Chris Cornell brings diversity to Belly Up
November 21, 2007
ASPEN ” Of the four most notable bands to emerge from Seattle’s grunge scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s ” Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Nirvana ” Soundgarden left the most imprecise mark on rock ‘n’ roll. That, anyway, is how Chris Cornell, the lead singer of Soundgarden, sees it.
“Among the Seattle bands, we were the least mimicked. Nirvana and the others, they all spawned bands that sounded like them,” said Cornell, who helped form the band in 1984, and was there at its demise, in 1997, after six albums, including 1994’s hugely popular ” not to mention, highly influential ” “Superunknown.”
In hindsight, Cornell doesn’t mind at all leaving what might be a lesser footprint than Eddie Vedder and the late Kurt Cobain. For one thing, he believes the Nirvana and Pearl Jam knock-offs ” he doesn’t specify any ” “convoluted” what the original bands did.
More significant is what the lack of Soundgarden imitators says about the music that Cornell ” along with guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron ” left behind. The Soundgarden sound blossomed in multiple directions, from metal to psychedelic-tinged pop. Their two biggest hits ” “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman,” both from “Superunknown” ” show that range within the confines of a few minutes, moving from hard-rock riffs one moment to trippy, Beatlesesque passages the next. Catchy hooks bump up against metal guitar, and Cornell’s voice could be a raging scream or a melodic instrument.
“You’d have to go in too many directions to mimic us,” said Cornell, who makes his Aspen debut on Wednesday, Nov. 21, leading his new four-piece band to Belly Up. “No one could pin us down.”
The 43-year-old Cornell, who now makes his home in Paris, traces Soundgarden’s diversity to his own interest in the Beatles. Liverpool’s finest had a huge impact on the young Seattle native, calling the Beatles “my big breakthrough band, when I was discovering that music would be important to my life. I spent months ” or maybe years, really ” alone in my house, listening to the Beatles.”
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In those repeated listenings, Cornell heard different worlds of music, all coming together under one banner.
“They had four lead singers in the band, and I never knew who was singing. Actually, I’d be pretty sure if it was Ringo. But other than that, I didn’t know if it was John or Paul or George,” said Cornell, who also identified Otis Redding’s performance in the concert documentary “Monterey Pop,” as another seminal influence. “Paul McCartney sang ‘Helter Skelter’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ and nobody thought there was anything wrong with that. Music was supposed to change and you were supposed to embrace diversity.
“Three bands on an indie-metal tour ” that didn’t seem to interest me.”
Cornell’s experimentations didn’t end with the disbanding of Soundgarden. In 1999, he released a solo album, “Euphoria Morning.” Two years later, he formed Audioslave, which featured three-quarters of hard-rockers Rage Against the Machine (everyone but singer Zach de la Rocha). By Audioslave’s second album, 2005’s “Out of Exile,” it had established an identity of its own.
In May, Cornell released his second solo album, “Carry On,” which reveals a continued process of diversification. “Safe and Sound” comes out of acoustic rock, while also featuring a horn section. “Scar on the Sky” shows the Beatles influence. Most unexpected is a downbeat cover of Michael Jackson’s dance hit “Billie Jean.”
Apart from the production and arrangements, the album has Cornell using his voice ” ranked number 12 on MTV’s listing of the 22 Greatest Voices in Music ” in new ways. He notes that Audioslave bassist Tim Commerford ” aka Timmy C ” told him recently that it was hard to figure out what Cornell’s vocal “home base” was.
“That’s kind of true,” said Cornell. “A lot of singers have their own voices and maybe they try to push the limits of that. But I have different home bases, different ranges, different approaches. Even one song can live somewhere, then move on and live somewhere else.”
Cornell has become increasingly comfortable with his multifaceted musical personality. In the last of the Soundgarden years, he had begun to feel as though he and the band were separate, and sometime disconnected, entities. “That was like writing songs for a play. For a solo record, the play’s not there; it’s just you and what you want to do.”
It took time to grow into the role of a solo artist. On “Euphoria Morning,” which earned critical acclaim but sold nothing like the Soundgarden albums had, he thought his various styles were a liability. “Carry On,” which was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who has collaborated with Phish, the Dave Matthews Band and Talking Heads, among many others.
“It was hard to feel like I had a direction,” said Cornell of his solo debut. “Now I don’t care. I kind of don’t want to know what the record will sound like. That’s the whole point ” to be surprised.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.