For Cor­nell, Soundgar­den just feels or­ganic

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY STYLE -

Four years or so af­ter Soundgar­den split up, lead vo­cal­ist and rhythm gui­tarist Chris Cor­nell had what he now calls “an epiphany.” “One of our songs — I think it was ‘Pretty Noose’ — came on the ra­dio while I was driv­ing around, and frankly it just crushed the newer songs be­fore it and af­ter it and had more of a time­less­ness to it,” one of rock’s might­i­est squeal­ers re­mem­bered.

“I re­al­ized Soundgar­den had be­come a ‘clas­sic’ kind of band, the kind that wasn’t go­ing to go away.”

So why, then, did it take so long for Soundgar­den to fi­nally re­turn? Cor­nell ex­plained that and a lot more in an in­ter­view dur­ing re­hearsals two weeks ago, a week be­fore the quar­tet hit the road for a tour.

The singer re­flects on the re­united band and its nat­u­ral place in the rock canon

The more me­tal­lic coun­ter­part to Nir­vana and Pearl Jam in the Seat­tle grunge scene that ex­ploded in 1991 — with Cor­nell’s win­dow-shat­ter­ing voice and Kim Thayil’s thun­der­ing gui­tar work set­ting it apart — Soundgar­den pretty well re­tired at its com­mer­cial peak in 1997, fol­low­ing the re­lease of the “Su­pe­run­k­nown” and “Down on the Up­side” al­bums. Those records scored heavy ra­dio play that per­sists to­day with the sin­gles “Spoon­man,” “Black Hole Sun” and (its last and ar­guably best hit) “Blow Up the Out­side World.” The ra­dio hits led to the Lol­la­palooza mega-tour of 1996 with Metallica and arena head­lin­ing dates.

With success, pre­dictably, came in­ter­nal prob­lems. Cor­nell said the main rea­son Soundgar­den split was that it had sim­ply got­ten too big — not in terms of records and con­cert tick­ets sold, but the num­ber of peo­ple in­volved.

“We broke down com­mu­nica­tively, be­cause we had all th­ese other peo­ple pe­riph­er­ally in­volved in the band. De­ci­sions were made that we didn’t all agree on, or even know about. That cre­ated ten­sion.”

On the other hand, Cor­nell jus­ti­fi­ably bragged, “I ac­tu­ally think we went out on a cre­ative high. There was a cer­tain amount of re­lief when we did stop play­ing to­gether that we didn’t mess things up cre­atively. We never sucked.”

Most Soundgar­den fans would not say the same about Cor­nell’s er­ratic solo ca­reer, which reached its odd peak in 2009 with the poppy Tim­ba­land­pro­duced al­bum “Scream.” Fans were more re­cep­tive to his stint in the su­per­group Au­dioslave (2002-2007) with the three in­stru­men­tal­ists from Rage Against the Ma­chine, but it paled in com­par­i­son to their old bands.

As for the other dudes in Soundgar­den, drum­mer Matt Cameron joined Pearl Jam in 1998 and hasn’t looked back (he’ll jug­gle both bands this year) while Thayil and bassist Ben Shep­herd were sur­pris­ingly in­ac­tive. Cor­nell said they all re­mained friends but rarely talked busi­ness.

Strangely, it was busi­ness mat­ters that fi­nally brought them back to­gether in 2010.

“Usu­ally, there’ll be a record la­bel to han­dle pro­mo­tion of the back cat­a­logue and B-sides, and some­one over­look­ing stuff like Tshirts and a fan club,” he said. “We didn’t have any­one do­ing that for us. We didn’t even have a func­tion­ing Web site.”

All of which was a good thing, he said: “That led to the four of us fi­nally get­ting to­gether and sit­ting down in the same room, and it really was as sim­ple as that. Un­til we were all to­gether, we couldn’t really feel each other out on the idea (of re­unit­ing).”

They pro­ceeded to feel things out in 2010, is­su­ing the ret­ro­spec­tive al­bum “Tele­phan­tasm” and play­ing a short tour around Lol­la­palooza. That led to last year’s con­cert al­bum “Live on I-5,” which ful­filled their old con­tract with A&M Records and set up what Cor­nell called “the per­fect sce­nario” to make a new record and be­come more of a full-time band.

Some ob­servers won­dered if Cor­nell was hes­i­tant to re­form Soundgar­den for fear of hav­ing to hit all those high notes he wailed back in his 20s.

“Clearly, I’m not go­ing to be able to sing this way for­ever,” the 48-year-old said. “I think peo­ple get too hung up on singers and their range, sort of like they’d ex­pect Michael Jor­dan to get out on a bas­ket­ball court and play like he once did. It’s phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble.”

That rare bit of hu­mil­ity didn’t last long, though: “I’ ll prob­a­bly never re­tire. I’ ll just adapt and do what I have to do to keep the mu­sic in­ter­est­ing.”

KYLE GUSTAFSON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

BACK AF­TER THE FAL­LOW YEARS: Cor­nell with Matt Cameron at the Pa­triot Cen­ter in 2011.

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