photo courtesy of Alain Jonannes:
Producer, collaborator and friend Alain Johannes, on the making of iconic Cornell record
September 21, 1999: Chris Cornell officially releases his first solo record, Euphoria Morning. An emotionally laced, poetic collection of 12 brand new tracks, Euphoria Morning also carried a sincere personal connection.
Renowned guitarist, Alain Johannes, from the band Eleven, who has also since collaborated with Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures, Mark Lanegan and dozens of others, produced Euphoria Morning along with partner Natasha Schneider and Cornell, while also contributing to some of the writing. The record itself is deeply moving as it contains some of Cornell’s most intimate touches, but equally as fascinating is the behind-the-scenes story of how it came to be.
Prior to kicking off a month-long tour across Europe, I had the chance to speak with Johannes to reflect upon the making of this cherished keepsake that is Euphoria Morning and how loudly it resonates 20 years later
album cover photo by Randee St. Nicholas
What do you remember about first being introduced to the idea of Chris Cornell’s Euphoria Morning and being a part of it? Can you tell the story on how it came to be for you?
I first heard Chris Cornell and Soundgarden demo’s in the late 80’s. My friend Aaron Jacoves ended up introducing me to them. Eleven’s first album had just come out and we were listening to a lot of BadMotorFinger. We were on tour at a truck stop somewhere and Soundgarden happened to be at the same truck stop. We got to talking and they asked us to open up for them. So, Eleven opened for Soundgarden and then Natasha played on “Fresh Tendrils”. They would send us their albums right when they finished them, and we would help with some of the promotional stuff. We toured together again on their last Down on the Upside tour and when Soundgarden broke up for a while, Chris came and stayed with us.
We had just moved into this house in Los Angeles. We didn’t have a proper studio yet, it was just a little gear, but we would just get together in the house and do some writing. “Sunshower” was written around that time and that’s also when we did “Ava Maria”. Chris then invited the president of A&M records to come over and listen to our stuff. At the time, I was writing a bunch of songs for a publishing deal where I had to turn in this material. A&M then offered us a record deal and in a very ballsy way, Natasha and I asked for a budget to buy gear for our home studio. We recorded our fourth album Avantgardedog, using all of that equipment. The house had turned into a super-pro studio. Chris wanted to stay around, and he started preparing songs that would become his solo album. Daniel Lanois was lined up to produce it. We worked on songs with Chris like, “Mission”, “Pillow of Your Bones” and “Disappearing One” – Natasha would help Chris with the arrangement and harmonic changes. After some demos, Chris was ready and was supposed to go off with Daniel to make the record. All of a sudden Daniel’s people called and said he was taking a break and canceling all of his projects – this was two days before they were supposed to start. Chris turned to us and said, “Now, what the fuck am I going to do?” Natasha suggested, we do it ourselves, we have all this equipment now so let’s get started. We basically worked in secret, recording at the house and would invite certain people over like Josh Freese, Jason Falkner, Matt Cameron and Ric Markmann. Chris was living in our guest room and we had the most chill, creative and no-pressure environment I can ever remember. Some days we didn’t feel like working so we would go to the movies or the beach. Or sometimes in the middle of a day off Chris would have an idea so we would fire up the studio. This went on for seven months, but Chris would go home to Seattle at times for a week or two in-between. Once we had the recording complete, Chris went out and told everybody, “By the way I did this recording, and my solo record is done.” Chris really trusted us because we had this connection.
Afterwards, there was a tour lined up and it had to be us (Eleven) as his band. We prepared for a few months and then Chris came back down two weeks before the tour started to rehearse as a complete group. And that was it – then we hit the road on the Euphoria Morning tour for a little under a year.
Was Cornell’s intent always to write a solo record at this time, or was it more a result of being together and having these songs written?
I think he always had a solo record in mind in terms of what to do next. There were a few songs he already had written, and we’d help rearranging a few things. Chris had completed “Sweet Euphoria” and recorded it at his house. He expected the record to be more acoustic-based and then once we all started working on stuff together it was realized that it could be something that was quite different from Soundgarden, it wouldn’t necessarily be compared, but it would have sides where you can explore the writing and parts of his voice that contained more R & B in a way. Like the vocals in “When I’m Down” or “Disappearing One” for example. It was very much an organic get together where none of us knew what it was going to be. Chris had a bunch of songs, but he needed more so we just wrote together and things like “Follow My Way” would come out of it. A song like that was very much a cross-pollination of our visions. Chris gave Natasha a lot of freedom to play around with the harmonics and chord changes to really enhance the songs. We forged this amazing trio where we had such a fun time creating. We’d spend five hours finding the right guitar tone because we could. Natasha would be like, “How many more amps do I need to listen to? Can you just play the part already?” It was worth it in the end. Nothing sounds over-thought, it all just sounds like the right atmosphere for the song.
photo by: Matt Thomas
Being familiar with Soundgarden and touring with them, when you first started to hear the lyrics Chris was writing for “Euphoria Morning” what was your reaction?
I could definitely see, hear and feel that Chris was coming from a different place with the lyrics for this record. We encouraged him to go even further and we’d help him take it to a place that even he wouldn’t expect. Even though our record Avantgardedog was written before Euphoria Morning, we ended up releasing it afterwards. A&M wanted it us to be present and focused on the Euphoria Morning tour and we were happy to do that. Chris really wanted to explore this concept of a solo record. It was very informing to us and we kept following our instincts to make it happen.
Cornell was very open about Euphoria Morning coming from a deep and vulnerable place. I always appreciated that because I felt that’s what a solo record should be. Even the press photos that accompany the record capture the mood – where it was this vibe of, “there’s a lot going on right now, and music is how I am going to express it.”
Exactly. Randee St. Nicholas took many of the photos. She’s a great friend who was connected to our lives. Living those seven months together – just the little things like having dinner at night went a long way. It wasn’t just you show up at the studio and see each other there and then everyone goes off and does their own thing. We became adjoined together in this world that was a part from the world. It was so comforting knowing that everyone was committed to making the best possible album. It would have been a totally different record if it had been produced in a studio with hired musicians. It was meant to be exactly how it was, which is so funny because we never imagined it would become the Euphoria Morning we know.
The lyrics are so poetic and potent. This record really allowed the lyrics to be illuminated.
Yeah, it is quite incredible. Chris always wrote such powerful lyrics – but that album especially. We’d have the music beds on songs like “Follow My Way” or “Pillow of Your Bones” and the melodies and lyrics Chris created from them were always so surprising. I remember when he first started singing over the “Follow My Way” riff, I almost fell off my chair. I said, “Who the hell thinks of something so awesome like that?” That was the real beauty of it – trusting each other with the vision. The friendship and the connection we were able to tune in made those moments possible. We weren’t forcing anything on Chris, but he was approving and guiding everything.
“Disappearing One” is a song that has stayed close to you. You’ve performed it a few times and helped write it, does that song have special place in your heart?
Yes. What’s really great about “Disappearing One” is that Matt Cameron played on it. We could relate it back to touring together. The arrangement on the record still sounds great. Of course, the lyric itself now has the very poignant feeling. The first time I performed it, Chris had just passed, and I did it off the cuff at a radio station in Chile. I could barely finish it. I played it live at one other show then Nikka Costa sang it with me at the tribute in January. It was amazing because she has this voice that totally connects to the R&B/gospel nature of the song. I was holding onto the Cigar box for dear life, getting so emotional. I could see Ben Shepherd watching from the side of the stage. When I came off stage, we had a good hug and cry. It was the first time we could really get together and allow the shock and pain of it to wash over us and face it. We saw each other at the service, but that was all shock. At the tribute, some time had passed, and the entire evening was so surreal.
It’s amazing to me, Euphoria Morning is a record I go to as a whole. Meaning, I don’t seek out a particular song, push play and go from there. I go to the entire record.
I agree, it’s so true. You don’t make a party tape that includes some of Euphoria Morning. The whole thing evolves as a dramatic story. A lot of Stevie Wonder and Beatles records I have to listen to like that, too. Chris had the ability – there are also some really beautiful moments in some of his other records, especially Higher Truth. It was especially nice for me to get to reconnect with him on his song “The Keeper” and then joining him on stage and on tour in South America in 2011. Going there with Chris gave me the opportunity to meet much of my family in Chile for the first time. I had no memory of the place having left at the age of one. So, being there with Chris was very special to me.
What are some of your favorite memories from that Euphoria Morning tour?
We had so many funny moments. We all rode everywhere together, there was no division. I loved all the driving and the endless discussion we’d have on the road. Chris had this fearless nature. One of the funniest moments was in Paris. We were in the hotel on the sixth floor. A bunch of us were hanging out in my room after the show and suddenly I hear a knock. It had this sound of glass, so I look to the window and Chris is literally outside the window. He climbed out of his window and walked on this 10-inch ledge around the building to our room and was asking to be let in. We open it, get him in and he asks, “How’s your mini bar doing?” He sits with us for a few minutes and then goes, “OK, thanks” and he goes back out the window. I was like, “Are you sure you don’t just want to walk down the hallway?” And he says, “No, I got this, I got this,” and then made his way to our drummer Greg Upchurch’s room. He had a real sense of humor and he could really climb things, he was so daring all the time.
Coming full circle here, at the 20th anniversary of Euphoria Morning, what does it mean to you now?
Aside from everything I’ve done with Natasha, it’s the singular most powerful musical experience that I ever had. It was like a dream. I’ve been a part of so many other great records, but Euphoria Morning is as close to a masterpiece as possible. It’s on another level. Not just because of the music itself but also because of the human connection. When I listen to it, not only does it take me back to a powerful, painful and nostalgic feeling, but it also hits me in such a loving way. I remember both Chris and Natasha as the two most important people in my life. They come back alive in those moments – they are almost eternally there. The bonding memory of the Euphoria Morning experience is something I strive to reach again in whatever situation I am in. Specifically, it was this egoless focus that we had. We were powerful and creative people, but the purpose was to serve the music. Sometimes that meant pushing for something and sometimes it meant giving in to something. There was never an argument about it, we always just agreed. When you feel a connection like that, it always stays with you.