On May 18, 2017, Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell tragically took his own life aged 52. When news began filtering through of Chris’ passing, Metal Hammer began working on a special feature to honour the beloved frontman, reaching out to many of his friends and peers to pay tribute to a truly generational talent.
One of those friends was Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington – a man who looked up to Chris, had toured with him, and who had sung live with him at numerous shows prior to his passing. Chester had even been invited to sing at Chris’s funeral service at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on May 26, 2017, and it was only one week later that he spoke to Hammer about his memories of the Soundgarden man and their close friendship. Though it was clearly hard for him to talk about, Chester was gracious, generous with his time and thanked us for “taking the time to write a nice piece on someone who’s contributed so much to so many people’s lives”.
Devastatingly, Chester would take his own life just two months later – another loss felt keenly by the rock and metal community, and one that inspired a similar outpouring of grief and love as the loss of Chris. It gave this interview – his final one given to Metal Hammer before his passing – an elevated emotional significance, and on what would have been the Linkin Park frontman’s 47th birthday, it remains a compelling, heartwarming read.
First of all, could you talk us through how you and Chris met?
Chester Bennington: “We’d done a tour in the US called Projekt Revolution, which was a semi-annual festival that Linkin Park used to put on. And we’d bring in tons of different acts, and Chris Cornell was on one of our tours [in 2008]. I think this was when we were touring [third album] Minutes To Midnight. Anyway, we met then. We got along really well right away.
“I grew up listening to Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Nirvana. I don’t think any music scene influenced me as much as the scene that came out of Seattle. There was so much great music that came out of Seattle at that time. So it was really cool for me to be out there with one of my heroes, and we got along really well. Vicky [Cornell] and my wife, Talinda – they became best friends right away. Every day they’d be hanging out, and we got really close over that tour. Our friendship really grew during that time.”
How did it develop from there? It sounds like it became more than just a touring buddies thing quite quickly
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but sometimes you meet somebody and it’s like you’ve known them forever. And that was really the case between our families. After that tour, we stayed in touch and that developed into Chris and Vicky asking me to be the godfather of their son, Christopher. One of my favourite memories of our friendship was the baptism and the christening and taking on that promise to the family. That was really great. Whenever they were in town we would try to connect – sometimes it was difficult because we’re all so busy. Chris and I were similar in many ways in that we had a lot of dear friends but we didn’t necessarily see them all the time, because our personal lives are so busy, and our dedication to our families is so strong.”
I guess the fact that your families came together so quickly, not just you and Chris personally, made that easier?
“Yeah, I think if it was just me and Chris talking, hanging out, you know, we would be good acquaintances. But the friendship between our wives, you add that into the mix and things escalate a little bit more! Ha ha ha! In terms of closeness, in terms of intimacy, it was really quite special. Our friendship grew beyond just respecting each other for what we do musically.”
How would you describe what Chris was like offstage?
“Chris was a great father, really dedicated to his family, loved his kids more than anything. Really quiet. When you got him alone, he was really talkative. Get him into an intimate setting and a lot of personality comes out. Outside of that, pretty quiet and reserved. Really soft-spoken and very gentle.”
As someone who grew up as a fan of his music, I guess you must have had a strong perception of Chris. How was he compared to how you’d imagined him before you started spending time together?
“Luckily, my experiences have been more positive than negative, but I’ve had the opportunity to perform with a lot of the people that I really admired growing up, and who had a lot of influence on me. And 90% of the time it’s been really wonderful, and friendships have developed. The other 10% of the time it doesn’t go so well and you kinda go, ‘Man, I wish I never met that person!’ Ha ha ha! It ruins the whole thing! For me, at least. Like, ‘Oh, man. I met that guy from that band I love and he was kind of a douche. I wish I’d never met him so I could still listen to the music.’
“So meeting Chris was really… it’s not like everybody gets the opportunity to do those things. And that’s probably what I’ve enjoyed the most in the success of Linkin Park is being able to go on tour with a lot of these guys. I do a lot of all-star band stuff; I’ve played gigs with Alice in Chains, I’ve done shows with Jane’s Addiction, I’ve done shows with Stone Temple Pilots, I’ve done shows with Chris Cornell. I’ve had the opportunity to play with my favourite band, Metallica. It’s just been an honour. And so Chris was definitely a highlight. And in terms of his ability to perform, the guy is in the top three male vocalists of all time. Up there with Jeff Buckley and Jimmy Gnecco from Ours.”
What do you think was so unique about Chris as a performer?
“Obviously his vocal range is incredible. The sheer power. But I think it’s his songwriting that really stands out – the time signatures he uses, the chord progressions. It’s a delicate balance to get technical and smart with the way you play. Especially with Soundgarden – their rhythm section was incredible. The progressions that they played were really complicated, but they had a groove. And I think that’s something that’s super, super difficult to pull off.”
And as a performer, did you take anything from him from touring together and getting to see him play every night?
“When you watch greatness, you don’t need to be convinced. You just watch and go, ‘Wow.’ I’m getting goosebumps now just thinking about it. And so when you see someone who is truly talented and gifted do what they do, and love doing it, it’s so special. When we were touring on that Projekt Revolution tour, I got to go out and sing [Temple Of The Dog’s] Hunger Strike with Chris. And Eddie Vedder is a huge influence on me too, and that was one of my favourite songs. I loved hearing those two guys do that song, so when he asked me to do it I said, ‘OK, I’ll come out and sing Eddie’s parts.’ He’s like, ‘Nah man, you’re gonna hit the high ones.’ I was like, ‘Crap!’ Ha ha ha! ‘Oh, no!’
“There are two times I’ve been super-nervous about singing with someone. One was with Paul McCartney during the Grammys, and I had to sing high harmonies on Yesterday. You can’t really screw that up! And then doing Hunger Strike with Chris, and I had to hit the really high parts. The best compliment I ever got was from Chris. After we did it, he laughed and said, ‘Dude – you’re not supposed to be able to do that, man! I made you sing that on purpose so you wouldn’t do it as well!’ So that was a huge compliment to me. It’s kinda funny but my wife would always tease me because when Chris and I would do that song, we would always stare at each other. She’d be like, ‘Look at you guys, staring at each other onstage all night!’ That was just because of my admiration for him as a person and as a performer, and the friendship we were developing. It was just really special, it was a special time.”
What’s your fondest memory of Chris?
“Definitely the times we had just hanging out – which were very few and far between. Sitting by the pool with the kids, just kinda talking. Obviously, the christening of his son, Christopher, and being invited into the family. That was really special.”
You sang at Chris’s funeral. How did that come about? Were you asked to do that, or was it something that you put yourself forward to be involved in?
“I’m not sure exactly how the idea came up, I was just asked to sing. There was talk of maybe 10 people speaking, and it came up that maybe it might be good for someone to come in and do something musical to split up the eulogies. And so I was asked to sing, and of course I knew it would be tough. I wanted to make sure it was tasteful, and it was the right song. But Vicky wanted me to do it, so I did it. It was really up to her. She obviously said yes, but I didn’t ask – I was asked to perform. I’m not sure who brought up the idea.
“So I just prayed on it a little bit. I said, ‘Chris – I know you’re up there, and I wanna make this special. I want it to be the right song. Put one in my head, give me the little tingly feeling. Give me something, y’know?’ And I knew from our conversations that he’d been friends with Jeff Buckley and they were close, so I felt that Hallelujah would be a good song. It’s my favourite song of all time – I think it’s the best song that’s ever been written – and of all the versions that have been done, Jeff Buckley’s is my favourite. So that was a nice tie, you know, somebody that Chris was close to. Another one of my favourite vocalists. And so I did that song, and I spoke with Lily, his daughter, and apparently it was something they used to sing together. Lily and [Chris’s other daughter] Toni and Chris would sing together. I didn’t know that until after I’d performed it, but it turned out to be a very special moment. I’m just really honoured that I was able to participate in a positive way.”
It’s a wonderful song, but it’s so heart- breaking. We can only imagine what it must’ve been like to sing a song like that at such a sensitive occasion.
“It was tough. I believe everything is random in this universe, but that there are no accidents. That’s what I believe. We were set to play Jimmy Kimmel a few days beforehand, and we switched things up. We were going to play Heavy on Jimmy Kimmel that night, but Chris had just passed so we felt like dedicating One More Light to him would be appropriate. I got to sing through that a few times, break down, cry a little bit, pull myself together. And I got to run through that experience a little bit, so I felt like that prepared me for the funeral. So I was able to keep it together pretty well, but it was tough.”
What do you think Chris’s legacy will be?
“His legacy are his children and his wife. His family will be his legacy. I think, musically, he stands without question as being one of the greatest influences of our time, from one of the greatest bands of all time. His contribution to music is unrivalled. Obviously there’s tons of great musicians who contribute to the history of music, but I think Soundgarden in particular – as well as Chris on his own – will be recognised as being among the greats. In terms of his music, I think that’s undeniable. In terms of him as a person, who he was as a father, as a husband, family man, friend – he was a great person, and a good person. And I think his kids will grow up to do special things with their lives.