From the archive: Chris Cornell talks Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley and battle with drink and drugs in 2009 interview
Chris Cornell has a blunt message for anyone shocked by his recent foray into shimmering pop music: he doesn't care what you think.
"People ask me if this was a 'career' move," grunge's gravel-throated elder statesman says of his new record, Scream, an expectations-defying hook-up with uber-producer Timbaland. "I don't look on albums in those terms. I see it as an artistic choice."
That's probably just as well. Cornell's hard-rock fanbase has been rather scathing about his reinvention as purveyor of glitched-up electro-rock. "When the greatest singer in rock history allows his voice to play second fiddle to the music, well, it's much worse than disappointing," howled one customer-penned critique on Amazon. In a review that threatened to sink the project months before it was actually released, The New Yorker's Sasha Frere Jones was more unforgiving still. "The lyrics are like Bon Jovi with the fun sucked out," he wrote, "and could be moonlighting for an e-greeting-card site."
Cornell, a heavy-rock icon twice over, first with Soundgarden, then Audioslave, can shrug aside this negative hysteria because he knows that, actually, Scream is a pretty good record. Sure, hearing that famous molasses croon against a backdrop of caffeinated Timbaland beats takes getting used to -- but it's an album worth stepping outside your comfort zone for. With repeated listening, even the presence of Justin Timberlake as a backing vocalist starts to make a twisted kind of sense.
"Justin's involvement lasted literally about half an hour," Cornell recalls. "He came by a few times, especially later in the project -- he was in a studio near where we were working. For the song he's on [Take Me Alive], he swung by literally in the middle of the night and said, 'Hey, I have an idea.' He went into the vocal booth and started singing over it. He basically took the lyrics and went in a different direction and that became the chorus. It took him about 15 minutes. That's definitely a big difference between the world of hip-pop and pop and rock. You have people coming in and recording stuff on the fly. Whereas, in a rock band, unless someone is brought in for a specific reason, it doesn't happen."
Soundgarden were part of the Seattle explosion of the early 90s -- their hit Black Hole Sun is, along with Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit and Pearl Jam's Jeremy, considered among the grunge classics. Surely Cornell's younger self would have been appalled to see him hanging out with mainstream pop stars? He laughs at this. "Maybe I still would be. It depends on how it was and what the circumstances were. In the present case, I didn't feel it was anything I had a compulsion to feel weird about. If it was something I was disturbed by I wouldn't put it on the album."
As to the rumours of studio tension between Cornell and Timbaland, a hit-maker not renowned for his humility... well, apparently we should just put that down to internet gossip. "There never was any tension," Cornell says firmly.
"I think tension is usually sort of born out of a producer trying to shake up a band or artist, if they see habits they want to get them out of because they want them to reach a new place. In our case, we were two people coming from completely different cultures. The concept was already shaking us both up completely. We were so excited about what we were doing that in a way the whole thing was extremely harmonious."
Cornell sensationally walked away from Audioslave two years ago, declaring that, having fronted the group since 2001, he 'needed to be a solo artist for a while'. The speculation was that he was discommoded that the rest of the line-up were planning on reforming their earlier group Rage Against the Machine. Today, he sounds curiously dispassionate about the project, which sold some 10 million records in a little over half a decade. "Audioslave was something that I felt had become a career decision," he says. "It became three albums over a period of years touring with a specific group of people."
When he joined Audioslave, one of the ground rules he set was that he wouldn't write agitprop songs in the style of Rage Against The Machine. So it's a surprise that Scream is, in places, nakedly political. Granted, his Bush-bashing 9/11 paean Ground Zero hardly flies in the face of popular sentiment. Still, for an artist whose song-writing is usually intensely personal, it's quite a shift in focus.
"In the beginning of Audioslave, I was very honest. I said, 'We make make great albums and write great albums -- but don't be under the impression I'm going to be a lyricist that writes anything other than what strikes me as inspiring in the moment.' The lyrics weren't going to be focused politically. Ground Zero, in contrast, came out very naturally. Having been on tour literally three days after 9/11, finding myself in an airport so soon afterwards, it's something I had wanted to write for a long time."
Like many grunge icons, Cornell found overnight fame difficult to cope with and turned to booze. He finally decided to clean up when he realised addiction was damaging the people around him -- to say nothing of holding him back creatively. You can't help wonder if the suicide of his friend Kurt Cobain, at the time in the grip of a spiralling heroin addiction, didn't serve as a splash of cold water in the face.
"Not really, no. It's a misconception that all rock stars and movie stars are into drugs and heavy drinking," he says. "When I went to meetings to get myself straightened out, I would literally be the only musician in a room full of 50 people. I'd be there with longshoremen and housewives and sub-contractors. The reason people sometimes walk away with the idea that young starlets and rock stars all have drug problems is that those are the people you talk about. If someone is a construction worker and they crash their car or they OD, nobody writes about it. There are lots more people like that who are struggling with the problem."
He was reasonably close to Cobain, but says they weren't exactly musical soulmates. "We played shows together. We were around the same scene. We listened to each other's music and hung out occasionally." Looking back, what he remembers most vividly about the Nirvana singer was how quiet and normal he was -- qualities which, he feels, actually heightened his appeal as generational lightening rod. "A lot of what attracted people to Nirvana," he says, "was that they were like the people you went to high school with."
Cornell has often stated he feels little nostalgia for grunge. Today, however, he warms to the topic: "In the late 80s, rock music was where hip-hop is today. You saw bands arriving on stage via helicopter to play in front of 100,000 people," he says.
"You'd see footage of bands getting in and out of expensive cars and with stripper-model wives -- basically separating themselves from their audience. To a certain degree, a rock audience loves that -- they want to live vicariously through a rock star. With Nirvana, the fans had enough of that. A song like Teen Spirit -- it was more aggressive than most hard rock but hookier and with more intelligent lyrics. And then you saw the video -- it was a guy who was like five foot six and another guy was six foot six standing next to him. These were people you knew from your everyday life. Suddenly a switch was thrown."
Soundgarden found themselves perfectly positioned to benefit from Nirvana's 1991 breakthrough. Longstanding members of the Seattle alternative community, they were one of the first bands to sign to a major as the corporate rock industry descended on the Emerald City waving cheque books.
"We were all bands that wanted to be part of this independent scene," says Cornell. "And the major labels were trying to figure out how to infiltrate that, because they feared that independently released records were eating into their market. So they were hiring people from mom and pop chains, distributors and indie labels. The whole thing kind of converged on Seattle in a way.
"With everything concentrated in one geographical area, they could do it in one fell swoop. It was like, 'If we focus on this one spot, we'll get all of it.' They want to prove that if they could show that a handful of indie bands could sell millions of records, all the other bands would sign up with them. At the time, people criticised Soundgarden for doing it first. But, in the end, pretty much everyone ended up on a major."
He lost two friends within the space of a few years. Cobain died in 1994 and, three years later, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, practically a brother to Cornell, drowned while swimming in a tributary of the Mississippi in Tennessee.
"Kurt was fairly quiet and introverted most of the time. Jeff was the opposite. He was very much full of life and had a lot to say. He was somebody in love with experiencing everything. Within a very short time, he had all these famous old rock stars coming to his shows. Which put a a lot of pressure on him. People talked about his concerts the way they used to talk about Hendrix: they'd sit there, wide-eyed, telling you stories about him. He definitely had an aura. It's impossible to say what it is exactly a guy like that has, that is so attractive to other people. But he had more of it than anyone I had ever met. "