Chris Cornell, former frontman of Soundgarden and Audioslave, passed away last night in Detroit at the age of 52. In the light of his passing, we are republishing our in-depth interview with Cornell, which originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Spin.
On a warm June evening in the garden of a chi-chi Paris hotel, there are two Chris Cornells enjoying the fading sunshine. One is the fit, dark-haired 41-year-old former Soundgarden singer. The other is pudgy, blond, and you can’t help but notice, only six months old.
Cornell Sr.’s life has changed immeasurably in the five years since he teamed up with the rump of Rage Against the Machine to form Audioslave. He has a new home (Paris), a new wife (publicist Vicky Karayiannis), two new children (Toni, two, and Christopher Nicholas), a new business venture (a restaurant called Black Calavados), and a new sideline (as the face of John Varvatos’ menswear line). He’s also just completed the third Audioslave album, Revelations. Most significantly, four years ago he said goodbye to alcohol, his constant companion for 20 years. The benefits are written on his face; his blue eyes are as bright and clear as colored glass. “Everything looks better without it,” he says cheerfully, handing the baby back to Karayiannis. “Everything’s more fun.”
I remind him that we’ve met before, while he was promoting Audioslave’s first album. Back then, he was aloof and distracted, with a mocking, waspish sense of humor. It’s now apparent that, around that time, he was a full-blown substance abuser going through a bitter divorce from his first wife and former manager, Susan Silver. “Was I wasted?” he asks ruefully. “That would have been just before I went into rehab.” I tell him the contrast is reminiscent of those before and after pictures you see in diet ads. He gives a small smile. “I’m just glad there was an after.”
When did you move to Paris?
A couple of years ago. I met Vicky [who was living in Paris] on the first Audioslave tour, and I started coming back to Paris every time I had time off. I’d thought about living here for ten years, so that was kind of a coincidence. It’s been amazing to get out of my normal surroundings. In America you’re kind of trained from a little kid to get a leg up. On the one hand, that makes it easier to get things done, but in Paris people relax more.
This is Audioslave’s third album in five years, but the band had a rocky genesis in 2002 with squabbling managers, canceled Ozzfest dates, and your personal problems. When did you feel confident the band would last?
The writing of the first record went well, but I didn’t really know the other three guys. It was a but like switching schools. [It was] awhile before it felt like “Oh, this is my home, and these are my friends, and this is my band, and they’re going to be different from my other band.” Then it didn’t feel like there was any reason not to keep going.
In the past you’ve said you were a stubborn kid. Were you raised that way?
I don’t think I was encouraged to be my own individual at all. I was able to exist in that way because my parents had six kids, too many to keep an eye on. When it comes to the imaginary worlds that I think help songwriters, that kind of freedom helped. But it was always tempered with a lot of adults being disappointed with me.
When did you realize you could really sing?
When I was a little kid, I would sing harmonies to Beatles records. When I was 17, I started to play drums, and that held my attention. I started singing backup from behind the drums. I just imagined, “If I work at it, I’ll be so good that some great band will want me.” And it didn’t happen. From 17 to 21, I was in a bunch of different bands, and I realized that if I was going to play music I liked, I was going to have to create that music. That’s when Soundgarden started. We thought, “Well, we’ll look for either a drummer of a singer and see who arrives first.” That’s how I ended up being a singer.
You were seriously depressed as a teenager. What brought that on?
I had a bad PCP [angel dust] experience when I was 14 and I got panic disorder. And of course, I wasn’t telling anyone the truth. It’s not like you go to your dad or your doctor and say, “Yeah, I smoked PCP and I’m having a bad time.” So I became more or less agoraphobic because I’d have flashbacks. From 14 to 16, I didn’t have any friends. I stayed home most of the time. Up till then life was pretty great. The world was big and I felt I could do anything I wanted. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t do anything. But in the isolation, my imagination really had time to run.
Did the PCP experience scare you away from other hard drugs later on?
I never did any drugs until my late 20s. Unfortunately, being a child of two alcoholics, I started drinking a lot, and that’s what eventually got me back into drugs. You often hear that pot leads to harder drugs. But I think alcohol is what leads you to everything, because it takes away the fear. The worst drug experimentation I ever did was because I was drunk and didn’t care.
What did alcohol lead you to?
At first to prescription medication and then to pretty much everything. I’d had several years of being in control of my alcoholism. I was pretty reliable; I took care of business. And then when my personal life got out of hand, I just got loaded. So I went through a couple of years of depression again. I didn’t eat, I drank a lot, I started taking pills, and at some point you just get sick of it. I was pretty sure that nothing like that would ever happen to me. Then I ended up having as bad a problem as anyone’s going to have and still be alive. So I realized I’m not special. I’m just like everybody else.
Did you initially feel special because you didn’t go the way of friends like Kurt Cobain and Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon?
Yeah, I think the fact that I was considered to be “the together one” out of people from famous Seattle bands enabled me to lie to myself. I didn’t see that it would get worse, but it does. Now I avoid any mood-altering substances, period.
Did you go into rehab voluntarily, or were you pushed?
I think it was both. Realizing how I was affecting people I cared about made a big difference. The other three members of Audioslave didn’t know me that well, and when we started making the first record, I was pretty much at my worst. I think they just looked at it as “Oh, this is the kind of guy we have in our band now.” [Laughs] And we were writing great songs, but then it got scary from them. Their urging didn’t come from a place like “We’re concerned about our careers.” It came from a place like “We’re concerned about you.” I felt a sense of sadness and fear in them that made me wake up. It was being around people who weren’t part of the bad part of my life that I then saw how bad it was.
Do you ever look back and think, “Wow, what asshole I was”?
In hindsight I have to say I didn’t know life [could be] different. The relationship I have with my wife now, I didn’t know that could exist. It was a revelation. I was able to forgive myself for a lot of my bad behavior, because how was I supposed to know? The only reason I was lucky enough to end up happy for the first time in my life is because I was awake for it.
You recently sued your ex for the return of earnings and personal effects. Is that resolved now?
Pretty much. It’s never resolved when it comes to intellectual property and the kind of things Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have to fight Courtney Love about. But other than that, it’s over with. Finally. It’s only been in the last few months that Vicky and I have experienced life without lawyers calling, without getting crushing e-mails with bad news.
Going back to Soundgarden–did you feel privileged to be in the wave of independent bands that revolutionized mainstream rock?
Nobody came to Seattle to sign a band or write about you or put your song on the radio, so everything there was very genuine. I’m privileged to have been in that place at that time. I also put a lot of energy into that. We really had to beat the doors down.
You formed in 1984, broke big in 1991, and called it a day in 1997. Which period holds the fondest memories for you?
A time that sticks in my mind is one of Soundgarden’s first tours. We’d heard stories about the Athens scene and the Minneapolis scene and the Austin scene, and we went to these different cities and realized what we had in Seattle; it just felt more energetic than anywhere else. There’s a song on the new record, “Original Fire,” that sort of covers that period.
Do you ever regret dissolving Soundgarden when you did?
When we opened up for Guns N’ Roses [in 1991], we all looked around and saw where the next step was, and we didn’t like it. They had two keyboard players, a piano that came up from the ground, three background singers, three guys that seemed to just want to play in a rock band, and another guy who wanted to be bigger than the Rolling Stones. We all agreed we didn’t want to do that. My favorite Soundgarden record is the last one. We weren’t a band who ended up strangling each other or fighting with lawyers. We had critical success, we had commercial success, we made records I think are timeless, and we were together for a long time. I’m not so greedy that I want more of that.
Were you disappointed your solo record [1999’s Euphoria Morning] wasn’t more successful?
It was something I just wanted to do and move on. I’m working on songs now for another solo record, and it’s a vastly different world. I think it just was not the time for me to have a big solo record. I was in such a bad way personally and professionally.
Johnny Cash covered Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” at 64. Do you see yourself carrying on that long?
A few years back I was thinking about slowing down because I’d been laboring under the misapprehension that there was a finish line. I’m just not built that way. I look at someone like Johnny Cash and think that’s all he’s ever known, so it’s not really like work. Music to me still is not work. With the exception of being with my family, it’s first on my list of what I want to do.