The Atlas Underground
If Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave established Tom Morello as one of rock’s most inventive and explosive guitarists, his first solo album under his own name recasts him as a sonic provocateur. Moving beyond the acoustic leanings of his Nightwatchman records while keeping all the political fury, he assembles a diverse cast, including Knife Party, Vic Mensa, Killer Mike, Marcus Mumford, and Bassnectar, to fight injustice using EDM, hip-hop, and, naturally, some sick shredding. Morello spoke to Apple Music about collaborating outside his comfort zone. Were you comfortable navigating unfamiliar waters like EDM? The thing I felt confident about was the overarching vision of creating a sonic conspiracy, bringing diverse artists together to make a unified work. When you’re a solo artist, you benefit from a purity of vision. When you’re collaborating, you have the benefit of intangible chemistry that arises when different people play together. I had the best of both worlds on this album. Did you have a list of people you wanted to work with, or did it just happen organically? Since the goal was to create this new hybrid-alloy genre, I wanted people that I felt were already somewhat simpatico. Knife Party was my introduction to a corner of EDM that had a lot in common with Rage and Audioslave—there’s an aggression, a tension and release. That’s when the light bulb went off: What if we replaced some of their synthesizers with my Marshall-stack guitar riffs? We might be able to forge something fresh. Did you collaborate on the lyrics or did you entrust that to the artists? The lyrical theme that runs through the album, which I had extensive discussions with the artists about, is: social justice ghost stories. These songs tell the tales of heroes and martyrs and those unjustly killed in the past to inform the struggles of the present, and hopefully light a fire under an audience that will build a more just and humane future. What advice would you give to artists who are reticent to speak out about politics? People should not leave their convictions behind, no matter what their job. When people say, “Shut up and play guitar” or “Shut up and act,” it’s because they disagree with what you’re saying. You don’t put down your First Amendment rights when you pick up your guitar.