Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Redferns
In the past twenty years, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell has passed through pretty much all the stations of the cross that a worshipped lead singer of a seminal nineties rock band can: utter adulation (Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog); mixed feelings (the solo records); confusion (those Audioslave lyrics); and incredulous hatred (the Timbaland record). But he’s now come full-circle, and with his now-iconic gritty voice intact. It was over a year ago that Cornell tweeted “School is back in session
knights of the Soundtable ride again!” and, since then, the band — one-third of the holy grunge trinity completed by Nirvana and Pearl Jam — have reunited, and are working on a new record and touring for the first time in twenty years (they play New York’s Jones Beach this Saturday). Cornell’s now a happily married dad and psyched to be back with the band, playing shows, and taking the time they need in the recording studio. But that doesn’t mean, as he recently told Vulture in a free-flowing conversation — now presented largely unedited — that he’s any less excellently heavy and gloomy. Chris Cornell! Vulture Transcript! Let’s go!
What’s the mood in the studio like for your guys right now? Nostalgic for the good old days, or are you just looking forward at this point?
I suppose the “good old days” part of the show started a couple years back when we were just hanging out, and that was nostalgic just in the way that you can’t help but get in the room with three other people you have that kind of history with and not start talking about different moments you remember from different parts of our career together that were funny or not funny or whatever, and you reminisce. But that’s already kind of happened. By the time we were actually making this new record, it’s all sort of new. Musically it’s a new experience; it definitely has its own environment, it doesn’t feel like we’re reliving our past. It feels really like we just took a break and now it’s over; it doesn’t even feel like it was as long as it was. Everyone’s just refreshed. It was the right amount of time.
Do you find you can still approach things the same way you did back then?
I’m kind of almost surprised daily by the similarities in how I approach writing Soundgarden material and how I feel about it … more even how I feel about it, because musically it’s a different mindset for me. That’s entirely the fact that in the back of my mind, I’m working on music that has to represent the band itself, the version that’s larger than the sum of its parts and then the individuals. When you’re in a band, you know what music everyone likes, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and you know where you can push the envelope and where you can push those boundaries. Soundgarden was always really good at that; if anything I think our Achilles heel has been we were too eclectic and allowed ourselves to maybe be too adventurous from one album to another, to a point where we don’t really have a sound or a song or even two or three songs you could put together and define us musically, for any period, really [laughs]. That part of it makes it really rewarding to work on a new album, just because there’s newness all the time, and everyone’s a songwriter in the band; everyone brings music to the table and pretty elaborate ideas, and though everyone has their own sensibilities everyone’s always growing. It feels very much like any Soundgarden album in terms of the vitality of it, and then maybe just a little bit more of a refreshing feeling ‘cause we haven’t done it in a long time. There’s a strong enthusiasm about all of it.
You guys are in a unique position now — on the one hand, over the years anything you’ve done aside from the band seems to have been viewed in the shadow of, “Well, it’s not Soundgarden.” On the other, while in Soundgarden you were allowed to be experimental and still achieve mainstream success.
There’s an image I always had of, like, the Ramones and AC/DC — two bands I got into sort of simultaneously. AC/DC got me into punk music — I went from being this kid who kinda listened to prog to someone that really appreciated the subtlety and simplicity of rock, and those two bands kinda got me into that. But I also looked at both those bands as being bands that had this amazing definable identity, visually, their sound in every single song … but they couldn’t really stray too far from it, it just wouldn’t have made sense. I think I was always the opposite of that kind of person; I wanted to do what I wanted to do, and consequently Soundgarden facilitated that for me personally and it seemed like for everyone. We always supported coloring outside the lines and not worrying entirely about what we’d consider a Soundgarden song or sound. I mean, it’s always been there and it still is — it always sounds like Soundgarden no matter what it is, and I have had worries in the past when we’d be putting together an album and we’d have fifteen or sixteen songs and I’d think, There’s no way these songs are gonna coexist on an album, there’s too much going on here. And it always has, unquestionably. I don’t worry about that anymore. In my career outside Soundgarden, I’ve viewed being a solo artist as an opportunity to do all the things I wouldn’t do in Soundgarden, and it made no sense to me at all to try to echo any of the attitudes musically of Soundgarden when I’d make a solo record. That’s just part of the bigger picture of being more interested in being a fan of music and less focused on trying to present specific identities so people can understand it. I see the benefit to that, but it’s just not who I am naturally, so it doesn’t happen [laughs].
Coming off of your Songbook solo acoustic shows, where you were so much more exposed, are you glad to be backed by the band again?
There’s a certain amount of just being in an environment where you’re pretty much entirely vulnerable that has to help no matter what else you do, I think. You have to get comfortable being relaxed in front of an audience every night and just totally pay attention to what you’re doing and make a connection — it’s kind of impossible to do it without making a connection, whereas in a rock band you don’t have to if you don’t want to. If you walk out onstage and you’re not in the mood to have an exchange, you don’t have to. For me, that didn’t always necessarily come naturally. If I watch footage of Queen with Freddie Mercury — that’s who he is, his rapport with the audience is so comfortable and natural. You never saw behind a curtain because that’s who he was. For me, I suppose I was pretty moody. I had this kind of way of dealing with the terror of going out onstage by being aggressive and extroverted, but then there would be periods where I’d be internal. It was unpredictable; my mood was going to be sort of what it was going to be, and I had to deal with it. And that wasn’t always a good thing. We’ve always been an emotionally volatile group as a band — it’s not always easy to predict what the feeling is going to be going out. So doing something like the Songbook tour definitely helped. The other thing, too, is that there’s a fulfillment in mixing the two attitudes, one is not confused with the other; after doing a tour of just me and an acoustic guitar, I clearly have a longing for getting back into Soundgarden rehearsals and playing loud, aggressive, amplified music.
So you guys are still all about being loud and proud? Or have you mellowed a bit with age?
Oh, that hasn’t changed at all. I don’t know, it’s hard to balance with a body of work from one album to another, but this is as aggressive as anything we’ve ever done, for sure. I think the combination of doing Songbook tours and releasing some acoustic records will be kind of the perfect foil to also being in Soundgarden, and vice versa. After spending some time with Soundgarden, it’s a nice refrain to go to acoustic music.
Were you ever tempted to go in that direction before?
One of the things I never did as a solo artist, which it seemed a lot of people wanted me to do, was to get into an acoustic record. Since Both Seasons was released, it seemed like a lot of fans wanted to hear that. I would have moments here and there, but I never really did it. And now I have an opportunity to do it as a solo artist and it just coexists well with Soundgarden. It kind of happened by accident, but I couldn’t have planned it better. I’m excited to now go back to rehearsals and go out and play Soundgarden shows.
With the Pearl Jam festival this summer and the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind, and now you guys touring and recording again, it feels like a landmark summer for grunge. Does it feel momentous to you guys? It’s weird to think this all happened twenty years ago.
Yeah it is, it is. I was looking at YouTube last night, just looking at whatever, following threads and noticing different numbers of views for different bands that were hugely successful. I clicked on an early Joni Mitchell performance and I was shocked at how amazing of a guitar player she was, open tunings, strange tunings, which Soundgarden has experimented with for years, and thinking, Here’s a woman, in 1965, who’s so shredding this guitar and doing things no one had ever done, she’s somebody every musician knows, but I noticed looking at the views there should have been more. Going into other artists equally influential but newer, viewership gets higher and higher. As time goes on, no matter how influential any band is, the impact decreases; I guess the Beatles is a good example of that. They still seem to permeate everything, and yet … over time it’s gonna be a smaller and smaller window. My feeling is, as the part of the Seattle scene that happened in the late eighties, early nineties, we were lucky to be part of something that made such a huge impact. It’s really hung in there, and a lot of other stuff that’s gone on musically never really seemed to diminish the cultural importance of how what we did was perceived. If you can get past twenty years and still somehow have some relevance, there’s a sense to me that it’ll always be relevant on some level.
Can you imagine that kind of scene happening today?
Well, the only reason it couldn’t happen today is because of the schizophrenia of media and the lack of really a properly functioning music business. There’s no version of the music business now that functions in a way that can support new artists and support their career over time. The closest thing I think we even have to it now is Top 40 pop radio, where if you suddenly have a hit, there is an industry that may support you over the course of the next several records. But it’s extremely few and far between, and pop radio is still mostly full of one-hit wonders. Facebook is a great tool for bands now, but there are so, so many millions of Facebook pages with singers and demos, in a sense it almost kind of becomes you don’t really have to dedicate so much of your life and self to music to put something up; they all appear as these kind of two-dimensional images of “person with song or band,” and how do you tell someone who’s really in it for the long haul and dedicating their life to becoming a musician from somebody who just recorded something on their computer and put it up? And how does any individual band stand out? That’s the part I think where as much as the music industry was really bloated and fat and greedy, you’d still find these individuals who worked in the music industry who would hear a band and become so passionate about it that they would get behind it and do everything they could to get people to hear it … there was a sort of simplicity to it. And it seems to me much more chaotic now. In a sense, the way to work through it if you’re a young band is to write your music, record it, tour a LOT, and that keeps you honest. But it makes it very difficult to have a scene. Like a geography that a scene can come out of and permeate everything around it — I don’t see that as being possible anymore.
And that sense of community and congeniality among the bands — like you had with Pearl Jam — is that bygone too?
That I think is possible — what nurtured the Seattle scene really was just the lack of any focus toward it. No one took Seattle bands or the music itself that seriously. There was no outside attention, no carrots dangled in front of the musicians in the scene we were in. You were lucky if you could release something independently and then if you did, it would reach a pretty small audience. That was really the height of what we felt we could ever achieve, so the focus was on the artistry and creativity. We were all sort of resigned to a small audience and touring in a van if we were lucky enough to pull that off. I think because of that there was a purity to it, and that definitely unraveled when there was an international focus suddenly, the opportunity to release records on big labels. I quickly saw that deteriorate, where people were suddenly making decisions for the wrong reasons … when you’re sitting in the room with your band to write a song and thinking about what an A&R person wants to hear, you’re finished, in terms of being able to do anything that will have longevity and be culturally impactful and really inspire some kid in their basement.
It seems like such a rare thing now that you guys were able to have this slow, nurtured indie coming-up and make a progression toward major label exposure.
Well, people also forget that MTV was a huge part of it — a huge part of Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam having such an impact. It was international, it was almost overnight — once a video started getting played, you went from obscurity to someone essentially having their own TV special, and it was worldwide and constant, almost over night. And that’s gone. In Europe, there are still a lot of channels that play rock videos all the time …
Yes! And they totally play your era of rock, too.
Yeah, they play our era, and there’s an editorial bent to it, where they’re playing things they think you should hear, and that someone’s told them they should play, as opposed to the YouTube-surfing version, following something you’ve just heard about word of mouth or because it’s in front of your face, and that’s hugely different. The biggest viewership [on YouTube] is either something strange — and likely not a band writing songs — or a pop artist supported by what’s left of the music industry, which is focusing all its resources on an artist like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga.
Are you listening to anything now that’s inspiring you?
I don’t know that I can say there’s anything brand-new that’s made me look at music in a different way. But that’s part of getting older and having more time to spend being a fan and creating music. At some point, it kinda comes back to what is it that motivates me about music. When we were rehearsing to go out and play shows again, we were going all the way back to Louder Than Love, putting on a song to listen to it, and trying to remember all the parts, and I was sort of shocked at how elaborate the arrangements were, and, not remembering all the subtleties of the guitar parts, feeling like they were all correct — like, wow, these were all really perfect ideas! I can’t believe we came up with this, I wouldn’t change a thing! If I would have looked ahead and thought, will I think this is all great twenty years from now, my attitude would have been no, I will totally judge this and think this is kindergarten rock and I will hate it and think it’s stupid. And it’s actually not true! In a sense, it’s an indication that we have musical sensibilities that don’t go away, no matter what you’re exposed to. I always felt like new rock will never die simply because of the individual, not because of someone inventing a new way to play an electric guitar or coming up with a new combination of chords. It’s the personality of the individual that’s always going to create that newness in music. Listening to other music is always a good reminder of what’s possible, and Jack White kinda covers that territory in It Might Get Loud, about this record he heard where this guy is singing almost a cappella … you can enjoy that as much as a song from Queen’s Night at the Opera, look at how different the two are, and what went into making either of them, completely different things.
Speaking of individuals anchoring the band, do you find your voice has changed at all over the years?
I don’t know, I just kinda do whatever’s in front of me, if I feel like it’s not doing what I want it to do I’ll try to figure out some way to make that happen, and I’ve always been that way. If I ever go through periods where I think this is a struggle, maybe my voice is changing, I quickly remember having the same struggles like, 25 years ago. On the new Soundgarden record, I feel like I’m going back in time and forwards kind of simultaneously. There are definitely songs that remind me of old Soundgarden in the way I’m singing and there’s stuff that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever done. It’s interesting.
Do you have to take care of it in any way? I can’t believe your vocal cords are still intact.
It’s a lot easier for me now, because I used to drink and smoke a lot. I don’t know if the drinking part affected my voice, other than I’d be sort of up late and talking a lot more, and if I was up late talking and drinking, I was probably smoking a lot. A little bit of that never mattered too much, but I could overdo it, and overdoing it seemed to have negative effects [laughs]. I don’t have that anymore, and the only other thing, which I read once in a Joe Cocker interview, they asked if he ever had trouble with his voice and he said, “Only if I haven’t been singing in a while,” and that’s totally me; if I don’t sing regularly, then I have problems and need to rehearse a week to get my voice back the way I like it. It needs to be used to what I do, and I do weird things to it.
I remember reading you saying fans might be surprised by some of these songs being a bit more positive than Soundgarden in the past?
Yeah, I’m not really sure where that came from. I don’t really see that! I don’t think it’s any more positive at all [laughs]. Thinking about it … no. I can’t think of one song. Maybe that came from an old interview? I certainly haven’t had that feeling, even from the beginning of working on these songs. I had that feeling on albums I’ve done before, solo records and stuff like that, or even the second or third Audioslave record. Responding lyrically to what the music is doing has always been important to me; I don’t feel like the lyrical theme should be ignoring the mood of the music, and the mood of Soundgarden music doesn’t really lend itself to happy songs. And I don’t really see the state of the world … it doesn’t seem like a time in history to be writing songs that are sort of overtly “everything’s great, just chill out.” That was one thing about the sixties music scene I didn’t like. In the turmoil of that period, there was a lot of music that seemed to pretend that if you just ignored it, chill out and smoke some weed and listen to some happy music, everything’ll be cool. Now seems like another time for that to be super inappropriate. My kids listen to pop radio in the car a lot, and when I listen to it and kinda get into the lyrics, it’s pretty much, 90 percent of it’s in the club, and it’s about sex and bein’ cool and bein’ rich and getting loaded and being important. It’s absolutely the most base level attitude. It reminds me very much of what popular rock music was in the early nineties, when new rock came along and crushed it. It’s a strange thing. As times get sort of more stressful overall, entertainment sometimes gets fluffier. Which is a weird concept.
Well, people do enjoy escapism …
Yeah, let’s just put our hands in the air and … sing along to possibly dumb lyrics. And I get it, I’m not judging it. I understand maybe everyone doesn’t want to sit and listen to dour music or music that’s kind of putting a microscope on something that already bothers you. But.
I was going to ask if the “Frowngarden” nickname ever bothered you guys, but it seems like perhaps not.
Sometimes it bothered me personally just because I felt like it was true, and we were such an incredibly fortunate group of people to be able to do what we did artistically — that what we used to do when we got off work we now got to do all the time — and consequently we should be in a better mood. But at a certain point I kind of came to grips with that, that we are who we are and that that’s part of what made us what we are. Your nature is your nature, and it’s always good to look at it and try to improve behaviors that would be helpful to other people, but also to look at aspects you should just allow cause that’s who you are.
I’ve noticed your hair is long again. Is that a back to Soundgarden kind of thing?
Well, most of my period with Soundgarden, I actually didn’t have long hair. I think I did in that first moment of MTV success, so it sort of stuck with people. But it’s not something I ever really thought about. We actually sold a lot more records when I had short hair. It’s weird, the images that get focused on.
Well, I guess it’s good that twenty years on you can still grow it, right?
I guess so, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I was bald. “So now you’re bald and fat … ” This is great. Now I don’t have to come up with an answer that supports being fat and bald.