Chris Cornell accepts that he’s part of rock’s status quo



By Steve Newton

It’s been 17 years since the grunge revolution blasted full-throttle out of Seattle, but Chris Cornell remembers it well. As the front man for Soundgarden, Cornell was a chief architect of the genre, which formed as a backlash to the stagnating commercial rock of the day.

“At the time it felt like most of the rock bands on television were all cowriting with the same two or three people,” he recalls, on the line from a tour stop in San Francisco. “All the songs sounded just the same, all the videos looked the same, and there was also a large separation between the bands and their audience. And then suddenly here’s Nirvana with the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, where they’re just wearing sorta dirty, ripped-up clothes, and Kurt’s hair is tangled and hangin’ over his face. Their song rocked harder, it was catchier and better than any commercial rock that’s happening, but they looked just like the kids that were watching them on TV.

“So it [grunge] was a reaction to that sort of rock-star concept,” he continues. “And now there’s a new concept you can ponder, which is that, because of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, there’s a new generation that is learning about the mythical rock icon. The music industry cannot manufacture or create or in any way deliver a new rock icon, and yet the idea of being a rock icon is at its height of popularity.”

Cornell has never actually played any of the current rock-star video games—”I just write the songs that they put on them”—but he knows what the role of the rock icon entails.

“The job of the rock icon is to violently go out and smash down what is the norm,” he relates, “and if you’re successful at doing that, you then become that norm, and it’s someone else’s job to come along and smash you down. If you’re someone like me, you have to accept the fact that at some point you became the status quo that needed to be destroyed. And when you come to that realization, it becomes kinda liberating, ’cause the roles aren’t really defined anymore.”

Cornell recently took that idea of musical openness to heart, making a stylistic U-turn by hooking up with superstar rapper-producer Timbaland for his soon-to-be-released album Scream, which he describes as “like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, only now.” He doesn’t view the trading of riff-based hard rock for club-ready hip-hop beats as a risky career move.

“I don’t think I’m at a point in my career where anything is really that big of a gamble,” he contends. “This is a period where I should be and can and will be able to exercise whatever influences and musical direction I want to go in. I want to push the boundaries and make new records as though no one has ever heard of me before.”

To hear the audio of my 2008 interview with Chris Cornell, become a patron of the Newt on Patreon.


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