Chances are you’re reading this on a cell phone of some kind, and it’s easy to forget what a marvel of modern technology it is you’re holding in your hand. The amount of power inside that little black rectangle lets you do all sorts of things in the blink of an eye that would never have been possible a few decades ago. But if you’re Tom Morello, it stands to reason that you’re going to push things beyond the limits of what a normal person would do, right?
“I recorded 95% of the guitars in my phone’s voice memo,” the Rage Against The Machine legend says on Zoom from his home studio as we sit down to discuss The Atlas Underground Flood, the second of two solo Atlas Underground albums the guitarist has released this year.
Wait though, did he just say the voice memo on his phone? Not like Garageband or any of the other phone recording solutions out there?
“On the phone, man!” he exclaims, brandishing his old iPhone in emphasis. “I would have the phone like this, pressing the red voice memo button, sitting in a folding chair, right there…” he turns the camera and of course there is a metal folding chair sitting in front of the Marshall 2205 which the guitarist has been using since the early days of Rage Against The Machine. “Sit on that folding chair right there!” And there’s no engineer, so it’s like, ‘Does it have to be six inches? Should it be two meters away? I do not know!'”
The question arises, given that he speaks to us from his well-equipped home studio, why did he take such a do-it-yourself approach to recording?
“The Atlas underground fire and Atlas Underground Flood the records were plague-era albums,” he explains. “I started making these records to preserve my sanity. It wasn’t like, ‘Wow, I’m going to do a double album.’ It was like, ‘I’m trying to get by until Tuesday,’ you know? And that led to the unorthodox way I was recording. I have a studio at home, but I don’t know how to do it. to use, and no engineer came because of COVID protocols.
“The inspiration came from a very unusual place. I read an article where Kanye West described that he recorded the lead vocals for several of his records in his phone’s voice memo. So I thought, ‘Well, let’s see how the guitar sounds!’ And it sounded fucking fantastic. It’s crazy. I’ll throw away all those expensive microphones! »
To listen The Atlas Underground Fire, and his October brother, Fire, the records are almost obnoxiously eclectic – no song sounds the same, each track seeing Morello bring his inimitable guitar style to a song created with one or more different artists, as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Idles, or Ben Harper and X Ambassadors. But it was all part of the plan.
“When every day felt exactly the same, it was a way to add a huge amount of diversity and be creative at the same time,” says Morello. “Also, The Clash are my favorite band and I was very inspired by their album London Calling, which is an album that has a kind of global vision, but is extremely diverse in terms of genre. And that’s what what I was aiming for with that – where the guitar was the lead vocal and the common thread through all the songs on both records, but being able to jump stylistically with that anchor of my electric guitar.
But how did he decide who to work with given the great diversity of artists involved?
“Every day I came here and recorded riffs, licks, ideas, textures. And then I would just decide who I was going to send them to,” he says. “So sometimes it was going through my own personal Rolodex of friends – whether it’s Springsteen, or Damian Marley, or Phantogram – or discovering new artists, via Spotify, or asking friends who have cooler musical tastes than me what they listened to.”
One of the most notable guitar collaborations on the album is I saw the way, which brings together three instrument icons in Morello, Kirk Hammett and Alex Lifeson and pits them against each other in a free-for-all guitar.
“Kirk was one of the first people I saw, after being locked up for about a year,” Morellor recalled. “I ran into him at one point, and we were amazed that we had never played together. And I was doing a bunch of songs, so I said, ‘Well, can I send you a lead?’ So I did, and I said to him, ‘It’s kind of like a limitless thing!’ I had done a song with Slash that was like a real jaw-dropping song called Interstate 80, where we kind of played against each other, and it was super fun.
“So I said to Kurt, ‘Let’s just jam. Let’s go. And we can put it together later!’ And then I had the revelation. I had just heard Alex Lifeson, kind of wishing me well in the middle of the pandemic, and I was like, ‘Alex Lifeson – yes! Why not have two of my favorite guitarists!?’ So Alex was up for that as well, and it was just awesome. I just sent the track and said, “Do whatever extra you want” to both of them, and then I did the same, and then we edited it together as Alex vs. Kirk vs. Tom.
A striking feature of The Atlas Underground Fire that’s how poppy most songs sound – that might be a little shocking to those of us who see Tom Morello as a standard bearer for all things anti-pop, but man himself, the ability to inhabit genres he might not otherwise have been part of the appeal.
“I understand that fans tend to be traditionalists, and the one thing I never let go of was the crazy guitar solos and big rock riffs,” Morello insists. “But bring it back to the London calling analogy, it’s a record that could have both Train in vain and Repress on it, you know? And so it was cool to have the freedom to be able to let go working with these different types of artists. I have a lot of Type A in me, but one of the things that was very liberating in those days was to just say, ‘Andrew McMahon, what kind of song do you want to do?’ And he was sending back some suggestions and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s kind of go and see how I can apply it’.
And this song in particular, The labyrinth, which is at the more pop end of the spectrum, all of the components of that are guitar. It looks like keyboards and samples, but it’s just little bits of guitar chopped together. So for me, the challenge was to create this mosaic from this cathedral of sounds to back up, this beautiful melody and song.
And that, you think, is the point of it all – to demonstrate that the guitar can still have a place in all these different and diverse genres, and can be more than just a rock instrument.
“I firmly believe that the electric guitar is the greatest instrument ever invented by mankind,” says Morello, deliberately. “There’s plenty of evidence to back it up – from the subtlest nuance to stadium-killing power, there’s never been an instrument quite like this. But I also believe the electric guitar has a future and not just the past. And that is what these Fire and Flood The records insist that there are ways to create alloys with modern music that don’t let go of what we love about electric guitar, but aren’t mired in traditionalism.
The sales statistics show very clearly that the guitar is still an extremely popular instrument, but it is clearly not as important as it once was – something Morello recognizes and certainly wants to question.
“The guitar is now being used as a composition tool by people making records in their bedrooms and so on,” he says. “But rather than the gunslinger of the past, where you spend eight hours a day for 10 years training and then go out to destroy the other guy in the head-cutting competition… that’s not so much a thing – it I miss – but that’s not so much a thing anymore! He entered the world where people have a keyboard, they have a drum machine, and they have a guitar – that’s part of the pattern that people use when composing music.
“But my contention is – and this is where I cling to traditionalism – that guitar solos and big rock riffs can be part of that future as well. I think it is enough to insist! And that’s what I did on the Fire and Flood records, I insisted that it be.
While the recording method might have been extremely guerrilla, the equipment Morello used to make the sound certainly wasn’t. He plugged in his trusty Marshall 2205, the effects pedals that have been on his board for decades, and the guitars he had at home which he says number about 30. That didn’t mean he didn’t. wasn’t stepping out of her comfort zone with this, though.
“The Atlas Underground Flood is my 22nd studio album that I’m doing, but it was very different,” he insists. “Because normally you record, you sit and listen and you do multiple takes – there’s none of that! My phone is on a chair, you’ve recorded, here are today’s four ideas, and I’m sending them to whoever – whether it’s Rejected, Sama’ Abdulhadi or Jim James.
“And then one of those, or two of those, or all of those as if become the song. And it’s really liberating in a way. For example, hard times is the $50 Kay guitar that was my very first guitar – it’s a knockoff SG. But one night, these guys were in the studio, and they were like, ‘Hey, send us some riffs, we got Jim James in the studio!’ And I’m like, ‘Great!’ So I just released that one, recorded about five riffs, they picked two and the song was done, just like that. I therefore like its spontaneity.
Ultimately, though, these records were about Morello revealing something to himself – like many of us, the early months of the pandemic sucked him in and left him in creative funk.
“During the first four months of confinement, I did not touch a guitar,” he reveals. “For the first time in my life, I didn’t touch a guitar, I didn’t play, I was completely devoid of creative inspiration. But over time, I was like, ‘This is an opportunity to really push myself as a guitarist…and push some of the things I’ve done before.’ So you have the flamenco-shreddery warrior spirit at the San Holo trail [A Radical In The Family], which is this ethereal, anthemic, then to Harlem Hell Fighters which is just fucking EDM, heavy metal jam. And then there is that of Sama’ Abdulhadi [On The Short Of Eternity] it’s like this eight-minute Arabic trance, like Coltrane. I watch these four songs and I feel pretty good where I am. I was not stunted during this confinement, I was able to move forward!”
The Atlas Underground Flood is out now Mom + Pop Records.