Billboard Live Music Summit

Watch Chris Cornell Discuss 'Existential Meltdown' of '90s Grunge Bands, Being the Anti-Poison

Soundgarden frontman spoke at Billboard's Touring Conference about bringing grunge from the underground to the mainstream.

Ed Note: Chris Cornell died May 18, 2017. Cornell appeared at Billboard's Touring Conference as the keynote speaker in 2014. 

Speaking to a crowd at Billboard's Touring Conference, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell recalled his rise from the Seattle grunge scene to worldwide fame. The anxiety that permeated the band's climb to the top eventually culminated, he said, in an "existential meltdown."

"The meltdown was when the small indie scene became an international scene," he said. "We shared [TV] airtime and pages of magazines with what we considered to be the enemy -- bands who were presented in a way that we knew we were against when we started out -- so it was like, if you're reading about Soundgarden and you turn the page and it's Poison, are we the same?"

Cornell wrestled with the idea that his sound -- which was once considered so obscure that an audience member at a show in Vancouver threw an ashtray at him -- began getting interest from commercial brands and radio stations. The turning point, he said, was the first time he heard his band on L.A.'s KROQ: "Of course people said, 'OK, if one indie rock band can do it, several can,'" he said, "and that was the beginning of seeing lots of things change.’"

As grunge went mainstream, other grunge acts, often also from Seattle, "shit-talked" Soundgarden for signing to a major label. But it was only a matter of months before they followed suit. "They called us sellouts and then did exactly that in the same calendar year," he said. "I mean, no shame." Soundgarden skirted the anti-commercial crisis more than its peers because success was gradual, he said. By the time they'd embarked on a 1992 tour with Skid Row, they had decided as a group that excluding certain audience members for appearing not to understand their brand was "elitist" and wrong.

"If somebody said to me when I was listening to a record when I was 17 years old, 'We don't want you to like us because we don't like you,' that would be horrible," he said. "I would have felt like I wasn't allowed to grow into the music lover that I am now."