Reunited alt-rockers Soundgarden are heading into a Seattle studio to record their first album in 15 years. But in April, sessions will break as singer Chris Cornell heads out on his debut solo acoustic tour, a 26-date North American trek where he’ll play songs from his 25-year career.
From his Los Angeles home, Cornell spoke with SPIN about why playing solo terrifies him, Elton John’s terrific MTV Unplugged performance, and one of his all-time favorite bands, the influential late-’70s experimental rockers Chrome.
Why do the solo tour now instead of, say, last year or five years ago?
[Laughs] Good question. It’s something that I’ve talked about doing for a while. My first acoustic show was over 20 years ago, and then, just a few years ago, I played one in Stockholm, for some contest winners for this radio promotion thing. I had a really great time. But it’s the most terrifying thing I have ever done musically.”
Why is it so terrifying?
I remember when Soundgarden played the Oakland Coliseum [in 1991]. It was nerve-wracking, but once the first song started, I was protected by this enormous sonic wall — it’s very loud and there’s a sea of people. You can’t hear one person’s voice. You don’t pay attention to any one person’s reaction. I learned then that playing arenas isn’t as nerve-racking as playing smaller shows. An acoustic show is all about you, and any little nuance or mistake is amplified. I think Johnny Cash was quoted as saying, “It’s the scariest thing you could do as a musician.” I’m very nervous about it, but I love the intimacy. Once you sit in front of people and start playing songs, it’s all on you. No matter what happens, it’s entirely your responsibility the entire time. I like that intensity.
And for that reason there must be some extra satisfaction from nailing a show.
There’s definitely a feeling of, “Yeah, I can walk into a room and entertain people by myself, without even electricity.” That came from a realization I had years ago when I was watching an artist, Spoonman, who will walk into any room and take out his little leather bag, open it up, pull out spoons and a nose-whistle, and entertain a room of any size with some kitchen utensils. I remember thinking that even though I’ve played huge arenas and have sold millions of records, I still can’t do that.
Which is very different from the popular concept of a full-band acoustic session, like MTV’s Unplugged.
Yeah. There was a period where everybody did that, but most were more or less the same approach to what they’d do as a full rock band. They just used Ovations [acoustic guitars] and the drummer used an old kit.
Is that why Soundgarden never recorded anMTV Unplugged?
Yeah. There are a handful of Soundgarden songs that work acoustically, but only a couple. It’s not who we were. It would have been kind of silly, and, truthfully, a lot of them were silly.
Were there any Unplugged sessions that you did appreciate?
One of them was Elton John, because he has the ability to just sit down at the piano and play for three hours and blow you away. It’s just him and a piano. I prefer watching his MTV Unplugged than any of his other concert footage. The Nirvana Unplugged was more band oriented, but it didn’t matter because it’s an incredible performance. They were so aggressive and dirty and stripped down as an electric band, so it was a big difference in sound.
Will you be playing any new, unreleased songs on the tour?
I’ve thought about it, but I probably won’t. I have played songs that I’ve never recorded at other acoustic shows, and that might happen. It’s a, “I’ll do whatever comes to mind” format. But I do have a bunch of songs written for an acoustic album. I don’t know if I have enough for a full album, but I have a lot. But with being in Soundgarden again and working on the new album, I haven’t really thought about when I would record it.
The sets will span your 25-year-long career. Did you have to relearn some of the older tunes?
Yeah. If you look at Euphoria Morning, for example, I did one tour in the U.S. and one in Europe and I didn’t play the guitar live. So I had to go back and learn some of those songs. But it’s been an ongoing process over the past few years. Many I don’t have to necessarily relearn, but readapt so that it works acoustically. Not all these songs work acoustically, but then some that I didn’t think would work acoustically, do.
For example… ?
I did an acoustic version of “Like Suicide” years ago for a movie, and that was the first time that I noticed that a song that benefits from the resonance of an electric guitar also works really well acoustically. Way back in ’92, I did one other acoustic song, “Seasons,” for the Singles soundtrack. That track started out like “Like Suicide” — it was very much an electric song, and the body of the song was this angry bass line. There are other songs, like “Fourth of July,” that I tried to do an acoustic version of one time. But it just doesn’t translate even though, melodically, it seems like it would work great.
Will you be playing anything from Scream, your collaboration with Timbaland that took a lot of criticism at the time?
That album really changed my approach to recording. It was unlike any other record I’ve ever done, and it’s still among my favorites. I can listen to it for what it is, as opposed to listening to it while trying to wedge it in to a discography and trying to understand, you know, “Then he went from this band to this band, to this solo album… but does it make any sense?” A couple of the songs work acoustically that I wouldn’t have imagined would, like “Part of Me.” Now, with some time having gone by, I wonder what all the fuss with the album was about.
What are you listening to these days?
The Chrome Box [a massive collection that chronicles the late ’70s experimental band Chrome’s glory days], which I had no idea would still be available. So I got the Chrome Box on iTunes. It was so hard to find when I was a kid. And they’re still a largely unknown band. But it holds up amazingly well — it’s all lo-fi recordings and tons of experimentation. All the energy I heard the first time is still there!
LISTEN: Chrome, “Firebomb”