Chris Cornell on Secret Folk Influences, Why He Feels Like Neil Young

"There's no way to be a 30-year-old band, go on tour and pretend the nostalgia isn't happening," Soundgarden leader says

Soundgarden's Chris Cornell discusses his solo LP, secret folk influences and why he sometimes feels like Neil Young. Credit: Marc Broussely/Redferns/Getty

"In this case, I feel more is more," says singer Chris Cornell of Seattle hard-rock veterans Soundgarden, referring to the recent reissue of his 1999 solo debut, Euphoria Mourning, and his new, mostly acoustic album, Higher Truth. The latter was inspired by Cornell's Songbook tour — a one-man show launched in 2011 with "25 years of songs I've written for different bands. I distilled what I do down to me and a guitar and arrived at a singer-songwriter identity." Cornell takes Songbook back on the road this fall. He has also started work on Soundgarden's next album. "I spent the last week and a half doing demos. We're going to meet in four days and spend a week together. By the end, we'll have a lot of stuff."

Your new album opens with you playing mandolin in "Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart." Do you have any secret folk influences you've been hiding all these years?
I rejected most of the folk I was exposed to in the Seventies. I came around later to Tom Waits, some parts of Jim Croce and a lot of Cat Stevens. One of the Robinson brothers from the Black Crowes turned me on to Nick Drake. I found a box set on vinyl and pretty much hated it — until I got to [1972's] Pink Moon. His guitar playing and the compositions are phenomenal.

Are there Soundgarden songs that you play on the Songbook tour that have surprised you — that don't need all of the band's heavy hullabaloo?
"Outshined." I had written an instrumental part in the middle, an interlude, on electric guitar. On acoustic guitar, it turned out to have a nice Led Zeppelin-y feel. And the vocals flipped into a dirty-blues thing.

You have always resisted comparisons between Soundgarden and Zeppelin. But the contrast of folk guitar and hard-rock vocal dynamics on Higher Truth reminds me of Led Zeppelin III.
It makes sense to me if you look at the range I have as a singer and how I sing over a guitar arrangement. There's only so far in a British-folk direction I can go, being an American. But there are a handful of bands — Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Killing Joke — where if I'm writing a song and it reminds me of them, I'll steer into it, rather than run in the other direction.

You made your 2009 solo album, Scream, with the hip-hop producer Timbaland. It went Top 10, but the reviews were brutal. Was it a success or a failure?
It was absolutely a noble failure. A family friend was good friends with Timbaland's cousin. He said, "Timbaland wants to make a song with you." I said, "Awesome, let's make an album." I figured it would take two weeks, and I would have this crazy fucking record. That's what happened. For me, it was a success. The failure in it was the record company trying to figure out what to do with it. The radio stations who had been playing my songs since 1990 — they were like, "We don't want to play this. We can't play this."

How did you cope with the Nineties nostalgia that came with Soundgarden's tour last year with Nine Inch Nails?
There's no way to be a 30-year-old band, go on tour and pretend the nostalgia isn't happening. It was also important that young rock fans were discovering both bands at the same time. If you talk to Trent Reznor, you don't get the sense of a guy living in the past. I would hope he would say the same thing about me. It was that attitude that kept it from being like Whitesnake going on tour with Styx.

Is there new rock out there that excites you?
I get a sense of healthy revivalism, in a way that will spawn new rock that is interesting and exciting. That comes from guys like Jack White and [the Black Keys'] Dan Auerbach. Unfortunately, when terms like "rock" and "alternative rock" get thrown out there, it's as genres with rules. I always looked at rock & roll as the voice of regular people, of an economic group not in charge. Look at a film like Straight Outta Compton, the origins of it —rock is in hip-hop now.

Speaking of films, did you see the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck?
Uh-uh. It wasn't something I was going out of my way to see. I will at some point.

But you were in the Seattle episode of Dave Grohl's Sonic Highways series. Did he catch the city and scene you knew?
It's impossible to capture what I saw. But what I experienced goes further back — years before anybody gave a fuck about what Seattle was. Seattle itself didn't give a shit about its own music. No matter how many fans you had, if a worse band with less following came from out of town, you opened for them. It's never been my inclination to see what other people have put together to describe it.

You've got this solo tour coming up and a new Soundgarden album. Do you feel a little schizophrenic?
It's hugely refreshing. Now I kind of get Neil Young. He goes on tour with Crazy Horse, then he's out with Booker T. & the MGs. Then he's on tour by himself with seven guitars. It makes sense to me now. He's not trying to find who he is.

He is all of those things.
And all of these things are me.