Perhaps one of the most iconic rock singers of all-time, Alice Cooper is returning to Australia with another twisted live show. Nick Milligan spoke to the influential and innovative legend about Obama, Zappa, Satan, and Wayne’s World.
Have you enjoyed coming to Australia over the years?
Whenever the band looks at our touring itinerary, they’ll say, “Oh, we’re going to Australia!” Everybody wants to visit Australia. I don’t know if you guys know this, but it’s probably the most popular destination for any band. Nobody ever comes back saying, “We had a terrible time in Australia.” You guys have great audiences. It’s just a lot of fun.
In the beginning, was Australia very quick to respond to your music?
Yes, they were. I think any English speaking country is going to get it. People in China will respond to the Alice Cooper show – they’ll get ‘the hanging’ and all that stuff - because it’s pretty broad. But audiences that speak English will get more of the subtle comedy in the show, and maybe more of the irony. I always know that we have to write the show on two or three different levels. Australia loves the idea of Alice Cooper – not just saying “Welcome To My Nightmare”, but giving the audience the nightmare.
If we have an eight hour rehearsal, six hours is on the music. You have to be able to bake the cake before you can put the icing on it. We believe that if you’re going to do all these theatrics, you have to be able to deliver the music. I surround myself with the best players in the business.
Throughout your career, many people have tried to have you banned. Did those attempts only cause you to push the boundaries further?
When we first got banned in record, our record went right to number one and we sold every concert ticket. We were trying to get banned back then. Any time you tell someone they can’t see something, they’ve gotta go see it. Then when people saw the show, they went “What is the big controversy about?” Nothing in the show was bannable. I don’t even swear! You go to other show and hear the ‘F-bomb’ about a hundred times. Alice never even swears – he’s too much of a gentleman villain for that. My show is a vaudeville, horror, comedy musical. But if you closed your eyes, you’d be sitting there thinking, “Wow, what a good band!”
It was your third studio album, Love It To Death, that was a true commercial success – some people consider your first two records to be a false start. What was it about that third record that worked?
Well, we found our George Martin. I think every band needs to find that producer that understands who they are and what they’re doing. Our first album was produced by Frank Zappa and he saw it for what it was. It was psychedelia with a certain sense of humour. He couldn’t figure it out, so he loved it. The second album was just left over songs. Then we all of a sudden we met Bob Ezrin. Bob said, “We’re not going to do any more recording or performing for six or seven months.” We went to a barn in Detroit, where we lived, and for eight to ten hours a day we did nothing but write the new album. We relearned how to play our instruments, relearned how to sing and relearned how to write. That’s when Love It To Death came out and that was the first real Alice Cooper album. That was the definitive one. People could listen to it and go, “Oh, that’s Alice Cooper.” Before that we could have been anyone. [Bob] gave us a voice. He defined who we were.
Tell us about the mix up that occurred when your initial audition for Frank Zappa was organised.
They told us to “be there at seven”. So we arrived for the audition at seven in the morning. We set up in his basement and started playing the show. Frank comes down the stairs into the studio – he’s got a coffee and a cigarette, and he’s wearing his (dressing) gown. He says, “What are you doing?” We say that we’d been told to arrive “at seven”. He says, “I meant seven at night!”
He listened to two or three songs and said, “I don’t get it.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, you’ve got four songs that are one minute and twenty seconds long, and they’ve got 38 changes in them. I don’t understand it.” I said, “Well, it’s a compliment if you don’t get it.” But Frank liked the fact that [our music] was so bizarre that he couldn’t understand it, so he signed us.
What kind of influence did Frank have on you at that time?
Well, Frank was like my big brother. I honestly shared the same sense of humour as he did. I felt like his younger brother, so I would hang around like a fly on the wall and watch how things were done. It was really interesting to watch the inner workings of a band and how Frank wrote everything. He would only work with the best players in the world. When you listen to a Frank Zappa piece, you think his band are just jamming and making noises. But every single noise is written – it’s sheet music. If you miss one, he’ll look at you like, “How did you miss that little squeak over there?” It was like working with Leonard Bernstein – you were learning all the time.
It seems ironic that over the years people have banned your live show and claimed that you glorify satanic and unholy practice. But you are, in fact, a devout Christian.
The funny thing is, there’s never been anything Satanic in our show. Ever. Because I was the prodigal son. I grew up in a Christian home. If you listen to songs like ‘Second Coming’, they were never ‘pro-Satan’. They were always anti-Satan. When I became a Christian again, about 20 years ago, I kept writing those songs. If there’s going to be a war between God and Satan, Satan’s not going to win it. He’s a poor second. He’s an adversary and he affects all of us, but in my show, he’s not going to win. That’s why I get hung and have my head cut off every night. I can be a Christian and still play the villain, as long as the point gets across.
One of my earliest memories of you is your wonderful cameo in Wayne’s World. When that film came out, did you feel that it exposed your music to a whole new generation?
At the time, [the producers] looked around and they needed somebody that was iconic. They needed somebody that everybody knew these two guys from Indiana would just be in awe of. Michael [Myers] knew that I was a singer, but also an actor. He said, “Well, Alice is perfect for this.” So not only could I perform the stage show, but when I arrived there he also hands me about eight pages of dialogue. I didn’t know it was going to be eight pages of dialogue! I said, “When are we shooting this, Mike?” and he said, “In about half an hour.” So most of the stuff that I’m saying in that movie was improvised. I couldn’t remember all the dialogue, so I just started riffing on it. I think every take we did was different.
The odd thing about working with Mike and also Dana Carvey, is that you never ever meet Michael Myers or Dana Carvey! You meet all of their characters. They’ve each got a hundred characters that you have to get through. I think after the fourth time I met Michael, I actually met Michael. It’s this wonderful wall that you have to get through to get to the real person.
During America’s war on Iraq, you publicly stated that you were a supporter of George W. Bush Jr. What has been your impression of Barack Obama’s current reign?
I think Obama is the best thing that could happen, only because America does need an image change. When I supported George Bush, I said this. “When you’re in a shooting war, you need a pitbull as a President, not a poodle. You need a guy that’s not afraid to go in. But once that war is won, you need someone like Obama to come in and be diplomatic. I don’t think you ever win a war by going in with a guy that’s not there to win it. That was my support. At the time, we’d just had 9/11 - everybody was pissed off! Everybody in America wanted to go over there and kick Bin Laden’s butt. At that point, I think support for Bush was 90% positive. But then the war went on and on and on, and everybody was going, “Ok, enough. We got him. We don’t care about this guy in Iraq any more. Let’s find Bin Laden.” When Obama came along, I think everyone felt it was time for a change. I actually think Obama is doing a great job right now.
Your early work seemed to encapsulate the rebellious spirit of youth in the '70s. At what point do you feel your lyrical focus became more adult?
It got to a point where I said, “I can’t write emo themes.” If you needed me to write a song for My Chemical Romance about being a teenager and an outcast, I could write that. But I really can’t represent that generation, because I’m not of that generation. I could write it for you, but it wouldn’t be like ‘School’s Out’ and ‘I’m Eighteen’. They came from me being that age. But I don’t try to represent [modern youth]. I always try to write songs that tell a story. With Along Came A Spider, I thought why not write twelve really good songs about a serial killer? But not only that, I thought why not have an ending that totally upsets the entire story and you have to go back and listen to it all over again.
That’s what’s entertaining to me. I’m not trying to change the world on any level. I honestly don’t think that movies or music should try to change the world. I think there should be entertainment and that’s really it. I never go to a movie and walk out going, “Oh boy, has my world changed now.” I want to see the shark eat the helicopter. I go to the movies to get my popcorn and see something stupid and spectacular. I never go to a movie where I’m going to think, “Oh, what a philosophical point that was.”
Your desire for entertainment certainly comes across in your live shows.
I treat my show as vaudeville. Anybody in the world can go to see an Alice Cooper show and have fun at it. But you’re not going to get any politics out of it. That’s not what I do. I try to take you away for an hour and forty-five minutes to a different place, just like Harry Potter does.
Is your intent still to shock?
I don’t think you can shock anybody anymore. Marilyn Manson and I have both talked about that. We’ve sat there and said, “How do you shock an audience?” Kids can watch CNN and see a guy getting his head cut off. How does my guillotine compare to that? In the '70s, the world was ripe for shock. But now, it’s impossible to shock an audience.
What are your plans for after your upcoming  Australian tour?
The tour goes on until December – we manage to do at least one hundred cities a year. I enjoy that. I feel more at home on stage than I do anywhere else. I get up on stage and feel like this is where I belong.
Does touring change much, or does this tour feel the same as the previous one?
It’s much easier now. Touring used to be extremely inconvenient. Hotels were awful. Travel was awful. Now you can get on a tour bus and you have 500 satellite stations – all the comforts of a hotel room. It used to be three people to a room and you were travelling in a station wagon! So this is luxury.
Well Alice, we look forward to seeing you in Newcastle!
Thank you very much. I’ve got a brand new show, so if anybody thinks they’ve got my show worked out, then they’ll be in for a big surprise…