Exclusive: Chris Cornell Talks Writing Music for MACHINE GUN PREACHER, His Career, Soundgarden, Touring, Johnny Cash, Video Games and Much More

     September 30, 2011


About a week ago I got to spend 30 minutes with Chris Cornell backstage at Jimmy Kimmel Live in Hollywood.  For those who aren’t familiar with Cornell, he was the leader singer of the rock bands Soundgarden and Audioslave.  Cornell was at Kimmel to perform his new song The Keeper, which he wrote for Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher.  The movie is based on the real-life story of Sam Childers (played by Gerard Butler), a former drug-dealer who turned his life around and now devotes his time to saving kidnapped and orphaned children in Sudan.  The film also stars Michelle Monaghan and Michael Shannon.  You can watch some clips here.

During the wide-ranging interview, Cornell talked about how he got involved in the project, his thoughts on Rock Band/Guitar Hero, his experiences at TIFF, what it meant to have Johnny Cash cover one of his songs, what’s in his contract rider, his thoughts on letting music be used on commercials and video games, what’s his favorite cities to play in and so much more.  Hit the jump for the interview.

Finally, many of you know that I always post the audio from my interviews.  While I’m going to offer it for my interview with Cornell, I do so with a warning: it’s not very good.  For some reason, my recorder had issues with this particular file and it’s not very clear to listen to.  However, if you really want to try and listen to it, click here.  Otherwise the full transcript is below.

chris-cornell-imageSteve: Have you ever done karaoke and what is your go to karaoke song?

Chris Cornell:  I’ve never actually done it.

Have you ever tried to sneak in?

Cornell:  I’m sure I can go somewhere where no one knows who I am and do it, but I have never done it. The most fun I have ever had watching it was on a boat going from Stockholm to I think somewhere in Finland.  There was a bunch of really old Finnish people and they were singing mostly traditional Finnish songs that were on the karaoke machine.  There were all of the hits too, but they didn’t do it like that.  What ended up happening is that they started passing the microphone around and they were just singing into it.  I thought that was great.  It was fun to watch, but I didn’t get into it.

What was the last video game that you played?

Cornell:  I play Texas Hold‘em on my Blackberry.  I have amassed a fortune on that.  I have almost 30 million dollars from playing.  It is unreal. [laughs]  I have figured it out.  It’s a simple program since it is just a Blackberry app.  I have kind of figured it out.  I know what it is going to do before it does it.  My son, Christopher, plays video games.  I sort of have to be the dad and string him away from some.  For the most part, he likes superhero ones.  Anything that has a superhero in it, he likes to play it, or Mortal Kombat – he likes that.  I’ll still play a little, but only enough to completely get my ass kicked by my 5 year old son.

What are your thoughts as a musician on Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and all of these games?  They are very popular games all around the world.

chris-cornell-image-2Cornell:  I played it one time and it was the only time I got to play it.  It was in Chester Bennington’s dressing room from Linkin Park.  He had it and he was like, “Hey, let’s try it.”  He was there and he and his wife were playing it and they were both good and having fun with it.  I tried to play it and it was kind of fun, but it really is just a video game.  It is a hand-eye coordination thing.  If you are trying to think ahead musically, it is not going to help you.  It is better to ignore what is happening melodically and just look at the little dots coming at you and the corresponding colors and try to do it at the right time.  I don’t understand why people would choose to play Rock Band before they would play Halo or something, which is a way more sick game.  I am way more into a lot of these other games than I would be with that, but that is just my personal preference.

I would think that there are a lot of people out there who have always wanted to perform and this is the closest they are going to get.

Cornell:  Maybe.  I think what is really great about it is that music is a big part of it.  That is also true in some other video games.  I think that music is starting to become something that is becoming a little more prominent and important in terms of the programming and presentation.  Soundgarden actually had songs in a video game called Road Rash years ago.  It was one of the first times that a band had done that with songs that they already had recorded.  Now, there are guys and bands that are writing original scores for video games, which I think is really great.  A friend of mine has a record label that actually releases the soundtracks to video games and does really well with it.  He also composes stuff for them.  He talks about it like it is like making old records.  It can be very performance orientated.  It can be whatever you want it to be.

You were just at TIFF (the Toronto Film festival).  How was your experience in Toronto?

Cornell:  It was fun.  I had never done it before.  It is kind of a little bit like a zoo, but not in a bad way.  It was fun.  There are a lot of movie fans and fans of different actors.  They are very sweet and it just seems like a pleasant thing to do.  You get to go to see a whole bunch of movies and I am a big fan of them.  Having young kids – going to see films in a nice theater is something that sort of goes away for awhile.  It was good.

machine-gun-preacher-movie-image-gerard-butler-01I went to the Pearl Jam show at the Archana Center. There were a lot of rumors that you were maybe going to play with them.  How close was that to you possibly playing?

Cornell:  We had talked about it.  We had done two nights at their festival in Wisconsin at Alpine Valley.  So we decided that we would do it there and not keep doing it because it is something special.  So we decided to just do those two nights and deprive everyone at Toronto, even though I was there.

I was really hoping.

Cornell:  I was there.  I came the first night because of the Machine Gun Preacher premiere and then I don’t think I was there.

I definitely want to ask you about Machine Gun Preacher.  How did you get involved with the project?

machine-gun-preacher-poster-gerard-butlerCornell:  A friend of mine is good friends with Marc Forster.  He had read the script and for whatever reasons he decided that I should write a song or some music for this film.  I called up Marc Forster and said, “I want to write music for this.”  Marc Forster was very enthusiastic about that.  I had never met him and I spoke to him on the phone probably for the first few days when they started shooting.  I read the script, but I had not seen the film before the song.  We had brief conversations about what it could be and what we wanted.  He didn’t want it too literal.  He just came some general directions in terms of going to Sam Childers’ website if I wanted to – Sam Childers is the real life guy that the film is about. The song that I eventually wrote was mostly inspired by that.  It was by going on his website, The Angels of East Africa, which is his origination that builds these houses, clothes, and feeds these children in Sudan.  That is pretty much the story.  I came up with a few ideas for it, but The Keeper was the one that I thought really fit.  It was pretty tough because of a few facets.  There is that outlaw biker methhead, who then becomes a Christian.  First you have this 70s biker rock and then you got what could sort of be a gospel approach, and I love gospel music, and then you have Africa.  In the movie there is some African, Sudanese, and Hip Hop music.  But what I ended up writing was kind of like this Bob Dylan song, which theoretically really worked for the photos of the children in the orphanage – that is where it came from.  It didn’t really seem to necessarily come from any other part of it.  It really came from that.  It was very interesting trying to see what approach I could take.  There are so many angles that you could take.

I think the song works great with the motif of the film.  You’ve won a Grammy, toured the world, done a Bond song, and Johnny Cash covered a song of yours.  What is the one thing that you can’t believe you got to do or happened to you that made you say, “I can’t believe this.”?

Cornell:  The Johnny Cash moment was a big thing for me, definitely.  I remember recording the Bond song and it is a very cartoony thing to do.  I have a memory of listening to Live and Let Die and not knowing that the song corresponded with a Bond movie.   I never went to go see Bond movies in the theater and I saw the rest of those movies on TV – I wasn’t a Bond freak.  I was actually more of a Daniel Craig film and I did get to see the beginning of that film before I wrote the song.  So I was really into that process.  I got to meet the Queen, which I love being able to say, but to an American it is not the same thing.

chris-cornell-image-3Yeah.  I’ve been to London. It is a big deal.

Cornell:  It is a big deal and an honor.  But all of that pales in comparison to meeting Johnny Cash.  I met him one time and it was after he did Rusty Cage.  He was talking about the lyrics and how got into it and I told him how I couldn’t see him approaching it and doing an arraignment.  I just couldn’t see how it could work, but he was really encouraged and into it.  He was terrifying to even talk to.  His voice was so low that I was kind of vibrating.  He is one person that was literally larger than life in every way.  It was just a joy.  My brother brought home At San Quentin when I was about 7 and we played it over and over again.  So when you get into something like that when you are young and you are a grown up person and that person is doing a song you wrote, it just seems impossible.  It doesn’t seem possible.  There is no way that it could happen. No matter what anyone says, he is a rock star.  He is sort of considered a country artist, but I don’t really see it that way.

I think he crossed over into everything.

Cornell:  Yeah.  I think he crossed over into everything too.  I think in terms of his life, songwriting, passion, performances – he was a rocker for sure.  Him, his buddies, that sort of group of people, and the music through that period – they are rock people from my generation that can’t hold a candle to how fucked up those guys got, how hard they partied, how incredibly self destructive they were, and how they survived it.  They were out of their minds.  You could just feel it and it just hung from him when you were talking to him.  He was a living legend.  It was pretty unparalleled.

chris-cornell-image-5You always hear about these crazy riders that are in contracts.  What is the craziest you have heard about and what is a fun one that you have asked for?

Cornell:  Soundgarden figured out at some point to just have boxers and socks on our rider.  We just figured out at some point that it is inexpensive and it is a simple thing that anyone can get, and it is also the most useful thing.  We started adding to that stuff like tooth brushes and tooth paste.  It sounds stupid, but we didn’t need anything else.  We had Jack Daniels on the rider and then underwear and toothpaste.  It was stuff like that – just stuff to get you through the thing.

What is the craziest one you have heard about?

Cornell: I can’t really think of anything super eccentric that I have heard about.  I’m sure there is stuff since we are human beings.  I don’t know what it could be and I can only dream of it.  But I am sure there is.  Who knows?  The sky is kind of the limit.  You can be creative with it.

What is the longest show that you have performed and what it made that show be so long?

Cornell:  Probably the longest one was a Soundgarden show.  I don’t remember what theater it was, but it was in New York City.  We had 3 night stay-in.  I got laryngitis before the first and decided that I was going to do the shows and not cancel.  I think if fans sometimes see that a singer that has lost his voice and they are just kind of working through it – it can be a special thing.  I did the first night and on the second night the doctor came in and my voice was completely gone.  He seemed like a normal doctor, but he gave me pills that were loose in his pocket.  They were not even from a box.  He just took them out of his pocket and I took them.  He didn’t say anything about not drinking.  I didn’t drink a lot, but I had a cranberry vodka before coming out to loosen up.  I don’t drink anymore, but I did then.  I don’t remember what song it was, but it was very easy to play on guitar.  My fingers were not going anywhere that they were supposed to go.  I was a little bit aware and I looked at the band and they all had terrified looks on their faces that I had never seen before and that is the last thing I remember.  But that show was over 3 hours.  It was over 3 hours because I kept going on these long walks between songs talking about who knows what.  I have no memory of that.  I broke half of the guitars during the set.  I do remember vaguely having different people talking to me about canceling and I wouldn’t.  I was blacked out.  That is the only time that has ever happened to me on stage, but it happened.  I don’t remember any of it, but I know that it was over 3 hours.  That was a long night of entertainment for all of the wrong reasons.

soundgarden-imageHow does playing a really long set affect your voice the next day?  What does you do to keep it sounding fresh and alive?

Cornell:  I don’t know if an hour and a half or three hours would do that to me.  I sort of warm up until the point of performing and that is kind of it.  If I don’t sing at all, it is different.  If I sing, I don’t think there is that much of a difference between two and half hours and an hour.  Tonight I am doing a TV performance and my warm up is sort of similar.  I stayed at home and concentrated on it.  The only thing I have tried to figure out all of these years is to not overdo it, particularly in Soundgarden because it was very loud on stage.  It has taken a lot of just honing it.  From the very beginning, when we were playing in some clubs – it was trying to not be screaming out my voice on the second stage.  It was trying to pace myself and have some discipline.  It was not allowing myself to let go and scream my ass off.  I’m really lucky.  My voice has been very resilient so far.  I can really completely do it.  I definitely really care about it.  I don’t smoke or drink anymore.  I noticed that used to get away from me because I talked a lot and I’ll be drinking and smoking.  The next day when I would wake up and it would be really difficult.  I don’t think that is news to anyone – not drinking and smoking.  That is not really a revelation anymore.

chris-cornell-image-4This year is the 20th anniversary of a lot of big albums.  Soundgarden has a big 20th anniversary.  Is there talk about doing anything special?

Cornell:  For us, we have been a band now for 25 years.  Our first release that I sort of think of as our first was release was the Sub Pop EP, Screaming Life, which I think was in 1987.  So that 20 year anniversary passed already.  We could have done a Badmotorfinger 20th anniversary I suppose, but we are doing a new album, and I think that is a little more exciting.  Maybe we can do it for the 25th anniversary for Badmotorfinger.  I think if you follow the universe there is a precious attachment to that number.

It seems that years ago if you used your songs in a TV commercial you were selling out.  Now, everyone is on TV shows, movies, and on Rock Band.  What do you consider is the limit until someone is selling out and what have people approached you with wanting to use your music that you have turned down?

Cornell:  I feel like there are a lot of things that people have thought was me clearly selling out.  For example, me working with Timbaland as a producer.  People thought of that as somehow me selling out.  That particularly made sense to me after having decades of selling millions of records to do something that could potentially be difficult for a lot of core fans.  To me, that was an experiment.  The one result that I was sure wasn’t going to happen was that it was going to be an open wound for being a financial success.  But I have done songs for films.  I am sure there are people who had that after a Bond film.

I think most people think that is cool.

Cornell:  I think the concept of commercials, for example, I have had offers to do songs in different commercials and it is not what I have liked.  A good example is going back to Soundgarden allowed our songs to be in Road Rash.  The reason why is because I loved the game.  I always played the previous one and thought it was really fun.  Back then, that was considered something that you questioned and were maybe cautious about, but we thought it was a great game.

soundgarden-image-2You guys were actually in the forefront of putting your music in games.  Now, you have bands fighting to put their music in the latest games.  That game on the 3DO is fucking awesome just to throw that out there.

Cornell:  Thank you.  It was something that we all liked.  If it is something that I like, I will do it.  I have seen ones where there is a mixture where it is almost like I don’t even understand it.  So I can never make the judgment.  Like seeing Bob Dylan in the Cadillac commercial, not that that wasn’t a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t bad.  He looked cool as hell and it was a cool commercial.  I don’t know why he did it because I wouldn’t imagine that he needs to get paid, but he did it.  Maybe…I don’t think it is a bad reason that he wants kids watching TV to ask that question of “Who the hell is that guy and what is this music?”  because, ultimately, no matter how enormously your music is, as times goes by, people have to be reminded that it is there.  I was blown away backwards because so many people…all of a sudden his digital downloads start to chart.  People were saying, “Who is this guy?”  and it is timeless music.  I thought that was great because he is just great.  It is a great way to get out there.  I just know that it is people that I know like when it is Iggy Pop doing the carnival cruises.  If Iggy does it, then anyone can do it.  I remember doing a pictorial campaign for John Varvatos, the clothing company and designer.  He is a friend of mine and he likes the idea of rock guys.  He is a very famous rock photographer and I remember getting a little bit of shit for that.  Then the next person who did it after me was Iggy Pop and that it made it seem like proof.  He can kind of legitimize anything because credibility wise he is untouchable.  He had this quote about using his songs in commercials.  He said, “People can use my songs to sell anything they want.  They can sell pot roast or cheese because there is only one commercial that they can see.”  I had to sit and think about that for a long time.  Is that what defines a sell out?  If you sit and someone hires you to write a song for a hot dog commercial, that is basically commercial.  If you write a song, put it on an album, it is you and your band, and then someone comes down the line years later and says, “We want that in a hot dog commercial” – the song already exists and you wrote it.  The context that it exists in within a hot dog, cotton candy, or underwear commercial makes no difference.  It is not written for that.  I kind of agree with that.  That is a great attitude.

soundgarden-image-3It would be interesting to hear what Jim Morrison would think about it.  He was completely against it and wanted to charge people a million dollars for using his songs.

Cornell:  I kind of get it.  The television landscape from 1969 to now has changed so much.  Now it includes so much that I guess one would say is daring or artistically challenging.  It is a landscape now, you know?

What is your favorite USA city that you love playing in and that every time you go just kicks ass?  What is your favorite city outside of the USA?

Cornell:  I’m thinking about recent history.  I did a short acoustic set in Austin before I started my acoustic tour and the audience was unbelievable.  I started my acoustic tour, which I happened to have started in Austin and it was the very first show.  I was really nervous and I was going to play two and a half hours and I was afraid that they wouldn’t like it, but the audience was so incredible.  I thought it almost kind of moving.  I had that same experience in Toronto when I was on the acoustic tour.  I went into Toronto really sick.  I had a fever and I was a little spaced out.  I wasn’t even sure where the studio was.  I remember looking at the audience and saying, “I’m just going to try to survive this show.  I’ll go out and play these songs and hope that it is okay.” And the audience was so great and the environment was so churchy.  It was very memorable.  Soundgarden went back to Toronto.  Our first Soundgarden show of our summer tour was there and they are just incredible audiences.

What are you recording now?

Cornell:  Soundgarden.

And with that, my interview with Cornell ended.  While I’d only been scheduled for about 15 minutes, he gave me almost 30 before the show.  So a huge thank you to Cornell and everyone who made this interview happen. Here’s his song for Machine Gun Preacher, which hits theaters this weekend.

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