Interview: Chris Cornell on 'Pearl Jam Twenty,' reuniting Soundgarden and the impact of the Seattle music scene

Posted by · 10:09 am · October 5th, 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 track, 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 second of a two-part interview today, Cornell discusses reuniting with Crowe, hopping back in the saddle with his old bandmates for another tour and album and his perspective on the impact of the Seattle music scene over the last 20 years.

(Click here for part one from yesterday.)

“Pearl Jam Twenty” and the grunge explosion two decades later

This year Cornell had the opportunity to work once again with filmmaker Cameron Crowe, nearly 20 years after the experience that sparked songs like “Seasons” and “Spoonman” on 1992’s “Singles.” The film in question: “Pearl Jam Twenty,” Crowe’s rock documentary focused on the rise and consistency of Seattle band Pearl Jam.

The film spends a considerable amount of time setting the Seattle scene before really digging into the band at hand, but it’s more than that. In focusing partly on the early years of Seattle music, Crowe does a wonderful job of detailing the relationships of those who actually made and pioneered the scene.

“It was great doing that,” Cornell says. “I hadn”t actually hung out with Cameron in a long time. We”d been friends since ‘Singles’ and I don”t remember actually ever being in a situation with him where he was ‘Cameron Crowe, the music journalist.’ Obviously he has experience in doing that, going back to being a teenager and interviewing all of the bands that would be my heroes. But I had only been in situations with him when he was ‘Cameron Crowe, the filmmaker.’ And I don”t know that you can separate the two, but being interviewed by him for the film was amazing.”

Cornell’s interviews are largely used to establish the formation of Pearl Jam, which was a band risen from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, a Seattle staple that surely would have dominated the music scene had lead singer Andrew Wood (who used to be Cornell’s roommate in the early years) not died tragically of an overdose in 1990. The relaxing environment of an interview session with someone like Crowe, who was right there for the explosion of Seattle onto the mainstream, made the experience a meaningful one.

“He knew where to lead the questioning and what to ask and was also very interested and/or entertained by the answers,” Cornell says. “So it was a couple of hours of an interview where it was just, kind of, my memory being sparked by the questions, remembering all these different things.

“I also felt like the years of Cameron as a filmmaker combined with Cameron as a music journalist came together brilliantly. It very much has his personality and some of his humor and just the essence of a Cameron Crowe film, it”s there, it”s in there. It”s not distanced from either side. You don”t get the feeling like you”re distanced from the band or from Cameron as a filmmaker. It all seemed to come together perfectly and coexist really well, I think, with Pearl Jam’s history and their legacy. Being sort of in the middle of it, I felt like this captured what it felt like to me. And I don”t think there”s another person who would have been able to do that that well.”

Cornell says he was particularly happy that Crowe spent so much time on Mother Love Bone and Wood, as the band is kind of a skeleton key of sorts to understanding not only the Seattle music scene, but how that scene related to what was in the marketplace in those post-glam years.

“Andy was just starting to come into his own in terms of his talent and what he would have offered as a songwriter and a personality to music,” he says. “I think that their albums, to this day, have been hugely influential in rock music. I almost felt like the Seattle bands that came into prominence kind of smashed what was happening in commercial rock music. Just destroyed it. And it”s come back in the form of nostalgia, but it has never come back in a vital form.

“I think that Mother Love Bone could have been, in a sense, the bridge between commercial rock of that moment and Nirvana, for example. I think it could exist in either world effortlessly. And none of the rest of us did that. It might have changed how things ended up, instead of this absolute about face departure from what commercial rock was to what it became. If you were White Snake, you couldn”t be influenced by Nirvana and somehow include that in your subsequent releases in any meaningful way that was at all authentic. It’s impossible. But I think Mother Love Bone could.”

Back in the saddle again

Cornell is well aware that Soundgarden had a big influence on a lot of commercial hard rock bands of the period, but he doesn’t know if it necessarily did anything for them because they were — and still are — so specific to themselves.

“I think Soundgarden infuriated a lot of people because we were just never that easy to pin down,” he says. “We were never that easy to say, okay, it”s ‘X.’ I think on the one hand it probably hurt us commercially. But at the same time, I think it was “91 that we went on tour with Guns N’ Roses and we saw the extreme of how big it can get. We knew then we didn”t want that. And that was the one thing we got out of that tour and that experience. None of us felt very comfortable at all. But I think musically, something like that was never going to happen anyway because we were truly a band where all four members contributed musically, which creates multiple creative relationships. We were very adventurous, and still are.”

And indeed, the band is back at it again, touring hard, writing a new album, and Cornell says he has that old feeling again.

“There’s always this tendency to move on,” he says. “There’s always a tendency to resist covering the same territory. And there”s always a willingness by everybody to also push the boundaries of what we all collectively understand as the sound of our band. And I feel very lucky in that regard because, to me, that was what music was.

“My first favorite band that made music important to me was the Beatles. I was a little kid. I didn”t know who was singing what song or who wrote what song. I only knew that they could do ‘Eleanor Rigby,’ which is Paul McCartney singing over a string quartet, or they could do ‘Helter Skelter,’ which was arguably one of the first metal songs, in a sense. They could do both of those things and it never occurred to me, nor to anyone else that I can think of, that that wasn”t okay.”

It doesn’t feel like 20 years since the explosion of grunge (a dirty word amongst these groups) to Cornell. After all, Soundgarden formed in 1984, so there’s so much history before the watershed moment of 1991/1992 that the 20 years doesn’t even speak for all of it.

“What formed me as a musician, a songwriter, the sound and personality of my band, a whole lot of that happened well before 1991,” he says. “So that almost seems like the short version. And looking at it in that way, 20 years seems like it”s not that long. But I”m really happy that we”re talking about it in the context of, you know, my band is together again, we”re making a new record, people actually give a shit about what happened 20 years ago in Seattle and that”s a good thing. Because it often doesn”t happen that way. Often, you know, someone is asking you about one song that was an international hit 25 years ago and you”re telling the story for the 3,000th time of how you wrote it when you were on the bus or whatever.”

“Machine Gun Preacher” is in theaters nationwide. “Pearl Jam Twenty” is available on Pay-Per-View currently and will hit DVD/Blu-ray on October 24.

EARLIER: Cornell discusses writing the original song “The Keeper” for Marc Forster’s “Machine Gun Preacher” and his history with film music over the years.

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