Neal Smith (Part II)

Conversations With The Platinum God

Neal Smith

An Interview with the Legendary Alice Cooper Drummer

Note: This is the second part of a two-part interview. You can view the first part here.

• •

Tell me about some of the kits you’ve played over the years. You must have quite a collection.

I have probably 200 drums in my house; I have every drum I’ve ever owned. I have my original set, a Rogers and a Ludwig that I put together, that was the Pretties for You and Easy Action set. When we played at the Rock & Roll Revival and Peace Festival in Toronto, our first huge outdoor show that we did, we got on the show and played in front of 20,000 people. That was when “the chicken incident” happened. I still have those drums, and that’s a great set. Right after that, Slingerland sponsored me for a couple of years, after Love it To Death and Killer. By then, I wanted even more drums. The Slingerland set for Love it To Death actually had eighteen drums in it. But I always recorded on the silver sparkle set. For the Killer tour, I got the chrome drums and there’s twenty drums in that set up.

Then, of course, for Billion Dollar Babies, that was the mirrored kit. That was actually Dennis’s idea, to put the mosaic mirrors on my drum shells. I’d just been over in England after the School’s Out tour and Premiere Drums offered me a sponsorship. We were trying to figure out something cool to do for the Billion Dollar Babies show that would be pretty spectacular and had never been done before. That set of drums had 24 drums — I was going up two drums every time I got a new drumset. What we did was we got just plain wood [shells] and then my roadies, with an adhesive or something, put the mirrors on. They were in big, 12 by 12 inch sheets, so they didn’t have to put them on one at a time, otherwise they’d still be putting them on today [laughs]. I remember the first time [I played that kit], we began the show with “Hello Hurray” and there’s the fog on the stage and the super trooper [spotlight] comes down…and when it hits the drumset it looks like a million laser beams coming out of the drums. I’ve never seen a picture of it, but Peter Criss copied that for Kiss. I think from Destroyer on they had the mirrored drums. And Tommy Lee may have had some mirrored drums recently also. But that was the very first one, ever. I still have that set, too.

You could have a drum museum!

I could, I have a lot of drums. I’ve also collected them from around the world. I’ve got Native American drums from the southwest, African drums, instruments and drums from South America and some clay drums from the Middle East. It’s quite a collection, and I keep [adding to it]. You heard the Cinematik albums that I sent you? [Note: Cinematik is another of Neal’s side projects, a trio specializing in music similar to that of Tuatara or The Wayward Shamans].

Yeah, that seems to be based on lot of hand percussion.

That’s where I really get to use the hand percussion, on those albums, which is very experimental. Going back to the band, Alice Cooper, it just gave me so much freedom to write parts. Instead of just going in there and playing like Mickey Dolenz from the Monkees, just holding down a beat, it was always about what can you do to add to, and become a part of the soul and spirit of the music. I think Glen did it, I think Dennis did it and I think I did it. Then Michael Bruce of course, just the great songs that he wrote and Alice’s great lyrics, that was the chemistry of the band. It’s just a lot of drums I have to dust all the time, that’s all.

I’ve seen an old video of the Alice Cooper band playing in some club, where you seem to be playing one of the largest Ludwig sets anyone ever handled, and you pretty much hit everything. Does your physical build, being that you’ve very tall and lanky, have much to do with your playing style?

I’m sure it does, because I’m about 6′ 3″; and my arm span is probably at least 6 feet. I’ve never known how to take this, but a lot of people say that I’m a simulated octopus on stage. The only reason I would take that as a compliment is because of “Octopussy’s International Circus” from James Bond. I would say that keeps me in good company, if I look at it that way.

Well, you can also consider that in any animated cartoon animal band, the Octopus is always the drummer.

Yeah, I know, go figure [laughs]. My height certainly had an awful lot to do with [my style], but it also came from my musical background. On “School’s Out,” when you heard the bongos, or on “Blue Turk” [snaps fingers] that was supposed to be real beatnik kind of hip — a little camp obviously, but we wanted to get the true effect — so, from the set that I had, I added a regular set of bongos and then another set, that was just a little bit bigger, right above my hi-hat. A lot of drummers probably couldn’t get to it, but for me it’s just a snap. Sometimes it looked like I played everything, and other times people would say, “Why have all those drums if you didn’t play them all?” It’s not about that. Why have eighty-eight keys on a piano, do you play them all the time? Fuck no, you play what you need to make something work in a song. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve with the drumset. Just to put a bunch of drums up there to have a bunch of drums, to me, was never the reason. I could play them, but I also worked off different sections of the kit. There’s orchestra toms around the floor toms, two different sized floor toms. The bigger one I love to use on “Black Juju,” but the smaller one I would just use as a normal tom tom. You play the different sections of the drum set when you need them. Of course, the bass drum, snare, hi-hat and cymbals is always consistent. Even when we went to Europe just recently, the second show was at a club in London. By the second show I could do almost anything that I could think of in my mind [with the kit I was playing]. To be able to do that, in my fifties, with the speed and the precision that I want to do it — and for two hours, which is a long time — that was great. We’ve been working hard, doing a lot of rehearsing and we figured, “If the Stones can go out there and play for two hours, then so can we.” But you really have to be in pretty good physical condition.

It sounds like you’ve always had a lot of fun, no matter what you’ve done in your career.

Oh yeah. I mean, if I get pissed off — boom — I explode and that’s it. But I’m always on a pretty good vibe. I’m a happy person.

Do you ever think back on the way the Alice Cooper band suddenly found a huge audience and wonder about the miracle of perfect timing?

Oh yeah. I realize that, with everything that happened with the band, every bit of the way, it was all time timing. There were a couple of instances with that band, where just the right couple of things in the right couple of days could have happened differently and it would have never been the same. You put all that together with the timing and the luck and [the fact that] it has to be right for the public. The Flower Power thing from the ’60s was going down hill, Bill Graham hated us, because he was one of the first people who said If [Alice Cooper] ever made it, everything that had made him a multi-millionaire with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead and all the bands in San Francisco was going to slowly come to a halt. He was very concerned, but that’s what happens in music.

Coming from the old school of rock, like you do, are there any aspects of drumming that you consider to be a lost art?

A lost art? I think the basic rudiments, you know, such as rolls, snare rolls. Certainly, on Killer, it was a great opportunity for me to do the death dirge on a field snare — that I still have, by the way. We took the snares off the field snare so it sounded like a dirge on a tom tom, like right out of any movie soundtrack that you’ve ever heard; like one about the French Revolution, where they’re cutting people’s heads off or hanging people on the gallows. That kind of an effect, I think, is great. I also think that Keith Moon used that effect in “I Can See For Miles.” On the Easy Action album, there’s a song called “Return of the Spiders.” That the whole song was just [sings] “da da da da,” you just keep a roll going through the whole song, emphasizing all the beats. On “Elected” I did that, too. It comes up again on the Smashing Pumpkins song, “Tonight” where you actually get back into playing your instrument, you know what I’m saying? You play your instrument as a guitar player plays his instrument. It’s the difference between playing, not necessarily lead drums, but you have so much to work with on a set of drums and people limit themselves immensely. Then they get out there and they try to do a drum solo and it sounds like Ricky Ricardo in a conga line. You know, as we wrote songs, we experimented all the time and it gave me a great outlet. That would be the one thing I would like to see drummers do a little bit more of.

You’ve talked a bit about your distaste for drum machines, but I wondered how you feel about some of the technological advancements that have been made as far as how drums are recorded these days, and how do you feel about programming?

The technology is out there to do things like [programming], and that’s another art form. It’s like, if you’re a painter, you can probably paint on a computer, but it’s never going be the same. Maybe [programmers will] raise that level of an artform to new heights, that’s possible too. But the technology in music has always been strong. That was one thing that I thought was great, even though I wasn’t crazy about the drumming through the ’80s, is that the technology was taking off a lot quicker in the music business than it was in normal businesses. Studios were going digital and using computers way before offices across the county were. I think music has always been very open to change in things like that. That’s very cool.

Programming is okay, but you get no dynamics whatsoever when you do that. I’m sure somebody could say that you could just lower the volume and bring it back up, but there’s a difference between the level that you hit something and the way that the actual attack hits the instrument. There’s something for everybody if you want to try to experiment with drums.

Matt Laug, a drummer I interviewed a few years ago was telling me that drum machines aren’t around anymore for pop/rock, because producers want the drummer’s input. If you listen back to stuff that was recorded in the ’80s, when the drum machine first came around, there’s no feel at all, because a drummer wouldn’t play like that. There’s this perfect-feeling time, but there’s no feel in the track, so it went full circle again back to playing with a real drummer.

I don’t mind playing with a click track because I understand, as a song writer, that there’ll be a tempo where the song dies and falls apart and then there’s a tempo where the song runs away. But there’s a tempo that’s the perfect tempo for every section of a song, and I try to find that on a metronome while I’m writing a song. Then as you play it, it starts to come together. I do think that if you’re playing along with a metronome — and they have wonderful digital metronomes now, in studios — if you’re playing properly — you know what? — you don’t hear the metronome, because it’s right on the beat, and you’re playing over the beat. I can still get energy on a song played to a metronome, no problem at all. But, when you’re programming the drums, [what Matt Laug said] is exactly right.

When Alice did the Constrictor album in the mid-80’s with Cane Roberts, he wanted to work out and do the pre-production of Constrictor here in my studio in Connecticut. I always offer, to this day, anything that’s mine to anybody in the band; you know, Michael, Dennis, Glen when he was alive, or Alice. He wanted Dennis and I to work on the sessions, so Alice and Cane came up and we worked out all the songs in pre-production live, as a power trio with Alice singing. I still have some of the tapes, the four-track demos of those songs. They had the energy and they were alive. Then, when Alice recorded them, whoever recorded the album synthesized the drums and the bass. They programmed that and then Cane played live guitar and Alice sang. They were still very good songs, but that’s a perfect example of there being no feel in the songs. They didn’t go into the extra dimension of the energy and the life of playing a song with a real rhythm section.

I wanted to ask you again about Cinematik. Is that project still active?

We’re actually trying to find a label. We’re really writing more music aimed at being a part of a movie. I hate the term ‘New Age.’ It’s a little mellower, but not as boring as some New Age stuff. And it’s all hand percussion, but there’s one or two songs where I actually use a drum from a set of drums. Otherwise it’s all tom toms or shakers or clay drums, just a vast variety of drums that I have in my collection. I always wanted to do that and, from an experimental standpoint, it’s a lot of fun. I think that’s what real music is, when you can actually experiment.

You never know where the experiment will take you.

I mean, on School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies it was all about working with Bob Ezrin and taking our songs — mine, Michael’s, Dennis’s — and Alice’s lyrics, putting them all together and keeping the spirit, the real twisted, sick side of Alice Cooper. How do you make that commercial? How do you take a single and make it work? It would have to be bigger than life, like “I’m 18”; it has to be topical, like “School’s Out.” And “No Mister Nice Guy” is a great song, too. I wouldn’t say they’re epics, but they’re bigger than life songs.

Oh come on, those are fucking epic songs. They’re classics.

Well that’s a compliment, and I think that that’s also why those original albums still sell four or five hundred thousand copies year, worldwide. As a matter of fact Love it to Death, finally went platinum in the summer of 2001. That was especially cool, because everything else went platinum except Muscle of Love — and the Greatest Hits, I think is ready to go multi-platinum. Of course Alice is out there doing things and that certainly helps the sales of the catalog.

Everyone must own a copy of Billion Dollar Babies. I think it’s a law, actually.

To me, some of the great classic songs that reveal the dark side of what we were, are on that album; “Sick Things” and “I Love the Dead.” There was just some great stuff on there, and I remember recording those songs and when we played them live. The Greatest Hits album is still very popular and has all the hits on there. I think the only one that wasn’t a single was “Desperado,” but I think that may have been the flip-side of “Under My Wheels.” I would still love to see “Dead Babies,” “Killer,” “I Love the Dead,” “Sick Things,” “Black Juju” — you know, all the real macabre, dark side of Alice Cooper — [show up on an album], but the record companies are too wuss ass to do that. Somebody told me once, “Well, a lot of those songs are on Billion Dollar Babies,” [laughs], which is kind of true…

How did the success of that album change things for the band?

That album was such a huge breakthrough. Billion Dollar Babies hit a level that we weren’t even thinking about, ever. We were happy to have [hits with] “Under My Wheels,” “I’m 18,” and “School’s Out.” The singles just kept getting bigger and bigger; the albums kept selling more and, all of a sudden, Billion Dollar Babies hit and, in 1973, we’re one of the largest grossing tours in Rock & Roll, ever. We had our own plane, we had it all. In March, Billion Dollar Babies was number one in Cashbox, Record World and Billboard in the same month. Not too many artists — even some of the biggest artists in history — have hit all three charts at number one at the same time. That was when, I think, anything we’d ever dreamt about was surpassed. You can have dreams, you can be focused and you can do things, but when you go beyond that dream, that’s what happened on the Billion Dollar Babies tour.

Before that tour ever started, I was driving a Rolls Royce and going out with some of the most beautiful girls in the world. Afterwards, it was like, we were rich, [but with] a couple more hits like this and [we figured] we would be wealthy forever. Like Glen said, someone asked him before he passed away, “What are you doing in Clarion, Iowa?” and he said “I go to the mailbox and collect royalty checks.” [laughs]. That was a great answer. Of course, in Clarion, Iowa you can live on that; in Connecticut, it buys gas for my cars.

Something I didn’t know until the re-release of that album a couple of years ago is that Donovan sang the co-lead vocals on the song “Billion Dollar Babies.” Were you in the studio when that happened?

We recorded that in Morgan studios in London and Donovan was recording in the same studios, but they had an annex across the street. He was right there when we were doing this back and forth vocal part and he was cool enough [laughs] to come over and do it [with Alice]. Of course, Donovan was huge as far as we were concerned, with the British Invasion and his input into music in the ’60s. I forget which album he was recording… He came over and helped us and we thought that was really, really cool of him to do that. He did a great job and that’s what’s cool, that’s what happened with the energy of what became Alice Cooper. Anybody gets in that studio and it just gets twisted, but it gets twisted in a good, creative way, and you could feel free to experiment doing whatever you wanted. It was an environment that was just great to work in and it was never forced: it just flowed. So, yeah, that was very cool that Donovan did that. A lot of people might not know that was him.

Tell me about Platinum God, the solo album that you recorded in the ’70s but didn’t release until 1999; why the long delay?

After we had been in South America in early 1974, we decided to take a year off, and when we took that year off, there was a lot of soul searching going on. Michael Bruce wanted to do a solo project. Michael was really a student of the Beatles, as far as how his songwriting went, his chord structures. For many years we had been taking his songs and turning them into Alice Cooper songs, and he wanted to do some stuff and wanted to release the songs in their original form. Obviously, that gave both me and Alice the opportunity to record. Alice did Welcome to My Nightmare and I did Platinum God. I took Platinum God around to some places and didn’t really get a deal for it. Then Mike Bruce got a deal in Europe to release his record, so In My Own Way was released and then Welcome to My Nightmare was released. Those three albums were all recorded at the same time.

I had two tracks that I never finished, and I dug the tapes out after Glen passed away in 1997 and we all started to realize our mortality. Since I’ve had my website for six or seven years, I keep getting email from people who want to find out whatever happened to Platinum God, because it was written about in the fan magazines and trade magazines, but never was released. I said, well, I’ll put it together and put my own label together and make it available. There were two songs, two bed tracks that I had found in 1999 and I went back and listened to them. I didn’t have the original masters but it was a very clean track and it was all rhythm guitar, bass and drums. I was hoping there were no vocals on it and no lead guitar, and there wasn’t. We went into the studio and we put it into a digital format and then Richie Scarlet came up and did some lead guitar work on it. I finished the lyrics on both songs. One of them is “Maneater Deadly to Her Prey” and the other is “The Seas a Maneater,” which are similar songs…they’re sort of retarded cousins.

Not to mention the word “Maneater” is in both titles. Sounds like someone got burned by an ex-wife somewhere along the way…

[Laughs] Well, that would be in “Love’s a Killer.” But we went in and re-mastered everything, remixed it, re-EQ’d it. I made a couple thousand copies and started selling it on the internet. I took it over to the UK with me and a lot of people bought them when we were just over there. It’s just been sort of a collector’s thing and it’s fun. But it was some unfinished business and, like I said, [it was one of those things] when you start to realize your mortality. I was totally shocked when Glen died and I figured there were a couple of things I wanted to finish up in my life and one was Platinum God, and to at least make it available to the people who cared about it. It’s a very nice package and I was really ecstatic with the way it worked out.

Jack Douglas, who had produced Aerosmith, was in the studio with us and he’d produced our last album, Muscle of Love, with Jack Richardson. When we were doing that album, I’d asked Jack if he’d be interested in working with me on the project and he was. Some of the things were a little bit too experimental for him and I wasn’t happy drum-wise. But then on the actual song “Platinum God,” anything that I wanted to do or experiment with, that was the song that was the huge launching point for me. It mixed the song with the soundtrack, essentially. When I hear a song I really like, I always see a visual with it, and I always have — like a soundtrack.

When did you get into the real estate gig and how’s that going?

Oh, it’s great, I’ve been doing it since the mid-Eighties. It gives me the time and the flexibility to still do music, but still have a 100% career in real estate. Of course, the whole band moved here from Pontiac, Michigan to Fairfield, Connecticut in 1972, because that’s when we started recording School’s Out. Then Dennis [Note: Dennis is married to Neal’s sister, Cindy] and I never left, Michael had gone out to Lake Tahoe, Alice went to, I think, Chicago and Glen went back out to Arizona. I love it here, but I go out to the southwest once or twice a year and Alice and I get together. We all visit each other all the time, we just saw Michael over in Europe. When I was in Arizona for couple of weeks last February for a long vacation, Alice and I played golf. We have a great time every time we’re together, and we reminisce and tell some cool stories. Everybody gets along well and we never wanted to have any of these nightmares like you hear happen with some bands. We’re like family.

• •

Neal’s CDs can all be purchased from http://www.nealsmith.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply

Recently on Ink 19...

From the Archives