Tom Morello’s EDM-Fueled Revolution: Inside ‘The Atlas Underground’
Rage Against the Machine guitarist details the ‘sonic conspiracy’ behind his incendiary new solo album, which features Steve Aoki, Marcus Mumford, Vic Mensa and many more
“I’ve been secretly toiling away on this record,” he says of The Atlas Underground, which arrives October 12th with a decked-out lineup of guests that includes Marcus Mumford, Big Boi, Steve Aoki, and more. “The notion from the very start was to forge this sonic conspiracy of these artists from wide-ranging genres who are like-minded, and then curate all of it into a powerful and cohesive whole.”
The resulting album might surprise longtime followers of Morello’s work who are accustomed to Rage Against the Machine’s visceral rap-rock, Audioslave’s arena-ready alternative or the Nightwatchman’s folk-oriented protest songs. “I wanted to make a record that was unapologetically a guitar album, but that had the sonic imprints of 2018,” he says.
Among other things, that meant embracing EDM. “What I heard in their music was very simpatico with the analog rock & roll music that I love best,” he says of Atlas Undergroundcontributors such as Bassnectar and Knife Party. “It was the tension and release, it was the huge drops, it was the communal frenzy that they created, for me in the mosh pit, for them on the dancefloor.” Morello’s strategy was simple: “What if we take your production techniques, but replace your synthesizers with guitars?”
His unorthodox approach shines on tracks like “How Long,” a summit between Morello, Aoki and Rise Against singer Tim McIlrath. For the cut, Morello sent Aoki “some plutonium-grade riffs” to see what the producer would cook up. Aoki says the track came together “incredibly, intuitively fast,” and claims to have devised its drop in 10 minutes. “I wanted to go hard,” he says. “I wanted to get reinvigorated by that blog-house-era electro sound that was my flag back in the day that I was waving, bringing back the punk and hardcore sound and ideology into electronic music.”
Within two days of sending his “riff pack” to Aoki, Morello received a text: The producer wanted to play him a draft of the song via FaceTime. “I’m like, ‘Man, I’m running around, can you just send it to me?’” Morello recalls. “He’s like, ‘No, I want to see your face when you listen to it!’” Hours later, Morello had a “one-man mosh pit” going in his Southern California home, while Aoki was “headbanging furiously” in his Vegas studio. (When Aoki suggested McIlrath or Dave Grohl as vocalists, Morello texted both, offering the gig to whoever responded first; McIlrath, a frequent collaborator whom Morello says he calls whenever “there is a cause that needs to be rocked for,” got there fastest.)
It helped that many of the electronic artists Morello approached had deep connections to his work. “The thing you might be surprised by is the hard-rock-slash-punk-rock roots of a lot of these EDM guys,” he says. “They grew up on Rage Against the Machine.” (Aoki has receipts: “I went to their show in ’96 — I still have the ticket!”)
The revolutionary spirit of The Atlas Underground goes beyond those sonic experiments. “From the outset, the thematic thread of the record was social justice ghost stories,” Morello says. He recruited hip-hop heavyweights to tackle police brutality on “Rabbit’s Revenge” (Big Boi and Killer Mike) and “Lead Poisoning” (RZA and GZA).
The guitarist became enamored with Vic Mensa’s music during a Lollapalooza set a couple years ago. “He put on a performance dealing with police brutality that felt like it was an important moment in the political history of Chicago,” Morello says. That led Morello to invite Mensa to perform at his Anti-Inaugural Ball on Donald Trump’s inauguration day, and then to a studio session with Morello, Mensa and producer Boots (Beyoncé, Run the Jewels).
Mensa’s lyrics propel the incendiary “We Don’t Need You,” which addresses gun violence, de facto segregation, economic inequality and more. “I had an idea in my head about ‘bite the hand that feeds you,’” says Mensa, referencing a key lyric. “We caught the energy.” For the self-identified Rage Against the Machine “superfan” — who’s younger than the band’s 1992 debut album — the collaboration felt right.
Elsewhere, Morello recruited Kristine Flaherty, better known as singer-rapper K.Flay, after hearing her Grammy-nominated single “Blood In The Cut” on the radio while driving his kids to school. “I pulled the damn car over!” he exclaims, detailing a roadside call to his manager to “Find me K.Flay.” Flaherty was receptive — she recalls that in the days before receiving an email from Morello, she and her touring band had been watching Rage concert videos from the ’90s.
The two connected over their shared experience growing up in affluent Chicago suburbs, which prompted Flaherty to deconstruct privilege in her lyrics for “Lucky One.” “It got me thinking about who’s lucky and why are they lucky,” she says. “We often inappropriately ascribe qualities of wisdom and talent and intelligence to people who just lucked into shit.”
Some songs on Atlas Underground strike a more hopeful tone. “I am not the least bit surprised that injustice persists,” Morello says. “I’m also not surprised that resistance to injustice persists.” For “Where It’s At Ain’t What It Is,” Morello jammed with fellow guitar god Gary Clark Jr. for hours in the studio — “He pushes my playing in a very interesting way,” Morello notes — and along with electronic producer Nico Stadi, they crafted an uplifting funk-EDM anthem honoring the power of the people.
That mentality also surfaces on “Find Another Way,” Morello’s collaboration with Marcus Mumford. After Morello guested with Mumford & Sons around the release of their 2015 album Wilder Mind, the pair bonded over being “proud rock dads” and, in Morello’s words, “[tore] up the East Village a number of times.”
Mumford tells Rolling Stone via email that he “presented Tom with a bunch of options lyrically,” and that Morello homed in on the more positive lines. “Tom is a prophet of rage,” Mumford says, “but what’s extraordinary about him as a man and a musician is that despite his career-spanning association with righteous anger, he speaks and lives out of love.”