By Mark Guarino
Three years ago, Audioslave was a novelty bent for respect. Mission accomplished, as our president might say. The band — featuring Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine — became one of the most successful modern rock bands of current decade. As much as Audioslave was able to supply rock radio a succession of singles, the band made its most significant mark live, where Morello’s diverse guitar arsenal, Wilk and Commerford’s intensive rhythm backing and Cornell’s soaring vocals showcased their love of Led Zeppelin thunder.
With three years of touring under its belt, the band is returning this summer with a new album (“Out of Exile,” out May 24) and tour, which arrives at the sold-out Aragon tonight. Cornell, one of the leading singers of the early ‘90s grunge era, talked recently about the transition. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: After one album under your belt, was that the main difference in recording its follow-up?
A. The nuts and bolts of it were the same. We wrote the songs together, all four of us in a room. One song a day usually, wouldn’t leave the rehearsal room until we had a song more or less finished. And that might take 40 minutes, it might take four hours. We focused on that so we didn’t have to decide: “are we going to write a song today or not?” And then I think in terms of ideas … it was more spontaneous because I think that’s the way we felt we could do it. It can be typical in a rock band, when someone starts playing a verse part, to have someone say, “I don’t see that as ever turning into anything,” and shooting it down before it is anything. In my career I had song ideas where I knew in my head what it would sound like but I knew if I played you a part, I knew you wouldn’t hear it. With this band we … really wait until it’s recorded, wait until it’s produced, wait until it’s mixed. We really stuck with it this time and because of that, there’s some diversity and some really unusual collection of imagery and influences;
Q: Are you bringing in lyrics or making them up on the spot?
A: I never finish lyrics beforehand so I either I have ideas that are unformed and I wait for the right music and then I choose phrasing and make that idea work. Or else I make them up spontaneously on the spot. The third way is nothing really comes and I have to think of it later.
Q: Considering the world events over the past three years, Rage Against the Machine would have made a very different record. Did the war in Iraq make any sort of impact?
A: It didn’t really. It raised, I think, moments in songs for me. Probably ideas or thoughts or feelings that came probably in one verse here and one thought here. I remember driving home from hiding out somewhere writing all the lyrics to (Soundgarden’s 1991 album) “Badmoterfinger” and turning on the radio and that was the day when Desert Storm was starting, so in a sense, for myself as songwriter, I feel I had long relationship with this kind of (expletive) conflict. And I feel at some point, it may come out in a condensed manner, I’m not sure. In terms of songwriting, it’s such an open field, with so many angles and so many ways to approach it, that the idea of being any (literal) type of writer has never appealed to me.
Q: So, for you, the war might inform the lyrics at a more emotional, than literal, level.
A: Yeah and there’s also the imagery. All my lyrics have been influenced by what does the music makes me feel like? It was my understanding, that with Rage Against the Machine, it was kind of happenstance. You had a guy, a Poli-Sci major who comes from Harvard who was a political activist who teams up with a guy who is another political activist-slash-poet-rapper who is entirely politically motivated. Put those two things together and you get Rage Against the Machine. I don’t think Tom was ever running around trying to create that type of band. With Audioslave, I was not an unknown quantity. They read my lyrics and were fans of my previous records, so we never looked back on that.
Q: Live, you’re an explosive band but there was no way to know that when you got together. That had to happen long after you met and started recording. So there was definitely some risk.
A: From my point of view, it was very exciting and it started out that way. Because in ‘96 Soundgarden played with Rage Against the Machine on Lollapalooza for three shows. I remember seeing them and they were the best live rock band I’d ever seen. When I say that, it’s not because they had lasers or an incredible show other than it was just four guys up there playing Rage songs with the audience going crazy. It was based on that. Where the energy came from, it was a mystery. So going out with Audioslave, I knew that I was going to get some of that … Their work ethic, their dedication to the live show is the most important thing happens that day when you’re on the road. That made it fantastic because that’s always been my feeling. And my lifestyle changed. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke anymore. I have two children, one of which is a six-month year-old baby. I’m newly remarried, I have this fantastic new relationship. So then I try to bring that to the band, that, the very early stages, helped me through some very troubled times.
Q: The new single “Be Yourself” is a pretty uplifting song with probably the most earnest lyrics I think you’ve written. Was that written on the spot?
A: Partly yes. It was just a thought I had on way to rehearsal, then hearing Timmy playing that bassline and me having desire to overdo it, always when it comes to songwriting. I’m the guy who has too many chords. I wanted to do the opposite, just something simple. And I came into the rehearsal room and Tim was playing that already. And then Tom came in and had an idea for chorus for the song, which became the bridge. It was one of those “Every Breath You Take” moments where, 45 minutes later, is what you hear now. And the lyrics came spontaneously and immediately. And that’s a good example of how I try to write, which is trying to get out of my own way and allowing whatever happens, as long as it’s right for me. I’m 40 years old and there have been many incarnations of me, some of which has been the core of who I really am, some of which is some persona I’ve presented to protect the real me because I thought the real me was not interesting enough or not cool enough. When you hit 40, you’re through with it. Lyrics like “Be Yourself” are appropriate for me right now. As long as they are appropriate for and coming from the right place from the singer, I think anyone at any age can relate to it.
Q: This is the second record you did with Rick Rubin. What is it about that guy that makes every modern rock band want to work with him?
A: First of all, for me personally, he had been a good friend of mine for a long time, but I had never worked with him. Soundgarden discussed working with him, but never did. I think if he likes someone’s music, somehow he ends up being their pal. He’s that way. And he’s always listening and looking to something that’s exciting musically. He was one of those first people to suggest that Tom and Brad and Tim and I get together and form a band. And that was the beginning of the working relationship between Audioslave and Rick Rubin. And it was also one of the reasons why I thought it was a good idea because he had done interesting couplings in the past that were genius. When he did Run-DMC and Aerosmith, it was out of the park. When he got Johnny Cash to do (the Soundgarden song) “Rusty Cage” or when he got Johnny Cash to do a Glen Danzig song or a Nine Inch Nails song, those are brilliant ideas. Those brilliant ideas were part of it for me. I was relying on his ability to dream stuff like that up and be right. We were the right band for him. He is interested in song arrangements and pre production and he figures once the song are there and the songs are the best they can be, you’re a band you are supposed to know how to play them, that’s your job. We are a band that writes our songs in a live format and performs them in a studio in a live format, that’s the perfect way for Rick to work.
Q: You’ve been on a major label since 1994. Do you think Soundgarden would have been able to make it in the music industry now if you were just starting out?
A: No, absolutely not. Soundgarden started out in a very magical time, I believe, in the musical industry in the United States when many independent labels that were post-punk rock labels were doing well. And could put out a Sonic Youth record and sell 150,000 of them … and everybody could make living doing music. And that was our goal at the beginning. If we could put out some records on an indie, if we could do that and tour, we were happy. When we switched to a major label, that was also still at the very end of the golden era. Where you get three strikes. If your third record doesn’t happen, you’ll either get dumped or they’re going to have you sit down with Desmond Child or somebody and write some awful song and figure out to get hit … But it didn’t mater for us, because by record two we had platinum success already. Nowadays you can make a record and it could never get released. I don’t know the last time I ever heard anyone three records … that’s on a major label. The major labels realized the indie market was chewing up a certain percentage of their market, however small, and they went out and hired people from those labels to go out and find either those actual bands or would-be bands. And they learned how to market those bands. And I’m an example of how that turns out to be a great thing. But there are a lot of examples where it didn’t turn out to be great thing. There are, of course, still indie labels but to make the transition like Soundgarden was able to, to slowly built an audience where it becomes a multi-platinum record and you have the time and the freedom to do that, I don’t see that.
Q: What’s happened now is that all those bands have returned to the indies and there’s been somewhat of an underground renaissance like there was in the ‘80s.
A: I think so. And I think it’s always cyclical. And I’m hoping it’ll be one of those things where you tell me about a band that you saw based on a show. I remember someone in Soundgarden telling me he heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” when he saw Nirvana at the OK hotel (in Seattle). They hadn’t released it, they didn’t even record it. That’s the way life used to be. That’s the way it was for all of us in Soundgarden. And when we played, the other people in the audiences usually were people in other indie bands who lived in Seattle.
Q: As a singer, your voice has definitely changed over time. You were much more of a screamer whereas now you know how to deliver a song.
A: I think I always tried to be (a singer) to varying degrees of success! (laughs) This is the first record ever performed as a singer where I didn’t drink at all. No beers, no cognac because my throat hurts, no nothing. And I hear a difference just in that. Texture control, breath, all of it from a person who’s in a different place. And I recently quit smoking so we’ll see what the next record sounds like. And by the third record I’ll quit breathing and we’ll see how that works! (laughs)
Q: How significant was it for Johnny Cash to record “Rusty Cage?”
A: It was kind of a long process. The first thing that happened was Rick Rubin wanted me to try writing a couple of songs … I thought way too much to pull that off. When I thought Johnny Cash and “Rusty Cage,” I was thinking, “take all the guitar parts and put them more into a country cadence twang,” and eventually I called him and said, “it’s impossible.” And when I heard his version, all he did was take a Johnny Cash “I Walk the Line”-type of rhythm and sing “Rusty Cage” over it. I was thinking way too much. That was a great lesson … That was one of the single most exciting things to happen for me in my career.
Q: That was also the moment a connection was made between grunge and country music. There’s a darkness there, a mystery in both.
A: Yeah and to illustrate it even more, when his version of “Rusty Cage” came out, I was getting messages on my answering machine of people saying, “I heard Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Rusty Cage’ and my god, what great lyrics you wrote!” And I realized that with Soundgarden’s version of “Rusty Cage,” I didn’t get one message about how great the lyrics were. Because when you listen to Johnny Cash sing it, he slowed it down and you listened to what he had to say. Whether it was my lyrics his lyrics or Glen Danzig’s lyrics, it didn’t matter. He sold that song to people much better than I did. That was another huge lesson.