INTERVIEW BY JEFF HO
INTRODUCTION BY JEFF HO
PHOTOS BY MAX VADUKUL and LISA HILL
Noted for being the frontman of the super groups, Soundgarden, Audioslave, and Temple of the Dog, Chris Cornell has gone solo. This is a brief glimpse into his life as a vocalist, songwriter, musician, humanitarian and environmentalist. A major force behind the Seattle music scene speaks.
“I REMEMBER I HAD THIS MAP UP ON THE WALL THAT WAS JUST FOR DECORATION. WHEN SOMEONE WOULD CALL WITH A MESSAGE FROM A RECORD COMPANY, I WOULD WRITE THE PHONE NUMBERS ON THE MAP. THAT MAP AND THAT PHONE WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE SEATTLE MUSIC SCENE GETTING MAJOR LABEL INTEREST. FROM THAT POINT, IT WAS A PRETTY MAGICAL TIME.”
Hello, Chris. How’s it going?
Good, how are you?
Fine. Thanks for doing the interview.
Oh, no problem.
Where did you grow up?
When did you first get interested in music?
I was eight years old when I first started experimenting with music and having fun with it. My mom bought an old upright piano and put it in our basement. I remember it was brush painted black. It just sat there, so I started writing songs on it. I would just compose these little songs that I would remember. Then in school, I was in a music class. I ended up playing one of my songs for my teacher. When I was nine years old, she took me to a teacher’s conference at the University of Washington because she wanted me to play one of my songs that I’d written without knowing how to play the piano. She wanted the other teachers to see. Then I took piano lessons, but I wasn’t really into that. I learned how to read music. I didn’t hate it, necessarily, but it was like homework. I had to practice and I hated that. It was too much like school, so I quit. I played guitar a little just because my older brother had one. I became a fan of listening to music at a pretty early age. That was something I did as an activity. I would sit alone in my room and listen to records a lot. That was a big part of my childhood. There was no inclination that I would play music or write music until I was 17.
What happened then?
I’d always wanted a drum kit and was never allowed to have one. At that age, I was old enough to buy my own, so I got a drum kit for $50. Within a week, I was in a band. For the first time in my life, I felt encouraged. It was the first time anybody ever said to me, “You’re good at that. I like that.” Almost overnight, I found my place. I felt like, “This is what I do. This is who I am.” Up until then, I’d gotten horrible grades in school and I didn’t play sports. I didn’t have any problems socially, but I wasn’t particularly outgoing. From that point on, it was about living music in every aspect. Becoming a singer and a songwriter just followed that. I’d come to the realization, after a few years of being in bands, that my dream band wasn’t going to magically appear. I was going to have to make it. So I learned to sing, play guitar and bass, write songs and lyrics, and whatever else was needed.
Do you remember the name of your first band?
The first band I was in was called the Jones Street Band because that was the street we lived on. The way that started was because my bedroom was in the garage, and I put my drum kit in there and practiced. One of my neighbors down the street heard it and came over and knocked on the door. He said, “My name’s Mark. I play bass. Let’s start a band.” He knew people in the neighborhood, and next thing you know, we had two amazing guitar players. One was 15 years old and the other was 17. They were great, so we started a band. It went from there very quickly. From age 17 to 20, I was in a lot of different bands. I kept looking for a band with great songs or a particular vibe. That’s what was missing. Eventually, I met the original members of Soundgarden and we were all in this awful band together. We all hated it and quit and then we started Soundgarden. The kind of music that we ended up writing fit into the “indie scene” at the time. There were other bands in that scene, but it was very small. That’s what slowly grew into what people know as the “Seattle scene”.
Did you sing in any of those bands?
I would sing like one song, from the drums. I’d usually sing one song live and it would always go over well. I had a choirboy singing voice as a kid, but after puberty, my range was gone. I had a gravely, bluesy voice, but my songs got a good response. When Soundgarden started, I’d just started to toy with the idea of singing in a band. I’d been in all these bands where nobody could sing. I was just the drummer, but I was thinking, “I’m not great, but I can do better than you.” With Soundgarden, I sang about 80 percent of the songs and the other 20 percent, Hiro Yamamoto sang. We did that for about a year, kicking around Seattle. After that, I was sick of it. We were starting to write songs that were really aggressive, making them difficult to sing and play drums at the same time. I thought, “How far can that go?” We can sound great on a record, but a drummer singing every single song is kind of a novelty. I knew I wasn’t as good of a singer as I could be because of it, so we finally got a different drummer. We were either going to get a drummer or a singer, whichever one we found first, but there were no singers, so I ended up doing that. One thing led to another. Becoming a real singer came from being in Soundgarden and writing songs, gigging and learning how to sing – all at the same time.
Did you ever have any formal singing lessons?
Not until the mid ’90s, after Superunknown came out. I was touring a lot and started having problems with my voice because I was smoking. I was overdoing it. I was singing songs that were really difficult to do, and playing guitar at the same time. There are certain things you can learn to help you do that right. Nobody in rock plays an instrument the way it’s supposed to be done, but learning those rudimentary ideas is still a good idea. I got a little bit of training here and there, and I’ve gone a long way with that. In terms of vocal coaching over ten years, I’ve had six lessons. It’s helped at times. As a rock singer, you have to take what works for you. Most vocal training is based on opera singing. Rock is not opera, but applying some of those techniques has helped me a lot.
How did you meet Andrew Wood?
He was just a guy that was around in the early days of Soundgarden. He had a band called Malfunkshun. It was him, his brother and Regan Hagar, who was a drummer who’s been in several different bands since that time. I saw them here and there, when Soundgarden was first forming. Andrew Wood was the kind of person that stood out in the early days of the Seattle scene. He was this little guy with really long, blond hair. He dressed crazy, and he had crazy-looking friends. He was a self-realized rock star even before anyone knew who he was. He was just born like that. Kim Thayil, Soundgarden’s guitar player, worked with him, so they knew each other. I went to a couple of Malfunkshun shows and we met. I had rented a house and, although I lived there by myself for a while, in order to keep paying the rent, I needed a roommate. I called Stone Gossard, from Pearl Jam, who still lived at home, but he said he preferred to just stay at home. Andy had just gotten out of rehab and he needed a place to live. It was really out of character for me to let a guy that I didn’t know be my roommate, but that’s what happened.
How long did you guys live together?
It was about a year, but it was during a really interesting time. He was starting to come into his own as a songwriter and so was I. It wasn’t long after that, Mother Love Bone formed. He was in Malfunkshun that whole time. That was around the time that I started getting phone calls from record labels from outside Seattle. I remember I had this map up on the wall that was just for decoration. When someone would call with a message from a record company, I would write the phone numbers on the map. That was the beginning of that. That map and that phone was the beginning of the Seattle music scene getting major label interest. From that point, it was a pretty magical time. Before that, no record labels called anyone in Seattle for anything. It was one of those moments that you’d never imagine would happen. And it happened to both of us. It was great. That was a big part of the tragedy. When something like that happens in your life and your friend is having the same experience, it’s pretty amazing. That doesn’t happen very often. Maybe during the British Invasion, it happened for some of those bands, but other than that, it’s a pretty unusual thing.
When did you feel that the rest of the world acknowledged what you were doing?
There was a little neighborhood fanzine called the Village Voice in New York that did an article on Soundgarden. This was a magazine that was looked at as a very serious and reputable publication. That kind of legitimized everything internationally. They were doing this big article on our band, and we realized that it wasn’t just Seattle reading it. We realized that we weren’t just dreaming or pretending that we’re going to mean something, we actually did. They did an extensive article on Soundgarden, even before any publication in Seattle did. That was the beginning of our realization that we had an impact outside of Seattle. This was before we had even released anything.
What year was that?
While you were in Soundgarden, you formed Temple of the Dog. Was that a tribute to Andrew?
A few of the songs were. That was our way of dealing with it. Two of the members of the band were really close friends with Mother Love Bone: Matt Cameron, Soundgarden’s drummer, and Mike McCready, who was the guitar player with Stone Gossard in a band that ended up becoming Pearl Jam. That’s how it went.
In the music scene of the ’90s, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were the biggest groups around. Were you friends with Kurt Cobain?
I knew him, but we weren’t really buddies. I was friends with everyone in Pearl Jam. I played shows with Kurt, and we were fans of each other’s bands at the time.
Did his suicide affect you in any way?
Not really. People that aren’t musicians kill themselves every day. It happens to families. It happens all the time. It’s always someone you’d never suspect. Usually, when someone does it, you never see it coming. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew he had issues, but whatever he had going on in his life had nothing to do with me. I had my own thing going on. As much as we were bands from the same city, we hadn’t been living in the same city for years. We were all touring internationally. We weren’t hanging out in Seattle at the same clubs anymore. We were all over the world working or making records.
How did you get involved with Audioslave?
I had put out a solo record after Soundgarden split up and I toured for a while. I had finished doing that and was getting ready to start writing for my next solo album, when I started getting phone calls from Rick Rubin. I had never worked with Rick, but we were friends. I had met Tom Morello two or three times. I started getting phone messages from them about writing a record. Rick’s thought was that we could be this amazing band. So we all got in a room together and it turned out great. It seemed like it would be a great thing, and it was.
Creatively, did you think it was a good thing?
Yeah, it was a fantastic thing. It was better than I initially thought. I imagined, for example, the song “Cochise” was the obvious thing. It was those guys doing their groove, the riffs that they do and having someone singing over it, versus having someone ranting over it. The first song we wrote, the first day we got together, was “Light My Way”. It was a big riff song with a melodic verse. Then it immediately went in other directions. We wrote “I’m a Highway” with Stone. We wrote things that I didn’t expect. It was more about lyrical songwriting and sounding melodic. I think they were trying to make a bridge to me. They were writing music that they thought I would want to do. They were taking huge strides musically from what they used to do. It was really exciting. It was great.
What made you decide to split up?
I quit based on a lot of different things. We made three great records. We had a great work ethic when it came to songwriting, but we wrote songs in one specific way. By the end of the third record, we’d come to the end of the road. We’d have to do things in a different way in order to make an interesting fourth record. At the same time, we’d never really agreed on aspects of how we were going to conduct business as a band and who was going to represent us in different areas. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault, but we were spending a lot of time arguing about it and negotiating on things to come to terms with. That’s not what I wanted to do. I knew that at the very beginning. I had a solo career and I’d be happy to be in the band as long as it’s fun and there’s no drama. I’d been through that and they’d been through that, too. Once that drama started to show up again, I moved on.
Cool. Getting back to Soundgarden: was that how you left that band too?
I think with Soundgarden, half of the band just didn’t want to do it anymore. Being in a band that’s internationally famous and being under pressure to write, record and go on tour was just too much for a band that wasn’t even into that concept to begin with. But no one was really doing anything about it. No one was really making any decisions. We made our last record, Down on the Upside, which was self-produced. It’s my favorite record. The songs are great and it sounds great. We all wanted to go out on a high note. We were all still friends. A week after we broke up, dissolved all the partnerships and concluded the business, everyone was really happy. We had a long run, we did great things musically and we went out on a creative high, so it was great.