HM

Originally Published: 1994

Interview

After nearly three years in the rock 'n' roll wilderness, Alice Cooper is back with a new album, a new comic gook and a new god

Author: Paul Suter

Video shoots are always fairly tedious events to attend, but when an artist is based out of town - Alice lives in Arizona - it"s one of the few opportunities for LA-based press to get face-to-face interviews. And so Alice came to town for the day to shoot a clip for his latest single, Lost In America, and faced one video crew, four photographers and eight writers – a daunting prospect for anyone less professional than Alice.

Arriving early in the hope of beating everyone else to the draw, we were there to greet the man as he arrived shortly after 10am, but we had to defer to the video crew; a full 13 hours later we had beaten out temptation to split and finally got our chance to chat with The Coop.

He was exhausted after a long day of performing and I was suffering from brain numbing boredom. Totally drained after his first day of rock 'n' rolling in almost three years, he conceded from the depths of a comfortable leather armchair that it had actually been a great day.

"Videos are like albums," Alice says. "Often people waste time trying to make things perfect, and end up losing the feel of the song. Usually on a video you first three or four takes are the best ones, before the energy begins to flag, and this director was great because he got what he wanted and then moved on – band, band, bang.

"Rock 'n' roll needs to be spontaneous. I do enjoy videos – when they become important I was overjoyed because artists were forced to become theatrical. Whatever they'd thought before, they were going to have to realize that rock 'n' roll is showbiz, and start playing much more attention to visuals and image."

The theatrical aspect of rock 'n' roll is an essential part of Alice Cooper, and he's not so much a musician as an actor who makes music. The chance to watch him on a video set (for hours and hours and hours!) is quite revealing; with most performers it's like flicking a light switch at the end of a take, but instead Alice will ease himself out of a character over about 15 seconds before he's ready to listen to the director and prepare for another run.

"When you're heavily into what you're trying to say with a lyric, it's very hard to turn it off. If the lyrics are any good at all, then it has you emotionally involved," he says.

"For a long time the lyrics just didn't matter in rock 'n' roll, they were just more sounds to go with the guitar and the bass and the drums. Nowadays I think they're much more fundamental, and I made this song [Lost In America] so bare-bones Stooges that you just have to listen to the lyrics – they're the sole feature of the song with nothing to get in their way."

The song's an effective stab at the devolution of society, where in theory everything you could dream of is there for the taking, but the reality is painfully different.

"Everything's here for you – but this guy hasn't got a girl because he hasn't got a car, and he hasn't got a job because he hasn't got a car, and he's hasn't got an education because he hasn't got a gun and he'd not feel safe in school without one – what a statement that is – and he can't afford a gun without having a job, but he can't get a job without having an education . . . He's chasing his own tail, and he's got nothing.

"When you narrow it all down – and I know this will sound odd to you because it's Alice Cooper saying it – I think the problem is that we've put ourselves on the throne, we've made man into God, and because we're such slaves to our lusts we do a really poor job of being God. We'll give up everything for that girl, that drug, that money; and as far as I see it we need to take ourselves off the throne and put God back on it. Just look at the moral decay around us. Life has become so cheap – someone goes to steal a car, the guy gives it up, and they kill him anyway. There's a real lack of moral fibre today, and that's because we've replaced God with ourselves and we're doing a really poor job. It scares me."

The fertile mind of Alice Cooper has been an active observer of life, and at the risk of sounding predictable, his new album The Last Temptation has Alice back at his peak. It's a fully-fledged concept album, the first since Welcome To My Nightmare, and it's blessed with better songs and tougher, more convincing performances than we've heard in years. It's my first concept about in a long time, because I came up with a good story this time. I won't do a concept without a beginning and an end, a hero and a villain, and a believable situation; this one was either going to be a movie or an album. The basic theme is temptation – we all experience temptation every day.

"The Showman appears in a Mid-Western town and invites the kids into his theatre. And they're too scared – it's too weird and spooky looking - but one kid finally takes the dare. He doesn't have to play to get in, and The Showman shows him all these wonderful things, but as the song on the album says, Nothing's Free – somewhere in the fine print there's a price to pay.

"All these acts come on, which are represented by songs on the record – like Lost In America is Johnny Blunder, who's a kind of a Butt-head character. And this kid begins to realize all these character are actually dead, they're zombies – The Showman seems to have some very interesting things on offer but what he's actually selling is death. After all, nothing's free.

"The kid leaves the theatre, and beings to realize that what's going on is wrong, and decides to do battle: Unholy War. And he has this dream of redemption, which basically says that however badly you lead your life on earth you will always be taken back if you repent – the possibility of salvation is always there and is a way out. So he goes back to the theatre and burns it down: Cleansed By Fire. But at the very end he's cleaning his teeth and looking into the mirror and the face is there looking over his shoulder. No matter what you do to try and defeat it, temptation will always be there."

The album will be accompanied by three comic books depicting the album's story live. Alice's comic book collaborator is a man called Neil Gaiman, of Sandman fame.

"I wanted people to really be able to see what I had in mind, and short of 10 expensive videos or an actual movie, this was the way to do it. You need to see the tempter, The Showman – he's just like the old Alice, slick and glib and cool and funny.

"Neil did a spectacular job, he filled in all the holes in my storyline. I brought him in as soon as I had the basic ideas down, and he helped a great deal with the songs themselves by filling in the gaps before I actually wrote the songs."

Mercifully the songs themselves no longer bear the mark of Desmond Child and similar corrupters of the Alice legend. Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw may not be immediately credible in the minds of metal heads, but if they're good enough for Aerosmith who can complain? And the couple of songs written by Alice and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell are certainly worthy of note.

"Working with Chris was a lot of fun," Alice says. "We wrote Stolen Prayer together, and Unholy War is pretty much his – I just did a little surgery to make it fit the record."

So how does he react to the suggestion that it's his best album in years?

"I've been getting that reaction from everyone. Trash and Hey Stoopid were commercial successes, but this is a much better record. There was a real inspiration to write this record – I don't know where it came from, but I knew I just couldn't write another album of pointless rock 'n' roll songs for teenagers making out in the back of a car.

"Let's face it, Alice Cooper can't speak for the 15-year-old grunge kids. He can observe though and offer his thoughts – guys like Steve Tyler and Ozzy and myself are out of touch with those kids. Violence has become much more acceptable, and everyone's getting very dour."

(Kindly submitted from the collection of Steve McLennan.)