Chris Cornell is a sole man on NZ tour

By Scott Kara

After being stood up once before, Scott Kara finally gets to chat with Soundgarden front man Chris Cornell ahead of his solo acoustic tour of NZ

Chris Cornell is loving playing solo on his acoustic guitar tour. Photo / Supplied
Chris Cornell is loving playing solo on his acoustic guitar tour. Photo / Supplied

Chris Cornell is not a prat after all.

Sorry to sound so surprised, but with his brooding, sullen looks and often tortured wail, that's the overwhelming impression you get of the Soundgarden front man and former Audioslave member.

And I was also meant to interview the guy in 2005 but Chris stood me up. There we both were, in a flash Los Angeles hotel suite. Cornell had his back to me as he got a glass of water from the kitchen and then, for some reason, he did a runner, leaving his Audioslave band mate Tim Commerford (formerly of Rage Against the Machine) to it.

But on the phone from Los Angeles, where Cornell is recording a new album with Soundgarden, the bloke who still possesses one of rock 'n' roll's most distinctive voices is chatty and laid-back.

In fact, he's so affable I don't have the heart to hit him up about running out on the interview.

He probably hasn't always been this cheery, what with his past battle with alcohol and drugs (he's now sober), and being one of the creators of music as intense and aggressive as Soundgarden's, he was hardly going to be a calm and contented soul.

But he's happy for a few reasons these days. He's making that Soundgarden record for starters, which will be their first in 15 years after the Seattle grunge metal band reformed last year. Soundgarden (still his best work by the way) did not end well in 1997 when creative differences - Cornell wanted to diversify and head in a more melodic rather than heavy direction - meant they called it quits.

"It's been really ... I guess I want to use the word fulfilling, which is weird," he laughs of recording the new album, although he's not saying too much about it, since it's not out until later in the year.

And at the opposite extreme, he's also loving playing solo - just him and his guitar - on his acoustic Songbook tour, which he brings to New Zealand in October.

During the shows he sings songs from throughout his career, including those of Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog (his early-90s band with members of Pearl Jam), Audioslave, songs from his three solo albums and a handful of covers, including songs by John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, and, um, Michael Jackson's Billie Jean (off 2007's solo album Carry On).

The first show in Auckland, on October 4 at the 2000-capacity ASB Theatre, sold out in 40 minutes with a second being added, and there is also a date in Wellington.

"To be working between the two worlds, with the tour being so stripped-down, and to have that sandwiched between recording Soundgarden material, which is about aggression, adrenalin, and rhythmic chaos, it's great," he says.

"I can't remember a time in my career when there has been this much going on, so much diversity in music, and every day is full of focusing on music in some form or another in a kind of unpredictable way."

The shows take him back to his Temple of the Dog days in 1991 - if you're lucky he might play Hunger Strike - and he has fond memories of that year when Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, and Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger all came out.

"The strange thing about it is, that if I look at anything else in the last 20 years it feels like 20 years, but those records don't feel like 20 years ago. If I hear any song from Nevermind, for example, it doesn't seem like a nostalgic song, whereas in 1990 if I heard a song on the radio that was 20 years old it seemed like a dinosaur band, like a really old song from another time. I don't know if that's a function of being in the middle of it or if it just somehow it managed to not be dated, but it doesn't feel like very long to me. It feels like 10 years," he laughs.

Playing the Temple of the Dog songs is especially poignant because the band only ever played one show though they had a few "reunion moments" at Pearl Jam gigs.

"So those songs are evolving for the first time. They haven't really even had a life in terms of live performance, so for me they are just these babies, these infant songs."

The stripped-back nature of the tour is also a stark contrast to his last poppier and electronic-based solo album Scream, a patchy - and, at best, experimental - album he made with producer Timbaland.

And while it could be seen as a reaction to the album, and Cornell getting back to his pure songwriting roots, he says the idea of doing it goes back to his Audioslave days. He was on a promotional tour for the final Audioslave album, Revelations, in 2006 when he played an intimate hour-long acoustic show in Stockholm.

When he got home he started hearing the stripped-back live versions of the songs on the radio.

"I didn't even know it was being recorded" - and he liked what he heard.

It led to the realisation that: "Technically I'm a musician but I can't go into a room and entertain people by myself. You know, what if suddenly it was post-apocalypse and we had no electricity? I'd be f*****," he laughs.

A performance by Elton John as part of the MTV Unplugged series also inspired Cornell. He remembers watching it, with John looking grumpy and not really wanting to be there ("he was kind of overweight at the time, grey hair, and a baseball cap on"), but he sat down and rattled off unique and raw versions of his songs.

"It struck me that there are very few people over the history of rock music who can really pull that off. In that particular show his songs were all completely different.

"Being solo really lends itself to different interpretations - and everything is in the moment and on a whim. I never realised how far out you can go when you are by yourself."

Who: Chris Cornell
What: Songbook solo acoustic tour.
Tour dates: October 4 (sold out) and 5, ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre
Essential discography: Soundgarden - Louder Than Love (1989), Badmotorfinger (1991), Superunknown (1994); Temple of the Dog - Temple of the Dog (1991); Audioslave - Audioslave (2002); Chris Cornell - Euphoria Morning (1991)

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