“I look at Alice as being the Moriarty of rock and roll.”
Hearing Alice Cooper talk about himself in the third person can be bewildering and disorienting at first. That’s the stuff relegated for screwy politicians, egomaniacal athletes, and eccentric celebrities. But as time passes, you start to remember you’re not actually talking to Alice. You’re talking to Vincent Furnier. He’s just far more aware of his split personalities.
The gritty, smoky voice carries through between the character and the man, laughing heartily at every joke and quick with a Jim Morrison anecdote. There are threads connecting the two, but there are defined boundaries as well — at least since he gave up booze and drugs and re-connected with Jesus. The “Moriarty of rock and roll” was created as an over-the-top villain for a time in which only the biggest, ballsiest characters could run the show; they needed that “swagger,” as he puts it, far more than relatability and fragility, makeup caked over faces and snakes curled around necks.
Alice Cooper is the animated, extreme take on the utter end of society’s spectrum, played for shock and laughs in equal measure. It’s fitting that a question would be followed by one of his own: “As far as Alice goes or in my personal life?” Alice Cooper is incredibly candid about where he ends and where the guy who can hit the golf course without being noticed begins. He’s an icon from a time in which we needed fascinating, larger-than-life characters who could transport you to an imaginary world in one fleeting moment, compared to today’s true-to-life people sharing every detail of their reality on social media every second. But Cooper tops both by having a frank, open conversation with both his split identities: He can give you the leather-clad paranormal instigator and share stories from the road.
Consequence of Sound spoke with Cooper about playing a character his whole life, Jim Morrison popping pills like Skittles, and being a preacher’s kid.
Alice Cooper: Li-or. “The raven nevermore, Lior!” Where are you calling from?
Al-ice! I just moved to Chicago, but if you can hear from my accent, I’m South African.
Wow, I used to live in Chicago! At Lake Point Tower right down on Navy Pier. I love Chicago. I lived there in ‘83, ‘84, and ‘85. My wife’s mom and dad were living in Oak Park. Our son was born in Oak Park hospital, too. Most people move to LA or New York, but the Midwest, man — that’s the real America right there.
Am I catching you slap bang in the middle of your new tour?
Yeah! The tour started in April, and it goes all the way through to December 6th, so it’s a lot of shows. We’re on five continents this year. I think we’re in Europe four times. But we go to Japan, South America, and Australia, all over the world and the shows never really change. We do a little bit of a different show when we go to the big metal festivals in Scandinavia and Germany. We’ll throw in a few more songs that are a little bit more hard rock and more metal.
Your style has always been a mix of horror movies, comedy, and vaudeville all married to hard rock, but as a theme, love still seems important to you. On your new album, Paranormal, during the track “Fallen in Love”, you say: “My baby’s love is hard/ My baby’s love is rough/ I used to be a stud/ Now I’m a powder puff.” Do you think much has changed?
[Laughs] We have always been a hard rock band. We’ve always been a guitar hard rock band, and that was one of the only things that I insisted on with Bob Ezrin: “Whatever this thing is going to be, we have to stick with what we are, and that is we’re a guitar-driven hard rock band.” So some of these songs are going to be that. You know when you look at the history of rock and roll, the only kind of music that transcends everything else is the kind of music that Aerosmith, and Alice, The Rolling Stones …. it’s all sort of that real middle-of-the-road rock and roll. And then we also put our own twists on it, you know? I knew I wanted this album to be different; I wanted to change the entire texture of the bottom of the songs, and Bob came up with the idea of bringing Larry Mullen of U2, and I said: “That’s brilliant let’s do that!” He doesn’t play like anybody else.
Then how the hell have you managed to keep finding inspiration after all these years? What do you do to keep that thrill and fire alive?
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten tired of rock and roll and the way that we do it. When you get onstage, you’ve got all the makeup on, you’ve got the show behind you, and a band like this, you cannot wait to get up there. Pete Townshend probably does the same thing, [Paul] McCartney, Mick Jagger. You can’t help from getting excited that the audience is really going to love the show, and not just that, but the Alice Cooper character is really fun to play, you know? Because he’s not just the lead singer; he’s this arrogant villain, and I allow myself to have a lot of fun playing Alice Cooper.
I think the character you’ve created, this “villain,” is undeniably one of the most enduring characters because you’ve been consistent with it. In your press release, you mention: “He’ll threaten to slit your throat and then slip on a banana peel.” How difficult is it to draw the line between being legitimately scary and legitimately funny without selling out one or the other?
And he doesn’t have an age, too; that’s the great thing about it. When you create a character that is an actual character, the deal about it is … Batman, how old is Batman? How old is the Joker? They’ve been around for 70 years, and they still don’t age. Alice is the same way. When Alice gets up onstage with a crutch and does “I’m Eighteen”, he’s 18 and the audience believes it! When Alice sings “School’s Out”, he’s singing it with all the joy that it would take for the last three minutes of school, for when summer vacation is coming. I don’t think I’ve ever lost the meaning of those songs on stage; as many times as I’ve done them, I still believe in those lyrics.
So by believing in those lyrics, how do you still relate to those feelings in the songs that you wrote when you were younger? Does becoming a character make it easier?
It really does. The best thing in the world is to have a character that you can either hide behind or somebody that is so not you and you can play him to the hilt. I mean, I can put the makeup on, I can put the uniform on, and even if I’ve got a headache, even if I’ve got the flu, once I hit that stage and the adrenaline hits, it is just pure fun from there.
I can only assume you’ve messed up or lost the character at some point. What have you learned from making the wrong decision with your character or taking it too far?
We designed Alice to have a sense of humor; I put my own limits on certain places where he would or wouldn’t go. You’d never hear Alice swear on stage. You’d never see any nudity on stage or upside down crosses. There’d be nothing blasphemous. Keeping Alice clever is really important. I look at Alice as being the Moriarty of rock and roll. I want him to be as clever as possible. Alice would much rather treat the audience like he’s the dominatrix and they’re the trick.
What exactly has been your trick? I’m sure keeping the character separate from your reality has helped you in your personal life, too.
There was a time when I did not know where Alice ended and I began. That was back when I was drinking and taking drugs. I honestly did not know when I was supposed to be Alice and when I was supposed to be me. When you think of it, my big brothers and big sisters, the people I used to drink with, all passed away early in their life. Jim Morrison tried to be Jim Morrison all the time, and in order to do that, he would be taking pills the way that you and I would eat Skittles. And that fuels that character, but I saw how you couldn’t live your character offstage.
So, when I got sober, I separated the two. I really look forward to playing that character onstage now, but I realized that if I wanted to go play golf or go to the movies, I didn’t have to put a snake around my neck and put my makeup on. I found a way to coexist with him. I don’t write lyrics for me; I write them for Alice Cooper. His point of view is what the audience is going to hear, not my point of view.
How is your state of mind when you’re not being the character of Alice Cooper?
The last thing I needed after the last tour was another project, but I fell right into the Hollywood Vampires thing and couldn’t help myself. [Laughs] I was doing this movie with Johnny Depp, Dark Shadows, and I knew that he was a great guitar player. So, we started talking about the original “Hollywood Vampires,” which was a drinking club — it was Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, myself, Keith Moon, and Micky Dolenz. We met at night and drank and drank and drank. I was telling Johnny that, and Johnny says, “It would be fun to put a band together that just played songs for all of our dead drunk friends.” And when we started thinking about who they were — T. Rex, Keith Moon, and all the guys like this — before I could say, “Let’s put a band together,” Joe Perry goes, “I’m in!” And Duff McKagan goes, “I’m in!” All of a sudden, I had a new project.
So, between Welcome 2 My Nightmare and this album, there was two years of me doing the Hollywood Vampires. Next thing you know we’re on tour and selling out every venue. Johnny is doing five movies this year, so he’ll have next year off, and Joe Perry is finishing up Aerosmith, and I’m finishing up this tour so that we can all go out again in 2018.
You’ve never really been apart from your character then?
The great thing is, I’m the lead singer in this band, Hollywood Vampires, and I actually talk to the audience because it’s not “The Alice Cooper Show.” And it’s fun to not have to play the Alice Cooper that I play in The Alice Cooper Show.
But you’re no stranger to taking on new characters, too. Talk to me about the character behind “Genuine American Girl” — “I’m a rock and roll queen in a hip-hop world.”
[Laughs] It started out as, “I want a genuine American girl,” just a pure song about a guy that wants the girl next door, not the hot chick at the bar. When I got into the writing of the lyrics, Neal Smith and I were sitting there, and I said, “What would Alice have said in 1972?” He said, “I wanna be a genuine American girl.” He would have said it for the shock value. Right? It just so happened that that’s a hot topic right now, the transgender thing. If we were going to make this song work, we definitely had to sing it as tongue in cheek, but the guy that’s singing it has to be a really macho character. He’s got to be not in the least bit feminine. That’s the way we played the song: just a real hard rock song, and this guy is very tough, and it just so happens that he wants to be a genuine American girl! That’s perfect Alice Cooper sense of humor right there. My favorite line in the song is, “I’m only 30 out of 50 shades of gray.”
What is the most important rule you live by? What are you guided by?
As far as Alice goes, or personal life?
I think personal life. We’ve spoken about Alice. I know what Alice does!
I could not be further away from Alice on everything, except that my wife and I have been married 41 years and she started in the show when she was 18! She was from Joffrey Ballet, an 18-year-old Prima Ballerina. We’re still married, and we couldn’t be happier married. We’ve never ever ever cheated on each other, but then both of us were PKs.
What is a PK?
Preacher’s kids! I always tell people that I was the modern-day prodigal son. I grew up in the church, went as far away as I could, and then came back. My wife and I are both Christian. People say, “Well, how does that work when you’re doing the Alice Cooper show?” And I say, “I’ve never seen Jesus say that you can’t be a rock star. But he did say, in your personal life, follow me.” I try to treat people the way he would treat people. And you’ve got to know who runs your life; as far as I’m concerned, he runs my life. Now that doesn’t mean we sit around on our knees all day praying. My wife and I are all over the place, but at the same time, we understand what we do believe. We understand what our faith is.
And it must be so important to have that as an anchor for the two of you.
It really is. Even when I’m talking to the big heavy metal bands, I say, “Well? What do you believe in?” And I never get an answer! They just say, “Whatever happens happens.” That’s not how I look at it. I have a purpose in this life, and I try to help people as much as I can, especially people that are on drugs and alcohol. Teenagers, a lot of teenagers. But I’m so thankful that God took away the alcohol from me. He took away the drugs. Thirty-five years, and I never fell back into it. I’m not just wandering through the cosmos. I know who I’m following and why.
Was there ever a memorable show that you’ve felt really connected to your faith? Was there a time when you knew things should have gone awful but you did the show anyway?
No, but I’m always very conscious about Alice’s boundaries. There are always places that I will allow Alice not to go. There are certain songs that I wrote early on in my career, where I look at the lyrics now and go, “I can’t sing that because I don’t believe it.” Or if I do that song, I change all the lyrics. If it’s a Beatles song, I can’t change the lyrics, but if it’s an Alice Cooper song, I can certainly change the lyrics.
You do love covers. Do some of these songs allow you to go to a place you can’t go in your own writing?
I’m very aware of being a lyrics writer and of lyrics. So if I do a Doors song, like “Break on Through to the Other Side”, I’ve got no problem with that. To me it’s innocuous. I’m very open. I would never pick a song that while I’m singing it, I go, “Wow, do I not believe in this?” I’m interpreting those words, and there are certain songs that I just go, “I can’t really sing that. I don’t want to represent this.”
But that’s part of your character and who you are as a person. You’re not going to go against that. You need to be honest with your art.
Exactly. And Alice respects that. The character respects what I believe in, so he doesn’t cross those lines. That’s really where the slippery slope is.
Is there a show that you went to when you were younger, or over the past few years, that totally blew your mind and filled that creative spark? Where the music resonated with your own?
I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to go on that stage, go up there 100 percent. Don’t just go up there and do your songs. So when I go to see bands that really knock me out, like the Foo Fighters, they never hold back; they give you everything they’ve got. Green Day is another band that gets up there and gives you everything they’ve got. I tell young bands, “Go see the Foo Fighters if you want a burst of energy.” If you want to see the guy that is the epitome of what rock is right now, go see Mick Jagger or go see Pete Townshend. Pete Townshend is still 20 years old. He gets up onstage and he’s still doing the windmill, and his knuckles are still bleeding. He believes in every single chord he is playing, and I really admire that.
I can imagine that touches on what you were talking about earlier — to commit to the character. Is there a show that you weren’t able to see or one that you have still yet to have seen live?
We were very lucky that we actually played with The Yardbirds. The Yardbirds were one of the great bands of all time. And the one band that I missed that I really considered to be the best musical band of all time, as far as live, was probably The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, probably the two best guitar players in one band that I’d ever heard. And I never really got to see them play because we were always in different circles. They might have been on the same festival as us, but on a different day. But that band, and the original Yardbirds with Jeff Beck, were un-be-lievable.
Is there anything that you hope to still accomplish?
You know, I saw an interview with Paul McCartney, and they asked him if he was ever going to retire. So he says, “I don’t think I’ve written my song yet.” I totally understood that. I don’t think I’ve written my best song yet either. I don’t think I’ve done my best shows yet. If you’re an artist and you don’t have that opinion, you should just quit. Salvador Dali, when he was on his deathbed was probably thinking, “I have not done my best painting yet.”
There’s always something cooking. A lot of people aren’t as confident with their work or are too confident to their detriment.
That’s the thing that really pushes me forward. Making this album, and promoting this album, but at the same time, I’m writing the next Vampires album. And on that album, I get to write with three other guys that are bringing in something totally different. So I don’t know how that’s going to twist my writing, and I’m looking forward to that.
You’re getting out of your comfort zone and not being stagnant in your own creativity. And you’ve also reunited with your old band on two of the songs on this album.
In all reality, when the band broke up in 1974, we’d never broken up with any bad blood. There were no lawsuits. We didn’t divorce; we separated. We all went in different directions, and we always called each other. So when this came along, I said, “I don’t want just one guy to play drums and one guy to play bass; I want the unit. I want the original band to write a song and play it in the studio live, and let’s see what it sounds like.” And it came out great.
What does it mean to be a “rock star” now?
I think that our generation was the last real rockstars — only because we committed to it. When you hit the stage, you have to have swagger, and you’ve got to let them know that you are a rock star. I think young bands have lost their sense of outlaw. Bands are very introspective now.
Is that because they know how much is going to be shared? Back in the day, we didn’t know what the musician had for lunch or saw them backstage getting ready?
There’s not a lot of mystery. We have such a glut of music right now. Anybody can make an album in their garage. Every once in awhile, someone shows up that’s really good, but you have to ask yourself, “Are they good on record, or are they good live?” Back in our day, we never saw a recording studio until after we had been a band and played four hours a night. You had to be a great band before you started to record. Now the bands record first and then learn how to go onstage. And by the time they hit the stage, they honestly don’t know what they’re doing. So it’s like backing into it. Bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, The Who, and Aerosmith all started out doing covers in bars, then we learned how to work with an audience, and then we recorded. Bands don’t really appreciate the idea that they are going to do this for the rest of their life; they are just going to do this because it’s fun right now.
How do you become more of an outlaw?
There are a few bands … there’s a band I like, The Struts. Some young bands right now have started to understand what the swagger is. Mick Jagger was the king of it. He taught all of us how to strut onstage, and if you’re going to be the lead singer, you better strut. You’re bigger than life, and that’s the whole thing. And that’s what I’m missing with young bands now: They don’t have that confidence to be a strutter.