For a man who found fame as the machine-gun guitarist in time Rage Against The Machine, Tom Morello cuts a surprisingly warm and placid figure when NME meets him in a West London hotel. He’s all smiles, reclining on his sofa, his cartoon chuckle bouncing off the walls.
Given the political maelstrom of the last two months – if not two decades – are we to assume this sunny disposition means he’s put the blinkers on? Is Tom Morello about to start entering two-sided discourse with neo-Nazis, rather than clobbering them ‘round the chops?
“Are you kidding?!” he grins. “Oh my gosh – the fact that that’s a controversial thing is so insane to me. If it comes to it that we can’t punch Nazis, then who can we punch, really?” Never mind, then –Tom’s firebrand politics are still business as usual.
But one thing that’s not business as usual is ‘The Atlas Underground’, Tom’s first solo album under his own name, released last week. A buzz-saw fusion of EDM and classic rock ‘n’ roll, it’s another entry into a musical canon few legends could muster – one that sees Rage Against The Machine’s rap-rock revolution filed alongside the cavernous anthemia of the Chris Cornell-featuring Audioslave, the whispering folk of solo project The Nightwatchman, a stint in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and the musical fusion of Prophets Of Rage, a supergroup featuring members of RATM and Public Enemy.
What unites those musically disparate projects is undoubtedly those aforementioned politics. Left-wing since day dot, Morello has fought for justice at every opportunity, staging protests and speaking out. Last year, when an Instagram user, @davez67, commented “Another successful musician instantly becomes a political expert” on a picture Morello posted of him holding with his ‘FUCK TRUMP’ guitar, Tom decided to respond. “One does not have to be an honours grad in political science from Harvard University to recognise the unethical and inhumane nature of this administration,” he wrote, “But, well, I happen to be an honours grad in political science from Harvard University so I can confirm that for you.” It was the perfect clap back to all the ‘stay in your lane’ political critics that musicians across the globe have been plagued by in recent years.
“First of all, anyone who suggests that you should ‘just play guitar’ or ‘stay out of politics’, the reason they’re doing it is because they disagree with your politics,” he expands today. “When the actors Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger – who are conservative politicians – ran for office, they were touted by the same people for their charisma and how they use their artistic skills to woo the people.”
That’s not the only hypocrisy at play, of course. “In the United States we have a thing called the First Amendment,” he continues, citing that ‘free speech!’ doctrine so beloved of right wingers. “You don’t give your right of free speech away when you pick up a guitar. When you have some sort of platform, you have a microphone that they don’t have, and so on social media they try to even the odds by telling you to shut up,” he shrugs. “One thing I will not be doing is shutting up any time soon.”
It would be a funny time for Tom to shut up. From Donald Trump and the concurrent rise of the alt-right to the swell of European isolationism that’s manifested itself in Brexit, the world hasn’t looked so fragmented in recent memory. It’s times like these in which figures like Tom Morello become most important – totems of justice and strong voices to rally around, people like Morello offer an alternative, when the oppression in the world can often feel inescapable.
“I think that, while Trump is an abomination, it’s important not to look at him independent of the system that produced him,” Tom says, in typically pragmatic fashion.
“It was years of these neo-liberal policies that were supported by Clinton, and Bush, and Obama, and the other Bush, that caused the working class to really suffer. They sent their kids overseas to fight in ridiculous, amoral wars. I come from Trump country – the small town in Illinois where I come from, Democrats don’t even run. The options open to people are: you join the army; you work at Walmart; you sell meth. They looked at a broken system and Trump provided some of the easiest answers, which are ‘it’s the Mexicans’ fault’, ‘it’s the Muslims’ fault’. That racist way of dividing and conquering the working class has had success before, and it certainly had success with this demagogue.”
When we meet, Elon Musk has been hogging headlines for weeks. With a smile so knowing you could be sure he’s got a plan in place, Tom’s dismissive of Elon’s empty, big-business-minded rhetoric. “There’s an old Clash lyric – ‘I don’t want to go to where the rich are going, I don’t care what the rich are doing’,” he chuckles, “So, when he makes the headlines for crying, I haven’t much to say about it; it doesn’t impact my day. I wish him well,” he smirks, “I’m sure it’s going to work out well for him.”
Given the state of his own country, Morello rarely has time to keep up with British politics, he admits (“A little on the Brexit front, but no – we’ve got a lot of problems to be dealing with on the home front,” he says, that laugh bouncing off down the corridor once more). One moment that did turn heads, however, was a cease-and-desist sent to one Nigel Farage earlier this year, over his interpolation of the Rage Against The Machine brand – ‘Farage Against The Machine’. It was effective overnight. “That’s just not going to fly,” Tom smiles. “The reason why we formed the bands Prophets of Rage was I saw on CNN, ‘Donald Trump Rages Against The Machine’, and you can’t have that – you don’t get that! And if you do try to usurp it – whether its unintentional, like Trump, or intentionally, like him – we have to speak out about it.”
Speaking out is, of course, what Tom does best. What he does next-best? Play guitar, obviously. He was once a playable character on Guitar Hero, and it’s little surprise – the way Tom shreds is like no other. Clipping his guitar strings, warping every sound until it comes off like the audio file from a Transformers XXX Parody, rather than anything remotely resembling regular riffing, he’s a bona fide icon of the six-string.
“As a guitar player, I’ve been influenced by dance music – it was Crystal Method and The Prodigy back in the day,” he explains. “I would listen to those textures and try to approximate them on the electric guitar. Also, in my R2-D2 noise-making, I’ve drawn from a lot of non-traditional rock ‘n’ roll sources.”
On ‘The Atlas Underground’, those warped sources take the foreground. It’s a twisted take on huge, clubland EDM and screeching guitar music, that features everyone from Vic Mensa to Marcus Mumford, Run The Jewels to Skrillex. It’s like nothing Tom’s ever released before – a million miles away from his last solo efforts as The Nightwatchman – an impressive feat for any musician this far into their career.
What made you want to break away from the solo stuff you’d done under The Nightwatchman and work under your own name?
“Well, this is the 16th, 17th record I’ve made, and I’ve always tried to push myself as both a guitar player and an artist. I didn’t want to make another record like I’d made before. I’ve done a lot of collaborative work over the course of decades but never something like this – this is a sonic conspiracy, that’s how I look at it. The participants in the record – I think it speaks volumes. It’s artists of diverse genres, diverse ages, diverse ethnicity, and diverse genders, who have come together in solidarity to make a very cohesive, harmonious, and hopefully powerful statement. That in itself is a statement – that in these divisive times, a diverse group like this can get together to make a solid piece of art.”
How did you collect together all these people from all these different backgrounds?
Some are long-time friends – Marcus Mumford and I had a few nights tearing up the East Village in Manhattan, and then Wu-Tang Clan and I go back to the LA tour with Rage Against the Machine in 1997.
And it’s a bit of a left-turn, musically…
“I’ve always hated EDM music, or what my understanding was of EDM music was – Italian taxi-cab music, or my interpretation of what was going on in an Ibiza dance floor, which I want to just attack! Then someone turned me onto Knife Party, and Bassnectar, and Skrillex – all of them are huge Rage Against the Machine fans, coincidentally, and I heard in their music the same heaviness and the same tension and release of the rock ‘n’ roll that I like best. The lightbulb went on and I said, ‘What if we replace half-to-two-thirds of your synthesisers with my electric guitar?’ The idea would be that if my guitar were the Ansel Adams black-and-white, sharp photograph, I want to take that, hand that to you, and you give me back the shattered, Picasso version of it. Like, you can recognise the image, but in a completely different way of seeing it.”
What were you favourite collaborations? Were there any that were more of a challenge?
Every track came together very differently. With Knife Party, I sent them a riff tape of ten hot riffs and a bunch of crazy guitar noises, and said, ‘Just plug that into your… system! Let’s see what comes back!’ With Vic Mensa, we wrote that song in the room together. He’s amazing – he doesn’t write anything down. He just went into the vocal booth and laid it down. Marcus Mumford and I, we’re rock dads! He’d put his kids to bed over here and I’d be dropping my kids off at school in Los Angeles, and then we’d Skype in our robes with acoustic guitars [laughs]. ‘Find Another Way’ became the anthemic ode that it is now.”
Like you touched on, the worlds of dance music and rock music are seen as polar opposites, sometimes. Did you want to mix them up a little?
“Yeah, absolutely – in the same way that hip hop and rock ‘n’ roll were looked at as opposing entities when the first Rage record came out. In some ways, it’s kind of a 2.0 of that; trying to create a new genre. Rock and EDM have overlapped in the past, but no-one’s gone for it like this.”
What ties ‘The Atlas Underground’ to his past work, Tom explains, is the thematics of the record – which he dubs “social justice ghost stories”. “The heroes and martyrs and those that have fallen in the past can inform the struggles of the present, and help shine a beacon towards a more just and humane future,” he says, like the wisened sage he is. “Whether it’s a prisoner on death row – which we touch on in the Marcus Mumford song – to someone crossing the border of the desert from Mexico to the United States in ‘Roadrunner’, to the incessant drum beats of police murdering African-Americans – which is touched on in both ‘Lead Poisoning’, the Wu-Tang song and ‘Rabbit’s Revenge’, the Killer Mike, Big Boi and Bassnectar jam – those are voices that you’re now going to hear on this record, and hopefully now they can have an impact.”
The last time Tom Morello found himself on British soil was with Prophets Of Rage, who landed at Download festival on June 9, 2017 – just one day after Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party made remarkable gains as part of the UK’s shock general election. Perfect timing for a political juggernaut supergroup to rage into town.
“[Prophets Of Rage shows] are a gathering of tribes,” says Morello. “There’s something in rock ‘n’ roll, hip hop, or anything that combines a beat on the two and the four, and a couplet that feels like the truth, in a large room full of people. There’s always been a lot of potential there – not just in the tribal celebration, but in the gathering of community to figure out what it is we’re going to do.”
And what is it we’re going to do? Top of Tom’s list right now is the reversal of global warming, he explains. “Racism is a problem, economic inequality is a problem, not enough rock ‘n’ roll on the radio is a problem,” he quips, “but all those problems will become insignificant when the oceans rise in a way that threatens organised human activity. That, I think is the measure of our time.”
He cites the leaked internal papers of oil company ExxonMobil, whereby “they acknowledge that global warming is a real thing that is caused by human activity, their activity in particular.” Burying that information, and paying off politicians, is a “level of evil” that even he – a man who’s stared evil in the face for three decades – struggles to comprehend.
“What level of Dante’s Inferno will you end up in when you are, in the name of short-term profit, going to mortgage the planet’s soul?” he sighs. “It’s pretty crazy… The system under which we live is owned and operated by people who do not deserve to run the world. It may take some big changes in order to try to steer away from the abyss.”
It’s people power and unity that drive Tom forward through all this political and social mire. “I’m not waiting for a messiah,” he shrugs. “Progressive, radical, or even revolutionary change has always come from below. Whether it was women getting the right to vote, or de-segregating lunch counters… or even globally, whether it was the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid, those things happened because people no different from the people reading this – people who had no more power, no more courage, no more intellect than you out there – stood up in their time to change the world – that’s how the world changes.”
More than just one man against the world, then, Tom’s so-called solo album is a means to unite him with likeminded people once more. It begs the question, of course – will we ever see another Rage Against The Machine reunion? Prophets Of Rage are his main group, he admits, quipping that they’re “like The Avengers” and revealing that they’re halfway through a second full-length, but is he still close with the missing link to Rage Against The Machine – rapper Zack De La Rocha?
“We’re all still in contact – and still friends,” he says, succinctly. “If there is a Rage reunion, count me in.”
Until then, he’s focussing on striking out solo. And as the politics of the self – LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter, mental health discourse et al – dominate political discourse, Tom Morello remains confident that that larger change can come from within: “Hopefully in the pursuit of those rights, we can find an overarching solidarity to confront the huge issues confronting the planet.”
“There are two constants,” Tom offers by way of light-in-a-tunnel advice. “One is injustice – that makes things feel dark. The other constant is resistance to injustice, and that never goes away. I am constantly inspired by the people I run into on a daily basis, whether it’s at a show, or at the grocery store, who come up and they talk about how elements of art that I’ve been involved in has influenced them in some way. It really encourages me to never let up – the most obscure folk record I made has touched someone in a way that has caused them to become either a public defender, or to put on a black mask or throw a Molotov.” As he readies himself for yet another show, and another room of people to galvanise, he’s hopeful. “For me,” he smiles, “that’s a good day at the office.”