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Altered State

Producer Brendan O’Brien Goes Behind the Making of the ‘Bittersweet’ Final Chris Cornell LP

The producer also dives in to his decades-long relationship with the singer
Chris Cornell 2015
(Credit: Andrew Stuart)

Producer Brendan O’Brien was fresh off wrapping work on Pearl Jam’s sophomore album Vs. when he met Chris Cornell for the first time in the summer of 1993. Cornell and his bandmates in Soundgarden were nearly finished recording what would become their smash album Superunknown, and, per a recommendation from Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard, invited O’Brien up to Seattle to discuss mixing the project.

As O’Brien recalls, “We went out to dinner to talk about what we were going to do, and five minutes in, it was like, ‘Are we actually going to talk about mixing? We’ll put the songs up and make it sound good. What’s next? What do you want to talk about now?’ We all just laughed, and then bullshitted for the next hour-and-a-half.” Released the following March, Superunknown became Soundgarden’s most successful album, selling 5 million copies in the U.S. and spawning alt-rock all-timers such as “Spoonman,” “Fell on Black Days” and “Black Hole Sun.”

Their intuitive collaborative approach having been established, O’Brien and Cornell went on to work closely for the next 20-plus years, culminating in No One Sings Like You Anymore, a 10-track covers album that was among the last thing Cornell recorded before his death in 2017.

Comprised of material originally recorded by John Lennon, Electric Light Orchestra, Sinead O’Connor, Janis Joplin and Ghostland Observatory, among others, No One Sings Like You Anymore finds Cornell and O’Brien playing almost all of the instruments themselves. Cornell is in fine voice throughout and shines in his role as a song interpreter, helping the album earn two nominations for next month’s Grammys — best rock album and best rock performance for the artist’s rendition of Guns ’N Roses’ “Patience.” O’Brien talked to SPIN about the bittersweet experience of completing the project without Cornell present and the enduring power of his music.

Chris Cornell Henson Studios
(Credit: Andrew Stuart)

SPIN: Can you recall what it was like meeting Chris and Soundgarden for the first time in Seattle in 1993?
Brendan O’Brien: I think they’d finished most of the recording for ‘Superunknown’ at that point. So when I got there, we hit the ground running. I think they were a little burnt out by that point after having worked on the record for a long time, and they were excited to hear it sound organized, together and finished. We had a great time.

With Pearl Jam and other people, I was producing the records, so you’re there from the ground up. You go through the whole process. It’s much more collaborative and sometimes adversarial. It’s not meant to be that way, but part of your job is to present every angle. When you come in to mix, they’re ready for you to be the hero (laughs). They’re ready for you to make it sound great. Unless I set something on fire, I was going to be doing pretty well. It was not going to go badly for me unless I really made it sound like shit. They were all smiles at that point. Especially with Chris, I think he was excited to see the finish line. I could tell they felt like they had something there — a real, legitimate record. I was glad to be part of that.

You went on to work with Chris on a lot of his post-Soundgarden projects.
I mixed an Audioslave record and then I produced another one with them. That was one of the first times I worked with Chris as a singer. He and I immediately got along very well. I think he appreciated that I understood what he was doing. He seemed to respect that. Of course, put him in front of a microphone and he was one of the best. We got along great. He had a great sense of humor, because we had similar interests in shitty old movies and old cars. He was younger than me, but not by a lot, so we had a lot of the same influences. After Audioslave, he did his own thing for a while but we got back together on the solo record that became Higher Truth. I produced that with him, and it was he and I doing most of it. Sometime during the making of that record, we had an idea of doing a covers record, and we even started coming up with some song ideas then. Actually doing it didn’t happen until about a year later. We had a good thing going. My hope was that we would continue making more records in this way, but things changed.

Soundgarden didn’t tour in 2016, but Chris toured solo quite a bit and then reunited with Temple Of The Dog. When did you guys actually record this?
I had to take a break in the middle of recording to help Coldplay and Bruno Mars with the Super Bowl, so that would have been in early 2016. We did a good bit of it then, and then came back to it later. The truth is, this is an unfinished record. We weren’t really done. We did a bunch of songs, and the idea was always to come back and pick three or four more things. We thought we needed some different takes on other songs. There was no rush to put it together, at least on his part. I’m glad people are being exposed to Chris, and he’s getting a lot of deserved recognition, but it’s bittersweet, for obvious reasons. To me, it’s unfinished.

It made me think about how Chris helped finish the last Jeff Buckley record after Jeff died.
I met Jeff Buckley about a week before he died, and I spoke to Chris right before that, because I knew they were friends. I told him, “I’m going to meet with this guy even though I think he’s just going to do the record with Andy Wallace.” I went to say hi and spend a day with him. He was a lovely guy — very soft-spoken, and loved music. My interaction with Jeff was through Chris and I see the parallels. But with the Chris record, again, I feel like there was some work left to be done as far as more songs, but that’s not how the world views it, which is all good. That’s just my own personal take on it.

Was the plan always for just the two of you to play the instruments?
I think it was the plan. We did a lot of the previous record together like that. Chris is an excellent guitar player and obviously an excellent singer. I can play a bunch of stuff. He liked the circle being small, and I did too. We had a pretty good rapport about what we were trying to do. [Drummer] Matt Chamberlain plays on a couple of songs and there’s a string arrangement on a few things. There are four or five songs, maybe more, that aren’t on the record and had some other things going on. It was a little bit of an open-ended thing. We didn’t really think about it — we just did it.

Who came up with the song ideas? It looks like he only played two of these songs live on the 2016 tour.
A couple of them were songs he’d done live and he wanted to make a different version of, like “Patience” and “Nothing Compares 2 U.” We may have wanted to go back later and do more things to them, but who knows? We reached out to friends for suggestions. My old friend from Atlanta who I’ve known since high school, Chris Starrs, suggested the ELO song that we did. We just tried it one day, and it was like, ‘OK, sounds good! Next! What else you got?’ My friend Jon Sidel in L.A. suggested “You Don’t Know Nothing About Love.” We did feel like we needed a few more things, and the thought was, let’s see what else comes in down the road. We didn’t get to that, unfortunately.

Is there an example of a song that was captured quickly compared to one that took more time to get where you wanted it?
Honestly, all of them were done pretty quickly. There was an idea to pull a song together in one day and really focus, and then move onto the next thing. We wanted to trust our instincts. If we really liked something, we’d go back to it and finish it. There are probably another half-dozen that were sort of finished, and maybe more than that. I can’t think of anything we really labored over dramatically. We did spend a lot of time on it, but the idea was to keep it fresh. It was just the two of us, so we didn’t have to corral a bunch of other people. When there’s only two people involved, and one of them knows how to run a studio, it can happen pretty quickly.

Had there been any conversations before Chris died about how and when to release this album?
Everybody’s idea was to get a few more songs together. I know Chris and I felt that way. Before he passed away, it had probably been a year since we’d last recorded. It wasn’t like we just did it and then he died. It had already been around awhile at that point. His idea was to work on a new Soundgarden record and some other things, and then we’d get back to this at some point.

If this is the final word on Chris’ solo studio recordings, what do we take away from it?
My first impression is a job left unfinished. That’s how I feel about it, and him. Unfinished business. I miss him being here in general. I guess that’s how I feel about all of it: the work, being around him, everything. I can’t imagine ever feeling complete, you know? Honestly, I’ve hardly listened to it. I do still find it kind of difficult to listen to the music, because it brings up those memories. I think of the moment we did it, and usually, it’s almost overwhelmingly a good memory. This one is more mixed. It was fun doing it, and I enjoyed everything about working with Chris, especially at that time. But there’s also the feeling that there was so much more to do.

I think part of the joy of the album is hearing just how skilled Chris was an interpreter of other people’s music.
I don’t know if he was ever in a cover band before Soundgarden. In my time, everybody played in cover bands and then they started working on their own music. He may have come up in a scene where everyone started working on their own music, but he would have been a spectacular singer in a cover band. An all-time great (laughs). I used to tease him that he could always get a gig playing in a grunge tribute band.

Do you have any idea what the status is of the Soundgarden material the band was working on before Chris died?
I’ve never heard it. In spite of what may have been said or written, Chris and I never talked about it. We were focused on this record. Soundgarden seemed like a separate thing, which was great by me. I felt good about that. But I’d love to hear it at some point — I really would. I hope they get it figured out.