative Press caught up with the guitarist from his home in Los Angeles to get the full story of how music helped him find his way back to the light.
The events of last March were obviously an existential crisis for working musicians. How hard was it to find your way out of the darkness?
Well, I had this low, seeping depression. I didn’t feel the least bit inspired to write, to play, to record or to do anything, and I’d never felt that way before. Because there was all this other stuff: keeping the grandmas alive, keeping the kids from going crazy and dealing with the fact that this thing that I’d been for decades, a musician, I’m not anymore. It really was the moment when I recorded some riffs into my phone and sent them to Bloody Beetroots, the Italian punk-rock [producer], that it all began. Within 20 minutes, he’d sent me a video of him working on the song, and it sounded great.
I thought, “Oh hang on, maybe there’s a way to at least continue to have a connection with the thing I’ve always done.” The other stuff is chaos, but to not completely let go was great. At that time, there wasn’t really a plan to make this a record or to put something out. It was more a case of realizing there was a way to exist as a guitarist and to carve out 15 minutes between fixing the broken plumbing problem and the kid who’s crying. There was a way to still have an echo of who I was during that terrible period.
At what point did you realize you were giving birth to an album?
Well, I put out the album The Atlas Underground in 2018, which was different from any other record that I’d made. It became obvious that this was in the same vein, that this too was an Atlas Underground record. I can’t describe to you the global network this involved. Mike Posner recorded the vocals for his song [“Naraka”] as he summited Everest.
Seriously, he was 20,000 feet above Nepal when he did the vocals for his song. Sama’ Abdulhadi, the great Palestinian DJ, mixed her song [“On The Shore Of Eternity”] during the Israeli bombing of Palestine. Damian Marley was in Jamaica. Springsteen was in New Jersey. Refused were in Sweden. Bring Me The Horizon were in Brazil and the U.K. So in this time of absolute isolation, there was this growing network of friends and collaborators who were providing a kind of therapy on a daily basis. From that, the record was born.
Given its vast range of styles, and the conditions under which it was recorded, is it fair to say that the motif of The Atlas Underground Fire is the idea of freedom?
That is an absolutely fair assessment. It is fearlessly leaning into the idea of collaborations without there being a genre litmus test. It is trusting that the unifying voice of my guitar will make a cohesive piece of work. It’s both a solo record and a record with 14 collaborators. It has that purity of vision and that single-mindedness that comes from being a solo artist. There’s not one note of music on here that wasn’t changed by the chemistry of working with this range of artists.
For example, I remember getting on Zoom with Chris Stapleton to write a song, and we ended up just talking for hours on end. We talked about how fucking crazy every day was. We talked about trying to keep people alive and not going crazy and not drinking ourselves to death or not allowing ourselves to slide into loneliness. The lyrical thesis for our song, “The War Inside,” arose from the therapeutic Zoom session that we had. Then we had the Bring Me The Horizon song [“Let’s Get The Party Started”], which was recorded in Brazil, the U.K. and Los Angeles, which is the flip side of that coin. When you’re faced with this mountain of anxiety, you can either slide into this pit of depression or else you can party until you fucking die.
Did the idea for the cover version of “Highway To Hell” come from playing the track with the E Street Band in Australia in 2014?
Yeah. The night before we played in Perth, I went to visit Bon Scott’s grave and then said to Bruce, “Hey, do you think AC/DC and the E Street Band might overlap in any way?” He said, “Wow, I never really thought about that before, but I’ll think about it now.” And that’s how we came to do “Highway To Hell.” Now at that time, Eddie Vedder happened to be in Australia doing a solo tour, and when we were in Melbourne, we opened the show in a football stadium with Eddie singing with us on that song.
On the album, this was the last track we did. I had all these great young artists on the record, but I wanted to do a song with my rock brothers at a time when no one was seeing anyone. No one was physically connected. I remembered back to that night, in Melbourne, which was the very apex of human connection. In that football stadium, that night there were 80,000 Australians going completely fucking apeshit crazy together in what was a gathering of the tribes, living all the way up to 11. “Highway To Hell” is like the unofficial national anthem over there. So I called up Eddie and Steve [Van Zandt] and Bruce, and fortunately, they were able to do it [on the record].
Listeners will not be surprised to learn that your guitar work features prominently on the album. Would it be fair to say that it’s almost a statement of intent?
Exactly. One of the mission statements of this record is to assert that the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever invented by humankind. It can be both a thing of gentle nuance and a stadium devastator all in one instrument. That is a given. But what I’m asserting is that the electric guitar has a future and not just a past.
Guitarists tend to be traditionalists, but I’m not one of them. I enjoy the traditions of the big rock riff, and the fact that we play guitar solos to express ourselves—I love all that—but the guitar is not only tethered to stuff that has happened before. That’s why on this record, when working with Sama’ Abdulhadi and Chris Stapleton and Bruce Springsteen and Protohype, the key was finding this uncompromising voice of [the] electric guitar in 2021 and beyond.
At what point as a player did you realize that you were discovering a new vocabulary for your instrument?
It was towards the beginning of Rage Against The Machine. I had been in a band before that [Lock Up] that tried to be famous. We did what the record company suggested and what the producer suggested. When we were making the record with that band [1989’s Something Bitchin’ This Way Comes], I was flicking the toggle switch, and the producer said, “Stop that. That’s not a thing that we need.” I thought, “Well, that’s my thing.”
It was only when my hopes were dashed of ever having a career—when I’d missed my chance of grabbing the brass ring—that I made a solemn vow of never again playing music that I didn’t believe in. I stopped playing scales for eight hours a day so I could sound like the heavy-metal guitar players who were around at that time. Instead, I started concentrating on the eccentricities of my playing. I guess I became the DJ of the band. I started practicing [the sound of] police helicopters and animal noises at the zoo. Then it wasn’t just a new vocabulary for the guitar; it was like another language. That language is one I’ve been exploring ever since.
Given its wide variety of competing styles, The Atlas Underground Fire ought to sound like a mess. Can you explain why it doesn’t?
Well, from my earliest memories on the playground, I would say that I’ve always been a curator. I’m an organizer who likes to put things together, whether it’s a lineup for a little league baseball team or a group of artists. I’m a Rain Man-type overthinker. So making this wide array of artists jell together on one album is in the DNA of how I arrange my life and music.
In closing, Tom, have you considered the possibility that you may never actually meet some of the people who appear on the album?
I have! In fact, I was speaking with phem about how the two of us have never actually been on the same continent. I was saying to Oli [Sykes from Bring Me The Horizon] how I hope there’s a world in which we can one day rock our song [“Let’s Get The Party Started”] live. Or just sit down for a pint. To me, it was really important that during a time when old connections were severed, in this new world, new connections were forged. That’s the great thing about this record—it gave me the opportunity to make new friends.
You can read the full interview in issue 399, available here.