20 Years Ago: Audioslave Arrives With Powerhouse First Album
The world was introduced to rock’s next powerhouse in late 2002, when Audioslave released their self-titled debut album.
The band started coming together two years earlier, following singer Zack de la Rocha’s split from Rage Against the Machine. The other members still wanted to make music but were unsure of how to proceed. “Tim [Commerford] and Brad [Wilk] and I knew that we wanted to play together,” guitarist Tom Morello told the Tuna on Toast With Stryker podcast in 2021. “And there were some interesting offers from our record company. ‘OK, we’ve got a great idea. You should be so-and-so’s backup band.”
Even though they were dispirited by the suggestions from the label, an idea from producer Rick Rubin caught their attention.
“I think the first day Rick hit us up with Cornell, we were at his house and we all listened to [the Soundgarden song] ‘Slaves and Bulldozers’ and we discussed how Cornell could just do anything,” Commerford later told Artist Waves.
Morello and Rubin agreed to visit Cornell at his home in Ojai, a scenic, secluded city located about two hours north of Los Angeles. Once the duo arrived at Cornell’s mansion, the meeting got off to an inauspicious start.
Watch Audioslave's 'Cochise' Video
“The super-tall front doors, they open like Addams Family-style, like nobody opening the doors,” Morello told Tuna on Toast, “and out walks Chris – 6 feet 3 inches, lanky of frame and dark of decorum. And he starts loping slowly down the stairs, and Rick turns to me and goes, ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here! Our souls are at stake.’”
Morello, however, was not so easily spooked. After a positive introduction and discussion, Cornell agreed to join the rest of the band in Los Angeles to jam. The expectation for all involved: Let’s see what happens.
“We’re gonna jam with Chris Cornell!” Commerford recalled thinking. “That in itself made my hair stand up.”
“I got there and figured, I’m gonna know within 10 minutes [if this will work],” Cornell noted of that first session. “And within 10 minutes I knew that it was gonna be great.”
The chemistry among the musicians was instant. Cornell’s powerful, emotive voice proved to be a perfect match for the bombastic onslaught of the Rage alumni’s music. The first song they wrote together, “Light My Way,” set the stage for what would come next.
Listen to Audioslave's 'Light My Way'
“I remember being a little nervous initially," Commerford told Artist Waves. "We had been playing with Zack for so many years and then here’s another guy. It was a little nerve-racking to be playing with another singer who I didn’t know. I had met Chris a couple of times, but I didn’t really know him at all. At that time, he wasn’t exactly at his best. It was a bit uncomfortable at first, but we wrote ‘Light My Way’ during that first day, and it ends up being on our first record. We left there that day thinking, 'We did it. This is cool. We wrote a song and it sounds good.' That was it. That little fire ignited the whole thing. I think that’s how the best music works. You’re uncomfortable until you write a song that you like and that inspires you to write more.”
With the musical ice officially broken, song ideas quickly flowed out of the group.
“We wrote about 21 songs in 19 days. And it was the most fertile, creative period in our careers,” Morello explained, though he admitted he couldn’t always gauge Cornell’s reaction to the group’s ideas. “Chris would kinda sit there and be looking at the ground [while they played]. And at first, we’d be like, ‘What’s he doing?’ And then he would stand at the microphone and sing the song.”
Listen to Audioslave's 'I Am the Highway'
Across 14 tracks, Audioslave delivered moments of aggression, poignancy and pure exhilaration. Album opener “Cochise” would be the lead single, an emphatic, arena-shaking introduction to the band. “Show Me How to Live” offered some of the album’s heaviest riffs, while “I Am the Highway” went another direction, with Cornell’s soaring, vulnerable vocals displaying some fragility.
Still, the stirring “Like a Stone” was arguably the album’s strongest track – even if Commerford admitted to being initially confused by Cornell’s lyrics.
“He’s a poet. And he fooled me with a lot of the songs. A song like ‘Like a Stone,’ I thought it was a love song,” Commerford argued. “The chorus is ‘I’ll wait for you there, like a stone, I’ll wait for you there alone.’ And I was like, ‘Yo, bro. What are you waiting for?’ And he’s like, ‘Waiting to die.’ And I just went, ‘Oh, OK. That changes everything.’ I went back and looked at the song and I got kinda saddened by what he’s singing about. It’s like a guy waiting alone in a house of death and all his friends are dying and he’s just waiting there. And I’m picturing this man in a rocking chair waiting to die. It just changed everything for me.”
Watch Audioslave's 'Like a Stone' Video
Released in November 2002, Audioslave eventually sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S. “Like a Stone” became the band’s most commercially successful track, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s rock and alternative charts, peaking at No. 31 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earning the group a Grammy nomination.
Still, beyond sales numbers and accolades, Audioslave proved that the band was unequivocally not Soundgarden or Rage Against the Machine. Instead, it was a living, breathing beat, bigger than the sum of its already-famous parts.
“I see Audioslave as more classic rock, singer, chord-progression type of music. Things like that, we never really did with Rage,” Commerford told Artist Waves. “I think back on it and I love Rage, I love the way it feels, and then Audioslave happens and it was so different. That’s the thing that I am most proud of. We didn’t just come back and make a bunch of riff rock and put Cornell’s vocal on it. We did something genuinely different.”
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