Interview: Chris Cornell
Sun, 22 Mar 2009 13:56:33
With Scream, Chris Cornell hearkens back to the true meaning of the word "alternative." In fact, he's spinning his own identity down on the upside in order to challenge not only himself, but his fans as well. There's nothing wrong with that, especially when Timbaland's onboard. Cornell has reinvented himself once more over the course of Scream, lending his trademark cataclysmic wail to psychedelic spacey beats from everyone's favorite producer. It's a strange trip into the mind of one of music's most important artists, and it's tough to forget. Cornell is excited to talk about it, too. It's almost as if his youthful passion has been reawakened. He talked about Scream, concept albums and reading with ARTISTdirect.com in this exclusive interview.
Scream has a decided vigor and fire. It's reminiscent of the jump you made with Superunknown during your Soundgarden days. Would you say that's the case?
Yeah, I think that certain differences in terms of the sweeping changes in the songwriting process and recording are similar. I definitely can agree with you in that there was new territory that was being explored in both cases, and that's exciting. It's also challenging. Maybe you're hearing a little bit of that. There's the sentiment that I had never done this before. It's exciting because I'd never done this before I want to make this as great a version of this as I can.
Is it a concept record?
Musically, it definitely became that. We didn't plan on it becoming this hour-long musical opus where all the songs connected. We had an easy time of it in the studio, writing song after song. We just wanted enough to make an album. That was the idea. We ended up with twenty songs. After we sequenced them, we decided to do more than just mix them together on an album or sequence together. In other words, we tried to do what a DJ might do— having one song lead into another and actually coming up with orchestrated parts that take you out of the key, the tempo or the room of one song and into the next one with elaborate music that's written for that particular part. That brought Scream into this world that's more like a Sgt. Pepper's world in a way. People call Sgt. Pepper's a concept album. Lyrically, it isn't really, but it is a snapshot of what The Beatles wanted to do at that time, and it was different than anything else. Scream is definitely different than anything else. Then I started thinking about lyrics. Often when I look at albums that are supposed to be concept albums, I see it. If you look at Tommy, for example, it's clearly a concept album lyrically. There's no question about it. It's the guy telling a story from beginning to end using the songs to put the narrative across. A lot of the times people call a record "a concept album," the term is pretty loose. It's kind of like, "Yeah, you could almost say anything is." I started thinking about Scream lyrically because so much of it is stream-of-consciousness. You never know what it is.
However, the stories are still pretty clear.
Normally, I feel like my albums are snapshots of what I'm going through at the moment. They're current. I don't like to make albums using a lot of old material. It's always brand new. When I look at the stories that are in each song from beginning to end, it really is like a concept. There's this person who is this character relating stories from life. The character has ups and downs all the way until the end, where there's this hidden track where this person is broken down and lamenting at the end of his life. God, it's funny. If I had thought about that earlier, I could've actually bullshitted my way through that question. At the very beginning of the interview process, I could've said, "Yes, it's a concept album." Well, what's it about? "Let me tell you…" [Laughs]
The album has a psychedelic vibe too, and it really conjures some vibrant imagery. Was that part of your intention?
Yeah, that is the key thing that drove me to make an album with Timbaland. I heard a song that I think was called "Rain," by Missy Elliot, that he produced years ago. I didn't know it was him, and I didn't even know who he was at the time I heard it. I remember hearing the song and hearing a trippiness in it. That was where I got my connection to hip hop. Obviously, it wasn't like a culture. It was the music. There was a cable access hip hop show in Seattle that I used to watch with my buddy. We would sit and trip out on how creative these songs were and the videos for that matter. It was never anybody that you would've heard of, and you'd never see them again. The psychedelic, trippy aspect that was in hip hop was my entrance into it. That was the door that I went through to get into it. I loved that aspect of rock music as well. Timbaland kind of had that in everything that he does. I don't know if it's a conscious thing or something that he likes or where that comes from, but the trippier it is, the more he likes it. That was one of the main things that attracted me to working with him.
“I feel like my albums are snapshots of what I'm going through at the moment.”
The lyrics on Scream are particularly literary. Do you read a lot?
I have my moments, you know? It sort of stops and starts. It depends. When I'm on tour, I'll get into reading more. When I'm at home, I'm more in songwriting mode. I tend to get into one or the other. Sometimes, if I'm in a period where I'm writing a lot of lyrics, I will actually read a lot then. Whatever's happening, my brain gets used to this fluidity of literary speech, and that just greases the wheels I suppose.
You've always been a storyteller lyrically. You can strip everything away like you have on acoustic songs such as "Like Suicide," or you can have all of this production like you do on Scream, and the same lyrical vibrancy shines through.
Yeah, I feel that Scream illustrates it more because the music is so different. To me, who I am really comes across somehow. It becomes almost more surprising because the musical backdrop is not like anything else that I've ever done. I guess that the first thought someone might think when they first hear the album is, "How is who I know this guy to be on album going to come out on this?" It really happens naturally. I successfully was myself on the album. I actually was able to create some songs in a way that I've never been able to do before and that I've always wanted to do. Songs like "Time" and "Ground Zero" were really authentic versions of a genre that was late '60s, early '70s that I think was one of the best periods in music. It's that R&B/Soul period that started to get into social consciousness and socio-political aspects. They were writing and singing about what was going on in the environment at that time, and yet doing it in a genre of music that at that point was mostly associated with partying. There's something about that combination that I was always drawn to. Those two songs, "Time" and "Ground Zero," authentically live in that world. For a white guy who grew up in Seattle in rock bands, it's really exciting to be able to take influences like that and be able to realize them on album for people to hear. As a songwriter, everybody has a longing or a yearning to tap into things that they love to hear and participate in them. In a way, that's what we do. We're not watching football at home. We're watching the game and then we're going out and playing. This is my way of playing the game as well as being a fan and watching it.
You capture that '70s aesthetic of artists being unshackled in movies, music and art in general. Has that era always been an influence?
Yeah, I always wonder about this. It's strange because alternative music started around the time that I started. Alternative music used to be a real reference. It was basically an alternative to anything that was the commercial norm and that's it. Then it became a genre with rules [Laughs]. Then it became a genre that you could describe, which makes no sense. In the mid to late '60s, if you weren't doing something different every time you made an album or you were an emerging band that wasn't doing something different from everybody else, everybody just figured you had nothing going on. It was the mood of that era to always be pushing the envelope. If you weren't pushing the envelope, nobody wanted to hear you. If you were doing anything that was overly reminiscent of another era in music, nobody wanted to hear you. That was the norm. Even the commercial norm was pushing the envelope. Jimi Hendrix had pop hits. His album Smash Hits came out because they were smash hits. They're insane-sounding. Even by today's standards, Hendrix's pop singles are too crazy to be able to appear on pop radio now, by a long shot.