"Music is like clay, you just shape it until it's shaped the way you want it to look." Alice Cooper may be specifically describing his recent efforts with hard-rock supergroup Hollywood Vampires, but this impactful sentiment easily applies to his incalculable impact on the look, sound and evolution of hard rock and heavy metal. Everyone from the Sex Pistols, KISS and the Misfits to Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and Ghost owe a debt to Cooper's pioneering creative vision.
Born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, Michigan, the singer and his original band formed in the late Sixties after relocating to Phoenix, Arizona, but they kept Cooper's hometown sound of filthy, fuzzy, untamable garage rock. By injecting a keen sense of macabre theatricality, the group swiftly individuated themselves from scene mainstays of the day. So much so, they even took the godfather of weird Frank Zappa by surprise when they famously showed up to audition for his new label Straight Records in full stage garb at 7 o'clock in the morning — after misunderstanding directions to arrive that evening.
Despite the mix-up, Zappa was impressed and asked his experimental girl group the GTOs to help the fledgling rockers push things even further and add some avant-garde flair to their wardrobe. Cooper was allegedly having a romance with Miss Christine of the group, who dressed the band "like full-size Barbie dolls" and left a lasting impact on their public image. Their wild new look, hard-partying reputation and one particularly gruesome incident — where the singer tossed a live chicken into a ravenous crowd that quickly ripped it to shreds — elevated the group's notoriety. Audiences grew and journalists took note of the "shock rock" act's horror-tinged, vaudevillian show. The rest is bloody guitars–and-guillotine history.
These days, Cooper has been sober for longer than most contemporary rock stars have been alive. After seeing countless party friends pay the piper with the price of their own lives, the frontman got clean 37 years ago. Today, he is a man of faith whose marriage to dancer and choreographer Sheryl Goddard has been going strong since 1976. To pay tribute to what he affectionately calls his "dead drunk friends," Cooper and his still-kicking colleagues including Johnny Depp, Joe Perry and a rotating cast of renowned musicians came together in 2015 for an album of mostly cover material under the name the Hollywood Vampires, an homage to Cooper's now-defunct (and mostly deceased) drinking group who gathered in dark Los Angeles bars so many years ago.
In June of this year, the Vampires unveiled Rise, the follow-up to their self-titled debut. They celebrated the release of their new collection of songs, this time mostly originals, with a special performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live that featured their cover of David Bowie's "Heroes" and the new song "I Want My Now." A few days after the record dropped, and started climbing rock charts across the world, we called up Cooper for a wide-ranging chat about his shock-rock legacy, collaborating with Johnny Depp, how he survived partying with notorious wild men like the Who's Keith Moon and actor John Belushi and much more.
HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES ARE NAMED AFTER A GROUP OF DRINKING BUDDIES YOU STARTED A LONG TIME AGO, MANY OF WHOM ARE GONE NOW. WHY HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO CONTINUE ON FOR SO LONG VERSUS THOSE WHO WEREN'T SO LUCKY?
There's some kind of security in Alice Cooper now. It used to be Alice Cooper was the scourge of rock & roll, and so I think when you survive it for 50 years and you keep doing hard rock, and you try to put out the best quality records, do the best quality shows … I think if you keep doing that, people will keep coming back. And you know, I've always said that I'll stop when they quit coming to see me. So far that hasn't happened.
We're getting ready to put a new show together — it's an entirely new production. It's like doing a Broadway show. We're going into Connecticut up to Foxwoods, and we've got 50 new things to look at and fit into the show to make it work.
This is kind of where the fun part is, getting into rehearsals and seeing what works. The whole thing is different with the Vampires. We were supposed to just be a bar band. The whole idea was just to go play bars. Johnny could play great, and Joe Perry wanted to play. None of us were going to quit our regular bands and Johnny wasn't going to quit doing movies, but it would be fun to go out and play bars to salute our dead drunk friends. It ended up our second show we did was Rock in Rio for 200,000 people and it took off from there.
The band clicked, and it was kind of like starting all over again. Aerosmith and Alice have been around forever and we're successful, and Johnny has certainly tasted success then all of the sudden you've got this new band and you're excited to start all over again.
SO IT WAS A FRESH START FOR YOU.
Yeah! It's kind of fun to write new music with the Vampires. I don't have to play the Alice Cooper character. I actually talk to the audience with the Vampires, whereas Alice Cooper would never! So it's different for me now but it's fun, and both bands are great bands. You know, my touring band with [guitarist] Nita Strauss and [drummer] Glen [Sobel] … unbelievable band, a really good band.
Then we go out with the other guys [the Vampires], and everybody in that band's an all-star, so yeah, it's kind of fun to be in two bands that are both really good bands.
DO YOU HAVE ANY CLASHING EGOS THAT HAPPEN WITH SO MANY FAMOUS PEOPLE IN THE BAND?
That is the craziest thing ... you've got all alpha males in the band: We've never had an argument. We have never had one argument. I've never heard anybody's voice raise at anybody else. I've never had anybody ever stomp out of a rehearsal or recording session. It's been nothing but laughs. When everything's working and everybody respects everybody, you just don't get that ego thing. It's great.
NOW, YOU'VE BEEN SOBER SINCE THE EIGHTIES. DID IT BOTHER YOU TO REACH BACK INTO A VERY DRUNKEN PART OF YOUR LIFE FOR INSPIRATION? DID THAT WORRY YOU AT ALL?
It's like another world, another time. I mean, I can't even remember what it was like drinking. That was 37 years ago, but at the time I couldn't imagine living without alcohol, you know? I mean, it was at the time when cocaine and alcohol was just an everyday part of your life. Everybody I knew, every band did it, so it didn't even seem wrong. It just seemed normal.
Now? I can't even imagine. I can't imagine doing anything like that, and I'm having more fun! I can remember what I'm doing. At 71, I'm healthier than I've ever been in my life. It's just weird to go out on tour with two different bands, and you're the only one that's not tired or sick.
DO THEY STILL PARTY PRETTY HARD?
Oh, no! It's a funny thing — we were recording with the Vampires. Here we are paying tribute to all of our dead drunk friends, right? All these guys that died at 27, all the guys that we used to loaded with. Everybody in the room at that point was totally sober. Johnny was sober, Joe was sober, I was sober, and we just started laughing. We said, "Wait a minute, everybody in this room is sober?" [Laughs]
NOW YOU'RE A LOT TAMER, BUT DO YOU HAVE ANY CRAZY STORIES FROM THE VAMPIRE CLUB DAYS THAT YOU HAVEN'T TOLD YET? ONES THAT WOULDN'T GET YOU IN TROUBLE, THAT IS.
Oh man! Well … I can remember one night, a long, long time ago, when everybody was doing everything you can imagine. [Comedian John] Belushi used to have a bodyguard that always used to walk to perimeter while the party was going on, and he used to wear the Chicago policeman's jacket.
At some point, somebody looked outside and yelled, "Cop!" I have never seen a rat disappear into the furniture … Into closets, into all these places, then all of the sudden, I'm the only one sitting in the room looking around going, "Where did everybody go?" Then somebody says, "Oh, it's Belushi's guy." I mean Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon myself, all the usual suspects, all the usual things that you shouldn't have that were extremely illegal at the time.
SO CRAZY STORIES ASIDE, LET'S TALK ABOUT THE NEW ALBUM. YOU'VE SAID FOR THE SONGWRITING YOU HANDLED, YOU WERE CONCERNED WITH NOT MAKING IT "ALICE-LIKE." WHAT DID YOU HAVE IN MIND, IF ANYTHING?
I think that you have that natural thing when you've done 27 albums and you've worked with Bob Ezrin and all the different producers, you know. You learn a lot about arrangement, and you learn a lot about where a song should go if it's gonna get on the radio.
I had to swallow all that and — it wasn't that I had to, it was actually something that was smart to do because if I would have done all that stuff to these songs, it would have sounded like an Alice Cooper album. Joe Perry would have done all this stuff, and it would have sounded like Aerosmith meets Alice Cooper, and it doesn't sound like any of that!
So what we did was purposely take our fingerprints off it, and Johnny was writing songs with Tommy [Henriksen], and here comes a song that's eight minutes long. Well, of course I would have taken it down to four minutes, but in this case, I went "No, let it go." It's creating its own sound. It's creating its own world. To me it was really exciting because it was doing all the things that I wouldn't have done. All of the sudden I'm singing these songs and at the end I'm going, "Hey Johnny, what's this about?" [laughs]
He wrote a lot of songs out of his diaries, you know. A lot of this stuff is very figurative, very metaphorical. I didn't really ask him what it's about, I just said "So you want to say this, this, this, and that? Yeah, okay." I might have said, "You know what, let me just write this next little B section here and it'll be cohesive to make that part and that part work together." And that's what that was like. "Sure, go ahead!"
There was never any kind of like, "No this song is written in cement and you can't change it." That's where all the cooperation came in, and usually when guys write songs, they don't want anything changed. When you walk in and you say, "This right here. I think we should modulate that," and they say okay — that's as heavy as it got. If it didn't work, we went back to it. That's what I liked about it. Music is like clay, you just shape it until it's shaped the way you want it to look.
I was very happy with the results of it and the fact that I didn't have the final say. I didn't want the final say. I kind of let that go and I really liked it because it was exciting.
OVERALL, IT SOUNDS LIKE A MORE COLLABORATIVE PROCESS FOR ALL OF YOU. DO YOU THINK THAT'S WHY THE VAMPIRES CHOSE TO PERFORM MORE ORIGINAL VERSUS COVERS THIS TIME AROUND?
The last one, that was all about the covers. That was the whole idea. We only had to write two songs to really explain the album, so we wrote "Raise the Dead," which was the first song telling everybody what we were doing. We were raising the dead, all the guys that had died. Then the other song was "Dead Drunk Friends," which was sort of like this guy in the middle of The Rainbow at four in the morning with nobody there except him and all the ghosts are there, and he's singing about that.
So that explained the album and then we go to do the Doors, McCartney came in, everybody came in! Once that was done, that project was done. Once we heard the two songs that we wrote, we kind of went, "Those are really good songs. Why don't we do the next one with all originals?" It was somewhere in the middle when Johnny said he wanted to do "Heroes." He says, "Okay it goes ..." and I said, "No, no no, you sing it." He says he doesn't sing, and I said, "You did Sweeney Todd!" He forgot he did Sweeney Todd, you know, which was an opera! So he sings it, he sings it great. It's a great version.
Joe wanted to do "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," Johnny Thunders' song. And I said, "Great idea, you sing it, though." So that way the whole band is involved in it, not just Alice singing everything. I love that idea that Johnny sings a couple songs, Joe sings a few.
YOU MENTIONED PAUL MCCARTNEY — I READ A FUNNY QUOTE FROM JOHNNY WHERE HE JOKES ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOU AND JOE WERE BOTH STARSTRUCK WHEN MCCARTNEY WAS IN THE STUDIO. DOES ANYONE ELSE STILL DO THAT TO YOU?
Well, here was the thing: I've known Paul for years and years, basically 35 years. I've been to his house, I know him socially, but in the studio with Paul McCartney, all of the sudden I'm 16 years old again. I'm in the studio with an actual Beatle, not just a Beatle — but the Beatle. Everybody in the studio, our jaws dropped when he came in and started playing. We were going to be on a record with Paul McCartney! That's something you just, if you were 16, if you would have told me when I was in my band in high school, I would have just passed out.
So like I said, Paul is a friend of mine, but in the studio with Paul it's a different thing. We got Jeff Beck in the studio on this album, and that was another one that's just been a friend forever, and yet being in the studio with Jeff Beck or him playing on your record is like, wow. You can't get any better than that. That was really exciting for us.
When we toured with the Stones, we did three or four shows with them, that was really cool because the Stones are really cool guys. They're just a band, you know, they treat you like a band. The Beatles were the nicest guys I ever met in my life, all of them. It seemed to me like the bigger they are, the nicer they were. Elvis was nice, Sinatra was nice, you know what I mean? At that point I went, "Man, the bigger you get, the nicer you get. This is great."
YOU MENTIONED SOME HISTORIC FIGURES THERE AND ALONG WITH THEM, SEVERAL OTHERS HAVE COME TO SEE YOU PERFORM OVER THE YEARS. SALVADOR DALI CAME TO SEE YOU AND DESCRIBED IT AS SURREALISM. GEORGE BURNS CALLED IT VAUDEVILLIAN. WHEN YOU LOOK BACK ON ALICE COOPER — THE CAREER, THE BAND, THE ACT — HOW DO YOU DISTILL IT DOWN? WHAT DOES IT REPRESENT TO YOU THESE DAYS?
We've always been a Detroit guitar rock band, but we were influenced by a lot of different things. We were influenced by horror movies. We were influenced by the Bowery Boys. We were influenced by West Side Story. We were influenced by a lot of things that don't go together, right? And yet you put it all together in Alice Cooper form, and it comes out this weird Vaudeville, you know, weird, strange … but it's always been guitar rock, with good melody.
I've always listened to Chuck Berry, and Chuck Berry can tell a story in three minutes — an entire story in three minutes. I always kind of wanted to do that, to be to tell an entire story, so I patterned a lot of my writing after Chuck Berry. So you've combined that with the Marx Brothers and Salvador Dali and these different things, and there's a little Bela Lugosi in there and West Side Story, and you get Alice Cooper.
A PERFECT DESCRIPTION. NOW, YOU'VE SAID YOU HAVE NO PLANS TO RETIRE AND WON'T STOP PLAYING UNTIL THEY STOP SHOWING UP, BUT DO YOU HAVE A FINAL ACT FOR ALICE COOPER IN MIND?
You know, this is one thing I tell young bands all the time. If I thought that I had written my best songs, I would stop. If I thought that I had done my best show already, I would stop. I always look at it as the next show is going to be the best show. The next time I go into the studio to write, I'm going to write my Sgt. Pepper's. As long as that desire exists, and as long as that idea exists, you should keep going. If you think that you've already done your best, then you should quit.