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Chris Cornell Is Free at Last

During separate stints with Soundgarden and Audioslave, Chris Cornell was seen as the sort of brooding performer who had no time for glad-handing or show-business conventions. So why the holy hell did he agree to appear on Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards, a June broadcast during which he bantered with co-presenter Mandy Moore before handing a trophy festooned with a set of faux antlers (dubbed "mantlers" for the occasion) to a guy from Disturbed, which was named the planet's "ballsiest band"?

Because the folks at Spike invited him, Cornell says from a tour stop in Brussels, Belgium — and because, as a born-again solo artist supporting a new disc, pointedly titled Carry On, he didn't need to tiptoe around group members mopey over not being given the chance to hang with Mandy as well.

"When you're on your own, you get asked to do things that you don't get asked to do with a band," he notes, adding, "I don't know how many times I've said no to cover stories on magazines when I've been in bands because they only wanted me instead of the whole band."

Indeed, the only time Cornell remembers accepting such an offer was during his Soundgarden days, when the Spin minions were planning an article on grunge "and they wanted me, and me only, on the cover." Ultimately, Cornell's bandmates gave him the go-ahead, which he considered "good band thinking. Because at the end of the day, it's about what's best for the band. But usually it doesn't work out that way."

Cornell, 42, speaks from experience that he embraces rather than rejects. ("I get more elder-statesman-of-rock offers than I used to, simply because I'm older and I'm still around," he allows, with a measure of pride.) In 1984, during a period when he was earning his living as a restaurant grunt, he helped launch Soundgarden, one of the first, best and longest-lasting proto-grunge acts. Following the outfit's 1997 dissolution, Cornell set out on his own, emerging two years later with Euphoria Morning, a CD that replaced the rock thunder of early Soundgarden platters such as 1989's Louder Than Love with a more nuanced, contemplative set of tunes. Euphoria numbers such as "Can't Change Me" and "Preaching the End of the World" hold up quite well, but upon their original release, they caught Soundgarden boosters off guard.

"Looking back on it, I think my biggest focus was making a record where I just got to exercise all these different influences musically that I hadn't gotten to exercise in Soundgarden — knowing that it would probably alienate some fans and that it wasn't necessarily going to have commercial potential," he says. "Back then, I'd just come off a pretty successful string of Soundgarden records, and then I made a record that sounded nothing like any of them. I don't know that it made sense to people."

A modest tour followed, but Cornell was in no shape to win over the masses. He's spoken openly about the alcohol and substance abuse that burdened him during this period, and he was still in a comparative fog in early 2001 when guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk, who constituted three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine, approached him about joining a new ensemble at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin. (Rage had just folded because mouthpiece Zack de la Rocha wanted to devote himself to personal projects that never came to fruition.) After several fits and starts, Cornell signed on, and devoted himself to cleaning up before Audioslave's formal launch. He arrived at the set of the new outfit's first video straight from rehab and was transported back as soon as the shoot wrapped.

This chain of events convinced many observers that Audioslave was less an organic group than the musical equivalent of a corporate merger, with profit as the primary goal. Morello dismissed that view in a 2003 Westword interview, calling Audioslave "the first supergroup garage band" and emphasizing the chumminess of everyone involved. Cornell's take is similar, if more pragmatic.

"Coming from a band like Soundgarden and then being solo for so many years, the only way I would leave being solo was if it was an environment that was very friendly and hassle-free and relaxed — and we're just having fun making records, because that's what doing solo records is like," he says. "Why move away from that to do something if there's going to be conflict, and if there's going to be arguments and difficulty doing day-to-day business?"

From Cornell's perspective, things went smoothly during the creation of 2002's Audioslave, the outfit's first and finest recording. The quartet's focus was "on the musical leap those three guys had to make," he maintains. "They were taking a much bigger leap than I did musically, which I think was uncomfortable for them, and I was extremely supportive and proud of them in watching them do it. They literally weren't sure how the other guy was feeling about it. In other words, it was like, 'If I play this part on guitar, are the two other guys from Rage going to think it's gay?'"

Unfortunately, Cornell says these simple pleasures began to dissipate while assembling 2005's Out of Exile and 2006's Revelations — CDs that were solid and professional but largely failed to build on the promise of Audioslave's debut. In addition to disputes over business matters, Cornell tells of one player who "was trying to have a mixer remix a couple of the songs at the last minute before the record came out without telling the other bandmembers." Incidents like this sapped the joy from Audioslave for him, and while he says he's happy with the collective's accomplishments, he didn't have to struggle with the decision to split.

"It might have been different if it had been something like Soundgarden, where it was, for the lack of a better term, my first love," he acknowledges. "It was something where I went from washing dishes to making records and traveling around the world — where I was able to prove to myself that I was good enough and talented enough to make something like that happen with these individuals, and that they were, too. That's a huge thing to happen in your life. And it's worth almost anything to work through, with the exception of it not being worth letting the band start to suck. But with Audioslave, I didn't have that same connection.... To fight through it just didn't seem worth it."

Today, Rage is at least temporarily back together — the band is slated to play an August date in Wisconsin, with more appearances rumored — and Cornell is supporting Carry On, a scattershot collection that finds him touching on a wide range of styles. Tracks include "You Know My Name," his underappreciated theme song for Casino Royale, the most recent James Bond opus, and "Disappearing Act," a first-rate ballad, plus excursions into rock ("No Such Thing"), psychedelia ("Scar on the Sky") and groove pop ("Your Soul Today") that recall past triumphs without quite matching them. As for his cover of "Billie Jean," which transforms what's arguably Michael Jackson's top composition into a leaden, humorless throat ripper, he insists that it was conceived in the spirit of playfulness — "you know, taking a song by someone that made absolutely no sense at all, to see if I could somehow make it make sense. Which is an interesting challenge." He sees the tune as emblematic of his newfound freedom. "It's not so much an outward statement, but it is a little of that. Like, I can do any goddamn thing I want, without letting it get out of hand so that it taints everything I'm doing."

He thinks showing music lovers other sides of his personality — even if it means handing out mantlers with Mandy Moore — accomplishes a similar goal: to let him enjoy himself in public.

"I definitely don't miss that uncomfortable feeling of other people feeling they're not getting equal attention when it has absolutely nothing to do with me or my actions," he says. "So to do a television appearance where it's not going to be pissing off some other bandmember, I'm naturally going to look like I'm having more fun."

Visit our blogs for more of our interview with Chris Cornell.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts