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December 2021 / January 2022

Tom Morello: "The world does not change itself; that is up to you"

Invigorated by the need to try something new, Tom Morello has roped in a bunch of his talented mates for latest album, ‘The Atlas Underground Fire’.
Published: 10:49 am, October 22, 2021Words: Jamie MacMillan.
Tom Morello: "The world does not change itself; that is up to you"

Lockdown turned everything upside down for pretty much everyone on the planet last year, and being a global rock superstar gave little extra protection. For Tom Morello, a life of creativity and performance came screeching to an abrupt halt and, for the first time in forty years, he was facing up to an immediate future that held no shows and no recording sessions in sight. For a man that's restlessly sought to create and perform for his entire musical career, it was a huge shock to the system - and that's even before beginning to tackle the challenges of getting through a global killer pandemic. Facing up to an extended period away from music, inspiration came from the unlikeliest of sources. "Yeah, I have to thank Kanye West for this…" begins Tom as we catch up with him over Zoom, laughing as he delivers perhaps one of the most unexpected things you will hear all year.

The opening 'The Atlas Underground' record, released back in 2018, sought to continue pushing electric guitar music forwards in the manner that Morello has always hungered for. Fusing his trademark futuristic riff sounds with EDM and artists as varied as K. Flay, Steve Aoki, Marcus Mumford and Killer Mike, it always felt like merely the first chapter in a new era of sound exploration. And, with plans afoot for a follow-up even before it was released, it could only take the hard reset of a global lockdown to derail it. Even despite having a recording studio at home, Tom laughs as he describes his complete lack of ability to work it. "I'm not an engineer!" he grins, before describing the moment where he realised the potential in his hand. "I heard Kanye had recorded some of his vocals on the voice memo app on his phone," he says today, "And I thought, well I can't work a studio, and I can't run a mixing board or use Pro Tools. But I can hit this red button on an app…"

A moment that he describes as like facing a long drought of creativity suddenly began to look more fertile territory. Recording riffs into his phone and sending them around the globe, his world began to open up once more. "All of a sudden, it turned this time of isolation, anxiety and fear of both the American political scene and an open-ended global plague into a life-raft and an anti-depressant," he says, "and it became a way through the storm." And an escape too. "We were trying to keep the grandmas alive and keep the kids from going crazy from virtual school," he explains. "And there are two insane dogs on the premises. So my house is part nursing home, part day-care centre and part kennel. I would escape that for ninety minutes a day to rock some riffs into my phone and send that to who knows where."

That ability to send his ideas and riffs around the world really took off, for 'The Atlas Underground Fire' is a truly global affair. As Tom reels off the guest list, it's hard not to be pretty dazzled at the logistics. Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder might have proved to be relatively easy catches in their US bases, but many came from further afield. Dennis Lyxzén of Refused fame worked on the record from Sweden, Palestinian DJ Sama' Abdulhadi combined her work with hiding from the Israeli bombing of Palestine, while Bring Me The Horizon dialled in from both Brazil and the UK, as Damian Marley chipped his work in from Jamaica. And to add yet more madness, Mike Posner recorded his vocals while literally climbing Mount Everest. "25,000 feet up on a rock!" Tom laughs. "People might have recorded vocals higher in other ways but not higher altitude-wise!"

As he describes the process of building his 21st studio album as an "entirely new, exciting and artistic challenge", he pauses when asked if it breathed new life into his work as a guitarist and a musician always known for his futuristic approach to guitar-playing. "It absolutely pushed me," he agrees. "I think the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever invented by humankind; nothing else has both that nuance and power. But I also firmly believe that it has a future and not just a past. That's a big component of these records, finding the collaborations that make inroads into the present and the future, rather than just retreading 'riff and lick greatest hits'." Talking of how he would normally over-think and intellectualise his records, here it became all about letting go and trusting his own instinct and intuition. "I can throw away all those expensive microphones now; there are no limits!" he laughs.

With largely a clean slate from the first record (Phantogram are the only carry-over, with Josh Carter producing the last album), it was very much a case of Tom landing on artists that struck his fancy rather than it being about chasing chart-botherers or 'influencers'. "Finding artists who were maybe not born when 'Evil Empire' came out, how does my guitar-playing work in their minds?" he asks rhetorically. "I sent Sama' some of my big Blue Oyster Cult or Black Sabbath-style riffs, and she said 'this is nice, but I don't know what to do with this'."

Working the other way round, he instead asked her to send him something that she was excited about, receiving an eight-minute-long Arabic trance EDM track. "Completely outside of my experience," he grins. "So I put on my headphones, closed my eyes, and just improvised a few guitar sounds. She applied her production genius to those noises, and it became something that never would have happened in a non-lockdown performance."

Describing Bring Me The Horizon as "the standard-bearer for the new world of hard rock and metal", their track 'Let's Get The Party Started' was made on three continents, not that you'd know it. "It feels like there's a band in the room kicking your ass," he laughs.

"The whole fucking point is to change the world, or at least stir up a shitload of trouble"
Tom Morello

So, with all this forwards-facing music, you can forgive him for allowing himself a little bit of nostalgia - working with Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder on a cover of the mighty 'Highway To Hell'. Did it give even three icons like these pause for thought when tackling an anthem-like that? "Ha! No one's trying to top AC/DC there," he cackles, "but the moment where we first played it on stage was one of the most exciting rock and roll moments that I've ever been around. And I just wanted to make a song with some of my rock'n'roll brothers." It's as thunderous a cover as you would imagine with that trio on it and a welcome throwback to the trio playing it at a Springsteen concert in Melbourne back in 2014. Describing his pilgrimage to Bon Scott's grave in his hometown of Perth a few nights before (he played with the E-Street Band on tour) and how the initial inspiration to play the cover as an opening song came about from that trip, Tom is grinning from ear to ear as he reminisces - even happily, and politically, dodging a cheeky question of who would win at Guitar Hero when Morello, Springsteen and Vedder are in a room together.

On a more serious note, as talk turns to the record's wider themes, what was playing out in the world inevitably crept into the songwriting. 'The War Inside', performed with Chris Stapleton, deals with the struggles of handling the demons inside during a period that Tom describes as "where your bandwidth is completely full just trying to keep the family sane and alive and keep the train on track".

The flip-side to that is BMTH's explosive 'Let's Get The Party Started', a track that on the surface of things may sound like a typical party anthem but holds hidden themes inside. "When you're confronted by insurmountable anxiety and fear, you can sink into depression or lose your fucking mind to the point where you kill yourself partying," nods Tom. "I didn't want to shy away from what was going on in the real world, even though that's sort of atypical for one of my records."

What is atypical for a Tom Morello record, of course, is a fiercely revolutionary air. And despite all the inwards-facing moments, there is plenty of fire and fury reserved for those seeking to oppress. 'Hold The Line', performed with Grandson, is one such moment, dealing in the reaction to the anti-racism protests that raced around the globe last year. "Those protests were a reckoning against global white supremacy," he says today. "Issues of exploitation, injustice, racism and oppression are a constant thread of human history. But, so too is standing up against those things." 'Hold The Line' joins the long list of songs that Morello has performed on that asks the simple question of 'can music change the world?" The answer, for him, is simple. "The whole fucking point is to change the world, or at least stir up a shitload of trouble. As a musician, I'm part of the cultural wing of that resistance." Just as fiercely politically active now as he has ever been, he continues. "Bands like The Clash and Public Enemy helped change my world and gave me a different perspective and made me feel less alone in my world view," he explains. "And it made me recognise that whatever my vocation was, there are ways that I could have my hand on the steering wheel of history. The world does not change itself; that is up to you. Like, you, literally you, reading this. When the world gets changed, it's done by people who are no different to anyone reading this. People didn't have more creativity, power, influence, intelligence; they just stood up for their place in time. Take your swings, people."

When the chance to talk politics with Tom Morello comes up, it's usually wise to take it. Just as inspirational and passionate as you would imagine, thoughts and ideas come spilling out as he is asked whether he feels more optimism after seeing the protests. "A great deal," he agrees. "To see the uncompromising desire to defeat white supremacy and patriarchy, that's what the alt-right feels so threatened by. It's a clearer view of a future that dispels those antiquated notions of domination and power. My country wrestles with it every day, but my hope is that it's just the dying throes of a decrepit empire."

Not exactly a fan of the current administration, things have improved since you-know-who left the White House, of course. "Joe Biden is the absolute worst kind of corporate liberal democrat, but when it's that or the Ku Klux Klan marching down the streets of every town?" He doesn't need to finish that thought, but he's off down another strand already anyway. "We dodged the bullet of this immediate dystopian Handmaid's Tale future, so that can take the wind out of their sails," he says, "but the key thing is to always aim for the world you really want without compromise. That's the antithesis of American and probably British politics as well. It's always like 'what can we get away with' rather than are we or are we not going to save the planet? Are we or are we not going to tolerate this endemic racism that poisoned the planet? This pandemic is horrible. War is horrible. But what kills the most people on the planet is poverty and hunger, and they are man-made creations."

As our time runs out, it's clear that there is still more than enough fire in his belly to power a continent or two for quite some time yet. With the Rage Against The Machine shows currently rebooked for spring in the US, his fingers are crossed that, this time, it will all go ahead smoothly - but with a major caveat. "I want concerts to be a place of joy and a celebration of resistance. And not one where you go home and kill your grandma." In the meantime, he's got his electric guitar, and his voice memo app on his phone. And, right now, that's all he needs. 

Taken from the November issue of Upset. Tom Morello's album 'The Atlas Underground Fire' is out now.

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