Interview: Peter Cornell
Tue, 18 Nov 2014 10:47:53
Peter Cornell leaves a piece of himself on every song from Champion. As a result, the album comes to life with a haunting elegance that's both thought-provoking and tear-jerking at times. It's as real as it gets, and that's what makes it so enigmatic, entrancing, and essential. If you don't have it yet, get it...
Peter Cornell shared the story behind Champion with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino in this exclusive interview below.
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Did you approach Champion with one particular vision or vibe in mind?
I worked it really hard to make it a record. To me, Born to Run is a theatrical piece. You could make a musical out of that album because it tells a story from beginning to end. It's not that Champion sounds like Born to Run, but I wanted to make that kind of record. I actually re-recorded five different tracks on this project because I finished full tracks that just didn't get the job done. They were completed, but I was like, "They don't work". It is a story. It's a snapshot. That's the way I've always written. I've written about whatever's bugging me at the time or whatever part of my heart is broken at the time. Or, I'll write about the problems I'm having with my demons in that moment. I write that way so I can get them out of my head. This whole project was a long time coming. I had quit music like three times.
Where did the journey begin?
I broke up with my girl in 2008. I was done. I went and hid out in Maine for a year. This was a guitar in the corner of this place I was living. It was mocking me. I picked it up, and I just started four-tracking. I went back to Brooklyn and said, "Screw this. I'm done". Then, I built a studio in my apartment, and I recorded Champion. It was just a crazy journey. I had no agenda for it. Like I said, I kept trying to quit. I just had the luxury of letting it be able to write itself until it was right. The ideas began gestating in 2008 and 2009. Absolutely nothing I wrote in 2009 made it to the record [Laughs]. That's where the impetus was. That's where it started. I was starting over again—again. I was writing and writing. I moved back to Brooklyn, and I didn't really have an agenda. I began rehearsing this acoustic set. I kept playing, and I got my voice to a place where I was singing better than I ever had. Honest to God, I found an old laptop that belong to my roommate under the couch while I was vacuuming. She said, "Here, you can have it!" It had Garage Band on it. I started playing around with Garage Band, and I was like, "Wow, this is cool". It sure sounded shitty though so I discovered Logic. I built a soundproof studio in my apartment. Off I went for the next two years. I spent that time writing, rewriting, and polishing. I learned how to play the bass. I learned how to use drum software. I honed my guitar chops because I was never much of a lead guitar player. I just went at it solid for two years. That's what came out.
What happened next?
I got done, and I started to mix it. I moved out to Los Angeles. I was hanging out at my brother's house. He has a pretty nice studio in his house. I began mixing, and I got it to this place where I thought I should have a real drummer on it. Strange shit, I got hit by a car on my motorcycle around the same time. I was ready to release the album over a year ago with the software drums, and I got hurt. It took me like five months to recover. During that process, I started Facebooking the hell out of it. I had never Facebooked before, but I was like, "I want to promote this music". I wanted people to know I had songs I was happy with. The accident ended up being a blessing in disguise. I had to stop. I had to slow down. I couldn't do much but recover from the injury. I was Facebooking and meeting people from around the world who were Chris Cornell fans and found me. They were listening to songs I did years ago. I did a record in New York City in 2007 called Black Market Radio that a lot of people liked. I didn't really do much with it. Out of the blue, Dave, who I hadn't seen since 1999 when he mixed songs for me in Seattle, randomly found me. We were pretty close. I really liked the guy. I said, "Dave, this is going to sound crazy, but will you play drums on my record?" He was like, "Absolutely, I'll do it". There were these little miracles that happened along the way, and that was one of them. I released the album a year-and-a-half later than I wanted to, but it was the right time. I remember the music industry from the nineties. You record a demo, get a deal, and you're in a bus touring for three years. It isn't that way anymore.
Is Champion really about perseverance for you?
Absolutely, perseverance is the word I use. I've been at this since 1991. I got into it because of my brother and Andy Wood. I was in their house. We were roommates. I moved out when Andy moved in. Then, I got into this house where my brother's band rehearsed. They recorded and wrote Temple of the Dog in my house. I hollowed it out and made a rehearsal space out of it. I was around, and I got so curious about music and songwriting. I didn't have much of a background in it. I learned everything from watching those guys and the Seattle scene in the nineties. I had a good run. I got a lot of light shone on me because of my brother. People were quick to look at me, my bands, and my songs. They gave me a listen, but I never broke through to that other level I wanted to break through to and all musicians want to. We want that record deal. Somehow, through all the years, I managed to stick with it. This record is the best album I've ever done to me. It's the most fun I ever had, and I feel like my best songwriting. I produced it, engineered it, and played everything on it. It's perseverance.
What's the story behind "Shin"?
I broke up with this girl in 2008. I quit music, and I was done with it. Then, I sat down with this broken down laptop with Garage Band, and I wrote and recorded this song called "Shin" about breaking up with her and trying to get past it. It sounded horrible so I bought a new computer. I bought Logic. I rewrote the song top-to-bottom. When I finished it the way it is now and heard it, I said, "I've got to make a whole record. I can do it". That was when I built the studio. "Shin" was the compass for the album Champion. It's the longest song on the album, and the ending is so big. I wanted to go out like that.
Where did "Ghost" come from?
I began writing it in 1999. I was married in 1995, and it was about my wife and I divorcing. It knocked the shit out of me. It really did. I didn't let the song go. I spent a lot of time on it to get it where it is now.
When was the moment you could see the vision for Champion?
It was when I finished "Shin". I bought a MacBook Pro, built a soundproof studio in my apartment and was able to get good guitar songs without pissing my neighbors off, and I learned how to use a drum program. I felt like I had to do it.
Is storytelling important for you?
Sometimes, I've been criticized for being too honest over the years. If you really listen to the lyrics, they're true. You can hear I haven't walked the straightest of paths if you really listen to it. It can be a little dangerous telling people who you really are. There was a time in my early writing when I thought you had to be abstract and make no sense at all, and I got criticized for that too [Laughs]. I had to chuck it all aside and get to a place where I felt like I could be honest and interesting to myself. If it worked for me, I'd let it go out into the universe and see what happened. The lyrics are all little snapshots.
What artists do you always come back to?
Everything Led Zeppelin. To me, Jimmy Page wrote every single cool guitar hook. I love Alice Cooper. I think his theatricality outweighed the fact they were a simple, organic four-piece band. I love the first Cars record. I think Ric Ocasek's a genius. I love David Bowie. I loved Mother Love Bone. I saw every show they ever played. They were brilliant. Then, of course, there's my brother's band Soundgarden. I saw their first 100 shows. They're unbelievably good. I felt like Alice In Chains was amazing. Jerry Cantrell's an amazing guitar player. We came up on The Beatles. My very first record was Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison. Somebody gave it to me when I was nine-years-old, and I thought it was amazing.
Have you heard Peter Cornell?
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