CHRIS CORNELL HAS BEEN BLOWING AWAY AUDIENCES all by himself on his acoustic Songbook Volume 1 Tour this spring, performing stunning new versions of Soundgarden, Audioslave and solo tunes using nothing but a guitar and his voice. "The measure of a great Soundgarden show was how I could whip up the crowd into a frenzy," says Cornell. "With this tour, you know it's going well when you can hear a pin drop." When the tour wraps in May, Cornell will rejoin Soundgarden in the studio to finish cutting their first new album since 1996. "We're well into recording it," says Cornell, who will hit the road with the band in July, with four dates announced so far. "But we've made a point of not discussing release dates. We've been working quickly, but it will be finished when it's finished."
Which of your songs work well both acoustically and backed by a rock band?
I feel like they all do. I had , an experience years ago when Johnny Cash covered [Soundgarden's] "Rusty Cage," and I started to get messages on my answering machine from people telling me how much they liked the lyrics. We put that song out five years earlier on Badmotorfinger, and nobody left me any messages. When you strip it down and Johnny Cash sings, you listen to what he's saying. It's a whole different angle.
Were you ever able to meet Johnny Cash?
I did. I met him at one of his shows at the Paramount. We spoke about the song and the lyrics. I was just awestruck. I was totally scared, even though he couldn't have been more gentlemanly. I wanted the conversation to be over before I put my foot in my mouth.
Is he the prototypical rock star, in your book?
Yes. Him and Iggy Pop. They were genetically designed. If you were a Japanese cartoonist, you couldn't have come up with anything better.
When we spoke in 2009, you basically shot down the idea of a Soundgarden reunion. What happened?
We put together a live record. We had all of this material from our West Coast tour in 1996 — which became [this year's] Live on I-5 and listening to it and mixing it was really great. We all decided it would be pretty easy to get back and make another album. It honestly felt like we'd just been on a break for a couple of years, not 13. Everything's gone very smoothly.
What was the first song you played at rehearsal when you guys got back together?
"Blind Dogs." I don't know why — we've never played it live. That set the tone. The best way for the rehearsals to function was to shout out a song title, tune our guitars and play until the muscle memory came back.
At what point did it start to feel like old times again?
The most surprising thing for me is re discovering this indefinable characteristic in our music. It's a swilling, chaotic thing that you can't control. It's volatile, and it's just pure chemistry, and somehow I forgot about it when I walked away in 1997.
A couple of years ago, the whole band went to a Pearl Jam show — and you and Eddie Vedder did Temple of the Dog's classic "Hunger Strike." Did that help propel the reunion?
We'd decided to meet at the Pearl Jam show to plot out future endeavors. But it WMk was so nice to all be under one roof and to see people we hadn't seen in a longtime.
Were you surprised that the song still felt so powerful after almost 20 years?
Yes. You could feel the vitality of what was happening. It's still very relevant. You can talk about it, but it's different from actually feeling it and experiencing it. I definitely felt it from the audience.
You and Eddie are so good together on that song, but he must have seemed like a rival when he moved to Seattle.
It was a difficult time when I met Eddie. We'd all lost a good friend, Andy [Wood, of Mother Love Bone]. Andy's death was a shock to the system. He was Freddie Mercury and Elton John — all of that. It felt almost poetic when Eddie showed up and we recorded "Hunger Strike." Eddie had that personality, and he helped us heal.
The Soundgarden dates in July leave plenty of room for more shows. Are you planning a longer tour?
[Laughs] I'm not sure, but I'm sure we're going to do more.