Tom Morello: “I’ve tried to create this alloy between two worlds – you don’t know where the guitar ends and the EDM begins. That feels like an exciting future for the electric guitar”

Tom Morello
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Tom Morello had big plans for 2020 – first and foremost, a world tour with a reunited Rage Against the Machine that would’ve seen him rocking stages from Pittsburgh to Prague, Kansas City to Krakow. 

Instead, like all of us, he was stuck at home. “Pretty frankly, it was a time of great anxiety and depression,” Morello admits to Guitar World.

But then something shocking happened. “Weirdly,” he continues, “inspiration came... from Kanye West.” 

Let us state for the record that, no, Morello has not collaborated with the hip-hop icon. Rather, he found encouragement in something West had said in an interview. 

“He was talking about how he recorded the vocals to a couple of his big hit records on the voice memo of his phone,” Morello recalls. “And I thought to myself, well, I have a voice memo on my phone. Can I just record guitar riffs that way? So I did.” 

Those riffs, he continues, “sounded kind of great, so I started sending them out to various engineers and producers around the world. And that was the genesis for The Atlas Underground Fire.”

The follow-up to Morello’s 2018 solo effort, The Atlas Underground, the new The Atlas Underground Fire is built on a similar foundation, with Morello collaborating with a variety of musicians in a wide range of genres, from rock (Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder on a cover of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell), metal (Bring Me the Horizon on Let’s Get the Party Started) and country (Chris Stapleton on The War Inside) to punk (Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén on Save Our Souls), alternative (Grandson on Hold the Line) and reggae (Damian Marley on The Achilles List). 

“It was sort of a free-for-all creative process,” Morello says. “The Atlas Underground project allows me to go well outside my safety zone.”

That’s particularly evident in Morello’s deep exploration of electronic music – the new record features a slew of artists that inhabit various corners of the EDM world, including Mike Posner, Phantogram, Protohype and Sama’ Abdulhadi – which he says is foundational to the Atlas Underground spirit.

“What I’ve tried to do is create this alloy between two worlds. It’s a cyborg – you don’t know where the guitar ends and the EDM begins. To me, that feels like an exciting future for the electric guitar.”

As for what The Atlas Underground Fire offered Morello in the present? “It allowed me to get out of the bunker,” he says. “It was a way to create connections and find a musical community in a time of absolute isolation. Really, it was a life raft for sanity.”

Is The Atlas Underground Fire a record that would have been made had it not been for the pandemic?

“Heavens no. This is a record that was born of lockdown. From the time I was 17 years old to the time that the world shut down in March of 2020, I’ve had a nonstop creative motor on me of writing, recording and performing. And it all came to a screeching halt.

I’ve gotta tell you, the guitar sounded pretty freaking great recorded with my voice memos app

“For the first four months or so I was absolutely adrift. You know, I have a nice studio in my house, but I don’t know how to work it. Like, I don’t know how to move any of the buttons around. So I was like, ‘I’m not going to be able to play shows. I’m not going to be able to record music.’ 

“But then I was reading an interview where Kanye West said he recorded the vocals to a couple of his big hit records using the voice memo on his phone. So I did that.”

I’m imagining you seated in front of a big mixing desk, surrounded by gear in your fully stocked studio... with a little phone propped up on the console for you to record into.

“[Laughs] Yeah. On a little folding chair. My laptop’s open so I can have, like, the BPMs in my ears or whatever, and the phone is balanced on the edge of the laptop on a chair facing the amp. But you know, there’s no manual that says, like, ‘The voice memo of your iPhone needs to be 8.4 inches away from the top left speaker...’ I just set it up on a chair. And I’ve gotta tell you, the guitar sounded pretty freaking great. 

“And a couple months in I did get a little mic to put on the actual phone. One of the guys that I work with was finally like, ‘Dude, we’ve gotta help you out in some way!’’

Tom Morello

(Image credit: Ollie Millington/Redferns)

How did working in this way influence the record?

“It really affected the way I play and write. Because this is, what? My 21st studio album? And probably 20 of those records were made with four or five people in a room. I couldn’t do that this time. So necessity being the mother of invention, the process wasn’t, ‘Hey, let’s jam, let’s get a vibe in the room and see how it’s going.’ 

“It was ‘Here’s the four biggest, hairiest, gnarliest riffs that I came up with today. Who should I send those to?’ And maybe I’d send those to Bring Me the Horizon. And then the next day maybe it was, ‘I’ve got an idea for the solo for Highway to Hell. I’ll send that to Bruce Springsteen.’ Every day was kind of this creative oasis in the middle of all the chaos.”

So you weren’t necessarily writing with specific collaborators in mind?

“No. It was really just a free-for-all creative process. For example, the song that starts the record, Harlem Hellfighter, I had four or five big-ass riffs that were low-hanging fruit on that particular day. And so I sent them to Jon Levine, who’s a producer friend of mine that I’ve always wanted to work with. I said, ‘What do you think of these?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ll get to work.’ And he sent me back a track that I could play over. 

“Then the next day I had a few riffs that Bring Me the Horizon responded to, and that song was recorded on three continents – South America, Europe and North America. We just sent tracks back and forth. 

“Actually, a number of the songs had very sort of extraordinary recording circumstances. Mike Posner, on Naraka – which is the Hindu word for ‘hell’ – from the time we began working on the song until to the time we finished it, he summited Mount Everest. Some of those vocals were recorded at 25,000 feet.”

Mike Posner is one of several “non-rock” artists on The Atlas Underground Fire. What excites you about bringing the electric guitar into these other sonic realms?

“I firmly believe that the electric guitar is the greatest instrument to ever be invented by mankind. There is no instrument with more power and nuance. There’s nothing like the electric guitar – you can go anywhere with it, from a gorgeous Segovia classical piece to, you know, Sepultura destroying a stadium somewhere. 

“But I think the electric guitar has a future, not just a past. And so working with artists who push me beyond what I’ve been comfortable doing before is very important to me. I always want to anchor the thing with the Sabbath/Zeppelin/Deep Purple riffs that are my bread and butter, but I never want to be stagnant. I always want to challenge myself and try to play stuff that I never imagined.”

That seems to be an ongoing theme throughout your career.

“Well, there’ve been countless times when people have counted the electric guitar/rock ‘n’ roll out, you know? And one of those times was when people were like, ‘You can sample electric guitar, so you don’t need a guitar player anymore. A DJ can do that.’ So I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be the DJ, only with a Marshall stack and my bare hands.’ 

“Then when electronica came along there were all these acts like the Crystal Method and the Prodigy that were great rock ‘n’ roll bands that didn’t necessarily have guitar in them. And I would approximate the sounds and the textures of that vibe, only, again, using my guitar and my bare hands.

Every record I make, I try to have as many ‘What the fuck?’ factors as possible

“There was a reason why all those Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave records said, “All sounds made by guitar, bass and drums.” Because I was literally stealing from other genres, but finding a way to make it come through a Marshall stack.

Looking at the more traditional rock aspects of The Atlas Underground Fire, you bring in Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder to duet on a cover of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. What’s the backstory there?

“Well, Bruce and Eddie and I have a history with Highway to Hell. When I was playing with the E Street Band in 2014, we were in Perth, Australia, the home of Bon Scott, and I wanted to pay my respects at his grave. 

“So I’m wandering around this Perth-ian graveyard at, like, 11:30 at night, and I’m unable to find it. I’m out there for about an hour, and then out in the distance comes this motorbike, like this little light in the cemetery. And this dude rides up – a heavy-set dude with a German WWII motorcycle helmet on 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.’ 

“I’m like, ‘This guy is going to know where Bon Scott’s grave is!”

[L-R] Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello

Bruce Springsteen and Morello on stage in Sydney, Australia, March 18, 2013 (Image credit: Press)

Did he?

“Sure enough, he did. So he shows me, I pay my respects, and I go back to the hotel. And when I get there I see Bruce in the bar. And I’m like, ‘Bruce, since we’re here in Australia, do you think there’s any way that the circle of the E Street Band and the circle of AC/DC might overlap?’ And he goes, ‘I never really thought about that before, but I’ll think about it now.’ 

“And over the course of the next few days, we started rehearsing Highway to Hell at soundcheck. Then we were playing this huge soccer stadium in Melbourne, and Eddie Vedder happened to be at the show because he was on a solo tour at the time. And I had an idea. 

“I knock on Bruce’s door and I say, ‘We are in Australia, the land where AC/DC is king. What if we open the show with Highway to Hell with Eddie Vedder?’ And he was like, ‘That sounds like a good idea!’ And we did. And if you think you’ve seen an audience go nuts? You haven’t – unless you were there on that night. It was crazy.

There was a complete freedom in the recording of the ideas on whatever day

“So when I was making this record with a lot of great young artists on it – Phantogram, Grandson, Mike Posner, Protohype – I knew I wanted a song with my rock brothers on it. And I reflected back to that night and the transcendent apex moment of rock power that that felt like. 

“I put the track together, sent it to Bruce. He sang two takes, and then I sent that to Eddie. And that’s how it came together.”

What gear did you use on the record?

“Well, the advantage of being kind of trapped in my studio was that I would just go in there and pick up a guitar to be the flavor of the day. Some of the music was recorded on the ‘Arm the Homeless’ guitar. Some of it was recorded with that guitar of mine that looks like an SG, but it’s not – it’s a $50 Kay, my first guitar. 

“I used my Audioslave-era Les Paul that I burned the Budweiser logo off of, the Soul Power [Stratocaster] guitar, the ‘Sendero Luminoso’ Telecaster, the Jimmy Page [Gibson EDS-1275] double-neck... There was a complete freedom in the recording of the ideas on whatever day. 

“It was just like, ‘I’m here alone, what guitar do I want to play? I’ve got 90 minutes until the grandmas and kids start screaming, so let’s get in as much rock ‘n’ roll as I can!’”

How about amps?

“Pretty much just my regular Marshall half stack, the [JCM800] 2205. That’s where the folding chair was – in front of that amp – so that’s where I rested my phone, and that became the setup. 

“As far as effects, a big part of the record was done with one of those little [Electro-Harmonix] POG pedals. It allows you to kind of sound like two guitars and a distorted bass all at once, and so I relied on that pretty heavily. 

“I also had the [Way Huge] Swollen Pickle [fuzz pedal], and then the Space Station, which DigiTech made in 1994 or something, trying to copy all my sounds and jam it into one shitty pedal. [Laughs] I still use that one.”

Although you were more or less using your traditional gear, do you feel the tones came out differently due to the fact that they were being recorded through your phone?

On this album, the way I had to create changed the way I created

“It is a little bit different. But it is what it is. And there’s something very liberating about that. I’ve always been about embracing limitations, and this was a pretty significant limitation. Not sonically, because the guitars from beginning to end sound pretty great, and they do it sometimes in different and unexpected ways, which I think is healthy.

“But the way I had to create changed the way I created. Normally if I’m doing a guitar solo I’ll record a bunch of takes and listen back to them, and maybe there’s some piecing together of this part and that part. But this time I would just blow into the phone and go, ‘Let’s call that one Wednesday.’

”Like, the Highway to Hell solo? That was a Wednesday, man. It was great to be able to let go like that and let the chips fall where they may. It felt like there was a lot of very intuitive playing on this record, and there were a lot of riffs that went in different directions than they would have had I spent a lot of time overthinking things.”

Tom Morello

(Image credit: Press)

Not only were you attempting to reevaluate the role of the guitar in popular music, but also how, as a rock guitar player, you can create with and record the instrument in the studio.

“Oh, absolutely. I mean, the first cornerstone of my playing is unapologetically and uncompromisingly big rock ‘n’ roll, and I will never budge an inch on that. That’s what I get off on the most, going back to the first AC/DC and Kiss and Led Zeppelin posters on my wall. That just feels right and feels like home. 

“At the same time, the other cornerstone of my playing has been to just disregard anything that has to do with tradition, whether it’s melody or tone or sound, or even what part of the guitar to look at as a sound-maker.

You hear that on The Atlas Underground Fire.

“That’s been the common thread through everything, whether it’s an Atlas Underground record or an Audioslave record. I need to feel a jam move air, but I also want it to challenge me. Vernon Reid called it the ‘What the fuck’ factor, you know? Like, when you put on a record and you hear what must be a guitar but can’t possibly be a guitar, you’re like, ‘What the fuck?’ 

“I remember thinking about that over and over again as a young person, and as a young guitar player. Every record I make, I try to have as many 'What the fuck?' factors as possible.”

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Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.