“I’ve never been somebody who feels comfortable around a lot of people.”
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And yet, it almost has. Cornell recorded Euphoria Morning with Alain Johannes and Natasha Shneider, the married couple at the heart of the band Eleven, at their home studio, on a lovely residential street in the West Hollywood foothills. Eleven had been among Soundgarden’s favorite tourmates [see sidebar]. In fact, they’d liked Eleven so much that when Johannes and Shneider were in a bitter dispute with their former label, Morgan Creek, Soundgarden flew the band to Europe to open for them, paid to ship their gear overseas from Seattle, and put them up in the same luxury hotels where they stayed.
Still, Cornell never became especially close friends with the band then, even though he loved Eleven’s music and years earlier had been a fan of Johannes’ band What Is This. Always happiest alone, Cornell kept to himself while on the road. But after Soundgarden ended their final tour, Johannes and Shneider invited Cornell to Los Angeles so the three could really get to know one another. Cornell still needed a direction for his solo project. More pressing was the fact that he had a song due for the Great Expectations soundtrack. Johannes and Shneider had built their own home studio to record the next Eleven album, so it didn’t take long before the three were recording, with the soundtrack’s “Sunshower” being the result.
Cornell, uninterested in returning to a band setting where he’d have to compromise and bend to a democracy, nevertheless loved collaborating with Johannes and Shneider. Last summer, he practically moved in with them. The three spent the next eight months producing and playing practically every note on Euphoria Morning, picking up old-time instruments that were scattered around the house to flesh out the sound, and living with the album as a fourth roommate.
“[Working with Eleven] seemed like a very easy decision to make. Everything we were doing was fun,” Cornell says later that night, seated on the sofa of Johannes’ and Shneider’s living room, sipping red wine. The house is lit by skylights. The room is decorated in deep shades of reds, browns and blacks. Johannes’ brightly colored paintings adorn the walls. Philosophy texts line bookcases. Vintage instruments lie everywhere. The cutest pug dogs run underfoot.
“It was absolute knowledge,” says Shneider, of the moment they realized their collaboration would click artistically. “When you know a person you work with has incredible abilities, you have great trust in their decision-making and taste…”
“She’s talking about Alain,” cracks Cornell.
“…and you know that the same feeling comes from them to you,” Shneider continues. “The songs were so incredible. The demos came so fast. It was blissful fun.”
Adds Johannes, “We were so excited about stuff, that we did it in no time at all. There was this weird feeling of empowerment, of ‘There’s no vulnerability here.’”
The three worked casually but intensely. Every idea they tried seemed to work. When nothing flowed, they’d walk to one of the many restaurants on nearby Melrose or Beverly. Or else they’d shut down and watch a movie, knowing that no time clock was running, and that all their equipment would be set up where they left it when they returned. And with Cornell’s label, A&M, then stuck in Polygram-merger limbo, there wasn’t much of a rush, anyway.
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“If you’re writing about a subject that’s melancholy, ultimately it’s going to speak to someone who feels lonely, and they rise up”
“We’d have these amazing breakfasts when things weren’t going quickly for a couple of days,” remembers Johannes. “We’d go out, and no one would really be saying anything. Then, all of a sudden, someone would say, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about this,’ and someone else would say, ‘Yeah, and I’m thinking this.’ By the time we were done eating, there would be so much shit to do that we’d run back here—I’m picking up instruments, Chris is sprinting into the studio, Natasha’s at the keyboard. We’d spend five days working out all the parts. It was just really cool.”
The fun the three had making Euphoria Morning certainly isn’t expressed in the songs’ lyrics. Instead, the themes are loneliness, departure, separation and a desperate yearning for real human connections. Sometimes Cornell seems to be baring his soul—he was, after all, away from his wife (and former manager) Susan Silver for long stretches while making Euphoria Morning. Elsewhere on the album he sketches vivid characters, like the kids in “Preaching The End Of The World” who just want to find someone to love before an impending
“I never thought about being lonely when I was writing them,” Cornell insists. “I don’t have those feelings that often. I’m married. I have a great relationship. At the same time, I’ve never been somebody who spends a lot of time around a lot of people, or who feels comfortable around a lot of people. But if you relate to it and it makes you less lonely because you’re relating to someone else’s feelings, that’s uplifting. If you’re writing about a subject that’s depressing or melancholy, ultimately it’s going to speak to someone who is in that environment who feels lonely, and they rise up because of it. I would always sit in my bedroom and listen to music by myself. That was my favorite thing to do. I would often listen to really dark music, and if I was in a very dark period of my life, it made me feel happy. If I listened to Ted Nugent at a keg party, I felt horrible. I didn’t want to be around people. I didn’t want to listen to the soundtrack to the keg—Ted Nugent. It’s a party song, it’s a party record, great. That’s for somebody else. It’s not for me.”
Sometimes, though, Euphoria Morning doesn’t seem dark enough. As much as Cornell bares his voice and opens his heart, and as interesting as many of the production techniques are, he might have made a more profoundly affecting album if he hadn’t added a radio-ready sheen to what clearly are moving songs.
“There’s a Nick Drake record, Pink Moon, that he did entirely by himself. It’s just one guitar and him singing. He gave it to his record company and said, ‘This is my record.’ They were very disappointed,” Cornell says, cracking a wry smile.
“It’s my favorite record that he did, by far. I don’t even really like his other things. The recording’s very fucked up. The guitars are compressed in this funny way. He’s not spending much time or attention on how it’s recorded. It’s very aggressive, though. You can hear the fingers on the strings. It’s so quiet you almost feel like you shouldn’t talk when you’re hearing it, because you might disturb the guy playing, which, to me, is very edgy.
“[Drake] knew that was the best thing he could do, and if he tried to add things and shape it in different ways, it wouldn’t be as good. I’m not necessarily that kind of a writer. I had ideas of doing a very minimalist record. Ultimately, there are two problems with that. I wrote a lot of music and played a lot of instruments for Soundgarden; I didn’t want to suddenly put something out where I’m not as artistically fulfilled as I was in Soundgarden.
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CHRIS CORNELL ON THE AFTERMATH OF GRUNGE
What did you think of the Seattle soundalikes?
I actually predicted that. Right when the Seattle thing started to take off I told Kim [Thayil], “There’s going to come a time when this becomes convoluted by bands who are emulating it to sell records.” I knew it was going to happen whether I liked it or not. I just didn’t know what it was going to sound like. The fun part was to see how they’d take this group of different bands, homogenize [the sound], and present it. Once they started doing it, I said, “Oh yeah!”
You sound remarkably detached about it all.
It’s the nature of the record industry. You see it with any period in music where one or two bands were instrumental in creating a new sound that became socially relevant. People whose hearts aren’t in the right place jump on that bandwagon and it becomes cheapened, convoluted and ultimately annoying. But the original bands that create it don’t get irritating. I was just interested to see how it would happen because I didn’t see a lot of similarities between us, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, other than the things we left out.
What did you leave out?
The commercial rock bands of the late ’80s—every single band, regardless of their sound—did very specific things. They had videos where they showed excess as much as they could. They showed up to their concerts in helicopters. The songs didn’t matter at all, but their hair mattered a lot. The clothes mattered. The girl in the video was always a big, big story. The successful bands of our era were all about leaving that out, and putting
Were you successful? The “rock star” seems to be making a strong comeback.
We were never trying to kill anything. We were just trying to do what we did and survive. The fact that other things died, great. If I had something to do with the killing of bullshit, I’m thrilled. I really saw a big shift in an audience that no longer wanted to tolerate rock stars acting like people who were always going to have a nicer car than you, were always going to have model chicks surrounding them, and live in incredible opulence.
I’m waiting for it to happen in rap. You look at people with the gold jewelry, the Mercedes they can’t afford, rapping about how much money they make. You can’t help but think at some point, rap fans will think, “Fuck this. There’s these other guys over here and they don’t do that, and they’re encouraging me to be myself.” —David Daley
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“Not only are the biggest-selling albums not necessarily the best; in most cases they’re probably the worst.”
SCREAMING LIFE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOUNDGARDEN
After briefly playing in a cover band called the Shemps with guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Hiro Yamamoto, drummer Chris Cornell moves in with Yamamoto. The two roommates form a new band.
Thayil joins them later that year and the trio call themselves Soundgarden, after a Seattle sculpture that makes noise when the wind blows through its pipes.
Cornell drums and assumes lead-singer duties as the band start playing live. Their second performance is with the Melvins and Hüsker Dü.
Scott Sundquist joins the band as a drummer, allowing Cornell to concentrate on singing.
The band contribute two songs—“Heretic” and “All Your Lies”—to a C/Z Records collection titled Deep Six. Green River (who would later split into Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone) and Andrew Wood’s Malfunkshun are also on the album.
Sundquist leaves the band and is replaced by Skin Yard drummer Matt Cameron.
Soundgarden’s debut EP, Screaming Life, is also the first release for Sub Pop Records.
Soundgarden release their second EP, Fopp. The album’s named after a 1976 Ohio Players song covered on the EP.
The band release their first album, the Grammy-nominated Ultramega OK, on SST Records. The album features a cover of John Lennon’s “One Minute Of Silence,” which was originally Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Two Minutes Of Silence,” sans Ono’s part.
The band sign with A&M Records.
Soundgarden’s A&M debut Louder Than Love is released. It is also nominated for a Grammy.
Yamamoto quits the band to go back to school on the eve of the band’s already-booked tour and is replaced by Jason Everman, formerly of Nirvana.
After tours across America and Europe with bands such as Faith No More and Voivod, Everman leaves the band.
Ben Shepherd replaces Everman.
Cameron and Cornell join four-fifths of Pearl Jam in Temple Of The Dog. They record a tribute album to the late Andrew Wood.
Soundgarden release Badmotorfinger. It’s their first album to go platinum. Songs such as “Rusty Cage,” “Outshined” and “Jesus Christ Pose” catch the attention of MTV.
A limited-edition pressing of Badmotorfinger contains a bonus CD named after the longest palindrome in the world: Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas, or SOMMS. It includes a cover of Devo’s “Girl U Want” and Black Sabbath’s “Into The Void.”
The band embark on tours with Guns N’ Roses, Skid Row, Monster Magnet, Swervedriver, Neil Young and Faith No More.
The band appear in the Seattle-based movie Singles, performing “Birth Ritual,” which also appears on the soundtrack. The soundtrack is also notable for Cornell’s solo turn on “Seasons.”
The band play Lollapalooza with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Ministry, Ice Cube, the Jesus And Mary Chain and Lush.
Shepherd and Cameron’s side group Hater release a self-titled album.
Thayil forms Dark Load (with Bill Rieflin from Ministry among other people) to write a song that surfaced on a 1996 compilation, Smell The Fuzz.
The band release Superunknown. The album debuts at Number One, “Black Hole Sun” is a huge hit, and the band subsequently win two Grammies.
Cornell makes a guest appearance on Alice Cooper’s Last Temptation album, which is based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic book.
The band’s last studio album, Down On The Upside, debuts at Number Two on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
The band make a repeat appearance on Lollapalooza.
Kim Thayil appears on Pigeonhed’s album Full Sentence, along with Alice In Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell. Ben Shepherd begins playing with Devilhead.
The band decide to break up and pursue other projects.
Chris Cornell sings “Ave Maria” with the band Eleven for the A Very Special Christmas 3 compilation, his first solo recording since the breakup.
A&M releases A-Sides, a compilation of Soundgarden’s singles and select b-sides, dating back to 1987’s “Nothing To Say.”
Cornell’s “Sunshower” appears on the Great Expectations soundtrack.
Johnny Cash performs a growled version of “Rusty Cage” for his Unchained album, and the song is nominated for a Grammy. —Annie Zaleski
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“And the other problem is, when a song exists, and you know that the most stark, simple version of that song is not your best version, you can’t not make it the best it can be. If you’re hearing more percussion or parts coming in, you can’t say the idealism is more important than the best possible situation for the music. It’s bullshit.”
So what Cornell did instead was filter his record collection through his natural strength as a vocalist. If the record doesn’t sound like it was recorded in 1999, it’s because very little new music excites the singer.
“Well, I don’t feel like it’s retro, or that my head was in the sand,” Cornell counters, sensing a challenge.
But your head was in other places?
“That’s actually very well put.” His face softens.
Not much new music sounds interesting to you these days?
“That’s exactly right. I’ve had this problem lately where people ask me what I’m listening to now. I don’t know. What’s a good album that came out lately? I just don’t hear a lot of amazing singers. There’s Thom Yorke from Radiohead. The new XTC sounds great. I love the subtlety and humanity of a great singer. I have no problem with a band where the frontman can’t sing—as long as it’s interesting or energetic. Beck is a great example. He’s not someone you think of as having a great voice, but I love to hear him sing, and his lyrics are brilliant. Elvis Costello, in terms of the quality of his voice, is an incredible singer. The Butthole Surfers go completely outside the norm vocally. Tom Waits is a singer who has done things with his voice that no one has ever really done over a long period of time.”
There’s Captain Beefheart.
“But who is there today? Jeff, of course, was somebody who would have been one of those people that influenced other singers, so it’s really unfortunate [that he died]. He was an amazing singer. When Jeff died, I bought 15 of his bootlegs. I had an idea of what his music meant to people, because he did this amazing thing in such a short period of time. He’s going to be the most important artist to so many people throughout their lives. It was really strange to realize that.”
The next day, after a long drive out to a picturesque Malibu ranch for a photo shoot, Cornell confirms that he’s much less interested in sales and success than in making music that genuinely touches people.
“I won’t feel like it should have sold more,” he says, when asked what he’ll do if his album fails commercially. “I don’t think commercial success has ever been any indication of the quality of a record. Not only are the biggest-selling albums not necessarily the best; in most cases they’re probably the worst. There are a lot of amazing records nobody bought. People who are really interested in the art form know. I think the true artist would take enormous sacrifices financially to be recognized for what they are inspired by, and know that they inspired other people. To be that record.”
Might Euphoria Morning be both—that rare record that inspires and sells, that works with the lights down low and keeps the singer-songwriter’s lonely garret stocked with Dom Perignon?
“I’m having an unusual life,” Cornell offers, glancing at the spectacle surrounding him, “and it’s pretty cool.”
An unusual life that he seems to have come to terms with. The punk-rock ethos kept Seattle’s stars from feeling comfortable with success and kept them terminally on edge, wary of the press, of being rock stars, of believing the hype. Cornell used to hate photo shoots, for example, earning Soundgarden the nickname Frowngarden. Now, there’s a hint of a smile as he stands to be photographed in front of a 19th-century ranch house, the Malibu hills spread before him, a faraway gaze in his eye. It’s the look of someone perfectly at ease, perfectly content with himself.
It looks a lot like grace. ALT
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COUNTING ELEVEN: MEET CHRIS CORNELL’S ADOPTED BAND
In the early 1980s, Eleven vocalist/guitarist Alain Johannes played in a band called What Is This with three of the original Red Hot Chili Peppers: guitarist Hillel Slovak, drummer Jack Irons and bassist Flea. Johannes remembers that it was “quite difficult going around, everyone thought we were from another planet.”
But the band, like RHCP, were a mainstay on the Los Angeles club scene in the early- to mid-1980s. Flea left before What Is This’ self-titled debut was recorded, and Slovak eventually went back to RHCP. Soon after, Johannes started Walk The Moon with his girlfriend at the time, organist/bassist/vocalist Natasha Shneider. This permutation eventually became Eleven with the addition of Irons after he left RHCP. Eleven’s debut, Awake In A Dream, was released in 1991 and was followed by 1993’s self-titled disc. After Eleven recorded 1995’s Thunk, Irons left to join Pearl Jam and was replaced by Greg Upchurch (with Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron also lending a hand with recording).
The Soundgarden/Eleven mutual admiration society had its roots long before Thunk, though, dating back to Cornell’s early appreciation for What Is This. When Cornell later heard an Eleven song and recognized Johannes’ voice, the singer tracked down Eleven and asked them to tour with Soundgarden. Shneider always thought Soundgarden were “the most musically dangerous band… pushing the envelope all the time,” so when the opportunity arose for Eleven to work with Cornell, she knew it would be “an amazing thing.”
“We already knew how well we understood each other musically and how many ideas were spontaneously coming out at any given moment. We feel like [Euphoria Morning] is very much our album as well,” Shneider says.
This desire to focus on Cornell’s album is exactly what has caused an expected release date of March 2000 for Eleven’s already-completed new album Avantgardedog, on Interscope. Even with the release months away, Johannes feels fortunate to have landed on Interscope.
“I think we’ll be able to reach more people than ever before. I feel really strongly about our record being our best one so far. I’m excited to get plugged in a little bit to our fans.”
Indeed, Eleven fans will have plenty to experience in the coming months. After playing with Cornell in Europe and the United States, Eleven will tour to support their album in the new year.