By Lisa Jey Davis
copyright 2008, Lisa Jey Davis
Chris’ eyes are clear blue. If he looks at you, which isn’t often, it’s direct. You get the sense that he is present and in the moment. Though he is not a man of significant stature physically, he is a man of perspective and purpose. He likes to do things a certain way. Perhaps that’s why he seems to go through rock-n-roll band projects as quickly as people seem to upgrade cell phones these days (does anyone even remember why everyone lined up for the i-phone?).
The truth is, none of Cornell’s post-Sound Garden group efforts have come close to making the mark on culture and society of its predecessor. Sure, the bands Cornell has fronted received critical acclaim and have their own set of devoted fans, but they’ve fallen short in reaching that same iconic status.
Blame it on the times. That unique, rough-edged “Seattle Sound” is no longer new to us. Audioslave, founded in 2001 with Rage Against the Machine refugees, Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, was initially accused of being an amalgamation of the aforesaid Machine and Sound Garden, with Cornell leaving the band shortly after their third album’s release. He cited “irresolvable personality conflicts as well as musical differences.” And Temple of the Dog, formed in 1990, made an even briefer appearance on the music scene, despite the inclusion of heavies like Eddie Veder in its line-up.
When asked how the satisfaction of fronting a band differs from that of his solo endeavors, he muses for a bit. “I’m not sure that it’s really that different when it comes to what people see. For example, playing this show… what makes playing this show different is really the song list. Like, if you look, (holding up the play list from the night’s show) it’s based on covering so much territory, musically. And it’s my wish list. It doesn’t have anything to do with anyone else, and that’s the biggest difference. And being able to come and play in Aspen. It’s things like that. The actual “making the records” or performing on stage, that’s all pretty similar. I was always really involved in every aspect. It’s being able to do whatever you want, creatively, when you want to do it.”
Either way, it appears Cornell has found his heart or at least his way in his solo career. He loves being able to do what he loves with his music. Part of that comes from playing concerts in small-town America. “A lot of the shows that I’ve been doing in the last month have been in smaller markets that I haven’t been able to do in a long time. Places that Sound Garden went to early on, and then after a while Sound Garden didn’t want to go there. You know? So, I’ve been doing that. And that’s been really fantastic. It’s been great, night after night. It’s a different event, [with] fans that know every word to every song, and really appreciate music and bands that come. I mean, finally I get to go to all these places and I don’t have to wait for everyone else to want to go there. But I’m also realizing that I want to be able to play in smaller cities too. It’s just great to be able to do that. It’s a different experience.
I think what most bands do when they reach a certain size, is they just expect all the people from the smaller markets to drive to the biggest city. And that makes sense too. But it’s just not the same thing.”
And the overall vibe of the concert can be determined by the size of the venue, as well. Cornell won’t commit to preferring one over the other, but he admits, “There’s a different feeling. You know, in a large place, with a lot of people, it’s big. It’s, in a sense, kind of more disconnected and more powerful at the same time. Usually there is like six or seven feet between the stage and the retaining wall that holds everyone back, so you can’t really focus on any one person, or even a group. It’s just a different feel. It’s powerful. If I do big rooms, if I’m on tour with other bands and such, I don’t do the smaller places. It’s more of like a rock show for people in a big space. But smaller places are more conducive to certain things. In small places you can do different songs. Plus, I just think if I had a great show, it doesn’t matter whether it was for 500 people or 20,000 people. If it was bad, I feel awful, if it was good, I feel great. It’s just about that.”
Part of what makes the show great is how Chris seems to connect with the fans, particularly in this small venue. He is the first to reach his hands out to the crowd. He loves the interaction, and it shows. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he can relate to the fans. He too was once on the other side of the music scene, mesmerized by a band from Liverpool, England called The Beatles. He locked himself inside his room as a young boy, learning all the songs, memorizing the lyrics. “Even before I ever played any instruments, I would just listen to them. And I learned how to write and record songs without even realizing that’s what I was doing. But I mean, I think kids have a special ability to do that.”
One could draw a parallel between the The Beatles and Sound Garden and their effect their respective generations. My own son locked himself in his room between the age of fourteen and seventeen, learning every lick to every song on Superunknown. Though he’s focused on his solo career and promoting his latest project Carry On (released in June 2007), Cornell doesn’t try to distance himself from his Sound Garden fame. It’s obvious he is comfortable in his own skin, and the very role that made him famous. Someone call Paul McArtney. The two of them would have so much to talk about.
One thing that distinguishes Chris Cornell from the front men of other iconic rock bands is his choice to leave the United States and the epicenter of the music business. He now lives in Paris with his wife and children, and loves it. It’s opened up a whole new world to the rock star, though he insists, with little change of perspective. “I don’t think it’s changed my perspective really. [Living in Paris has] just sort of changed the people that I interact with I suppose. It’s made me feel like I’m lucky to be able to live outside the US for a while. I think anybody that was born and raised in the US, that hasn’t really ever done that, it’s a good opportunity to see other people who live their lives without really even thinking about the US. You know? It’s not part of their day.” In regard to the tension felt by Americans abroad, he is emphatic, “It’s not an American’s fault that the US is geographically isolated. I went through this a lot when I first started touring, you know. I’d be in places like Germany and they would be criticizing people in the US for not knowing European politics, for example. And I was like, “Well, you know, our country isn’t right next to five other countries that we’ve been at war with for the last thousand years. We don’t give a f*ck.” You know? We don’t really have that. So, it’s definitely helped with just sort of getting a world view, to get outside.”
While living outside the US probably offers intellectual, artistic, even soulful growth to Cornell, (providing an arm’s length distance from US politics and well, the business of the music business) it hasn’t slowed things down for him. In addition to his latest album and a few other minor creative diversions, Chris can now add Bond theme-song performer to his repertoire, joining the ranks of Aha, Nancy Sinatra and Tom Jones.
These are some milestones that any musician could be proud of. But Chris is stalled when it comes to articulating his proudest moments of the past year. “You know, I don’t know. I think there is a certain amount of pride I take in the fact that my wife and I, and my in-laws who help as well, work hard to make this happen. Because there’s no way I can tour and travel all around the world and have children. The fact that we make that work – that’s something. And we have to live and lead a very dynamic life. We can’t plan two weeks ahead, we have trouble planning six months ahead. We have to be willing to always change plans, so we can make things work. And I’ve been able to continue to do what I love to do, and still be able to be around them a lot. I’ve had older musicians say “hey, I missed it,” talking about their kids, and I don’t want to do that. So the way we’re doing it, it’s working. I don’t want to miss it, so that’s something that I’m pretty proud of.”
It’s clear that Chris Cornell knows what he wants, where he wants to go with his career, and he has a plan. “I’ve wanted to, since I’ve become a solo artist now permanently, go places I’ve never been. I mean we’re going to South Africa, South America. We went to Iceland. That’s been really important to me. I mean, finally I get to go to all these places and I don’t have to wait for everyone else to want to go there.” In reference to his own musical pursuits, however, Cornell is evasive, “Well, there is the touring and all that. Somewhere in there, recording a new album, lots of things musically, and song-writing-wise. There’s a lot of things that are on the rise that I can’t really say yet, because I’m not really sure if I’m doing them or not. There’s tons of stuff. So just really…” This prompts the suggestion of ‘Say, another James Bond theme or other movie pursuits?’ He smiles, nods, as he gets up from his chair,
“Yeah. Stuff like that.”
It’s “stuff like that:” Movie theme songs, solo albums, touring to remote and far away places… all while playing the role of husband and father. They are the sum of all parts that make up the quintessential Chris Cornell.
Want to hear more about Chris? Tune in next week for the Faves and Raves of Chris Cornell! It’ll be cool.