Machine Gun Preacher: Conversations with Chris Cornell
A Conversation with Chris Cornell
Mike Ragogna: Chris, you have a new single, "The Keeper," and it's from the Machine Gun Preacher film and soundtrack. How did this come together?
Chris Cornell: Well, it was one of those "friend of a friend" things that got me involved in the very beginning. A good friend of mine was a friend of Marc Forster's and knew about the movie and the story and had read the script, and suggested me as someone to write an original song.
MR: Let's talk about the song itself you covered some intense territory in it.
CC: I went for not so much a song, but a story from the third person perspective about the guy, Sam Childers. It's such a broad story really, in terms of the movie. So, I kind of focused, ultimately, on what it narrows down to--what Sam Childers feels for these kids that gets him to essentially put his life in the United States on hold permanently and also put himself on the line and in harm's way whenever he's there in Africa doing what he does, which is trying to create a safe environment where they can live and learn and survive and hopefully thrive. That's the basic idea of "The Keeper," which is, in a sense, a song that Sam Childers would write to these children and to the mothers and the families of the people who he's sticking his neck out for, and it's sort of an assertion of that and a little bit of a description of that. It's, in a sense, an emotional version of that--as much as I can write into the song, not being him and not having actually gone through it.
MR: Did they give you a screener as prep for the song?
CC: I read the script, and actually went on Angels Of East Africa, which is Sam's website for his charity and his orphanage. That's how I got started writing the song. The song was finished and demoed before I saw the movie, and was kind of in the movie when I saw the very first edit of it. I felt like they did a great job with the film. It's a very vivid story, as read from the script, and I thought the movie turned out fantastically. I also felt that the song coexists really well with particularly the African part of the story. That's where my creativity was coming from--really from looking at the actual photos of the orphanage and the children and Sam's website and watching some of the films that he's done there. Sam himself has a way of presenting himself sort of matter-of-factly, in a way that people who are so far away from it can't help but see it and go, "Oh, my god--this is their everyday life." This makes it obvious why he would do so much, but also begs the question, "Why don't more people do something?" or "Why don't people help him more?" for example. That, to me, was one of the pivotal moments of the movie, where you realize how much trouble he's having raising money just to keep children inside of a compound and keep them safe and give them a place to sleep and get them some food.
MR: Chris, what do you think about his transformation? There's certainly a beautiful element to it, isn't there?
CC: I think there is. I also think there's a lesson in it for everyone who might want to give up on themselves or might want to give up on someone else or who might want to put someone else in a box and decide that they don't necessarily have a positive role or can find a positive role in life somehow or be of use, in a sense, whether very significantly or even moderately significantly. This story sort of shows that there are almost some attributes that this guy has that are kind of scary, and in a strange way, those scarier attributes seem to be a big part of what's making this work. It help creates an environment where he's been able to be successful in building an orphanage, creating this non-profit, rallying people for the cause, and actually, literally, (getting) out in the fields dragging kids to safety. There are a lot of very good, kind-hearted people that might not have it in them--in their personality or in their DNA or whatever--to go out and do what he does to make it happen.
MR: Do you think that it's in human nature, when you're up against the wall in certain situations or your heart is opened to something like this--that it's part of what helps push someone over the edge and take on higher qualities?
CC: I certainly think that human beings in general--not everybody, but most of us--kind of see what's right in front of our faces, so we never really necessarily know what our desires or capabilities or passions are in the big picture. We know about them based on what our experiences have been. I think for Sam Childers, certainly something snapped when he saw some awful things that I have never seen happen in front of me, and most people haven't seen happen in front of them, certainly not in this country, and I think that can be a moment where somebody's better nature comes out. As we know, it can also be a moment where negative things can come out. Some people, on the other hand, just have something in them that drives them to find a place and a way and a time where they can be of help, and I think a little bit of it might be that too. Sam Childers was sort of, at some point in his life, driven to do better things and strived to find a role. I feel like when things cross our path--if our eyes are open--hopefully, we'll be aware enough to see our role in it.
MR: You mentioned earlier about the orphanage, and there's a connection with it and downloading the mp3 of "The Keeper." What are the details?
CC: Well, because I don't have a record label attached to this and I'm selling it myself, there's a "download to donate" program. I'm not sure what the percentage of the proceeds that go to Sam's orphanage is, but ultimately, at the end of this, I'm going to take all the proceeds derived from selling the song and funnel them back to his orphanage anyway. To me, this was not a for-profit project to do in the first place. This was something that was exciting from an artistic standpoint, and something that I felt I could contribute to. It's easy for me to sit in a room and read a script and write a song about characters--that's what I do and it's what I enjoy doing. I would be doing it anyway, even if it wasn't something I did for a living. So, I don't think I'm going very far out of my way to donate the proceeds of the song to it. Hopefully, I'll figure out ways where I can do more than that.
MR: Would you say that the way you create music has always kind of been from that perspective, always being in the moment as you're writing whatever the piece is?
CC: Well, I certainly try to be. I would definitely confess that if I'm not, no one's ever gonna here it. (laughs) I think that for me as a songwriter, it's somehow trying to emotionally be in the middle of it...of something. Now, when I'm out writing songs or music for my own album, if it's my own story or my own observations of something and I'm projecting what my idea of it is, it's a little different. It's, in a sense, less precious, because it can be more stream of consciousness, and whatever comes out of me creatively is fair enough. When it comes to something like writing a song for a movie like this, which is a story where it is actually biographical and about a real person, it is a challenge where I feel I have to do it more carefully because it's somebody else's story that I'm getting into on a few levels. Somebody has lived it, many people have lived it, and also, somebody has written it and somebody--Marc--has filmed it. So, it's not the same thing. It's not quite the same sort of "devil may care" freedom that I throw at writing a song that I might put on an album. There's a certain amount of responsibility to doing the right way, and being aware of everybody that's involved and interested. Having taken all of that into account, I then do try to sort of allow, creatively, the song to come out.
MR: I've admired your creative growth, be it with Soundgarden and Audioslave or in your solo albums, Euphoria Morning, Carry On, and Scream. Do you feel like "The Keeper" represents another growth spurt?
CC: Well, I definitely always felt that I probably have somewhat of a short attention span, and that's always worked well, for example, in the context of Soundgarden. But Soundgarden is also four people writing songs--there's so much going on, so that's pretty easy to do. As a solo artist, I felt like the whole definition really is "anything goes, do whatever you want to do whenever you feel like doing it," and that's kind of been my approach. I've, in a sense, kind of created obstacles for myself because of that, without a creative trajectory that's easy to follow or even understandable. At the same time, I've always sort of gone by the rule that if I'm inspired by something, other people will be as well. Sometimes, it'll be more people and sometimes it'll be less people, but there will always be an audience for it, and that has turned out to be true. I feel like "The Keeper" is something that, when I listen to it, it doesn't sound like anything I've ever done, and yet it seems to live authentically in the musical world that it's in. And that's exactly what I felt about Scream--"this is very different." But I guess, in a sense, I approached it with the same attitude.
MR: So you're seeing a kind of trajectory here?
CC: Not a straight one. (laughs) I don't see an arc across the sky--I think it meanders a little bit more. I was looking up, and I thought I saw this UFO--it was kind of blinking and it had a straight line and I realized at some point that it was probably man made. Somebody told me it was probably a satellite. About a month later, I was staring up and there was this shiny light that looked like a star. It was wiggling all over the place and shooting across the sky. I don't know what that one was, but it's a little bit more like me.
MR: (laughs) Chris, last year, I got back from a trip to Canada where I sang the anthems at a Red Sox/Blue Jays game. A friend who was traveling with me got out of the car and noticed a UFO like the one you described. We noticed how it wiggled and darted, and it looked like a star. We couldn't figure out what it was either.
CC: I don't know what they are and why they wiggle like that, but that's certainly something that qualifies as a UFO because it's certainly unidentified and kind of unexplainable. And kudos for singing the national anthem in front of people besides those in your classroom. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Thanks, man. Hey, back to you--what advice might you have for new artists?
CC: One of the things I already mentioned is do what inspires you, and, for sure, that will somehow translate to other people. It just will. If you're doing what you love to do and it makes you happy and you feel truly inspired by it, others will be too. That's kind of the main theme...that's my main theme. And also, it doesn't really matter where you do that. I don't think you have to run around to media centers or big cities or places where other people do it or places where the entertainment industry is based. If you do something that's inspiring to you and other people, it'll eventually break through. People will discover it and people will find you.
MR: I almost forgot, what was your reaction when you were asked to record the James Bond Casino Royale theme, "You Know My Name."
CC: Well, my first reaction was that I didn't think I wanted to do it--but that was because I didn't know that they had decided to switch James Bond and to reinvent it with Daniel Craig in what was almost like a British indie/ganger vibe film. Once they told me that and then showed me a very rough edit of the film--they weren't even finished shooting it--I was really excited about it. I just thought, "This is completely different." Daniel Craig's a brilliant actor. In a sense, he's overqualified for that role, but it lent itself really well to the story. I loved the fact that it was the first book by Ann Fleming that James Bond appears in, and it was the last book they could refer to. All those things made me really excited about doing it--I was very happy to do it. And working with David Arnold, who has done the score for the last several Bond films, was a great thing. We recorded at Air Studios in London, which was a really great experience, and I was the only non-British person working there. I just had a great time.
MR: I have one last question about "The Keeper," considering Sam Childers and his work. Do you feel that the American public, at this point--or even in a couple of years--will get what he's doing?
CC: I think some people will and some people won't. I also think some people will misinterpret what he's doing or misunderstand what he's doing. What people will hopefully take out of it is the sheer simplicity of it, that there doesn't have to be a bigger picture politically, and there doesn't have to be a bigger picture religiously. What is important about it and what strikes me about it is the simplicity of a guy, an American, who went somewhere--whether it's Africa or anywhere--and he saw a need to help some children, to save their lives, to give them a safe place to be, a safe place to sleep, some food to eat, and half a chance at survival...even surviving period. And if they are surviving, helping them to do so in a way where it's not 24 hours a day of terror. To me, that sort of transcends all of the political aspects that people might want to take away from the story or the religious ones, for that matter. And I haven't talked to Sam Childers about it. Maybe he would disagree with the religious point. But to me, it doesn't matter. What matters is that there's somebody who's taking care of these kids.
MR: Fabulous, that's beautiful, the perfect place to end. Chris, I really appreciate your time. This has been fantastic.
CC: Thank you very much.