Chris Cornell On 'Scream' Criticism, Soundgarden Reunion, Trent Reznor's Twitter Slam and More

So, Chris Cornell: What's a rock god like you doing in a electro-funk space like this?

That's the burning question now that Cornell has released "Scream," a solo album that finds the former Soundgarden and Audioslave singer teaming up on a club-ready R&B record with hip-hop hitmaker Timbaland and mood-rock specialist Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic.

The album has been receiving fairly horrible reviews, and not just from music critics. In a recent Twitter diss, Trent Reznor wrote: "You know that feeling you get when somebody embarrasses themselves so badly YOU feel uncomfortable? Heard Chris Cornell's record? Jesus."

Cornell called to discuss his new project -- and the reaction to it -- in advance of Sunday's sold-out 9:30 club concert.

Suffice it to say that "Scream" hasn't been the most enthusiastically received album that you've ever made. Has the blowback surprised you, or did you sort of anticipate it because of where you've been and where this project was taking you?
I think it's pretty obvious. I did the math as soon as I made the decision to make that record. But it also depends on where you go, in terms of how enthusiastically it's been received. In some places, it's been received incredibly well. If you go right to the fans that like specifically the more hard-rock side of what I do, it's sort of an obvious script of that's going to be read, even by critics.

Does some of the criticism sting when it's some of your own fans saying, "Hey, I really don't like what you're doing here"?
No, I would be stupid to assume that they would like it. I would be stupid to think that everybody would, like, get into something that's really sort of an electronic rock record. In terms of its instrumentation, it's entirely different than what they're used to or what they might even ever want to hear. It doesn't sting at all. At the same time, there's a huge group of people getting behind it. Underground DJ culture is tearing this record up, and they're pretty snobby about what it is that they get into.

From what I hear from other people, this album is just two years ahead of its time. But that's also still unrelated to my older fans. As music changes and the landscape of music and the styles of music that become popular change, it still doesn't mean that somebody in their 30s that's been listening to me since they were a teenager is going to like where that goes. This record is just very different. I completely understand it.

And it's not an ego thing. To me, music shouldn't be ego-driven. When you go out on stage and play songs, it is. But when you're sitting in a room, writing songs, it's a completely different process. It's a completely different place. It's a creative place, a musical place. It has nothing to do with who likes what. As a fan, that's something I would be disappointed in; I certainly would not ever want a band that I'm a fan of to be worried about what I think when they create what they do. The whole point is that they create what they do, and then I go into that environment if I want.

(Read the rest of the interview after the jump.)

So you're saying that if, I don't know, Trent Reznor, makes an album that you don't particularly care for, you're not going to go out and blast it?
No. That's kind of childish. To be honest, if I wanted to go out to blast records that I hate, I would be sitting on Twitter 24 hours a day blasting 96 percent of what comes out -- maybe 98 percent of what comes out. (Laughs.) There's a lot of music that I don't like.

But it's not a popularity contest. It's not campaigning, either. And also, it's not the first time I've been in this position. When Soundgarden first came out, we were basically part of -- and wanted to be part of -- this post-punk indie scene in the U.S. And then we suddenly had this particular moment when he wrote songs like "Incessant Mace" on that SST record and "Nothing to Say" on the first Sub Pop record and we were somehow naturally drawing from these influences of '70s hard rock, which at the time couldn't have been less popular and less cool. There was tension in that, and we did it anyway.

A lot of people hated it, even people who were fans of us and had liked what we'd done until then hated it. They didn't get it. That was exciting, actually. I like that feeling. I like the idea of not being comfortable, preaching to the choir, coming out with a new record, seeing people blow up online saying, "This reminds me of that song from that other record 10 years ago." Ten years is a long [expletive] time to me. Ten years ago, I made a solo album ["Euphoria Morning"] that was completely unlike anything like I'd ever done. So I feel pretty great about where I am musically.

It seems like your primary collaborators worked against you perceptually. Timbaland and Ryan Tedder are a long, long way from Terry Date and Michael Beinhorn.
That's where that script comes in. It's sort of like you're supposed to respond that way if you read those names. It doesn't even allow the music to really have a say. That's the typical response. And that's the math that I did as soon as I thought about doing the album. It wasn't surprising at all.

What was the collaborative process like with those guys?
Ryan, I think I saw for about 10 minutes in the entire process. We never really worked together. Most of the time I was working in the studio, Timbaland would come in with an idea. We'd listen to a beat idea, he'd talk about where he thought it could go directionally in terms of melodies -- never lyrics, really. He would do what he'd call coaching: "This is the way I'd approach it." And that's it; he was done. Then I would write lyrics and sing.

I actually did album-keeper vocals before a lot of the instruments were played. He would listen to that and bring in another idea, and we kept working on it like that. As we continued to go, we'd go back to older songs and would be adding things the whole time. It was the opposite of making a rock record in that there was never a band assembled, rehearsing a song arrangement to make sure it was the way they wanted it. It was the epitome of modern recording. I was arranging songs up until the final mixes, changing where choruses and bridges went via editing.

I guess the point of making a solo album is being able to do whatever you want, without having to negotiate with your bandmates, right? "Euphoria Morning" wasn't anything like the Soundgarden albums that preceded it.
Well, I think anybody should be able to do whatever the hell they want. I'm sure I could start a band tomorrow that would have different influences and would want to do something completely different than anything I've done. But yeah, one of the thing that probably influenced the decision to make this album was: Well look, if I'm going to go out to be a solo artist, it's because I want to do something different without having to wait on someone else's schedule or hobbies or be limited by other people's prejudices. I'd be kind of stupid not to exercise that. That was definitely part of it.

Since the split-up of Soundgarden, the only pressure I ever felt was to do something more similar, only more commercial. I think that's sort of typical if you look at frontmen leaving rock bands that had big success: Do something similar to what you're known for, but a little more commercial and that's going to work out for you. But I never really wanted to do that. I had too much respect for the band. Even though I wrote almost all of the songs that were radio singles, that's why I didn't play guitar when Audioslave formed. I thought: If I'm playing the riff and I'm writing the vocal melodies and singing, it's not a new thing. So I refused. I did write guitar parts and ended up writing some whole songs, but for the most part, I stayed away from it. I just wanted to respond to what they did, and it worked. It didn't sound anything like Soundgarden, thank god. I was just never attracted to it.

I think you can create a monster, which is an audience, and in creating that monster, you find out what that monster likes to eat, and then you feed it. You do that for your career and you do really well. A lot of bands and individuals have learned to do that, but I'm just not built that way. I am someone that listens to a lot of different music and gets inspired by it. It's a little bit like you're a sports freak and you like to watch everything: You love baseball, you love football, you love basketball, you love soccer. And as you're watching the game, you want to get up and play. I'm a little bit like that. I'm a fan of a lot of different kinds of music. I don't feel like there aren't many limitations on me.

Obviously, you're not ever going to hear me play trumpet. But I'm going to experiment on a lot of different musical influences and styles. It's just what's exciting to me. What other people think isn't going to influence it. It never will. And the other thing -- it almost comes with a resounding "Duh!" -- but I have a 20-year recording career. I tour a lot because I'm a solo artist and I don't have to wait for other band members to get off their ass and go out and perform. I do these two-and-a-half/three-hour shows, where I play music from my entire career. So I'm playing all of that music that any critic of this album likes. It's still there. It's as much a part of my life as it ever has been. In addition to that, I'm playing new music from my new album, which goes over super-well with some of my fans.

Speaking of the older stuff: What was your reaction to the news that Kim, Matt and Ben reunited to perform three Soundgarden songs with Tad Doyle?
I thought it was cool that they'd actually get together and rehearse some songs. I was kind of surprised by it, to be honest. [Laughs.] And I love Tad. We toured with Tad; I've always felt he was a really amazing person and a really talented guy. So I just really thought it was a cool thing for them to do. They were just getting up there and doing it for fun, and I think that's great. The only thing I didn't like is that I wasn't there to see it. If I was there, I probably would've gotten up on stage.

So at some point, might we see a Soundgarden reunion?
You never know.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  April 3, 2009; 4:33 PM ET Interviews
Previous: Hey, Remember VFest? Let's Predict Some Bands. | Next: The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Partying Like It's 1959: Live Last Night


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I can see his whole point of view and it is honorable to some degree. But he does come off as arrogant when he spews on and says that people think that he is 2 years before his time.

I don't know. If I was in his position, maybe I would come off much worse and not realizing it.

Why am I defending Chris Cornell? Oh, Badmotorfinger. Right...

Posted by: Snapper24 | April 3, 2009 10:16 PM

Insightful. Good questions by the reporter. good for Cornell for doing his own thing and not selling out. this guy has a good outlook on stuff. Very cool!

Posted by: msmosh | April 4, 2009 5:08 PM

Great article/interview! I love the question about Trent Reznor! I'm glad Chris had an opportunity to address Reznor's Twitter and faux album site. Cornell's handled that whole fiasco quite well.

I also love his answer to the interviewer's question about Soundgarden and Tad. I found Cornell's response surprising. I think, no, I KNOW I would've been angry about the reunion if I were him. (Cornell was playing to a packed house in Chile that night.) He shrugs it off and says more or less, good time had by all.

"As music changes and the landscape of music and the styles of music that become popular change, it still doesn't mean that somebody in their 30s that's been listening to me since they were a teenager is going to like where that goes. " I'm closing in on 51. I absolutely LOVE this album. It's a kind of oxymoron. The beat of the music is energetic and lively yet the lyrics are oh-so-dark in songs such as "Sweet Revenge" and "Enemy".

Did I say this before? Great article/interview.

Posted by: warriorwoman25 | April 4, 2009 6:26 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company