Lady Gaga, Decapitation, Hair Bands & Jesus: A Brief Chat With Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper
Miquel Llop/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Alice Cooper performs at Rock Fest Barcelona 2017 Festival in Santa Coloma, Spain on July 1, 2017.

After all the tours, the monsters, the side-projects, the movies and the elaborate musical theater productions of his 50-years-and-counting career, one fact remains as constant and true as his sinister eye-black: Alice Cooper loves to tell a really good story. And if it’s a really loud story? Even better.

Everything comes back to this. His now-iconic cameo in Wayne’s World; his villainous turn as the sinister King Herod to John Legend’s soulful savior in this spring’s Jesus Christ Superstar; and his own show, which picks up the Paranormal Evening with Alice Cooper tour at the Wisconsin State Fair on August 3. They all involve Cooper regaling his audience with history lessons, backstage wisdom or nightmares ripped from the recesses of his own mind. When Alice is on, Alice is telling stories, and he’s got endless respect for those who do the same and do it well.

“If you don’t make the cake, you can’t put the icing on it,” he tells Billboard, calling from his home in Arizona, where he’s resting a few weeks after Superstar before rehearsals resume. Our chat has gone from the skull cane he wielded for the Superstar broadcast to the Hollywood Vampires -- his cover band supergroup featuring Johnny Depp and Joe Perry of Aerosmith -- to the theatrical flourish of his work across all mediums. “If we do a nine hour rehearsal, eight hours is on the music -- that’s why the music is so important,” he continues. “The theatrics are just the icing on that cake. I’m always going to do the Alice Cooper Show; I would hate to just go up and be a rock band. I try to give them a double shot of Alice Cooper. I’ll always do that. I’ll never, ever go unplugged.”

The following is a (lightly edited) conversation with Cooper that manages to squeeze Lady Gaga, Kiss, decapitation, politics, Nixon, Bruno Mars, Mötley Crüe, Harry Potter, the Avengers, the Bible and Lon Chaney into the same story -- one our reliable narrator tells with trademark relish.

I’m glad you’ve been able to chill at home for a spell after a crazy couple of months that culminated in that wonderful production. Congrats on Jesus Christ Superstar, by the way!

You know, I’ll tell you what -- they did such a great job. They had a vision for this thing -- it being more of a rock concert than a play -- and I’ve never been in an organization other than mine that was so much fun to work with, and so professional. Everybody, from the dancers to the ADs to the directors and producers, was on the same page. It really showed at the end.

It was such a great fit for you, too.

When we talked about the character, Herod, I told them, "It’s very similar to the Alice Cooper character!" When I play Alice Cooper, I play him as the arrogant, legendary rock star that’s overly villainous. Herod is pretty much the same guy, except he’s a little bit more confused because he doesn’t know if he’s the king or not, really: the Roman government is running him, and here’s Jesus, who is saying he’s the King of the Jews and he can do miracles. King Herod was a swirling ball of paranoia and ego.

So if we’re thinking about your show, Herod is kind of like Alice Cooper but before you get decapitated towards the end of the set.

That’s exactly it. When they came up with the gold suit that had all the masters paintings printed on it, and basically it was all the people Herod had killed -- I mean, the guy was a megalomaniac! He killed John the Baptist. He killed hundreds of children just to get to Jesus when he was born. This guy was a horrific character.

Did you bring the skull cane from home to work into the production? Or did they give you that?

I usually use a regular Fred Astaire black cane with the tips on it, because I want to keep it very Vaudevillian. This cane, I got there and it had this skull on it, and it gave Herod an extra bit of darkness. When I first got there, I said, "I wanna play this guy the way Alan Rickman would play him -- very condescending." He looks at him and he goes, "Jesus." You can just hear it in his voice how much he hates this guy, but he’s going to be really, really nice to him, but he really just hates him.

There was no humor in the show at all. The show is really not very funny. When he says, “And now I understand you’re God,” wow. It’s like saying, "Either you are God, or you’re the most insane lunatic on the planet."

What did Jesus Christ Superstar offer that your live show doesn’t? I’m curious as to how this experience will reflect in your upcoming Paranormal Evening tour.

I might have been the one that felt the most comfortable in my skin on that stage, only because I don’t think John Legend’s show is very theatrical. I doubt if Sara [Bareilles, co-star]’s show is very theatrical. Whereas, I do this every night: I play a character where the lyrics drive the character: Whatever the lyrics do, Alice is going to do. When you sing “Welcome to My Nightmare,” you give them the nightmare,

My stage show is always going to be a left-of-center, Vaudeville, hard rock dark comedy. I think people are finally starting to pick up on the fact that it can be scary, but also be very funny. It’s always going to be hard rock. I will surround myself with the three best guitar players I can find. I surround myself with the best rockers there are.

I love that you’ll be teaming up with your road buddy, Ace Frehley, for the L.A. and Vegas stops on the Paranormal Evening Tour. How did that come about?

Well, we did Australia together. Ace is one of those guys -- he gets up, and he’s just a pure hard rocker. Him and Slash are very much the same kind of guitar player. In fact, I had them onstage together in Phoenix for the Alice Cooper Christmas Pudding Show. It was a battle of the volume. They both play unbelievably great hard rock guitar, and so it’s the perfect fit.

I’ve known Ace since the old Kiss days. He had some physical problems for awhile, and now he’s come back strong and with a great band. His bass player is playing bass for the Hollywood Vampires. We picked up his bass player and Aerosmith’s keyboard player, also. The great thing about Johnny Depp and Joe Perry is, Joe Perry actually takes guitar lessons from Johnny Depp sometimes.

Please explain this, because that is crazy to me.

Well, Johnny was a guitar player way before he was an actor. We all kinda knew that. I didn’t know how good he was until he came up and played with us two or three times. When we put the Hollywood Vampires together, one night Joe got sick and couldn’t play, and Johnny played all the leads. Everybody in the audience was in shock, because Johnny’s a great guitar player. He’s not an actor trying to be a rock star; he’s a rock star that accidentally became an actor. 

There was a movie that he did called Chocolat where he played a gypsy jazz guitar player, and he plays all the Django Reinhardt stuff, and that’s the stuff Joe was sitting there listening to going, “What is that?” [Johnny] goes, “Let me show you how to play this stuff.” I’m watching Joe trying to pick up the chording on the stuff and I’m going, "That’s great! These two guitar players are teaching each other stuff!"

Did you call Johnny to discuss Jesus Christ Superstar or get any pointers? I feel like he’d offer solid advice for that, too.

No; I don’t even know if he saw it or not. But you know, Johnny kind of knows me as an actor anyways. He says, “What you do onstage is just like being on Broadway.” I do film acting. When I did [Dark Shadows] with him, I just did what I do onstage, and he said, “That’s exactly what I do on film, except I just pick up different characters and figure out how to play them … Everything you do as Alice is every bit what I do.” It’s not that far apart, really. I told him, “Johnny, who you are is the modern-day Lon Chaney; you’re the man of a thousand faces.”

When we talk about Kiss and Alice Cooper, you know each other very, very well. What’s something about Ace’s work with Kiss that compliments your music?

I really like working with people who have been in the big game, that have done stadiums before, that know how to tour. A lot of times you get young guys in the band, and this is their first tour. This is my hundredth tour. Everybody in my band knows how to tour: They know when to sleep, what to eat, they know when to practice, when to go to the bar at night, you know what I mean? It’s a rhythm you get into, a professional kind of rhythm.

When you get young guys... I remember, our first tour, it was an ongoing party at all times, but there were five of us who didn’t know how to tour. With young guys that come in, they look at the rhythm of what’s going on, and they learn it. [Guitarist] Nita Strauss had to learn the rhythm of the road. When she got there, she totally became a professional. But Ace Frehley, being out with Kiss in the early days, he totally knows how to tour. He knows not to be late. He knows that everybody depends on everybody, and no one wants to wait for everybody. I appreciate that, when there’s no prima donnas in the group.

Will you work any Kiss covers into those sets?

There’s always that thing where when you have somebody like an Ace Frehley, and you go, “Okay, we’re gonna do ‘School’s Out,’ but why don’t you do it with us?” and then he might suggest, “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do this song?” We’re always way open to that. I always think rock n' roll bands are a fraternity where everybody respects everybody's music. If [ZZ Top singer/guitarist] Billy Gibbons walked up and said, “Let’s do this,” my band would know how to do it. Or if we said, “Billy, can you play this?” he’d go “I can learn it in five minutes.”

Given how surreal and escapist the Alice Cooper show is, how has this been, touring throughout the last two years specifically, and watching people come to see you? Do you find that people come to you for an escape, especially now?

One of the great things I’ve learned is that I could care less about politics. If you’re coming to my show, there will not be politics involved. I’m taking you away from CNN. I’m not plugging you into it. You’re coming to me the way you would go see Harry Potter, the way you would go see Lord of the Rings or the Avengers: I take you away into Alice Land for two hours, hopefully to give you a relief from what’s going on in the world. To me, people are desperate for that right now.

Isn’t it interesting that the girls are the ones doing all the big productions? Lady Gaga does an amazing production, and she really knows what she’s doing up there -- same with Shakira, same with Rihanna. It’s amazing that the girls are taking over the big productions and the guys have become very introverted. I don’t quite understand why a young rock band would be introverted rather than, “I’m a rock star. Let me loose! Get me up there and let me rock that place!” I see young rock bands being introverted; they don’t want to be rock stars, almost. They’re anti-rock star.

What is it about these women who are filling that void that audiences are really responding to right now? They’re mounting these massive productions like yours, but they’re not necessarily playing a part. Gaga’s direct about where she’s coming from, and she wears her heart on her sleeve.

I think Gaga in particular is very similar to Alice Cooper. When I met her and got her autograph, I brought my daughter to see her, and it said, "Dear Alice, Thank you for letting me steal your show." [Laughs.]

No, she didn’t steal my show, but the idea behind the fact that she created a character named Lady Gaga, and what did she do? She wrote songs for Lady Gaga. I write songs for Alice Cooper. I don’t necessarily write songs for me: What would Alice say here? What would Alice do here? It gives me an opportunity to be a little bit more outrageous in a lot of ways, and be a little politically incoherent. I totally understand the Lady Gaga thing. It’s just amazing to me that more guys haven’t jumped in and done big productions.

Bruno Mars -- that guy’s one of the most versatile guys I’ve ever seen. He’s more versatile than Michael Jackson, I think. There’s a guy who really knows what he’s doing up on that stage. He gets it. Whereas, I look at young rock bands -- Foo Fighters are very good at what they do, Green Day is very good at what they do, because they don’t let up on the audience and give the audience every single ounce of energy that they’ve got. Then I look around and I go, “Why aren’t 18-year-old bands jumping on this?!”

I think there’s gonna be a resurgence of the ‘80s, where you’re going to see young bands trying to be Mötley Crüe, and young bands trying to be Bon Jovi. That was a fun period. They call them the hair bands, but think of it -- the songs were great, the records were great, the videos were great, the stage show was great, and they had personality. All of these bands, you look at them, and you go, “Wow, these guys really knew what they were doing.” And then it went away. So I think there’s going to be a resurgence of that.

Honestly, that’s my favorite period of yours. “Poison” will always be my No. 1 Alice Cooper track.

Desmond Child had a lot to do with that -- with Aerosmith’s resurgence, Bon Jovi, Joan Jett, he was involved in all of those great records. Almost everything that guy touch had quality songwriting to it. So I mean, I worked with him, we did the whole [1989] Trash album with me, and that was one of the best musical albums we ever did. He was very, very, very responsible for that era and time.

And the great thing about that era was finally, somebody was having fun with rock n’ roll. Rock n’ roll should be a fun music. These bands like Poison and Warrant and Ratt, they were really having fun with the audience. To me, that was a very positive time in rock n’ roll. I wish we’d get back to a little more of that. Guns N’ Roses, they’d get up there and just kill the audience, to me, because musically, the band was so good.

What are you doing to shake up the Paranormal Evening tour?

There is a moment in the show where the audience gasps, and they don’t know what Alice is going to do at this point because they’re just not expecting it, during “Only Women Bleed.” It’s a ballet that my wife does, and at one point you’re going, “Wait a minute -- wait, wait, wait, don’t do that!” And then he does it. I think that’s one of the great moments for me that I love, because then he follows it up with the next two or three songs -- and then there’s a reason to cut his head off.