Tom Morello: ‘We came within a baby’s breath of a fascist coup in the US’

Tom Morello has made more than 20 albums, as a founding member of Rage Against the Machine – the political rap-rock band who have sold 16m records, and whose 1992 track Killing in the Name has become a perennial protest anthem – and of the bands Audioslave and Prophets of Rage. He also plays solo under the name the Nightwatchman, and has toured with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. His unique approach to the guitar, which he has self-deprecatingly described as “making R2-D2 noises”, has led to him regularly being voted as one of the greatest guitar players of all time. His latest album, The Atlas Underground Fire (released on 15 October), features a series of collaborations recorded in lockdown – with Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Damian Marley and Bring Me the Horizon, among others. He is a celebrated “nonsectarian socialist” political activist, famed for performing at demonstrations – he played at Occupy events across the US and Europe – and a co-founder of the nonprofit “social justice” organisation Axis of Justice.

You recorded your new album in lockdown. Did the pandemic also mean you missed out on the ongoing protests in the US?
Not only was there a global plague to contend with, there was the US political situation and the white supremacy comeuppance, all happening at a time when I was locked down with my 97-year-old mom, my 90-year-old mother-in-law, and two kids going crazy trying to learn remotely. I was unable to be on the literal frontlines for the first time in my adult life, because I’m trying to keep the grandmas alive, you know. So in the middle of the George Floyd protests I recorded a song called Stand Up, with Imagine Dragons, the great trans soul singer Shea Diamond and Bloody Beetroots as well. I was trying, from the bunker, to contribute in any way I could. But you’re absolutely right: that’s my bread and butter. I’m at the front of that march for 30 years, and now, you know, there’s a plumbing problem, or one of my kids broke a window with a basketball, so that’s my day

Even though you weren’t physically present, Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name was chanted at the Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, but it was also chanted by pro-Trump supporters in Philadelphia. How did that feel?
First of all, there’s no accounting for stupidity. There’s a long list of radical left anthems that are misunderstood by bozos who sing them at events like that, from Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA to John Lennon’s Imagine – those people have really no idea what the hell they’re singing about. The one thing that I speak to in all of those instances is that there’s a power to the music that casts a wide net, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. In that net, there will be the far-right bozos, but there will also be people that have never considered the ideas put forward in those songs and are forced to consider those ideas because the rock’n’roll is great. You can either put a beat to a Noam Chomsky lecture – no one wants that, but there’s going to be no mistaking what the content is – or you can make music that’s compelling.

So you don’t try to serve people with a cease-and-desist order when they misuse your music?
When they were using Rage songs for torture in Guantánamo, we sued the state department, but no. My take is: “Go enjoy the rock’n’roll. You look like fools, but go enjoy the rock’n’roll.”

How did you feel about the events of 6 January?
We came within a baby’s breath of a fascist coup in this country. Interestingly, one of my dreams has always been to storm the Capitol, but not with a bunch of all-white, rightwing terrorists, you know? The ugliest part about it is how they have co-opted the idea of standing against the Man, at least in the US. There can be no nuanced thinking, like: “Yes, big pharma is horrible, but getting a vaccine to save your grandma is good.” It’s a dumbed-down version of resistance. But I grew up in Trump country [in suburban Illinois], I know people from there. They’re decent people. It’s not their fault for being fucked over by the oligarchy for decades. Now what do we do to find a way to really resist the stuff that is destroying the planet, that’s causing working people’s lives to be worse than their parents’ were? Poverty and hunger kill more people than anything else on the planet and they are human-made problems. Those are the things that we need to be digging into, rather than being sidetracked by this carnival barker bullshit.

That was an apex moment in rock’n’roll history. If you think you’ve seen people go apeshit, you haven’t because you weren’t there that night

The opening track of your new album is called Harlem Hellfighters. You were born in Harlem – isn’t there a story that one of your ancestors helped found the New York mafia?
The Harlem Hellfighters were an African-American military unit in both world wars. They were known for their bravery and then coming home and getting done over by racist Americans – their story is very compelling. But there was a Giuseppe Morello who was known as the Clutch Hand, who came from Sicily. He was one of the founders of one of the “five families”, and apparently not a pleasant chap. There may be some cousin-like links between me and him. He was short, had one hand that was really messed up and he got the job done by murdering people.He eventually met the end that a lot of people met in that line of work.

The new album also features Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen singing AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. How did that come about?
We have history with that song, from when I toured with Bruce and the E Street Band. We were in Perth, [near] the home of [late AC/DC frontman] Bon Scott. One night, I went to pay my respects to his grave. I came back to the hotel and saw Bruce in the bar. Over the next couple of days, we started rehearsing Highway to Hell at soundchecks. We found ourselves in a Melbourne football stadium, playing to 80,000 people. Eddie happened to be in town. A lightbulb went off. I knocked on the dressing room door and said: “Bruce, we’re in Australia – Highway to Hell is like the unofficial national anthem. What if we open the show with it, with Eddie?” It was an apex moment in rock’n’roll history. If you think you’ve seen people go apeshit, you haven’t because you weren’t there that night.

Morello and drummer Brad Wilk performing at a Rage Against the Machine concert in 1992 in Los Angeles.
Morello and drummer Brad Wilk performing at a Rage Against the Machine concert in 1992 in Los Angeles. Photograph: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images

You recently appealed for help in getting a group of girls out of Afghanistan. What happened?
Lanny Cordola, who was a member of the 80s metal band Giuffria, found the religion of love and moved to Afghanistan to help street kids. He took in these orphans and girls who had had tremendous trauma in their lives and started a school where they used music as a rehabilitation tool. He reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do a song with them, so we did a cover of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). I played the guitar solo. We became video friends – the girls would send birthday greetings, we’d send hellos. And then their world turned upside down. They’re marked. They were playing western music taught by an American teacher. Their school is destroyed. They’re in hiding right now. We were not able to get them out in the initial push, and now it’s just a matter of keeping them safe. There’s a lot of people who want to help, but as of right now, they’re still there. But they’re safe.

During lockdown, you taught your son Roman to play guitar and he ended up collaborating with the 11-year-old drummer and internet sensation Nandi Bushell. How did that come about?
They wrote the song, I produced it. Nandi is spectacular – an effervescent soul of joy that the world needs now more than ever. She called up and asked if I wanted to do a song, and I said: “I’d love to, but I’ve got a kid here who’s your age who really can take it from here!” So I said to Roman: “Throw some riffs at me, man”, and he came up with a couple of hot riffs. I put an arrangement together and sent it to Nandi, and asked her what she thought. She said: “It sounds epic!” like she does. And she wrote the lyrics and played the drums on it – she just murdered it, she’s so great. One of the best drummers in the world happens to be 11 years old! It was a reminder of why you started, you know? It was pure joy, pure excellence, pure rock’n’roll.

You mentioned your mum earlier. You’ve said before that she’s the most radical member of your family …
Yeah, it’s funny – in our discussions at the table, she’s taking positions that I’m just like: “Mom, really?” But that’s always been my household. When I went out into the world, I realised that not every household has these kind of internationalist ideas, the thought of always, always standing up for the person on the lowest rung of the ladder. We were in a middle-class, conservative, ethnically homogenous suburb. She was a teacher at the high school and she taught the kids about Cesar Chavez and the Grape Boycott, Malcolm X, anti-colonialist African studies. I assumed everybody’s mom was like that.

She also set up the anti-censorship group Parents for Rock and Rap in the late 80s
Yeah! It was really where the rubber hit the road. She was in a conservative suburb that was trying to censor heavy metal and hip-hop, so that’s where you fight the fight. This was before Rage Against the Machine – nobody knew my name. She was always on some radio show with Ice-T.

You’ve said in past interviews that there is a section of your fans who would prefer to deny that you’re Black. Why do you think it bothers them?
That would be a better question for them than me, but it bothers them – oh, let me tell you, it does bother them. I think it’s cos it upsets the false narrative they have that music that sounds like mine can only be made by people who look like them. And then me and Slash pop up to say: “No!”

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You were criticised recently for your friendship with the rightwing rock star Ted Nugent. What on earth do you two talk about?
I got asked to make a video for his 60th birthday. At that point, Ted had become this rightwing caricature, but I really loved his records back in the 70s, so I said yes. I took two tacks: “Things adolescent Tom Morello learned about the birds and the bees from Ted Nugent”, and “things you might be surprised to find Tom and Ted have in common” – like free speech and rock’n’roll. Anyway, he called me up afterwards and we had a discussion about it. People go fucking nuts when you say you’re friends with someone who has his views. I’m very happy to go toe-to-toe with Ted when he gets on his racist stuff, his misogynist stuff, his Trump stuff. I don’t know how often people cause Ted to abandon his opinions these days, but I believe that’s been the case on more than one occasion.

The Atlas Underground Fire is released on 15 October on Mom + Pop records.