Chris Cornell: Alive in the Super Unknown
Originally published in Guitar World, August 2009
Former Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell scraps his familiar musical style and enjoys an artistic rebirth with Scream, his new Timbaland-produced disc.
Chris Cornell sits in the Guitar World offices, draping his lanky frame on a chair he obviously finds uncomfortable, and ponders the position he’s in—musically, that is.
His new album is called Scream, and belying the title, it’s something he’s doing little of. He’s deep-sixed his trademark paint-peeling vocal wail and is “for once, actually singing,” he says. “I haven’t done a lot of it during my career, and I have to say, it feels pretty good.”
Along with his ferocious vocal style, Cornell has ditched the raging guitar tunes of his past on Scream, an au courant collaboration with noted hip-hop producer Timbaland. (The album’s cover couldn’t be less subtle or symbolic, featuring Cornell in midair, ready to demolish a guitar in a way not seen since the days of Kurt Cobain.) So far, the vast amount of synths, loops and dance beats that make up the album’s musical bed have not connected with fans, and the former Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman finds the situation both perplexing and to be expected.
“Any time you take a left turn as an artist, it’s bound to throw people a bit,” Cornell notes. “Still, I would hope that everybody can get past what I’m not doing on the record and listen to what I am doing. I’m alive on this record! There’s just as much heart in these songs as in anything I’ve ever done.
“See, I’ve already done ‘Black Hole Sun.’ I already did ‘Rusty Cage.’ I don’t need to do them again. The second you start writing to please people, you may as well be a short-order cook. That’s not me.”
GUITAR WORLD You seem to be of two minds about Scream: you understand why your fans don’t “get” it, but it’s troubling to you, too.
CHRIS CORNELL Well, sure. It is troubling to me, but yes, I did anticipate it. I understand why people are surprised at the sound—“Where’s the heavy rock?” “Where’s the big guitars?” But I couldn’t let that be my overriding thought when making the album. In fact, going into it, I pretty much knew that a big portion of my audience might not appreciate it.
GW I know you have to do what you need to do as an artist. Still, there’s art and there’s commerce.
CORNELL I know the math involved, but the minute you think about the commerce side of things, you’re dead. I can think about commerce when touring—there’s budgets for everything on a tour. When making an album, though, it has to start with an album. I can’t make a record trying to please people. I know this sounds like a patented artist response, but I have to please myself.
I think that’s the danger sometimes. People associate me so much with heavy, aggressive guitar music—Soundgarden, Audioslave—that the second I do something else they overreact. “What’s he doing?” “He’s gone soft.” “He can’t do that! That sounds like pop music.” You don’t know how stifling being pigeonholed is until it actually happens to you.
GW I think what’s throwing people is that this is such a radical split from what you’ve done in the past. It’s almost as if Metallica did a folk album.
CORNELL [laughs] You know, if they wanted to do a folk album, I’m sure I’d want to hear it.
GW What made you decide to work with Timbaland?
CORNELL During our discussions we met pretty close in the middle: he wanted to do something that rocked more, and I wanted to do something with more electronics and loops. Plus, I liked not knowing how it would turn out. I’ve made a lot of records where I knew how they would sound before we even went in the studio. I’m not saying they’re bad records, but I can’t say I felt the same amount of danger as I did with this one. Danger’s a good thing for an artist.