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Originally Published: November 2001
So the phone rang, "Hi, it's Sharon, Alice Cooper's publicist. Hey, Brian do you fancy doing an interview with him?"
Well never being one to turn down the opportunity to meet a genuine rock'n'roll legend I hastily agreed thinking I'd eventually end up some being in a queue of writers waiting for an audience at some Hilton Hotel type suite as Alice made one of those oh so predictable whistle stop promotional visits to town. But no, I was in for a surprise. "Yes, Brian, I'm trying to arrange for a few of you writers to meet with Alice next week at Cooperstown, can you arrange your own photographer as I don't think I can cover the cost of two flights."
Cooperstown? Flights? So this interview ain't happening at some hotel in London?
"No, no I'll arrange to fly you out to Phoenix and then you can meet Alice at Cooperstown, his own club. Do you fancy that?"
Hey, does a bear shit in the woods?
So how come I'm sat at my own table on a typically driech (that's dull, pissing with rain, for all you non-Scots) day surrounded with assorted pads of paper, promo info and a veritable spaghetti junction of cables between my phone and tape recorder talking to Alice instead of meeting him in the Arizona sunshine? - It's a long story but don't let that hold us back from hearing what he had to say. First, though, a little background to what he is all about these days.
In the past couple of years Alice Cooper has enjoyed something of a creative, critical and commercially successful renaissance since the release first of 'Brutal Planet' and its accompanying world tour, and now more recently with the release of 'Dragontown', which sees Alice return to themes and ideas first explored on its predecessor. This 'Brutal Planet' is a sordid world hell bent on self destruction where sex, death and money are the coda for life - a place, where like an anti-hero, Alice is our commentator, guide and ultimately the perpetrator to a vision of the world that's maybe not that far off from reality. Once again his co-conspirators in all of this are Bob Marlette and legendary producer Bob Ezrin, who apart from guiding the bulk of Alice Cooper's finest work has also been at the helm with the likes of Kiss, Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel. Marlette's background has seen involvement with Black Sabbath, Saliva and even Wilson Philips, and it is he who has created the musical battleground for Alices' story telling on both albums. 'Brutal Planet' set up the characters and environment for Alice to narrate this tale of moral destitution, decay and ultimate retribution and now on 'Dragontown' he takes things even further into an even darker netherworld and quite frankly is some of the best stuff he has written in years.
Alice says "The heart of 'Brutal Planet' is 'Dragontown', which is really a place of consequence. It's the place where the worst of the worst are. 'Dragontown' is full of life's pure failures and the decent they find themselves in." He goes on to explain "Everyone thinks there is a rock'n'roll heaven and all these wonderful guys are there - I don't think so - I picked out specific people that I was pretty sure weren't qualified for a rock'n'roll heaven. I think they are in another place and that place is 'Dragontown'." All of this is set against a musical backdrop that is as hard, driving and as contemporary as rock gets. Alice Cooper acknowledges his musical past but does not delve and wallow in it. Instead the sonic landscape is as brutal as its subject matter, and anyone who saw the band on their extensive touring throughout the past year or so will acknowledge that this is the best line-up Alice has put together since the seminal original Alice Cooper Band back in the seventies.
In an era of Marilyn Manson, Korn, Linkin Park, Papa Roach, Slipknot and an endless stream of corporate created rock, Alice continues to transcend generations, fads and fashions to remain truly exciting, relevant and vital. For more than three decades, even at the times that rock was about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit Alice Cooper was always there. From the slightly camp miming on TOTP all those years ago with 'Schools Out' which shone like a beacon from all the dreck of the day, through to all the 'we are not worthy' fawning in 'Wayne's World', Alice Cooper has always rocked with his mock-evil sneer and always well disguised tongue in cheek commentaries. Despite the vaudeville, almost comic book imagery, there is a whole lot more going on, so I decided to delve further.
Your main co-conspirator on 'Brutal Planet' and again on 'Dragontown' is Bob Marlette. How did you come to work together?
"Well, I heard about him from various sources like Eric Singer and my long time producer Bob Ezrin and when we met we kind of just clicked. It was important that he is a really great guitarist and a producer as well, because at the time I was really more interested to concentrate on the writing of the project. It was important that I could set up some boundaries around what we were doing and it's a lot easier to get the music together for an album if you know what the songs are going to be about and I could leave the production side of things 'til later."
Did you come up with the songs on both albums at the same time? Was 'Dragontown' always planned as a follow up?
"No, when I finished work on 'Brutal Planet' I was really pleased with the way it had turned out, but I sat back and thought the story was not finished - I could think of at least ten or eleven more things I wanted to say to finish it all up, so when I started to write the next album it just sort of turned into part two. So I didn't try to fight it and just let the idea run, I came up with the name 'Dragontown', I wanted it to be the worst part of 'Brutal Planet', like its capital. It's a whole lot deeper and the whole 'Dragontown' show will have a very different look, it will finish the story."
Let's talk more about some of the people we meet in 'Dragontown'. Who is the 'Triggerman' in the song that opens the album?
"He is a bit like the cigarette smoking man in the X-Files, the cancer man. He is the power behind the throne, he is the guy that pushes all the buttons that nobody ever knows about, no DNA, no identity. He's the guy that makes things happen but in my story he finally meets his match and ends up in 'Dragontown'."
But it is not all decent 'into the maelstrom' sort of stuff, you still manage to employ a fair bit of wit and black humour.
"If you are creating a sort of Dante's inferno or writing about a kind of parallel hell there still has to be some humour in it especially on tracks like 'Its Too Late', 'Disgraceland' and 'The Sentinel"'
Yes, I understand that some of the people you have inhabiting 'Dragontown' include, in one guise or another, John Lennon, Jim Morrison and even Elvis.
"As it was my invention I felt that after thirty years I was tired of hearing things like "he died and went to rock'n'roll heaven". I went 'I don't think so'. John Lennon went to rock'n'roll heaven?, or Jim Morrison?, or Keith (Moon)?, or Janis (Joplin)? or Elvis? No, I don't think so. So I decided to take two or three of these people and transform them in Dragontown - I did 'Its Too Late' in a Beatles style and 'Dragontown' I used a Doors influence and then 'Disgraceland' I did my Elvis. I did my own little impressions of them all. I've really got to explain this to all Elvis fans. I'm a big Elvis fan and I got to know him and consider him a friend of mine. He invited me over one night and we talked for a real long time. That would be back in about '72 when he looked real good, he was like the Elvis we all like to remember. When I saw how he ended up, saw that he was bloated and stoned and wasn't really the Elvis I knew. So when he died I don't think he died in a state of grace, he died in a state of disgrace, so I used the play on words between Graceland and 'Disgraceland' and it all kind of fitted in and I think he would see the sense of humour in this."
Who else do we get to meet in 'Dragontown'?
"Well, 'Sister Sara' is a bit like Nurse Rozetta from '78's 'From The Inside'. She took her vows and totally blows it, she just could not live up to what she was supposed to be and she became the total opposite, but still frail and very mortal. She gets introduced to `The Triggerman' and the `Fantasy Man' (a sort of U.S. chat show dream of a character in the song of the same name) and also 'The Sentinel' who is one of these guys that fancies himself as judge, jury and executioner and soon realises she is in good company."
So how long did it take you to get the whole continuing saga after 'Brutal Planet' together?
"'Dragontown' actually was one of those albums that was very simple to write. Way back when I wrote 'The Last Temptation' once I had the subject and knew what it was all about. Once it was like something wicked this way comes and the circus comes to town and the little boy is tempted to join it. It was easy to write, a bit like a short story. And then for six years I just did not have anything to write about. I really didn't find anything that was worth writing about and then I got the idea for 'Brutal Planet', a sort of social fiction about the future, not just America's future but the world's future and once I got the basic idea I looked around to see what was going on, what's wrong and that's what I wrote about."
Do feel any unease that some of the subject matter has turned out to be somewhat prophetic after the events of September 11th?
"That's a problem, but you have to remember it was two years ago when I started to tell this story and I'm glad the album came out long before what happened in New York City. I was hoping I'd never see this sort of thing happen and I was hoping that it never would have happened but 'Brutal Planet' did prophesise this sort of thing. Everybody knows that this sort of thing can raise its ugly head, we just didn't expect it to be this dramatic, so now we are living through it and it's probably going to be the defining moment of our lives and our generation."
Will this affect how you plan to portray 'Dragontown' onstage?
"You know, the one thing I really don't like is the idea of these guys changing my life. Everytime that something gets cancelled I feel like they win - every time that I have to change something because someone like Bin Laden does something, I feel like he wins a battle, so I'm not changing anything. The original idea of this was sound and I think people understand what I'm talking about, of course 'Dragontown' is a little less universal. 'Dragontown' is a little more Asian, it doesn't have a middle eastern look and I think that takes a little off the edge of what's going on over there."
Do you agree that at times like this that rock'n'roll can be an excellent uniting force, especially for the youth of the world?
"Well, I think that anyone with any voice at all is going to condemn what's going on over there. When you've even got many of the terrorists' own countries condemning their actions, you have a sort of world-wide consensus that this thing has to stop. I always thought that rock'n'roll has been youths' voice and it's very apparent with rap music, which is basically the black ghettos' music and it is their voice."
So what do you think of the state of rock'n'roll right now?
"Well, unfortunately I think it's extremely disposable, I think it's getting to a point now where bands can expect to be together for only two years, it's because the radio and the record companies have really shown that they are greedy. They want it fast, they want it now and they want what's next. They don't want to support what is already out there."
Why do you think your music has survived the trends and fashions of three decades?
"I think if you look at bands like Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Ozzy, Iggy Pop, Motorhead, what is the common denominator? We are all guitar driven rock'n'roll bands, and I think there is something very classic and timeless about that. If you strip down all of the trappings around an Alice Cooper album it's a guitar album, just guitar, drums, bass and a voice - rock'n'roll!! They all put their own twists on it but it all starts with a guitar riff and then everything else comes in, so I think that what we all do is the basis of what rock'n'roll is. Led Zeppelin, The Stones, they are all guitar rock bands, Iggy Pop just goes back to Detroit garage guitar rock."
Do you think there is a lack of talent to take over from rocks' elder statesmen?
"There are some bands I really like - The Vandals, I like Offspring. I like them most for their arrangements, their lyrics are really funny. I really like Rob Zombie a lot."
What about the leading nu-metal bands like Slipknot, Limp Bizkit and such like?
"I like some of them but the only thing I have a problem with, is that they get to the point where the energy is there, the production is there but I keep looking for the song. If you were to tell me to sing a Korn song or a Limp Bizkit song. I keep looking but I can't find the hook, there is no melody. I like these bands, they can make great records but when I think of a song by Led Zeppelin or The Stones I can sing you the whole song."
So what about Marilyn Manson? Many people feel he is just recycling your ideas and concepts?
"Well, I've never met him, but I think he has his own set of problems, if I was going to pick a choice of him or Rob Zombie, I'd pick Rob Zombie. I think Rob is actually a lot closer to what Alice Cooper is, both bands take a type of music, industrial rock, with a lot of techno and taped samples with a strong heavy 4/4 beat running right through it and with Rob I hear a lot of a sense of humour in there. I think Manson purposely leaves his audience out on the edge where as I like to give people a complete beginning, middle and ending."
You still have Bob Ezrin involved as executive producer, how does that relationship work with both you and Bob Marlette?
"Bob is the kind of guy I can rely on, when Marlette and I were sitting writing songs we would have our own view of the songs and it takes a lot of trust to hand them over to someone else and say "O.K. Is it right or is it wrong?" It's kind of like turning in a term paper to a professor and it's a case of working out where I can make an improvement on it. Normally I would not do that with just anybody because I could not trust anyone else to understand Alice Cooper, the only person on the planet I would trust to understand Alice Cooper is Bob Ezrin. He basically helped create Alice Cooper, so he is the one person who is going to understand who Alice Cooper is. I need Bob Ezrin to make it all work."
Do you ever have disputes?
"Very rarely. Usually it may be over a lyric, he will make suggestions as to where I should be going with it but we always end up agreeing."
The current touring band you use, I reckon is the best you've had since the original Alice Cooper Band - do you ever see a time where you will write and record with them as well?
"I have never ever gone out, since the original band, and said this is the Alice Cooper Band and I've given myself the luxury of surrounding myself with the right people. These guys that have right now actually did play on the new album, they didn't play on all of it but they did play on the parts we (Ezrin & Marlette) thought they would be strongest on; and as soon as they get it on stage they often take a song even further. I think in some cases they have even improved a song once they get it on stage."
Have you ever considered working with some material with them in the live environment and then go into the studios and record in a more organic fashion?
"I'm always open to material from them, I'm always encouraging them to come up with some songs and put it together. You have to understand these guys all have their own bands and are really writing for themselves and trying to get something going there as well, and I understand that. Ryan and Eric (guitarists in the touring band) have tons of material, but it's a little more Glam oriented, a bit more late sixties pop and I'm not really sure that that would fit with Alice Cooper."
I hear that you did play a one off reunion show with the surviving members of the original band.
"Yeah, we played at Cooperstown, which is my club here in town, and Mike came in and Dennis and Neal. We had not played together in twenty five years. We talked about doing two or three songs but we ended up playing for more than an hour, and it was just like the old days. I knew exactly where Dennis was going to be, I knew exactly what Neal's fills were going to be and I knew exactly how Mike was going to handle it. The only thing that was missing was that insane little guitar of Glen which was somewhere missing, but I'm sure he was there playing in spirit if no longer in person. It was great and it was fun for all of us but it was not a sign of a full scale reunion. The worst thing I could ever do would be for Alice to go backwards. At the time it was purely spontaneous and the guys were in town, and I said let's do it. I think a lot of people were not aware that there was no bad rift between us all when the original band split. There was never any kind of violent argument or anything like that. It was just a natural progression that they wanted to go and do something else and I wanted to continue with the rock'n'roll theatre."
You have been Alice Cooper for so long, where does Vincent Furnier stop and Alice begin or have they blurred into the one person?
"No, it's so simple, the moment I've got my costume on and I'll be standing backstage before the show and the second I step out on stage I become Alice - and I totally become Alice, every part of me but as soon as I come offstage and the show is over I'm me again."
What is the biggest difference between you now and then?
"Well for one thing the early Alice was a victim and a lot of that had to do with the alcohol. I always was the whipping boy, the world was against Alice, he was an outcast, a real odd man out and that was my attitude as well. When I became sober and when I started out with stuff like 'The Nightmare Returns' I had a whole different attitude. Alice was not a whipping boy any more, Alice had now become this arrogant villain and he had transformed himself into this total control freak and I liked that, it was really important to me."
Had this change in Alice's attitude been a way to exorcise your own personal inner demons?
"For sure, absolutely - I was not going to go out there weak - I was going to go out with the attitude of you are here - you are mine, and the audiences loved that. Alice had become a powerful character and that's the way I wanted him to stay."
Does it take long to design and plan the brand new 'Hydrogenating' stage show.
"Because I've got such great people around me who look after the nuts and bolts for this tour, it has really not taken that long. I've brought in people like Robb Ross who directed 'Beauty and the Beast' on Broadway and he is helping re-stage the whole show. I've helped with some of the design concepts, but when you are dealing with such experienced people, who have done it a million times before, they make it come together so easily. In the past all the pre-production could take three or four months, but with all their help it only takes a few weeks."
Do you still enjoy the physical rigours of touring? How do you maintain the fitness level?
"Let me tell you something, I'm in better shape now than I was twenty years ago. I can run a faster mile now, I can do a longer show than I ever did before. I don't know what it is, I've gotten some sort of second wind."
How much longer do you want or even see yourself doing this for? Do you ever think someone else will take on the role of being Alice?
"You know I don't really have an answer for that. It's really whenever I want to quit. I think I've created such a good and enduring character in Alice that maybe in fifty years or so someone might come along and play the part just like other classic characters like Dracula, Frankenstein or Jack The Ripper or something like that. Right now I'd rather perform than record, that's always been my first love, being on stage and getting an immediate reaction from the audience. Recording can be great and fun to do but you make a record and do a really great vocal and you sit there in the control room and three guys go "Yeah, that's really great", but you do that same song in front of an audience and 20,000 people going "Yeearrgghhh!!" The highpoint of my day is getting on stage and doing my show, it is also the hardest part of my day."
You are pretty high profile in other areas of life, you play golf with presidents. How do you reconcile that with the rock'n'roll life-style?
"I feel I define what rock'n'roll is for me. I've been around long enough not to let rock'n'roll define what I should be doing. If I decide I'm going to coach Little League Baseball or do a commercial for Marriot Hotels, I don't let rock'n'roll sit around and say, "you can't do that because you are Alice Cooper", I say what are you talking about, I can do anything I want because I am Alice Cooper!"
So you are not planning a long term move into politics?
"No, I hate politics, now of course politics are in everyone's face but I'll be very honest with you I really just hate it all and even the point of 'Brutal Planet' and 'Dragontown' was never political, it was always moral. We make moral choices, and moral choices mean we have to pay the consequences of our actions."
Rock'n'roll is a business that is full of sex, drugs and corruption how do reconcile with that?
"Well, I'll be honest, I used to sell sex, I sold it on the 'Trash' album, I don't particularly think it's a sellable object now. In my personal life I now believe it can be as destructive as it is pleasurable, on a moral level. The main point of 'Brutal Planet' and 'Dragontown' is a decay from excess - an excess that has just decayed a whole society, I suppose it is a warning. I am probably one of the strangest characters of all time, I can't think of anyone any more all-American-dad than me when I'm at home. And then I look at Alice on stage and I can't imagine anyone anymore complex. None of my kids want to be rock'n'roll stars, they all love different bands but none of them want to be rock'n'rollers. One wants to be a ballerina, one wants to be a hockey star and the other one is already acting, they've been around it so long, they like it but I think they reckon it's just something dad does and they want to do something different."
Another thing that has changed for you is that you no longer are dealing with a major multi-national label, does working with a smaller company give you more freedom?
"Oh, it's a hundred times better, you never get lost in the shuffle. When I was with Warner Brothers I was in a stable with over a hundred more acts - all great acts - so if you did not have a number one album you were not getting number one preference, while with a smaller label you are the focus for them all of the time. Let me tell you how things also changed - back in the days of 'Schools Out' and 'Billion Dollar Babies' even the president of the label, the vice president and the head of A&R would be down in the studios at 3am interested and enthusing about the record, really listening to the music and I really appreciated that. But after a while these record companies became so big, I could see it coming, that they just didn't care anymore, all they cared about was get the product out, sell it and get the money and that's when I decided I had to go with a smaller company. You never know who you are really working for with a major label now, so many labels are owned by companies with anything to do with music. They are only interested in the product and whether it will sell, it could be Coca Cola, McDonalds, everything is so corporate. All they and the radio stations, who they influence and control via advertising, are after is the next thing. They cannot sit around and understand and nurture new talent and what they already have. They are always worried somebody else is going to get the upper hand on them, so a band doesn't really get a chance, one strike and you are out. I'll tell you something really interesting. There is a name artist I know, but I'll not name, that sold five million of his last album and the record company told him that if he does not sell at least five million with his next he is out. If he only sells three million he is out and that is insane."
And on that striking comment on the state of rock'n'roll in 2001, I'll leave Alice for now. Whatever happens to the business as a whole it's hard to think of rock without an Alice Cooper, a maverick who has always said and done how it should be done. He is bringing his 'Dragontown' stage show to our shores next spring, and if it is half as good as this years' 'Brutal Planet' it will be one of the years must see gigs. Meantime you could do a lot worse than check out both the albums, or the video or DVD of the last tour. Alice Cooper is back and he plans to stick around for a while yet and I for one will be taking a trip to the Brutal Planet and Dragontown next time he is in town.