The rock pioneer discusses his latest projects, including the song he wrote for the new film Machine Gun Preacher, “The Keeper,” which is on his new CD, “Songbook.”
Rock musician Chris Cornell
Tavis: Chris Cornell is a talented musician who helped found the influential Seattle-based band Soundgarden. After breaking up in 1997, Soundgarden is getting back together with a new CD expected sometime next year. In the meantime, though, Chris continues his work in film following his successful theme song for the James Bond film, “Casino Royale.” He’s written and performed the lead track for the new movie, “Machine Gun Preacher.” The song is called, “The Keeper,” accompanied here by some scenes from “Machine Gun Preacher.”
[Film clip of "Machine Gun Preacher" with "The Keeper" song overlay]
Tavis: Lot of buzz on this film and on your song already. What do you make of that?
Chris Cornell: Good thing. Positive thing. It’s exciting and I feel sort of honored to be involved in a movie like this because of the subject matter. It’s the life story of a real guy, but his passion also is something that to me is sort of the focal point of the film, and what’s the most important thing about people seeing it, which is being a humanitarian, grassroots, saving the lives of children and trying to keep them safe and keep them fed and keep even a crude roof over their head.
Not just dedicating his life to it, but he puts himself in harm’s way. So I think that – it’s a message film, but it’s a real message film. It’s not a kind of message film or it’s an inspirational film. It is both those things, but to me it’s just something that became very close to my heart after I read the script and got involved in the story. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by I don’t really think about it.
Tavis: To your point about reading the script, Chris, and getting involved in the story, I’m always fascinated by the creative process, period. I love to get in the mind of geniuses and icons and persons I admire creatively.
Cornell: Well, let me help you out.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) That’s why you’re here, and thanks for volunteering.
Cornell: Sure. (Laughter)
Tavis: What is the process for you for matching a song with the screenplay, with the storyline, with this humanitarian? What’s your process? How do you make all that fit?
Cornell: Well, in this case I had several ideas and waited until one struck me where I just kind of knew in my gut it was going to coexist with the two stories that are going on, because there’s two. There’s one that is the machine gun preacher, the man, Sam Childers, who’s Gerard Butler in the film, and then there’s the children, who are – they’re children in the film, but they’re also real children.
My obstacle in this was just to try to not betray either one, to try to not pretend like I know what it’s like to be them or what it’s like to be this guy, but to where it somehow poetically coexists with the film and maybe in an emotional way draws you even more into the story.
That’s what making music for films is. It’s a collaboration. Normally, I don’t have that one. I’ll have a collaboration with another songwriter or a band member. In this case it’s with a director, Marc Forster, for this movie, and with the story and the visual essence of it as well.
So I had a few ideas before “The Keeper,” and a couple of them were okay, but I didn’t really nail it, I don’t think. And then “The Keeper” I felt very much like this captures the essence of the feeling that I get when I read the script and I read about the story and what’s happening.
Tavis: Give me the part of the lyric for this song that really moves you. It’s your project, you did the whole thing, but there’s got to be a line or a refrain. What in this song are you really proud of having written?
Cornell: I think in the very first verse kind of captures the attitude of the guy, which is I’ll not give one inch of ground, meaning no matter what, if somebody comes after me and tries to kill me or kills me, I’ll stand up and take a bullet for you. To me, that kind of summed up that tremendous amount of love and compassion that he would have for children that I think everyone should have for children, and we should all have that same feeling for our own children and for everyone else’s.
Children should always feel like the adults are living in this world to nurture them, to take care of them, to protect them from any bad thing that might come.
Tavis: What does Soundgarden, the sequel, feel like?
Cornell: It doesn’t feel like a sequel. I think we had a 12-year break, but it just felt like an extended vacation. (Laughter) Feels to me like it’s about four years.
Tavis: That’s a long vacation.
Cornell: It is, and we needed one. It feels like really we just kind of picked up from where we left off.
Tavis: When you say “We needed one,” you know I’ve got to ask you to unpack that. What do you mean by the fact that we needed this vacation?
Cornell: Well, we started in 1984, which is a longtime ago, as everybody knows, and we were an indie band. We actually wrote songs in our basement for probably three years before we were allowed to release anything, and at that time there was a really strong U.S. indie scene as well as the UK, and we just wanted to be part of that.
We became part of that, and our first big release was an EP on Subpop Records out of Seattle. Our second big release was an album on SST Records out of Long Beach. We toured around the world in a van with no money and four guys in a van and maybe one other person helping us, went everywhere, and we grew in that way from that.
So by the time you get to 1996, 1997, we’d been out there doing it. We were very prolific musically and we’d just done a lot, and I think at that time for us, though we hadn’t been well-known internationally for very long, we’d been out there doing it for a long time.
We probably didn’t really ever need to break up. We should have just had the presence of mind to say, “Oh, you know what? Let’s take a couple years off and then when it feels right, we’ll get back together.” Having said that, it worked out great.
Everybody feels refreshed, we’re writing new music, we’re making a new album, we’re touring together. It seems to me like we all realize and appreciate what we had and what we have and we’re lucky to have it again.
Tavis: What’s the challenge to trying to make it click, trying to make it work, trying to make the music relevant when you take that long hiatus, and I ask that, because as you well know, music changes so fast. How do you know 12 years later this stuff’s still going to work?
Cornell: The challenge is to get out of your own way and don’t be thinking, what’s happening now? Because that never works anyway. If it’s happening now, when your record comes out in six months, that’s over. Get out of your own way and just do what you feel is creative.
In the context of Soundgarden it’s pretty easy, because all four members write songs, bring in ideas, arrange, produce, and there’s nothing that’s going to come out of that that’s going to be predictable or that you’re going to say that sounds just like X. That doesn’t happen. It never has, and it’s not happening now.
Tavis: To your point a moment ago, Chris, there were a number of things happening 20 years ago in the music business that allowed for these bands to come up – Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, now 20 year later.
There are a number of bands, I was just thinking the other day, are at that 20-year anniversary mark. What do you think was happening then that allowed – and you started to address this earlier – what was happening then that allowed these bands to start to proliferate around that type a couple of decades ago?
Cornell: Well, I think the first thing is that the state of commercial music, especially commercial rock music, was horrible. It had just kind of, as the music industry does, cornered itself with we’re just going to keep putting out what works, this works, it always works, let’s keep doing it, let’s keep doing it.
There was a cultural shift, there was a lot of videos of rock bands where they’re arriving to their concert in the video on a helicopter, or there’d be videos of a singer standing in front of his girlfriend, who’s essentially a stripper doing splits on the hood of new Jaguars, like in a showroom. (Laughter)
It separated them from the audience, in a sense, as kind of saying, “I live like a king and you are our minions.” To a degree, rock fans like to live vicariously and they like that, music fans in general, but when indie music sort of came into prominence in the early ’90s a lot of it was TV-driven too, where if you saw the first Nirvana video, you’re looking at three guys that look like people you go to school with.
They look like people that live down the street. They would look like you and your buddies if you’re starting a band in your garage. Somehow, that combined with the fact that the music was way better, the lyrics were way more intelligent and poetic, people just connected with it on a huge level. No one in the music business saw it coming at all.
Tavis: Well, I’m glad you guys were in that moment. After a long vacation, as Chris might put it, (laughs) a 12-year vacation, Soundgarden is on the way back sometime next year. In the meantime, everybody’s talking about his new stuff, “The Keeper,” this great song on the soundtrack for “Machine Gun Preacher.” Chris, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your work, man.
Cornell: Thank you.
Cornell: All right, thank you.
Tavis: There’s some buzz in this town already about this. Maybe in the Oscar race next year.
Cornell: Excellent, that’s good to hear. (Laughs)
Tavis: Yeah, a little buzz already in this town. Great song, great song.
[Video clip of Soundgarden concert]
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