Alice Cooper Talks 'Paranormal,' Working With Larry Mullen & Bob Ezrin
Twenty-seven studio albums into his career and Alice Cooper is a songwriting pro. In fact, the famed shock rocker jokes that at this point in his life, you could challenge him to write about practically anything -- and he’d definitely take you up on that. “I can pretty much write what you want me to write. I try to find the punch line first and write backwards from there,” he tells GRAMMY.com.
For Cooper, the process behind every album is different and largely reflective of the chemistry between himself and his co-collaborators and during the studio sessions behind his latest endeavor, Paranormal, the creativity flowed seamlessly. In addition to bringing in a wildcard drummer, aka U2’s Larry Mullen, Cooper also reunited his original Alice Cooper Band for several of the tracks. The outcome is what he calls “an accidental concept album” and “very Alice Cooperish.”
Cooper chatted with GRAMMY.com about the evolution of his live show, his secret to being able to get away with so much on stage without overly offending the masses, and why he’s concerned that the era of rock stars may officially be over.
Walk us through the creation process of Paranormal. I’ve heard that you’ve been calling it “an accidental concept album.”
Well it really kind of was. In fact, we went out of our way not to do a concept. Bob [Ezrin] and I are sort of famous for doing concept albums from Welcome To My Nightmare on and we decided this time to just do a great rock and roll album. Of course, after we got done writing the whole thing, I listened back and realized that every single character has some abnormality that was kind of striking and the only word that I could come up with was “paranormal.” The word paranormal actually means “next to normal,” not being normal, and my whole career has been that. So the paranormal thing just really stuck. It just felt really good. It just seems very Alice Cooperish.
You had some great people contribute to this album – Larry Mullen, Roger Glover, Billy Gibbons. How did those collaborations come about?
Most of the time, when you do a song, then you kind of say, “Boy you know who would be great on this song…” and that’s kind of what happened. “Fallen in Love” was so Billy Gibbons that it was impossible to not make it with Billy. We called him up and he nailed it in two takes. Roger Glover is on the only song on the album that has any prog sort of feel to it, which is “Paranormal.” The Larry Mullen thing was totally different. Bob said, “Let’s do something that is revolutionary for us. Let’s go with a whole different kind of drummer, a drummer that wouldn’t normally play with Alice Cooper” and Larry Mullen was the perfect guy. I’ve never had a drummer who ever came to me and said, “Let me see the lyrics” because drummers usually care about what the bass player is playing. So the idea that he listened to the lyrics and he interpreted the lyrics was really kind of unique to me. I really liked what he ended up playing on every single song. The guy really changed the sound of the whole album.
You’ve put out 27 studio albums. Do you have a standard process of how you tackle writing and being in the studio or has that evolved over time?
When you’re working with different people - I’ve worked with everybody from Henry Mancini to Carole Bayer Sager to Jon Bon Jovi. I’ve written songs with everybody. It’s always one of those things when you write something and you look at each other and you go “Oh yeah.” In other word, that lyric is married to those chords and they really work together. And then there are also times when you look at each other and you go “This doesn’t work does it? OK let’s go onto something else.” You can always feel when there is something wrong but equally, you can feel when something is really right on the money and it just fits perfectly. This album seemed to really write itself. It was very simple to write. I was in the room with four writers who were all experienced writers so we knew when we were up against a wall and we knew when everything was just flowing.
You had the original Alice Cooper band perform on several of the tracks. How did that come about? And was it instant chemistry again when you guys got together?
The great thing about the original band is that when we did break up, we didn’t break up with any bad blood. There were no lawsuits, nobody was angry, nobody was mad at each other. It was more of a separation instead of a divorce so we stayed in touch with each other and that was very important. Neal Smith called me up and said, “Hey Mike Bruce is in town.” And I said, “Well I’m writing for the new album, why don’t you guys come over and we’ll write something?” So, they came over for a week to my house in Phoenix and we wrote about six or seven songs but two of the songs really stuck out as being real potential Alice Cooper songs. It was the first time that I was able to get Neal, Dennis, and Mike all in the studio together in Nashville and then me on the mic. I said, “Listen. Let’s record this live. Let’s not layer it. Let’s do this live.” It just sounded exactly like what Alice Cooper sounded like in 1974. The guys haven’t changed the way that they play. I haven’t really changed the way I sing and then all of a sudden, there it was, it really did work.
Is it harder or easier for you to write songs at this stage of you career?
Well, I’ve written so many songs at this point -- because I do write the lyrics and a lot of the melodies for most of my albums -- that if you came to me and said, “I’m writing a play about an elephant and a giraffe on top of The Empire State Building. Can you write a song about it? I would says, “Well do you want it to be a love song? Do you want it to be funny? Do you want it to be scary?” I can pretty much write what you want me to write. I kind of know how to do it now. I try to find the punch line first and write backwards from there.
You have such a great live band and seeing you with them really gives a new edge to some of your more classic material. Tell us about teaming up with players like Nita Strauss.
Nita is great, I was looking for a shredder, I was looking for a girl that could really shred on guitar. I wasn’t even looking for a girl; I was just looking for a guitar player who was a little more metal than the other two guys I have, because I already have two guitar players. I was looking for somebody who was really going to give me more of a modern sound and I heard her play and I said, “Whoever that is, I want that person.” She came on board and just nails it every night. She’s so good. Every once in a while, you just find the perfect fit and she just fit right into the band. The best thing about this live band is that everyone are best friends. You never hear any yelling or screaming or arguing backstage. It’s always just laughing. That makes a big difference when you’re touring. It just makes everything so easy and it’s like that every single night. If we do 100 shows, it will be like that every single night. A lot of guys when they’re in bands together, ego starts creeping in and soon you have a mess.
Can you talk a bit about the evolution of your live show? You seem to always incorporate the classics like the Guillotine and Frankenstein but then you’re always adding in new elements like the Trump and Hillary parodies for “Elected,” like you did last year. Is each tour different in terms of how you’re curating your set?
Yeah, well the one thing about it is that I know what songs I have to do. It’s not like I have a choice. I know I have to do “Poison,” “School’s Out,” “Eighteen,” “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” and “Under My Wheels.” Those are the songs that you have to do because the audience really demands it. I put in “Halo of Flies” because I want to show off the band a little bit where they have a long section where they just play and kind of show the audience that they’re amazing musicians. Then you’ve got the straight jacket and then you’ve got “Only Women Bleed” and “Cold Ethyl” and “Feed my Frankenstein.” All those things have to be in the show. The tradition is to always end up executing Alice somewhere in the show so you’ve got the guillotine song. At that point, you don’t have a lot of room to add new stuff so to me, I have to surgically implant one or two songs from the new album and to make sure that it flows with the rest of the stuff. The hardest thing is going through 27 albums and trying to please everybody. It’s just impossible. As soon as I get a show done, everybody loves it and then I get emails saying, “How come you didn’t play this? How come you didn’t play that?” And it’s a good problem to have except you have to just get to a point and say, “Look.” So what I did on this show is I started rotating songs in. We do this song and this song and then next week we take those two out and put these two in so you are always getting two or three fresh new songs in the show.
Are you ever amazed at what you are able to get away with on stage? You’ve always been the original shock rocker but we live in a day and age now where everybody has to be so politically correct. Everybody is so quick to jump on Twitter and criticize everything!
It’s so funny because I’m not politically correct; I’m politically incoherent. So I could care less. It’s a show and I keep telling them, “Look. It’s a show. It’s fantasy. It has nothing to do with reality.” So, if you see Alice Cooper beating up a doll, it’s a doll; it’s not a person and then when that doll comes to live and does a ballet and then Alice kills the ballerina, well then, the ballerina has every single right to kill Alice back. Most people come to my show understanding that I’m not trying to tell them anything. I’m not trying to be politically correct or incorrect. You’re there to see an Alice Cooper show, you’re there to have fun and I agree with you, I think we are so politically correct now that we are turning into a bunch of robots.
In the early days, there was nothing but complaints because that was back when I was upsetting everybody. I think now people look at what I do and they get the sense of humor behind it. At the same time, there are a lot of things in the show that are very pointed and kind of make a statement and make you go “What? I don’t know if you’re allowed to say that or you’re allowed to do that” and I can say, “Hey Alice is allowed to do anything that he wants to do.”
How important is it for a frontman to entertain a crowd like that? And does it bother you that so many of today’s artists seem to just stand on the stage and act like they are too cool to move around up there?
When I saw Mick Jagger, I understood what it was like to get on stage and strut. You have to have a lot of ego up there to be a rock star, you get up there and strut your stuff and be sexy and be funny and be cool and be rock. You have to be a bit of an outlaw, the whole idea of being a rock star was to be an outlaw. I think this last generation is just so afraid to stand out. Everybody wants to fit in, whereas I never wanted to fit in, I always wanted to be something different. So did Bowie and so did Jagger and Jim Morrison. We didn’t want to be like everybody else; we wanted to create a new character up there. It’s a little worrisome that there are so many teenagers that are afraid to be teenagers.
So what would your advice be to them in terms of how to captivate an audience?
I would say understand the fact that when you are on stage, you are bigger than life. I’m not trying to make everybody into some kind of theatrical character but when you’re on stage, you become something other than yourself. I am totally different than Alice Cooper, I couldn’t be more different than him. When I get on stage, I play this arrogant villain and if I was just up there going, “Hey everybody, Good to see you tonight. Let’s all have fun,” people would look at Alice and go “Oh that’s not cool.” Alice is supposed to be something other than human so I never talk to the audience. I sort of let what happens on stage talk to the audience.
Between your solo material and the Hollywood Vampires, you seem to be touring more than ever these days. What’s your secret to keeping up your energy and having your shows be as good as ever while so many of your colleagues seem to be slowing down?
I honestly think one of the great things is I’m not stressed about anything. Everything is in order in my life -- I’m happily married for 41 years, financially and spiritually in order and I really like what I’m doing. I can’t imagine being in a band where I just stand up there and sing the songs. That would just bore me to death but the fact that I’m doing exactly what I want to do is probably why I’m still doing it. I also never smoked cigarettes and I think not drinking and smoking has a lot to do with your longevity. I probably have the energy of a 30-year old, rather than a 69-year-old, whereas a lot of guys that are my age get done with a show and are exhausted. I actually feel great after a show!