Chris Cornell, Together and Alone

In Westword’s July 12 profile of Chris Cornell, the erstwhile lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave proves to be an energetic conversationalist, and those qualities come through even more clearly in the complete transcript of the interview, which is reproduced below. Indeed, he has a tendency toward filibustering -- quite a surprise given that he’s kept the press at arm’s length during various portions of his career. But thanks to the thoughtful, self-reflective nature of his responses, he never wears out his welcome.

The topics he covers below include his recent appearances on Spike TV’s Guys Choice Awards and an episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s ABC chat show; the politics of making media appearances as an individual while still a member of a band; the differences between his current solo tour, in support of a disc called Carry On, and a more condensed jaunt in association with his previous name-above-the-title disc, Euphoria Morning; his status as an “elder statesman of rock”; the dearth of stadium bands people are burning to see; his potentially divisive cover of the Michael Jackson song “Billie Jean”; his disdain for barriers that separate genres, and the reasons music lovers so often succumb to them; the birth of Audioslave; some telling examples of tension that he says ultimately convinced him to leave the group; and the happiness he feels now that he’s on his own again.

Here’s how Cornell turned that frown upside down.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Lately I’ve been seeing you in situations I never expected. The other night, I was channel surfing and I came across Spike TV’s Guys Choice Awards, and there you were, presenting an award with Mandy Moore. And then, a few nights later, I came across you waving and smiling in the middle of Jimmy Kimmel’s show. Would you have said “no” to those kinds of things a few years ago, but now you’re saying “yes”?

Chris Cornell: I don’t think so. My biggest issue over the years has been timing and effort, in terms of time to get stuff done. And also band scenarios, where it’s like, when you’re on your own, you get asked to do things that you don’t get asked to do with a band. Not something like Jimmy Kimmel, because Audioslave did Jimmy Kimmel. We did the same exact thing, except they had Hollywood Boulevard or Sunset or wherever the hell that is blocked off instead of doing it in the back. But we did the same thing. We played the Tonight Show. Something like award shows, things like that, they don’t normally ask four guys to come up and do it. They ask one guy to come up and do it. That kind of stuff. I’ve noticed there’s a big difference when you’re a solo artist. There’s a difference with coverage in magazines. There’s a difference in things you’re asked to do, because you’re one guy and they don’t want to deal with four guys. 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.

WW: And politically, that would have been problematic?

CC: Yeah. I think the only time I ever did it was this Spin cover where they wanted to do an article on grunge, and they wanted me and me only on the cover. It was like, look, we don’t do that, because we’re a band. But as a band, we decided, if we want our band to visually represent the Seattle scene on the cover of Spin, it’s got to be Chris doing it. Otherwise it’s going to be someone else’s band. And we wanted it to be ours. [Laughs.] So it’s like this political negotiation that’s totally ego-driven. It’s like, we want our band to do it, because that’s what our ego’s saying. We don’t really like it that it’s not all of us, because that’s what our ego’s saying, too. But we’re going to make a compromise. And that’s good band politics. That’s 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. Two of the three other members of Audioslave were not happy with me being on Vanity Fair’s music issue, because it wasn’t the whole band.

WW: In contrast, you feel that’s bad band politics?

CC: Yeah. And in the end, I did it anyway – and not everybody in the band felt that way. A couple of the guys did. The problem is, I think good band politics is looking at what’s best in the long run for the band, and there’s coverage and shining the light of your band in as many dark corners as possible versus being in the dark corner. And some bands will make that kind of dark-corner decision. Like the Cure, they decided, “We’re going to stay in the dark corner, and occasionally we’ll let you peek in at us.” I sort of have the opposite approach. I want to do only the music that I like and only the music that I want to do, that interests me, that I think is fun or cool, but then I want as many people to hear it as I possibly can. That’s winning the game as far as I’m concerned. Have as many people as you can listening to your music and being exposed to what it is you do while not succumbing to any kind of pressure to do anything other than totally what you feel like.

WW: With Euphoria Morning, it seemed as if you weren’t out there that much. Did that have more to do with where you were in your life, as opposed to a completely different philosophy than the one you’re talking about now?

CC: Well, there were different things that came into it. I didn’t do a very long tour for that, nor did I do as focused a campaign as far as publicity goes. 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. But I think that was a big part of it, too. Back then, I’d just come off of 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. I think by now, people are probably used to me doing weird stuff like this. Starting another band, and then quitting and doing another solo record, and doing another movie soundtrack in between. And musically having it be pretty diverse. It’s also a different time in music. Things are changing pretty rapidly, so I’m not sure how much of it even makes sense to me. I think I get more elder-statesman-of-rock offers than I used to, simply because I’m older and I’m still around.

WW: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

CC: I think it’s a good thing. It’s a role that needs to be filled, always. I don’t ever think of it as a bad thing. If it’s not me, it’s someone else. But I think for people of my generation, we sort of had the big punk rock tattoos on our foreheads, and that makes it harder for the elder-statesman-of-rock situations to happen. It’s a big reason why you’re sort of seeing the end of older, huge arena rock acts, because that uncomfortable connection with a period of music that was villainized when punk rock music came out. Guns N’ Roses would probably be that last band, except for the fact that they don’t really exist. Otherwise, it’s literally like U2, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and that’s it. Who are the big arena rock acts who literally thousands of people in each city run to the ticket offices, so they can go to the next giant sports arena and see it. I remember when I was working in restaurants, if the Rolling Stones or the Who or somebody were coming through Seattle, we would choose someone – we would do their work that day, and they would go down to the ticket office and wait in line to get tickets for everyone who worked in the restaurant.

WW: There aren’t many bands from your era that people would do that for anymore…

CC: No. Pearl Jam’s still together, and they have a big live audience, but it’s not the same thing. It’s sort of more of the cult of Pearl Jam kind of audience, and not like this mass consumption kind of modern Rolling Stones thing. I think U2 is literally the youngest band to do that.

WW: You were talking about diversity earlier, and that connects to the “Billie Jean” cover on the new album. That’s a song I think will divide people in a big way. Some of them are going to love it and some of them are going to despise it. Did you set out to accomplish that purposefully – to challenge people to look at that song in a completely different way, and then let the chips fall where they may?

CC: I think that my initial feeling was, if somebody despises it, it’s for the wrong reason. It’s because they’re associating a period of music to a guy they can’t stand. But that was the whole reason for doing it in the first place. 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. It’s nothing more than that. It was a fun thing to do, because it’s not that easy. It’s easier just to write a new song, to sit down and make new songs, than to sit down and do something like that and make it work. But it’s a statement, too, because I think that genres are an illusion. I think that people’s taste in music is usually more important to an individual as a statement toward other people as is the actual quality of the music. I’m going to hate you with my taste in music. I’m going to separate myself from you with my taste in music, or movies, or whatever it might be. And that’s going to echo in other aspects of my life, like whether or not I pierce my eyebrow or have a tattoo on my neck or make references in my speech to movies or authors or that kind of thing. There have been different periods in my life when I kind of brushed up against that, but most musicians, I think, are similar in that as young people in grade school are kind of outsiders, kind of nerdy, don’t really have a place socially at a young age, and find it via being a fan of music and then getting involved in it. And they find this world that exists artistically, but just as importantly, socially, in their late teens and early twenties. And that changes their life, and transforms them. And that turns into something that can be really powerful artistically. But I think if it gets bogged down to actually belonging to something more so than creating something, it’s kind of a waste of time. And it does happen, where you’ll see this brilliant musician who’s sort of aligned his or herself with a type of musical thinking and is now for the first time part of something cool, and then just sticks to it religiously regardless of anything. I don’t think there’s much imagination in it, and I think it’s kind of a cowardly camp to sit in.

WW: Was the “Billie Jean” cover something you couldn’t have imagined doing with any of our previous bands?

CC: Maybe live, but probably not. Definitely not on a record.

WW: Is that a symbol of the freedom you have as a solo artist?

CC: Yeah, in a sense. 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. That’s another checks-and-balances conversation. I think there are some people who need it, and plenty of people who don’t. And that crosses boundaries as well, of solo artists versus bands. There are a lot of solo artists out there who have exclusively worked with different people on every record as collaborators, to bounce ideas off of and make records on their own. And there are some bands out there that are basically one guy who has a vision of what that band should be, and listens to nobody, and writes all the songs, and yet it’s called that band name. There are no real theories that hold throughout all of these different scenarios.

WW: In terms of the original material on the disc, I’ve read that some of it was created during the Audioslave era. Were they songs that the other bandmembers weren’t into? Or were they just too many songs, and you didn’t get to them?

CC: Well, there was only one that was written for Audioslave that didn’t end up on this record. It was written for Out of Exile, and actually, it didn’t really end up on this record, either. It became a bonus track on the international version. And then there’s a song on the record that I wrote to play for my wife at our wedding reception. Otherwise, all these songs are new.

WW: So it’s not as if these songs have been sitting around, and you’ve been frustrated about not being able to get them out.

CC: No, I didn’t really spend any time writing songs alone when I was in Audioslave. It was something I consciously wanted not to do for a while. I had so many years in Soundgarden writing alone, and obviously for Euphoria Morning. So it really was something I wanted to get away from for a while. I was asked by Rick Rubin to start doing it for Out of Exile, for the second Audioslave record, because he felt like it would bring something different into the record that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. And a couple songs are in there that I did like that, and one of them that didn’t get chosen, which actually was his favorite – it’s called “The Roads We Choose.” And that’s the one that’s an international bonus track for Carry On. But it was sort of an initial spark of, oh, okay, I am writing things that aren’t going to be on Audioslave records, and therefore for sure another solo record is going to happen sooner or later. But I always knew that anyway. I don’t think I ever said anything differently. And everything that’s transpired over the course of me starting with Audioslave and now is stuff that I’ve discussed pretty openly, including the idea that 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. 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? And once that came up, I’d always made it pretty clear that I’d go back to being solo again.

WW: How long of Audioslave’s life fit that first part of the description – the hassle-free part?

CC: The first record, definitely, our focus was on that record and on the music of that record, and frankly on the musical leap those three guys had to make that record. Because for me, we didn’t do anything on the first Audioslave record that was new to me. I had screamed over riff-rock before. I had done rock music with soul influences before. I had done sort of chordal-oriented ballads before. I had done all of that. And so really 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. And it was nice, because I’d had this experience with other members of a band, and now I got to be an outsider watching it happen with three people who had such a long relationship together. 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 other two guys from Rage going to think it’s gay?” And my job was almost like, just be super-supportive and make it a song before that kind of thinking gets involved and breaks down the process. So I think the focus was so much on making that record and battling against the outside resistance of whether Audioslave was a good idea or not that we got along great and the focus was pretty easy. But we also let things slide – certain business decisions, and how they were going to be conducted, and who was going to represent us, and how things were going to transpire over time, who was going to cover different costs for different reasons. All these things bands don’t like to deal with, but you have to – and we just let them go.

WW: Did you eventually have to pay the piper?

CC: Yeah. It was like, we’re writing songs and it’s going great, so fuck it, we’re not going to deal with this kind of stuff. And by the second record, certain things started to come out at the end of it that sort of happen in periods of complacency. Where we literally don’t have that pressure of proving to the outside world whether we’re a good idea or not. We already did that. And then certain things started to happen that were strange, that show up when bands maybe have too much time without something else to worry about. Like one of the guys was trying to have the mixer remix a couple of the songs literally at the last minute before the record came out without telling the other bandmembers. It that was like, “Whoa.” I never heard of that before. And why does this problem exist? Where does this come from? And somebody had brought in session people to play a bunch of different instruments on a bunch of different songs without the other three bandmembers knowing about it. We just sort of arrived and here’s all of this stuff. That’s the kind of stuff you hear stories about, and you go, “Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me.” But it does happen, and it happens in every band. I started seeing those kinds of things, and those are the kinds of things where it’s okay, it’s normal – but you have to work to maintain a relationship and keep that going. And for me, after the third record, I’d had enough. I felt like we’d made the musical statement we’d wanted to make, it was successful. We made three great records, and I’m proud of them. I don’t think any of it was a waste of time. It was fantastic. But now we’re getting into heavy maintenance and differences of opinion that aren’t really going to be that easy to deal with. It’s going to be a lot of negotiating, and I just didn’t have a lot of interest in that.

WW: Did the outsider status that you mentioned enjoying at the outset become a problem as time wore on?

CC: In some ways yes, but in some ways, no. I think the other three guys disagreed with each other just as much as it might be those three disagreeing with me – although that seemed to be a larger problem in the long run. They were used to dealing with things in a particular way, but it was based on a different combination of people, and certainly different circumstances. 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 – where it’s like, I built it from scratch. It was something literally 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 have happen to you 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. The same feeling of where we were standing on a stage in Vancouver in front of fifteen people who wanted to beat us up because they hated us. We didn’t have that experience, so it wasn’t the same thing. To fight through it just didn’t seem worth it. And also, to be fair, I have a lot of experience and enjoy making records on my own.

WW: Just seeing these recent TV appearances, you seem happier. Lighter, in a way.

CC: This doesn’t come from everyone in Soundgarden, and it didn’t come from everyone in Audioslave, either. But there’s an uncomfortable relationship between whoever is the frontman and the rest of the band with certain things like that. The focus tends to go toward the guitar player and the singer, and a lot of the time, that makes no sense, but it’s naturally the way things go. There were some points where I was sick of being singled out by bandmembers as the one who gets more attention than them, particularly when it wasn’t my fault, because I certainly wasn’t asking for it. I spent years in Soundgarden basically taking steps back out of the limelight so that we appeared to be a band. And I did a really good job of it, because to this day, most people don’t know that I wrote pretty much every radio single we ever had entirely by myself. I really did a lot of work to help it be presented as a band -- and, you know, that was good for me at the time to do that, and in the long run, I think so as well. But 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. It’s just sort of the way things are. 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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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