He’s the guitarist time won’t forget. From Rage Against the Machine to Audioslave to Prophets of Rage and now a solo album packed with hip-hop and EDM collaborators including Big Boi, Bassnectar, Killer Mike, Steve Aoki, RZA and GZA, Tom Morello defies genre. Ahead of the release of his electronic-heavy album "The Atlas Underground Experience" on Oct. 12, Morello is touring nine cities to share behind-the-scenes stories with fans as well as play through the album.
amNewYork spoke with Morello ahead of his NYC performances on Monday and Tuesday at Le Poisson Rouge.
How was the first tour date in London?
On the one hand, it allows fans to hear the entire record very loudly before it’s out, and there’s an extended discussion of sort of the behind-the-scenes tales that are both amusing and tragic through my entire career. And then there’s a hell of a lot of shredding. I brought my electric guitar and my Marshall amp, and I’m having a great time just playing my a– off.
What was the vibe like? How have fans reacted so far?
The vibe was great, I think walking into these shows, people don’t know exactly what to expect, but you know it’s a pretty intimate night of sitting down and having this conversation and then it gets pretty freaky by the end. (Laughs.) There’s a lot of notes thrown around.
The list of collaborators on this album is insane. It sounds like you curated this list yourself. How’d you go about selecting artists?
You know you’re right that my role on this record was not just as guitarist and songwriter, but one of the principal ones was curator, and with a very lofty ambition to create a new genre of music — to combine the Marshall stack firepower that I’m known for and huge EDM drops and some of the electronic wizardry of today. The idea was to make a record that was like the Hendrix of now, and that doesn’t mean endless psychedelic blues solos, what that means is otherworldly guitar playing. And the record also has the same function that Hendrix did as a Trojan horse — that is the reason why we all speak his name with reverence. It’s not just because he was a phenomenal guitar player, which he was, but we heard his phenomenal guitar playing on the radio. And this day and age, when young people’s greatest ambition is to get Ableton on their computer and make beats, I want to raise my hand and say there’s a lot to be said for electric guitar playing in the context of the soundscapes of today.
On the song "Rabbit’s Revenge," that totally hits you.
Exactly, exactly. I was never a fan of EDM music, or at least what my understanding of it was, until I heard Knife Party, Bassnectar and Skrillex — all of whom happen to be big Rage Against the Machine fans, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that because if you listen to Knife Party especially, that tension and release and the huge drops are very reminiscent of Rage and Audioslave. My idea was just, let’s replace some of your computers with my riffs and create something that’s fresh.
You’re no stranger to protest. What are some of the political themes we’ll see in this album?
The common thread thematically that runs through the record is social justice ghost stories. Through these songs we’re telling the stories of heroes and martyrs and those killed unjustly, so that they can speak through these songs to the struggles of the present and perhaps shine a beacon toward a more just and humane future. So whether it’s someone perishing crossing the desert from Mexico to the United States in "Roadrunner," or African-American murder by police in "Rabbit’s Revenge," or lead poisoning, or a whispered conversation through a death row prison wall in "Find Another Way," that’s the thread that runs through the record.
Does it feel different writing those songs now than it did 20 years ago with Rage Against the Machine?
There are two things that are constant, occurring long before Rage Against the Machine and long after you and I have passed on, and that’s injustice. There will be injustice. But there will always be resistance to injustice. I’m endeavoring to be another link in the chain of those who are fighting on the right side of history, for the poor, for the oppressed and those who are unjustly treated because of their gender or skin color, and to try to make a more sane world. … I didn’t choose being a guitar player, that chose me. So I’m kind of stuck being a guitar player, and I have to find a way to weave my convictions into my vocation to try and have a say in my time here.
How do you feel heading into two nights in New York City? What’s your relationship with the city?
Well first of all, I was born there, I was born on West 142nd and Riverside and spent the first year of my life there, so while I kind of self-identify as a Chicagoan, I’m really from New York City in a way that’s always very meaningful. I’ve had pretty amazing shows there from the first Rage date at Wetlands to playing CBGB’s as The Nightwatchman to finally rocking Madison Square Garden a couple times to playing with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And a few insane evenings, you know, wandering around the East Village, too.
Can fans expect appearances by any of the album’s collaborators this week?
Well there’s always a chance, right now I don’t know that there’s anybody confirmed. But for each of the shows, we’ve let everybody on the record know (laughs) so you never know who might pop up, though I can’t make any promises.
IF YOU GO: Tom Morello: The Atlas Underground Experience is at Le Poisson Rouge on Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m., $39.50-$49.50, lpr.com