Interview with Chris Cornell: Unparalleled, Unpredictable, Unplugged

With lyrics like, “I share a cigarette with negativity” and “I will rise from your ashes and kneel in your prayers,” his economy of words is priceless to the ear and bequeaths a high ransom to the heart. Vocally, he resides beside icons like Robert Plant, Freddie Mercury and Jim Morrison. He is also proficient at proving time and time again that he can break his rusty cage, run and reach the finish line of musical genius.

Of course, he is Chris Cornell. After establishing himself in the metal and punk community with records like Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love, he croons when fronting the bluesy luminescent crawl of Temple Of The Dog, a band dedicated to the memory of his former roommate, Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone. Years later, after leaving the by then legendary Soundgarden, he makes his first solo effort, Euphoria Morning a masterpiece that is as purely raw but majestic, like an echo of the soul. Then, instead of recording a follow up, he joined the members of Rage Against The Machine minus Zack de la Rocha to release three organic, strapping rock records under the Audioslave moniker. Listening to the pangs to be on his own again, he made two more solo records, the latest of which, Scream was produced by Timbaland, awash in hip-hop and dance lighting.

2011 finds Chris Cornell back with the rather newly reunited Soundgarden, creating a fresh album with guitarist Kim Thayil, drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Ben Shepherd, yet one of the best, if not the best rock singers of our time just isn’t satisfied. He is spending a good part of the early spring playing solo acoustic shows in small theaters, possibly the equivalent to painting delicate albeit detailing fine lines within the ginormous strokes that his other projects are famous for.

Moreover, Chris, who within his career, contributed to soundtracks such as Spiderman, James Bond, Great Expectations and Singles, is also getting more involved in films; he offers, “I am working with my brother-in-law as a co-producer to produce a film.” That only further verifies that his expansive musical adventures are only match by his ever-evolving creative musings.

What will this tour be like? The first time I saw you without Soundgarden was for the Euphoria Morning tour. Will this hearken back to that at all?

It’s a very different thing, the Euphoria Morning tour was mostly songs from that record, trying to reproduce those songs live and as close to the way they were recorded as possible. Then adding songs from other parts of my solo career at that time. I had a few songs that I had released even as a member of Soundgarden, plus Temple Of The Dog. This is different, this is like acoustic interpretations from anything, in any point in my career, and it’s also just me and a guitar.

That sounds like the height of venerably and honesty.

Yeah, I think it’s just one threshold you cross. It’s a little nerve-wracking at first, but the intimacy part, there’s no decision you make about it. It’s there no matter what. When go out with a band and it’s loud, sort of aggressive, visceral experience, you can almost kind of make the decision; this is a crowd and a moment that I can connect too, quick intimacy or this a kind of getting caught in the swirl of the music and medley of the visceral rock. It can kind of go either way, it doesn’t matter, but if it’s just you and an acoustic guitar in a small theater, it’s intimate. You get over it, you cross that threshold, and it’s nothing but fine then. Really, it’s inclusive. The audience is part of what you are doing no matter what, because you are just there and you can hear everything everyone says, and you’re talking to them. If somebody shouts out a song, and I was planning on playing it, I’ll play it. I often don’t have set lists. I think in terms of something that I always wanted to try and this is at the top of my list.

You always seem unpredictable. I don’t think anyone foresaw the Scream record, and now with everyone focused on the Soundgarden reunion, you come out with a solo acoustic tour. Is being that unpredictable just a part of your nature or do you see it as your artistic responsibility?

I think it’s just part of my natural progression. I tend to not give it too much thought, and really the only negative aspect of that is that sometimes I feel like I am playing catch up with people that might be critical about it. That’s happened most of my career, even before I had records released I would have these demo songs and they were playing on KTMU, which is the college radio station of the University Of Washington, at the same time that they were playing early demos of Soundgarden, and in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I am always doing lots of different things, the band was what I focused on and what I poured my energy into, but I always did other things.”

When Temple Of The Dog first came out, people were saying, “Wow, I didn’t know that you could write songs like that!” My first reaction was, “Why not?” Then I realized, “Why would you know?” I had never really shown, I guess, that specific side. When I was in Soundgarden, I felt like we did so many different things stylistically, wasn’t that an indication? Being in a band that would play “Jesus Christ Pose,” and then do something like, “Black Hole Sun.” Wouldn’t that be an indication that there’s more going on than any specific genre? But I guess it isn’t, so around every corner there is kind of somebody saying, “Wait, he can’t do that.” Then I just do it anyway, move on and have fun.

Well, even on Euphoria Morning there are so many more colors than you had shown before. It is one of my top five records of all time.

Yeah, I really felt at the time, I really didn’t care what I did, as along as it wasn’t something that sounded like or was an approach of what I would do. If I wanted to write for Soundgarden, I would have played for Soundgarden. I didn’t want to be reminiscent of that, because Soundgarden was its own special thing. Also, there was a lot musically that I didn’t do that was mainly because of being in a band. When you have four members and you all basically agree on something and agree on music stylistically that we would like, and what approach, so my guidelines were basically to make it different than anything that we had been doing.

It really wasn’t anything else. When it came out, a lot of people were scratching their heads. This isn’t rock, this isn’t punk music, it’s not aggressive, it’s not metal, there’s a whole lot of things it wasn’t. Over time, I think it’s taken for what it is. I am very proud of that record, very happy and how it kind of turned out. There are fans of Euphoria Morning who don’t like other stuff, they just like that [laughing].

Soundgarden is writing new songs now. What have you noticed to be different about that whole process now with the passing of time? Have the perimeters of the band widened even more?

The one thing that I have noticed that is different is that we are a lot more relaxed. I think we were always relaxed, but more so than ever. And the main reason for that is that we don’t have a release date. We don’t have a calendar with an x on it that says you have to be done by this day. We don’t have that, we are just recording, and it will be done when we decided it’s done. That was the act that was always chasing after us, was that we were this indie band that did whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, then we became part of this bigger business.

Then that sort of began the cyclical album, tour thing and there were always dates proposed and tours happening. When you go in to start writing for example, and someone is slating that it will be released at a specific time—that just doesn’t make any sense. With Soundgarden especially, it didn’t work well with us, and that was a big part of why we stopped being Soundgarden. Now that is gone. I always speculate a lot that that was the biggest factor, and now that I see that it’s not there, I see that is the biggest factor.

We have been working in the same way we always did in terms of effort, showing up and being excited creatively. We have done a lot in a pretty short period of time without the constraints of a schedule, without somebody plotting out tours for us, and that we would have to go whether we feel like we are finished with the record or not.

I had interviewed you once before when Audioslave just came out, and you said about your time in Soundgarden that you were a bit of a control freak, and would sometimes stonewall producers.


Has that tendency dissipated over time?

Yeah, I think we are exactly the same way. Like right now, we are working with Adam Kasper, who we worked with on Down On The Upside, and it’s more of including someone into our process that fits in comfortably with us and has ideas and works like another band member, like an extension of the band. As opposed to someone who comes in with the role of producer and starts telling us how to be us.

That’s why we stonewalled producers; as soon as somebody told us anything about a song arrangement that we didn’t like we would just shut it down. Maybe be they could have come up with good ideas later in the process, but we weren’t interested. And a lot of that had to do with how familiar someone is with what you do and how quick they get it. And we just didn’t have that experience that often. We certainly had it with Adam, we had it with Jack Endino in the beginning of our recording period. We had it with Stuart XX who was the first person who recorded us where it sounded like us, but then we had a lot of people we didn’t know that well come in, and it just didn’t feel like they were going to capture us better than us. So they would just become engineers as far as we were concerned.

Someone just pressing ‘record,’ rather than being in the mix.

Yeah, and I think Adam, on the other hand, fits very well into the mix and is one of us, really.

Will you be recording these solo shows and releasing them sometime down the line?

Yeah, I am not making any plans, but I am going to attempt to record every show.

Will Scream be the most difficult to translate acoustically given then hip-hop orientation?

That’s pretty easy. There are a lot of songs that I wrote for Soundgarden that won’t work acoustically because its sort of riff orientated and sort of lends itself more to a big aggressive guitar sound and a full band. But, Scream, any song would work pretty easily, they are pretty simple and recorded with a few chords and they are fun to do.

I just want to offer my condolences for Mike Starr’s passing.

Thank you. There’s no good thing to say about that happening to somebody, and I have never been able to find a positive angle on it. I have been interviewed many different times about many different people and I have never been able to be Yoda, and [say] there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but there isn’t. It’s awful. There was a part of him that was a really great guy. It’s really sad and he’s someone to be missed.

Chric Cornell will be performing sold-out shows at Town Hall in NYC April 12 and 13, Atlantic City’s Borgata Casino April 15 and Montclair’s Wellmont Theatre April 16. Find more info at