Chris Cornell of Soundgarden Talks "King Animal", Remembers "Black Hole Sun" Music Video, and More
Mon, 03 Dec 2012 06:51:48
Soundgarden were never content to simply follow.
From their earliest days, the Seattle quartet chose to lead. Throughout the late '80s and early '90s, they didn't fall prey to the same trappings of excess—either creatively or literally—that so many of their peers did. They were always unequivocally their own beast.
They never worried about being accepted, and they raised the bar for rock 'n' roll as a whole with every successive release from Louder Than Love to Badmotorfinger to Superunknown to Down on the Upside. This year's King Animal proudly upholds that tradition. Nowadays, we need Soundgarden more than ever, and this King has roamed back into the spotlight with its most powerful declaration.
After performing a transcendent show at the Henry Fonda Theatre, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden spoke to ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino about King Animal. He also ponders the group's connection to the Pacific Northwest, discusses "Black Saturday" and "Rowing", and remembers the "Black Hole Sun" music video and more in this exclusive interview.
What's your take on King Animal as a whole piece?
In a sense, I think it's probably some combination of naturally moving forward and, at the same time, because there was such a long break, we're probably embracing a little bit of our deep history as well. As a band when you're making albums in succession every other year, you're doing something new and you always want to reinvent yourself to an extent. Soundgarden was very much that way. I think that doesn't get pointed out often enough. There are different periods that have specific fans. I often get people handing me Badmotorfinger albums to sign, and they say that's by far their favorite Soundgarden record or their favorite record, period. Then, I'll have people giving me Superunknown or Down on the Upside, and they say the same thing. My personality was always wanting to move ahead and look forward—not denying the past, but not being particularly interested in repeating it. With the 13-year break before we started writing, the past felt a little more comfortable in a sense. If something reminded me of really early Soundgarden, that was never a bad thing, but I think even less so now. At the same time, we're always naturally doing things we've never done before in essence one song at a time. Nobody brings a song into the writing process because it sounds like something we've done and we know that works. It's always the opposite. It's fresh. It's new. We've never done anything like this before.
What's the story behind "Black Saturday"?
That was one of the first ones I did. It was actually in a period of rehearsals before we were even sure we were going to write a new album. I was doing rehearsals for Songbook. I was sitting with an acoustic guitar and playing. Every once in a while, I'd be spacing out and playing something. It's cool I'd record it on my laptop with the mic there. Suddenly, and I don't really know why, I started coming up with ideas I thought would make great Soundgarden songs. That hadn't happened in a long time. I hadn't really thought like that. That was the only one of about four or five that I turned into a Soundgarden song. It felt like something that would fit with us because you can't really nail it down in a sense. Stylistically, it's its own thing. It's also a new thing to me. I don't know that I've really heard a song like that. I can hear influences in it. There's something about the bass, the vocal delivery, and the melody that reminds me a little bit of The Beatles and Paul McCartney. There are elements that just sound like Soundgarden to me though.
Did the lyrics arrive quickly?
Yeah, it was pretty immediate. It's a concept from conversations I've had lots of times with friends. You'll see a person in a situation and say, "If somehow I manage to wander into that situation without understanding that I'm doing it, make sure to let me know" [Laughs]. If "Fell on Black Days" was about waking up and realizing you're in a dark period of your life, "Black Saturday" is asking somebody to warn you if you don't realize you're heading in a direction where you might wake up one day and end up in a bad part of your life.
Is "Rowing" a special one for you?
It's strange because Soundgarden is a band that's known for complicated arrangements and having strange time signatures and weird time signature changes within the context of one song even. However, we've also always pulled out one riff songs and songs that are incredibly simply. At last night's show, we played "Incessant Mace", which is probably the oldest song we played last night, and "Rowing" which is from the new album. Both have a similar feel in a sense. They can be jam-y, and there's one repeating, cycling and feel. The other thing about "Rowing" that separates it from anything else we've ever done is how it started. On this album, we recorded the rehearsals, which we've never done before. By rehearsals, I mean songwriting sessions where we were messing around. The song is based on this litter interlude on the bass Ben played when the rest of us were talking. We weren't even paying attention, and he was just messing around. I heard it. I thought it was one of those things I'd try to tune into since the beginning of Soundgarden. Everybody in the band is capable of throwing out something brilliant without necessarily knowing it or paying attention to it. Sometimes, I chase that down. Having the ability to check the recording and seek it down, I found the spot that I liked and looped the part of it I thought worked in the context of a loop. Then, we created the song around it. We'd never really done anything like that before. Therefore, it's a very different feel, especially live. I didn't think it'd be a song we'd even play live because of the nature of the loops and it having my vocal samples. It ended up being one of the better songs on the new record right away.
Have you always maintained a connection to the woods and the outdoors? The cover art for King Animal and Superunknown reflect that.
It somehow works [Laughs]. They changed it now, but there was this picture on iTunes. I think it was taken outside in Seattle. They erased whatever the backdrop was and they put something behind it they thought was similar to the cover art. Instead, it looked like a moose chandelier you might see in a ski lodge [Laughs]. It was pretty funny. I made fun of it on stage a couple of times, and I think somebody got the message and they took it down. Even though it was goofy, I think there is some element of us being from the Northwest in a natural way that works. The Northwest is not Alaska, and it's not New York City. I, for one, have always been influenced by the geography because it's dramatic. It's not Minneapolis, and it's not Texas. It's very hilly. There are mountain ranges in every direction. There's deep salt water, and there are huge lakes. There are giant trees that you don't see anywhere else. Then, there's this foreboding darkness that's around for about nine months out of the year. That had an impact on me as a kid. I'm sure that, because we're so sensitive to our surroundings and with the way the music is created and how the lyrics follow the mood of the music, there has to be a direct connection to the Pacific Northwest. There has to be. That's always made sense to me. If you look at the cover of Superunknown, we didn't tell someone to take some trees, solarize them, and put them upside down because we want that element. That was somebody else interpreting the music. It's the same thing with Josh Graham here. He's interpreting what he hears. As an artist, he's picking up on something that must be there, but it certainly wasn't something we told him to do specifically.
The "Black Hole Sun" music video was an entire generation's gateway into the band. What memories instantly come to mind now when you think of the video?
It was an interesting moment mainly because we were a band that started out as an indie band. We essentially created everything including anything visual. We had a period of making videos once we had these huge video budgets from being on a major label where, in a sense, we didn't want to direct our own videos, but we didn't want to let somebody else do whatever they wanted either. It tended to be something that had nothing to do with us and was unrelated to us. They didn't necessarily understand us or our identity. We focused a lot on working with directors and trying to get them to understand what we wanted, and it never seemed to work—ever. The best we did with that was the video for "Jesus Christ Pose". I think we were all satisfied with it. We were pretty heavy handed on what the imagery was, and it turned out cool. We had specific references based on what the directors had already done so that kind of helped. By the time "Black Hole Sun" came around, I was really disillusioned with the whole process and didn't really want to make videos. We just read treatments for it, and Howard Greenhalgh's treatment just read weird as the video turned out. I suggested we just pick one that we want, try to find a great one, and let the guy do whatever he wants. We should just be there and not emote, not pretend to be excited to play the song, deadpan, stand there, and do absolutely nothing. We chose his treatment because it seemed interesting. I told him on the phone, "We're not going to do anything. You're not going to get anything out of us. We're just going to stand there because we don't want to do this anymore". Somehow, for whatever reason, he loved that. I love the video because it worked. It just happened to be a guy with a great idea who happened to believe in our notion that we're reluctant video stars who are going to give you nothing. The contrast of us giving you nothing and your vision is actually going to be better than if we're jumping around acting like crazy rock people and you're doing these flash jump-cut edits and crazy lighting. We're weird enough as it is, and we're tired of trying to not be. It worked. It was a big lesson. If you get out of somebody's way, or collaborate in the right way, a good thing can come out of it.
What does the title King Animal mean to you?
I'm not really sure. I think it relates more to the imagery than anything else. I think it also can relate to how the band started out and its essence. We were a big fish in a small pond, and we sort of graduated. There was a sense of us feeling like it was us four against the world. We clearly had that from the very beginning. In some weird way after all this time, we persevered. The album kind of stands out as a symbol and an indication of that.
What's your favorite song from King Animal?
See what Metallica, Iron Maiden, Mastodon, Gojira, and More have to say about Soundgarden here!
For more artists talking Soundgarden click here!
See our review of King Animal here!
See our top 25 Soundgarden Songs of All-Time Feature here!
See our feature on "Why Soundgarden Will Save Rock N' Roll with King Animal" here!
See our live review of the band at the Fonda Theatre here!