Interview: Chris Cornell on writing 'The Keeper' for 'Machine Gun Preacher' and music in film

Posted by · 12:29 pm · October 4th, 2011

Chris Cornell is having a pretty big year.

After announcing in 2010 that his Seattle grunge-pioneering band Soundgarden was getting back together, he’s been on the road for the better part of 2011 with the group. He went out on his own in the spring for his “Songbook” tour, a leg of intimate solo acoustic shows highlighting a number of the songs he’s written over the years, whether with Soundgarden or his other high-profile collaboration with members of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave. He’s off to Australia now for another wave of those and this week announced fall and winter dates for a second US leg.

He has an original song in Marc Forster’s “Machine Gun Preacher” called “The Keeper” that is featured in the “Songbook” tour. The song, which could be a contender for Oscar recognition later this season, has been showcased on the late night talk show circuit over the last few weeks.

Meanwhile, grunge is celebrating a 20th birthday of sorts this year as a wave of pomp and circumstance has greeted the anniversary of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album dropping on the industry in September of 1991. That moment unleashed the Seattle music scene on unsuspecting consumers and rock fans who were, at the time, desperate for something more.

To that end, Cornell is also a considerable presence in Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty,” a rock documentary chronicling that band’s two-decade sprawl that spends plenty of time detailing the Seattle scene of which Cornell and his band were very much a staple. Oh, and somewhere along the way he’ll find time to head back into the studio to crank out Soundgarden’s first original album in 15 years.

A busy year indeed. In the first of a two-part interview today, Cornell discusses writing “The Keeper” and his history with music in film over the years.

Finding Woody Guthrie in the icon of Sam Childers

“I felt like there was a lot going on in terms of the arc of the story that it just seemed like, musically, it could be almost anything and it could work,” Cornell says, reflecting on the true-life story of gang-biker-turned-activist Sam Childers, the subject of Marc Forster’s “Machine Gun Preacher.” Actor Gerard Butler portrays him in the film. “Having said that, all the different musical styles that I thought would fit with the story, I didn”t really do any of them. There was sort of like this southern biker, rock feeling that would work for part of this guy”s personality, and there was gospel that was an option. There was African rhythmic, world beat, even hip-hop, different things that I think kind of fit.”

Eventually Cornell settled on the folky ditty “The Keeper.” Stylistically, it had nothing to do with the time or place depicted in the film, which tells the story of Childers’s fight for Sudanese children living on borrowed time in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) region of the Sudan. Cornell says the song just fit the mood of what he wanted to convey lyrically.

“I kind of boiled it down to a simple attitude,” he says. “It was kind of stressing me out, the concept of, ‘Who am I to write a song about something that is this intense that I haven”t experienced?’ I”m not an orphan growing up in the Sudan that was kidnapped or watched my parents or my family get butchered or was tortured or is in fear of my life, sleeping in the bush every night. And I”m also not somebody who”s essentially put their entire life aside to go over there and risk my neck to try to take care of these kids.”

So he came to it via a different approach: What if Sam Childers were Woody Guthrie, singing to these children, describing his dedication to them, his unconditional love and willingness to fight for their well-being no matter what it cost him? “That was sort of the clearest image of the man that I got from the script,” he says.

Cornell never met Childers before writing the song, but he did see him in action via the Angels of East Africa website. There are a number of YouTube links there featuring interviews with Childers in different villages and at the orphanage he and his wife, Lynn, founded over a decade ago. Cornell says he really responded to how direct Childers was in that material, describing the hardships of the LRA war zone.

“There”s a lot of aspects to the story of Sam Childers where you might not think he”s a very likable guy,” Cornell says. “He doesn”t necessarily always do good things. And I felt like that was one sort of clear and consistent theme about his story. He”s gonna do whatever it takes to take care of these kids.”

From “Seasons” to “The Keeper”

Cornell is no stranger to contributing music to films. Some might trace things back to “Sunshower,” the ballad he wrote for Alfonso Cuarón’s “Great Expectations” in 1998, but it really goes all the way back to Cameron Crowe’s “Singles” in 1992. The film was set in the early-90s Seattle music scene and even featured Cornell in a cameo role. And it’s an interesting story, how the solo song “Seasons” came to be featured on the soundtrack.

“I hadn”t actually written it for the film,” he says. “I had written it for Cameron, though. I just wanted to surprise him. Also it was an interesting moment where I felt like I was coming into understanding what creativity in music is all about. Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam had done some graphic art for the film and in one of the scenes, Matt Dillon”s character is supposed to have left his band and he”s become a solo artist. He”s making four-track acoustic recordings in his bedroom and then putting them in mom and pop record stores to sell. That”s something that we all actually did. And I think that”s where Cameron actually got the idea.

“So Jeff had come up with these fake titles and some graphics for this fake solo tape. I saw it on the set and I took Jeff”s titles and I took a copy of the sleeve and the cassette jewel box without a cassette in it. I went home and I wrote and recorded songs based on all those titles on a four-track. I dubbed them off onto cassette and put them back on the set and just kind of made them real. It was very quick. And in a sense, it was kind of like the first one I had written for a film, but not really focusing on the script or anything, focusing on kind of the essence of the whole thing.”

So out of nothing but a bit of unseen flavor came one of Cornell’s best songs. Not only “Seasons” came of that, though. “Spoonman,” which was featured on Soundgarden’s 1994 album “Superunknown,” also sprang from that process, as did “Flutter Girl,” which popped up on Cornell’s 1998 solo album “Euphoria Morning.”

Regarding “Sunshower,” Cornell mainly wrote that with Charles Dickens’s novel in mind, rather than the film, which saw a tough and winding road to the screen. “There were a lot of versions of the film,” he says. “And I don”t think I saw any of the film before I wrote it. I had the book and I”d seen all the other films and had a basic idea of the story.”

Before long Cornell was at the pinnacle of original song composition for films: a James Bond movie. He penned the track “You Know My Name” for 2006’s “Casino Royale,” and frankly, it wasn’t something he was all that jazzed about doing when he was first approached.

“It really started out with a phone call and a little bit of indifference, I have to admit,” he says candidly. “I wasn”t a fan of the most recent version of the franchise. They told me Daniel Craig was going to be the new James Bond and that they were changing, you know, just the whole approach for the franchise and also that it was going to be based on the first book where Ian Fleming introduces the character. Suddenly I thought, ‘Well, this might be great.'”

Cornell and his wife flew out to Prague where they were shown a rough edit of the film. The first few moments were really intense and that’s all Cornell says he needed to see. Before the first act was over he was already whispering in his wife’s ear that he just had to do this.

“The other thing that was nostalgic and exciting about it was the fact that I could be on any list that Paul McCartney”s on,” he says. “I remember ‘Live and Let Die,’ hearing it as a kid, and I didn”t know that there was a movie. I just thought it was a great song.”

In his time, Cornell has witnessed different periods of music in film. He recognizes the inherent commercial nature of such enterprises, of course, but there’s a longing for more in his recollections.

“I guess 10 years ago there was a period where every movie that came out had an accompanying soundtrack album,” he says. “There was often a lot of songs either written for the film or grabbed from recent releases with a couple of songs written for the film to create a soundtrack album. That album in turn would sort of be used to promote the movie and the movie would be used to promote the album. I”m really glad that”s over and I sort of liked the idea [on ‘Machine Gun Preacher’] of one song. I wouldn”t have minded the idea of several either, but I feel like in this particular case, it would have been schizophrenic.”

Nevertheless, Cornell reflects on films that have properly implemented an entire album of songs that combine to capture the essence of the material. He mentions “Harold and Maude,” which was given a musical identity by singer/songwriter Cat Stevens, and of course “The Graduate,” which is forever synonymous with the work Simon and Garfunkel contributed to it.

“You”ve got a group of songs as opposed to just incidental music that”s kind of there to support the emotional impact of a scene or a mood in a scene,” he says. “And it”s hard to do. It hasn’t been done very much. It”s difficult to just capture one type of a mood or an essence based in songs from one artist that works throughout the film and co-exists.”

Click here for part two of the interview as Cornell discusses Cameron Crowe’s documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty,” getting Soundgarden back together and the 20th anniversary of the Seattle music scene exploding onto the mainstream.

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