Tuesday, October 2, 2018

TOM MORELLO: An EXCLUSIVE Q&A


SOUNDING THE ALARM:

Rage guitarist TOM MORELLO 
discusses his new album 
THE ATLAS UNDERGROUND


DAVE RAYBURN: “Battle Sirens” sets the tone for this album with a wild, yet familiar array of production elements. As this rally call begins to pierce the air, what exactly is the Atlas Underground and what is its message?
TOM MORELLO: The Atlas Underground is a sonic conspiracy. It is an array of diverse artists who have come together with me as curator to forge a brand new genre of music. An alloy consisting of one part Marshall stack, one part bass drop, one part sonic Molotov cocktail.

DAVE: Given that mission, what new elements do you feel were brought to the table?
TOM: There’s a quadrant of EDM music that I’ve been drawn to over the years. Crystal Method, Prodigy, Knife Party, Skrillex, Bassnectar, all of whom perhaps not coincidentally, are Rage Against The Machine fans. My idea was to create guitar sonics with Ansel Adams-like photographic clarity and then smash them Picasso-style into a whirlwind of electronic craziness.

DAVE: This project began with a limited amount of direction regarding lyrics and theme, ultimately encouraging the artists engaged to simply make something that was “fucking powerful.” After lighting that creative fuse, what are your thoughts on what resulted?
TOM: Despite the diverse cast of characters on this record the album feels very cohesive both musically and in lyrical narrative. I discussed the lyrical content to varying degrees with my collaborators. Its central theme is “social justice ghost stories”. We are exploring the notion that the heroes and the martyrs of past struggles for justice and freedom can inform our present-day struggles for justice and freedom and provide a beacon illuminating a more just and humane future.

DAVE: This record is one of global proportions, with moving parts emanating from studios all over the world. As big as that sounds, it’s worth commenting on the unique, personal way that some songs were written. How did the song “Find Another Way” come together with its co-writer, Marcus Mumford?
TOM: Marcus and I have been friends for some time and find common ground as rock dads and whiskey lovers. I’ve jammed with Mumford and Sons several times and we’ve had some historic nights on and off the stage. The genesis of “Find Another Way” was rather amusing. Marcus in England would finish his fatherly duties for the day and skype me, I would get my kids off to school in L.A. and Skype him. So, there we were, dads in bathrobes with acoustic guitars attempting to forge a minor key masterpiece. We later made contact with Josh Carter of Phantogram who stirred the production into the incredible sonic frenzy that brought the song home.


DAVE: Names like Bassnectar, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Portugal. The Man, Vic Mensa, Steve Aoki, Tim McIlrath, Pretty Lights, Gary Clark Jr., GZA, RZA, and Herobust highlight an album that features both old and new collborators. Can you detail the chance scenario that led to K.Flay’s involvement on “Lucky One”?
TOM: I was driving the car when K.Flay’s song “Blood In the Cut” came on Sirius XMU. I swerved the car into a parking space and immediately contacted my representatives and said “Find me K.Flay!!” She is the second artist in my life that I’ve ever cold called (the other was Roger Waters). I found out that K.Flay was from the Northern Chicago suburbs like myself and we really hit it off. She’s a tremendous talent and a thoughtful artist.

DAVE: Being a longtime admirer of another blue-collar songwriter, Bruce Springsteen, you found yourself taking on the challenge of joining the E Street Band for a stretch of road dates from 2013 through 2014. Concurrently, you appeared on a pair Bruce’s studio albums. With this history together, a high-energy bond and a shared vision, do you see yourself inviting the likes of Springsteen into a future endeavor like this?
TOM: I loved playing with Bruce Springsteen and would be happy to collaborate with him at any time on any project. Touring and recording with Bruce was an incredible experience. Watching his commitment to excellence and his soul power on a daily basis is very inspiring to me in my work.

DAVE: You’re known widely for your innovative style of guitar playing which gained mainstream attention during your tenure with Rage Against The Machine. Growing up, what kind of music or musicians would you say inspired your specific sound?
TOM: I started out loving metal. Just metal. But it was punk rock music that made me actually pick up the guitar. It felt much more accessible. Squawking out chords in my mom’s basement, I didn’t really see a path to becoming Jimmy Page but I did see a path to possibly becoming Joe Strummer. But it was only after ten thousand hours of wood shedding and practice that I made the breakthrough of finding my own voice on the instrument. I began practicing my mistakes and eccentricities rather than just running scales. I then found myself playing the role of deejay in Rage Against The Machine and I was off to the races exploring a vast new guitar horizon.

DAVE: Speaking of guitar playing... in June of this year you sustained a severe hand fracture that required emergency surgery. How has the healing process been, and has it put any limitations on your job at-hand (so to speak)?
TOM: Modern medicine is pretty miraculous. The titanium plates and nails that are holding my finger on weathered a three-week long Prophets of Rage European tour without considerable discomfort. Since I’ve been back, I’ve found that long days in the studio can be very taxing on the new break but hopefully with physical therapy and strength of will there will be no further setbacks. From the Bionic Man to the Terminator to Wolverine, I’ve always been a fan of heroes with a fistful of steel and now I can aspire to their ranks.


DAVE: THE ATLAS UNDERGROUND comes just one year after the explosive self-titled album by the Prophets Of Rage collective. Does this “solo” release potentially bring a close to that faction, or do you think there are more chapters to come from the Prophets?
TOM: Prophets of Rage is in the studio currently making our next record. We are a band of brothers and having played in front of almost 3 million people over the course of our short tenure we show no signs of letting up.

DAVE: You’ve always held very strong social/political viewpoints and made it your purpose to verbally fight for those who may not be able to defend themselves from injustice. You’ve also been known to showcase messages on your guitars such as “END RACISM,” “SOUL POWER,” and “WHATEVER IT TAKES.” How do you regard the close comparisons between yourself and Woody Guthrie with respect to how you utilize your musical platform and the potential of its influence?
TOM: Woody Guthrie is a great hero of mine and to have my name uttered in the same breath as his would make my mom proud. Woody was the original punk rocker who played by his own rules in his personal and professional life and never took shit from anyone. He is a paragon of anti-fascist virtue and often when I’m at a career crossroads I ask myself, “What would Woody do?”

DAVE: Considering the sheer diversity and quantity of contributing artists (Vic Mensa, Portugal, The Man, Gary Clark Jr., GZA, RZA, etc.) involved with this project, is this an album that you’ll be able to take out on the road and get to the masses? What’s the game plan going forward?
TOM: Before the album comes out I’m hosting listening parties/jam sessions to introduce friends and fans to the new music and do some shredding. The long-term game plan is to create a live experience that is very different from a traditional rock n roll show and will convey the musical power and thematic underpinnings of The Atlas Underground world in an exciting and unconventional way. Think mosh pit art installation.

Thanks to Tom Morello and Steve Dixon.

TOM MORELLO
THE ATLAS UNDERGROUND

9.28.18

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