RIP Chris Cornell (July 20, 1964 – May 17, 2017)

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Chris Cornell, the frontman for classic 90s alternative rock heroes Soundgarden, died last night in what has been confirmed as suicide by hanging. Cornell was found in his room at the MGM Grand in Detroit after Soundgarden had performed earlier at the Fox Theater. You can watch that full performance here.

Before the performance, Cornell took to Twitter, sharing his excitement for the evening’s gig.

It’s hard to square the exultation in his tweet with what happened only hours later. We know that Cornell battled depression throughout his life and that there are no explanations for why someone commits suicide. What we are left with is the gifts that the man gave us. His banshee-like wail that could turn soulful on a dime and all of those amazing songs throughout his long career. He will be missed.

Below is an interview I did with Cornell about ten years ago. It was an incredible thrill to talk to one of my alt-rock heroes. I’m happy that I had the sense to save the text as the interview is no longer online.

The Privileged World Of Chris Cornell

by Brett Hickman

(previously published on Static Multimedia)

Photo by: LA Times

Photo by: LA Times

You wouldn’t know it from the evidence of his 20-plus years as a singer, but Chris Cornell is a very positive, look-on-the-bright-side sort of fellow. Many times during my interview with him he described his career as a musician as a “privilege” and that he is “blessed” and “lucky” to have what he has. Where’s the guy that wanted to “Blow Up the Outside World”? The guy that “Fell On Black Days”? Or the one who sang about that “Black Hole Sun”?

Truth be told, after two band breakups (Soundgarden and Audioslave – announced early this year), one bitter divorce (his first wife, Susan Silver, was the manager for Soundgarden as well as Alice In Chains the divorce bringing to light accusations of money mismanagement by Silver), as well as a dependency to alcohol that he managed to overcome (and remains sober to this day), Cornell has come through it refreshed and happy. He has re-married (to Vicky Karayiannis, a publicist based out of Paris) and has three children (one daughter with Silver and a daughter and a son with Karayiannis).

Cornell also has taken a note from his past as a fish monger and a sous chef and become a restaurateur with the opening of Black Calvados in Paris (where he and his family live).

In addition to the restaurant, Cornell has released a new solo album, his second, (1999’s Euphoria Morning being the first) this year. Entitled Carry On and produced by Steve Lillywhite, it features a few interesting diversions for Cornell stylistically but there are far more safe bets than fans of his work before Audioslave would probably like (the album is languishing on the sales charts, despite Cornell’s strong touring in support of it).

The album’s nadir would be the confounding cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (which admittedly sounded cooler in a widely circulated live bootleg) to the anemic theme song for the most recent James Bond film Casino Royale, “You Know My Name.” Cornell needs to either stoke the embers of what possessed him during the Soundgarden years or massage the tender, singer-songwriter side that he displayed on Euphoria Morning. Carry On is a decent album, but it’s not the sort of thing you expect from a legend of rock such as Cornell.

During his U.S. summer tour I had a chance to talk to Cornell about Carry On, what happened with Audioslave and what it takes to be a solo artist.

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Static Multimedia: How are things going?

Chris Cornell: Really good.

Is there anybody from the touring band that was on the album?

No, nobody.

How do you go about getting together people to play?

Same way everybody does. Think about people you know that you like and what they do. When it came to making the record it was a combination of that. And working with people that you really thought would be good. When it came to put together a band to tour with I initially started with who was playing on the record, but immediately realized that it wasn’t necessarily going to work musically. I was planning on playing songs from my prior history of recording. I added and subtracted to that and wasn’t really happy. Then I did kind of an open audition process where I sat in a room and played with a lot of different people, which I’d never done before. It ended up being an interesting thing, just to see how songs change. Different people would come and go and playing the same songs…I think it was the same four or five songs with these different people. Most interesting to me was that the group that I have with me now when it was them I sang the songs better. I would actually sing better depending on who was there. And I don’t know why that was, it doesn’t make sense to me, but it’s the truth. I sang better with different combinations of people the same songs. Part of it was also…solo, not solo, when you’re on a stage, on the road and traveling around the world with four other dudes you’re a band. So it had to be people that get along with each other. Because that’s probably the most challenging part with professional musicians who are not in bands. When you’re in a band, you’ve sorted out the personality issues before you even make a record. By the time you’re out on the road that’s all kind of done. Whether it’s healthy or unhealthy, that’s a different story, but you’ve sorted it out. Putting together a band full of people that you don’t know and they may not know each other and you’ve gotta go learn songs and go on tour soon you have to be very cautious and a good judge of how people are going to work with each other. I got really
lucky. We just have a great time, everyone gets along great and the shows have been amazing.

With these guys it was an instinctual thing then?

Yeah. I don’t think that anyone wants to go out with somebody who they’re going to have to replace. It’s one thing to get a new lighting guy because the lighting guy’s having a baby or he quits to go off with another band. It’s another thing completely when it’s a musician that’s in your band. I planned from the beginning and said “look, I may be on the road for two years. So if you’re not ready for that, then go now.” So fortunately there are a lot of people that want to do that. More so than the bands I was in. I had difficulty staying on the road for a long time in band situations because people always wanted to stop. So I got that going. This is also a natural chemistry. It’s pretty easy, I think. I don’t think it’s that mysterious, you can tell. I get along with pretty much anybody. If you watch reality TV you’re basically seeing people put together so that they will clash. My job was to do the opposite of reality TV casting. Putting people together that will be harmonious and who will have a great time and that sort of pushes the whole thing up.

What is it about touring that appeals so much to you?

It’s exciting to play night after night. To be able to play night after night and months at a time just in and of itself for me it’s the way that I’ve been able to improve as a singer and as a performer. As a songwriter even. Being able to understand the communication of songs. All of that. It’s hard and frustrating to get to a certain point where I feel I’m starting to really get a handle on this and feel like I can make strides and then you stop. To me music is something that’s a living and breathing thing. It’s what I do and I like to do it all the time. I used to hate the traveling part of it but now, maybe ten years ago I realized that it’s my life and it’s what I know. It’s sort of the opposite of what it was when I was 24. Now I get stir crazy if I sit still for too long. And the other thing too is coming to the realization of being able to travel around the world and go to remote places and play music is a privilege. It’s not a requirement of my career. And that’s the way it was sort of dealt with in Soundgarden. It was like you gotta go on tour to support your record. Our original bass player quitting, Hiro Yamamoto, was because he didn’t want to leave home. Period. He thought we’d go on like a two-week tour in support of our first A&M record and that should be enough. Even after Ben became the bass player and we toured it was something we did that felt like a requirement not like we’re lucky to
be able to do this. After awhile, for me, I started to see it from a different perspective. Playing Cuba was a great moment in realizing all these people know our songs and they don’t ever get to see bands. There aren’t that many places like Cuba, but there are places all over the world that I haven’t to this day ever visited. I’ve yet to. I can do it. So I want to do that. It’s important to me.

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Photo by Blabbermouth

With a situation like Soundgarden you started out with basically nothing and experiencing everything for the first time. But with Audioslave was the friction there perhaps because of being established and the three guys being together for years with Rage Against the Machine?

I don’t think the touring had anything to do with it. We wanted to go out and play everywhere that we could and not play anything but Audioslave songs. We were doing a White Stripes cover because we refused to do anything else but our own songs and we only had one record. We did a fairly sizable tour. We did a US club tour, then we went to Europe, then we came back and did a normal US tour and then we went back and did Europe and then came back and did Lollapalooza. It was no joke. After that, after the second record, we didn’t tour that long and the idea was that we were going to quickly go in and record a handful of songs to round out a third record because we had so many extra songs from the second record that were already recorded but were great songs. And this is kind of the beginning of the problem. We made the decision to do that, go record a handful of songs, have our third record and get back out on the road so that we kick the cycle out of it. So we’re a band that makes records, we’re a band that
tours and we’re doing both all of the time. But then we didn’t do that. We cut short the tour for Out Of Exile, went back home, didn’t do anything. And then wrote a bunch more songs, and re-recorded everything and it really took the momentum out of the whole experience of being Audioslave. And I think that’s where the big mistake started. In that I did feel like it was a little bit like some of the members were into, “Well let’s relax and get into the cushy comfort that our lives have become.” And I didn’t like that. I was flying back and forth from Europe where I moved to to work and be in this band and make stuff happen. I never made a record in Los Angeles before Audioslave because they all lived here. I had a little different attitude toward that. I’m not unhappy with how the record turned out, because I think the third record turned out better than it would have. Because we worked with Brendan O’Brien and we re-recorded the songs and we spent more time writing and I think it’s a great record. But just in terms of the band scenario and feeling like “Okay, my hands are kind of tied. If I want to be on the road or I want to be songwriting and this guy or that guy don’t, then I can’t.” And I think that was part of the realization for me. I don’t want to be in a situation where I can’t do music when I want to. There’s no reason really good enough for that to me, because the reality of it for me is that I can make records without those other people. It’s just different records, different kinds of music. But there’s lots of different kinds of music. I like a lot of different stuff. That’s nobody’s fault. Everybody did a lot to make that a great band and to make great records and I’m proud of it. I’m just doing something different now.

With regards to the new album you do have a lot of different sounds on it. What sort of things were you going for and do you feel you accomplished everything you set out to do with it?

The main accomplishment of this record, which is huge for me, the experience of writing it. For years I’ve written alone and for years I was writing alone for Soundgarden records and demo’ing songs in my basement or in a warehouse or wherever I was where I could record in our rehearsal place. It was kind of a dark experience usually and a lot of work. Inside of rooms with no windows. Sometimes it yielded really great stuff and sometimes it didn’t. And ultimately the process wasn’t as great as the outcome. And the outcome was always the focus. On this album I really felt that the process was the most important thing. Everyday I woke up to go work on another song it was really exciting and I was really thrilled to do it and I was really happy everyday doing it. I also didn’t go somewhere to do it. I just stayed at home with my kids. I was in the port-a-studio in my house. And when I took a break I’d be with my family. And I wasn’t sure if that was possible. Could I really write songs without total isolation? And it ended up being the opposite. It helped me focus somehow. I didn’t feel like I had to leave to go write and I didn’t feel like I had to come home when I was done. I was already there. That was huge. Because it was so natural and I’m enjoying every day. Now I’m feeling like the next record is going to be just as much fun. I’m not looking at in cycles anymore. I’m looking at is as ‘Look what I get to do. This is so great. Now I get to go out on the road. That’s so great. Now I get to go play all of these shows. Now I get to go to Iceland for the first time. Now I get to go to Brazil for the first time. Now I get to write more songs.’ I’ve always been a little bit embarrassed by the attitude, particularly by people from my
generation have had, about the idea that being recording artists and touring and playing concerts is somehow a punk rock guilt thing. That there’s something wrong with it or it’s a hassle. Because it’s not a hassle, it’s a privilege. I used to clean up fish guts with my hands for a living. I had a job like ten hours a day, six days a week. Now I get to do this. That’s a feeling that comes up in bands a lot. A group of dudes will get self-conscious about a lot of different things. And they’ll also complain. No one complains more than guys in successful rock bands. Certainly more, I’m sure, than guys in unsuccessful rock bands. That always bothered me. I always felt like a stooge because of that. As corny as it may sound I don’t want to live my life like I’m doing everybody favors. Because I know what the reality is. I’m not an idiot. I’m lucky to be able to do this.

Official Chris Cornell Website

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