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Alice Cooper’s Advice to Rock Stars: Don’t Talk Politics

Photo: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

Of course Alice Cooper’s Zoom profile picture is of a guillotine. The 75-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Famer helped craft the modern-rock-star persona by using everything from fake blood to snakes during his live performances, shaping the sound and attitude of heavy metal, punk, and emo for years to come. Today, Cooper is still committed to the bit, but in conversation he conveys a midwestern sense of kindness, discussing everything from his new album Road (which features Tom Morello, Wayne Kramer, and Buckcherry’s Keith Nelson) to the ideals of rock and roll to his history of running for president. As always, he makes a point to distinguish between the performer Alice Cooper and the Alice Cooper who does press. (The Detroit native legally changed his name from Vincent Damon Furnier to Alice Cooper in 1975.) “I wanted him to be vampiric, I wanted him to be in black,” he says while on tour with his celebrity-filled other band, the Hollywood Vampires. “I created Alice to be my favorite rock star.”

Bob Ezrin, who produced your new album Road, also produced your 1970s run of platinum releases. When do you feel like it’s the right time to call him up for an Alice Cooper record?
We’ve done the last five records together, and there’s one in the can that’s already done. Bob is the other half of Alice Cooper. He was our George Martin. When he came to the band, we had just done two albums with Zappa. Zappa didn’t really care if we had a hit. He viewed us more as a freak act, whereas we wanted to be taken seriously. Bob Ezrin came along and said, “Why is it that when you hear the Doors, you know it’s the Doors? They have a signature sound. That’s what you don’t have. We’re going to develop the Alice sound.” That’s when Love It to Death came out. Then you listen to that record and go, “Ah, that’s Alice Cooper.”

Bob is the only one other than me that understands Alice’s personality, the character that I play. We would sit there and do a vocal and look back and go, “Alice would never say that.”

You’ve joked that your live shows get reviewed before your actual music does. What about your music is still underrated?
From the very beginning, we understood that we were naturally theatrical. Even when we didn’t have props, I’d find a mop backstage and it would become part of the show. If there was an eight-hour rehearsal, seven hours were on the music. We really wanted to be America’s Yardbirds. We wanted to be that band that could play with Led Zeppelin. If you don’t have those songs, you’re a puppet show up there — and we would have been gone a long time ago.

I’ve been listening to the Killer and School’s Out reissues, which were released earlier this year. What do you remember about the writing, recording, and touring of those records?
We were 22 years old and bulletproof. “I’m Eighteen” was a hit because it was like nothing on the radio. And then people went, Oh, come on, Alice Cooper can’t have hit records. We were the first band that was theatrical and sold records that people actually listened to. It’s when you hear McCartney and Dylan talking about your music, not your theatrics, that makes you go, “Oh my gosh. I’m embarrassed that they even know we’re alive.” It’s a humbling thing.

You opened the doors for a lot of genres: hard rock, heavy metal, punk, pretty much anything with a guitar and a sense of dramatics. Even in emo, like My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade.
“Teenagers” is a great song. I listened to that and said, “How did I not write that?” That and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When I heard that on the radio, I went, “Dammit, I should have written that song.”

Would you have changed anything about “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?
No. That was perfect because he was speaking for his generation, which I didn’t quite understand, the attitude and the language of it. But I heard it and went, “I get it.” Very hard to find bands that write good songs. It’s easy to write good parts. But it’s hard to find good songs. The last band I heard that I really flipped out over was the Strypes. Snapshot, that album. There’s not one clunker on it.

You once said you weren’t a Vampire Weekend fan and wondered why new American bands were so wimpy. I think the “American” part of that question is interesting.
Here’s the problem, and in some ways it’s a good thing. When you think of Guns N’ Roses, when you think of Mötley Crüe, when you think of Aerosmith, there’s a certain edge and danger. When you think of Vampire Weekend or Tame Impala, I say, “Who wants to call themselves Tame Impala? You’re a rock band!” I have the same problem with baseball. Why would you call your baseball team the Orioles?

Vampire Weekend is very good at what they do. Vampire Weekend were on Saturday Night Live, and I’m expecting vampires. But they had enough nerve to have two keyboards, and they’re wearing Polo golf shirts. Now that works if the golf shirts are stained in blood. If they’re totally bloodied out and they’re singing these nice songs, then I get it. That appeals to my sense of humor. But when I saw what they did, I went, “What a horrible waste of a great name.” They should have been Guys That Cut the Lawn. I think they missed the joke.

It’s probably too late for them to backtrack now.
It’s so funny because I have to explain myself all the time. I’ll be talking on my radio show about corporate rock, and I go, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with corporate rock.” Journey. Styx, even, though they’re a little more prog. Foreigner. They have perfect records, but they have no danger. Gene Simmons goes, “Rock is dead.” And I’m going, “No, rock is where it should be.” We used to be at the top of the mountain. Now young bands are on the outside looking in. We weren’t invited to the party. Hip-hop was, and so were all these girl acts that are now Vegas shows. But don’t call them rock. Young bands are now outlaws. They’re not the favorite son anymore. That’s a good place to be for young bands. You want to be the kid that got thrown out of class.

Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala do something that I can’t do, so I’m not knocking them. I’m just saying don’t put them in the same category as the Who or the Yardbirds. Because I protect rock. Rock should have an attitude. Rock should have a standard, and some of these bands don’t.

What standard?
There’s a certain amount of sex involved with it. There’s a certain amount of tribal feel in hard rock that when you hear it, you go, “Yeah!” When I hear these other songs, I go, “… Yeah. Oh, how lovely.” Again, I’m not knocking it. There are people that love that music.

How’s the Hollywood Vampires tour going so far?
Man, I’ll tell you what, the Vampires thing is so much different than my own tour. My tour is very choreographed. It’s a show. But when I play with the Vampires, I don’t have to be Alice Cooper. I could just be the lead singer. It’s fun to be in a bar band again.

What’s the difference between people who show up at an Alice Cooper show versus a Hollywood Vampires show?
For once, I’m not the focal point, which is great. Every female’s looking at Johnny Depp [laughs], which is totally understandable. I mean, Johnny’s a great guitar player. Joe Perry, same thing. But then they start listening and hear that this is a killer band, and they start watching the whole show. Alice the character never talks to the audience. Because that would make him human. You’re never going to hear, “Hey, how are you doing tonight? Is everybody having a good time?” That’s not Alice. In this show, though, I talk about Keith Moon. I talk about the Doors. Because what we’re really doing is we’re honoring our dead drunk friends. We do a lot of tributes. We do a full tribute to Jeff Beck.

Was there any hesitancy on your end to bring Depp on tour, given the domestic-abuse allegations against him?
Not at all. If you talk to Johnny about it, it was something that happened. He was just like, “Yeah, yeah, what’s the next song?” For Johnny, it was one of those things where … you can’t say it got blown out of proportion, but I don’t know why they would televise the proceedings, right? It’s because of the fame of both people.

The best thing I said about the whole thing was, “They should do a remake of War of the Roses with Johnny and Amber.” Who’s not gonna go see that? I’m going to see that! To make it even better, make their lawyers Angie and Brad. All you need is a really funny director, and that’s gonna be a monster hit.

Does the trial ever come up on tour?
I don’t think it was ever mentioned on the tour because nobody cared. I never watched a moment of the trials. It was so blown out of proportion. It was such a Hollywood thing. I knew Johnny was gonna win because how many people have other exes literally on their side testifying for him? That never happens. I turned it right off and said, “Well, you know, Johnny will weather this storm and when he’s onstage, he’s our guitar player.”

I want to touch on your tradition of running for president every year.
It was unfortunately because we had a hit called “Elected.” The most absurd person that you could ever want for president would be me. Now that I see who the candidates are, it’s not so absurd.

You were an early pioneer of being a celebrity running for president. How do you feel when you see other celebrities getting into politics?
I hate politics. I don’t think it belongs in rock and roll at all, only because rock and roll should be an escape from politics. Let’s say I’ve got a million fans in America and all of a sudden, I go, “Well, I’m voting for Fred, and if you’re my fan, you better vote for him.” Well, that’s not fair. People like their rock stars more than their politicians. So they’re gonna vote for whoever the rock star tells them to. I don’t mind standing up against issues and standing up for things, but when it comes to actual candidates, why would anybody listen to a rock star? I mean, that’s the last person I would go to if I wanted any information about politics.

The problem is that people decide that their rock stars are everything, just because they wrote a couple of good songs. Rock stars should be worried about their next song, their next album, and the next show. What Bono does, what Sting does, I don’t look at that as being political. I look at that as being humanitarian. That’s a whole different thing. I’m all for that.

You come from a religious family, and you’ve talked about your faith in interviews. The idea of Catholic guilt feels familiar in the works of artists like Bruce Springsteen or Martin Scorsese. Is there any sense of an equivalent Protestant guilt that comes out through your own music?
I grew up in the church. All my friends were from there. When the band got together, I went as far away as I could possibly go and I became the poster boy for everything that was wrong. The right-wing Christian world thought I was satanic. They heard about the hangings and the guillotine and the snakes and all that, and they didn’t count in the comedy of it. It was based in dark comedy. There was never anything anti-Christian in my show. There were never any upside-down crosses. There was nothing satanic.

When I became Christian, my pastor said, “Look at where God put you.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Well, you were the Fonz. You were the leader of the pack. And now you’re Christian. Don’t you think it’s a great place for you to be in rock and roll?” I went, “Yeah, I do.” He says, “Okay, I don’t think Jesus is looking at you and saying, ‘I gave you all this talent, don’t use it.’” I take time out to read and pray every single morning. I pray right before I go onstage. I’m in church every Sunday with my wife. We have a Christian teen outreach. But it’s not going to affect the show because there was never anything in the show that was anti-Christian.

Back to the “Catholic guilt” idea: A Springsteen show has an almost masslike quality to it, like you’re gathering people for a religious experience. I didn’t know if that came through intentionally in your shows. Or is this again Alice Cooper, the character, versus Alice Cooper, the person?
There is no Alice Cooper. I play the character Alice Cooper. I sometimes forget that I’m Alice Cooper. I play this character the same way I would play Macbeth. In the same way I would play Jack the Ripper. It’s not me. I am totally the opposite of that character. That’s why he’s so much fun to play. He’s an arrogant, condescending villain, and I’m anything but [laughs].

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Alice Cooper’s Advice to Rock Stars: Don’t Talk Politics