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Monday, April 4, 2011

Chris Cornell reflects on Soundgarden, the Beatles and why he loves/hates the Internet

As the world waits patiently for Soundgarden's imminent return to the stage after fading away in 1997, frontman and grunge-era poster boy Chris Cornell comes to town toting nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a songbook covering his entire career. That means old-school Soundgarden jams and solo material, and probably even a song or two by Audioslave that other band he was in for a minute are on the set list. You might hear a few Beatles covers as well. William Elliot Whitmore also performs. Tonight. $30-$35 Sold out. Center Stage. 1374 West Peachtree St. 404-885-1365.


Chad Radford: On your current tour, you’re playing acoustic versions of songs that cover your entire career. It seems to me like you’re in a reflective mood.

Chris Cornell: It’s an interesting thing because on the one hand the show can be a combination of anything I’ve ever done, and it can go really far back. But also, I’ve never done anything like this as a tour before so it feels very fresh and new to me. The first show I ever did like this was in Seattle in the late ‘80s and I really liked it, but I never went back. I did some acoustic songs here and there — a song called “Seasons” for the Singles soundtrack, and an acoustic version of “Suicide” for another movie soundtrack — but I’ve never done it like this. So as a career retrospective it does look all the way back, but as a tour it feels very new.

Is it difficult to play these songs with just you and a guitar on stage? There’s no team to pick up the slack.

I haven’t done it night after night, but the very first time I sat down in Stockholm and committed to doing a whole show like this, I felt like ‘is it possible for me to entertain a room full of people with just me and a guitar? Entertain a room full of people for over an hour? 'That was a threshold that I had to step over and once I did that it was a great experience, and it led me to want to do it. That was a few years ago.

And you know, there’s this intimacy thing that happens with a show like this, and that becomes more important than anything else. If you’re in a rock band, especially a loud, aggressive one, you can make that decision every night when you go out on stage, if you feel like connecting with the audience, literally, or not. You can decide that ‘I’m going to be talkative,’ or ‘I’m going to address this certain person,’ or ‘I’m going to let this person come on stage and sing their national anthem.’ Whatever it is. Or you can decide ‘I’m not even going to look up,’ and just kind of dig in to your instrument and get carried away by the band. That all kind of works, but when it’s an acoustic performance and it’s just you and the audience, there is no choice. It’s intimate no matter what. It’s like jumping on a train that’s going 90 miles an hour. The first jump is scary, but once you’re on it, you’re on it.

What you’re talking about is sort of the same thing that makes singer/songwriter types, like Will Oldham make the distinction between Will Oldham and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

I think at different times in my life I’ve had different perspectives on it. In my twenties the perspective was more trying to understand am I a different person when I’m on stage fronting a band? If so, who is that person? Or who should that person be? In the very beginning of Soundgarden there was a certain persona that just kind of came out of me — an aggressive, angry, long-haired guy. Who was very visceral and aggressive on stage. Then when we started touring and I saw other bands where the singer would come out and be that same guy, I started watching and for the first time I became conscious of it? Am I that? Is this an act? I never thought of it as an act before then. But afterward I guess it did start to feel like an act. So I kind of had to stop and figure out who I was. That’s all the kind of shit that I had to go through. Everyone goes through that in the context of their life, when they’re in their twenties. Eventually that goes away, and now what do I do? I’m still the same guy!

It’s true. No matter where you go, there you are.

Right, and whoever that is, I just don’t care (laughs). I’m not going to worry about it. With someone like Will Oldham, if he’s playing singer songwriter stuff, or if there’s any kind of instrumentation around him, there’s something that’s uniquely and openly him. There’s also probably something else that’s just otherworldly going on and you get transported there. That’s probably just his zone that he always has no matter what he does.

How have your songs changed since you’ve been playing them like this?

The biggest difference for me, in terms of playing older songs, is that they become a weird time machine. I don’t know how the memory works as it relates to colors and sense and music. For example. You grow up in your hometown and then you leave and then come back 20 years later and you’ll hear a bell tower or a train whistle or a horn on a boat — something that’s just inherently, without you realizing it, always been a symbol of the environment. It triggers memories that are so vivid, no matter how far back they go. So it’s as if no time has gone by at all when I’m playing a song that’s 20 years old sometimes. I can remember the room I was sitting in when I was coming up with the parts. And what I was thinking about when I wrote every line.

I suppose that there’s a little bit of invention going on when I play them as well. I’ll do an inversion of a chord in a different way or step up to a chord change in a different way that makes more sense and say, ‘What? Why didn’t I figure out that there was a better way to do it when I was writing it?’ Singing is the same way. Whether it’s a song that I wrote 8 years ago or 20 years ago, and I won’t know it until I refer back to an old recording and I realize that I sing completely differently now.

You’re not screaming this time around either.

Sometimes that comes across anyway, but in terms of singing an old song to an acoustic guitar, there are reinterpretations where I’ll scream, but I’ll do it differently. A lot of the songs that I’m doing don’t require that much of a change.

Were you the principle songwriter for Soundgarden and Audioslave?

With both bands it was extremely democratic. With Soundgarden, because of its long history, we have periods where things where one way and then they would change, including Harry Yamamoto being a collaborator and then Ben Shepherd stepping in and taking on that role, and having completely different sensibilities but filling the shoes in a diff way. As a member of a band where you’re writing most of the lyrics you’re perceived as being the primary songwriter. But it was very democratic. Soundgarden was, and still is, a band where everyone brought in their own musical ideas. When Matt’s bringing in new songs we’re learning them the way he wants to play them. Everybody contributes that way and it’s a big part of what makes us sound uniquely that way.

When you were growing up was there a songwriter that really resonated with you, and shaped your approach to songwriting?

Before I got into songwriting, the Beatles had the biggest impact on me musically. That had to do with how young I was, and getting into their whole catalog at the same time. I had stolen a stack of Beatles vinyl that covered their whole career. Two of the records were those ‘best of’ era compilations — those double record sets where one was red and one was blue.

I listened to it all but I gravitated toward the later stuff. Even though I was 9 years old, and had no way of knowing. It was influential in every way as a songwriter and as a singer. Essentially everyone in that band sang at some point. I didn’t know who was who, or if there even was a primary singer, and that had an impact on me. I’ve always approached singing songs in the studio in terms of what is going to sound the best texturally. I’ve never been too worried about having my own specific style as I have in singing a style that’s appropriate to the song. That’s where my range comes from. I really wanted it to sound a certain way, but wanted it to sound, in a certain sense, like a fictional character who is the narrator singing this song.

And in terms of production, those albums influenced me hugely and it took me years to understand that I was doing things a certain way because I loved the way they sound on Beatles records. Sounds and textures and panning and funny, dramatic mixes — what would normally be an inconsequential part where someone sang, or a triangle or something that would come from nowhere, and be the loudest part and then kind of disappear awkwardly. Because it was the Beatles, you didn’t question it. All of that had a huge effect on me.

It wasn’t like the story that I hear a lot of times, where some kid is sitting in his bedroom and he hears KISS for the first time, picks up a guitar and becomes Slash. I didn’t have that moment. I never thought that I would be capable of doing something like that. I was discovering that music would be important in my life as a listener and as a fan. Then I spent the next several years seeking out records and finding music, all the way into kind of the post-punk period where you would have to go to Canada to find certain records that you couldn’t find in Seattle. It became a huge part of my life and it still is. I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet because on one hand I think mp3s sound awful. But on the other hand, anything that I hear about I can find there, including stuff that I could never ever find when I was a 20 year-old kid. And now I get to listen to it, and I really enjoy that…

Yeah, everything is just two mouse clicks away…

Right!?!? Crazy stuff that I could never find when I was a kid.

You mentioned the Beatles and punk rock in the same sentence. I think those two things are closely related because they both kind of rewrote the book…

What the Beatles had a hand in creating kind of went away at some point, and punk rock helped bring it back. That is, the Beatles created an environment where if you were a band, not only could you do your own material, but you didn’t have any credibility if you didn’t do your own material. Before the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along it was very difficult for an artist to do their own material. They had songs pushed on them by the label / publicist / manager which was usually one guy who owned everything.

Also, labels and managers were never convinced that an artist or a singer or a stage performer would have the ability to write a good song. The Beatles changed that.

Another thing, in that environment it also became important to always be pushing the envelope. That has gone back and forth over the years. Punk rock was the resurgence of that attitude, especially with the post-punk and indie scenes. If you weren’t doing something that someone hadn’t ever heard before, nobody wanted to listen to you. With commercial music now, whether it be pop, rock, or whatever it is, it’s so stringent. If Jimi Hendrix were to come out now with a song like “Let Me Stand Next To Your Fire,” the radio would never play it because it’s too aggressive. Too wild. That seems kind of ridiculous when you think about the fact that it’s 2011. We are more conservative about music now than we were back then. Why?

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