“I believe that the electric guitar has a future and not just a past” Tom Morello on embracing change on The Atlas Underground Flood

The Rage Against The Machine legend tells us why he’s happy to embrace his pop side, how his latest album demonstrates that the creative potential of the guitar is undimmed, and why he recorded his guitar parts on a voice memo.

Chances are, you’re reading this on a mobile phone of some kind, and it’s easy to forget what a marvel of modern technology it is that you hold in your hand. The sheer amount of power inside that little black rectangle allows you to do all sorts of things at the drop of a hat that would never have been possible even a few decades ago. But if you’re Tom Morello, it stands to reason that you’re gonna push things beyond the limits of what a normal person would do, right?

“I recorded 95 per cent of the guitars into the voice memo of my phone,” the Rage Against The Machine legend states matter of factly over Zoom from his home studio as we sit down to chat about The Atlas Underground Flood, the second of two solo Atlas Underground albums the guitarist has released this year.

Hold up though, did he just say the voice memo on his phone? Not like Garageband or any of the other awesome phone-based recording solutions that are available?

“On the phone, dude!” he exclaims, holding up his old iPhone to emphasise. “I’d have the phone like this, hitting the red button on the voice memo, sitting on a folding chair, right over there…” he turns the camera round and sure enough, there’s a metal folding chair sat in front of the Marshall 2205 the guitarist has used since the earliest days of Rage Against The Machine. “Sitting on that folding chair right there! And there’s no engineer so it’s like, ‘Should it be six inches away? Should it be two feet away? I don’t know!’”

The question does beg, given that he’s talking to us from his well-appointed home studio, why he took such a DIY approach to recording?

“The Atlas Underground Fire and Atlas Underground Flood records were plague-era albums,” he explains. “I began making these records to preserve my sanity. It wasn’t like, ‘Wow, I’m gonna make a double-album.’ It was like, ‘I’m trying to make it through Tuesday’, you know? And that led to the unorthodox way that I was recording. I have a studio at my house, but I don’t know how to use it, and there were no engineers coming due to COVID protocols.

“The inspiration struck from a very unusual place. I read an article where Kanye West had described that he had recorded the lead vocals for several of his records into the voice memo of his phone. So I was like, ‘Well, let’s see how the guitar sounds!’ And it sounded fucking fantastic. It’s crazy. I’m gonna throw away all these expensive microphones!”

Flood risk

Listening to The Atlas Underground Fire, and its sibling from October, Fire, the records are almost obnoxiously eclectic – no song sounds even remotely the same, with each track seeing Morello bring his inimitable guitar style to a song created with a different artist or artists, as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Idles, or Ben Harper and X Ambassadors. But that was all part of the plan.

“When every day was feeling exactly the same, it was a way to add a tremendous amount of diversity, and to be creative at the same time,” says Morello. “Also, The Clash is my favorite band and I was very inspired by their record London Calling, which is an album that has an overarching sort of curated vision, but is tremendously diverse, genre-wise. And that’s what I was aiming for with this – where the guitar as the lead voice and the common thread through all the songs on both records, but being able to sort of stylistically jump around with that anchor of my electric guitar.”

But how did he decide on who to work with given the tremendous diversity of the artists involved?

“On a daily basis I would come up here and record some riffs, licks, ideas, textures. And then I would just decide who I was gonna send them to,” he says. “So sometimes it was going through my own personal Rolodex of friends – whether it’s Springsteen, or Damian Marley, or Phantogram – or discovering new artists, via Spotify, or asking friends who have cooler musical tastes than I do what they’ve been listening to.”

One of the album’s most notable collaborations from a guitar perspecitve is I Have Seen The Way, which brings together three icons of the instrument in Morello, Kirk Hammett and Alex Lifeson and pits them against one another in a guitar free for all.

“Kirk one of the first people I saw, after being locked down for about a year,” Morellor recalls. “I ran into him at a thing, and we were marveling at the fact that we had never played together. And I was in the midst of doing a bunch of songs, so I said, ‘Well, can I send you a track?’ So I did, and I said to him, ‘This is kind of like a no holds barred thing!’ I had done a song with Slash that was like a real head-cutting song called Interstate 80, where we kind of played against each other, and it was super fun.

“So I said to Kurt, ‘Let’s just jam. Let’s just go for it. And we can put it together later!’ And then I had the revelation. I had just heard from Alex Lifeson, who was just sort of wishing me well in the midst of the pandemic, and I was like, ‘Alex Lifeson – yes! Why not have two of my favorite guitar players!?’ So Alex was game for it as well, and it was just awesome. I just kind of sent the track around and said, ‘Just do whatever you want on top of it’ to both of them, and then I did the same, and then we edited it together into Alex versus Kirk versus Tom.”

Tom Morello - Atlas Underground Flood

Top of the pops

A striking feature of The Atlas Underground Fire is how poppy many of the songs sound – it might be a little jarring to those of us who see Tom Morello as a standard bearer for everything that is against pop, but for the man himself, the ability to inhabit genres that he might not otherwise is part of the appeal.

“I understand that fans tend to be traditionalists, and the one thing that I’ve never let go of is the crazy guitar solos and the big rocking riffs,” Morello insists. “But bringing it back to the London Calling analogy, that’s a record that could have both Train In Vain and Clampdown on it, you know? And so it was cool to have the freedom to be able to let go when working with these different types of artists. I have a lot of Type A in me, but one of the things that was very liberating during this time was to  just say, ‘Andrew McMahon, what kind of song do you want to do?’ And he would send back a couple of suggestions and I’d be like, ‘Okay let’s kind of hone in on that one and see how I can apply myself to it’.

And that song in particular, The Maze, which is on the poppier end of the spectrum, all of the component parts of that is guitar. It sounds like keyboards and samples, but it’s all little bits of guitar chopped together. So for me, the challenge was to create this mosaic out of this cathedral of sounds to back up, this beautiful melody and song.”

And that, you suspect is the point of all this – to demonstrate that guitar can still very much have a place in all these different and diverse genres, and can be more than just a rock instrument.

“I firmly believe that the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever invented by humankind,” Morello says, deliberately. “There’s a lot of evidence to back that up – from the most subtle nuance to stadium-destroying power, there’s never been an instrument like it. But I also believe that the electric guitar has a future and not just the past. And that’s what these Fire and Flood records insist – that there are ways to create alloys with modern music that doesn’t let go of any of the awesome stuff that we love about electric guitar, but isn’t mired in traditionalism.

The sales statistics make it abundantly clear that guitar remains a hugely popular instrument, but it’s clearly not as prominent as it once was – something that Morello acknowledges, and certainly wants to challenge.

“Guitar is now being used as a compositional tool by people who are making records in their bedrooms and whatnot,” he says. “But rather than gunslinger of the past, where you spend eight hours a day for 10 years practising, and then you come out to destroy the other guy in the head-cutting competition… that’s not so much a thing – I miss that – but it’s not so much of a thing anymore! It has entered the world where people have a keyboard, they have a drum machine and they have a guitar – it’s part of the template that people are using when composing music.

“But my assertion is – and this is where I do hang on to the traditionalism – that guitar solos and big rock riffs can very much be a part of that future as well. I think it’s just a matter of insisting! And that’s what I’ve done on the Fire and Flood records, I’ve insisted that that be the case.

Tom Morello

Pawn stars

While the method of recording might have been extremely guerilla, the gear Morello was using to make the sound was certainly not. He plugged into his trusty Marshall 2205, the effects pedals that have been on his board for decades, and the guitars he had at home which he says number about 30. That didn’t mean he wasn’t going outside of his comfort zone with it, however.

The Atlas Underground Flood is my 22nd studio album that I’ve made, but it was very different,” he insists. “Because normally you record, you sit and listen back and you do multiple takes – there’s none of that! My phone is sitting on a chair, you hit record, here’s today’s four ideas, and I ship them off to whoever – whether it’s Refused or it’s Sama’ Abdulhadi, or it’s Jim James.

“And then one of those, or two of those, or all of those as is become the song. And it’s really liberating in a way. Like for example, Hard Times is the $50 Kay guitar that was my first ever guitar – it’s an SG knockoff. But one night, those guys were actually in the studio, and they hit me up like, ‘Hey send us some riffs, we got Jim James in the studio!’ And I’m like, ‘Great!’ So I just pulled that one out, recorded about five riffs, they picked two of them and the song was done, just like that. So I like the spontaneity of it.”

Ultimately though, these records were about Morello proving something to himself – like so many of us the early months of the pandemic sucked the inspiration out of him, and left him in a creative funk.

“During the first four months of lockdown, I didn’t touch a guitar,” he reveals. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t touch a guitar, I didn’t play, I was completely uninspired creatively. But as the time went on I was like, ‘This is an opportunity to really push myself as a guitar player… and to outflank some of the things I’ve done before.’ So you’ve got the flamenco-shreddery Warrior Spirit to the San Holo track [A Radical In The Family], which is this ethereal, anthemic one, then to Harlem Hellfighters which is just a fucking an EDM, heavy metal jam. And then there’s the Sama’ Abdulhadi one [On The Short Of Eternity] that’s like this eight-minute Arabic trance, Coltrane kind of vibe. I look at those four songs and I feel pretty good about where I’m at. I was not stunted during this lockdown, I was able to push forward!”

The Atlas Underground Flood is out now on Mom + Pop Records.