When former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell decided to join forces with three ex-members of Rage Against the Machine-guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk-some thought it was a bit odd.
Rage Against the Machine had essentially popularized the rap-rock genre, with Zach de la Rocha rapping hyper-political lyrics over Tom Morello's heavy-metal/funk guitar attack. Soundgarden, by contrast, had picked up where Led Zeppelin left off, combining heavy riff-rock with huge melodies. Cornell's lyrics were introspective and, at times, tumultuous. But they weren't overtly political.
Cornell, though, never had any doubts about Audioslave.
"Maybe you have to be a musician, but to me it made perfect sense," Cornell says. "They didn't want Rage Against the Machine. And they didn't want to turn me into a rapper.... So for me it was very simple. Here's a band that plays huge groove/riff-rock music. Take that and imagine Chris Cornell singing over it. It makes perfect sense, doesn't it?
"It makes perfect sense."
On a commercial level, there's little disputing Audioslave's success. The band's 2002 self-titled debut became a million-selling hit.
In other respects, however, the jury's still out on the band's prospects. Although Audioslave netted a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album, critical reaction to the CD was mixed. Some said the group's heavy rock sound hadn't gelled and the music lumbered as often as it soared.
Then there was speculation over whether the group could work on a business and personal level. Many of the questions arose from Audioslave's initial months as a band. The four band members clicked at first, holding a 19-day jam session that produced 21 songs, and the band quickly finished recording the first CD.
In March 2002, the group even announced plans to play Ozzfest that summer. But three days later, Cornell quit and the Ozzfest dates were canceled. The singer returned to the fold about six weeks later, but the event left many wondering just how solid the band was.
As it turns out, the temporary split was largely the result of a long-standing feud between the management companies of Cornell and the three former Rage members. In the end, Audioslave chose new management and, the labels that held rights to Cornell's music (Interscope) and Rage's music (Epic) worked out a deal where the two companies will take turns releasing Audioslave records.
As far as band chemistry goes, Cornell says he and his Audioslave bandmates were solid from the outset. He also credits Morello, Commerford and Wilk with helping him rebound from a difficult period when he developed a drinking problem and saw his first marriage fall apart.
"During the period when we made the first Audioslave record, I was going through a horrible personal crisis," he explains. "Before the record was even released, I went through rehab and my relationship ended. Then I stopped drinking and started re-focusing and wonderful things started happening. I ended up meeting someone, I think on the first Audioslave European tour in Paris, whom now I've known for two and a half years, and got married and we have a 6-month-old baby. Looking back from where I sit now, it's incredible the difference a couple of years makes."
Cornell said fans will hear the difference between the group's initial sound and what happens when musicians spend a few years together when Audioslave releases their second album, Out of Exile, on May 24. Lead single "Be Yourself" rocketed to the No. 1 slot on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart after first topping the Modern Rock chart.
Cornell says Out of Exile is more varied than the debut and relies a bit less on heavy guitar riffs. One particularly different song is the title track, which Cornell says "starts with a really huge riff and then slides into this verse that's like a Civil War ballad."
What's also apparent on the record, Cornell says, is how much Morello, Commerford and Wilk have grown away from the rap-rock sound of Rage Against the Machine.
"What they were known for was very specific," Cornell explains. "It was great, but it's very specific. They'd created a genre and they stayed well within it. And almost all of what they're doing in Audioslave now has nothing to do with that.
"Rage was a [long-running band]-it was over 10 years. And in a few short years, they've completely shed that. Not only have they shed that, now they're participating in songs that are completely different, very diverse and really great."Audioslave plays with Johnny Polansky at House of Blues, 9 p.m. on May 17. $33. 619-299-BLUE.