Interviewing Soundgarden’s lead singer gave me a boner; it quickly went away
For the record, Soundgarden was one of my favourite ‘90s bands of the Seattle grunge era. And believe me, I loved them all.
The video for “Black Hole Sun” was both loud and ubiquitous, plastering frontman Chris Cornell’s sex eyes all over the TV. As an impressionable – and horny – teen, I was all over that shit.
Fast forward a decade. In 2009 Cornell released his Timbaland dance club album Scream.
Inexplicably, the album charted all over the place, despite being more or less universally panned by critics.
It’s still worth a listen though – Scream is fucking hilarious.
Even so, I was stoked to interview Cornell in advance of his show at the Odeon in Saskatoon. But Cornell was only interested in chatting about Scream. Scream sucks — and as a result, the interview wasn’t much better. I asked Cornell at least three times why he chose to do a dance album, which he never really answered. I asked if he would consider a Soundgarden dance remix — and that ended the interview.
The live show wasn’t much better.
Brimming with metalheads and grunge freaks, the crowd at the Odeon was mostly indifferent, if not completely flummoxed, by Cornell’s belly-shirt antics and lukewarm dance moves.
Cornell recently announced that he is returning to Saskatoon on October 27 on his Songbook solo acoustic tour.
Which means he probably won’t be revisiting his odious R&B solo efforts.
The following is an article previously published in Planet S Magazine back in 2009.
Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell abandons metal dirge for dance
Chris Cornell, one of alternative music’s most recognizable and revered voices, has recently turned his back on the hard-edged gut-grunge that made him a rock god.
Instead of mining his past glories in the shrill brooding of Soundgarden, the cathartic nature of Audioslave, or even the acoustic pomp of his past solo work, Cornell is prepping the release of his latest solo outing Scream, an album that has more in common with Justin Timberlake than “Jesus Christ Pose.”
The album, which contains the noticeable handiwork of uber-dance producer Timbaland, is rife with loops, fat synth lines and skittish beats. Even its stark, futuristic cover art tells a different story than his previous work.
So is Cornell, former metal mogul, aiming to be the next urban dance single tastemaker?
“I don’t really go to clubs so I don’t know what sounds are made there,” quips the 44-year old singer.
Cornell, who began his musical career as a drummer in a cover band, admits his creativity has taken a noticeable turn. However, he maintains that Scream is going to be one of the best albums of his career. And the singer adamantly states that the process has remained the same, no matter what kind of music he is making.
“It wasn’t like was playing and rehearsing with a band, which is the difference between rock and beat-based music,” explains Cornell. “I write songs in every way possible and have never had one method. So while this album was definitely different it is relatable to a way I’ve done before and it was an enjoyable method.”
“It was different than sitting in a room and jamming with a band to come up with a song,” he continues. “But I’ve written songs alone in a room for years which became the songs I played with my bands. It’s the same thing as collaborating with someone who has enough parts for a song – things get moved around, melodies get added, lyrics written – it’s the same process. I can compare the process to demoing at home, which I’ve been doing for 20 years. Which is an exciting thing because sometimes you come up with songs that are very complete in a sonic sense, which is a very exciting feeling.”
Chalk it up to a creative spurt, a longing to connect with middle-aged fans or whatever, longtime followers of Cornell are still likely to be more stunned than excited by the transition. Songs like “Part of Me” and title track “Scream” groove on boy band-esque keyboard lines and canned beats, while “Long Gone” could easily find a home on commercial radio airwaves.
However, fans of Cornell’s rock styling’s need not abandon their god, yet.
Cornell’s trademark raspy howl is still very much intact. In fact, it is his powerful and distinctive voice that lifts Scream away from its radio-pap neighbours.
Not to mention that most boy band pop-rockers would give their left nut to have a set of pipes like his.
“It’s not a black or white scenario where I did things one way up until this record because I’ve done so many different things,” states an adamant Cornell. “In terms of genres I’ve gone in so many different directions. On paper it may seem like [Scream] is a big leap it wasn’t. If you concentrate on one part of my career than it would be.”
Cornell first shot into public notice with the highly influential Soundgarden, who became an important fixture in a burgeoning and eventually over-hyped grunge scene. The Seattle band, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, took elements of punk and metal and brewed them into a potent, and easily digestible, blend of commercial rock. Aside from a handful of EPs, the band would go on to release 1991’s Badmotorfinger, 1994’s Superunknown, and 1996’s Down on the Upside before calling it a day in 1997.
Cornell also joined members of Pearl Jam to collaborate on a project entitled Temple of the Dog, which introduced Eddie Vedder to the world.
After the demise of Soundgarden, Cornell joined ex-Rage Against The Machine members to form the super group Audioslave. The singer fronted three albums, 2002’s self-titled debut, 2005’s Out of Exile, followed by the platinum-selling Revelations in 2006, before jumping ship due to “irreconcilable differences.” He has since recorded several solo albums including a highly-noted acoustic blues cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
But life hasn’t been all rock-worship, inhumanly high notes and Grammy awards.
Cornell’s career has been marred with personal problems, ranging from alcohol and substance abuse, divorce (although, sorry ladies, he is now happily married with three children) and, frighteningly, a motorcycle accident. Although any one of these could have killed his career – and him – ironically enough the experiences have actually empowered Cornell and his music.
While working on his second solo album, the appropriately titled Carry On, after being struck by a vehicle while riding his motorcycle, Cornell was reportedly “catapulted 20 feet into the air” and later that day returned to the studio.
And, after recovering, his experience with addictions provided fodder for some of his Audioslave lyrics.
But because of this ability to survive a myriad of styles, Cornell might just be able to make a seamless transition between a hard-rock howler and dance hit wonder.
“At this point in my career I can’t pretend I have one kind of audience because I don’t,” says Cornell. “I’ve had multi-platinum success with three separate bands that don’t sound like each other as well as the numerous solo projects. It’s a bigger departure certainly.”
“I’ve had periods in my career where I’ve really pored over arrangements,” continues Cornell. “’Black Hole Sun’ I wrote entirely in my head while driving home from the studio. I had to pick up a guitar and learn the notes. There are so many different methods but the one that is the most exciting for a songwriter is when things happen quickly and naturally.”
And Cornell promises that most of his long-time fans will likely agree with his sentiments on Scream and come along for the ride.
“Ever since I can remember I’ve had positive and negative fan reviews. And whether it was positive or negative it wasn’t always based in reality or what my perception of the music was. But judging from playing these new songs live and my feelings on the record – and it’s a great record – there is definitely an audience for it.”
“There have been shows where I played the entire album and they have been some of the most fun and best shows I’ve done. And it’s because I’m playing the album the way it’s meant to be, as an hour-long piece of non-stop, conceptual music. So for fans to come and see an hour of new music you really have to bring it to them and make it an experience.”
Although Cornell’s responses about his latest album sound rehearsed, the singer does seem genuinely excited about his prospects that go beyond merely rehashing the past.
“It’s an exciting thing to do and its an exciting thing to do at this point in my career because what most people in my position would do service the nostalgia. I have every intention of doing that as well later in my career but I also want to make it clear that I will always be making right and left turns creatively.”
Working with producer Timbaland has had interesting results for Cornell, but it has added to the controversy of Scream, especially given that the producer is known for generating smooth RnB dance hits – a sound that’s far from the aggro-rock Cornell is used to. So was the Grammy-winning singer intimidated to be working with the man partly responsible for bringing sexy back?
“If I were 21 years old I would have freaked out,” admits Cornell on working with the producer. “Earlier in my career it was me and my band mates in the studio, fighting anyone who tried to tell us what to do,” he says with a laugh. “But at this point I’m not intimated to work with anybody. I’ve made 15 records and I’m not intimated by anyone.”
So, having hinted that he still has a soft spot for his old, much-loved material, could Cornell somehow find a way to marry his current sound with the grunge so many of us fell in love with so long ago?
Could a Timbaland dance remix of “Black Hole Sun” or “Spoonman” actually be in the cards?
“We have done remixes in the past but it’s definitely not something I’ve given a lot of thought to,” he says. “If it’s thought that dance remixes are what I think music is now, that is definitely not the case.”
“I can play the old songs the way they are and the new songs the way they are,” adds Cornell, “and it works wonderfully.”