EXCLUSIVE: Chris Cornell Talks Machine Gun Preacher
The musician contributes a theme song to the soundtrack, and reveals the secrets behind the first Soundgarden album in fifteen years
Machine Gun Preacher is based on the true story of Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing criminal who finds faith leading him on a path to East Africa. Shocked by the mayhem in Sudan, Childers becomes a crusader for hundreds of refugee children. Inspired to create a safe haven for the multitudes fleeing enslavement by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, he restores peace to their lives and eventually his own.
The Machine Gun Preacher soundtrack features 15 score cues performed and composed by acclaimed musical group Asche & Spencer, as accompanied by the 60-piece Slovak National Symphony Orchestra. The symphony was recorded in a historic facility outside Vienna Austria in the town of Bratislava. Vladimir Martinka conducted the session, which was orchestrated by Sean McMahon & David Shephard.
Chris Cornell contributes the theme song and single for Machine Gun Preacher, titled The Keeper, which is on the soundtrack now available both physically at music retail stores and digitally at iTunes. On the physical version of the Machine Gun Preacher soundtrack, The Keeper will appear in two forms featuring an extended version of the song as it appears in the film. On the iTunes version of the soundtrack, the original demo of The Keeper will be featured as a bonus track.
We recently caught up with musician and songwriter Chris Cornell to talk about the process that went into writing The Keeper specifically for Machine Gun Preacher. We also learned more about Soundgarden's first album in more than fifteen years, which arrives spring of 2012.
Here is our conversation.
When Bon Jovi was asked to create a theme song for Young Guns II, they gave him a rad cameo where he got to participate in a shootout. Did they offer you the same kind of deal with Machine Gun Preacher?
Chris Cornell: No. I don't remember that ever coming up. That is not something I would have wanted to do. I don't consider myself an actor. I did that one time with Cameron Crowe. Its not something I would seek out to do. Will I ever do it again? Hey, you never know...
The movie you were in was Singles. Did that experience sort of turn you away from acting?
Chris Cornell: No. I just think that its something people devote their entire lives too. I am a huge fan of cinema, and I have been for years. Ever since I can remember, really. Great actors throw their whole lives into it, just as great musicians put their entire lives into music. They have to develop that craft as a performer, and I have a lot of respect for them. My point is, I don't feel comfortable walking into it, just because I think I aught to be able to. There is a lot that goes into it. Its something I respect artistically, and I would never make light of it by showing up, trying to be an actor.
When you take on a project like The Keeper, you have to come at the lyrics in a certain voice and present a certain point of view. Its not that much different than the process of creating a role as an actor. You are telling this one story in three minutes...
Chris Cornell: Yes. In a sense. This comes under the handle of songwriter. The thing about writing a song for a movie, in the sense of collaborating...The movie is the co-writer of the song. Then you have the person that actually wrote the screenplay. I am co-writing with both of them. I am going to approach this different than any other situation. And it may bring something out of me that I might not have ever realized was there. It allows me to do something I might not normally do. I have never written a song that sounds like The Keeper. I wouldn't have, either, if not for the story, and the collaboration that went into it. That is what's great about this. It goes beyond songwriting. This is one of the reasons I do this. This is why I enjoy it. It comes from expanding the songwriter. Which is what I have been doing for years, and it's what I am excited about. It's a different kind of project, and a different kind of collaboration.
I heard that you did not see Machine Gun Preacher until after you'd written and recorded The Keeper. Were you compelled to go back and change the music once you got a feel for the visual side of this story being told?
Chris Cornell: I did record the final version of the song after I saw the movie, but I didn't go back and change anything because of what I saw. Interestingly enough, and this was an amazing consequence, but I haven't talked about it a bunch. When I was finished with the demo of The Keeper, I went on the Angels of East Africa website, which has a photo gallery of the real orphanage that houses the actual kids of Sam Childers, and I pressed play and listened to the song while I looked at those photos. I thought it worked really well. That's when I believed that I had captured a mood that works. Coincidently, or maybe not so coincidently, at the end of the film, where the song appears, some of the same photos are there. I never talked to the director Marc Forster about it, and he never talked to me about it. But that is why I felt the song worked. They made a decision that supported the same attitude. It was interesting that it turned out that way.
I don't want to be one of these guys who say...'A book and its cover'. But Sam Childers looks like he might be a big fan of Chris Cornell. Did that ever come up in conversation?
Chris Cornell: I don't know. I don't know if anything I ever did musically was on his radar. I met him. He was a great guy. But he didn't run up to me and say, "Dude, I love your music!" I felt like, in meeting him, that he was a genuine guy, and that he wasn't nesseccarily hiding anything. But you never know. He is also, obviously, a very intense guy. I have no idea if he was a fan. I feel like, if he was a fan, why wouldn't he say something?
He has no reason not to, I guess. You've taken on a few soundtracks over the years, most notably with James Bond. Did you feel that Machine Gun Preacher was a more personal project than some of the past films you've contributed to?
Chris Cornell: With this one, I was more concerned in terms of creating something that could co-exist with the film. I didn't want it to be preachy or presumptive. I am not one of these children that lost a family. I have not lost brothers or sisters, and survived it. Nor am I Sam Childers, who has put myself in harms way to help them. I can't sit down and write a song, and pretend like I know what that is. At the same time, I want to honor the children, and the man the film is about. I did feel a lot of pressure not to screw it up. That is different than any other time I have written a song for a film. There is more weight to the responsibility I felt.
The final version of the song we hear in the film is acoustic. Were there different versions of this song that you played around with?
Chris Cornell: No. The initial idea for that song was exactly that. It was spot on. I had worked on a few other ideas for the film. And I felt like I was missing it. I wasn't sure why. Then one day, I realized it shouldn't be any more than an acoustic guitar and me singing. That's it. I pretty much wrote the main body of the song at the same time as having that thought. When I recorded the final version of the song, I kept going back and forth, trying to keep it as bare bones as the demo, while allowing it to unfold sonically. The idea of the song didn't seem to work if any other layers came in.
When you create a stand alone song, that has nothing else around it, how do you carry that song into the future? Is this something that you will play live? Will you just leave it behind, with the film...
Chris Cornell: I really feel strongly about taking everything I have ever done with me. I don't know why. I feel emotionally attached to songs. If I feel like I want people to hear it, it will be something that I drag out at some point. That has been through most of my life as a songwriter. There hasn't been much that I have created, that has been released professionally, that I wouldn't want to perform. The Keeper is certainly a song that I am proud of. I feel privileged to be a part of the film. I have had great responses from the song. It is definitely something I will take out with me and perform.
Do you enjoy the process that goes with contributing to a soundtrack? Do you seek these projects out on your own?
Chris Cornell: It is usually something that comes from someone I know. It used to come in the form of someone calling me, or sending me an email, talking about a certain idea. Its not something I go out, actively seeking. If I hear about something that I am into, I will approach whoever is making the movie, and put myself out there. I did that with Spike Jonze, when he was doing Where the Wild Things Are. I wanted to do something with that movie, because I was such a fan of the book ever since I was a little kid. But he already had a vision for the music that didn't include me. I don't hold it against him, though. He is a brilliant filmmaker.
Even after you found out there was no room for you on that particular soundtrack, did you still set out to create something inspired by the book? Or was it a take it or leave it proposition for yourself?
Chris Cornell: I don't think so. I thought someone having the balls to compass a book that was just a few pages long was incredible, though. To turn that into a movie sounded like an interesting thing to make some music for.
You've already recorded a new album with Soundgarden, right? Your first album together as a band since 1996, I believe...
Chris Cornell: We are wrapping it up. Its mostly finished. Its been a long time. Its hard to preface it. When I think about the last three albums from Soundgarden, there is so much going on musically. We cover a lot of territory as a band. I felt the last two were almost like...White albums to me. Where there is progressive rock music. You have these very stripped down, unusual songs that take different approaches in their recording. It almost sounds like straightforward punk music. It is straight forward, but even that was skewed a bit. There were a lot of musical moods. Its hard for me to imagine what or what wouldn't surprise a Soundgarden fan, you know? I don't know what we would do that someone would predict. It doesn't feel to me, at all, like a record that is in any way nostalgic. We didn't look back at anything from a specific time in our history, and try to recreate that. We just moved forward as though nothing had happened. As though we just had a break. Which is what it feels like. It doesn't have a feel that is different from the other albums. It is very similar to the last couple. It has a lot of different moods. I think it is very warm, and it is very adventurous.
Is there one overall arching theme in the music, or do the tracks come in from all kinds of various different angles?
Chris Cornell: Like other Soundgarden albums, it's a story that writes itself. I certainly didn't approach it with any overriding theme. But looking back on it, I can't tell if there is one for me. I tend to let the lyrics be inspired by the tone and feeling of the music. We usually approach each song with a lot of people contributing musically, so there tends to be a lot going on. It has a lot of different moods lyrically. Like any album, it is a snapshot of who I was at the time. That is much easier to understand and describe in hindsight. Looking back five years from now, it will be easier to describe what the music feels like to me.
Were you guys inspired by the fact that there are no new bands out there right now that are anything like you guys. That there is an obvious hunger for this type of music that isn't being fed?
Chris Cornell: When Black Rain came out, which has been a year, we got so much positive feedback from people saying, "Thank God you put out a new song." People were hearing it on the radio, and talking about it. It felt like there was still a job for us to do with the band. There was still a need for Soundgarden to be writing and recording new music for the world of rock. I think that there is a revolution going on with music. It has nothing to do with genre. It doesn't have anything to do with an individual band, or a singer/songwriter, or anything. I think its technology and the internet. That is the revolution. It has changed the way people write, record, communicate, share...The way they make videos...Everything towards music. That has, in a sense, created chaos. I don't know if that will change. The door has been kicked open. Its not going to close. In a sense, it makes it easier to create a grassroots scene, or a band, or a group of bands that can communicate with each other, and their fans. I don't know that there will be another galvanizing scene that you can compare to Seattle, or the NY Punk scene, or the British Invasion, or the Brit Pop Scene. I don't know how it could happen. I could be wrong, The only way I will know is when it happens.
I would think that something would have to break eventually.
Chris Cornell: I don't know. Its hard to say. Something has to come along that can take these sub-groups of music fans and pull them together into something that makes sense. I don't know how you do that now. The music fans are younger and younger, because the ability to download it and experience it is all over the place. Its hip hop, its rock music, its pop music. Its hippie sounding rock music. Its not the same indie as it used to be. In some ways, its better to be an indie band than it ever was before. There are all kinds of different subsets. Eventually you will get something that pulls all of these elements together. There is nothing to rebel against. And I don't think there is one overwhelmingly successful person or style that people are needing to go destroy.
Faith No More broke up the same time as you, they got back together the same time as you. You share a lot of the same fans. When are you guys going to hit the road as a double-bill?
Chris Cornell: You never know. If they keep playing music, it is always possible. We wanted them to play when we played the Gorge this summer. They had agreed to do it, but they ended up not being active at that time. But I would love to play with them again. We had a great time playing shows with them. That was years and years ago. But it was a lot of fun.