DETAILS: There's been a lot of talk recently, most of it negative, about the current state of rock music. What's your take? Is rock dead?
Chris Cornell: It's definitely lost its place at the center of the musical universe. Rock never meant the same thing to everyone, but when I was growing up in the late seventies, everyone could identify the five, ten bands that formed the center. Even if you preferred the fringe—the Clash over, say, Van Halen—you still knew what the center was. Now kids turn on the radio and hear Eminem or Kanye, so that's what they gravitate toward. They're making music on iPhones. Everything's fractured. The reason there's no modern-day Shakespeare is because he didn't have anything to do except sit in a room with a candle and think.
DETAILS: You're 47. What makes you feel old these days?
Chris Cornell: Topics like this. The inclination to think that the world was better when I was a kid.
DETAILS: Soundgarden has reunited, along with nearly every other band that had a video on Buzz Bin during the Clinton administration. Do you worry that people might question your motivations?
Chris Cornell: Honestly, I don't really care. People can be cynical if they want. I would never go out of my way to convince them of our sincerity. If people come to our shows, I think they'll see it's for the right reasons.
DETAILS: How's your hairline holding up?
Chris Cornell: It hasn't changed much, really. I have some gray. But my grandfather on my dad's side, he looked like Fred Flintstone. Fred Flintstone had a good head of hair.
DETAILS: What were you like growing up?
Chris Cornell: Wild. And reclusive. Sometime between 12 and 14 I smoked PCP and had a real bad reaction. By the time I was high-school age, I didn't want to do drugs anymore, so I went a couple years without having any friends. I got in touch with the creative process between the age of 14 and 16, mainly because I was alone so much.
DETAILS: And yet you became a frontman. Did playing music change you?
Chris Cornell: I was a nerdy shut-in who listened to prog-rock—and then I got on stage. Most frontmen are not born hams like David Lee Roth. We're more like Joey Ramone: awkward geeks who somehow find our place in the world on the stage. Nobody ever said a positive thing to me, ever, in my life, until they heard me play music.
DETAILS: I bet it helped you meet girls, too.
Chris Cornell: Oh yeah. Initially I was a drummer, and I remember standing somewhere in public with a pair of drumsticks, and these cute girls came up and started talking to me. We hadn't even played yet! It was actually uncomfortable. I thought, "Is that all I have to do? Just hold drumsticks?" It immediately made me not like the girls.
DETAILS: If you'd already been a ladies' man, maybe you wouldn't have had a problem with that.
Chris Cornell: But someone who's already popular wouldn't become a rock star. If you have success as a youth—for example, you're great at baseball—you don't have the time or inclination to be off in a corner. And I think the off-in-a-corner part, where nobody's paying attention to you, is crucial.
DETAILS: After Soundgarden broke up, you were a pretty serious substance abuser. What was your drug
Chris Cornell: When I transitioned into adulthood—high-stakes emotional responsibilities—I did everything I could get my hands on. It happened without me really noticing it. The thing is, when you pick up the pipe for the first time, you don't know that that's your fate. The moment isn't that dramatic. And then that was it—I didn't want to care anymore.
DETAILS: No offense, but why are grunge bands' drug stories so much more depressing than the seventies rock gods'?
Chris Cornell: Right? Those bands somehow had the ability to be completely fucked-up all the time and still function. They could play an amazing guitar solo even though they could barely walk. The eighties killed that—everybody was doing coke. If you see interviews with some of the stars of MTV's early years, those guys look worked over. Duran Duran? They went through hell too.
DETAILS: Your oldest daughter is almost 12. Would you let her date a musician?
Chris Cornell: It depends on the person. When I met my wife Vicky's family, I had to go out of my way to convince them—to show them—that I wasn't anything like their idea of a musician. But I've met many, many musicians that I wouldn't let anywhere near my daughter. Or my son.