Tom Morello has made more than 20 albums, as a founding member of Rage Against the Machine – the political rap rock band that has sold 16 million records and whose 1992 song Killing in the Name has become a perennial protest song – and of the bands Audio Slave and Prophets of Rage. He also plays solo under the moniker 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 sounds”, has led to him regularly being named one of the greatest guitarists of all time. His latest album, The Atlas Underground Fire (released October 15), 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 ‘non-sectarian socialist’ political activist, famous for his appearances at demonstrations – he played at Occupy events in the US and Europe – and a co-founder of the non-profit ‘social justice’ Axis of Justice.
You have your . included new ones 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 political situation in the US and the reward of white supremacy, all at a time when I was locked up with my 97-year-old mother, my 90-year-old mother-in-law, and two kids going crazy trying to learn from a distance. I couldn’t literally be on the front line for the first time in my adult life, because I’m trying to keep the grannies alive, you know. So in the midst of George Floyd’s protests, I recorded a song called Stand Up, which featured Imagine Dragons, the great trans soul singer Shea Diamond, and Bloody Beetroots as well. I tried to contribute in every way possible from the bunker. But you’re absolutely right: that’s my bread and butter. I’ve been at the front of that march for 30 years, and now, you know, there’s a sewage problem, or one of my kids broke a window with a basketball, so that’s my day
Despite you were not physically present, anger against the machines murder in the name was sung during the Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, but was also sung by pro-Trump supporters in Philadelphia. How did that feeling?
First of all, there is no explanation for stupidity. There’s a long list of radical left anthems 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 really have no idea. what they sing about. All I’m talking about in all those cases is that the music has a power that casts a wide net, and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing. In that net will be the far-right bozos, but there will also be people who have never thought about the ideas put forth in those songs and who are forced to consider those ideas because the rock’n’roll is great. You can either give a beat to a lecture by Noam Chomsky – nobody wants that, but the content will undoubtedly be – or you can create music that is compelling.
So you don’t try to serve people with a to hold up-and– stop ordering when they abuse your music?
When they used Rage songs for torture in Guantánamo, we sued the State Department, but no. My opinion is: “Go and enjoy the rock’n’roll. You look like fools, but go and enjoy the rock’n’roll.”
What did you think of the events of? 6 January?
We came within a hint 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, right-wing terrorists, you know? The ugliest thing about it is how they co-opted the idea of standing against the Man, at least in the US. There can’t be any nuanced thinking like, “Yeah, big pharma is terrible, but getting a vaccine to save your grandma is good.” It’s a watered-down version of resistance. But I grew up in Trump’s country [in suburban Illinois]“I know people there. They are decent people. It’s not their fault they’ve been cheated by the oligarchy for decades. What should we do now to find a way to really resist the things that are destroying the planet, making the lives of working people worse than their parents’? Poverty and hunger kill more people than anything else on the planet and they are man-made problems. Those are the things we need to delve into, rather than being sidetracked by this carnival barker bullshit.
Your opening number new ones 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 when they came home and were slaughtered by racist Americans – their story is very compelling. But there was a Giuseppe Morello 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 nice guy. There may be cousin-like ties between me and him. He was small, had one hand that was really messed up, and he got the job done by killing people. Finally, he met the end that many people met in that work.
The new album also features Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen singing AC/DC’s Highway to hell. How did that happen?
We have history with that song, from when I toured with Bruce and the E Street Band. We were in Perth, [near] the House of [late AC/DC frontman] Bon Scott. One evening I went to pay my respects to his grave. I came back to the hotel and saw Bruce in the bar. The following days we started rehearsing Highway to Hell at sound checks. We were in a football stadium in Melbourne, playing in front of 80,000 people. Eddie happened to be in town. A light bulb went out. I knocked on the locker 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 Eddie?” It was a pinnacle of rock’n’roll history. If you think you’ve seen people get pissed, it’s not because you weren’t there that night.
you recently asked for help to get 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 children. He took in these orphans and girls who had suffered tremendous trauma in their lives and started a school where they used music as a means of rehabilitation. 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 sent birthday greetings, we sent hello. And then their world was turned upside down. They are marked. They played western music taught by an American teacher. Their school is destroyed. They are now in hiding. We weren’t able to get them out on the first try, and now it’s just a matter of keeping them safe. There are many people who want to help, but right now they are still there. But they are safe.
During the lockdown you taught your son Roman to play the guitar and eventually he worked with the 11-year-old drummer and internet sensation Nandi Bushel. How did that happen?
They wrote the song, I produced it. Nandi is spectacular – a vibrant soul of joy that the world needs now more than ever. She called and asked me to do a song, and I said, “I’d love to, but I’ve got a kid your age here who can actually do it from here!” So I said to Roman, “Throw some riffs at me, man,” and he came up with some hot riffs. I put together an arrangement and sent it to Nandi, and asked her what she thought of it. She said: “It sounds epic!” as she does. And she wrote the lyrics and played the drums on it – she just killed it, she’s so awesome. One of the best drummers in the world just 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 called your mother 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 takes positions that I’m used to: “Mom, really?” But that’s always been my household. As I went out into the world, I realized that not every household has these kinds of internationalist ideas, the idea of always, always standing up for the person on the lowest rung of the ladder. We were in a middle class, conservative, ethnically homogeneous suburb. She was a high school teacher teaching the kids about Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott, Malcolm X, anti-colonial African studies. I assumed everyone’s mother was like that.
She also founded the anti-censorship group Parents for rock and rap in the late 80s …
Yes! It was really where the rubber hit the road. She was in a conservative suburb trying to censor heavy metal and hip hop, so you fight that. This was before Rage Against the Machine – nobody knew my name. She was always on a radio show with Ice-T.
you said in previous interviews that there is a section of your fans who would rather deny you are black. Why do you think it bothers them?
That would be a better question for them than for me, but it bothers them – oh, let me tell you, it bothers them. I think it’s because it disrupts the false story they have that music that sounds like mine can only be made by people who are similar to them. And then me and Slash come out to say, “No!”
you were recently criticized for your friendship with the right rock star Ted Nugent. What the hell are you talking about?
I was asked to make a video for his 60th birthday. At that point, Ted had become a right-wing caricature, but I really liked his 70s records, so I said yes. I took two tacks: “Things that adolescent Tom Morello learned about the birds and bees from Ted Nugent”, and “things you might be surprised to see that Tom and Ted have in common” – like freedom of speech and rock’n’roll . Anyway, he called me afterwards and we had a discussion about it. People go crazy when you say you’re friends with someone who has their opinion. I’m really happy to talk to Ted when he starts his racist stuff, his misogynistic stuff, his Trump stuff. I don’t know how often people these days cause Ted to abandon his opinion, but I believe that has been the case more than once.
The Atlas Underground Fire has been released on October 15 on Mom + Pop records.