Between Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Audioslave and his solo career, Chris Cornell has made a lot of music, but he isn’t a movie-music veteran. He contributed unreleased solo tracks to films like “Mission Impossible II,” “Great Expectations” and “Bug,” with his first major original contribution being “You Know My Name,” the theme to the 2006 Bond movie “Casino Royale.”
So it’s odd that he’d see his work featured in two projects that are both in release, both with slots at the recent Toronto International Film Festival: Marc Forster’s “Machine Gun Preacher,” for which Cornell wrote “The Keeper,” and Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty,” in which he serves as something of a village elder who can still remember everything about the Seattle scene.
indieWIRE spoke with Cornell in Toronto about both films, including why the story of “Machine Gun Preacher” continues to resonate for him, his favorite film soundtracks and why he wishes he didn’t give up on piano lessons.
This isn’t the first time you’ve done a soundtrack song. You did “Casino Royale” —
I’ve done a few films over the years where I wrote specifically for the film, based on the story and the script. I don’t know how many songs I’ve had in movies where it was just the song that already existed. This was the one that was the most engrossing for me. After I read the script, I don’t think a day has gone by where I don’t think about it. The script and the story, as well as when I was writing the song, Marc had mentioned the website, Angels of East Africa. There’s YouTube links of footage and sometimes it’s Sam Childress narrating, sometimes he’s in it. It’s a very matter-of-fact way of presenting the plight of the kids in the area that is different than I’ve ever seen. It’s very direct and it’s moving, but not in a divisive way. It’s — a mirror comes out of the screen almost and you’re looking at yourself thinking, Wow, the directness and the simplicity of a guy making these sacrifices so that they can have shelter and food. We all feel a responsibility to take care of our own children; why is that exclusive to the biological children? And then the photo gallery of the children that are there in his orphanage… I don’t think that I’ve really felt the same since.
The “Casino Royale” song — I don’t think that was even on the official soundtrack.
Yeah, I didn’t let it be on the official soundtrack because to me, it was sort of a separate thing. This Bond theme song. I also felt like as a songwriter… I didn’t want to be sort of isolated in this world. But it’s not the same thing in terms of an emotional connection. I was really lucky with “Casino Royale” in that it was based on the first book in Fleming world that has the character in it and it’s the character when he’s still a human being and he hasn’t developed this kind of this platinum exterior that’s impenetrable, he’s a person that’s in love and has doubts and existential crisis. So I actually got to write a song with aspects about the story that were interesting and more than just a super spy who’s going to kick everybody’s ass. (laughs)
With “The Keeper” and “Machine Gun Preacher,” it was much more challenging and also much more precious to me to write something that’s gonna be open to sort of include the story and not be too editorial and also not be so personal that I’m crowding the space of the story and the real person. I worked on several different ideas. I think that why “The Keeper” worked for me, for Marc and for the film in general was I went on the website and just sort of studied the face of the kids and waited to be struck by a feeling. The feeling was that if Sam Childress… if he were Woody Guthrie and he were writing a song, what would that song be? Because Woody Guthrie’s songs were very simple and very direct like Sam is, and very matter-of-fact. I thought he would be writing a song that’s sort of a dedication to the children that he’s risked his life many times over to try to protect. So in a sense my perspective, when singing it or listening to it, is that it’s his song.
That definitely comes across in the music.
It is just one song and the scope of Sam’s story is enormous. It’s impossible to put in a three-and-a-half minutes. It’s not just his story, it’s also a story of the children he’s working to protect. And their experiences and their families and the history of what’s happened to them. I felt like I naturally came up with something that coexisted — that’s the other thing about any writing music for a film is that you’re collaborating, but not with another person. You’re certainly collaborating with the director but in a sense, the creation sort of exists on its own (and) the song exists as its own after someone composes it. I can decide how I want it to affect you, but that doesn’t mean it will.
You’ve done a number of solo albums in recent years, but does working for film music fulfill a different kind of collaborative need?
Well, it’s certainly different. I don’t know if it’s a need so much as it is something that I’m enthusiastic about. What I do is complement what they do and our strengths and weaknesses have to coexist in a way that becomes somehow harmonious and poetic and interesting. I’m a huge fan of film and always have been. And in spite of the fact that there’s so much crap out there — I mean, that’s also true of music and really any artform, you have to wade through all the garbage. But I also think that wading through the garbage is in a sense a good thing. There’s something about that finding the gem that inspires you or changes you a little bit, and you’re not necessarily the same coming out of it. It’s definitely a privilege and a huge benefit that has come from having a successful music career.
Do you think that you’d ever want to be responsible for like a whole soundtrack or score?
I think that it’d be something exciting to do. I started out as a pianist, but not now. I learned to read music when I was 10 and did piano and took lessons. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have any direction. No one was encouraging me to do it, but no one was discouraging me and it just felt like school. It was another subject, another course. I had kind of a mean piano teacher. I went to Catholic school so it was like, the typical thing you would imagine — a little kid with a white-haired teacher frowning at the fact that I didn’t practice. And I picked it up very fast and I learned to read music very fast, but I don’t now at all. I regretted it within three years of stopping because I remember walking past this schoolroom and there was a girl that started the same week I did and she was playing something from Queen — something that was very elaborate. I thought, Damn! I think in my early 30s, I attempted to take lessons to read music again. I thought well, it’s in there so it should be easy to pick back up again. But it was so not.
Like it was harder than I ever remembered. Not that I can’t understand it conceptually, it’s just that I’ve learned now to create music without a language and I work well that way and I work quickly that way. And I make decisions in that world in sort of a language-illiterate world. I can hear all the music so unless I’m trying to communicate it to someone else, I can just record or show them, you know? But that could be, I suppose, an obstacle if someone’s scoring the film, but it’s not a dealbreaker. The thing that’s kept me from really wanting to do that is it’s such a huge undertaking and, um, I’m not sure what that means to me at the end of it. I’m used to coming out of that type of process with a body of work and an album that I understand. Which way should I spend that much effort? But if it were the right movie and something I was passionate about, I would love to do it.
Are there any music soundtracks that you really admired in recent years?
My favorite one — I’ve only seen this movie once and [the music] disturbed me — was a French film called “Betty Blue” and the music was really haunting, and a very simple piano score. That stuck out in my mind. And then Jim Jarmusch did a movie with Johnny Depp called “Dead Man,” and Neil Young did the score. And that was hugely impactful, almost in the same way that it set the tone and coexisted perfectly with the performances and visuals, and I loved the film. And it was breathing, it was really expressive, and it did something that I’ve never heard since. I hear a lot of scores in films that reminds me of seven other films and I’ll sit while I’m watching the movie and start to remember what they are. Music can’t really draw you in too much because then you’re just following it — and my ear will follow the music over anything else for sure — and so if I get drawn in, I’ll imagine this is going to go somewhere fantastic. And then it doesn’t, because really it’s not supposed to and I’ll get frustrated with that sometimes. I think it’s very delicate and it’s really an admirable thing, the composers who do movie scores and how they put so much effort into coexisting with the film and supporting it with the music without doing what I do, which in contrast seems to be very whimsical and egocentric and vain. This is my music and my thing and it’s about me! And here I go and now listen to it, you know? (laughs)
Your sort-of other movie that’s here (at TIFF), the Pearl Jam documentary. Have you seen it yet?
Yeah, I saw it yesterday. My wife and I went to the premiere and it was great. I know Cameron and what I guess I didn’t put together in my head before seeing it was that his personality as a filmmaker came through so strong in the movie that it was really entertaining. Because a lot of the story I really knew anyway, but I felt like it was perfect and it did exactly what that type of a film I think should do. It was informative to the fans and it sort of opened to the door further into their story and into their personal relationships with each other and with the music, and the ups and downs of what it’s like. It has its own uniqueness and he’s captured it all in there. I thought everyone in the band were themselves, which was great for the fans as well.
Did you expect to be such a prominent voice?
No, it’s weird. I don’t know how far along the documentary was before I was interviewed, but I got a call from Cameron saying, “You keep coming up in all of these stories, particularly about the beginning of the band and everybody keeps talking about you.” And then it was just an on-camera interview, nothing dissimilar to this except I’ve known Cameron for a long time, and that was it. I remember saying to my wife when I got home, “God I feel sorry for whoever was going to have to go through this 2 ½ hours of interview and take up the two little soundbites that they decide on.” By the time I saw the movie, I knew that I had somewhat prominent part of it.
I knew there was a crossroads there, but I didn’t realize you’re at an odd nexus for a lot of it.
There was something about the scene that I think was even smaller and more grassroots than it was able to convey. Seattle is a real city, but in terms of the artistic community at the time, though it was very vibrant, it was very small. I think I talk about it in the film a little bit, but when a band would play a show at a small club, there wasn’t a huge club scene. There was like two or three bars that were opening and with Washington state liquor laws, that meant that the audience had to be 21 and over. So that meant that more than half of any band’s audience couldn’t even be there. And your audience was comprised of everybody else in the other bands and that scene. It wasn’t someone from the suburbs coming in. There was just this little family. And because of that, we all knew each other and all be in the audience for everyone else’s band. And if the Melvins played, then Soundgarden was there, and when Green River was there, and sometimes nobody else. And sometimes when Soundgarden would play — before Matt Cameron was in Soundgarden, we were playing shows with his band Skin Yard and we were in the audience for them and they were in the audience for us. I saw Pearl Jam’s first show, Mother Love Bone’s first show, Green River’s first show, Skin Yard’s first show and they were all there for us. So it was tiny and by the time there was a worldwide focus on what was considered to be the Seattle scene, that scene was gone because we were all on the road, touring.
Was there anything in the film that surprised you?
I’m not sure if there was anything represented that I hadn’t heard about or thought about. I guess the one thing that struck me was the moment on film when the fans are booing Pearl Jam for doing something that was adventurous and creative and outside of what they would normally do. I’ve seen a lot of Pearl Jam shows and the only reaction I’ve ever seen is the audience being completely supportive and loving every moment. I never saw that. I’ve never seen it and never had a conversation with anyone that they’d been through that, or even a song that was like that. But that was a great thing to take away from it — that it’s not just a constant love affair. They stood up and held their ground and took chances. But to see it for real was pretty interesting.
Chris Cornell, “The Keeper”: