In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Chris Cornell has done so many things at this point that his being the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist for Soundgarden reads like just one of many bullet points on a career resume. Though recently reunited after a 16-year hiatus, Soundgarden is not Cornell’s primary focus at the moment. This month sees the release of the Golden Globe-nominated singer-songwriter’s fourth original full-length, his first since 2009’s well-meaning but no-less-confusing Scream. With Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Mastodon) as producer, Higher Truth is the antithetical response to the opulence of its predecessor. Things are simple and subdued, not unlike his first solo outing with 1999’s Euphoria Morning. That album holds a particularly strange place for Cornell, coming right between the breakup of Soundgarden two years earlier and the 2001 formation of Audioslave, grunge’s supergroup and perennial whipping boy for people who like to yell “Just ain’t the same” at things they don’t like but that they used to like.
Far be it from Cornell to please everyone, though. The 51-year-old cut his teeth in the give-no-fucks post-punk world of mid-1980s Seattle—a scene that would very quickly become clothed in flannel and soundtracked by songs absolving pescatarians everywhere with the revelation that fish, in fact, do not have feelings. Soundgarden and Cornell himself have always been an awkward fit alongside their contemporaries, and a large part of that is due to the fact that the band, much like The Melvins, Mudhoney, Green River, and many others, wasn’t spawned from the jort loins of the grunge karaoke hour that proceeded in the aftermath of 1991. Even still, Soundgarden remained distinctive throughout the ’90s up until 1997, when the band announced their dissolution.
While Pearl Jam reaches further into its Grateful Dead-like following and Scott Weiland slobbers his way through “Vasoline,” Cornell still continues his four-octave acrobatics, offering listeners for years a number of perspectives on just how versatile the man is. In a talk with A.V. Club, Cornell discussed the grunge era in particular, and offered sobering honesty as to why one of rock’s most influential bands of the last quarter-century really got back together. Higher Truth drops on September 18.
The A.V. Club: The new record feels much more subdued than your previous solo releases, specifically with this song. Was bringing Brendan O’Brien on board to produce the reason for that shift in sound?
Chris Cornell: Well, Songbook was really just live recordings. We didn’t go out of our way to doing other than just getting the signals onto the hard drive. A lot of what made that album work was finding the right performances, and then Alain Johannes mixing it in a way that I like to hear things. He’s able to get that, so to me it’s kind of like the record I didn’t make I was playing on those shows anyway. It really ended up being about the performance, and it was rare that there was ever any issue with those performances. The hard part was just sifting through all of these versions of these songs. I think we went through several nights where the room didn’t lend itself to the best recording, so we just started with the ones where the room wasn’t the factor.
Now, in making an album with original material, it’s a completely different thing. I toyed around with the idea of doing it myself because I felt like I didn’t want to do involve a producer, but then it’s always good to have another pair of ears. It’s just then you enter the world of producers, and it becomes this very, very broad subject because producers in fact do a lot of different things. There’s no one set rule for the producer, and I think it’s different for different genres of music. And it’s different for different producers, some of which are just vibe people who listen to the songs and kind of make decisions about what’s right or wrong with them and where you should go with them, or is one performance in the studio better than this one or that one, and then that’s it.
Then there’s the pop producer who chooses every single musician, every single song, pores through the arrangements, and pretty much makes the record and does just about everything except for sing on it. [Laughs.] But produces the shit out of whoever is singing on it. They’ve essentially created that thing. In Soundgarden’s early days, we were always looking for a good engineer that would make us sound like us. In terms of production and arrangement, we didn’t need any help. There was the four of us, and that was more than enough in terms of cooks in the room. I don’t think we even understood the role of a producer. What we called a producer was really just an engineer, and that was and is true up to now. We never took arrangement ideas from anybody. We never took any ideas from anyone ever. I wanted to be in a position where someone could contribute possibilities and ideas but who’s going to do it in a way that I agree and not in a way that I just think is crazy or stupid.
I was very much interested in using Brendan for [Higher Truth] because he’s probably, in terms of producers or engineers that have recorded me singing, he’s by far my favorite. I had the best experience with him on Audioslave’s Revelations album than I’ve had with anyone else. I was anxious to repeat that experience because it was very fast and yielded some of the best vocals that I’ve ever done, and this being an acoustic album where vocals and lyrics are kind of featured points that had to be great—that’s what got me thinking about him initially. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, and that was also a factor because I felt like this needed to be an acoustic solo record, really, but it would be nice to have someone else to add some different parts here and there, and I knew he was capable of doing that. All these things I thought about as reasons to use him all came to fruition and worked out really well. It turned out to be a great decision.
AVC: The big comeback album for Soundgarden, King Animal, starts off with this pretty straightforward song. Who was the first member to make the call to maybe get back to it after all that time?
CC: There was no real discussion about getting back together ever, really. The calls started happening, I think when we were all experiencing the same thing, which was us seeing other bands’ T-shirts available at retail. I had young children, 2 and 3 years old, and I was going through stores with baby clothes, and I’m seeing rock T-shirts from classic rock bands available for kids, and one of my very close friends inherited a large part of a very famous band and their legacy, and she’s done an amazing job of keeping that alive. And I see T-shirts for that band everywhere. That was when it occurred to me, because that band is more popular now than it ever was. My philosophy had been if you just make amazing records, and you don’t do anything to destroy that legacy, it will live on and on and on because you’ve made timeless music. It turns out as I’m getting older, and I’m watching how reality works that that in fact is not true.
The way that the music lives on is that there has to be an arrow pointing someone toward it, and that arrow can be almost anything, including a T-shirt that you buy for a baby. So we got together to address that. We suddenly realized that the record company that owns all the masters doesn’t give a shit about it, doesn’t have the resources, and never is going to bother with it. Who was still considered management at the time was doing nothing. Absolutely not lifting a finger. No one was going to do it, and so it occurred to us that it was our responsibility, and that was what got us in a room together to sort of conduct the business of Soundgarden’s legacy, and taking that and this discography that we’re super proud of and try to reconnect with our fans. So we started a new website, restarted the fan club, started working on new T-shirt designs, and once we were in a room together, that was when we started discussing other things. Maybe we should play a show? That wouldn’t be a bad idea. That was where the Lollapalooza show came from, and then the show at the Showbox in Seattle.
I knew once we were standing in a room trying to rehearse songs we hadn’t played in 12 years that somebody would start playing something that was new, and that happened, too. It seemed like once we were in a room together, everything else was just going to happen. All we did was we just took it slow with the notion that we weren’t doing anything for money. It was going to be for fun and for our respect for the band, and for how much we respect each other. The first year I think we rejected two offers that added up to a staggering amount of money, and we said no to it. It kind of felt really good just because it felt like that was the moment where we again had 100-percent trust in each other. It was absolutely definitive that none of us were interested in rejoining the band for reasons of financial anything. It was just about the love of the band and the music, and ever since then it’s been great, and we’ve been pretty productive.
AVC: So essentially we have baby clothing to thank for Soundgarden reuniting.
CC: [Laughs.] Oh good.
AVC: Making a James Bond song puts you in high company with people like Madonna, Tom Jones, and Paul McCartney. How does one get asked to do something like this, and was the approach with this song pretty much like any other for you?
CC: It came about really by just getting an email. It was a succession of emails, and the one that I got said, “Are you interested in doing the next James Bond theme? They’re rebooting it with a new guy.” My first thought was no because I didn’t really like where that franchise had gone. I’d loved the Bond franchise as a kid, but then it got into that realm of every scene being Pierce Brosnan jumping out of a Learjet and into another jet and crawling inside. It just became completely uninteresting to me. Then someone told me that they had hired Daniel Craig to be the new James Bond, and that they were trying to take it more in the direction of the British indie gangster films. In that genre, I’d liked several films, and he’d been in a couple of them. It didn’t make sense to me, and I loved that. I thought, they’re taking a chance here, so yeah. I wouldn’t mind doing something for that.
Then the next thing was what I didn’t want, because these theme songs are very important to [the Bond movies], and it’s almost unanimously been done by huge pop icons. So my next thought was I didn’t want to get involved in a song contest where I go and write a James Bond theme, and have it measured against somebody else’s to see who wins. It was just if you want me to do it, I’ll do it. If not, let’s just go our separate ways. And they were very confident in their decision. My wife and I went to Prague, and we saw a rough edit of it, and I met David Arnold there, who’d done the score, loved him, and ultimately we wrote it together. At that point it was really a great experience. Writing for film is really great because it takes you out of yourself, and the script and the story sort of become the bandmates that you’re collaborating with.
With this particular Bond film, Casino Royale, it’s the first novel where the character appears. Why that’s significant is because he’s still a guy, and he hasn’t developed this sort of invulnerable super spy ability that the later Bond characters had. He’s still a human. His heart gets broken. He goes through all of the initial phases of hard, difficult, crazy things that kind of turn you into that man of steel. So there was a ton to go on there for just writing one song, and I think it seemed to work pretty well.
AVC: This was the song that introduced listeners to what was essentially billed as the supergroup. Was this one of the first songs Audioslave recorded?
CC: I don’t remember. I really don’t remember the order in which we’d recorded, but I know we’d written the whole first album in a rehearsal space in L.A. in the course of about two weeks, which is really fast. [Laughs.] I think we wrote an entire song when we’d just met in the first 20 minutes of just standing around, which ended up being “Light My Way.” I think “Cochise” was an early song in terms of songwriting, and I think it was probably the epitome of what people had guessed that band would sound like. I think if you did the math on paper with Rage Against The Machine and then me screaming over it, it’s gonna be “Cochise.” That’s what you’re going to get, and that was probably the best version of that which we were doing at the time. It definitely had an impact. Even in the room as we were starting to write it, it felt good.
What I remember most about that was the video, because it was at the very tail end of record companies having a huge budget for videos because that was the easiest way to promote a band. It might have seemed expensive to pay for the video, but then you didn’t pay to get it played, so then suddenly your band has a TV special that everybody watches 15 times a day. It was a pretty dramatic moment. I mean, you can be in a room with anybody and write an album, but the first time you appear in public with them on a video shoot where the budget was close to a million dollars, and there’s like hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fireworks blowing up behind us—it was pretty surreal.
AVC: It’s been eight years since the band broke up. Is that experience something you see in a different light now that you’ve been removed from it for a prolonged period of time?
CC: I think it’s not different. I think my experience as a member of the band and the songwriting processes and creating the actual albums was really great, and it felt really inspired. It was a challenge to write all the time because we did things at a pretty dramatic pace, but I think to me that was part of the artistic challenge. To me that was how I separated it in my mind from, for example, the Soundgarden experience. Every aspect of it was a different approach, and I didn’t want to go out of my way to change that approach because it was different. I wanted to contribute to continuing that approach, and I thought it worked great. I feel like we were extremely prolific, and we made three really great albums. In a sense I can’t view it in the way that I view Soundgarden in that Soundgarden was sort of my first love. It was the first I felt that as a musician if I wanted a band that was special, I was gonna have to make that.
It was never gonna be, “Show up and hire me,” and I found two other guys that were like-minded mostly through luck. We were very prolific, and I was very obsessive over it and to this day still am. I felt very controlling and very much had my hand in every aspect of it. With Audioslave I tried to allow for there to be a little more distance in different areas so that I wasn’t influencing it in ways that would make it sound like a Soundgarden record, and that seemed to work really well. Having said that, it’s just as important to me as anything. It’s a very important period of my life just as something like Temple Of The Dog would be. They’re very important characters in my life as friends and as collaborators. It’s something that I’m really proud of.
AVC: For a lot of people this was sort of the Soundgarden swan song. It’s still an anomalous part of the Soundgarden catalog. Was that something you felt while writing it—that it was a kind of oddity?
CC: Well, it was something new for me. The writing was really me sitting in my basement with a guitar and trying to make sense of it; trying to make a rhythm and a tuning that was something like I’d never done before. It was sort of feeling like a crack in the door was opening, and it felt refreshed. It was new for me and for the album, but it wasn’t one of those things that wrote itself. I had to really work at it to squeeze out an arrangement that would make sense as a song but still incorporated a lot of different aspects of things I’d never really done as a songwriter before that. I was pretty happy with it. I think that “Burden In My Hand” is one of those songs that walks that edge between being sort of expressive but can be easily connected with in terms of its melody and its lyrics. It’s a structural song but still coloring out of the lines. That was one of the most challenging songs to do, really.
AVC: The song that most associate with Soundgarden, “Black Hole Sun,” is another oddity. Surrealistic nightmarish suburbia music video aside, it’s a weird fucking song. Given its still-constant rotation on the radio and synonymy with Soundgarden, do you see the song differently two decades later?
CC: I think the one good thing that song did was that it singlehandedly got us over that hump of being lumped in with other bands. That was important to me because there was a period of time from when we formed in 1984 until the late 1980s where none of the other Seattle bands that you would cite as being hugely successful even existed yet. We were this band that was like King Of The Hill in our small world of post-punk indie Seattle bands. We were also a band who was very encouraged by everyone locally. They felt like we were the band that would be the future of rock and that we should be playing arenas one day, and what happened was that at some point with Sub Pop and a lot of other Seattle bands being great and making great music, by the ’90s we were kind of lumped in with a group, and that group was Seattle rock.
And that was great because if you’re gonna get lumped in with a group, that’s a great one to be a part of, and we were the first ones, so good for us. But we’d enjoyed this autonomy for a long time, and I also think that all of us, all the bands from Seattle, had a job to do, and at some point we needed to prove as individual bands that we had a right to be writing, recording, and performing on an international stage. I think the release of Superunknown did that for us, and I think having a sort of legitimate pop hit internationally definitely helped do that for us and particularly one that sat entirely outside of what anyone thought of as musical in their idea of genre. The way I feel is that that whole scenario did a whole bunch of different positive things for me and my band simultaneously.
AVC: You mentioned Temple Of The Dog earlier. For a lot of ’90s kids, this was their first experience not only with your music but Eddie Vedder’s as well. Obviously the album was incredibly personal, being rooted in the death of Andrew Wood from Mother Love Bone. Soundgarden was already fairly well known at this point, but you brought in Vedder, who hadn’t really broken the surface with Pearl Jam and Ten. What’s the story behind that collaboration?
CC: I don’t really remember it. [Laughs.] I kind of remember the basics but singing on that album happened so quickly. The song itself, it really wasn’t much of a song. It was a verse with just a kind of repeating chorus. It was just where we needed one more song for the album, and I had that down, but I hadn’t played it for anybody yet because I didn’t feel it was a complete song. But I knew we had nine songs, and I thought 10 would be a nice, even round number. I just figured that this would be the 10th song that would wrap up the album, and it would just be what it was, verse for verse and then repeating chorus sort of like a coda for the album listening experience. In rehearsing it, and I think we only rehearsed for two days for that album, but I was singing both parts of the song. I sang the high verse part and then the low chorus part and then the high chorus part and so on.
Eddie and the rest of them were waiting for us to finish because they were about to have one of their first rehearsals as Pearl Jam, and he saw me sort of struggling with it, so he just walked up to the mic and started singing the low part, and I started singing the high part. I immediately got this idea that his voice sounded so rich in that low register that it would become more of a song if I sang the first verse, then the whole band kicks in, and then he sings that verse again, but in effect it becomes a different verse. It’s a different person. It’s a different voice and a different everything. And I think I had that idea right there on the spot; we did it that way, and suddenly it was a real song. I hate to use that term “real song” but to me it was like: Okay, in just a moment this has become an arrangement that changes everything.
I never thought about it as being singular or anything because there were a lot of really well written songs that lent themselves to the notion of a single, but once we played it for other people, that was the choice that was made. But my memory of us singing it together is I just went in and sang my part, he went in and sang his part, and it took probably 40 minutes, and that was it. That was back in the day where you had no record budget, and that album in particular was recorded and mixed in a total of 14 days, not in a row.
AVC: Not only is this one of the most recognizable guitar lead-ins from the 1990s, but it also holds the distinction of being covered by Johnny Cash. As an intro to Badmotorfinger it just works like a primer for the rest of the album. What did the writing entail for this one?
CC: I vividly remember writing the lyrics. I was in one of those European bus vans, and we were on the road—I think in the UK—and I’d just been sitting there staring out the window for hours. I just started coming up with the lyrics in my head and was able to remember them. I didn’t write them down on anything, but I think the images were vivid enough that I remembered them. I came up with the guitar riff separately in Seattle when I was just sitting on a couch coming up with guitar parts. I really like the combination between those lyrics and that guitar riff and that guitar arrangement. To me it felt like it was something new. Like it was American in a sense, but the riffing and guitar playing was more like Black Sabbath. I remember referring to it as “Hillbilly Sabbath.” [Laughs.]
Matt Cameron, our drummer, went, “I’ve never heard anything like that before.” Now on the other hand, I didn’t have any idea that somebody would decide it’d be a great song for Johnny Cash to cover, but then I think it means my estimation was somewhat correct. [Laughs.] I just had the melody for the lyrics, and I knew that it worked over the parts. But I didn’t sing and play it. I demoed it, and at that time when I demoed it I would either use an 808 and program it, which took way too long, or I’d mic up a drum set and just play sort of rudimentary drums over it. I can’t remember which one I did, but I definitely wrote it and sang over the parts, but that wasn’t me doing it simultaneously. Now, once we made the record, and we’d recorded it and it was done and we were about to go on tour, I had to sit in a chair with a guitar and just drill playing the riff [emphasizing] really slow and singing over it while slowly but surely speeding up.
It took days to actually do it. The funny thing is that once I was able to do it, and we went on tour, at the end of the tour in support of Badmotorfinger, there was a show where my guitar crapped out at the beginning of “Rusty Cage,” and I remember thinking at the time really quickly, “Oh, well I’ll just sing it. It’ll be great. I can just sing the shit out of it without having to play the guitar.” I put the guitar down and started singing it, and this was the first time I noticed this phenomenon that your brain kind of connects all of those motions and gets used to them and kind of maximizes everything within them, and when suddenly I was singing without that anchor of the guitar riff, it wasn’t better. I wasn’t really singing it better. It kind of felt like I wasn’t singing it as well. Since then I’ve noticed that with other songs. Sometimes playing a song that has an intricate part on guitar and then singing over it, after having done it a lot, it becomes the best way for you to do it.