Tom Morello: Spinning the ‘Atlas’

Photo by Travis Shinn.

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

It’s the story of Tom Morello’s life. Writing, recording, and performing manically since he was 17 years old. When his fixed musical state ended abruptly around the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Morello put down his guitar for the first time in his career.  

“It was the first creative drought of my life, and it came to a screeching halt in the midst of a plague, and a lockdown, and a crazy political situation,” says Morello. Guitarist and co-founding member of Rage Against the Machine—the band’s 2020 reunion tour now off the table and postponed—Morello didn’t play his instrument for four months before eventually gravitating back to his lifeline. Recording random guitar riffs on his phone and sharing with artists across the globe to contribute vocals, lyrics, and mixes, Morello assembled The Atlas Underground Fire

“All of a sudden these roaring tracks started coming back,” says Morello. “I was building this musical lattice, a community of collaborators around the planet. Even though I was isolated, and cloistered, and completely alone with nothing but my guitar and my little microphone on my phone, I was able to make a record, to collaborate with people, and to connect.” 

Remembering that Kanye West recorded most of his 2019 album Jesus Is King using voice memos on his phone, Morello resolved to the do same, on guitar. “With all the fear and anxiety swirling around, inspiration came from a very unlikely place: Kanye West,” shares Morello. Without access to an engineer, he began sending his DIY guitar files to artists around the globe from Palestine, Sweden, across the U.S., Brazil, Jamaica, the U.K., and 25,000 feet above sea level.  

Starting with the portions of “Hold the Line,” featuring grandson, and the Damian Marley track “The Achilles List,” recorded prior to lockdown, the larger portion of the album was constructed remotely between Morello and the interested parties throughout 2020.  

“It was this crazy juxtaposition of every day being exactly the same,” says Morello. “I was not so much a musician, but I was a plumber, a caregiver, and the guy trying to fix the kids’ Zoom chat for school. Then, for an hour or 90 minutes a day, I would work on Atlas and collaborate with these musical pen pals.”  

Calling it his life raft during the pandemic, this new installment continued what Morello started with The Atlas Underground in 2018, and allowed him to remove the laments of anxiety and fear, pressing him to pick up the guitar and make music. “Ninety-five percent of the guitars on this album were recorded by myself on my cellphone and shipped around the world,” says Morello. “The crazy thing is that it really was a global record, even though it was made in a bunker.” 

Fire ignited, uniting the nations of music, crossing genres and experimental mixes, starting at the beginning with “Harlem Hellfighter,” a frenetic instrumental ode to Morello’s birthplace of Harlem, New York, using backward sampling on Java EE before kicking into a powerhouse troika on the cover of AC/DC’s 1979 hit “Highway to Hell,” featuring vocals by Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and some of Morello’s classic guitar shred and additional backing vocals from E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt. 

Morello’s international contributions comprise Dennis Lyxzén of Refused writing and lending vocals on “Save Our Souls” from Sweden, with Springsteen recording his parts from New Jersey, Vedder in the Pacific Northwest, and Marley collaborating from Jamaica. Palestinian DJ and electronic producer Sama’ Abdulhadiis was mixing the closing Fire instrumental, “On The Shore Of Eternity,” while the Israeli bombings were happening around her, leaving Morello concerned for the artist’s safety when he didn’t hear back from her for a few days in between their sessions. 

“I sent her some of my more traditional Morello, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath riffs and she admitted she didn’t know what to do with it,” says Morello. “I said ‘pretend you’ve never heard a note of music,’ and she sent me this eight-minute-long Arabic trance track. I put on my Charlie Parker ears, closed my eyes, and just blew it over the top of it without any preconceived notion and let it surf over these melodies, then sent the raw tracks back to her so she could mix and weave it into a cohesive whole.” 

Naraka,” meaning a place of torture or hell in Indian religions, somewhat captured the climactic nature of Mike Posner’s locale while working on the track with Morello, recording his vocals while in Nepal, summiting Mount Everest. “We wanted to create something spooky and powerful and finding a way that the electric guitar had a substantial presence in this other world that we were creating,” says Morello of the track.  

Initially meeting at a Chris Cornell memorial, Chris Stapleton and Morello intended to write the soulful rocker “The War Inside” via Zoom but instead spent two hours talking about their experiences trying to keep their families going during uncertain times. Co-produced by Stapleton and Dave Cobb, whose credits include John Prine, Brandi Carlile, Rival Sons, and Jason Isbell, “The War Inside” came from a more paternal space. “That therapy session became the fodder for the song, of two dads talking about life, what it’s like to manage three generations, not drink yourself to death,” reveals Morello. “So that became the underlying premise of the song.” 

Embracing a progressive form, Atlas Underground Fire is an alt and electronic rendering of rock, the aftereffect of darker times and consequences of a sequestered state, sweeping through a manifesto on political unrest—You gotta stay steadfast / Tread lightly because they’re looking for a reason to knock you down—on the industrial pulsed “Hold the Line,” co-written with Jordan Benjamin (aka grandson), and “The Achilles List,” produced by The Bloody Beetroots, Zane Lowe with additional vocals by teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg, juxtaposed by “Let’s Get the Party Started,” featuring UK rockers Bring the Horizon, addressing anxiety on a rock anthem surface. 

“It’s about the flip side of that depression coin, where if you’re faced with a mountain of anxiety, you can either slide into this shadowy world of depression, or you can party yourself to death,” says Morello, “and that was something that was also on the table during this time and could not stay off the record.” 

Driving Through Texas” was pieced together with the electronic duo Phantogram. Morello zoned out for a few days crafting layers of “noises” for the duo’s Josh Carter to work on. “I was making riffs, songs, and solos and these atonal things that were in the pocket and gave Josh [Carter] all of these sonic colors as a palette to create on. There were literally no rules and no deadlines, and no end in sight. It really wasn’t life raft on a daily basis to be able to have that outlet.” 

For Morello, instrumentals “Harlem Hellfighter,” “Charmed, I’m Sure” and “On The Shore Of Eternity” were critical to completing Fire. “It was an assertion that yes, I am a musician and yes I am a guitar player, and I’m moving forward in a time where we’re supposed to be shouting into the darkness, and I can play unfettered by lyrics,” says Morello. “It’s my strong opinion that in order for music to be able to connect for the artist creating it and for the listener it has to be authentic and that’s why I let the songs go where they were going to go.” 

Fire was also Morello’s daily therapy, cracking the reclusion of the lockdown. “It felt like there were six stars above the clouds,” says Morello of making the album. “I was more than a guy cleaning up accidents or fixing broken windows. I was still a musician, and I hadn’t been for four months, for the first time ever. It was a way to continue to identify as an artist and as a curator and as a rocker, while most of the days were kind of static, there was this brief window every day to explore the unexpected thing.” 

Connecting with some artists he found during lockdown like Posner and hip-hop artist Protohype (aka Mac Hype), Fire was as much an outlet as an exercise in musical and self-discovery. 

“Every day, I would just pick a guitar randomly, set the dial on the effects differently, and just create with absolutely no preconceptions,” says Morello. “Then I’d listen back to the stuff that I created at night, wondering who I wanted to work with on individual tracks. Someone might respond to riff number two from that day, and that became the starting point.” 

Fire hits both ends for Morello as a solo and collaborative offering. “It’s a solo record because there’s a kind of a purity of vision, and this idea that the electric guitar, which I believe is the most important instrument created by humankind, doesn’t just have a path, it has a future,” he says. “And it’s my guitar and my vision of how the guitar should be in that future. That is the common thread and north star that guides the process with each of the individual tracks, where the chemistry of myself and the individuals and the tracks are taken in places that it would never transcend what I could have done alone.” 

He adds, “It’s like-minded artists from different genres who have come together to shoulder the weight of the world.” 

And that is the thesis of The Atlas Underground Fire, says Morello. “The idea was to have a record that is curated the way that can withstand crazy shifts,” he says. “I wanted to make a record that is creative. Even though there’s a Chris Stapleton song, a Damian Marley song, a Protohype song, and a Bruce Springsteen song, the hope is that the guitar playing is the cement between the 12 tracks.” 

There’s healing in releasing The Atlas Underground Fire to the world, and Morello is ready to return home, to Rage Against the Machine. “It was a spectacular challenge,” says Morello, who is ready to tour with the band again. “I wanted the connection, and I wanted to submerge myself in a process that needed others. It wasn’t so much ‘Hey, here’s a song and will you play,’ it was more ‘let’s get through this troubled time. Let’s hold on to each other for dear life and see what it is that comes out of it.’” 


Photo by Travis Shinn.

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