Guitar god Tom Morello was supposed to be going on a reunion world tour with his band Rage Against the Machine in 2020.
But after COVID pulled the plug on that, Morello didn’t touch his incendiary instrument for about four months. “I was wrestling with the same kind of fear, depression and anxiety that a lot of us were, and having to sort of re-find who I was [because] I’m no longer a musician,” Morello, 57, told The Post. “So that led to this kind of existential crisis.”
But working on his new solo album “The Atlas Underground Fire,” out Friday, helped the axman get his mojo back with an all-star array of guests — from Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder to Chris Stapleton and Damian Marley — who collaborated remotely.
“This record was as much a life raft and an antidepressant as it was a creative endeavor. It was a way to kind of, like, stay sane,” said Morello. “During a time of this solitary confinement, I was building these musical friendships around the globe. Damian Marley was in Jamaica, Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey, Mike Posner was recording his vocals from Nepal — he summited Mount Everest during the recording of this record — [electronic artist] Sama’ Abdulhadi was in Palestine, [British rock band] Bring Me the Horizon was in the UK. So I had this kind of connection that went beyond the four walls of my isolation.”
Morello came up with a novel way to record his guitar parts during lockdown. “I have a studio in my home, but I don’t know how to use it — there’s always an engineer present,” he said. “But I read a Kanye West quote where he said that he recorded vocals on the voice memo [app] on his phone. So I started recording guitar riffs into my phone and then e-mailing them to artists, producers and engineers around the world.”
Some of the recording sessions turned into therapy sessions, including one with country star Stapleton for “The War Inside.” “We got on a Zoom with guitars in hand to write a song together, and we didn’t play a note for the first two hours,” said Morello. “We just talked about what it felt like to be a musician during a time of no music.”
Rocking out with Springsteen and Vedder on a cover of “Highway to Hell” helped capture the live spirit of the time when Morello was touring Australia with the Boss as part of the E Street Band in 2014 and the Pearl Jam frontman sat in with them on the AC/DC classic.
“At a time when no one was playing any shows,” he said, “I was like, ‘I want to try to capture some of that incredible lightning felt on that stage,’ and so I called up Bruce and Eddie.”
It certainly helped that Morello had history with Springsteen from being an “adjunct” to the E Street Band on and off for about six years. “It was incredible,” he said. “I’m a massive Bruce Springsteen fan. And so to be able to stand on stage with Bruce night after night playing ‘Born to Run’ … I never would have dared to dream that.”
“The Atlas Underground Fire” kicks off with “Harlem Hellfighter,” a nod to Morello’s upper Manhattan roots. “I was born at West 142nd and Riverside,” he said. “So while I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, I was born in Harlem and [am] proud of it. The Harlem Hellfighters were African-American soldiers from the Harlem area in World War I and World War II. Starting the record with that was a connection to my background and those heroes.”
Of course, Morello has always been known for his political activism as well as his guitar heroics. “I believe that all music, all art is political — every single note of it,” he said. “I think it’s important to weave your convictions into your vocation, and that you shouldn’t leave behind who you are and what you believe in for what it is that you do for a living. I happen to be a guitar player. So it’s been my responsibility to try to use rock and roll as a battering ram for social justice.”