"I always used to think I'd go up onstage and say, 'Boy, I hope you like us tonight. We're going to try to do a great show for you,'" says shock rocker Alice Cooper in faux-sweet tones. "But you have to just grab the audience by the throat and say, 'You're mine for two hours. So shut up and stand up.'"
With a hard-hitting alpha-male philosophy like that, it's no wonder Cooper is a legend: If you dare doubt him, his onstage guillotine awaits nearby. But luckily, he has the talent to back up his bravado, as he's proven with more than four decades of aggressive hard-rock hits like "School's Out," "Eighteen," "Poison," and dozens more. Cooper's dedication to depredation was recognized this past March, when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There, he performed alongside guitarist Michael Bruce, bassist Dennis Dunaway, and drummer Neal Smith — members of the Alice Cooper Band's original lineup. (Lead guitarist Glen Buxton passed away in 1997; Cooper's late-'70s axman, Steve Hunter, filled in.) Cooper would play with them again the following month at hard-rock magazine Revolver's Golden Gods Awards, where he received the night's titular honor.
Feeding off the excitement of a banner year, he released his 26th studio album, Welcome 2 My Nightmare, in September. The disc, whose name alludes to Cooper's classic 1975 solo debut, Welcome to My Nightmare, embodies everything that makes him great, including songs written by Bruce, Dunaway, and Smith and production by his '70s collaborator Bob Ezrin (also of Kiss and Pink Floyd fame). The disc even features an appearance by pop rapper Ke$ha. The songs span everything from the classic rock 'n' roll boogie of "I'll Bite Your Face Off" to the tongue-in-cheek disco send-up "Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever" to groovy rockabilly on "Ghouls Gone Wild" — all with Cooper's trademark B-movie horror lyrics and inimitable hard-rock snarl. Now he's assembled a live band that can keep up with his stamina, featuring a new addition in former Michael Jackson guitarist Orianthi playing alongside original Welcome to My Nightmare guitarist Hunter. In this interview, Alice Cooper reflects on just how he got to this place.
New Times: Is Welcome 2 My Nightmare an extension of the original?
Alice Cooper: It's part two without really being part two. It's Alice's second nightmare. The first nightmare was 1975; this nightmare is 2011. It hasn't changed that much, but musically I think it may be a better album. So it definitely has a different sense of humor. But every single song is just a gem.
What did it mean to you to work with members of the original Alice Cooper lineup again on the album?
The great thing about those guys is the fact that they never change. And neither do I. We got together for the first time, playing at a Christmas show that I put on here in Phoenix about six years ago. We hadn't played for 25 or 30 years together. And we went to rehearsal and it sounded just exactly like the last show we did together. There was no change at all. Except that Glen is not here, so we had Steve Hunter playing lead guitar.
But the guys — Dennis, Neal, and Mike — play exactly the same way. It was great. I invited them to write songs for the album. We took a piece of Neal's song and wrote "I'll Bite Your Face Off" — which is like a real "Brown Sugar," Rolling Stones-type of song. Dennis' is "A Runaway Train." It's got that "Train Kept A-Rollin' " feel. And Mike's is called "When Hell Comes Home," which is about a really abusive father. But each song really stands on its own; you can tell that person was really involved in that songwriting.
Was it at all awkward reconnecting with them?
It was funny — when we broke up, we never broke up with any bad blood. I never said anything bad about Neal, Dennis, Mike, or Glen, and they never said anything bad about me. We had done five years without stopping. Once we got going — recording the albums Love It to Death, Killer, School's Out, Billion Dollar Babies, four big albums in a row, four big world tours in a row and then [the final album with that lineup, 1973's] Muscle of Love. And then we were kind of out of breath going, "What's next?" And I went, "They said Billion Dollar Babies was the biggest production anybody's ever seen. I think we can make it look like kindergarten with this new concept, 'Welcome to My Nightmare.' " And I think everybody at that point just went, "I don't know if I can do another two years on the road with a bigger production."
And I totally understood it. First of all, it would take all our money to produce this thing, and I could see why they wouldn't want to do that. [laughs] 'Cause at this point, we were splitting everything five ways. And to produce this show would have been at least a million dollars. And a million dollars in 1975 is like 5 million now, you know? They didn't want to do that at all. And I totally understood it, but I said "I'm gonna do it."
And it worked. It was a big gamble, because anytime a lead singer breaks away from the group to do an album, it's a gamble. I mean, Mick Jagger even had a hard time. But we came up with a great album and we came up with a great stage show that took three months to rehearse and ten hours a day, but it was the biggest show anybody had ever seen. And at that point, we just kept going.
Your macabre stage show and persona have always gotten people talking. What is your favorite rumor you've heard about you?
You know, there's so many good ones that you sit back and go, "How did that get started?" There was one that my father was Captain Kangaroo. I went, "Really?" Years later, I heard Captain Kangaroo was Marilyn Manson's father, and then I realized it was interchangeable.
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And then there was the one that I played Eddie Haskell in Leave It to Beaver. That would've put me at about 75 years old. And unless I have red curly hair and freckles, I can't really picture me being Eddie Haskell. But I know how that one started. A reporter asked me, "What were you like as a kid?" I used to say I was a regular Eddie Haskell. In other words, I was like him: kind of a suck-up to the parents, but in the background I was really kind of a real rat. And that got to be I was Eddie Haskell. This was before Ferris Bueller; I now say I was like Ferris Bueller.
Back then, there was no internet, so everything was word of mouth and everything was myth and urban legend and stuff. By the time we got to England, there was already that we set German shepherds on fire and sacrificed puppies and things like that. And I'd get out of town and go, "I would never hurt an animal ever." People, I have no problem with, but animals I would never hurt.
Lastly, since horror is such a part of your show, what was the first movie monster to scare you?
The only movie I ever ran out of the movie theater while it was playing was Creature From the Black Lagoon, which I saw when I was about 8. It was the scene where the guy is in the tent, and you see from the creature's point of view, and the guy turns around, and the creature takes his face right off with his claw. And I ran out of the movie theater. For some reason, Frankenstein and Dracula didn't scare me as much as the Creature From the Black Lagoon.