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Alice Cooper Says He Writes About ‘Characters People Can Relate To': Exclusive Interview

Jesse Grant, Getty Images
Jesse Grant, Getty Images

Alice Cooper is a nice guy. Yes, his lyrics say something different. But, honestly, the godfather of shock rock is as friendly as they come.

Over his long career he’s been drinking buddies with Keith Moon, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Micky Dolenz and Harry Nilsson. He has hit the links with singers, actors, presidents, game-show hosts and some of the world’s top professionals.

Lately, Cooper has been reviving old friendships — his new album, Paranormal, features a reunion of the original Alice Cooper band lineup, and his current tour finds him out with Deep Purple. But he’s also excited about working more with his new pals, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry, in the Hollywood Vampires.

Cooper took some time out of his busy touring schedule to talk about new music, old friendship and writing songs with Pink Floyd.

I heard that Paranormal accidentally turned into a concept record. How does that happen?
I wasn’t really looking to do a storyline, and then it ends up being 13 songs about 13 paranormal people.

So concept records are just in your blood, and you can’t help it?
I honestly think that’s true. I am so used to writing in a concept and writing about people. When we were done, there wasn’t really anything on this album that wasn’t about people. One was paranoid, one had an ego problem, one had this and one had that, pretty soon I just had a cast of problematic characters. I think people relate to people. I don’t think they relate to situations as much as they do to people. So I don’t write about politics. I don’t write about religion. I don’t write about stuff like that. Generally I write about characters and then people can relate to that character, they know somebody like that guy or they are that guy.

What’s an example on the new album? Who is someone we all know?
Well, “Paranoiac Personality” is one. Everybody knows somebody who’s a conspiracy-theory addict. I know so many people like that I said, “I got to write a song about that guy.”

What I like about so much of your stuff, and you can definitely hear it on this LP, it always comes back to good rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe a song has a story, maybe it doesn’t, maybe it’s metal or prog or theatrical, but it always comes back to good rifts, good hooks, good melodies.
I come from the same school as Aerosmith, as Ozzy [Osbourne]. We were all very Beatles oriented. We were the next generation that came after the Beatles and so our writing was always melodic. You listen to an Aerosmith song or an Ozzy song or an Alice song, and there’s a lot of melody to it. It’s not just riffs and beats and guitar solos. [Producer] Bob Ezrin would never let us write a song that you couldn’t sit down at the piano and play. I would send him something and he would say, “Okay, the A section is great, the B section sucks.” And so I would rewrite it and he would say, “Okay, now you have a song and not just a piece of a song.” He was our George Martin. What Martin did with the Beatles, he did with us. He taught us how to write songs.

Over the past couple decades, you’ve been known for bringing in great guest collaborators on albums, but you’ve never had someone as odd as Larry Mullen Jr. from U2 on a record. How did the sessions go with him?
I told him, “Look, Larry, this is going to go in a lot of different directions.” And he said, “Great, I’m in, let’s do it.” It turns out he was really essential to the sound of the record. He really gave it a different flavor.

And what about Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top? How did he come to play on “Fallen in Love”?
After doing this for a while, you sort of get a feeling for who’s going to work on what song. With Billy, when we got done listening to “Fallen in Love,” it just sounded like a Texas Roadhouse BBQ Blues song, and so Bob [Ezrin] and I both looked at each other and said, “Billy Gibbons!” So we called him up and played it for him and he said, “Oh, yeah, send that thing to me.” He sent it back after two takes and said, “You know, I had the flu, but this song made me feel better.”

My favorite song on the new album is “The Sound of A.” It has the strangest, coolest feel. It’s like space-rock out of some forgotten time. Can you tell me a little bit about where that one came from?
I’m glad you asked because that is the weirdest story behind any song on the record.

That makes sense, because it’s the weirdest song on the record.
[Original Alice Cooper band bassist] Dennis Dunaway came in with that song. He wanted to play me this tape, but when he played it, I could tell it was a really old tape. I said, “Oh, my God, Dennis, I remember you wrote that in, like, 1967 — that’s like 50 years ago. I remember the song but we never recorded it.” He told me, “You’re right, it was 1967, but it was actually you who wrote it. You had a guitar, you went in another room and wrote the song. It was the first time you had ever written a song on guitar and brought it to the band.” Then I remembered that I did write it. We were going to do it as a concept record with A being the note that the government used to keep everybody in line. It was sort of a sci-fi kind of thing. What’s funny is it that we just finished playing with Pink Floyd at the Cheetah Club [in Los Angeles]. They were as raw as could be, playing with Syd Barrett, and they ended up staying at our house for a couple days, and I wrote the song while they were staying with us. Bob Ezrin ended up hearing the song and loved it, so we put it on the album.

Listen to Alice Cooper’s ‘The Sound of A’

One of the things that has always amazed me about you is your diverse group of friends. You seem to be able to hang out with anyone. What’s your trick?
They’re very few people I don’t get along with. I had an art background, so of course I got along with [Salvador] Dali. We were the generation that grew up with TV as our babysitter, so I watched every old Marx Brothers movie, so when I met Groucho, I knew all of his jokes and knew where they came from. Plus, there’s a bit of a vaudevillian in me and he could see that.

What about with Johnny Depp?
What really impressed me about Johnny was that he got all my reference points. When we were doing the Hollywood Vampires record, I would go, “Do you know ‘Evil Hearted You’ by the Yardbirds”? And, guess what? He would know it. I could name any song, and he would get the reference point. I could say, “How about Them’s ‘Mystic Eyes’?” and he would say, “Yeah, I know that.” When you’re talking to people who have the same reference points as you, you tend to get along.

I imagine that doesn’t work with everyone, especially when you’re playing with younger people.
It’s funny, we have a girl in our band, Nita Strauss, who is 30 years old. She looks like a model and plays guitar like Eddie Van Halen. I mean, she just kills it every night onstage. But we’re rehearsing, and I say, “In this tribute part, let’s do ‘Pinball Wizard’ for John Entwistle and Keith Moon,” and she says, “What?” She was like a deer in the headlights. I said, “You know, ‘Pinball Wizard?’” She says, “I don’t know it.” I said, “You know from the Who‘s ‘Tommy?’” and she said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” But then she heard it one time and could play it instantly, but her reference points are more Queens of the Stone Age. That’s why I like working with Bob Ezrin. I can say, “You know that part in West Side Story with the Sharks and Jets song?” and he knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Your day job is so awesome, but your side project, the Hollywood Vampires, is just as awesome. It seems like you love to stay busy. How are you keeping so active with so many projects?
I’ll be 70 next year, and I feel like I’m 35 or 40. I get up onstage every night and do a 90-minute show, and maybe I breathe hard for five minutes afterward, and then I’m back to normal. What I love about it all is that I feel the only shock left in shock rock is “How is this guy doing it at his age?” The shock part is the audience looking at me and wondering, “What is going on with you?” I was a runner back in school, and I always felt like I could do 20 miles better than I could do two miles, and it’s the same thing with doing the shows. When you hit the stage, adrenaline takes over. You don’t have time to look tired in front of 20,000 people. I look at Steven Tyler and I see the same thing. Steven and I are the same age, and we have the same approach. Being onstage is the drug that keeps us going.

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