Rousing the boundaries of rock-n-roll on his latest release, legendary guitarist Tom Morello is touring in support of his solo album The Atlas Underground.
The creative effort infuses Morello’s metal-funk-punk riffs with EDM and artist collaborations. Launching earlier this month, the North American trek includes headlining and festival dates.
AXS.com caught the Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and Prophets of Rage guitar-gods searing set at the inaugural Epicenter Festival. Beforehand, we chatted with the singer, songwriter and activist. There, he opened up about the album’s artistry, his musical mission, and more.
AXS: You’ve been doing this for nearly three decades, starting with Rage (Against the Machine). How do you continue to push yourself as a musician?
Tom Morello: I’m a musician in my bones, this record I put out The Atlas Underground is the 19th record of my career - between Rage, Audioslave, Nightwatchman, Bruce Springsteen records that I’ve been on, too - and I always want to keep pushing myself. I never want to remake the same record. But there’s things I want to be constant – I love heavy guitar playing, I love big riffs, I love crazy guitar solos - but then to also find different ways to express myself as a musician and doing this solo tour has been really awesome because I really get to shred a lot.
AXS: The Atlas Underground dropped last year, you did some different things sonically and embraced EDM – what was that experience like?
TM: It was a sonic conspiracy. When you’re in a band, when it’s good it’s because there’s chemistry and it’s that people create something together they couldn’t create alone. When you’re a solo artist and it’s good, what you get is purity, you get a vision that is undiluted. I wanted to make the best of both worlds for this record: to make a solo record that’s entirely my vision that I curate but where I have collaborators on the different songs to be able to surprise me with their ideas. That’s very much what this record was. So everybody from Wu-Tang Clan to Gary Clark, Jr., from Big Boi and Killer Mike to Marcus Mumford to Bassnectar and Knife Party – we’re collaborators but it was my vision to make a guitar-heavy record that was for 2019.
AXS: What’s the message within the album?
TM: The idea was on the one hand to create a new genre of music, something that took the analog power of a Marshall (guitar amp) stack but married it with some of the digital technology of 2019 in a way that hadn’t been done before - and the underlying social message of it. We’re telling social justice ghost stories, telling the stories of people who had passed away in freedom struggles and how their example can illuminate the struggles of the present and hopefully light a beacon towards a more just and humane future.
AXS: Which track best projects that?
TM: The lead track “Battle Sirens” – basically it’s an instrumental track and I always loved instrumental rock growing up but this one is one part heavy bass drop, it’s one part mosh pit-inducing metal banger, and that’s really the point of the record.
AXS: Yeah, you have those crazy drops where you wait for it, then there’s all that raging guitar!
TM: I think a lot of EDM artists who are fans of Rage Against the Machine, they took the idea of the big drop from Rage Against the Machine – you can ask them too, ask Skrillex and Bassnectar. The idea of that, the endless tension that builds up into a huge [release] – 7 out of every 10 Rage Against the Machine songs do that (laughs).
AXS: With all the projects that you’ve done what haven’t you done yet that you still want to do?
TM: I’m on a mission right now. We’re in these kinds of troubled times in 2019 and I think music that is authentic, that is meaningful, that is guitar-driven is something that the world can really use right now. So I’m very much a missionary zealot in regards to that, and on this tour, it’s really been great to see the audience response. When they come to a show they know exactly what to expect. We play Rage stuff, we play Audioslave stuff, we play Atlas Underground stuff but it’s all based around my guitar playing and my vision.
AXS: Awesome, we're ready to experience that! So off the subject, if you were stranded on a deserted island what’s the one thing you’d want to have – besides a cell phone?
TM: (Laughs) One thing I’d not want to have is a cell, I’d be free again (more laughing)! I’d want something to be able to listen to music and to watch my kids play flag football, so maybe a satellite feed.