Revisit our 2008 interview with the Soundgarden frontman

By Whitney Pastorek
May 18, 2017 at 10:49 AM EDT
Verizon and BlackBerry Debut a Collaboration from Chris Cornell & Timbaland
Credit: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for BWR Public Relations

In 2009, Chris Cornell joined forces with Timbaland for Scream, the Soundgarden frontman’s third solo album and one that was a notable departure from his grunge sound. EW interviewed both Cornell and Timbaland in 2008 before the album debuted to talk about taking risks and fighting criticism. As part of our coverage honoring Cornell, who died Wednesday at age 52, revisit that story here.

For a sign of how much younger things are skewing in the world of former Soundgarden/Audioslave lead singer Chris Cornell these days, look no further than the Irvine, Calif., stop of Linkin Park’s Projekt Revolution Tour. At 44, the hard-rock stalwart is wooing a new demographic, a fact underscored by the Hot Topic-draped teens baking in the sun, killing time before his set by texting profundities like “WAT UP MAGGIE” to be displayed on giant screens around the stage. Cornell plays along, letting fans choose a song for him via their highly evolved thumbs, and duetting with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington on “Hunger Strike,” the 1990 Temple of the Dog tune he originally sang with Eddie Vedder.

Yes, Chris Cornell is embracing “the kids” — and for his third solo effort to succeed, he’ll certainly need them. Scream, due Nov. 4, is a surprising full-album collaboration with Timbaland, whose overstuffed R&B stylings for the likes of Justin Timberlake cater to a generation that considers Soundgarden “classic rock,” if it considers Soundgarden at all. Depending on your perspective, the merger of these two aesthetic extremes is either evidence of a desperate has-been pandering for attention, or a refreshing disregard for pop’s genre boundaries. Cornell knows it’s a risk. “I don’t think it’s going to be like, ‘It’s not bad…,'” he predicts of the response. “I think it’s gonna be ‘This is absolute garbage,’ or ‘This is genius.'”

Until now, Cornell’s career has followed a handy pattern: 1984-1997, front Soundgarden, generate hits, break up because of artistic differences. 1999, release solo album, Euphoria Morning, to tepid reception. 2001-2007, front Audioslave, generate hits, break up because of artistic differences. Summer 2007, release solo album, Carry On, to tepid reception. According to that pattern, Cornell should now be the frontman for, like, Velvet Revolver. Instead he’s made a WTF?-inducing album with the man whose golden touch launched the career of Missy Elliott, turned the folky Nelly Furtado into a club queen, and helped mold Timberlake into a respectable artist.

“Fans should be encouraged that I want to try different things,” says Cornell. “People should lighten up.”

Given Cornell’s lack of solo success and Timbaland’s recent track record, it’s easy to be cynical about the whole to-do. “It is what it is,” says Cornell before his Projekt Revolution set. There’s gray in his widow’s peak now, his notorious temper replaced by a sage calm, his pale blue eyes steadily scanning the blank spaces of his trailer as he explains the impetus behind the biggest artistic gamble of his career. “I get scared that maybe there’s something I can’t pull off,” he says earnestly. “I’m motivated by the challenge.” He calls Scream “a leap of faith.” Suddenly, you want to believe him.

The album does have convincingly organic roots. Cornell’s brother-in-law is a Parisian club owner, and he floated the idea of remixing songs off Carry On; Cornell’s management approached Timbaland, who said he’d do only original material. A phone call between the two men sealed a full-album deal. “It seemed inspired to me,” Cornell says of the partnership. “And it didn’t sound that crazy to a lot of people.”

In early 2008, Cornell and Timbaland met up at a Miami studio to start recording. Cornell says there was some early “the white boy ain’t got no rhythm back-and-forth,” but once he learned how to sing with the precision required by Timbaland’s notoriously tricky tracks, a creative process clicked in: Tim would bring in a beat, Cornell would find a melody, and a song would emerge. The two got assists from Timbaland protégés like Jim Beanz; even Timberlake showed up to sing on “Take Me Alive.” “It was like being a kid in a playground,” Cornell raves about the five-week writing/recording period, and though he admits to some early doubts about whether the collaboration would work, he now unabashedly makes comparisons to albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Queen’s A Night at the Opera. As for the always-humble Timbaland, he had exactly zero concern: “I knew it was gonna be a masterpiece soon as I heard his first words over my track.”

The day after the Irvine concert, Cornell visits L.A. alternative station KYSR to host a listening session and an acoustic performance for a roomful of loyalists. As tracks from Scream pound out of the speakers, most heads slowly begin to nod along, including that of Marco Collins, the DJ presiding over the event. “Yeah, the production style’s changed, but I still hear that soulful voice I heard on Superunknown,” Collins says. Even so, the DJ calls the move “dangerous,” predicting that “there are people who just don’t like hip-hop. Who want their peanut butter not to be stuck in somebody else’s chocolate.” And sure enough, some of the assembled fans are unconvinced. “It’s not Chris Cornell,” says Ted Lipke, 39. “It sounds all right, but I won’t buy it.” His girlfriend, Tricia Schoffstall, 38, says she was impressed by the material, but preferred the sample-free version of one track Cornell recently performed on The Tonight Show. “I’m not one to get too much into the dance beats,” she says. “But maybe they’ll attract a diverse crowd.”

Early reaction on the Internet has been less charitable. To grunge lifers, there is no worse crime than “selling out,” and Scream has inspired message-board posters to totally flip their shizz ever since a track leaked in July. Cornell swears he ignores message boards “like the plague,” and anyway, he’d like to remind everyone typing melodramatic cries into the void (“He left us”) that the music they love still exists. “It cannot be ‘He’s abandoned us by making different music,'” Cornell says. “Because the only way that would happen is if I sent some goon squad to everyone’s house to get their CD collections and take all the old songs away.”

Cornell insists Scream has nothing to do with money; he doesn’t need it. He claims not to care about hitting the Hot 100. If he wanted to reunite Soundgarden, he probably could, but the “defiant child” in him has no interest. And, for the record, he’s fine with being defined by your nostalgia. “I’m glad people liked that guy who was me 15 years ago with the flannel shirt and the long hair,” he says. “And honestly, I think they should be encouraged that they’re a fan of somebody who wants to try different things. People should lighten up. Go listen to f—ing A Night at the Opera again. Here’s a guy in harlequin tights with his hairy chest exposed, in a band called Queen, making a record for mullet-headed gay-bashers. Music is supposed to be inspired.” And if fans reject his R&B move and the album tanks? “Same as if the last record tanked,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll just make another.”