Tom Morello: “In the past, I’ve wanted to use music as a battering ram for social justice”
“I firmly believe the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever invented,” says Tom Morello, zooming from his home studio in California. It’s a bold – if unsurprising – statement from one of the world’s most iconic guitarists, but the Rage Against the Machine legend isn’t content with legacy.
And what a legacy he’s built. Formed in 1991, Rage became become one of the most influential groups in history, thanks to their unique blend of rock-rap inspired music, heavily politicised lyrics and incendiary live shows. The four-piece, who broke up in 2000 and (after a three-year reunion in 2007) reformed in 2019, are still the gold star of protest music.
In the ’00s, after Rage, Morello and his Rage bandmates (besides frontman Zach de la Rocha) went on to form hard rock band Audioslave with Chris Cornell, while the guitarist also started his own folk-rock project, The Nightwatchman. In addition to that, he’s teamed up with members of Public Enemy and Cypress Hill for Prophets of Rage and formed the ongoing Axis of Justice anti-racist non-profit organisation with System of a Down’s Serj Tankian.
The latter was inspired when he saw fascistic and racist tattoos in the crowd at Ozzfest in 2002. “We wanted to provide an oasis of common sense and inclusion in this genre, where white supremacy can run free if not checked,” Morello tells NME today.
New solo album ‘The Atlas Underground Fire’ continues Morello’s sense of inclusivity. Featuring collaborations with 12 artists – from Bring Me The Horizon to Palestinian DJ Sama’ Abdulhadi – his 21st studio album is a snarling, forward-facing record that cares more about innovation than history.
Its predecessor, 2018’s ‘The Atlas Underground’, was Morello’s first solo album under his own name. Cutting thunderous EDM with his signature riffs and featuring collaborations with Vic Mensa, Knife Party and Steve Aoki, it was an attempt to prove that guitars still had a place in the world. This new album is more about where rock goes next. Or as Morello puts it: “The electric guitar is an instrument that doesn’t just have a past; it has a future.”
He adds: “’The Atlas Underground’ project is a sonic conspiracy. It’s a way to create rock’n’roll mayhem and project that into the future. I’m not a traditionalist like most electric guitar players. Sure, I believe in the tradition of kicking your ass with a big riff, but I think that by forging these musical, chemistry-based relationships with a variety of unexpected artists, it pushes me as a songwriter and a musician. It helps me inflict my vision of the electric guitar on the present and future generations.”
Indeed, plenty of mainstream artists – from Olivia Rodrigo (with her pop-punk inspired debut album ‘Sour’) to rapper-turned-rockstar Machine Gun Kelly – have taken influence from rock lately. “First of all, I would say that guitars falling out of mainstream music says more about mainstream music than it does about guitars,” Morello starts with a grin. “I’m not sure that pop artists putting a Marshall stack sheen on some shitty pop song is exactly what the world needs right now. But there’s nothing like the visceral feeling of rock music. How that connects to an audience is something that will continue to come back around. It’s certainly come back around on this record.”
Written and recorded over the past 18 months, ‘The Atlas Underground Fire’ is very much a lockdown album. With the absolute state of the world right now, a lot of artists have started getting political – but for Morello, this is the most personal album he’s ever written.
“This record was less a creative endeavour; it was more an antidepressant,” he says. “There are some records where it’s like, ‘Let’s go and make music about Guatemalan labour unions’, but this was more, ‘I don’t know if I can make it through the day.’”
Reaching out to friends and fellow musicians, he found that everyone was having the same numbing experiences: “This rock’n’roll pen pal community was a real lifeline. Every day had started to feel exactly the same but getting to work with different artists of different genres from all over the world, it provided an oasis in a time of great fear and anxiety. This record was an excuse to settle the demons in my brain down during a time where there were plenty of them.”
He knows people might be surprised by the emotions displayed across the record. Sure, tracks such as ‘Save Our Souls’ (featuring Refused’s Dennis Lyxzen) and ‘Hold The Line’ (Featuring Grandson) are fuelled with political fury, but the Bring Me The Horizon-featuring ‘Let’s Get The Party Started’ is about being confronted with a mountain of anxiety. Elsewhere, instrumental opener ‘Harlem Hellfighter’ came from a time when Morello was struggling to know who he was without touring amid the pandemic.
“The reason why I’ve made political records in the past is because that was authentic; my heart and my head wanted to use music as a battering ram for social justice,” he says. “This record is authentic because I was trying to find connection and hope in a time that occasionally felt hopeless. At the end of the day, though, it’s a record that I hope is going to kick your ass.”
Next spring, a reunited Rage Against The Machine will finally head out on their Public Service Announcement tour alongside Run The Jewels. It was originally set to take place in the run up to the 2020 American Presidential Election (Rage’s last reunion came ahead of the 2008 election), and fans presumed that the cities on the tour schedule, a majority of which were near towns bordering Mexico, were deliberately picked to highlight Trump’s immigration policy.
However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, the gigs have now been rescheduled to the summer of 2022. Morello is still crossing his fingers that they go ahead: “I’m texting friends who are currently on tour, asking them how it is. I want to be able to fully immerse myself in the joy and celebration of resistance that is a rock’n’roll show done right. I don’t want to be out there worrying that the audience are getting sick, then going home and giving it to their parents.”
He believes Rage’s enduring legacy “is a matter of chemistry”, adding: “It’s the unique way that people play together. From day one, Rage has had that sound and that fury. It felt like that on day one and it felt like that in rehearsals two years ago.”
With their chemistry still intact then, does Morello think Rage Against The Machine will record new music? “There are no plans beyond starting rehearsals in January,” he says. We get the same answer when we ask if the tour will be making its way to the UK. Fortunately, Morello is less reserved about his love for recent NME cover stars Nova Twins. “I love that band, he says. “From the first time I saw them in soundcheck, I thought, ‘This is an incredible band who deserve to be huge’. Everything about it is great. There’s a tremendous musicianship, a raw intensity as well as a fantastic vibe and an underlying sense of purpose. They’re one of my favourite bands.
“Over the course of three decades, I’ve seen a lot of great bands that deserve to get their dues but they don’t. Nova Twins are already on that road to really being a game-changer. Anytime they want to record a song together, I’m here. Actually, maybe I’ll reach out today!”
“Nova Twins are one of my favourite bands. They’re on the road to being a game-changer”
Nova Twins, alongside acts like Meet Me @ The Altar, Fever 333 and De’Wayne, have been championed over the past 18 months as helping make rock music more inclusive and less white. However, there are still some vocal idiots with Twitter accounts fighting against that. Someone recently tweeted “black people, please stop trying to make rock music. Leave it to the white men.” Morello shared the tweet, adding: “Friends, let’s help this poor soul out.”
For Morello, the son of an American mother and Kenyan father, that racism is something he’s faced his whole life. He was the only black person at his school in Illinois. His classmates would “touch my hair, ask why the palms of my hand were a different colour to the backs, wonder if I was their intellectual equal and call me all the words that you sometimes call the only black kid in class”. Years later, he jokes, he “miraculously changed colour” as part of Rage Against The Machine, whose music was played on a lot of rock radio stations that predominantly showcased white artists.
“There’s a large subset of the audience that is shocked and upset when they hear me talk about self-identifying as black,” says Morello. “They’re one step short of offended but I’m Kenyan, dude. I’m straight-up, Africa black. It’s not always a malicious prejudice but there is that ingrained prejudice in the DNA of rock, despite the fact it was invented by black people.
“I don’t know if things have got better over the last couple of years but there definitely used to be a firewall. I used to publicly disavow Jimi Hendrix because every single gig I played as a young man, someone in the audience would yell, ‘”Play ‘Foxy Lady”!’ or ‘Play with your teeth’. That was the assumption, because there was only one signpost for what a black guitar player could be. I had to distance myself from that in order to be the guitarist I wanted to be. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.”
When Rage Against The Machine first broke through, their political anthems were a tool for education. Now though, thanks to the internet, a whole generation is aware of government scandals, human rights violations and social injustices around the world. Despite that, Morello argues that “there’s something unique about the way music feels like the truth, in a way that nothing else touches.”
He adds: “When people are singing together, be it at a concert, a protest or a picket line, there’s an unspoken commonality and solidarity. You don’t get it by looking at a painting or reading an article. It’s also a way for people of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds to come together. A song is a way of creating a little bit of the world you’d like to one day see.”
As much as ‘The Atlas Underground Fire’ is a genre-bending collection of songs that sees Morello branch out from the typical rock umbrella, he’s got no problems with preaching to the converted.
“I think the converted need to be preached to,” the guitarist says. “I think it’s crucially important that the converted are reminded that they are not alone in their convictions, especially in a world that often feels like no one’s paying attention. It’s putting wind in the sails of people who firmly believe in a more just and decent planet. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“From day one, Rage had that sound and fury. and it felt like that in rehearsals two years ago”
He’s not afraid of reaching out to people who have vastly different beliefs, either. Morello counts hard rock singer Ted Nugent, a vocal supporter of the Republican party, a board member of the NRA and someone who blamed the Capitol Hill Insurrection on Black Lives Matters activists, as a friend. He sent the musician a video message for his 60th birthday at the request of his family (it listed things Morello and Nugent agree on – like free speech), Nugent phoned Morello up and they became pals. Morello has called Donald Trump an “orange-faced demagogue”, while Nugent has said he’s “the best President I’ve ever seen.”
“I reserve the right to be friends with anybody,” Morello points out today. “I reserve the right to confront opinions I disagree with, with open heartedness and love, or by throwing a brick. That’s up to me. In the case of Ted, I know he’s become this right-wing caricature but there have been several times where I have reached him on issues that you might be surprised about. But he is still crazy uncle Ted who says all sorts of shit. It can be important to keep an open dialogue with people you disagree with, especially in this global community of disagreements. Sometimes it’s just as important to block them, though.”
After 30 years of activism, does Tom Morello ever look around at the world and lose hope? “I don’t want to look at it in that context,” he starts. “It’s not like you make a record and then expect utopia to have started by the end of the cycle. It’s part of an ongoing struggle that is not ghettoized to the world of music.”
“I’m a guitar player and it’s my responsibility to weave my convictions into what I do. That is the responsibility that everybody has, whether they are a journalist at the NME, a carpenter, a student or an unemployed anarchist. You have to find ways to affect the kind of change you’d like to see. Because – 21 records into this career, there’s only ever been one thesis: the world is not going to change itself. That’s up to you. Literally you – the person reading this.”
He concludes: “While that seems a daunting task, the good news is that when the world has changed significantly in progressive, radical or even revolutionary ways, it has been changed by people who had no more power, influence, courage or ability than you. They stand up in their place in time for a more just and humane workplace, school, home, country or world. And that’s it. History is not something that happen; history is something that you make.”