Always looking for new ways to strangle his guitars, Tom Morello wields his “riff rock power” in the realms of EDM and hip-hop to devastating effect on ambitious new collaborative album The Atlas Underground.
In choosing artists to work with on this project, did you begin with people who are overt activists outside their professional craft, or people in whose work you see a subversion of dangerous/outdated beliefs?
To bring together a wildly diverse group of artists and forge it into an artistically comprehensive whole over the course of a few years has been a major undertaking. The genesis for this record was stumbling across some deep tracks from Knife Party, Bassnectar and Skrillex. I’d always been suspicious of the EDM genre as throw away ‘Italian taxicab music’, but in those artists I found a kinship in the depth of the funk, and the aggressiveness of the drops – it seemed in some ways like a version of my own riffs. It occurred to me that by tapping into that energy that there was the possibility of creating a brand new genre of music that combined my analogue Marshall stack riff-rock power with digital wizardry and a mindset to terrify a crowd with sonic fury.
What do you think it is about the intent behind this movement that makes it powerful?
The lyrical thread that runs through the album is ‘social justice ghost stories.’ The conviction that by giving voice to the stories of the heroes and martyrs of past struggles and victims of injustice, that we can make better sense of the conflicts we’re currently embroiled in, as well as lighting a beacon toward a future that’s more humane and just.
Vic Mensa’s line “Bite the hand that feeds you” in We Don’t Need You is a corker – it’s a flip of such a deeply established idiom. What drew you to him?
I saw Vic perform at Lollapalooza in Chicago a couple of years ago and his show had a confrontational, theatrical element that felt like it was an important moment in the political history of Chicago. As it turns out, he’s also a big Rage Against the Machine fan who’s been influenced by my work. In January of 2017 he joined Prophets of Rage at our Anti-Inaugural Ball in Los Angeles, kicking off the resistance to the Trump regime. Vic flew himself out for it and was incredible. I knew then that he was a kindred spirit and we should definitely recruit him into The Atlas Underground.
K.Flay’s sweetly serrated voice is a wonderful complement to your searing guitars in Lucky One. How did you initially imagine this collaboration working out?
I discovered K.Flay on the radio. I heard Blood in the Cut on the way to dropping my kids off at school, pulled the car over, and rocked out furiously while texting my manager, “Find me K.Flay!” I sent her a few tracks to ponder and she responded to the riff that became Lucky One. The underlying concept is who rises and who falls at the whims of society and economics. If I had one wish for humanity, it might be that everyone was able to become the person they were meant to be. Over that roaring riff, K.Flay’s sweet voice ruminates on such matters. Whose dreams turn to dust and whose are elevated? Who dies first? Who laughs last? Who’s the ‘lucky one’?
The way you play off of Pretty Lights’ electronica sounds in One Nation suggests you unearthed some new technical skills during this project – is that so?
I always try to push myself as a guitarist on each record I make, and in the smoke-filled New Orleans late night laboratory of Pretty Lights I may have found some secondhand smoke inspiration. It was two incredible long nights of jamming to beats playing crazy guitar and twisting effects pedal and knobs with abandon. I had an idea that this record should aim for being the ‘Hendrix of now’; seeking to break new ground on the guitar, while also being a Trojan horse in the world of 2018 music. That means incorporating a contemporary sonic landscape without compromising guitar flash and fury, to introduce a new generation to the joys of shredding and the wah-wah pedal.
Was there a particular track which you became so immersed in that it was difficult to know when to put down the paint brush?
Each song found its own path with regards to direction and production. In some cases, I’d send 15 riffs and guitar noises to Knife Party and they’d send back a smashing track that had scrambled those noises, then I’d play on top of that. Other times it was a matter of jamming live in the room and building verse, chorus and lyrics from scratch. Some songs like Vigilante Nocturno were based on riffs that I had in the vault for a long time that had never found the right home and came to life when brought into the world of The Atlas Underground. My favourite part of making the album, however, was the never-ending diversity of experiences with the many talented collaborators on the record. These songs are howling with fury at the injustices of our time and I can’t wait for the world to hear it.
The Atlas Underground is out October 12 via Sony.