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Backstage at KROQ Weenie Roast: A Heavy Vibe as Bands, Fans Remember Chris Cornell

Variety logo Variety 5/22/2017 Steve Baltin
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Chris Cornell, the Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman who died May 18 in Detroit, was a part of L.A. rock station KROQ’s DNA, having played the station’s summer show, Weenie Roast, and its holiday show, Almost Acoustic Christmas, twice each – with Audioslave in 2005, with Soundgarden in 2012, and again with Audioslave in 2002 and as as solo act in 2015.

So with the 2017 edition of Weenie Roast scheduled for May 20, what turned out to be, three days after news broke, the mood was understandably heavy backstage at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. Onstage, however, where Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Paramore, 311, Dreamcar, and Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, were among the 12 acts on the bill, it was celebratory.

Incubus, who toured extensively with Cornell over the years, paid tribute to Cornesll with Cage The Elephant’s Matt Shultz. The two led a moving and powerful rendition of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” joined by some 25,000 in the audience screaming along at the top of their lungs as an image of Cornell looked upon them from a giant screen.

Later in the night, Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd and guitarist Mike Einziger shared their memories of Cornell in an at times emotional interview with Variety, portions of which are presented below:

Boyd: “Chris was such a continually phenomenal talent and a deep well of inspiration for us and I think for so many bands. Chris, on his own, it speaks for itself — his voice, his writing, all of that stuff. Soundgarden as well, every time I listen to a Soundgarden record, I’ll obsess over different parts of it. We were listening to Superunknown yesterday and we were just tripping out on the snare sounds, how beautiful they were. Chris was an incredible talent, he will be sorely missed.”

Einziger: “Chris’ voice and particularly Soundgarden, that was one of a very short list of bands that if it had not been for those bands, we wouldn’t even exist, we wouldn’t even be here.”

Boyd: “They were a tipping point for us, Soundgarden, Superunknown, that record came out and I just remember being, ‘Whoa, you can do s— like this?’ They showed us stuff we didn’t know was possible.”

Einziger: “It was heavy, but it wasn’t metal.”

Boyd: “Yeah, it was super heavy, but really creative time signatures and incredible songwriting. And also Chris singing the way he did really gave permission to a lot of singers who might’ve had certain latent abilities to do those things, but didn’t know… There is a short list of male singers that can sing that way effortlessly — Chris, Jeff Buckley — where they can soar and you’re, like, ‘Is he a god?’”

Einziger: “He brought a certain soul to heavy music that I definitely had never experienced or heard before. I wouldn’t have even known what that was. I wouldn’t have even had any idea how to describe that when I was 15 years old. But here we are, 26 years later, and it’s so incredibly sad that he’s gone. We can sit and talk about how great the music was and his voice and everything, but the fact he’s gone has nothing to do with music and it’s a totally different thing. It’s so mind-blowing. We were acquaintances, we knew each other, we played a lot of shows together, but I can’t help but feel really sad for him, for his family. It’s a really huge loss and a huge loss for everyone who loves music.”

Several KROQ staffers and DJs, who had known Cornell were for years, were also visibly shaken. Ted Stryker, who estimated he had spent eight hours interviewing Cornell on air, had to stop and compose himself multiple times as he choked up while sharing his recollections of his experiences with the late singer.

“He’s Chris Cornell and I’m a radio nerd and I spent hours with him on the radio,” Stryker said. “He was always welcoming and made me feel comfortable and normally the job is I’m supposed to make them feel comfortable. I always appreciated that from the first time I had an interaction with Chris Cornell. He may have been 6’4” and extremely good looking and he knew it, but he didn’t flaunt it. He had everything you want in a rock star. He had a hint of good guy, but he could be bad at any second.”

Kat Corbett did not interview Cornell, though she orbited him backstage for years. To her, he was such an iconic figure, she preferred not to interview him and shatter the myth.

“I was so afraid to ever look him in the eye,” she said. “I just thought I would crumble, he was just so handsome. But then he would talk and he was so smart and in touch with really deep s—. He was an outwardly beautiful picture, but when you heard him [speaking], you knew he was smart and had heart.”

Even those who didn’t know Cornell personally were touched by his music. “There is no artist, especially in the alternative sphere, who hasn’t been affected by Chris and what he’s done for the rock scene, the grunge scene or bringing alternative music to a mainstream place,” Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds told Variety. “And also, as a humanitarian I think there is so much Chris has done that people don’t realize. … As he’s passed, I’ve been looking into his life, and it’s really been astounding to me the level of philanthropic efforts he and his wife made. I hope that trail continues on forever and I’m sure it will continue to affect and resonate.”

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