Tom Morello is a revered guitarist, having made his innovative mark on the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave and Prophets of Rage.
But some people know him best as an avatar on Guitar Hero.
“I have the funniest story,” Morello says with a laugh. “I was coming out of a store and this nice lady was holding the hand of maybe a 6-year-old. She said, ‘Um, are you Tom Morello?’ like they’re meeting the Easter Bunny. She asked, ‘Do they make a stuffed animal of you?’”
He’s been called a lot of things, but a “stuffed animal” isn’t one of them. Now Morello is dubbing himself a “sonic conspirator,” though, for his latest project The Atlas Underground, a rock-EDM mashup with acts like Knife Party, Bassnectar, Portugal. The Man, Marcus Mumford, Steve Aoki and Gary Clark Jr.
“On this record, I really wanted a sonic conspiracy, bringing together diverse artists of different genres to create a new, powerful rock ‘n’ roll,” Morello says.
“I wanted to blend my Marshall stacks riff-rock with the huge EDM drops and electronic wizardry of 2018. The cast of characters on this is pretty special from Wu Tang to Mumford and Sons, Rise Against and Steve Aoki. This record was a labor of love and challenging as well.”
Morello says on the album he serves as guitar player, songwriter and curator, using the electric guitar as a “trojan horse.”
“I am flying the flag proudly for Marshall stack firepower and to collaborate with these artists, all of whom have a foot in different worlds, was amazing,” says Morello, whose wife attended ASU. “The latest single, ‘Every Step that I Take,’ is the first time in many years where a song with a soaring guitar solo has been on the radio anywhere. Mission accomplished.”
To promote the collection, Morello is bringing The Atlas Underground Experience to the Crescent Ballroom on Sunday, December 16. The seated event gives fans the chance to hang with Morello as he tells behind-the-scenes stories about the making of his record. This intimate event also promises live guitar demonstrations and exclusive signed copies of his 19th studio record.
“In part, it’s discussion and storytelling of tales from my first garage band to Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave and it’s also a lot of guitar demonstration,” he says. “I shred my ass off. It’s something that’s been fun to do, exploring The Atlas Underground record. It’s been great to go into these venues that are more intimate in nature and play a lot of guitar and reveal facts and amusing talents from my career.”
Besides his musical prowess, the Illinois native is known for his leftist political views and activism. Morello’s political leanings go as far back as 1980 when he was in high school, from which he graduated in 1982 with honors. Four years later, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in social studies from Harvard.
Morello, with fellow members of Rage Against the Machine, protested the “parental advisory” sticker on explicit albums and singles by refusing to perform at Lollapalooza 1993. They, instead, took the stage naked, mouths covered in duct tape, and bodies painted with a protest message. Their instruments resonated feedback for 14 minutes.
His instruments are just as controversial. He owns a Mongrel Custom “Arm the Homeless” guitar.
Morello has been involved with music almost as long as politics. He joined a Led Zeppelin cover band at age 13, when he purchased his first guitar. In 1984, he and classmate, future Tool guitarist Adam Jones, formed the politically charged Electric Sheep, which was influenced by Run-D.M.C.
In 1991, Morello formed Rage Against the Machine with vocalist Zack de la Rocha, drummer Brad Wilk and de la Rocha’s childhood friend Tim Commerford. The following year, they were signed to Epic Records and success followed.
Morello—who also played with Audioslave, Street Sweeper Social Club, Prophets of Rage, and Bruce Springsteen and as The Nightwatchman—intertwines his unconventional guitar-playing prowess with his political views.
“Bad presidents make for great music,” Morello says bluntly. “When our country and our world are at historic crossroads where we’re looking down on one path that is an immediate environmental disaster and another that’s a just and humane planet.
“I’ve been told, ‘shut up and play guitar.’ I didn’t give up my First Amendment rights when I picked up my electric guitar. I shouldn’t have to leave behind who I am and what I believe.”
The state of the United States is leading the way to a new record by Prophets of Rage, a hip-hop band with Rage’s Commerford and Wilk, Public Enemy’s Chuck D and DJ Lord and Cypress Hill’s B-Real.
He’s also working with Sean Evans, Roger Waters’ artistic director, for a proper Atlas Underground tour.
“It’s going to be mind blowing,” Morello says.
His comments go along with critics’ thoughts on The Atlas Underground. The project has been a learning experience for Morello.
“I learned from each of these songs because they were made in different ways,” he says. “Sometimes I sat down with an acoustic guitar with Marcus Mumford or I jammed for three hours with Gary Clark Jr. while traditionally writing songs.
“With the EDM act Knife Party, I sent them a riff tape with a bunch of riffs and noises. I asked them to use their production techniques and replace their synthesizers with these electric guitar building blocks. Like I said, this is my 19th studio album and it was great to let go of the traditional ways in which I made records previously. It’s unapologetically a rock record, but it has a sonic imprint.”
Tom Morello: The Atlas Underground Experience, The Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. Second Avenue, Phoenix, 602.716.2222, crescentphx.com, 8 p.m. Sunday, December 16, $49.50-$54.50.