Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell on going acoustic and playing for the president

November 21, 2013

Chris Cornell rocked with a reunited Soundgarden at Patriot Center (above) and for a crowd of thousands at the official inaugural balls this year. (Photo by Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

In the early 1990s, only a handful of rockers embodied the grunge era's noisy, disaffected look and sound. Among the most prominent was Chris Cornell.

With an epic caterwaul and a mane that seemed groomed solely to scare off potential employers, the Soundgarden singer personified grunge. There was one stereotype about that lost, flannel-clad generation of Gen-Xers, however, that never seemed to fit Cornell: slacker.

Soundgarden, whose members include Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd and Matt Cameron, toured relentlessly in the 1990s and released five albums in just a handful of years. (The group called it quits in 1997 and reunited in 2010.) All the while, Cornell also was presiding over side projects, including Temple of the Dog, and contributing to several movie scores. ("Seasons," from the movie "Singles," was one of his most memorable tracks.)

Soundgarden in this 1994, at the height of the band's success. Three years later, they would call it quits. (AP Photo)
Soundgarden in 1994, at the height of the band's success. Three years later, they would call it quits. (AP Photo)

It has been nearly 20 years since Soundgarden released its watershed album, "Superunknown." But the frontman for former supergroup Audioslave and the reunited Soundgarden still works like a beast, writing a gorgeous number for the "12 Years a Slave" soundtrack, touring with Soundgarden, lending his voice to political causes and, when he gets the chance, playing hushed acoustic solo shows, including a sold-out performance Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre (where he'll occasionally be accompanied by Sri Lankan American folk singer Bhi Bhiman).

"It's pretty fulfilling because there's really not a whole lot that's left out," Cornell says of his musical split personality. "I'm coming from one tour where it is always a sonic assault of one form or another - even though [Soundgarden] is growing as a band - and going to one guy on a stage with an acoustic guitar. There's no chance for me ever to get into a funk or feel burned out."

We talked recently with the introspective 49-year-old rocker, who was on tour in Toronto, about how Elton John inspired his solo shows, what it was like to play gigs for President Obama and what he really thinks of the grunge revival.

Soundgarden got back together in 2010 to record "King Animal" [the group's first album in 16 years] and go on tour. So why do you do tours like this?
We haven't actually toured a lot, so I've had a lot of time to do other things. Since we got back together three years ago, I've toured all over the world with this one-man acoustic show. This is my second, sometimes third time in some cities.

What do you get out of performing in this stripped-down way?
It's my opportunity to approach singing [my songs] differently and performing them differently. There's also a kind of about-face to what the performance is like compared to Soundgarden. It's the opposite, it's super-intimate and it's quiet, and I can verbally communicate with literally a single audience member. I don't usually do a set list. You know, there are different disadvantages to doing a one-man show, the main one being you're alone and you're not collaborating with anyone. So, it's
good to concentrate on the upsides, and one of them is audience communication and being able to play any song I want as soon as it occurs to me, or as soon as someone shouts it out.

It's a great format for your voice, too. Is that part of it, being able to show what you can do?
The lyrics and singing translate well in this context; there's nothing else competing with it at all. It's, in a sense, a reinvention, not like what I thought "MTV Unplugged" was when it was popular in the 1990s. "Unplugged" was almost always electric bands picking up acoustic instruments and plugging into something. There were very few bands that were legit unplugged. One of the ones that stood out for me was Elton John's. His "Unplugged," he came out, his hair was kind of silvery, he had a baseball hat on, he didn't look like he was in a very good mood, and he played a ton of amazing songs. There's something to that, to someone who can walk out and entertain a bunch of people whenever he feels like.

There was a period for me that started as early as 1990, when Soundgarden was on the road, doing a lot of van tours, doing a lot of dark venues, touring with bands that were really aggressive and we were really aggressive. So I started wanting to hear something else.

Grunge is experiencing a kind of comeback, with bands such as Savages, Best Coast, Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, while fashion is reviving Doc Martens and flannel. Do you feel like there's a difference?
I think what I see is a resurgence of underground, indie, college rock. A lot of it is really good, but it's really focused, as opposed to what I was seeing in the late '80s, when the indie scene was really strong but was also way more eclectic. I can watch a new hipster movie with [a soundtrack of] new rock bands, and it feels very reminiscent of days gone by, for sure. I don't think it's bad, necessarily. Like, oh, they've found someone who sounds like this band from the late '80s, but they've solved some of the problems. There are improvements.


Soundgarden re-united and released "King Animal" in late 2012. (Photo by Michael Lavine)

This January, you played a sold-out show with Soundgarden in Washington and then, the same week, turned around and played for President Obama at the two official inaugural balls, along with Katy Perry. What was that like?
I had done three different Obama fundraiser events alone, just with an acoustic guitar. When inauguration came up, they invited me to play, and I said, "I'm out touring with my band. What if my band played?" And they loved the idea of Soundgarden doing it. To me it just seemed like a triumphant thing to be able to do.

When we went there, unfortunately, it becomes less about the moments you're onstage and more about just getting from the hotel to the event, and getting inside and everything happening the way it's supposed to. It was all that - it was totally crazy, and we were totally fish out of water in terms of the kind of music we play. I like that. . . . The moments that Soundgarden has done things where we were fish out of water have always been the most memorable and the most rewarding.

Chris Cornell, Saturday at the Lincoln Theatre. 1215 U St. NW (Metro: U Street). 202-328-6000. Doors at 7 p.m. Sold out. 

Lavanya Ramanathan is a professional eater/drinker/thinker for Weekend and the Going Out Guide. University of Texas. Northwestern University. Rap fan.
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Lavanya Ramanathan · November 21, 2013