Fire Down Below
Guitar Player|February 2022
"Armed with just his phone and extensive network of musical cohorts, Tom Morello takes the electric guitar into uncharted territory on The Atlas Underground Fire."
By Joe Bosso

When rage against the machine were forced to reschedule their 2020 reunion tour to 2021 — and then to 2022 — Tom Morello found himself at home for the longest sustained period of his adult life. While dealing with family demands, the guitarist also experienced something he had encountered before: a seemingly incurable case of writer’s block. “It was a drought in my head, like, ‘I’ve got nothing,’” he says. “For the first four months or so, I was completely uninspired.”

A breakthrough came from an unlikely source, however, when Morello read a Kanye West interview in which the rapper boasted about recording vocals for a new album straight to his iPhone. Taking the same approach, Morello set his phone on a folding chair in front of a Marshall half stack, started playing riffs and assorted noises, and before he knew it, the spark of creativity had returned. “It sounded great,” he says. “I began sending these riffs and licks to producers and artists around the world, and that was the genesis for my new record.”

The Atlas Underground Fire (Mom+Pop Music) is Morello’s follow-up to his 2018 solo album, The Atlas Underground, and like that set it’s a collaborative affair, only this time all the recordings were done remotely (the only exception being a 2014 live version of “Highway to Hell” recorded in Australia and featuring Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder). Its diverse mix of guest artists includes Bring Me the Horizon, Chris Stapleton, Phantogram, Damian Marley, Sama’ Abdulhadi, and others, with a range of musical styles that incorporate blazing rock, transfixing dream pop, modern country, crushing EDM, and more.

Morello’s daredevil, transcendent approach to guitar playing is as fierce as ever. The album brims with superhero riffs, hellfire shredding, and all sorts of sonic wackiness, and he maintains that he hasn’t even begun to unlock the instrument’s potential. “I firmly believe that the electric guitar has a future, not just a past,” he says. “And that future is going to require thinking outside of the box and not just retreading the same old ground hoping for different results.

“That’s why on these Atlas Underground records I really look to try to forge an alloy between my Marshall stack, big riffs, crazy guitar sounds and futuristic bass drops. The idea is that the electric guitar has a lot of room to grow, and I’m trying to prove it on this record.”

Even though you hold the position that there’s still so much to do on the guitar, are you sometimes surprised by how many players tend to be traditionalists? Do you feel like they’re stuck in one lane?

I don’t know if it’s so much being stuck in a lane. It’s really just loving the tradition of the instrument. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and they should enjoy it. For me, the excitement comes not from just hearing familiar sounds but also from creating sounds previously unknown to mankind.

I spent my first, whatever, 10 years of being a musician learning the Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhoads solos. I did my 10,000 hours of chromatic scales. It was really at the onset of Rage Against the Machine when I started self-identifying as the DJ in the band and started looking at the instrument in different ways, trying to forge a unique, artistic vocabulary on a tried-and-true instrument.

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