Nine Songs: Tom Morello
Whether through their overtly claimed status as a rock god or simple awareness of their quiet, yet prolific mark on the world of music, some artists need no introduction.
Sometimes a name rings a bell, but you can’t find a sonic reference no matter how hard you try, or you have a song stuck in your head but can’t quite put your finger on who it is. Polymathic guitar luminary and social activist Tom Morello has probably been all of these things at one point in his career. From his incendiary riffs with Rage Against the Machine to his poignant solo work in The Nightwatchman, the Harlem-born musician is undeniably someone who likes to stay leftfield, preferring to provoke thought and action as opposed to creating art for art’s sake.
In his most recent solo endeavours, The Atlas Underground Fire and The Atlas Underground Flood, Morello has taken three-decades worth of experience as a rock and roll guitarist to try his hand at blurring the lines between genres, with the view that nobody should be boxed into a certain style. From his time spent creating magic with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and Bring Me The Horizon, Morello let go of the notion that rock music is linear, a time capsule which is destined to repeat itself over and over again.
“There would be days where I would come up here and record some riffs into my phone, and then I would think, ‘Who would I like to work with?’” Morello tells me. “Some of the collaborators across the two records are with old friends such as Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper, and there are other people that I know less well, such as My Morning Jacket and Sama’ Abdulhadi.”
What transpired during his lockdown desperation to continue making music, and to refrain from being redundant in his craft, was a meticulous and innovative pursuit in rejuvenating the world of rock and roll, just like his peers did. “In some ways, it’s me being the guitarist of 24 different groups. The music was a starting point to question what band I would like to be in today.”
In light of the complete freedom that he held onto whilst creating the music for The Atlas Underground, Morello had a similar sense of ease when curating his Nine Songs selections. Looking back on his illustrious career, Morello often refers to the full-circle moments, where he went from being a fan of an artist to being able to work with them. For most music fanatics, this is something that will always be a jaw-dropping moment for the rest of their lives, but for Morello - who managed to escape the dead-end towns that he grew up in - there’s still a sense of humility that runs through his mind when he recounts these processes.
Throughout our Zoom conversation, where Morello is sat in the studio that most of his recent songs were crafted in, he maintains the kind of conversational tone that makes you think that you’re catching up with an old friend. It’s this relatability that time and time again allows Morello to be the unspoken hero of rock and roll.
“These are all watershed moments in my evolution from being a fan, to being a musician, to being an artist. Destroyer by KISS was the first record that I bought on my own, and “Detroit Rock City” is the first song on that record.
“Due their elaborate costumes, they were my favourite band before I heard one note of their music. I was a big comic book fan, so it was a very simple transition to KISS for me. The heaviness of the music really spoke to me, and the escapism of the characters - the commitment to this rock power that was embodied in that song - that, I would say, was really the beginning of my journey of becoming inhabited by the Holy Spirit of rock and roll.
“I grew up in an extremely conservative, narrow minded suburb of Chicago where there was not a lot of excitement. The KISS album cover was the most exciting thing that ever happened. Just looking at it transported you into this mythic world, but they were real human beings that were playing instruments. The semi mythological component to it helped transport many of these suburban, angsty teens out of the same dull existence. It promised a world that was bigger than the one you inherited.
“This record was produced by Bob Ezrin, who at the time had produced the Alice Cooper records and then went on to do Pink Floyd's The Wall, which is of course another masterpiece. He took a talented, ambitious, hard rock band and said: ‘We're going to also make art. We’re not going to compromise on the big riffs in “Detroit Rock City”, in “King Of The Night Time World” and “God of Thunder”, but you're going to allow me to produce you, and we're going to do something beyond just four guys in a room’. I love records with four guys in a room, but this record is transcendent because it's a perfect match of a producer's brilliance and a band at the peak of their powers.
“I've done a number of tribute songs to my hometown and they're not all celebratory. My song “One Man Revolution” off of the first The Nightwatchman record is definitely about Libertyville, Illinois. I've got quite a few in my catalogue that specifically reference the small towns where I grew up. There’s another one called “Interstate 80”, which is about Marcell, Illinois, where the Morello’s are from. It's a song where Slash and I have a big guitar duel and it's about the road that runs through that town; how that road leads away, and then sometimes back home.”
“I remember reading about the Sex Pistols in Creem Magazine and being literally frightened about the fact that they existed. It felt like a threat somehow, almost as though I might be harmed by their existence.
“The day I purchased the Sex Pistols cassette and listened to “Anarchy In The UK”, I remember I was in my mum’s Honda driving over to a friend's house. I put in the cassette and I listened to that song about 20 times - I didn't even go into the friend's house. I just sat there on the street listening, and again, I couldn't believe there was music like that. It instantly compelled me to want to be in a band. I had bought a guitar when I was 13, took two lessons and then it sat in a closet for four years completely untouched. Within 24 hours of listening to “Anarchy In The UK”, I was in a band.
“I didn't know how to play a note, I didn't know how to play a chord on the guitar, but I went into the drama club of my school the next day and said, ‘A punk band is forming. I'm the guitarist. If you want to be in it, raise your hand, no experience required’. That song literally made me be a musician.
“It gave me the revelation that a song could be that powerful without having the trappings I thought were necessary for great rock and roll. Until that song, I thought you needed to have a $10,000 Les Paul guitar, a castle on a Scottish loch, groupies, and a limousine - I truly thought that you had to have all that before you could make rock and roll music. I listened to it and I was shocked to find that you don't need any of that. You're gonna make rock and roll music tomorrow, is what you're going to do.
“Thematically, while I loved the hard rock and heavy metal songs, with a couple of exceptions, I could never relate to the lyrics. There were lyrics in these fake devil worshipping songs, or songs about how there are groupies and whatnot, but I was in a damp basement in an Illinois suburb, and there were neither devils nor groupies coming anytime soon! When I listened to that song, it felt like it was written in a damp basement somewhere. It was telling the truth and it was calling people out on their shit; it was almost promising violence.
“That was a totally new way of looking at what one might say in a song. It made me think of the people in that band. There were thinkers in that band. There weren't stars in that band. There were people that didn't just have musical ability; they are people that have ideas, and I thought that was very appealing. It’s one of those songs, having heard it 90,000 times, it did its job when it needed to. The historical context of that song is what made it such a nuclear bomb.”
“I have nothing but the greatest love and respect for Ozzy Osbourne, but I chose this song for the guitar player Randy Rhoads. Whilst I began the playing guitar because of the simplicity and the easy accessibility of punk rock music, I fell in love with trying to become a skilled musician in large measure because of Randy Rhoads. The song “Mr. Crowley” has not one, but two of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded. Randy Rhoads was the poster I had on my wall when I was practising eight hours a day.
“He was my inspiration in that he was first and foremost a musician, and secondarily a rock star. With the guys in KISS or AC/DC, or even Black Sabbath, there’s a lot of talk about the things they did that didn’t have anything to do with the music. With Randy Rhoads, on days off on the Ozzy Osbourne tours he would take classical guitar lessons in whatever town they were at because he wanted to become a better musician. He would often end up probably teaching the other person something, but he was so committed to being a great musician and that really appealed to me. That song in particular is an apex moment in electric guitar playing.
“Unfortunately, he has a very brief back catalogue. It's two studio albums and one live album because he died in a plane crash at 25 years old. That entire catalogue is someone who was reinventing the instrument. He was an absolute genius and was raised a classically trained musician. He applied all of the music theory and technique of a concert violinist into the world of parking lot heavy metal, and that was the moment of genius.
“It changed the way that people looked at the guitar, and it certainly changed my life. You can hear his commitment in those songs. He has the perfect balance - the improvisational fire, the love of kick ass rock and roll, and big riffs - but it is undergirded with a knowledge that none of his peers shared. It’s the combination of ability and ambition.
“My great uncle Carlo Morello was a violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 40 years. I remember as a kid, he was always practising around the house, so I think there may have been some sort of connection when I heard about this musician Randy Rhoads who was not just partying, he was always getting better. My great uncle had been in the symphony for 30 years when he was practising around the house, and he was always trying to elevate his game as a musician. I felt that in Randy's playing, and I try to keep that fire alive in mine as well.”
“While I think that “Cult of Personality” is a lyrically brilliant song and it’s great that a song with lyrics like that became a staple of MTV, I chose it because it smashed the racial barrier on rock radio. Until Living Colour, the only African American touchstone on rock and roll radio was Jimi Hendrix. As a black person who played electric guitar, I lived under the ghost of Jimi. In every cover band that I was in, someone would always yell out, ‘Play “Foxy Lady”’.
“If you were a black guitar player, you probably loved Hendrix - which I did - but I couldn't admit it, I wanted to play Randy Rhoads! Living Colour changed that forever and they don't get credit for it. They came along right before Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Jane's Addiction changed the ethos of rock and roll. I believe Living Colour deserves to be in that number because they changed the face of rock and roll. After Living Colour, that stigma was gone. It paved the way for a group like Rage Against the Machine, or a group like Soundgarden - bands that had people of colour in their midst. Until then, there was a real apartheid-like segregation on rock and roll radio.
“I was a struggling musician in Hollywood and I was actually playing in a funk-rock band called Lock Up. When I saw Living Colour on MTV, I was like, ‘Oh, no… That’s our idea’. My band were very much in that world, that was slightly like Red Hot Chili Peppers but maybe a little harder, and all of a sudden there was a famous band doing it. I didn’t think, ‘Here’s a pathway to make a record,’ I thought, ‘That’s our vibe and somebody is doing it better than we are, and they’re already on MTV.’
“There was a very historically important show at the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Rolling Stones were headlining, and the two opening bands were Guns N' Roses - who were in the ascendant - and Living Colour. It was the kind of bill that no one had seen before. Here's the established, Kings of rock and roll, here are the upstarts with this badass, sort of new gutter rock and roll and here's an all-black band playing rock and roll in a football stadium. I remember that day in LA. It felt like the culture shifted in an important way.”
“Where Soundgarden enters my experience is when I was on tour with this band Lock Up. When you're on tour in the van, the rule is that whoever drives gets to pick the music, because there are a lot of long drives. My band were not big Soundgarden fans, but I had a Soundgarden cassette that had “Loud Love” on it, and I would play it over and over and over again.
“The reason why I chose that song is because I believe that Soundgarden, along with one or two other bands, redeemed hard rock and metal music. Until Soundgarden you had to choose one of two paths: you either had to love big, monstrous Led Zeppelin riffs and sing about fairies and dragons, or you had to be a caustic punk rock band and make poetry that was about real life and perhaps your feelings. Soundgarden said, ‘Fuck it. We are punk rock to the core, but we’re not ashamed that we love Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin’.
“Loud Love” was the first song that made me realise it was possible for rock and roll to pivot, and that you could have everything. It had the stuff that “Detroit Rock City” had, what “Anarchy In The UK” had - all in one band; all in one song. They took the best of the music that I love but infused it with intelligence. There are no embarrassing lyrics in Soundgarden’s catalogue, and you can't say that about some other bands that have awesome riffs. I remember hearing “Loud Love” and thinking that it delivered the fucking goods on a rock and roll level. Yet there was a lyrical context that made me think ‘That guy is a poet.’
“I met Chris Cornell in passing a few times, but the first real meeting was when Rage Against the Machine broke up in 2007. Brad [Wilk] and I were looking to continue to play together, and we spent a lot of time over at Rick Rubin's house listening to CDs and watching videos. We kept returning to “Loud Love” and Badmotorfinger so we called up Chris, who at the time was doing solo records. Myself and Rick drove up to this spooky mansion which was about an hour and a half north of LA. It's at the end of this long, dark hill and when we arrived, the one thing I thought about was Chris's lyrics, because there's some scary shit in that.
“So we pull in the driveway and there’s this long Transylvanian staircase going up to these big gilded doors, there’s some motorcycles out front, and the skies are getting darker. The doors open Addams Family-style, almost like there’s nobody opening them, and out walks Chris Cornell - six-foot-two, dark of countenance and lanky of frame - who starts slowly loping down the steps, when Rick turns to me and says, ‘Let's get the fuck outta here. Our souls are in peril’.
“Fortunately, we did not get out of there, but that was really when I first sat down with Chris and got to know him as a person. Even though he was a bandmate and a friend, I never really stopped being a fan of his.”
MORELLO: “I wrote this song in 2002, before the first Audioslave record came out. Chris had issues and he had been missing for a while. He was gone and nobody knew where he was. He hadn't returned a call or a text in a very, very long time. Of course, everybody was concerned, as nobody knew if he was okay, but we all suspected that he probably was not.
“I was sat at an IHOP with Rick Rubin at 3am, no-one has heard from this guy in two and a half months - bearing in mind that we’re in a band and we’re about to put out a record - and I get a text from him that said, ‘If you swallow the coin from the wishing well, your dreams will come true in heaven or hell’. I wrote the song the next day and it incorporates that lyric. The Garden of Gethsemane is where Jesus had his moment of doubt in the New Testament. I ruminated on moments of doubt. For every rose of certainty, there are 100 thorns of doubt, and I think that was a part of the puzzle for my man Chris.
“I've played “The Garden of Gethsemane” a lot and my favourite part of that song is the quiet that is woven into it. It’s a reflective silence. When I play that song live, for a good portion of it I step completely away from the microphone, and it makes the room stop. Whatever size the room is, it's almost a meditation; nobody is breathing. Whilst you tell this story for your friends, it's a way to both pay homage and to feel a little bit of those moments of doubt together. That silence is much like at the Garden of Gethsemane on the night that Jesus’ followers fell asleep when he needed them.
BEST FIT: As somebody who was raised Catholic, how important is your faith now in terms of getting you through your own moments of doubt?
“Being raised Catholic, you never escape it! I went to mass at least once a week for the first 14 years of my life, so becomes a real part of you. I don’t want to over-intellectualise it, but there is certainly a spirituality to my life, and certainly to my writing. I find there's a harmony in some of the narratives of that tradition and faith that I resonate with when I read it, due to some of the archetypes that feel relevant. I steadfastly refused to choose this or that path, but Catholicism never ever goes away. It never goes away. My mum is 98 and she says, ‘I’m an Atheist’. I’ll ask her if she has said her prayers and she replies, “Yes, I prayed for you guys’. And there it is…”
“I came to Bruce Springsteen quite late, during the heyday of Born in the U.S.A. I was on a different path and I didn't really understand him as an artist. The first time I saw him perform was at the Amnesty International ‘Sting & Friends’ concert in 1988 which was shown on HBO. It was in a soccer stadium in Argentina and it completely blew my mind; I cried during the show. I thought he was a pop artist, but he was such a powerful performer and it made me feel like there was hope in the world again.
“I went out the next day and I bought Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it felt as though he was from the same small town that I was, we shared things in those lyrics: we both have father issues, being trapped in a town that hates you, etc.
“His acoustic album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, was really one of the principal things that pushed me to begin writing acoustic music. It helped me dig back into Dylan and Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger and that long tradition of acoustic protest music. It kickstarted a second, very vibrant life for me as an artist - making four records, touring the world, playing on every picket line and barricade – I can attribute that in some significant measure to the acoustic song “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, but I chose this for the electric song.
“I went from not knowing who Bruce Springsteen was, to being the number one Bruce Springsteen fan in the world, to finding myself in 2008, in Anaheim, on stage with the E Street Band playing “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. Rage Against the Machine did a cover of that song, and this version is a hybrid too, it’s a rockier version.
"I’ve been fortunate to be a part of some transcendent moments onstage, and the version I did with Bruce that night is high among those moments. I’d never felt anything like it. Bruce likes to change the key of the song just hours before the show, and I was so uncomfortable playing and singing it. So I downed half a bottle of Jameson by myself backstage whilst I tried to gain the courage and tried to remember the chords.
“When we played that song it provided a synergy that none of us expected. Then the guitar solo came and Bruce just told me to keep going. Normally in my guitar solos I try to pack them into eight bars, sometimes four - rarely 16 - but this was 82 bars. It kept spiralling and I was in a kind of Coltrane headspace where I didn’t know what was happening, I was just channelling these ghosts.
“When it ended, the roof came off the place and we looked each other as if to say, ‘We should probably do that again’, and it led to two things: one is that, over the course of the next six years, I was an ally of the E Street Band and we toured the world together, which was awesome.
"But it also brought me back to electric guitar playing. I’d kind of had enough. I’d made Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave records and played a lot of guitar solos - I really was loving going down the acoustic route and being a solo gorilla/troubadour, almost exclusively playing shows for causes. Playing with Bruce made me realise in my heart that I’m an electric guitar player and that isn’t something I need to deny myself. From that day in 2008, to now, I’ve never looked away from the shredding solo.”
“This song was made for The Nightwatchman records. I was in the middle of making the fifth, I had a bunch of folk-rock songs that were really good, and I was thinking, ‘I’ve made four of those records, I've toured the world with that, but now I want to push myself’. I was sitting in this studio with a friend of mine - he’s a really cool dude who wears all black and he’s named Bull Shark - I asked him to play me something that I’ve never heard before and he played me “Centipede” by Knife Party.
“With my understanding of electronic music at the time, I would’ve said before hearing that song that I hated it. To me, it was just Italian taxi-cab music and it felt like it was disposable. He played “Centipede” and then he went onto Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites”, and I thought ‘Those guys love Tool.’ I could hear in the music that even though there were no guitars, there was the same kind of heaviness, the tension and release, and power. I started digging and then I reached out to the Knife Party guys. Sure enough, they were familiar with my catalogue, so we made “Battle Siren”.
“That was the spark to try and create a new genre of music; one where you don't know where the electric guitar ends and the EDM begins. Throughout my whole career, I've been trying to make my guitar sound like other things, just like Crystal Method and The Prodigy. I thought that it was time to create an alloy of Frankenstein, where you can't tell which is what and what is who. Using the unapologetic, uncompromising power of Marshall stacked rock and roll, but with these bass drops that are really going to propel the guitar into the future, and not just have it be a relic of the past.
“I read an interview with Kanye West where he said he records vocals on the voice memo of his phone, so when it came to writing this album, I started recording guitars into my phone and shipping these riffs out to producers, engineers, and artists all over the world. I began to create this global network of rock and roll pen pals, who buoyed me during those desperate days of 2020.
“The Atlas Underground is me taking a stab at my London Calling. It’s a double album and the common thread is the intent of purpose. While taking wide swings into different genres, the common voice of these records is my guitar. It's my curation; it’s my vision of making a record to survive and assert that the electric guitar has a place in the future, not just in the past. And on that journey, it’s great to be able to touch on hard rock, acoustic music, and EDM with this common theme of surviving Tuesday.”
MORELLO: “You might be surprised that the guitars for that song were recorded onto my phone. They sound pretty big, don’t they? I admire the fact that Bring Me The Horizon are forward facing fans of hard rock. They’re not tethered to what has come before, they’re willing to unapologetically rock super hard with their horns up, but at the same time, they have a flexibility to try different things. I thought we might sound great together!
“Zakk Cervini who produces their records is a good friend of mine and I asked him to reach out to those guys. I sent over a bunch of riffs and they responded to one in particular that we had started working on with Post Malone. When I first heard the mix, in a time where there was no physical connection with other people, I was like, ‘Oh boy!’
“The song can be read two ways. On one hand it’s an ode to the once was, and future mosh pits. On the other hand, when you're confronted with a mountain of anxiety, you can either slide into depression or party yourself to death. I think that was the honest reading of it that Oli (Sykes) and I were feeling during that time. It has come out as a big, hard rocking anthem, and to date, of my solo work it’s the most streamed and popular song and I’m really proud of it. It’s a way of planting the flag and saying: ‘Guitar music really fucking matters.’
“In order for an album to connect, it needs to authentically reflect what's happening. Music is not just about creation, it's about self-creation and discovering who you are through making music in a particular time. I wasn't going to edit or censor how my mental and emotional state was whilst making the songs and so on The Atlas Underground Fire, there is “Let’s Get The Party Started” which is a really dark party song, “Driving to Texas” with Phantogram, and “The War Inside” with Chris Stapleton, which reflect this dark historical epoch.
“From the time I was 17 until March of 2020 I was a guitar player, and then all of a sudden I wasn't sure what I was. It's a real assertion during a time where you’re unsure of your bearings, that I sure the fuck am a guitar player. I’m going to continue to push myself and push the instruments into the future, in a way where it requires no lyrical content to make the assertion that the guitar really, really matters.
BEST FIT: Of all the songs in your back catalogue, how did you whittle it down to these four?
“I have an avid 21 album recording history, which has taken a lot of twists and turns but also has a common thread and common purpose in a way, so I wanted to choose songs that were an inspiration to me. Over the course of 30 years of making music, those songs are from real important moments for me.
“One last thing I’ll say about “Let’s Get The Party Started” is that I never stopped pushing myself on the guitar. That is one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard. A friend told me that the guitar solo encapsulated how they felt for the last year and a half - messed up. I took that as the highest compliment. Somehow, I've been able to channel that. I wanted the songs to show respect to things that have helped me become the artist that I am, and also to illuminate that journey.”