At the beginning of 2020, Tom Morello thought he was going to spend the the bulk of the year rocking arenas, stadiums, and festivals with Rage Against The Machine on their long-awaited reunion tour. It was slated to kick off March 26th in El Paso, Texas, just days after the pandemic shut down the global concert industry.
It not only cleared Morello’s calendar for the indefinite future, but left him stuck in his house without any sort of creative outlet. “I didn’t pick up a guitar for the first six months,” he tells Rolling Stone. “For the first time as a creative person, I felt wholly uninspired. It was made worse by the fact that while I have a studio in my home, I don’t know how to work it. There’s an engineer that normally does that.”
The inspiration to resume creating came from an unlikely source. “I read a quote by Kanye West where he said he had recorded the vocals for a couple of his hit records on the Voice Memos [app] on his iPhone,” Morello says. I was like, ‘You can do that?’ And I started just playing guitar straight into my iPhone. I’d send the guitar riffs off to various producers, engineers, and artists around the world. That re-light the pilot light.”
The new approach led to his latest solo LP The Atlas Underground Fire (out October 15th), which features collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Bring Me the Horizon, Chris Stapleton, Damian Marley, and Mike Posner, among others. All of the guests recorded their parts remotely and Morello added in his guitar using the Kanye-inspired iPhone method.
We spoke to Morello about the unusual birth of the album, his life during lockdown, why he’s still hesitant to venture out into public, and David Lee Roth’s retirement. We also attempted to throw in a few questions about the upcoming Rage Against the Machine tour, which now kicks off in March, but he kept to his longtime practice of staying mum when it comes to such matters.
The lockdown must have really thrown you considering all you had planned for 2020.
From the time I was 17 years old until March 2020, I had been writing, recording, and playing shows at a manic pace. All that came to a screeching halt at the beginning of lockdown. It was a time of a good deal of anxiety and depression. We were protecting the grandmothers. My mom is 97. My mother-in-law is 90. There was nobody coming in our out. It looked like this sort of barren, music-less future that I was staring at. That all changed when I read the Kanye quote about recording in Voice Memos.
Does it degrade the sound quality of your guitar parts when the master is in a Voice Memo?
I think my sound quality has been degraded since day one. I’ve aimed for that. [Laughs] I prefer a degraded sound quality. If you’ve heard the record, 95% of the guitars on that record were recorded on my phone. I have an engineering credit on the record since I hit the red button on my phone to record the guitar.
Anyways, I would send these ideas around. There wasn’t a notion of “making an album.” It was purely a life raft. “Let’s try and survive Tuesday.” In the midst of this plague and the attending ennui, it was a way to connect outside of the cloistered, solitary confinement.
I sent some tracks to [Italian electronic dance group] Bloody Beetroots and some to [Canadian producer] Jon Levine; just different producer friends. I’d send them riffs and they’d send me back tracks. I’d be like, “Oh, that sounds fuckin’ great. There might be a way to still be a musician during this time.” And so the making of this record didn’t begin with, “I’m going to make a record.” It began with, “This is an antidepressant.” If there’s a way to find this oasis in the middle of being a caretaker, a schoolteacher and a plumber, this is a way to remind myself that I’m a musician, I’m an artist, and I’m a guitar player.
Walk me through your typical day making this record.
Every day was exactly the same. It was this lonely confinement, and yet this rock and roll pen pal community was developing, breathing an important air of unexpectedness into each day.
The album begins with “Harlem Hellfighter,” and it’s the only one on the record you did without a collaborator.
There are three categories of songs on the record. One are the more expected, social justice, stick-it-to-the-man songs like “The Achilles List” with Damian Marley, and “Hold The Line” with Grandson. Then there are the songs that reflect the desperation of the times like “The War Inside” with Chris Stapleton, “Driving to Texas” with Phantogram, and “Let’s Get the Party” started [with Bring Me The Horizon].
Importantly, I wanted to start and stop the record with instrumentals as an assertion that the electric guitar doesn’t just have a past. It has a future. I’m trying to break the glass ceiling of my previous powers. I want to play the electric guitar and go, “That’s new. That’s a different level right there. That outflanks some stuff I’ve done before.” “Harlem Hellfighter,” “On The Shore of Eternity,” and “Charmed I’m Sure” check that box.
The second song is “Highway To Hell” with Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder. I remember back in 2014 when you played that with both of them in Melbourne, Australia during your time with the E Street Band.
That was, of course, the genesis of that song. “Highway To Hell” is the last song I recorded for this record. On an album that has a bunch of bright, young artists like Bring Me the Horizon, Grandson, and Phantogram, DJ Sama’, I wanted to make a song with my rock brothers. And I reflected back to that football stadium in Melbourne. As Ernest Hemingway said, we were “living all the way up.”
It was the greatest amount of tribal excitement and raw power and human liberation possible as two of the greatest singers of all time were rocking one of the greatest rock songs of all time while 80,000 people just went absolutely berserk. Thinking about that, in the absolutely solitary confident of my studio, I was like, “Let’s remember that. Remember what that lightning strike felt like? Let’s try to recreate some of that.”
With the Bring Me the Horizon song, you’re jumping from the Seventies right to the present.
Absolutely. Zakk Cervini produced both those songs. That was not an accident I put them back-to-back on the record. And Bring Me The Horizon are the standard-bearers for the rock/metal of this era, and also they share my conviction that while the electric guitar is a traditional instrument, its last chapter has not been written.
I firmly believe it’s the greatest instrument ever invented by humankind. It can encompass a degree of subtlety and nuance and stadium-destroying power like nothing else ever has. Let’s explore both ends of that spectrum on this record. The Bring Me the Horizon song pins the needle in the stadium-destroying era.
Phantogram is on “Driving to Texas.” I love an act that works with Miley Cyrus can also work with you.
That’s right. That song was written in an interesting way. They had worked on a song on the previous Atlas Underground record with me. They reached out to see if I could play guitar on a song with them. I was like, “Yeah, my schedule is clear.” They sent me the sketch of a track. Rather than the song beginning with my riff, I looked at that one as a sonic palette with which to crate. I gave them dozens of layers of feedback and guitar noises and tones and whatnot to just give a broad spectrum of sonic ideas for him, then to use his production genius to create that really haunting track.
The guitar solo on that is one of my favorites. Sometimes I put myself in a particular place when I’m playing, and this one to me reads like a struggle of a tortured soul sliding towards the abyss. The guitar solo I reckoned was the angel on the side of the protagonist that would either hold them down in the water or redeem them. It was the decider.
The vibe changes again on the next song when you bring in Chris Stapleton for “The War Inside.”
I met Chris at the Chris Cornell memorial concert. He was such a lovely gentleman. We got on acoustic guitars to write a song, but we didn’t. We just talked for a couple of hours about the stresses of trying to keep our families together and keep everyone alive and keep them from going nuts. That became an underlying thesis of those lyrics for “The War Inside.” He’s a tremendously talented dude and a really lovely person.
Tell me about bringing Damian Marley onboard.
I played a couple of shows with Damian and some of his brothers. I really appreciate his lyrics, perspective and gravitas and his unflinching standing up to the underdog and the oppressed.
Where did the title “The Achilles List” come from?
I got that from the Seventies movie Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. That’s the movie where the apes rise up and overthrow the fascistic humankind. The humans in that one are keeping a list called The Achilles List of apes that might possess the smarts and the brawn to hit them in their achilles heel. I always thought that was a list I wanted to be on.
I’m sure it was fun to send these files out and wait to hear what these artists were going to do with them. You must have never known what to expect.
Absolutely. It was like roulette. Once again, it was during a time when every day was the exact same, and here was this unexpected pen pal’s letter in the mail. It was like, “Oh my goodness, what did Damian Marley send me today? What did Bruce Springsteen send me today?”
Some of the songs, I would come up here and rock a few riffs and then sit back and be like, “Who do I want to make a song with?” And I’d call up a friend of mind with cooler taste than my own and say, “What’s the last great song you heard by an artist I’ve never heard of?” That’s how I discovered Phem. “I e-mailed her and was like, “Have you heard of me? I’m Tom Morello. Would you like to rock a jam?”
Tell me about “Save Our Souls” with Dennis Lyxzén of Refused.
I’ve been a huge fan of Refused since back in the day. Dennis is real. He walks it like he talks. He’s a great lyricist and radical leftist punk rock soul. He was great. I did a few tracks with Bloody Beetroots. He made three or four great songs. The hard part was choosing which of the Refused songs to put on the record.
This song originally had a different title and a different hook. I can’t remember it. He was like, “What do you think?” I went, “I’ve been signing that sing ‘Save Our Souls’ around the house all day. That is a jam.” He goes, “That’s not the lyric.” It was something like “Same Old Song.” I said, “Really? I’ve been singing ‘Save Our Souls’ all day and it’s a jam.” He goes, “Okay. That’s the name. I’ll redo it the vocals.” There was that wonderful, free, collaborative spirit through the record.
The instrumental “On The Shore of a Eternity” is a nice way to bring it home.
Yeah. “On The Shore of Eternity” is what the the great Arabic warrior Saladin called the city of Jerusalem. I made that record with Sama’ Abdulhadi, who is a revolutionary Palestinian DJ. She’s a revolutionary since she’s a female DJ in that corner of the world. I originally sent her my usual bombastic Black Sabbath/Blue Oyster Cult riffs to work with. She was like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” I was like, “Thank you for your honesty. Maybe we start with you sending me something. Pretend you’ve never heard a note of music I’ve ever made, and send me something you’re really feeling.”
She sent me this eight-minute long trance-like Arabic track. I was like, “Awesome. I just gotta figure this out.” And so I put on my headphones and put on my Coltrane ears and just tried to respond to the music, and just let go. I did three passes through the thing and sent it to her for her to apply her production genius to it. I think it’s a fitting end to the record.
There are plenty of old school rock purists that look down on drum machines and synths, but they give you such a great palette to work with.
Yeah. I appreciate the rock and guitar traditionalists, but I’m not one of them. [Laughs]
You never have been.
I never have been. A friend called me the other day and said, “I dig that song ‘Get That Party Started.’ The solo in that song sounds like I felt for the past 18 months, messed up.” I was like, “Mission accomplished.”
Concerts have really started up again over the past few months. Do you see the day coming when you’ll do any of this stuff live?
I have no plans to. I’m looking forward to 2022 and going out with Rage Against the Machine. But I did tour behind the first Atlas record. That record has 20 collaborators, and none of them came on tour with me. I did it with Sean Evans, who was the artistic director for the Roger Waters tours. We didn’t have the same budget [as Waters], but we put together a really cool show that was one part illegal rave, one part Barbara Kruger art show, and one part heavy metal mosh pit. There’s a way to do it, but I have no plans to do it.
During lockdown, I made this record. I did the Catastrophists EP with the Bloody Beetroots. I did the EP Comandante with Slash. I did a Taylor Momsen song and the Pretty Reckless. I did a song with the Struts. I made so much music during this time that I can’t wait to clear the deck.
An important part of creation, especially during a time of stifled loneliness, is the connection. It’s not just creating it. It’s sharing it. That’s a really important part. And now people get to hear it. For me, making these songs and hearing my guitar come back in these tracks, it really felt like there are stars shining above the cloud cover somewhere. Sharing that idea with people is a crucial part and an exciting part of making the record.
Do you think this will forever change the way you work?
It certainly means that there is the opportunity to record anywhere, anytime. There is no barrier to it anywhere. It’s fine to record in a more traditional way and I’m very open to that. It’s awesome to record in a band in a room. But anywhere I go and have my phone, a guitar, or whatever, is enough to make a kick-ass record.
It’s a pretty cool irony you got inspired by Kanye West. He’s a great artist, but your views on politics are a little different these days.
[Laughs] I’m not going to pretend that wasn’t the inspiration. Without it, it really was…it turned the tide of the pandemic from being one that was like “I’m a musician and now I’m not anymore” to finding a way through.
I presume you’re vaccinated.
Are you going out to shows? Are you getting more out into the world?
No. I’m not. My mom just turned 98 two days ago. My mother-in-law is 90. We’re really protective of them. I have gone to the occasional ballgame and outdoor area, but I haven’t really opened back out to the world. I’m protecting my elders.
But this Rage tour starts in Mach and is in indoor arenas. Are you going to create a sort of bubble around yourself and the band when you travel for that?
[Laughs] I haven’t even thought that through yet.
Are you looking forward to the tour?
I’m looking forward to rocking, I’ll tell you that. It feels foreign. This is certainly the longest I’ve ever gone without being onstage. I’ve been in touch with friends who are out now. I ask them every couple of days how it’s feeling. As you know, some tours are up for a few days, and then it goes down because somebody gets Covid. Other people are saying that people are releasing this pent-up anxiety in ways that make for very exciting shows. I’m looking forward to it. Fingers crossed that it’s safe to tour.
I’m trying to imagine the energy level in the arena when you walk onstage and play the first Rage show. It’s going to be the release of so much pent-up energy and excitement.
Yeah. It’s crazy.
Can you say anything about what fans can expect from that tour?
No. I think that’s better for a proper Rage interview.
Okay. I know you’re a big Van Halen fan. Any thoughts on David Lee Roth saying he’s retiring?
Yeah. I saw that. David brought so much intense joy and peak moments of rock and roll excellence since I was a kid. All I can say is “thank you” and “I’m appreciative.” We were so sad to lose Eddie Van Halen recently. And with Dave retiring, it’s certainly the end of an era. I have nothing to say but “thanks.”
There’s also a Kiss farewell tour. I feel like so many of your favorite Seventies acts are stepping aside.
[Laughs] Yeah. They’re headed into the sunset. But the Kiss farewell tour has already been going on for a few years, so I have a feeling that one might go on for a while yet.
I know you don’t like talking about Rage, but it must be a good feeling to see that you guys can sell this many tickets after being dormant for so many years. It’s proof what you guys did really mattered.
[Laughs] Yeah. I’d love to talk about Rage when the other three guys are around.
Fair enough. So, are you thinking about finally learning how to use your recording studio?
[Laughs] Now I don’t ever need to. Now there’s no need. I have engineered things a few times in the past few months and I can easily slide back into that way of recording, but I’m not afraid to just hit the red button on the voice memos, set the phone down on a folding char, and just let it rip.
Cool. Well, I’m crossing my fingers the Rage tour is able to happen next year.
Me too. I’m so looking forward to it.