CHRIS CORNELL INTERVIEW
I did this interview with Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman and solo artist, Chris Cornell, in 2004. An edited version appeared in FHM magazine.
The fierce Indian chief Cochise was a big inspiration for the last album. Who’s your inspiration this time around?
The lyrics were written first and the lyrics inspired Tom to title it Cochise. We had this thing on the last record where he titled some of the songs. To me it’s hard to write the lyrics and put a title on it. I get so into the lyrics that titling it. . .if I were a painter I’d have all of my paintings be untitled. We did that in Soundgarden. So he came up with Cochise for that and it felt like the lyrics reminded him of Cochise. That’s as good of a reason for that as anything I can think of.
What did you draw on for inspiration this time around?
Having a new baby, having a new wife gave me a very different perspective particularly with my new wife is very different. The way that I usually write lyrics, I don’t concentrate too heavily on trying to get an idea across. I just get out of my own way and let an idea come across. In a lot of ways it surprises me. On the new record more than on any record I’ve ever worked on the overall themes are lighter hearted and more celebratory and more different for me at a time when I’m thinking about what it means less than ever and letting it flow. Overall I’ll go from song to song and until I sing the songs with the group I’m not sure what the overall feeling is. It’s lighter hearted in a sense. There’s some depth but I’m trying to avoid the word positive because it’s so overused but I guess it’s a lot more positive.
What does the title of the new album mean?
We’re just starting to work on that.
What have you been considering?
When I say just started I mean we just started today. So I have no idea. If you have any ideas you can run them by me. It’s like naming the band. The record is very diverse, much more than the last record and I felt like the last record was. Titling the band Audioslave was an idea I came up with but it was sold to the band with the attitude that it doesn’t pigeonhole the music. There’s such a broad spectrum of musical styles even more so now and that’s why we didn’t title the first record because there wasn’t anything we could come up with that would describe all of the different styles that were on it and I don’t know how we’re going to now.
Maybe a simple number two will work?
Maybe. Sometimes you have to look for the title of a song that encompasses the whole mood or some lines in a song that feels like the record. Or you come up with something unrelated but it feels like the record. Artwork and titles are hard especially when we’re so happy with the record that makes it even harder. We did what we’re really good at and at this point in our careers we’re happier with this than anything we’ve done so it’s hard.
Tom Morello and Kim Thayill lay down some serious goatslaying riffs: What are the hallmarks of a kickass riff?
It’s 50% never heard anything like it before and the other 50% reminds you of something but not exactly. It’s so difficult to describe that. I was thinking about a song I wrote a long time ago the other night and there’s a riff in it I love. Great riffs aren’t repeatable. If it comes out once, it’s great, and that’s it. You can’t rip yourself off and revisit it or steal someone else’s. It has to remind you of something that really rocks but it’s fresh. The first time you hear it you get a groove but you don’t know where it’s going to go. On this record there are some of the best riffs I’ve ever been able to sing over. One of them actually right now the working title is being called long riff and it’s incredible. Weaving the vocals through it is great but it’s simple enough that it totally rocks.
Where has the Cornell scream gone?
You want from the beginning to the end because that’s pretty much how I learned how to sing. That’s how I got range. In the very beginning with Soundgarden I would go for a scream and it was basically by going to sing out of my range and it would become a scream. One day we were working on a particular song and I went for the scream and it became notes and then it became more difficult because every time I went higher to break up and get the scream I was getting notes. From there there was all sorts of different evolutions and some embarrassing ones really. There were periods where the register for the main vocal was so high that I cringe when I listen to it because it’s like bravado. Most of those were never released thank God. Nowadays it doesn’t matter what my range is, it’s do I like what I’m singing and does it sound interesting to me. The texture and the melody aren’t so much progression or range or anything else. If I listen to Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison or singers that I really love they’re not necessarily considered great singers, my opinion is that yeah, they’re really great singers. My favorite singer is Tom Waites and in the period where some people think his voice is ruined I think he’s phenomenal, he can do so many things with it. It’s become a voice that’s unlike any other instrument or voice and he doesn’t just camp in one zone. The first band that really got me interested in music when I was a little kid was the Beatles. That’s what a singer does. He sings in different styles when the song calls for it. I go for what the song calls for and sometimes that’s wrong and sometimes it’s not.
Audioslave fans are rabid. Have your fans ever freaked you out?
Those occur mostly when you don’t show up.
What’s the most frenzied you’ve seen your fans?
That’s a good question because we had a pretty awesome go of it on tour. I’m trying to think of something that stands out. I don’t know.
Have you had any problems with stalkers?
I’ve had problems with stalkers for years and years and oddly enough the last couple of years I haven’t had anything like that.
Maybe they’re afraid of the ‘Slave. What’s the creepiest run-in you’ve had with a stalker?
Mostly somehow magically showing up with a telephone number and leaving weird messages. I’ve never felt particularly in danger. I had one who would show up with the severe delusions that they know you. That’s the scariest thing because they believe it. I make a really crappy subject for stalking because I never go out, I never answer the phone, I never answer phone calls. The last time I had a stalker she switched up and went to Alex Rodriguez.
That’s some fine company.
I’m boring. She’d just show up at places and be weird.
How does Audioslave unwind after a performance—a little Chardonnay and Marx?
Usually it’s more fraternal. We hang out and we’re in a really good mood and talk and hang out like a band’s supposed to. Nobody gets loaded or does anything stupid. It’s a band that enjoys what they’re doing and being together. We’ll reflect on the show, we’ll play cards, we’ll amble a little bit, whatever.
What games do you like?
Who’s the best in the band?
It revolves. It’s a little bit like ping pong. Once you learn someone else’s game you win for a while until they learn yours. Really at everything I’m the best in the band. If you get right down to it it’s me.
How have you managed to keep so fit—hot even—all these years?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think the word moderation can come into it. After that it’s maybe just genetic. Who knows. I’ve never really had a lifestyle that you could compare to other rock singers ever. It’s relatively normal. I don’t know how this is played out in other people’s lives but what comes out in the music is mainly for the music and that’s always been my focus. The most wound up or exhausted I get is doing that and after that the rest of my life has nothing to do with being a rock singer.
Is the secret to staying fit rock?
It doesn’t hurt. The best shape I’m ever in is when I’m on tour.
What’s been your biggest mishap in all of your years on tour?
I’ve stage dived and had the crowd part and landed on my face. I got kicked out of my own show once because I stage dove and this security guard thought I was a fan and grabbed me by the hair and started pulling me out of the front door and got very close to getting kicked out and fans had to beg him to let me go back onstage so I could sing.
Where was that?
That was pretty good.
Where did it happen?
I think it was at Santa Monica Civic or something. Somewhere in California. He was very apologetic once he figured it out.
That sounds like it must have been a dangerous time in your career because you were doing that every night?
There was a period in my career where daily it seemed pretty dangerous.
Did you hit a point where you got fed up with crowd surfing?
I had a pivotal moment in Seattle at the Coliseum in front of 14,000 people for the Bundershoot festival (SP?) and I’d just come off tour where we were playing smaller places and I could stage dive at will and I dove into the audience with 14,000 people and it was just out of control. A huge wave of people moved towards me and knocked a small girl down and were stepping on her. Nobody tried to pull her up and they didn’t seem to even notice it. I was trying to pull her up from on top of the crowd and finally I got her up but singlehandedly—no one was helping me. They were patting me on the back and stuff and not paying attention and her eyes were rolling up in her head and she was passing out. It had nothing to do with my safety. I thought it’s not safe for anybody. When it gets to the point where it’s hysteria and there are too many people it’s not worth it. I’d never endanger people like that. If I want to crack my own head open that’s different. That was the end of that really.
Did you ever have a crowd part like the red sea and drop you?
It happened a few times.
What would happen?
People would move or they didn’t have the strength required and I’d hit the ground and usually when I had long hair they’d step on my hair by accident and try to pull me up.
So you’re in Paris right now. Do you live there?
Yeah as often as possible.
Is Paris the new Seattle?
No, other than it rains a lot here.
Do you hang out with Johnny Depp?
No I’ve never even seen him.
Have you encountered any anti-American treatment?
No not at all. It’s not like you would think. France isn’t at war with anybody. When you disagree and you’re at war with somebody the tendency is to be a little more upset about it. I haven’t noticed that at all.
They’re certainly not at war with Audioslave. What’s your favorite cheese?
Gruyere. I don’t know.
You’re in Paris, you have to be eating a lot of cheese right?
I like to sample all of the fine cheeses of the world.
Have you adopted any local customs?
No in fact I continue to bathe regularly.
Taken to wearing berets?
No I haven’t done that either. I haven’t even been to the Eiffel tower.
Will you only live in/VISIT places with good coffee?
I can make great coffee wherever I go.
How do you find great coffee?
Import. I find it actually. It’s great.
Are you still looking California and feeling Minnesota?
Yes. I think it’s sort of self-explanatory but if you ever see Keanu Reeves you can ask him.
You’ve spent your life trotting the globe in the name of rock. What’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever been?
In East Germany before the wall came down there were two roads you can take—one goes into West Berlin, one goes into East Berlin. For some reason we took the wrong one. There were towers up and down that highway and in the towers there were guys with guns with scopes. They stood there and were aiming them at us ready to kill us and a police van came out and pulled us over and they all had guns trained on us to make sure that what they thought had happened had actually happened—which is that we were stupid and went the wrong way. They showed us how to get out and we went back the way we were supposed to go. That was the only time I ever visited East Germany.
What’s the worst place you’ve ever visited?
Probably New Orleans. You go a few blocks in the wrong direction and you run into some baaaad neighborhoods down there.
Did you have any run-ins down there?
The only time I’ve had run-ins down there is with drunken college guys. That’s what it’s for. It’s like the 365 days a year spring break.
Is this your first child?
No it’s my second.
How old’s your other child?
Is it a boy or a girl?
Is she listening to any music yet other than daddy’s?
She responds to my music in a completely different way than any other music. If my five month old gets upset I’ll play to her and she’ll focus for a minute but that’s it. But if I play her my new album which I’ve been listening to a lot, she can listen to that for an hour and a half and fall asleep even while I’m holding her.
Sounds like you’ve got a rocker on your hands. How will you answer this question: "Daddy, what was grunge?"
I’ll leave that up to someone else. I’ll get the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of rock and read whatever their definition is because I still don’t really understand it myself.
When did you first start rocking the soul patch and goatee look?
As soon as I could and then I just got used to it.
What was the inspiration?
Covering up as much as my face as I could.
What tips do you have for maintaining a righteous soul patch/goatee combo?
If you’re like me and you can’t actually grow a beard you just let it go and leave it alone and you’re fine.
Do you mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence?
Not at all. I have no problem with it at all. As often as I can I do it.
When was the last time you stole something?
It’s probably been years.
Do you remember what it was?
No. It could’ve been an ashtray.
When was the last time you had something stolen from you?
Not long ago. Six or eight months ago I left my wallet on an airplane and they took it and then the airline sent it back but there was no money or credit cards in it.
That was sweet of them.
It was thoughtful of them to send the eight dollar wallet back. It’s basically saying oh yeah, we found it, and we sent back what we didn’t want.
Beavis and Butthead loved Soundgarden: What would they make of The Slave?
Ultimately it’s Mike Judge and when he was in character he was pretty consistent so I think they would like it but it would depend on which song, too. For the most part I think they would be wearing the t-shirts if they were still around instead of AC/DC and Metallica which frankly got a little old.
Who’s your favorite supergroup?
What have you learned from other supergroups like the Damn Yankees?
Yeah. You only learn things not to do like for example Asia did this enormously huge upscale promotional event that was all over the radio that was called Asia in Asia. They were going to go to Asia and play because they were called Asia. But after six months of promo and before they actually played they kicked the singer out of the band and they got the singer of ELP to do it and try to sound like the Asia singer. We made a point not to do something that stupid. If you ever remember seeing any of the videos with Damn Yankees, don’t be like Ted Nugent and chew gum in all of the videos while you’re playing and don’t wear a floor length fake zebraskin coat if you can avoid it.
Temple of the Dog vs. Audioslave: Who would win in a fight?
I think you want to lean towards Audioslave when you poll that question towards most bands. Take me out of it—we’ll win. I’d just stand behind Audioslave and say, yeah go get those guys. And whichever band it was, Audioslave would probably win.
While we’re talking supergroups: Who rocks harder you or Velvet Revolver?
They’re pretty rockin’ but I think we sort of mop up the floor with them.
How about the state of music generally—what is driving you nuts right now?
Every period of music I can ever remember mostly drove me nuts so I don’t pay that much attention to it. No matter what genre you pick and what time you pick it, it’s mostly bad. It’s the same with film and books and everything particularly what’s commercially viable and what people are exposed to the most is 99% awful and then there’s the little bit that’s great. And then there’s always the cycles of stuff that’s new and refreshing. It seems to me there’s a lot of new rock that’s just starting to poke it’s head out. Then you get really excited and the cycle goes on where other bands follow that bastardize it, homogenize it, and make it awful and then it starts all over again. And then every 15 years no matter what disco comes back in some form and no one remembers what that is or they forget that it was bad. Every fifteen years forget disco is bad and they think it isn’t bad. That’s happening right now. If I watch cable I see a lot of Saturday Night Fever and props to the Bee Gee’s and that period. Everyone who remembers what it really was is too old to watch cable.
Do you have any guilty pleasures? Justin Timberlake perhaps?
Actually there are a couple of Justin Timberlake songs that I thought were really good. I liked Boyz II Men. I thought the four guys were great singers. At the time I though it was a guilty pleasure but then when you saw all of these sort of lame neo-motown singing groups that followed them you realized they were actually really great. Or if you saw the four of them just stand onstage and sing a song acapella you realized they were really great.
What about Bell Biv Devoe and ABC—did you like them?
They’re the perfect example of when something gets bastardized and horrible and makes the whole thing go away. It’s the perfect example. For my genre the perfect example would be Creed.
But it seems like Singles is always on cable TV. What did you think of its rendering of grunge era life?
I don’t know. To me it seemed like the people I knew that were part of that movie had very little to do with the movie. They created a little bit of an atmosphere for these other characters that had nothing to do with that. Did it feel like Seattle at the time? No, not really. The little stories and vignettes could have been put in Pittsubrgh or Miami or anywhere. They were just normal things.
What’s the longest amount of time you’ve had your shirt off?
I have no idea but I once spent an entire summer without wearing shoes.
I must’ve been around 21.
I felt like I didn’t need them.
What made you come back into the fold of the shoe wearing?
I started touring around the world a lot and I didn’t want to have to get a tetanus shot.
Did you have any incidents? Did you step on anything?
Yeah, but not when I wasn’t wearing shoes. I’ve stepped on dozens of nails.
Do you use the Audioslave cell ringtones sold on your web site?
I use whatever the phone comes with. THere’s a lot of commercials in europe where they advertise ringtones and you can order them over the phone then and there. I’m sure if I chose any one of them I would smash my phone or jump out of a window about the third time I heard it.
What’s it like working with a communist like Tom?
Most of the time the degree of equality that’s happening is cool. The only time it gets weird is when we’re all created equal because I said so. Is that the communists or a dictator? It works very well within the format of the band. We don’t have any dictators and nobody can muscle their way into taking control of something and run away with it. I’ve always wanted to be in that kind of band so it makes it a lot easier.