Neal Smith (Part I)

Conversations With The Platinum God

Neal Smith

An Interview with the Legendary Alice Cooper Drummer

This is kind of a funny story, actually:

Back when I still had a real job, Ink 19 publisher, Ian Koss and I would while away the hours at our respective lowest-possible-circle-of-Hell day gigs by chatting back and forth via the miracle of AOL Instant Messenger. Usually we would enjoy making mockery of my psycho bitch boss, known between us alternately as “The Fist” or “Lieutenant Hitler,” but we also amused each other by swapping internet links: mine culled mostly from Obscurestore.com or Modern Humorist and Ian’s frequently pulled from his favorite day-waster, Metafilter.com. Metafilter is a site where pop culture enthusiasts and assorted geeks like me and Ian exchange unusual or controversial links (helpmeleavemyhusband.com was one of my favorites) and odd bits of news that dorks like us find entertaining. Anyhow, on one particular lazy afternoon in the Datesweiser Furniture showroom, while The Fist was torturing the folks in the factory upstate, and I was probably listening to Frampton Comes Alive! or The Beatles at the loudest possible volume, Ian’s IM breaks my screen with this message “Do you know who Neal Smith is?”

Well, I had the feeling Neal Smith was a drummer — and a drummer I was supposed to know at that — but without a frame of reference, the name just wasn’t ringing a bell. “Do you mean Steve Smith?” I typed back: Steve Smith being the great drummer from Journey, a band I always seem to have to apologize for liking. Then Ian sends me a hyperlink to this URL: www.nealsmith.com. So, I click on it and — voila — that fantastic fucking drum intro to Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies” begins to play as the words, “Neal Smith, Rock N Realtor” fill the page. “Wow,” I probably said out loud, “Neal Smith from Alice Cooper sells real estate now!” I thought that was pretty rad and I spent a few minutes tooling around the different parts of Neal’s website, where there was a sort of “Readers Digest Condensed Version of the History of the original Alice Cooper Group” kind of thing and a cool picture of Neal with hair down to his ass sitting on the hood of a Rolls Royce. Rock & Roll and all that. There was also a hilarious picture of the modern day Neal with really short hair, wearing a suit and tie and looking like he wanted to sell me a house.

Ian and I spent a few minutes OH MY GOD-ing with each other. Then I decided to send Neal an email, telling him that I am a huge Alice Cooper fan since I was 11 years old or whatever (which everyone knows is true) and that my favorite songs are “Blue Turk” from School’s Out — which is just the coolest, sickest song on the planet — and “No More Mr. Nice Guy” from Billion Dollar Babies, my childhood theme song which I would play over and over while plotting revenge against my various schoolmate tormenters. “I am a journalist in NYC and I write for Modern Drummer…” I typed, knowing that (unless you are Jimmy Chamberlain) the words “Modern Drummer” always get a drummer’s attention, “…and I would love to do an interview with you some time.” And I probably signed that email “Love, Gail” or something totally unprofessional like that, because I was definitely feeling the love and, Jesus God, this was NEAL FUCKING SMITH FROM ALICE COOPER! And, you know, Billion Dollar Babies changed my life, man!

Neal wrote me back in ten minutes, I swear to god.

Neal Smith said that he would love to be interviewed by me as soon as he got back from playing some shows in Europe with his new band, Bouchard, Dunaway & Smith, which is Neal with Joe Bouchard, the original guitarist from Blue Oyster Cult, and Dennis Dunaway (AKA DENNIS FUCKING DUNAWAY), the original bassist from Alice Cooper. I always thought Dennis was the cutest boy in the band. After exchanging a few emails and a phone call, Neal and I arranged a time to speak and, after ninety minutes on the phone with one of the greatest rock drummers in history, I got the interview you are about to read. It was way worth the two days I spent transcribing the tape. You might want to get all psyched up right now by running over to your stereo and putting on a CD of Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits and dancing around the room while lip-syncing to “School’s Out” or “Elected” and then coming back and reading this interview. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Neal Smith was born on September 23, right on the Libra cusp. Well, alright.

I still love all of the original group’s albums the best, but I confess I do go to see Alice play out with his band when he comes to New York, because he’s still pretty rocking.

I love Alice and he’s done great over the years — he’s had his ups and downs like everybody — but I’m always so excited when he goes out and does great shows. But, let’s look at it realistically: it’s like seeing Mick Jagger with a back up band, when he does our stuff. Now, when I say Alice Cooper, I’m always talking about the band; if I say Alice, that’s his solo stuff. When Alice plays his songs, I don’t really care too much [who’s backing him up]. They always sound pretty good to me. But when the back up bands play our original stuff, after awhile I just get tired of listening to the drummers totally abort the parts that I wrote.

Well, Eric Singer (Alice’s touring drummer who also plays for KISS) has a very different playing style than you do.

There was one little comment from somebody that Eric Singer can be knocked off into a cocked hat after hearing me perform. And I’ve got to tell you, with all honesty — and I don’t know what’s meant by “a cocked hat” by the way — that was an English term. I have no idea, I have to learn the language one of these days. (Laughs) So, it was interesting to hear their feedback. In some of the emails I’ve received [from fans who saw us in Europe] they were going to see their heroes from when they were growing up. For a lot of people, in Europe especially, School’s Out was the big thing for them, but then we never went back to play Billion Dollar Babies. They’re thinking, “Gosh, these guys have to be in their fifties now,” and we went over there and we just kicked ass bigger and better than we’d ever done. I think it shocked people, which kind of upsets me because I think that the level that we had reached and obtained wasn’t by accident. We did a hell of a show and it wasn’t just Alice — with my snake, by the way — and make up, which was Dennis’s idea, by the way.

That was your boa constrictor?

Yeah, Kachina was my snake, and I still have a boa constrictor to this day, I’ve had one for ten years now. But in those days everybody had to work on stage if they wanted to eat, so when we wrote “Is It My Body?” that was a perfect kind of stripper/burlesque song and we just tried it a couple of times with Kachina and it worked great.

And she dug it.

(Laughs) Yeah, she was the star of the show! And then she had that album cover (Killer). I mean, none of us ever had a solo album cover, but she certainly did. It was all like, “our family,” and I’m holding her on the back cover of the album, up over everybody’s head. Only one shot out of hundreds of shots came out with her tongue sticking out, and we said, “That’s the cover!” (laughs). We were at the [photo] session and we said, “Just start firing your camera,” because sooner or later you’re going to get the tongue sticking out, because it’s like lightning. And who wants to see a snake without its tongue hanging out? It’d be like Gene Simmons, why bother?

When BDS played in Europe, did you find it’s mostly old Alice Cooper fans or Blue Oyster Cult fans that come to see you play?

Well, there’s a real heavy fan base over there, yeah. These are people probably in their forties, plus or minus. There were younger people too, but I think the majority, for this time around [were old school fans]. Of course, rock is so much bigger over there now than it is here in the states. There’s other forms of music that have taken the limelight [in the States] and I certainly don’t consider Britney Spears and the boy groups to be real rock. It’s just glammed up bubble gum stuff.

Madonna’s a great songwriter, but it breaks my heart that she’s singing the song from the new James Bond movie. I’ve been a James Bond fan forever. Goldfinger was one of the first movies I ever saw in a theater. With John Barry doing the score and Shirley Bassey singing the song — and then she was brought back to sing “Diamonds are Forever” — [those were] two of the great songs in the movie business. That sinks into your soul. That’s one of my influences, not just the big bands or rock & roll, I also liked soundtracks. I think that helped the theatrical edge we had to the Alice Cooper group. And I hate that term, “Alice Cooper Group.” I’d rather use Alice Cooper, or “the group called Alice Cooper,” I always say.

Now that you bring that up, you know there was such a weird, kind of fuzzy transition, between the time that the band broke up and Alice went and did his own thing, using the same name, basically. So, it’s a solo act now, but it’s still the same name, and I think it was confusing for a lot of the fans. Was there ever any kind of weird jealousy thing when the band broke up but Alice continued under the same name?

Well, we owned the name, but we’d just been through a big law suit with Frank Zappa and we weren’t about to go through another one. We had made arrangements and worked everything out, because “Alice Cooper Inc.” is a corporation that all five of us owned and still to this day own. But we were too good of friends and [letting the name become a problem] was never going to happen. Then Alice changed his name legally and I know that wasn’t an accident, that he changed his name legally after he went solo. You know, everybody has to do what they think is the best thing to do at the time.

Yeah, but my feeling is that nothing he’s done on his own has ever been able to touch anything that the original band did. I think that’s just a fact.

That’s a fact. It’s also a fact that, hopefully, what Bouchard, Dunaway & Smith is doing now is reaching some new levels. We had Ian Hunter come in to help us with some of the writing on a few of the songs, so this is a world class band with world class writing. It’s not exactly like the Travelling Wilburys, but it’s sort of along the same line. We’re people that have been there and done that and just love playing for the fans. If we can pick up some new fans, that’s great.

Like I said, what you really saw with Alice [on his own] was Vince out there doing the best thing he could with studio musicians. In my book, studio musicians are just hired guns, like someone mowing your lawn. You hire them to do a job and after that they might go on the tour with you or you hire them again, but they’re not going to be in the band forever. I mean, Charlie Watts is a member of the Stones. John Bonham was in Led Zeppelin until he died. Keith Moon was in [the Who] until he died. But because his name was Alice Cooper and the band’s name was Alice Cooper — and that was intentional, nobody ever had a problem with that — [it was] just the way things progressed and evolved or mutated. We had been together for a long period of time, recorded a lot of stuff, and we either rehearsed, recorded or were on the road every single day. If we got into Jamaica for a show a day early, that would be our vacation. Trying to recuperate from jet lag, those were our vacation days.

That was such a different time too, because bands would sometimes put out two albums a year, or at the very least one a year.

I think between the Greatest Hits, which came out after Muscle of Love in I think it was 1975, and our first album was out in 1968, so essentially in seven years we had eight records. Maybe it was even eight records in six years, it depends on when Pretties For You actually came out. It could have been more… But anyway, we were certainly on track for at least one album a year, and there was one year that we did Love It to Death and Killer — two in the same year. That was a lot of work, but we were also recording albums a lot quicker in those days too. That was another testimonial to the musicianship of the band. When we played out live, we were actually learning from those things and we were lucky enough to translate live performances to recordings, and a lot of bands don’t do that. Cheap Trick is a great example. You know they did some great songs and had great albums, but Live at Budokan just blew them onto the worldwide stage. It’s such a great album because of the energy that they got out of it. There’s really two different levels of a band: in the studio and on stage. Of course, back up musicians never, ever have the same ability to perform on stage with the same kind of energy and enthusiasm as a full band – plus the chemistry, too [is missing]. Chemistry is so huge.

Yeah, no kidding.

I was just lucky enough to join up with a bunch of guys that I knew in Arizona. I had been playing in rival bands and I knew them all. Dennis and Glen and Alice and I went to the same college together the last year that we were in Phoenix. They took off for LA and my band took off for San Francisco and my band broke up. I went back to LA to try to find a band and they kicked their drummer out while I was living with them. For the first couple of years, especially, we were starving in Detroit. We had left Los Angeles and had done the first two albums with Straight Records, with Frank Zappa. I figured, if I’m going to be starving, and I can’t buy beer, at least if I’m in Los Angeles, I’ll be warm. (Laughs) There were some times, right before Love It To Death that you really had to go the extra mile. Tighten your belt a bit and get your mettle going and say, “Okay, we’re in this for the long haul.” It wasn’t like everybody was comfortable and we were eating three square meals a day; that wasn’t happening. We were really just scraping by in those days, right before Love It To Death. I think that has a lot to say about character, we had nothing to lose, who gave a fuck, ya know? Nobody told us what to do. I think that things changed near Billion Dollar Babies and Muscle of Love, where people were starting to be hired for the staging and the lights and all that sort of thing. It wasn’t that we weren’t in control of it anymore but it was being done [for us] and then we would go look at it and we just adapted to it. I didn’t have a problem with the Billion Dollar Babiesstage, but I know not everybody in the band was real happy with it.

What do you mean exactly?

Just the way it was situated and laid out, because of the lighting. There was a lot of dark lighting, which sort of started to hide the band a little bit. But our performance was always pretty moody. I think that we always had a very moody show. It’s never been where you’ve got 15 super trooper bright spotlights on stage through the whole show. We tried to build momentum throughout the show, you know: come on strong, take a little bit of a lull, bring it back up, then a lull again and then — boom! –hit them with everything. That’s the way we always did it with the Alice Cooper show. I mean, it’s basic Theatrics 101. A lot of bands come on and they’re on eleven for the whole thing, (laughs) and that’s okay. It’s just another way to do it. And if their audience loves it, that’s fantastic. There’s no rules, but I’ve always liked dynamics in drumming. That’s one thing, certainly, a drum machine can’t do.

That must really bother a serious player like yourself.

I wasn’t too happy about drums through the 80’s. I’ve got the drum machines and tried to fool around with them and everything, but after awhile I just said, “Fuck this stuff. This is just a glorified metronome.”

Something I always loved about your playing is that you do these rad extended fills that sound like they’re just about to fall apart, but then they keep on going and pull you right back into the song. Have you always been concerned with doing those kinds of fills, or do you even have to think about it?

My technique to playing was always — when I was in high school, and even Jr. high and going back to grade school, because I started playing drums when I was eleven or twelve years old — to learn the rudiments and then just try to play in the orchestra and the marching band. As corny as all that shit sounds, all I wanted to do was play. I played in an amateur theater in the midwest in Akron, Ohio, where I was born and raised — same as Glen (Buxton) but we didn’t know each other when we lived there. Then, if a band in High school needed a drummer, I would play anything that gave me the opportunity to play. Once I had the basic rudiments, then I started listening to Gene Krupa, and then to Sandy Nelson and Dennis Wilson with the Beach Boys. A lot of the drummers that influenced me, they were not just drummers. Sandy Nelson of course, was a solo artist back in the early 60’s and probably helped develop the whole surf sound. I loved all the surf bands in the early 60’s. When I was in high school I played in bands and “Wipe Out” was one of the biggest songs that we would do. I always kept that kind of spirit and energy in the music, I love it. Then came the British Invasion and you hear Ringo and you hear Charlie Watts, Ginger Baker and Keith Moon. All of a sudden it’s like, you know what? There’s a whole world of music that hasn’t even been touched yet, even with all these great drummers.

When I felt a part coming, or I was working out a song, I would imagine what one of the drummers that influenced me might play on that song. “Black Juju” (from Love It To Death) was just a real twisted “Sing Sing Sing” by Gene Krupa. Very, very, very different, but it’s just a travelling, consistent floor tom tom. His emphasis was just different, for a swing beat, but that’s just one example, and I won’t give too many of them away (laughs). That was always my approach, but what happens when you do that is that it never sounds like the person that’s inspiring you. Once you develop your style, it just sounds like you.

Well, that’s the way it should be. Ideally, your influences should be invisible.

You hope. And that was one thing that really bugged me about the ’80s too, is that Stewart Copeland from The Police was one of the last drummers I really liked. Then after we got through the ’80s and we’re into playing real drums again, Jimmy Chamberlain from Smashing Pumpkins, I think he’s one of the best drummers of the ’90s. That’s one of the few bands that I consistently listened to. They’ve written some really cool stuff. I wish I had time to listen to more music but if I have the time I’d rather write music than listen to it.

You’ve played with Dennis for so long now, you must have a pretty strong dynamic together.

I’ve played with a few other bass players but I never, ever want to water down or underestimate how important Dennis and I are in influencing each other’s style — or at least Dennis influencing my style. I mean, it’s a rhythm section, like John Paul Jones and John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, or Keith Moon and John Entwistle of The Who, or even Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, or Ringo and Paul McCartney, to an extent. All the great rhythm sections of rock and roll had their own chemistry as well as the talent of the individual musicians themselves. I think that’s one of the cool things that comes out of playing with him now, if someone says “Well, this sounds like ‘Gutter Cat..’ ” or “This sounds like that song…” well, no shit. It’s not just restricted to what we did with Alice Cooper; that’s how we play music, and that’s how we’ll always write songs. I’m sure that if Bill Wyman was out with somebody and Charlie Watts [was the drummer] and they wrote something, it would surprisingly enough sound a lot like the Stones, because that’s the rhythm section [from that band].

It’s funny you would bring that up, because I couldn’t help but notice that the intro to “She Was a Bad Girl” — off the DB&S record — is very similar to that of my favorite Alice Cooper song, “Blue Turk.” I wondered if that was an intentional homage.

If I come up with a drum intro to a song, it doesn’t have to be like “Billion Dollar Babies,” but I always like to look at drums as a part of the music of the band. Probably the biggest compliment I’ve had over the years is that when I play by myself, it sounds like music. When Bob Ezrin and I used to get the drums sound, we worked together on it, but if we were going to do a song and the song was going to be in “B” then all the drums would be tuned to a note that’s in a B chord. That’s how precise I wanted to be that it sounded musical. Believe me, it’s like tympanies, which are always tuned to a note. It would have made a difference on “Black Juju” if that floor tom had been in another note than it was. Its like playing a note on a piano. My tuning has always been important. When they had all the chips and that sort of thing in the 80s and everybody sounded like the same band, that’s totally out the window. It was a good experimental time, I guess, but I went right back to acoustic drums.

• •

On to Part II of this interview…

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