Through The Past, Darkly
Currently touring in support of his second solo album, former Soundgarden/Audioslave wailer Chris Cornell spoke with New Times about the environment, the thought process behind choosing which songs to include in a career-spanning setlist, art versus audience perceptions of it, and the consequences of a positive frame of mind when you’re best known for writing gloomy songs. An edited transcript follows after the jump.
By Saby Reyes-Kulkarni
You told Rolling Stone in 1994 that “this is the first generation that can look at the mortality of the human race pretty realistically. It isn’t H.G. Wells anymore. It’s not ‘well, three or four generations from now, we might not have any fish’ --- it’s ‘we don’t have any fish.’” Having recently played one of the Live Earth concerts, what is your impression of how things are now?
I suppose that, in terms of the wider perspective of people that didn’t necessarily pay attention to where the planet was at are more aware of it now, or are at least being exposed to it more in a widespread way. I sort of see it catching up in terms of media and in terms of effort of getting a message out there. In terms of behavior, there are certain parts of the world that are changing it. And you can kind of see that it’s possible, but in the big picture I don’t think anything’s different. Looking at a map of the world and imagining that very realistically it could look very different less than a century from now is pretty scary for people. That still doesn’t necessarily permeate their daily habits. But the good thing is that literally being reminded of it every day can change the decisions you make that day. And that decision and that action can make a difference right then. In terms of broader causes and charitable causes that people pay attention to, this is actually one of the only things where that’s the case. It’s really a strange thing. Habits control people more than people control habits, and it’s sort of a frightening thing when it comes to environmental issues.
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You’ve also expressed concern about being a parent and feeling a growing sense of responsibility. As a parent, what do you do to keep that faith going, and how much does music have to do with that?
Music as a pulpit or a tool to put a message out there, I don’t think of it as a medium for that. It’s an artform that shouldn’t necessarily be abused. But something like Live Earth was an ingenious forum because it draws a lot of people’s attention to a subject. There was an opportunity to educate a lot of people, even myself, learning a lot of things that I didn’t know. The fact of the matter is, it’s so easy to do for a performer. I’m out on the road most of the year, so to go and be a part of a show and performing live songs, that’s what I would be doing anyway. That’s where I think being a public person or being somebody that can get a certain amount of people to listen to what they say helps. The example-setting. When it comes to environmental issues, for someone like me that does what I do for a living, there is air travel. But when it comes to ground transportation or what car I drive, I’m hardly ever home. I don’t have a normal commute or a normal daily life. I think that that is really going to be the key for anybody who wants to make a difference, it’s literally the thinking and acting locally --- how you live your live, what kind of car you drive, whether you ride a bike or not or take public transportation, whether you walk --- because everyone sees that. During the first Gulf war, I had a 1966 Chrysler that I’d inherited from my grandfather. It was like an 18-and-a-half foot car with an enormous engine in it. And I just felt weird about that war --- the same weird feelings I felt about the second war --- that there were obviously oil-related issues and I didn’t want to drive, so I started riding a bicycle. People see that, and I remember seeing other people doing the same thing, riding around Seattle on bicycles. I think that makes a difference. Unfortunately, it has to happen with individual citizens of planet earth, because it doesn’t seem to really be spearheaded too much in different governments or big business, which is where it needs to be.
On the other hand, it seems pretty clear from the recent press you’ve been doing that your general outlook on life is more settled and is getting more positive. How do you think that affects the music you’re coming up with, and how much do you relate, or relate differently, to your older stuff, since you’re doing so much of it live now?
I don’t think I really have any different attitude toward it. The older music doesn’t feel like a long time ago to me. When I’m playing the songs, I feel just as connected to it as the day or the week that it was written. I think songs are a time machine that way, because it’s like other aspects of life --- colors, smells that trigger a memory. It’s kind of an immediate thing. I don’t have to really search for who that person was that was thinking that way or feeling that, because that person is definitely still there. And I don’t know that my thoughts and attitudes have necessarily changed that much. I think the emotions surrounding them maybe changes. How I respond or react to something maybe changes. That’s something, I suppose, that I’ve been dealing with for years and years. People would always look at bands as people who were on a path to experience musical growth. I always thought of that word as not really being applicable to the world of music or art. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t think that was really ever the idea, that I do this so that I can grow and get better at it ten years from now. [Laughs.] I think that, really, art is about the expression of the moment and of the moment. It’s not like an artistic erector set, where someday you’ll be making a masterpiece. I think that’s something that people look at later. Like ‘oh wow, that was his masterpiece’ or ‘he got better or worse.’ Or the way they would look at Jack Kerouac novels and say ‘well, he was burned out by then.’ I don’t know that Jack Kerouac ever felt burned out when he was writing.
Or that he would know that he was more or less burned out than before. Day-to-day, you’re just in whatever state of mind you’re in.
Exactly. I have read interviews of other songwriters where they would literally say ‘I don’t know what I was thinking,’ and I’ve talked to people too who’ve said that. I don’t feel that way. I never have.
And sometimes people have read incorrectly into things. Like when “Black Hole Sun” came out, you said that you’d been writing songs like [that] way earlier in Soundgarden.
Yeah, before I was even releasing records. That’s something that I’ve been dealing with since Soundgarden formed. “Black Hole Sun” is a good example because people would say ‘oh look, he learned how to write a song.’ And it would be, in a sense, insulting. Or I would think those were shallow responses from people that hadn’t bothered to listen. And also solo work, which really started with Temple Of The Dog, because I wrote most of the record and we sort of assembled as a band around that idea. I was writing a lot of songs on my own, and it felt like a way to express it outside of Soundgarden. But people sort of responded to it like ‘we had no idea he could do that.’ I had been writing songs as a solo artist while I was in Soundgarden before Soundgarden had even released anything. Soundgarden was getting songs played on KCMU, the University of Washington college station, and I was getting solo songs played on it at the same time. So, to me, those two things always existed hand in hand. And the music stylistically, if I was doing something on my own, obviously it was going to be different than Soundgarden, otherwise there was no point in doing it. A lot of times it was very melodic or somber or song structure-oriented versus, like, rock-band riff or instrumental-oriented. I was just sort of doing whatever I wanted. But it always existed in my life. And I suppose when those things exist in your life day to day and you’re immersed in all these different kinds of music and someone on the outside ten years later says ‘oh, I had no idea,’ there’s that initial thought of ‘how could you not know?’ but then I look at it realistically and it’s not like I went out beating that drum everyday. So it makes sense that people don’t know everything that’s going on in my daily life. [Laughs.] It’s sort of common that people draw conclusions the way that they do and that they’re vast and all over the place and that your intentions are often misconstrued. That’s part of why any artform is exciting anyway. Any art that you make is a living thing, because it’s going to be perceived differently by different people and that those perceptions will change over time is what makes any work of art a living thing. So it doesn’t necessarily bother me. And I’ve seen it in different contexts. You know, I’ve had a lot of different friends that were songwriters who died in various ways young. [Such as Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, Layne Staley of Alice In Chains, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, and Jeff Buckley --- Ed.] At funerals and wakes people would say ‘remember the lyrics in that song? It was almost like they knew.’ And I started thinking, well that’s bullshit! If I dropped dead tomorrow, people would do the same thing. They would go ‘oh wow, it was as if he was writing his own eulogy.’ [Laughs.] It’s just bullshit. You can kind of take music, song lyrics and stretch them around and bend them and make them whatever mean anything you want them to mean at the time.
Bands that have a long sustained career, people generally tend to remember them for one album or a handful of songs that don’t necessarily best represent what they are. It seems like, just to be a creative person, one is always fighting against that, not necessarily consciously---
It can be consciously. To a certain degree, you can’t avoid it. Sometimes I try really hard to avoid it, but then trying to avoid it is, in a sense, steering into it. It’s a strange thing, but, I guess when they use the word “maturing,” that’s part of it. When you realize you’ve made your seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth record, it’s like ‘I’m going to be continuing to make records, and time really isn’t such a factor.’ What it means or how people respond to it or what the next decision is in terms of the kind of record I want to make or the song I want to right doesn’t carry that much weight to it. It’s not a chess game. And when you’re first making records, I think people really put you under the microscope. If you’re lucky enough to get a large number of people to listen to what you do, the next thing is that they’re going to be looking at the next thing. And waiting and wondering ‘well, do these people really have talent, or was that just a lucky moment?’ And everyone goes through that. You have to get through that period. There are a lot of things that Kurt [Cobain] never had to go through, being someone that made, basically, four, I guess you could say, studio records, if you include all the b-sides. He didn’t have to make a series of records where people questioned his abilities, which is inevitable --- with anyone. He didn’t have to suffer any particular backlash artistically. If you look at the career of John Lennon, John Lennon would have suffered that. Everyone does. His career didn’t go through that, because it’s sort of frozen in time. As a fan, you kind of imagine that that wouldn’t happen because it wasn’t going to happen. But it was going to happen. [Laughs.]
They’d be saying ‘John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix suck’ if those guys were still out there.
Yeah, you never know. Everyone goes through those different things, and everyone makes strange decisions, and makes music or art that doesn’t necessarily resonate. The resonating on a big level is something that’s really almost accidental. If you hear Bob Dylan talking about it, he’s always sort of backing out of that idea that he was the voice of a generation. That’s a good example of someone with a really long career and a long life who had an enormous impact. He didn’t go away. He continued to write songs and make music in ways that he liked and has been all over the place in terms of fan perception. Even the day that he walked on stage and started playing with electric instruments, how dramatically negative the audience response was --- that’s something you have to survive to get! [Laughs.]
You yourself are now at a vantage point to look backwards. You’re varying your setlist a lot and doing two-hour soundchecks, if necessary, to go over old songs with the band. How far back are you willing to go? How much can fans expect to hear, like, “Nothing to Say” or “Fopp” or “Beyond the Wheel” or “Get on the Snake” next to new songs?
I don’t really think there’s anything that’s off limits. I stick mostly to songs that I’ve written completely when it comes to the Soundgarden era --- mainly because those tended to be the songs that were radio singles that people kinda know. And then going off from that occasionally here and there is fun. There are songs that we did for years in Soundgarden that I just got bored with live. Where an idea that may have felt so fresh in the beginning didn’t after a while, and it’s just not exciting for me to do. There are songs like that. I felt a certain amount of responsibility toward the other three members of the band for a really long time in terms of what songs we performed and how we did them. Sometimes I felt a responsibility to the band maybe more than the audience, which didn’t necessarily feel right. In a sense, Soundgarden was a selfish band when it came to performing live. We would focus on the songs that we wanted to present. Personally, I want there to be participation when it comes to my live show. I want it to be what me and the audience agree are the songs that are the most exciting in a live setting. But there’s nothing I would just write off and never do.
What have you learned about preserving your voice over the years, and how much of a challenge has that been --- especially at this stage?
It’s pretty easy at this point. It used to be a lot harder. I mean, traveling is different, especially when it’s, like, van tours and half of the sleeping you’re doing is sitting up in a van. Air conditioning, smoking, drinking, that kind of thing. It was all a bigger challenge back then. Now, the day-to-day life of touring is pretty supportive of being a singer.
You’ve talked about wanting to play parts of the world that you’ve never been before after playing Cuba with Audioslave. Where can we expect to see you pop up next?
I have a South American tour that starts in early December, which is a pretty thorough tour. And I have a South Africa date that’s coming up. So, it’s happening.
Living in France now, how much of an effort or desire do you have to learn French?
Well, I think it sort of happens naturally. I haven’t really spent long periods of time because I’m touring and in the studio a lot. To sit down and be like ‘okay, I have to take this amount of time to learn a foreign language,’ I don’t really have that kind of a life. But it doesn’t matter. When you’re around people that speak a different language all the time, you just start to slowly pick it up.
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How was working with Steve Lillywhite different than what you’ve done in the past, and what are you still learning about production or looking to learn?
I don’t think I’ve really learned much in terms of... production, to me, can be one of two worlds. There’s sort of the world of decisions and dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, boring aspects of making the records. Having someone behind speakers, especially nowadays with hard drive recording, where people are saving everything and tweaking everything. Sitting in a room with no windows all day long. That’s something that kinda drives me crazy, although I end up doing it a lot. Then there’s the other aspect of production, which is the Fifth-Beatle theory, someone that didn’t write the songs or isn’t in the band. I think that that’s all kind of over-valued in a way. I’ve always been searching for someone that can add something to a record or that I can learn something from, but I never really feel like they’re necessary. At different times at my career, it also could be argued that producers bring things, but they also take things away. You wouldn’t make that record without that producer. Whether or not that’s a good thing a bad thing, you’ll never know. In Soundgarden, we ended up using producers as glorified engineers to keep the record company from feeling insecure about their investment. Rick Rubin really was the first producer that I ever used, where I just let him do what he did and didn’t get in his way. It was because it was a different band. They had worked with him before. I didn’t have the energy at that point. I didn’t want to make Audioslave the way that Soundgarden was to me, where I was involved in every single aspect of everything. I learned a lot from Rick just in terms of song arranging and pre-production. He really did have that kind of Fifth-Beatle role. But, even still, when it came time to sing, I didn’t let him or anyone anywhere near me when I was recording. I just did it all by myself, which I’d done for years.
You’ve been into soul music for a long, long time. There are suggestions of it going all the way back. How much did being in Soundgarden and Audioslave constrain your ability to express that?
I don’t think it did. It was an avenue just like anything else. Soundgarden did a lot of covers and ventured into that world a lot. As the songwriter, I think I had the power and ability to go more in that direction if I wanted to. And Audioslave also embraced soul music in maybe a different way but in some ways similarly. I think it’s just a different approach if I’m on my own. In a rock band, it’s going to be the funk-rock version of soul music and more like a soul balladeering, I suppose.