During his stints with Soundgarden and Audioslave, Chris Cornell played the part of the brooding singer who had no time for glad-handing or show-business convention. So why the holy hell did he agree to appear on Spike TV's Guys Choice Awards in June, where he bantered with co-presenter Mandy Moore and handed a trophy festooned with a set of faux antlers to a guy from Disturbed, which was named the planet's "ballsiest band"?
Because, laughs Cornell: The folks at Spike invited him. And because as a born-again solo artist supporting an album, Carry On, he didn't have to tiptoe around other group members who weren't invited to hang with Mandy. "I don't know how many times I've said no to [appearances] when I've been in bands, because they only wanted me," he says. These days, however, "I get more elder-statesman-of-rock offers than I used to, simply because I'm still around."
Cornell, 42, speaks from experience. In 1984, when he was earning his living as a restaurant grunt, Cornell helped launch Soundgarden — one of the first, best, and longest-lasting proto-grunge acts. Following the group's 1997 dissolution, Cornell set out on his own, emerging two years later with Euphoria Morning, a CD that replaced the rock thunder of early Soundgarden discs with a more nuanced, contemplative set of tunes. It caught Soundgarden fans off guard. "I think my biggest focus was making a record where I just got to exercise all these different influences musically that I hadn't gotten to exercise in Soundgarden," he says. "But I don't know that it made sense to people."
A modest tour followed, but Cornell was in no shape to win over the masses. He's spoken openly about the alcohol and substance abuse that burdened him then. And he was still in a comparative fog in early 2001, when guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk (who were three-quarters of Rage Against the Machine) approached him about joining a new ensemble at the suggestion of producer Rick Rubin. After several fits and starts, Cornell signed on and devoted himself to cleaning up before Audioslave's formal launch. He arrived on the set of the band's first video straight from rehab, and he was transported back as soon as the shoot wrapped.
This chain of events convinced many observers that Audioslave was less an organic group than the musical equivalent of a corporate merger, with profit as the primary goal. Cornell dismisses that notion. "Coming from a band like Soundgarden and then being solo for so many years, the only way I would leave being solo was if it was an environment that was very friendly and hassle-free and relaxed," he says. "We're just having fun making records, because that's what doing solo records is like. Why move away from that to do something where there's going to be conflict?"
From Cornell's perspective, things went smoothly during the creation of Audioslave's self-titled debut in 2002. The quartet's focus was "on the musical leap those three guys had to make," he says. "They were taking a much bigger leap than I did musically, which I think was uncomfortable for them. I was extremely supportive and proud."
Unfortunately, Cornell says, these simple pleasures began to dissipate when the guys got together to record 2005's Out of Exile and the following year's Revelations — CDs that were solid but failed to build on the promise of Audioslave's first album. In addition to disputes over business matters, Cornell says one unnamed member was "trying to have a mixer remix a couple of the songs at the last minute before the record came out, without telling the others."
Incidents like this sapped the joy from Audioslave. And while Cornell says he's happy with the collective's accomplishments, he didn't struggle with the decision to split. "It might have been different if it had been something like Soundgarden, where it was, for the lack of a better term, my first love," he says. "With Audioslave, I didn't have that same connection. To fight through it just didn't seem worth it."
Carry On finds Cornell touching on a wide range of styles. There are excursions into rock, psychedelia, and groove pop that recall past triumphs — even if they never quite match them. There's also a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," which transforms one of the King of Pop's best songs into a leaden, humorless throat-ripper. Cornell insists he's merely being playful, "taking a song by someone that made absolutely no sense at all, to see if I could somehow make it make sense. It's an interesting challenge."
Cornell sees the cut as somewhat emblematic of his newfound freedom. "It's not so much an outward statement, but it is a little of that," he says. "Like, I can do any goddamn thing I want without letting it get out of hand so that it taints everything I'm doing."
And he thinks that showing music fans other sides of his personality — even if it means handing out antlers with Mandy Moore — accomplishes a similar goal. He wants to enjoy himself, especially in public. "I definitely don't miss that uncomfortable feeling of other people feeling they're not getting equal attention," says Cornell. "So, to do a television appearance where it's not going to be pissing off some other band member, I'm naturally going to look like I'm having more fun."