Originally Published: July 2000
Kiss, Twisted Sister, WASP, Marilyn Manson - all these acts and coutless more owe a debt to Alice Cooper. He`s been mixing hard rock and theatrics for three decades now, influencing and entertaining sussessive generations with songs that stand up in their own right yet become simply irresistible when delievered Cooper-style. Michael HEatley talks to the great man.
The clergyman's son christened Vincent Damon Furnier back in 1948 in Detroit has cleverly avoided diluting his appeal with inferior material. His last album, 1997's `A Fistful Of Alice', reprised some of his finest songs with an all-star band recruited from the past and present ranks of Guns N'Roses (Slash), Van Halen (Sammy Hagar) and White Zombie (Rob Zombie). But it's now apparent Alice Cooper has cleverly been keeping his powder dry for a new millennium, and `Brutal Planet', his first studio album for six years, is set to add a new chapter to the legend.
First of all, let's clear up any confusion. When Alice Cooper was created, it referred to the band fronted by Vincent that included Mike Bruce (guitar, keyboards), Dennis Dunaway (bass), the late Glen Buxton (guitar) and Neal Smith (drums). But a parting of the ways came in late 1974 when Alice/Vincent sacked the group, relaunched himself as a solo act and kept the name. Oh, the name. Depending on who-you believe, it's either a 16th century witch, something that came through in a seance ... or possibly both!
Another key component of the initial team was producer Bob Ezrin, with whom Alice has recently been reunited for the first time in many years. His arrival on the scene in 1971 coincided with `Love It To Death', Cooper's first success in transferring his stage appeal to the studio. Since then, there's been UK Number 1 singles ('School's Out') and albums (`Billion Dollar Babies'), a late 1980s renaissance with `Poison' and `Trash'. Not that a man who consistently makes the UK Top 10 album chart needs a comeback ... he's never been away. Most recently we've seen him doing a stint with the British Rock Symphony alongside the likes of Roger Daltrey, Paul Young and Gary Brooker - and his show-stealing performance, reprised in Australia earlier this year, served notice that the man was itching to be back on our stages. Each successive generation seems less and less shockable, and this Playstation/Dreamcast generation may be hard nuts to crack. But you'd back Alice to do it if anyone can.
The last time we saw you was at the Albert Hall with Daltrey and company. You seemed to be enjoying it, beating time to `Another Brick In the Wall' with your riding crop.
That was fun. That was really fun, because those are guys you kinda grew up with all your life. Take Roger Daltrey - well, when I was in high school we were trying to imitate the Who, so when you're up on stage with him... And the guy who knocked me out was Gary Brooker from Procol Harum. What a voice that guy has! I call him the Admiral, he's like Admiral Brooker (laughs). And the encore, `School's Out', just blew the roof off the whole place! It was nice they included that in the show. Because there were all those classic British songs and they kind of threw in one of those rebellious American songs ... so (laughs) I appreciated it.
Has British rock in general been as big an influence on you as it appears?
Oh, absolutely. As I said, we were in high school at the perfect time for the British invasion. We were so tired of the Beach Boys and the Four Seasons, even though I still really dig those bands, y'know? There was no life in the American music scene at all. Then all of a sudden there was all these new bands - and these guys didn't just sing, they played their instruments too. That was new. That was the exact time all those bands hit, and I saw what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Which bands in particular did you like?
I loved - how could you not love - the Stones and the Kinks, the Who and Them? Every week there was two new bands that came out. But these were bands that were really good songs, songs that have held up over all these years, and that's what we learned from those bands - basically, that you can't do the theatrics without doing the songs first. You can't put the icing on the. cake without the cake.
So when bands today come to me and say, "Listen, this is what we do on stage," I say, "That sounds great - now let me hear the music." And they go, "Well we don't really have that much music." I tell them "You've got to have the music first. If you don't have songs like `School's Out' or `No More Mr Nice Guy' or `Poison' or `Elected'," I said , "then you can't really put the icing on it." So that's what we learned from the British bands, that you have to have the songs first. You really had to be a good band and write good songs.
You've always had great singles on your albums as well as the more challenging stuff that takes longer to get into - is that the same with this new album?
Yes, I think it really is. This is by far the heaviest album I've ever done. I'm working with Bob Marlette as producer and we're bringing Bob Ezrin into the fold as executive producer. We said what do we want Alice to do for the new Millennium, the two thousands? And I said you know what - I feel like doing a really high-energy, heavy Alice album and I have an idea for a theme. This idea of an apocalyptic view of the future. This place, `Brutal Planet', exists in Alice Cooper's psyche. It exists in Alice Cooper's imagination. And I wanted to paint this place as being an absolutely Godless world - a place where it's just desolate, it's horrific and do we really want to go there? That was the fun part of it, inventing this world. And, of course, when you're doing that, you're also picturing the stage show. I did that in a place called Distortions in Denver, the factory that built our stage show. It's a place you wouldn't want to be locked in at night! There's all these horrific prosthetic characters hanging from the roof (laughs). It'll be fun, but the idea is always to have fun with it. The album is heavy, there isn't any let-up anywhere, so the show should be like that too ...relentless!
Why have we waited so long for a new album?
The last Alice Cooper studio album was `The Last Temptation' (1994), and then we had the live album, the box set that came out... I hate to just put out albums. I'm at the point now in the career where I only want to put out an album if it's a special event, if it's something that's really worth putting out. There's such a glut of music out there - so many bands and so much music - that I would rather do two albums in 10 years and make them special than five albums and just keep flooding the market with Alice Cooper songs. So when you do an album like this you do a show to back it up and you run the show for two or three years - that way you really get a good run out of it.
How does the material come together these days?
I wrote all the songs with Bob Marlette, basically - and he's a great guitar player. He produced some Black Sabbath things, a lot of the newer acts; he's got a band called Sinistar coming out who are going to be pretty interesting. This guy's been around for a long time, he's got a real sensitivity to what's going on now sonically. So he played guitar on a lot of the stuff, we wrote all the music together, Bob Ezrin oversaw it, and we just went in and knocked it out. I'm just absolutely deliriously happy with the product.
Who else is involved?
I had Eric Singer on drums, Bob played a lot of the bass himself, Ryan Roxie from my band played some guitar, as did a guy named China and one of Rob Zombie's friends, Phil X.
Is there any album in the past that this one has any parallels with or is it completely in its own field?
I would say it's in its own place. It's very thematic, this place we created called Brutal Planet, and it's portraying a lot of characters. Some of the horror that is on this album is stuff that has happened recently and stuff that is going on now - it's not even futuristic. There's so much violence in the world now, insane violence that is coming out of nowhere. it's like you get shot now for beeping your horn. It used to be someone'd just flip you the finger, now you get shot' (Laughs)
It must be difficult for you because back in the '70s decapitating dolls was shocking. Every generation expects something more shocking still.
That's exactly it, yeah!
You didn't tour `The Last Temptation' because you didn't want to take that onto a stage in its entirety, so how do you reconcile shock value with not going too far?
Well, the excerpt I did do out of `The Last Temptation' revolved round the character of the Showmaster. He would come out, we had this big pulpit up there and he would do `Nothing's Free': it would be like a top hat, the pulpit and things like that. `Cleansed By Fire' was very effective, the audience loved it because it was a new dimension for Alice, a new character. It was the only time in the show where the audience just stood there and watched `cos this character was, purely theatrical.
This show is going to be like `Welcome To My Nightmare', it's going to have much more production than what we've done in a long time. So I think we're going back to the boards when it comes to doing our theatrics because now the subject demands it. This show is going to demand more than the others.
You've been a hit with so many generations, you've got as many young fans as older ones. Do you feel when you appeal to these people that you're competing for their attention with people like Marilyn Manson that have taken a leaf out of your book?
Oh yeah, sure. And I've always said if the day ever comes along that we don't think we can blow any band off stage, then we shouldn't be there. I look at it very competitively. When I go on stage, I'm friends with all these people but my idea is never go up on stage if you don't think you can blow all these people off. So that's maybe why I don't get old and fat and stupid and slow (laughs).
How do you cope with the physical demands of a two to three-hour rock show with all the trimmings?
I'm in better shape now than I was 20 years ago. When I get up there, I don't have any thought of how old Alice Cooper is. I think more about "Am I physically able to do this show?" And I answer "Yes, absolutely!" There's nothing standing in my way at all physically, to stop me doing the show as good as I've ever done it in my life. Until that happens ... if I ever get to a point where I just can't do it, physically, then I will probably never do it again, `cos I would hate to do half a show.
Are you into working out?
Oh yeah, I used to be a miler, a two-miler. Two months before a tour I'll go back to that workout where I run a mile, two miles, 10 miles and really get back into shape because this is going to be a very physical show. I'm looking at the set list and I'm going "Oh boy, this is gonna be a tough one!'
Which studio did you record `Brutal Planet' in?
We did the basic tracks at A&M, and then we did all of the other stuff at Marlette's house - he has a studio in his house and we did all the vocals there. It's in LA, in the Valley. Things are getting so easy to do now, on computer and digital and everything. I mean, this is the first time I've done an album where there's no tape involved. (laughs) I kept saying things like, "We'll go back into the tape" and he says "there is no tape. Your album is floating about in innerspace right now cyberspace." So I said "I don't want my album floating around out there - get it back!"
You're clearly at home on stage, that's where you come alive, but do you find the studio a different kid of challenge?
Well it is because I know whatever I do in the studio I'm gonna have to do on stage so I don't try to get to the point where it's so complicated it's impossible to do. I know if it's a really difficult vocal I realise this is how it's gonna have to happen on stage. There are times when you can keep putting vocals and vocals and vocals and then you realise you could never do this live.
It's a bit like Queen, isn't it?
Yeah, except for the fact that they were so good! Freddie (Mercury) could only sing one voice but he was doing lots of those vocals, you know ... but like you said I really have to think when I'm writing is this a stage song and how far can I go in the studio - am I going to be able to duplicate this?
How long did it take to record the new album?
As far as writing and recording goes, it took four months. I like to work quick, I hate to be laboured. When we were doing `The Last Temptation', we wrote the album, went in the studio, did the tracks and did the vocals in the same time it took for Metallica to get the drum sound on their album! One of their roadies, the drum tech, came in and said well we just got the drum sound. I said well how long did that take, he said three months and I said hey wait a minute, we just did a whole album in that time!
I think some people get really carried away in the studio. If a song isn't a good song, you can spend a year trying to make that song a great song and it's not going to make it any better. I think you can also get like that technically. You can get so technical on guitar sounds and keyboard sounds that you're the only person that you're entertaining. The people out there can't tell the difference.
You've got to keep the perspective.
Yeah! I like to work fast, loose and effective. I used to love the way the Stones recorded. When you heard a Rolling Stones song you could really tell it was them. You could hear Charlie Watts dropping his sticks every once in a while. I liked that!
You'll be touring Britain in July - looking forward to it?
Yeah! We're starting in Sweden and go up through Russia and through Germany and ending up the tour this time in England. London's like my second home. I know London better than I know New York City (laughs).
The cult film A Clockwork Orange has reappeared in the cinema here after Stanley Kubrick's death...
(Interrupting) Did you notice all the Alice-isms in that Alex character? They had the make-up on the eyes, they had the walking stick, the cup, you know, the snake in his drawer - it had a lot of little Alice things in there.
Looking back on three decades of recording, is there any album you'd recommend to a newcomer trying to get into the Alice Cooper phenomenon?
One Alice album to represent all of them? I would say `Love It To Death'. That would be that was our first real Alice album and it had things on there... If you were going to say what song describes Alice the most I would say `The Ballad Of Dwight Fry' is the definitive Alice song. I think that captures the theatre of it, and the Alice attitude, tone of voice, everything like that. So that was on that album, and there was a lot of good rock'n'roll there also.
Is there, conversely, an album that you would like to assign to the dumper or do differently?
I can think of three albums that I wrote some great songs on but I don't remember recording or touring - it was my blackout period! I'm talking about `Special Forces' (1981), `Zipper Catches Skin' (1982) and `Dada' (1983). Those are albums where I go back and listen to the songs and go 'These songs were great!' I wish we'd spent more time in the studio producing them, but at that time I swear I don't remember recording any of them. (Laughs) Might have been something I drank...
You've done a good few film cameos over the years - Diary Of A Housewife, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Roadie, Prince Of Darkness and Freddie's Dead: The Final Nightmare - but maybe the one that won you most new fans was 1992's Wayne's World.
Sure! We were a new band to this whole last generation because of that. It was kinda interesting that I'd have kids running up to me at airports and places and going Hey, you're that guy from Wayne's World!
Is it true you indirectly helped get Aerosmith back together by trying to steal guitarist Joe Perry?
Yeah! What happened was that I got straight and the Toxic Twins were still messing around with everything. I showed up at one of their recording sessions, unannounced, and they told me later on, they even said in the press, "We were so embarrassed to be so screwed up in front of Alice that the next day we decided to get straight!" That's when they started straightening out. And yeah, I did try to steal Joe Perry! Aerosmith weren't doing anything, they were kind of disintegrating. I was coming out of rehab and he was, too, and I said maybe this is a good pair, me and Joe.
Well, you may not have Joe in the band but we're still very much looking forward to seeing you back here in Britain with `Brutal Planet' and the new show. It'll be fun, believe me! I can tell already because we've had such fun putting it together.