Chris Cornell interview: searching for the real Chris Cornell

Chris Cornell in 1996
(Image credit: Ebet Roberts)

The dark lord of angst and alienation stares out of the restaurant window and watches huge black limousines crawl through the sun-battered Hollywood Hills like doped-up beetles. He runs his fingers through his coal black hair and allows himself a dry laugh.

We’re in LA, the domain of the shallow, the superficial and the super-wealthy with a man regarded as one of the most intense, deep and - dare we say it? - humourless musicians of his generation. Every sycophantic starfucker here thinks LA is aaawsome. You’d be surprised if the man in black shared such sentiments. Be surprised.

“California was amazing to me as a kid,” he smiles. “Everyone here had a swimming pool, it was always sunny, they had these huge theme parks and carnivals. I thought LA was paradise. I’d love to go to Disneyland again to relive old memories.

“I came down here first when I was nine years old and again when I was 11,” he continues. “I remember having more fun when I was nine, because I hadn’t started becoming depressed yet. At 11, you wake up one day and start feeling bad about everything. Don’t you?”

The sun is out, the sky is blue, and Chris Cornell is smiling like a Cheshire Cat who has just discovered it can lick its own testicles. Can this really be Frowngarden’s frontman, Seattle’s most sullen superstar, the petulant pin-up who fell on black days and made a career out of whingeing about it? Then again, is that Chris Cornell the same guy who recorded the viciously ironic shag anthem Big Dumb Sex, who used to encore with Spinal Tap’s loveflap-mungous Big Bottom, and who now performs mandolin duets on his latest multi-platinum album? Grumpy git or genial geezer, Mr Chuckles or Mr Contrary, will the real Chris Cornell please stand up?

Chris sips on his mineral water and shrugs noncommittally: “It would be too big a job for us to try to ensure that every Soundgarden fan knows exactly who we are and what we’re like. It’s impossible to do and I couldn’t take on that sort of responsibility.”

Mind if we have a go?

Cornell dips another slice of pitta bread into his humous and looks up with a twinkle in his eyes. “Okay,” he says quietly, “but I won’t be funny in this interview. And you can’t make me.”

The young Chris Cornell was, in his own words, a ‘difficult’ child. He was an independent chap, forever disappearing on his own into the woods around Seattle for hours at a time, making his parents sick with worry in the process. He knew he’d get into trouble for these AWOL moments, but he was a stubborn little bugger and simply didn’t care.

When grounded, he’d watch Popeye or cool futuristic Japanese cartoons like Gigantor and Speed Racer and dream of being a professional American footballer. Unfortunately, he knew that he was too small and, in reality, too crap to reach the top playing gridiron. But there had to be something better than this…

The first time he heard The Beatles, young Master Cornell knew he’d found his vocation in life. His parents were somewhat less convinced though.

“I annoyed the shit out of them by spending my whole childhood beating on things,” Chris recalls with a smile. “I drove them to distraction, and I never thought they’d give me a drumkit in a million years.

“By the time I was 15, my mom had just about given up on me. But she must have figured that at least I had an interest in something other than drugs or being a criminal, so she bought me a snare drum. After a couple of days whacking that, I bought the rest of the kit for $50 from a guy I knew. Two weeks later, I was in my first band.

“My mom was ecstatic because it was the first thing I’d done on my own which wasn’t illegal or troublesome.”

For the next few years, strange dark rumblings emanated from chez Cornell: The Ramones, AC/DC, the Sex Pistols, anything hard, fast and noisy that the enthusiastic young tub-thumper could lay his hands on.

“Those bands were great,” he enthuses, “because you could play their songs without really being able to play. My first band played those songs, and to our young ears we could play them as well as they could. That’s when it all started to go horribly wrong for me.”

Within a few months Chris knew that music was all he wanted to do. So he left school. He worked in wholesale distributors, in restaurants, in the docks - “jobs that people with no education do.” At night, he played with bar bands, any bunch of two-bit losers who’d give him a chance. He figured that some day a big band would roll into Seattle, take one look at his flamboyant style, and promptly whisk him off to indulge in all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll his young body could handle.

Four years later he was still playing with the same shitty bands in the same shitty bars to the same shitty punters for the same shitty money. And getting more and more pissed off.

He was not alone. Young Seattle guitarist Kim Thayil felt the same way. So did his bassist mate Hiro Yamamoto. The three joined forces, wrote 15 songs in a month and decided on a name - Soundgarden.

“People hated us in the beginning,” Chris laughs. “I’d come on stage with no shirt on, whipping my hair around and generally being a sweaty young rock guy. I used to have about 50 ribbons in my hair, which didn’t exactly please the jocks in the audience. They were probably worried because they found me a little too attractive.”

What about now - have you lost that desire to fuck with people’s perceptions, to shock or provoke?

Chris sighs before responding.

“In the beginning it was fun and exciting to us, because at least the audience were reacting. But the 50th time that Kurt Cobain came out wearing a dress it was kinda, ‘Ho hum, here we go again…’. GG Allin kinda took the shock thing to its ultimate conclusion. Call me old fashioned, but I draw the line at eating my own shit for the sake of entertainment!”

We chat on, about early gigs in tiny Seattle venues like the Central Tavern and the Ditto Tavern, about comics and movies, about Cornell listening faves like Fugazi, the Beastie Boys and Jeff Buckley. Eventually, talk turns to Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil’s arrest on July 23 for allegedly assaulting an 18 year old girl. With Kim’s court appearance imminent, Chris is loathe to discuss the incident, but it’s clear that he’s utterly convinced of his friend’s innocence.

“Kim is a really sweet guy, the most polite and outgoing of any of us,“he insists. “But he’s also the most recognisable one, and no matter where he goes people approach him. He usually deals with it very well. We’re not extroverts who love the spotlight. We love music, but the fame we could do without. Punk had a huge influence on us, as much for the attitude as for the music. Most of the big bands at the moment have some history in punk rock and we are really self-conscious about the idea of being rock stars, because the words ‘rock star’ are swear words to us.”

But you appear on TV and get recognised in the streets. It must be apparent at times to you that, like it or not, you are a rock star?

“Of course”, Chris agrees, “but there are a lot of misconceptions as to what it is to be in a successful rock band. The reality is just a bunch of normal people playing music for a living. It’s not like you’re suddenly hanging out with a better or more interesting class of people. Guys like Freddie Mercury and Alice Cooper were proper rock stars; really cool, really entertaining, larger than life people. I could never do that though, because being larger than life in my punk grounding was really bad, the complete antithesis to all that punk stood for.”

But Chris Cornell is now an object of worship for a few million people. Does he find that weird?

“Yeah, it’s weird, especially the way people look at you sometimes,” he says. “They’ve got that crazy, wide-eyed glazed look, as if your head is about to spin around 360 degrees and start projectile vomiting. They think you’re somehow special because you’ve been on television. You just have to let them have their weird feelings.”

“We’re all a bit socially awkward in our band at the best of times, and while we’re more comfortable with the fan thing now, it’s still odd and slightly surreal. I have friends who are celebrities who’re a lot more extrovert and social than me, and they can’t lead a normal life because they’re so recognisable. It’s changed their lives a lot and they can’t change it back.”

“I’ve always been really anti-social, and being relatively famous has just given me an excuse to go out even less. If I didn’t play in Soundgarden I’d have no excuse for being the way I am. My friends and family would hate me, whereas now they probably feel sorry for me. Y’know, ‘Poor kid, he can’t come out because he gets hassled a lot.’”

Chris laughs quietly. He laughs a lot, actually. Hearing him talk amiably and happily about his beloved Seattle, about home life with his dogs, about the Sex Pistols’ reformation and more, he comes across as a down to earth, friendly guy with a wickedly dry sense of humour. So why does everyone think he’s such a moody bastard?

“Probably because I’ve spent several years being a moody bastard in front of millions of people,” he replies with a laugh. “It’s pretty accurate really, although we’re not as moody as people think. The moodiness really intensified on the Superunknown tour,” he considers. “We’d toured so much since our SST records that by the time Superunknown, our biggest album, came out we were really tired of touring. Which is not good.”

Why tour so much if you hate it so much? Surely at this stage in your career, you can dictate when and where the band will go?

“I don’t hate touring at all,“he says. It’s just that I don’t hang around a lot of people at home, so when we go on tour it’s kinda like diving into a tub of iced water at first, because it’s such a different situation. After a while, I really enjoy it, and it’s good that I can have that experience to get me out of my skin for a while.

“I actually played most of the Superunknown tour out of my skin… Or rather, out of my head, drunk. We were so reluctant to be out there, and I just started drinking more so that I could actually have some fun, instead of having to be professional and worrying about keeping to a schedule all the time. That led to some funny gigs, because sometimes I’d start playing the wrong song or completely forget the words. But overall, it was less fun.”

And so is being in Soundgarden less fun generally now, Chris?

“It’s actually more fun now than when we started out,” he insists. “Because you learn what to worry about, or care about, or be angry about after you’ve done this for a while, been everywhere and done everything. Nothing can really blindside us any more.”

Away from the band, do you guys still hang out together?

“Not as much as we used to,” he concedes, “because we see each other all the time in the studio, or on tour. But we still go out together quite happily now and again. It’s not like we’re the Monkees, living in the same house and driving the same car… Actually Alice in Chains did that before they became really successful and I always thought that was really cool. But we’ve missed our chance now, I suppose.”

Chris Cornell may be older, wiser and richer now, but he appears relatively unaffected by Soundgarden’s rise to the peak of their profession. Essentially, he’s still a rebellious kid screaming louder than love.

But his fame has engendered curious side-effects. Where once the streets of LA were peopled by Axl Rose lookalikes, these days you can’t spit without hitting a Chris Cornell wannabe. The Soundgarden singer finds this a little unnerving.

Worse still is the knowledge that somewhere in Australia there lurks a Soundgarden tribute band, dedicated to exploring the superunknown without his help. Some people find this amusing, saying the only thing they regret about being in a band is that they never get the opportunity to see how good their own band looks and sounds on stage.

Would Chris Cornell like, just once, to have some sort of out of body experience enabling him to watch Soundgarden in full flow?

The man in black laughs long and hard.

“No way. That would scare the hell out of me. What if you saw yourself and realised you sucked? I’d rather eat my own shit!”

Watch Chris Cornell’s final performance with Soundgarden

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.