Tom Morello has had many occupations.
The scorched earth guitarist with Rage Against The Machine, the solo balladeer of The Nightwatchman, but now he’s aiming for something different – to bring together multitudinous musical forces, and break down the walls of the mainstream once and for all.
The Atlas Underground is both a solo endeavour and a mosaic, with Tom Morello joined by everyone from Big Boi to Killer Mike, Vic Mensa, Bassnectar, Marcus Mumford, and so much more, all rallying to a righteous political cause.
“My job on this record was curator,” he tells Clash on the phone from the United States. “I wanted to create a sonic conspiracy of diverse artists with similar points of view. And with regards to the music, it was my intention to really forge a new genre of music, an alloy of my Marshall stack riffs and shredding but with big bass drops, and some of the electronic components in 2018.”
“I wanted to make a record that was the Hendrix of now. And that means other-worldly guitar playing, it means songs that are not afraid of the radio, and it means an immersion in the genres of the time.”
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The final record moves from EDM to metal riffs, gathering the incredible shades of hip-hop with some potent pop songwriting. He continues: “I like songs that are catchy but I want those songs to be infused with a moral fibre, and an uncompromising point of view… and guitar solos.”
Punching through the walls erected by the establishment, The Atlas Underground is a looseknit conglomerate of styles and voices, all working with one singular purpose, a purpose guided by Tom Morello himself.
The guitarist tells Clash: “The thematic thread on the record is: Social Justice Ghost Stories. And the idea in various guises throughout the record is how the heroes and martyrs of the past can inform the present, and light the way to a more just and humane future.”
“There’s a great deal of poetic license one can have with that over-arching theme. We took great poetic license, and that’s the whole idea.”
The Atlas Underground is – in Tom Morello’s eyes – a living, breathing thing, an example of the disparate ways in which music is both created and consumed in 2018. He’s overawed by the cooperation he received across the musical spectrum: “Just look at the guestlist on this – it’s a living example of the kind of world that we hope to one day create. Various backgrounds, genres, ethnicities, genders, all in a harmonious potent whole to throw a molotov into the moshpit.”
Someone who has never shied away from his political beliefs, Tom Morello’s role in Rage Against The Machine helped to bring progressive politics to the bedrooms of rock kids across the globe. The group’s output sold millions of copies, a cultural phenomenon which presaged rap-metal and provided a societal connection outwith the established news channels for kids starved of information.
The current context is somewhat different, though. With more choice comes more confusion; Rage operated in an analogue system, we point out. Doesn’t the digital era dilute the impact of these gestures somewhat?
“I think there’s certainly pro’s and cons to the way that music is digested now,” he muses. “On the one hand it’s more democratic, and there’s not a couple of record companies that are the funnel and decide that Kylie Minogue and U2 and Rage Against The Machine will be the music you hear and everybody else will labour in obscurity. Now, everybody labours in obscurity except for a few snapchat hip-hop artists!”
“It does allow many more musicians to participate in the conversation, and if you have ideas and you have beats and a guitar or whatever then you can have a Facebook page just like Metallica does. It is healthy, but at the same time it does water down the potency. There are no more global artists with the point of view of Rage Against The Machine – I don’t see that coming back. However there can be a million little Rage Against The Machines to do that work.”
And that’s in essence what The Atlas Underground is – a collective of individuals working together for a communal end. “Absolutely,” he agrees. “This is my 15th or 16th record and I haven’t been shy in expressing my point of view on any of those albums. But this was a way to curate this sonic conspiracy, this music experience driven by artists… some of whom have been very outspoken in their politics and point of view on what’s going on in the world, and others who are now standing shoulder to shoulder with those artists, and myself.”
“Someone like Vic Mensa who is very much the next generation of revolutionary poets, or an EDM producer like Ethan, who is a teenager and has a very different sonic point of view. But this record is an embodiment of solidarity, and the idea that we’re going to change the world but we’re going to have an awesome mosh pit dance party while we do it.”
Set to play dates across the globe in support of the new record, The Atlas Underground is just one junction on his unstoppable journey of musical dissent. Fans can expect a few more Nightwatchman shows, for instance, with Tom Morello returning to South America for a handful of dates.
“I love that,” he beams. “I haven’t abandoned any element of that – I love the Nightwatchman stuff. There’s an immediacy to that, that with an acoustic guitar you can be on the frontline of any picket line. I can whack a fascist over the head with that thing at a moment’s notice.”
Finally, with the seconds ticking down on our encounter, Clash can’t resist asking… how about some more Rage Against The Machine shows?
He chuckles: “If they happen I’ll be the guitar player. I volunteer to be the guitar player!”
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'The Atlas Underground' is out now.
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