Extended Q&A: Chris Cornell On Performing Solo Acoustic Shows, Collaborating With Slash and Why He Doesn't Really Look At The Internet
Chris Cornell is, no doubt, most well-known for fronting heavy rock outfits Soundgarden and Audioslave in the '90s and '00s, respectively. But when he performs at House of Blues this weekend, he won't have the option of hiding behind a thunderous wall of blistering guitar riffs.
For the first time in his 20-plus year career, Cornell is embarking on a solo acoustic tour. And, between the various bands, soundtrack work and solo albums he's amassed in his decades-long career, he should have no trouble assembling a compelling setlist or recalling their fascinating back-stories, for that matter.
So, in advance of his Sunday night performance at the House of Blues, we caught up with Cornell to ask him about doing solo acoustic gigs. Seconds before we were connected with Chris, his publicist urged us to keep all questions about the current tour -- but don't worry, we were still able to slip a few Soundgarden queries into the mix, including some questions about their new album, their association with Guitar Hero, and why they're having more fun playing together this time around.
Parts of this conversation made its way into a piece I wrote to preview the show, which will appear in this week's coming Observer. The rest you can read after the jump.
What's your favorite part about performing solo acoustic as opposed to other stuff you've done?
It just doesn't get any more stripped down than going out totally alone and doing songs. There was a period in my life where most of my musical career was spent in a band that was very aggressive, and there was sort of a wall of volume all the time. I loved that -- I worked very well and was very comfortable in that environment -- [but] I realized that there were other people that could stand on a street corner with [just] a guitar and draw a crowd, and I couldn't. I did not have that ability, and that bothered me. Everything else I had and felt very comfortable in, in terms of songwriting, being a lyricist, performing, and pretty much all those different angles that I'd approached it from. Even doing a different band like Temple of the Dog or doing different solo projects, it was still kind of in the context of "You're in the studio recording, and then getting on stage with a band." It's different. It's not the same as being able to pick up a guitar in a room full of people and start to perform songs and absorb the attention of the room. That's what's exciting about it. It's also a very, sort of, elemental moment of you're walking out onstage; because it isn't a wall of volume, you don't have that option to either connect and talk to the audience or literally address specific people, or just dig into your instrument and step back behind it. You don't have that option. It is intimate no matter what happens -- [even] if you don't talk, it's still intimate. Whatever it is you do, it is intimate. That kind of gets me over the threshold of connecting to the audience pretty much as soon as I sit down. That's kind of the rush. What seems like it should be nerve-racking -- and it is for a second -- you just move on. Then it's about performing the songs and doing them differently every night, doing a song maybe I don't even necessarily know or have rehearsed [that] somebody might yell out from the audience that they want me to play. It becomes all-inclusive, and I like that.
With the freedoms that stem from getting to play what you want from night to night, being able to constantly change the setlist, and not having to rehearse the material with a band, do you have any interesting covers or deep cuts that you're planning on doing during this tour?
I've got a lot of different songs that I can do. There are songs from different parts of my solo career that I've never done ever in the context of a tour but can do in this context that would be fun to do. There are songs I've done covers-wise that I approach unusually because of the fact that they're acoustic pop, but a lot of it is really reinterpretation to begin with, [as] most of the songs [originally] come from some kind of a full band context.
One of your most recent tweets mentioned the fact that you and the other Soundgarden members have been jamming on a new album. What have these sessions been sounding like, or what might you compare the new sounds to?
It's different than other music that we've done, and that makes it a lot like our other albums in that we were always trying to forge ahead. We never have been a band that's been that comfortable pinpointing one aspect of what we do as being "our style" and then steering into it. We've kind of always done the opposite, and, potentially, we're still doing that. We've got a lot of different musical feels. It's similar [to our previous material] because it's the four of us -- it's who we are and what we sound like -- but I can't even think of one song that I would say reminds me directly of another Soundgarden song. So, in that way, it's Soundgarden as I know it. It's just moving ahead and picking up where we left off.
Are you finding that playing together now is more enjoyable than it was 12 years ago?
In some ways I think, yeah. There's less stress involved in terms of it feeling light. We're on this never-ending cycle of writing and recording albums, and tours to support it. The [album] cycle really starts with writing and then recording, and then mixing and mastering, and while the writing and recording process is happening, tours are being set up surrounding the release of it, which means that then there's a release date, which means you've penciled in the date it's going to be finished and you're not even done writing it yet. A lot of music gets created that way, but, as a band just starting out, we were just writing music. We didn't have anywhere to release it -- which is kind of the opposite problem. Now it's just more [reminiscent of how it was during the] early period, where it's about songwriting and we have no release date and no projected season that the CD is going to come out in. So as we're writing and recording, it's simply focusing on the music and the recordings. There's no stress about "These have to be a certain way!" and "[They] have to mean a certain thing!" [and be finished] by Thursday.
You guys took a little bit of flack for packaging your greatest hits album with Guitar Hero, but to me it seems like the gaming industry and the music industry have always been closely connected. I mean, one of my earliest Soundgarden memories is from playing Road Rash as a kid...
Criticism pretty much follows anything anyone ever does. So, anytime anyone ever writes a song, plays a show, or does whatever they do there's going to be a certain amount of criticism because that's kind of what happens. It's kind of a silly, weak place to go when it comes to Soundgarden releasing its greatest hits [album] in a Guitar Hero package. We're one of the few guitar-based bands that have never had any Guitar Hero or Rock Band association ever. To me, it was important to do it for kids who are learning about guitar-based music and guitar rock through a game. Wouldn't it be a shame if they somehow never stumbled over one of our songs on it? You hear stories about kids discovering Foghat through a video game. Well, now maybe they should have the opportunity to discover us.
You appeared on Slash's latest record. Firstly, how did you guys get together. And, second, what was the process like of writing "Promise." How collaborative was it?
The whole process started with him sending an email out to me [asking] if I wanted to sing on a song on his record, and I said "Sure." Then he sent me a couple of different ideas musically he had, and one of them was "Promise." I just basically wrote lyrics and sang over it and sent it back to him and that was the demo. That was it, our collaborative moment.
So he had a lot of the chords and melody already going? Because it sounds like it could be a Chris Cornell solo song...
I came up with the vocal melody and the lyrics, but the song arrangement is almost exactly what he sent to me initially. It's not that much different than what's on his record.
It's interesting, then, how he was able to hone in on the specific skill sets of each of his collaborators.
Yeah, I've never actually thought about that. There was a second song that he sent me that was extremely different than the first one. I came up with ideas for both of them, but I hadn't really thought about it that way. I think you definitely naturally steer into who you're working with, in terms of what you feel like they might want to do, or what you might feel their strengths are, or just imagining hearing them sing something or playing something while you're writing a song.
When you reach a certain celebrity status you can't really avoid becoming the subject of various internet memes, or fan comic strips, or weird fan art, etc. What's your take on stuff like that? Do you ever see any weird fan-created stuff that you actually get a kick out of or, on the other hand, is there some that really creeps you out?
I don't know. I try to ignore that kind of thing on all levels and have been pretty successful in doing it. It's probably just part of my personality. I've always felt like there's a certain amount of doing what I do, and performing, and making records, and doing interviews and photo shoots and that, that are kind of a necessary evil of getting my music to people's ears to hear. Over the years, I've just become more tolerant of that. Outside of that, I haven't really paid too much attention to the Internet in terms of popular culture, how it fits in, what people's comments are. Especially now. There's so much information on the Internet -- so many different things being made fun of and talked about -- that it just becomes white noise. It's not something that I feel is even good to catch my attention, whether it's about me or anyone else.
Do you think this solo acoustic tour -- and to a lesser extent the new Soundgarden material -- will help to win back the favor of fans who maybe didn't like your Timbaland-produced, electro-pop album, Scream, as much as they did your earlier material?
I don't really care. I've never really done anything with any concern about "favor," and I actually think that there's a lot people who see me when I do solo shows that love that record. I have fan requests for songs from that record for this tour all over websites. Again, of course, I don't really pay much attention to [the Internet], so I don't know if I'll play songs from it. If anything, [playing solo acoustic shows] unites all my different records and all my different periods as a solo artist and a member of bands because you have to interpret everything through acoustic guitar and singing. It puts every single song in a similar arena.