Turns out that Alice Cooper is a very nice guy. In fact, were it not for a five decades-spanning career complete with Grammy nominations, hit records, sold-out tours and the infamous macabre theatrics of his stageshows, you might mistake the 69-year-old singer for just a regular guy with a razor sharp wit and sense of humor. Ahead of this week’s release of what will be his 27th album, Paranormal, Cooper’s excitement isn’t put on, and he doesn’t engage in the typical old-school rock vet discourse where he’s “just glad to still be here.”
Beginning in the ‘70s, Cooper fully embraced the weird and unpredictable even outside the musical spectrum, becoming close friends with the likes of Groucho Marx and Salvador Dali and taking on anti-characteristic roles like a bellboy in what became Mae West’s final film. By the time the ‘80s rolled around, Alice Cooper was already well-established as the Godfather of Shock Rock but had also become just as well-known for his enigmatic persona offstage. For those of us who grew up in the Bible Belt during the ‘80s, Alice Cooper was simply synonymous with Satan worship, witchcraft and all things evil. Naturally, this became the sole reason for us to listen to his music for the sole purpose of finding out just what the hell was about to send us to hell.
As it so happened, Alice Cooper was a straight-up rock and roll act packaged in the best of old-school horror and vaudeville, two of his early childhood fascinations. It’s probably safe to assume that the audience makeup of an Alice Cooper show in the 1970s looked a lot different than it does now. Those earliest fans eventually had kids and even grandkids, all of whom you’re likely to see taking in the spectacle that is Cooper being beheaded on stage or executed by electric chair or any number of other antics that made him the rock icon he still remains today. Calling from his home in Phoenix, Cooper talked at length with us about his career and the rapidly changing definition of shock value today.
: Do you still find the same things inspiring you now musically as you did back in ‘60s playing in a garage band?
Alice Cooper: Yeah, you know I think if you’re a lyricist like I am, I basically write the lyrics, and then I go in and I find different guys that are gonna write music with it. Then I basically write the melody lines and everything. But, I alway sort of let the title write the song. If you’re gonna say, “I’ve fallen in love, and I can’t get up,” well, it’s gonna be some sort of “No More Mr. Nice Guy” type of song. That kind of song writes itself. If you’re doing “Paranoiac Personality,” it’s gonna be about—all of us at some point have known that guy who’s sort of the conspiracy guy who thinks everything’s a conspiracy, and that there’s a shadow government, or we didn’t really land on the moon and all that stuff. So, I decided that I would write about that guy. It ended up, in the end I wrote 13 songs, and every single one of these characters had some sort of paranormal problem or some sort of abnormal way of thinking. The only word that sort of cemented them all together was “paranormal.” Not in the sense of ghosts or UFOs or Bigfoot. Paranormal actually means alongside of normal or other than normal. Every single one of these characters have that mental thing where they’re not normal at all.
“They cut my head off on stage, right? And that was really shocking in 1970. Now it’s traditional, and people really wanna see that bit in the show, but it doesn’t shock them. They really wanna see it, because they saw the Alice Cooper Guillotine thing or the straightjacket or the snake or whatever it is. All that stuff was shocking in 1970. In 2017, you turn on CNN, and there’s a guy really getting his head cut off by ISIS. And that is shocking.”
: This album is a little different for you in that it doesn’t really have the same classic horror element that so many of your other records have.
Cooper: It’s really not classic horror at all. I think there’s maybe one song on this whole album that has a classic sort of paranormal thing, and that’s the very first song, which is a love song. It’s a song about a guy who’s passed away, and he goes to visit his wife, and he leaves things around to let her know that he’s there. He leaves his cologne on her lace, so when she picks up her slip, she can smell his cologne. The phone rings at night, and he’s telling her, when the phone rings at 3 a.m. in the morning, that’s me. It’s a love song, but it’s the only one that really touches on that type of paranormal. Everything else is human condition. That’s kind of what I always write about. I always write about the human condition.
The flavor of this album, Paranormal, I accidentally wrote a concept album. I tried not to, and when I looked at the lyrics, I realized I’d written a concept album. It was all paranormal stuff even though all the songs go all over the place. One song, “Holy Water,” sounds like a Pentecostal meeting down in New Orleans somewhere, and “Dynamite Road” sounds like a rockabilly song from 1957, but yet it’s all Alice. It really is all the sort of different faces of Alice Cooper in there.
: Which is terrifying by itself.
Cooper: I mean, nothing’s scarier than CNN. They cut my head off on stage, right? And that was really shocking in 1970. Now it’s traditional, and people really wanna see that bit in the show, but it doesn’t shock them. They really wanna see it, because they saw the Alice Cooper Guillotine thing or the straightjacket or the snake or whatever it is. All that stuff was shocking in 1970. In 2017, you turn on CNN, and there’s a guy really getting his head cut off by ISIS. And that is shocking. To me, Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie, and myself cannot outdo reality when it comes to what’s shocking anymore. So, all of us understand that shock value is great within the show, but nobody’s really being shocked by it. They just like the spectacle of it.
: Do you think newer fans are being drawn in by that spectacle or is it all about the music now?
Cooper: If you really strip away the Alice image and the Alice character and the show, we’re a very straight-up, guitar-driven rock and roll band. I mean, every single album I ever made, I surround myself with great guitar players, and I surround myself with really good hard rock players. And really, that’s what we are. That’s what Aerosmith is. That’s what Alice is. That’s what Guns N’ Roses is. We’re hard rock bands. That’s the one music that has never gone away. Grunge went away. Punk went away. Disco went away. But what stayed? Guitar-driven rock and roll. So that’s always what I’ve done. If anything, I’m probably closer to Detroit-type of rock and roll than anything else. I just put my twist on it.
When you get Bob Ezrin involved, there’ll be eight songs that are just hard rock songs. Like “Genuine American Girl.” Pure rock and roll. “Rats.” Pure rock and roll. Then you get the other songs where Bob and I will get a little more symphonic, and we’ll get a little bit more creepy with it. That’s kind of what people want or a certain amount of that out of Alice Cooper. They want a certain amount of Edgar Allan Poe out of me, and I love writing those types of songs. But generally, if you come to see an Alice Cooper show, it’s going to be a hard rock show. Like I said, I surround myself with gunslingers, the best guitar players around. And to me, that really is the heart of rock and roll. “Under My Wheels” and songs like that.
: You had a reunion with the original lineup of the Alice Cooper Band on this album. Was it pretty easy for you all to get right back into that groove?
Cooper: Yeah. [Laughs] Here’s the crazy thing about it. Generally, when a band breaks up, it’s because of something like they hate each other, they’re gonna sue each other, and they’re never gonna talk to each other. When we broke up, we didn’t break up like that. We broke up more like it wasn’t a divorce. It was a separation. We just drifted apart was really what it was. I ended up doing Welcome to My Nightmare, which became very successful, and I just kept going in that direction. But, we never ever lost touch with each other when it came to it. We were always friends. We were always respectful of each other. Dennis Dunaway, who’s still one of my favorite bass players ever. Neal [Smith] was the kind of drummer that I always really like because he was a Keith Moon type of drummer. And Mike [Michael Bruce] wrote great riffs. So, we always stayed in touch with each other.
: Was there a specific direction you had in mind once you had them all lined up to play on the album?
Cooper: On this one I said, “Let’s not just have Mike play on this and Neal every once in a while play drums on something.” I said, “I want the whole unit. I want Mike, Neal and Dennis in the studio with me singing lead, and we put another guitar player in there like Tommy Denander or somebody like that, but I want all these songs live in the studio.” When we write them, like “Genuine American Girl” and the song “You and All of Your Friends,” I said, “Those are the songs the band wrote, the original band, so let’s play them live in the studio,” because that’s what we sound like. That’s what that original band sounded like. And the guys nailed it. They still have it. They still play really cool together, and when I sing with that band it’s very unusual because I sing a little bit different when I sing with the original band. It just has its totally own flavor to it. You don’t try to contrive it; it’s just there. It was great. We all had a great time doing it, and we’re gonna do some shows in England where the original band is going to play the last five songs, and that’s gonna be very cool because they cut my head off, and my touring band is so good—it’s probably the best touring band out there, and they cut my head off, the curtain comes down, and when it comes back up, it’s the original band. So it’s gonna be a really nice boost at the end, and all of the really old Alice fans will go, “Oh, yeah!”