Tom Morello: ‘I never struggled with my identity. Other people did’

Tom Morello: 'This ended up being the most prolific recording period of my life’ (Press image)
Tom Morello: 'This ended up being the most prolific recording period of my life’ (Press image)

For more than 30 years, Tom Morello did not stop. Considered one of the world’s greatest guitarists, he was also one of its most prolific. From Rage Against the Machine to his folk alter-ego The Nightwatchman, writing his own comic-book series to cameoing in Star Trek and Iron Man, he always had something – several things – on the go. Then the world came to a crashing halt, and the 57-year-old from Harlem, New York, found himself, for the first time, with no idea what to do next.

“Making this record was less a creative endeavour than it was an antidepressant,” he says, speaking on a video call from his home studio in LA. “How to get through Tuesday? Record a song with Bruce Springsteen!” Words come out of Morello like machine-gun fire, in fusillades of positive energy, but it's been a particularly tough time for him of late: anxiety, depression, the responsibility of looking after his family, including his two sons and his 98-year-old mother. They were in complete lockdown, “no one in or out”. But he also found himself at a loss when it came to producing his own music: “I don’t know how to work my studio – I’m only allowed to touch the volume knob.” Then he read an interview with Kanye West, where he “was bragging about recording vocals on his phone”. Morello plonked his iPhone on a fold-up chair in front of his amp and began to play.

The result of this is The Atlas Underground Fire, featuring a veritable United Nations of musicians who sent Morello pieces of songs from their bases in New Jersey (Springsteen), Nashville (Chris Stapleton), Jamaica (Damian Marley), Palestine (Sama' Abdulhadi) and Sweden (Refused). Mike Posner actually managed to climb Everest between contributions, and recorded part of his vocals while in Nepal. “[During lockdown], there was this feeling of absolute loneliness – I wasn’t going anywhere,” Morello says. “So that community was very sustaining. This ended up being the most prolific recording period of my life.”

He also brought in his son, Roman (“he shreds”), and his mother (“the most radical member of the Morello family”), to turn the album into a real family affair. It is Mary Morello whom he credits for his political leanings. A high-school teacher who also founded the anti-censorship organisation Parents for Rock and Rap, she raised her son by herself in Libertyville, Illinois, after Morello’s Kenyan diplomat father, Ngethe Njoroge, returned to Nairobi. “I was the only Black kid in an all-white town,” Morello says. He grew up in a particularly conservative neighbourhood, baffled as to why no one else seemed to share the radical ideas he and his mum discussed at home. “I assumed everyone was like that until I got to high school,” he says, tugging on his T-shirt, which shows a Moomin protesting against fascism. Of course, this turned out not to be the case: “So it was in me to always stand up for the underdog, to always stand up for the oppressed.”

Morello continued this through Harvard, where he studied political science and once built a shanty town in the courtyard of his college to protest apartheid. After graduation, he lived in a squat in Hollywood; his first job was working as a scheduling secretary for Democrat senator Alan Cranston. It was an eye-opening experience: “I got to see the monied aristocracy that is driving the planet into a ditch and not in any way beholden to the vast majority of people and what they need in their lives,” he says. Rage Against the Machine was born after Morello’s band Lock Up split. In 1992, they lit a fuse with their self-titled major label debut and its lead single, “Killing in the Name”, still one of the most incendiary protest songs of all time. Its bare-bones lyrics cut straight to the quick of America’s military idealisation; Morello’s menacing riff sounded like a T-Rex on the rampage. With bandmates Brad Wilk, Zach de la Rocha and Tim Commerford, he continued to fight the power on songs such as “Wake Up”, “Township Rebellion” and “Take the Power Back”, selling 16 million records and winning two Grammys along the way. Now on his 21st album, Morello still holds the fierce conviction that “the world isn’t gonna change itself”.

America narrowly avoided complete disaster when Donald Trump lost out on a second term (Morello refers to his supporters as “the Christian fascist white supremacist coup”). He felt some relief at Joe Biden’s win in last year’s presidential election, but he's not yet convinced that his country is back on the right track. He says that social media has helped exacerbate an ever-increasing gap between the left and right, comparing it to road rage “where you’re isolated in your car and you feel somehow empowered to be your worst possible self”. He was recently forced to defend what many fans felt was a bizarre friendship with controversial musician Ted Nugent, who has in the past claimed that former president Donald Trump was “sent by God”. It’s his choice, says Morello, as to how he confronts differences of opinion.

Fight the power: Morello performing with Rage Against the Machine at the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2012 (Getty)
Fight the power: Morello performing with Rage Against the Machine at the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2012 (Getty)

He still prefers to let his music do most of the talking. The Atlas Underground Fire is the best evidence in recent years of just what an ambitious virtuoso Morello is. “[He] wears his guitar high up to wring every sound out of it,” went a 1993 Melody Maker review. “Falling bombs, police sirens, scratching... he can do them all.” During live shows he’s been known to perform solos with his teeth (his dentist must be thrilled). There are snarly, juddering riffs, squawks and screeches, industrial crunches, peppery techno bullets, licks that curl around the edge of a melody like tongues of flame on paper… and that’s just the first track. “[This album] asserts that the electric guitar doesn’t just have a past, it has a future,” Morello says. What about bands who don’t use the guitar to its fullest potential? “That’s their problem not mine,” he shrugs, pointing out: “When we hear guitar now on the radio at least, it’s much more of a background role.” He grins. “But not on this record.”

As a guitarist performing in a rock band through the Eighties and Nineties, Morello often encountered fans who didn’t realise he isn’t white. He still does: as recently as a few days before this interview, he was berated by a fan for displaying his supposed “white man privilege” for speaking with Nugent. “I’m not white,” Morello shot back. In the early days of his career, he had the opposite problem with racist hecklers who demanded he play songs by Jimi Hendrix. Then there was an incident backstage at the show of “a famous metal band” where their guitarist wanted to meet Morello. He walked straight past him and introduced himself to “this big white guy with long hair”, thinking this was the famed musician from Rage. When he realised his mistake, he looked at Morello “in total disappointment”, Morello recalls, laughing. “They couldn’t imagine a brown-skinned rock and roll guitar player. [Fans who] assume I’m white and find out differently can get uncomfortable. They get mad: ‘You are not!’ It’s very upsetting to them.” Yet he’s never wavered, having always known who he was, and the kind of guitar player he wanted to be. “I never struggled with my identity,” he says. “Other people did.”

He has more hope for younger generations, including his nine-year-old son, Roman, who just released a collaboration with British-Zulu wunderkind drummer Nandi Bushell. Morello, joking that the world has now discovered he’s “the second-best guitarist in his family”, produced the track, and the video features Jack Black and Greta Thunberg. “She’s a tremendous role model inhabited by the holy spirit of rock and roll,” he says of Bushell. “They really care about saving the planet in a way that feels there’s some hope they’ll do something.” He thinks young people are far more engaged with issues like the climate crisis and seems to believe they will actually make a difference. “But that’s not an excuse for those who aren’t nine years old not to get off their asses.”

‘The Atlas Underground Fire’ is out now

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