Grunge icon and incorrigible experimentator on his latest collaboration
By Bobin James
Chris Cornell and his band Soundgarden, alongside Pearl Jam and Nirvana, pioneered the Seattle grunge movement in the mid-Eighties. He later went on to front Audioslave, a supergroup of sorts that emerged from the ashes of Rage Against the Machine. Timbaland has - since he began in the mid-Nineties - become one of the most wanted (and consequently, one of the highest paid) producers in rap/hip-hop/R&B, having produced for everyone from Nelly Furtado to Madonna to Justin Timberlake. (His collaborations with the latter won Grammys for Best Dance Recordings in 2007 and 2008.)
So, many an eyebrow was raised, and many snooks cocked last year, when the Rock Singer announced his intention of collaborating with the Super Producer on his next solo album, Scream (releasing March 9). The idea of these two dissimilar – in terms of their respective genres – musicians coming together struck many as indigestible and incomprehensible. “Sellout!” cried many. But then, Cornell’s been no stranger to that cry. 1989: Soundgarden sign on to a major label. Sellout! 1999: Cornell releases first solo album, Euphoria Morning, with a stripped-down sound. Sellout! 2001: He joins hands with the remaining members of Rage Against the Machine and forms Audioslave. You guessed it, sellout!
But what these critics failed to see was that Cornell was simply doing exactly what he wanted. He - being not one to hang on to his past legacy - made music that represented where he was at that point in time. (Now, if he were to continue in the Soundgarden vein, only to appease his legion of fans, that would have been a sellout.) And that’s what came across on that (very) early morning phone-call from Los Angeles: Chris Cornell had his boots firmly dug into the present and he was thoroughly enjoying the creative freedom that Scream offered him.
Chris, just how did this collaboration with Timbaland come about? It seems very unlikely, with you coming from the space that you do.
It was just an idea that started off with the thought of having a remix done for a song and then talking about doing a couple of original songs. Instead, then that grew into an entire album of those songs, which really, I thought, would be something that would be kind of a challenging and interesting thing to do.
Were you familiar with Timbaland’s music before this entire project started?
Yes, I had caught a bit from different artists over a period of different years. Some things that I didn’t know he did necessarily when I first heard them, but I was somewhat aware.
When I first heard the first track off the new album – ‘Part of Me’ – I will admit, I was shocked. I wasn’t quite expecting that kind of sound. But after a few listens, it’s grown on me and it now happens to be one of my favourite tracks on the album. When getting into this collaboration, did you walk in with the understanding that yes, there might be a lot of fans who would be put off by the fact that I am collaborating with Timbaland?
Oh yeah, I mean, that is kind of obvious, isn’t it. From the conception of even doing this - we’d only done one song - it was obvious that people would go on and make a decision about it. Even if they heard it, they wouldn’t necessarily be into some of the sounds on the album: The way the album is made, that’s kinda pretty obvious.
You have said in another earlier interview that you were very jealous when you heard a Missy Elliott track produced by Timbaland. You said, “Hip-hop is so trippy; why can’t rock be so trippy?”
Oh yeah. I was referring to an element of freedom in terms of what was inside the track - what was allowed to be part of the song. In a band environment, there’s really only that much you can do. You end up being confined to the basic instruments that everybody in the band plays and work with that. And you can kind of step outside of that, but depending on the band you’re in, it’s not always that easy to do. In the world of hip-hop, it’s emotion that matters first. While the worse that it could get would be kind of taking the hook from a song that was already a pop hit and rapping over that: To me that’s not freedom, that’s taking someone else’s song and giving it new life I suppose, but it’s not being creative. But there is an aspect of hip hop that is very creative, like making something new out of any sound or any loop or anything. And making songs out of anything that could generate a tone.
Yeah, and there’s a whole lot of that on this album. Chris, in your opinion, what makes for a good song? What makes for good music?
What makes any music good, you mean?
Yes, for you personally as a listener, or as a musician who’s making his music, what is it that you look for?
I don’t know if it’s something that can be described as necessarily tangible. I think… it’s something that hits me in the gut or makes me feel a particular way or something… I am not sure you can put words to that. That’s sort of, I suppose, the way one might describe genres. You know, like I like music that’s aggressive, or I like music that isn’t, or is melodic. With me, personally, I like all sorts of music. So I don’t know… it just has to somehow appeal to me, I think, on some gut level.
What was the process of songwriting for this album? Did you come in with lyrics, did Timbaland come in with sounds in mind? How did it work?
We really kind of just wrote it one song at a time. We wrote everything from scratch after the album started. So we didn’t really come in with [anything]. Tim didn’t come in with a bunch of beats and I didn’t come in with a lot of lyrics or riffs or anything like that. We just started from the first song which was basically a beat and then sort of created a song out of it. Then we would continue on and we ended up doing that over the course of the album – this sort of taking one song at a time, there [being] no conception from the beginning about what we would do, about making the album sound a particular way.
Would this be one of your fastest albums ever?
Maybe, in some ways. There were parts that we put together very quickly. But in terms of turning it into what it became - which is an hour of continuous music and the mixing and all that - that actually took quite a while. I think the writing of the basic songs was fairly quick, but overall it wasn’t one of my fastest albums.
You guys came out with some 20 songs or so in 4 or 5 weeks…
Yeah, I think in about 5 weeks, 6 weeks I think, we had about 20 songs.
Coming to the songs, ‘Ground Zero’ seems to be one of my favourites so far, especially the segue from ‘Get Up.’ You also seem to be having a blast on ‘Ground Zero.’ Would that be right?
Yeah, that song actually was… the lyrics were written and all of the vocals recorded to pretty much to nothing but a drum beat. There was nothing else there yet. So it ended up being a song that kind of took shape long after it was designed. But that was one of my early favourites: The tempo of that, the feeling of that which is very reminiscent to me of kind of R&B from the mid-Seventies, which was the music that I was really into.
Another couple of favourites for me would be ‘Long Gone’ and ‘Climbing Up the Walls’ – I really love the chorus in the latter. How did you come up with ‘Climbing Up the Walls?’
Well, it was a really pretty simple beat, and I just was kind of coming up with an idea of what the music may be if I were to go with some sort of lyrics. Which is pretty much how I came up with ideas for everything on this album. And usually if I don’t come up with an idea lyric, where I am looking for music for something, well, the feeling of the music will inspire the lyric idea. So this was something that had to be really fast, I started writing down ideas and it became the song as you hear it pretty quickly.
On ‘Watch Out,’ you’ve got this great guitar riff going, which could have been from an Audioslave song. I hear the guitar prominently in a couple of other tracks. So was that a conscious effort on your part to say, ‘Let me put in the guitar to acknowledge my rock history’?
No, I didn’t think about that on any of the songs. You know, each song was created as an individual song that should really sound good with whatever should sound good or whatever would be the best thing for the song, and I didn’t think about instrumentation too much. Obviously, we weren’t trying to do anything more than what the song seemed to require, what the song wanted. There were songs where [afterwards] I actually added instruments to or took away. There were a lot of instruments that I took away in mixing - I made choices. The song sounded better sometimes, more lush sometimes. Sometimes it sounded better with less - bare minimal - depending on the song…
You seemed to have worked with a lot of writers on this record, including Justine Timberlake and John Mayer. How different was it from your earlier experiences of one, with bands, and two, when you were doing solo albums like Carry On and Euphoria Morning?
Oh, I mean, it was different. It was more similar to working with someone in a band. But there really aren’t that many comparisons that I think I can make, because the recording of the album was so different. The recording happened simultaneously as the writing of the album, so there’s nothing I can compare it to. Usually, whether I was making a solo album, or it’s a band, I would be writing songs and demo-ing them first and then rehearsing them with a band… and then recording them after the fact that it’s been rehearsed and performed and I suppose arranged to refinement. In this particular way of recording albums, a lot of lyrics were written and the vocals were recorded before the song was even arranged. So it was very different that way. A lot of parts were added afterwards. The challenge of that I suppose is that it’s like a painting: When you are finished, somebody has to make decisions as to when the song is finished and what should be included on it and… On most of the songs, the arrangements are pretty obvious. But some of them – like the song ‘Long Gone’ – they weren’t defined until it got to mixing. When I realised that nobody had really thought it through the way that I thought it should go… and there was a lot of arranging happening at the last minute. And obviously you don’t do that in a band, where the arrangement happens even before you start recording…
Do you think you can pick three favourite songs of yours from this album?
I really wouldn’t… One – and I suppose I might be partial to this because it’s not one that people bring up - I really like ‘Time’ a lot. And ‘Never Far Away’ - I also think it’s very special. I think the moment of going into ‘Never Far Away’ is probably one of my favourite moments on the album. When I say that, I am speaking of it in terms of that the mood is going from one song to the next. And that which takes you out of ‘Ground Zero’ and into ‘Never Far Away’ is really a magical moment for me on the album. But also the album as a whole is something you should give yourself up to from beginning to end. Whether I am performing it or listening to it, it’s something that needs to be heard from beginning to end.
Chris, anybody else you would love to work with? Do you have a wish list of people you would like to work with in the future? Where do we see Chris Cornell going from here?
I mean, I don’t know… I’m sort of still in the middle of working on this project. And now I want to go out on tour and perform it. I have other things building up in my head, a lot of ideas about what I could do next, but I haven’t really thought about it so seriously.
(January 27, 2009)
© Bobin James/Rolling Stone India, 2009