Rocker teams up Timbaland for the party album of the year

By Duane Wells

Depending upon your generation, the name Chris Cornell may well evoke completely different musical memories.

To some, Cornell’s name will instantly recall the grunge era, when he was the frontman of the pivotal Soundgarden, a band whose signature sound personified a movement in music.  To others, however, his name will summon up the hard rock edge of the multiplatinum super group Audioslave, the band he formed with former members of Rage Against The Machine.  And still to others of a slightly younger bent, Cornell may best be known as the rocker whose solo reworking of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” inspired a showstopping knockoff of the song by American Idol Season 7 winner David Cook.  But no matter the era in which you might have discovered Chris Cornell, the one thing that has remained constant throughout his career is his ability to deliver gut-wrenchingly impassioned and soulful vocals that strike a chord with a broad and adoring audience.

Never really afraid of change, Cornell is taking yet another giant leap in his musical career  this year and it is one that is almost certain to endear him to whole new generation of fans.  The serious rock star with the raspy wail that still pierces the soul has teamed up with hip-hop and R&B uber-producer Timbaland to record his latest album Scream.

Though he is aware that the news of his writing and producing partner for his latest project may well have left some of his diehard rock fans suspended in a state of disbelief, if there’s one thing Cornell has learned in his 20-plus year career, it’s to follow his heart and not his critics.

“There are always going to be people who are critical of what an artist does from one moment of their career to the next,” Cornell says about those who might not understand his new album.  “I could just have easily put out an album that is extremely reminiscent of everything else that I’ve done and a lot of people would be critical because of that.  And they would be right, I think.”

So instead, Cornell went in a radically different direction that has resulted in a concept album he describes as some of his ‘best work.’ Anything but a compromise, Scream is instead a brilliant synthesis of the core instincts and musical integrity that have earned Chris Cornell the moniker of rock god and the soaring soundscapes, samples and irresistible stutter-step beats synonymous with Timbaland’s chart-topping production work.  The result is not only the blending of the best of all worlds musically, but this year’s ultimate party album.  Hell, he may well have created a whole new genre.

On the day Scream was released and just before he was set to appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live, I talked to Chris Cornell about his new album, working with Timbaland and taking chances.

Duane Wells: So Chris, let me just jump right in and ask the question I think will be on a lot of folks minds when they hear about Scream – Why did you choose to work with Timbaland on this record?

Chris Cornell:            Well it was kind of a whimsical idea in a way.  I was looking for someone to do some remixes for my last album and [Timbaland’s] name came up because he’s worked with rock acts and I also think there was a word put out that he was interested in doing something with someone in rock.

I got on the phone with him and he said he wasn’t really interested in doing anything with remixes…he said he wanted to do new original material…that he was a fan of mine and that he wanted to do something like that.  Then I didn’t know what I was going to do with two or three songs so I just thought why not go and make a whole album.  He had a reputation for doing albums in really short periods of time, so I thought it would be great to just go in and write and record a whole album with Timbaland and see what happens.  And that’s what we did.

Except then we got into the studio and started having a really great time and it turned into six months.  [Laughs]

DW:    But you gotta admit this is a big departure for you and not one you had to take.  Did anyone on your management team or in your “inner circle” think this was a crazy idea?

CC:     No.  Nobody really did.  I think that some fans responded that way.  But before [we did this] we would sort of ask people without telling them that it was an idea that I was already actually planning to do, and most people came back really positive with it as just an idea.

But I also think with a 20-plus year recording career, it was sort of like ‘why not?’  Why would you second guess something like that? It’s not like there’s something to lose from doing something different and experimenting in collaboration with someone else.  Working with Timbaland is something that is that.  It’s a collaboration because he’s sort of co-writing with you and it guaranteed that [the project] was going to be something completely different.

I also really went into the process completely open, wanting a record that Timbaland was very involved in, in terms of the co-writing process and the creativity process.  I wanted it to be as different as it could be.  Because I’ve done so many albums, I wanted a completely new experience and I feel like most people seem to support that idea.

I can always turn around and make any type of album next month or next year or whatever.

DW:    What do you say to your hard core guitar rock fans who might approach this album tentatively?

CC:     The first thing I would say is that you’ve got to listen it from beginning to end because if you hear one song out of the context of the entire record, I think it’s a bigger shock than if you listen to the whole album.

From beginning to end it’s musically… a really rich album and in that way it’s kind or more reminiscent of a 70’s rock record than it is a modern hip-hop or pop album.

My feeling is that a lot of my fans that won’t want to get behind it because it’s not like a guitar-based rock record, will get into it just based on what it is.  Forget about the predisposition of what you think I should sound like and just listen to it for what it is and listen to the music.

And then beyond that I’m not going to be mad at people who don’t like the fact that it sounds the way it does and it’s completely different.  Everybody has the right to have their own taste in music.

DW:    But did your own personal musical influences factor into your decision to make this record?

CC:     I have a lot of influences.  I just have to be frank in saying that I’ve listened to lots of different kinds of music in my entire life and only a portion of it is really guitar rock.  Maybe not even a third of it.  There’s a lot of other music that I listen to and as a songwriter and a recording artist I’m always going to want to include other influences in my albums and in my writing.

DW:    Looking back though, you’ve always been open to change.  Whether it’s been going from Soundgarden to Audioslave or from Audioslave to solo or even, more recently, to recording the Bond theme for Casino Royale, mixing it up musically seems almost second nature to you.

CC:     The Bond theme …that’s a good example of embracing something that gave me the opportunity to write and sing in a style that was completely different from what I normally do.

One of the things that points out is that I’ve done a lot of albums that have kind of brushed up against this sort of soul or R&B songwriting style or vocal but still very much in the context of a rock song.  This album with Timbaland gave me the opportunity to really go the entire direction of R&B and soul which is something that has been very satisfying to me.

The Bond theme gave me the opportunity to sort of tap into the more crooner side of the way that I sing and the music that I like. And that was even in writing the song.  Now that moment is suspended in … in that world of James Bond theme and it’s going to live in there forever and I think that’s really great.  I feel like it was really true to what it was and to myself at that same time.

DW:    Sounds like you’ve got a lot of pent up creativity waiting to be explored.  After two decades in the music biz and fourteen albums, what else are you interested in exploring at this point?

CC:     I wouldn’t mind doing something like soundtracks or score work as long as it’s not a process where I have someone standing over my shoulder telling me what to do all the time because that’s the one thing I’ve never had…that I’ve never been able to put up with [Laughs].

DW:    You’ve got two young kids, what do they think of this new sound coming from Dad?  Are they responding differently to it?

CC:     I’m not sure if they’re responding differently.  They definitely like it. They sing the songs.  They’re almost entirely interested in listening to my music exclusively.  They don’t really listen to other people’s records much.

DW:    They’re big fans then…

CC:     Yeah. They really like the new songs and sing them.  Some of the songs are really infectious I think and it seems they’ve learned the lyrics to these songs a lot faster than some of my other records.

DW:    I’d say that’s a golden endorsement if I ever heard one.  So, final question…after all these years in the business, Scream is likely the kind of project that will bring a whole new audience to you made up of folks who may or may not have known you before.  It’s almost like you’re reinventing yourself. What emotion does that prospect spark in you?

CC:     Well I think it’s really a great thing.  I also think that for somebody who has so many albums it’s an exciting prospect sort of moving forward and also for people looking back at the same time.

I remember when I would discover someone when I was 14 or 15 years old.  I would immediately then go back and look at everything else that they’d done and it was part of what made them more interesting to me.  So that’s kind of exciting for me, the idea of getting new fans through this album.  It’s great for this album alone, but it’ll also be interesting to see what new fans look back on and how they respond to that.

When I perform and it’s a headlining Chris Cornell show, I have a super diverse audience. It’s just all over the place.  There are fans that are mostly fans of my first band Soundgarden and there are fans of Audioslave because of that being the band where they discovered me.  And then there are fans of both and fans that are more fans of my solo work, regardless of what it is.  But I noticed that…they all have their favorite periods and their favorite songs but they’re kind of into all of it.

I feel like I’ve been lucky that way.  That I’ve been able to be really diverse in my career.  That I’ve been able to do stuff that a lot of other people that come from my world wouldn’t dare try, just because I go up on stage and I say ‘here it is and I believe in it[ and I show that I’m inspired by it, my fans tend to get behind me and support me.

Fans deserve more credit than they get.  Even from the artists.  I’ve gotten a lot of support from my fans and I’m proud to say I have a pretty diverse, cool group of people that come to my shows and that buy my records.

Scream is available in stores now.  Find out more about Chris Cornell and his upcoming tour at www.ChrisCornell.com or buy the album here.

CHRIS CORNELL’S GOT A BRAND NEW BAG: Forget what you thought you knew about former Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman, Chris Cornell, because on his new album, Scream, the rock god teams up with hip-hop and R&B titan Timbaland to deliver a new sound that just might surprise you.