Chris Cornell Talks 'The Keeper,' 'Machine Gun Preacher' and More

Tuesday, 13 September 2011 14:37 Written by  iamrogue
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Chris Cornell Talks 'The Keeper,' 'Machine Gun Preacher' and More

Chris Cornell can do the impossible.

In Soundgarden, he's always mined the subtle middle ground between storytelling a la Bob Dylan and thunderous wailing reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Cornell remains the ultimate frontman, and he deserves to be revered in the same league as all of those legends.

However, the singer conjures the same magic with just an acoustic guitar and that one-of-a-kind voice. His contribution to Relativity Media's Machine Gun Preacher, "The Keeper", is hypnotic and haunting folk. It tells the story of the film's subject, humanitarian hero Sam Childers [Gerard Butler], while painting a personal picture for Cornell. Like all timeless tunes, numerous interpretations will abound, and that's the beauty of it.

It's one of the best songs of 2011, and it perfectly complements one of the year's best films.

In order to uncover the story behind "The Keeper", editor in chief Rick Florino sat down for an exclusive interview with Chris Cornell while in the midst of the Toronto International Film Festival. Cornell discusses writing the song, another classic soundtrack song, "Seasons", new Soundgarden music, meeting Sam Childers, storytelling and more.

Machine Gun Preacher releases in select theaters on September 23. The soundtrack will be available physical and digitally on iTunes September 20th! Download "The Keeper" now iTunes!

On "The Keeper", it sounds like you're telling a story that belongs to both you and Sam Childers. What's your take on the song? Is that on the mark?

Well, I would say what you just described is probably the best possible outcome. I don't think I or anybody could write a song about someone else without the author's personality, thoughts, or emotions included. The old adage is "Every time you paint someone's picture it's really a self-portrait". I believe in that to some degree. I think you have to be able to relate to it. If you can relate to the person and your interpretation of that person's feelings and actions, then you can write about their experience as if you were them. You can do that projection, and it's not a big leap from you to them. If you can't, then it's harder. In this case, I can understand where the passion and the empathy would come from. Certainly, there are similar aspects in terms of understanding what it feels like when you're struggling with substance abuse and feeling directionless as well as having that clouded mental feeling and having to dig your way out of that. It's not only difficult to dig your way out and just lead a normal life, but to dig your way out, move on, and do something tremendous like Sam did is something I can see the kernels of. It flowers into his story. That's something he did. Beyond that, there's a whole bunch of inspiration. I think the song really sticks with the idea of imagining that Sam Childers is singing it. What is he singing? It's a sort of testimonial to the kids he puts his life on the line for. In that testimonial, the singer is really saying, "I'm not Moses. I'm not this grandiose savior to be worshipped. I'm just a guy who has faults, and I know it as much as anybody". However, this person who does have faults and who isn't Moses is going to be here until he dies doing what he does for others. That was my way of being able to really get into the song without saying that I lived it because I haven't.

Was the process behind "The Keeper" similar to "Seasons"? It seems like there's a kinship between them.

I think it was a fast process in a sense. Although with "Seasons", I didn't feel any responsibility to lyrically describe anything or lyrically co-exist with anything for example. "Seasons" was written based on a title that Jeff Ament, the bass player of Pearl Jam, wrote on a piece of paper. In a sense, there was a disconnection there because the title wasn't my idea so I probably felt more freedom to write whatever I wrote [Laughs]. Writing it from the standpoint of something that could exist naturally just on an acoustic guitar and singing does it make a similar process for both "The Keeper" and "Seasons". A lot of my early songwriting was in Soundgarden. I didn't start really writing songs until we started Soundgarden therefore a lot of that was based on riffs or it was sonically based. Lyrics and melodies were finding their room inside of a landscape of very aggressive music. It was very electric, loud, and amplified. You couldn't necessarily strip those tracks down, play them acoustically, and have them make sense as songs. They might, but they might not. With something that's really stripped down and acoustic, it has to exist as a "song". That's all it is. There's nothing else there. In that way, I think that there is a comparison to be made to "Seasons" or anything else I've done like that.

Were you reading anything while writing "The Keeper"? Do you often read while writing music?

I do sometimes. I wasn't when I was writing "The Keeper". For "The Keeper", I'd read the script and focused on the web site. There was a photo gallery on the "Angels of East Africa" web site that I focused on just because I wanted to get a sense of the environment. That, combined with the story, is where the ideas and musical feel came from because the photos are very moving. Some are difficult to see. There are some photos where it looks like the children are suffering. However, most of the pictures in the photo gallery show Sam with a smile surrounded by a bunch of kids who look very happy. They look tended to, cared for, and loved. In the photos, the children are together playing. You'll notice the atmosphere which is unusual. There are pictures of a couple kids standing next to a crashed plane that people have ripped parts off of. There's a photo of kids near a derailed train where the cars have been left and no one's ever done anything. It's an unusual world, but the theme was you did see children who appeared loved and cared for and therefore were happy. They're acting like you'd see my children in a photograph, smiling and being kids. That really influenced the writing of the individual song more than anything.

Are there any other movies that have affected you like Machine Gun Preacher?

Well, this is a drama. The last movie I saw that really hit me on such an emotional level was The Cove. It's a documentary, but the filmmaking is unbelievable. From beginning to end, I thought it was gripping. The story itself, the execution of the documentary, and the dedication and ingenuity of the people involved in it was pretty phenomenal. That's one I could say off the top of my head. I didn't see it when it came out. I saw it more recently because I was honestly a little bit afraid to watch it since I wasn't sure what kind of emotional impact it was going to have on me. It had a big one

Have you met Sam Childers yet?

I met Sam about eight minutes ago and was very struck by him. He's a gentleman. He was very complimentary, relaxed, not boastful, and very professional given that this is sort of a professional situation at the Toronto Film Festival. I walked into a big room where he was holding court with a table full of journalists, foreign press, and probably 25 people listening and hanging on every word. I immediately sat down and I was supposed to be interviewed by 12 people or so, and I couldn't draw myself away from listening to Sam. We had to actually move to an entirely different part of the room to speak because it was difficult to even think about talking over what he was saying. He definitely has a charisma and an ability to speak and people will listen. I can tell you that just from the personal experience I had a few minutes ago.

Is "The Keeper" indicative of your creative process on the new Soundgarden or has that been much heavier?

Well, no matter what, Soundgarden is always going to be heavier. However, I also think musically the new Soundgarden stuff is different than anything we've ever done. Having said that, I think that's a theme we've always had. I think every time we've made a record it wasn't really that easy to compare it to the previous one—other than that we're the same band. I think may be some moments that are sort of sonically quieter and more stripped-down. On the whole, it's a rock record. That's what we do.

Have is it always been important for you to paint visual pictures that aren't necessarily explicit? You can interpret "The Keeper" many ways just like you can "Pretty Noose" or "Let Me Drown". Is it crucial to tell a story that's both ambiguous and relatable?

That's always been the goal…I suppose the times I've missed the mark are when it seems clear to me and it's not clear to anybody else [Laughs]. It's pretty easy to get too far away from it. Literally a couple of poorly chosen words can kind of obscure the thought, the idea, and the image, and it's not there anymore. It's good to hear that you feel like it's in tact. The only direction I got from Marc Forster, the director, was "Don't be too literal", which I never do. He actually followed that up by saying, "You never are, but if I would say anything it's that". I agree with it. I really don't think that it would be complimentary to a great film. I don't think there's really an environment where that would work. I could point out a bunch of songs written for films where they were completely word-for-word obvious and descriptive of the synopsis. It's as if they were the synopsis. I won't waste either of our time [Laughs]. Okay, Ghostbusters!

Would you ever want to write a book like Sam did?

I'm not sure. Being involved in different documentaries, that has come up lately. I've been asked to do interviews for a lot of those documentaries, most recently the Pearl Jam film—Pearl Jam Twenty. Killing Joke is doing one. I thought about it. I suppose that I have a hard time believing whatever the real story is will ever get told. I think, with something like the Pearl Jam documentary where the director has been there pretty much from the beginning of the actual group and the band has been so diligent about saving everything with a videographer and photographer there all the time, though you can't necessarily tell the exact story ever because that's impossible, there's a lot of supportable evidence. You can get a sense of it. In and of itself, that's an event. Whereas with me, I'm just not sure that makes sense. If I wanted to write a book, I'd want it to be the truth, and I'm not sure how much personal truth I want to share.

Machine Gun Preacher opens in theaters on September 23rd.

Full Disclosure: Machine Gun Preacher is being released by Relativity Media, iamROGUE's parent company.

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