With his “Arm the Homeless” parts guitar and other unfancy 6-strings, Morello has been on a 27-year rampage, shattering conventions of the instrument and developing his own distinct sonic thumbprint. Photo by Eitan Miskevich
Tom Morello’s approach is raw, direct, and purposeful. Early in his career, after years spent developing formidable skills that include blazing shred chops and mad melodic invention, he switched gears and decided to amplify the idiosyncrasies and “mistakes” in his playing. That led to his unique tonal footprint, which is immediately recognizable since many of his heaviest riffs are played on a single-coil pickup and he employs a bevy of extended techniques that include simulated record scratching, a kill switch effect, Public Enemy/Bomb Squad-style faux samples, and soloing on a live unplugged quarter-inch jack. And he does all that with a basic, no frills, unchanging rig.
Morello’s gear choices are conservative. That’s his word, which he uses without irony. He employs the same Marshall head he’s used since Rage Against the Machine’s early days, his pedalboard is limited and fairly conventional, and his guitars are inexpensive workhorses. But despite his—can we say it?—boring setup, Morello’s guitar playing is a sonic wonderland. The myriad oddball bleeps and grunts he wrangles from his staid signal chain are non-guitar-like and seemingly never-ending. Examples are rife throughout his extensive discography with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and Prophets of Rage, plus solo releases, and it’s an approach he continues with his latest recording, The Atlas Underground.
The Atlas Underground was a work-in-progress for several years. Every track is a collaboration. It includes live jams that were dissected and reconfigured in post-production, curated emails chock-full of riffs, and a Cubist approach to reimagining guitar sounds—and was recorded at multiple studios around the country.
In our conversation, Morello, forever on a mission, advocated on behalf of The Atlas Underground. He also spoke about finding his voice as an artist, his unusual approach to heavy riffs, his advice for beginning guitarists, and his experiences playing with the E Street Band. Morello also happens to be on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee, so in addition to everything else, we didn’t waste the opportunity and lobbied for deserving artists (like Iron Maiden, obviously).
You’ve mentioned that The Atlas Underground is like a Hendrix album.
Sure. I’m not so much approaching it like a Hendrix album, but approaching it with the goal of being the Hendrix of now. There are three parts to that. But first of all—not to misrepresent to any of your readers—that does not mean a psychedelic blues-rock guitarsploitation record. That’s been done before, and perhaps too many times. What I mean by the “Hendrix of now” is: 1) It’s a record that has to have otherworldly, extraordinary guitar playing. 2) It’s a record that serves as a Trojan Horse in a way that Hendrix records did, where it put crazy guitar playing on the radio. He forced a generation to deal with the fact that the electric guitar was a formidable and far-reaching divining rod of truth and fury. And the third element is the genre. At the time in which Hendrix played, the principle genre was blues-rock. Well, the principle genre of now has electronic components to it. My idea was to forge a new genre that takes elements of aggressive EDM music, but replaces the synthesizers with my electric guitar to create a bold new alloy of something that’s unapologetically rock ’n’ roll, but futuristic at the same time.
You’re like a stealth warrior, sneaking the guitar back on radio.
Exactly. One thing that really pisses me off is that a lot of young people are now just reaching for their laptops and getting Ableton, which is fine, nothing wrong with that. But the commitment to practicing eight hours a day in a room to really hone your craft and your musicianship, to be able to express yourself through the incredible instrument of the guitar—that’s not an ambition for a lot of young people anymore. I want to change that.
How did you put this album together?
Different songs were written in different ways. For example, the tune that I did with Gary Clark Jr., “Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is,” came from a three-hour jam that he and I had at my studio. We recorded the whole thing and then I went through it to find the choicest riffs and the best turns of phrase. I made a three-and-a-half-minute song out of that three-hour jam, with a turbo charged beat to it, in a way that recontextualizes his and my playing. For “Battle Sirens,” which is one of the heavier songs, which starts the record, with [Australian electronic-music duo] Knife Party, I would send them a riff tape: “Here’s 10, maybe seven, big riffs. Here’s five crazy guitar noises. Here’s a bunch of shreddy bits.” With the idea being that if my guitar playing is like the black-and-white photograph, then what I want to hear is the smashed-up Picasso version of that, where it’s recognizable as me, but it’s heard in an entirely different way.
TIDBIT: For “Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is,” his collaboration with Gary Clark Jr., Morello boiled a three-hour jam down to a three-and-a-half-minute song.
Are the actual guitar recordings that you sent heard on the final song?
Absolutely. Sometimes when they sent the song back to me, I played on top of it. We went back and forth that way. A lot of my guitar playing in the past has been influenced by not just heavy rock ’n’ roll, but by hip-hop and by some electronic music—by playing in an analog way the textures and sounds of different genres of music, to bring it back through the Marshall amp. With this, it was creating these crazy Frankenstein monsters, where you don’t know where the guitar begins, where the guitar ends, and where the electronic components begin. A lot of the stuff on this record that you might think is electronic button pushing is actually me playing the guitar. Because that’s how I sound—like R2D2.
Did you plug direct into your computer or was it still an amp miked up in the studio?
It’s always an amp miked up in the studio. Always. I’ve been using the same Marshall JCM800 50-watt, channel-switching 2205 head, and that’s really what I trust and gives me the signature tone that I feel most at home with. It’s really the same limited number of effects pedals: Cry Baby Wah, original DigiTech Whammy pedal, little digital delay pedal, and an EQ pedal that I use exclusively for boost.
And that’s your rig. Do you always approach the studio the same way? You wheel in your amp, plug it in, mike it up, and that’s your sound.
That’s right. I’m very conservative when it comes to the gear part of it. But I try to let go of the reins when it comes to the creativity and the imagination side. So, with a limited amount of gear, I’m aiming for far-reaching sonics.
Did you program the beats or was that your collaborators?
I didn’t do any programming—there are some live drums as well—and while I oversaw the production of each of the songs, that’s not my forte. I also wanted to get out of my safety zone. This is the 17th studio album that I’ve made and the other 16 have been made in a more traditional way. I wanted to push myself as a guitarist and as an artist to do something that was exciting and challenging.
On some songs, like “Rabbit’s Revenge,” where there are “looped” guitar parts, are your parts actually looped or did you play that part throughout the entire song?
That’s me playing through the entire song. That one came about with Bassnectar. His name is Lorin [Ashton]. He and I were in my studio and we were having trouble finding the right riff to really do what we needed it to do. I was warming up, playing the figure, and he said, “What’s that?” I said, “Just warming up.” He said, “Did we record it?” I said, “Yeah, I think we did.” He said, “That’s the jam.” And I was like, “That’s the jam?” He had an idea for the groove and when I played that riff over that groove I was like, “Holy shit, that’s the jam.”