Audioslave: Chris Cornell

Audioslave:Chris CornellAudioslave had one or two songs, but I don’t remember much else about their music off the top of my head. Supergroups – in this case, Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell with three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine – invariably underdeliver. Now that Soundgarden has reunited, it would be cool to go to a show and yell out Cochise! or Like A Stone!


I’ve spoken numerous times with Cornell (pictured above with Tom Morello when Audioslave played “Jimmy Kimmel” in 2005), beginning with Soundgarden’s Superunknown in 1994, and he’s always left me wanting more. The mark of a true entertainer and conversationalist. The following interview is from August 2006, when he called from Berlin to discuss what would be Audioslave’s last album Revelations. It ended up selling poorly.

Break-up rumors were swirling at the time. He denied them. But the split was confirmed in February 2007, with Cornell quoted in a statement as citing “irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences.” Oddly, the statement also described Cornell as “acrimonious.” I called the label to ask if the word was used in error, and the publicist said it was the intended term. I never got to the bottom of that one.

The references throughout to alcohol were a nod to Cornell’s rehab stint after the recording of Audioslave’s first album in 2002.

ON THE CD ARTWORK FOR REVELATIONS, YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE SMILING, DOES THAT MEAN THAT NOW THE ALCOHOLIC HAZE HAS LIFTED YOU HAVE PARADOXICALLY BECOME THE LIFE AND SOUL OF THE BAND?

No, maybe then I was probably hammered! It doesn’t mean anything, really.

I GUESS NOW THAT YOU’VE GOT THREE RECORDS OUT, AND YOU’RE AT THE TOP OF YOUR GAME AND EVERYTHING’S LOOKING GOOD, IT MUST BE TIME TO BREAK UP THE BAND?

Yeah, exactly! Every thing’s going great and now that we know for sure we can make several more great records, somebody’s gotta leave.

WHO DO YOU THINK THAT PERSON WILL BE?

I don’t know. It could be anybody. It could be any one of us. And also at this age too, unexpected death can happen too.

YEAH, THAT CAN HAPPEN TO THE BEST OF US. THERE WERE RUMORS A FEW WEEKS AGO THAT YOU HAD BROKEN UP. I GUESS THAT WAS BECAUSE OF THE SOLO ALBUM ANNOUNCEMENT?

The rumors started before that. It just kinda happened. It’s happened before. It usually happens before a record comes out. Before every record, actually, is put out.

HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THE SOUND AND THE LYRICAL CONTENT OF THIS RECORD TO THE LAST TWO (2002’S AUDIOSLAVE AND 2005’S OUT OF EXILE)?

They’re all different. I see each of them to some kind of small degree kinda where I’m at at the time, or where I was maybe six months before I wrote the words. There’s more similarity between the second two than there is between this one and the first one. I definitely had a different frame of mind on the very first one. It’s a juxtaposition between finding a place at this point in my life where I feel stable and happy, and then also a tremendous amount of anxiety when you have something to lose, I guess, and the anxiety of the state of world politics and U.S. foreign policy hanging over your head. There’s a lot of anxiety from that. Having a family, at the same time. So that’s kinda made its way into the lyrics more than normal for me.

NOW THAT YOU’RE IN RECOVERY, DO YOU SOMETIMES MISS THE ANXIETY AND OTHER EMOTIONS THAT WERE YOU DEFAULT SETTING BACK IN THE OLD DAYS?

There are the problems you have control over, problems that you’ve created, problems that you can work on and change them. There’s problems that really don’t matter what you do or who you are or who you think you are, you’re not going to be able to change it. You’re not going to be able to control the outcome. I guess being in the middle of your own self-imposed problems and horror and awfulness, you don’t have so much time to look at the world around you and then get freaked out by it!

WOULDN’T IT BE LESS SCARY TO FOCUS ON YOUR OWN DEPRESSION AND DARK MOODS THAN TO OPEN UP THE NEWSPAPER AND TO REALIZE WE REALLY ARE IN THE CRAPPER?

Y’know, I think that’s partly why people get lost in that lifestyle of just constant, self-imposed drama and suffering, because at least it’s something they can kinda control.

IS THE HURRICANE KATRINA SONG WIDE AWAKE YOUR POLITICAL AWAKENING, AT LEAST AS FAR AS LYRIC-WRITING IS CONCERNED?

No. If you read my lyrics or have any kind of a knowledge of my history of lyric-writing, you’d know that it isn’t. I think a song like Hands All Over that was on Louder Than Love (1989) is just as political as this song. I just think it just doesn’t come as often. I think it comes when it comes. I think the situation like the Katrina aftermath, visually nowadays with the 45-minute CNN tape loop, can create a tremendous image in your mind of helplessness and guilt. I think every American in particular felt that when those images started to appear. It’s the first time that Americans saw disaster images inside their own country where there were people dying and drowning and fighting to survive, but you didn’t see next to those images the rescue helicopter coming in and the Coast Guard and the boats coming to pull people out. All you saw was the horrific footage. That made a huge impact on me. I’m fortunate that instead of sitting with those feelings or talking to my friends about it, I can actually write it down and sing about it in a song. Doing that song acoustically, like on this promotional tour now, it’s the one-year anniversary and it’s filling up on TV again. Still the images of today right now are surprisingly awful and hard to believe. I guess when something like that hits me over the head, just like anybody I’m gonna wanna write it down, or write something about it, just to do something, feeling like, Well, what can I do? I can write a check, I can be like Sean Penn and get on a plane and go down there and wander around!!’ I’d probably be a liability anyway. Somebody would have to come and rescue me!

DO YOU HAVE SONGS IN THE HOPPER THAT RELATE TO OTHER POLITICAL EVENTS IN OUR LIFETIME?

I have a couple more new songs that are a little bit bent toward that. In a lot of ways, it’s like what I already told you, it’s just exercising anxiety. It’s a feeling that I get now that I remember in my early teens where when punk rock really started to explode because young people had their whole lives ahead of them and are in that stage of life where everything’s possible, but I had this Cold War cloud hanging over us of, ‘Well it could all end in nuclear destruction in five minutes, but if not everything’s gonna be great and the sky’s the limit and we can do anything we want.’ The future is bright, as long as we don’t blow up or be melted. I feel that now, to a degree, but now I have children to worry about as well. I’m concerned for them and that sense of anxiety that appears when I’m really thinking about that. The Cold War was very specific and it was really easy to throw propaganda around. You were only throwing it in two directions, really. Now, propaganda can be thrown around in so many different directions. It’s shaping up to be more like a World War III Cold War environment. It’s pretty scary. You can’t help but feel somehow like you want to have a voice that gets heard, and that there are a lot of voices that you want people to hear coming out of the United States, of citizens of the United States that don’t agree with the foreign policy. And then there’s that confusion of, ‘But bad people blew up our buildings.’ Ok, yes, we know that, and no one thinks that was good. But going to a place where, as far as we know, there isn’t anybody related to the people that blew up the buildings, or tried to, and we’re blowing their buildings up. It’s just politics, and I think a lot of Americans don’t want the rest of the world to think that we support our own foreign policy as it stands. It’s hard to get that message out.

I GUESS, LIVING IN PARIS, YOU MUST BE ON THE DEFENSIVE A WEE BIT IN THAT REGARD?

It’s not a place where you’ll sit down at a table, and someone sits down next to you and starts complaining about you! But the topics do come up. The good side of living in Paris is that you get obviously the broader perspective and you get it in a sense, not unapologetically but from an honest point of view. It doesn’t come from anger. It’s very international. You meet people from all over — western Europe, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Everybody has their families back home, and their stories to tell, and everyone’s affected by world economics, which is influenced by the U.S., and everyone’s affected by the U.S. foreign policy. It’s good to get those perspectives when it’s not coming from somebody that might feel a little more guarded or intimidated about sharing it because they’re sitting at a cafe in Chicago, for example, because they’re not. So it’s different. I get to work wherever I want, and live wherever I want to write songs. It doesn’t matter where I am to do it, and so I’ve been lucky to be at this stage in my life, a foreigner somewhere, where I don’t speak the language and I don’t have any experience in that country or in that city and everything’s new to me, and I’m an outsider. I’m not a big huge star there, and it’s good. It’s also probably good for being a writer too, because you can kinda still be under the radar, observe in a way that I couldn’t necessarily if I still lived in Seattle.

SO YOU HAVE NO PLANS TO LEARN FRENCH?

You pick it up as you go along. You kinda have to.

AFTER FIVE YEARS TOGETHER, HOW HAS THE INTRA-BAND RELATIONSHIP PROGRESSED?

I think those relationships started pretty openly, and I don’t know if they transformed that much. There’s a little bit of a sociology experiment simply because you have four guys, one guy leaves, new guy shows up, and that new guy and his presence affects the relationships between the previous 3 guys, between each other. Everything kinda changes. There are 3 separate new relationships going on within the 4 people, and that transforms everything. How they worked with each other changed, the music they were playing and bringing in and showing each other changed. It would seem from a distance like I’m coming into an established situation and I have to figure out how to fit into that. But it wasn’t like that, really. It was much more complicated than that. And there was also freshness surrounding that, that started out really great. And it wasn’t until the second record where I started seeing signs of the idea that all these three guys had been in a band together for a really long time before I started with them. Because you’d start to see kinks on the armor and the old resentments that would come out that had nothing to do with what was going on with Audioslave. Because we all have a lot of experience and years of being in touring bands and we’ve all been in every situation you can be in and do what we do, those problems are dealt with as soon as you recognize that they’re coming up. ‘Oh shit, we don’t need to be like this and we don’t want to be like this.’ I think the biggest problem with people surviving in a band and getting along and appreciating each other is just the fact that for the most part musicians aren’t the kind of people who concentrate or worry about what the other guy thinks. Musicians also don’t necessarily want to be particularly responsible socially, or in a conversation or behaviorally. They wanna just do whatever they want and go where their mood takes them, which might not always be a great place when it comes to getting along with other people.

YEAH, IT’S ALMOST UNNATURAL FOR A BUNCH OF 40-YEAR-OLD GUYS TO BE HANGING OUT IN A GANG SITUATION LIKE THAT?

I think you’re right. With 40-year-old guys, you end up living a life that’s less fraternal and less let’s-go-and-hang-out-with-the-dudes. For me, it’s kinda become when I do hang out with the dudes. I’ve actually noticed missing the camaraderie and the relationship with the other 3 guys when I spend a long time away. That’s always been pretty healthy. There’s a lot of tension, I think, and a lot of anxiety that surrounds a young band, because — speaking for myself — I was afraid of a lot of things when I was in my early 20s that either didn’t materialize or were things that you really didn’t need to be afraid of. How I was perceived by other musicians, by other bands, by my bandmates, how I wouldn’t be perceived in the future, what that meant from record to record. Or, if we didn’t sell records, when was the first day gonna come when someone came and tried to tell us to sing differently or write different lyrics or write different songs or make different records, or use a producer we didn’t like? That, to a large degree, I think, fueled turmoil in Soundgarden. and it really had nothing to do with the individuals not getting along because we always did. We were a band that got along great. The tumultuous nature of being in a band came from just being young and not knowing what to expect, and not knowing that you didn’t necessarily have to be afraid of it. For my part, nowadays, I don’t worry about too much anymore. It’s been this long and nobody’s tried to make me do anything I don’t want to do. As long as I’m inspired about the music that I make — because there always seems to be somebody that wants to hear it, and the numbers of those people go up and may come down and go back up — I’m just doing what I do. As a band, we all have been able to get along that way and feel that way. There are times when that self-consciousness and anxiety rears its head and it’s really easy to spot because we’ve all been there! Suddenly you’re going back eight years and remembering, ‘Oh, I remember why I felt this way and I didn’t like it.’ Then you just shift gears.

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN GREAT TO FEEL THE WAY YOU DO NOW WHEN YOU WERE 21. OR MAYBE IT’S JUST A RITE OF PASSAGE?

I remember watching VH1 Behind the Music where they decided to do a documentary on every single band that had a tumultuous past, which is almost every single band that’s famous. The story is always the same, particularly the big bands: start from garageland and then a meteoric rise, just cannon-shot into the stratosphere where suddenly they’re the biggest band on the planet for a second, and then everybody hates each other, falls apart, does drugs, one guy dies, something happens. They would show interviews: ‘We just sold 50 million and I was the most unhappy person in the entire history of humanity!!’ Time after time after time, you would see those stories. There’s something about it, I don’t know what it is, where it makes virtually no sense that somebody’s dreams, whether it’s personally or professionally, all of them would come true to such a degree that you’re living a fantasy comic-book story, and now you’re the most unhappy you’ve ever been in your life. There’s no real explanation for it either. There’s obviously a self-consciousness, there’s an anxiety of not ever being able to perceive or understand what it means to have millions of people buy your records, talk about you, want to come to see you. I’ve always had difficulty just keeping track of a handful of friends that I’ve had, and communicating with them, and having any understanding how they perceive me. Let alone millions of other people.

YOUR FAMILY’S PRETTY BIG TOO, RIGHT? I GUESS THAT MAKES THINGS EVEN MORE COMPLICATED?

Well, you know, you start small and kinda just keep it small. There’s no way that any individual can consider the opinions of millions of people, and still be able to call themselves an artist, I guess.

SPEAKING OF SEEKING OPINIONS, DID YOU HAVE TO MAKE AMENDS WITH FORMER BANDMATES AND FRIENDS AND EX-WIVES?

No, I’ve never taken that step.

ARE YOU ON THE 12-STEP PROGRAM?

Not really, no. I just chose a different lifestyle.

ARE YOU TAKING ANY MEDICATION?

No, no no.

AND YOU DON’T HAVE A SPONSOR?

No.

YOU JUST DO YOUR OWN THING?

Yep.

THAT’S COOL. THAT’S THE WAY I’D DO IT TOO, IF I WERE IN YOUR POSITION. LIVING IN PARIS, DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR THE FASHION-CHALLENGED AMONG US?

Duct tape. You can always go back to duct tape, it’s always fashionable. It really started to rear its head in fashion in the punk rock period, which people sorta pretend is brand new now. It’s the first time a fashion statement has come back in a complete retro blaze, and then people try to pretend as though it’s not retro. Which I think is kinda cool too, because that’s a new thing. So duct tape, and safety pins, through skin. You’re in.

NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my memoir Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles is available here on Kindle or here as paperback. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com.

Copyright © 2006, 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING

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