Love It To Death: An Interview with Alice Cooper Bassist
Note: This is the second part of a two-part interview. You can view the first part here.
Let’s talk about the band’s reputation as being so scary and freakish. What was that like?
Back in the old days, people generally appreciated us, our band, from a distance [laughs]. We had a lot of people that were afraid to come back stage. We had a lot of fans that didn’t want to get too close because they weren’t sure about our status. Even people that worked for us, I found out years later [were afraid of us]. When our roadie, Ronny Boltz asked us if we needed a roadie, we said, “Sure, come on.” Then when he got to the farm in Pontiac, Michigan, he had to room with Neal. He said he was very apprehensive about that. The next morning he felt so relieved when he found out we were a lot more normal than he thought we were.
Honestly, I didn’t really know the extent to which Alice Cooper was reputed to be such a violent bunch of freaks until I read Bob Greene’s book, Billion Dollar Baby.
See, time has not been kind to the shock value we had when we came out. Now, with bands like Marilyn Manson, it’s almost like what we did was tame compared to today’s standards, because we had to be shocking with outrageous standards of censorship. When we went to play somewhere, the promoters would withhold our pay and not pay us the full amount if any profanity went over the microphone or if anybody touched themselves or anything like that. The Humane Society would show up to make sure we didn’t hurt any animals – which we never did. The fire department would show up because we supposedly used pyro and stuff like that. So we had to shocking with everybody down our throats. But it was shocking. I mean, back in those days, just having a band with a girl’s name was shocking. It was totally outrageous, that’s why the band didn’t have more videos made and televisions stations didn’t want us on, because a lot of the advertisers might pull their spots. We were shocking, we were outrageous, but in retrospect it’s hard to imagine its full impact.
It must have been such an exciting time.
Also, I was the quiet observer in the band, generally. Outside of music, I was the quiet one. I’m the one that watched, listened, wrote down and remembered. But there are fans out there that know a lot more than anybody in the group [laughs].
Most fans/players say you are known for your cascading bass lines. How do you define your style? What do you think are your most unique talents as a bassist?
I’ve always liked that word, “cascading.” I don’t know who tagged that on me, but I like that one. I think the word I would choose is “innovative.” Some of my innovations are really born out of overcompensating for deficiencies. I used to be really self-conscious about this, thinking that if some bass player is standing out there watching me play, he’s going to think, “Jeez, this guy has some kind of a strange style. He’s not playing properly at all. He must not be that good.” To compensate for that, I would try to come up with the most unique bass runs that I could. That was part of my motivation, even though I would have tried to come up with those bass parts anyway.
Do you have specific playing techniques that are key to or that help to define your sound?
Let me tell you a story about Mike Watt, who Joe Bouchard took me to see play in New York. He walked out with an EB-3 bass and he said, “I can’t believe that my two bass heroes are here!” He said, “I’m playing this bass because of you! You’re gonna hear me playing your style” – which I really took as a compliment, because he’s really good [laughs]. But I could see what he was talking about. He was saying, “You’re the very first bass player that played chords.” That’s what Joe Bouchard says as well. But I never really played chords; I only played a fifth, so I played two notes at the same time. I did that because chords have a tendency to overpower the speaker. It just sounds muddy when you play a full chord. On “Gutter Cat,” basically I’m just playing the two top strings, which is part of the thing I’m doing in the “Dead Babies” riff. So I guess I’m sort of known for playing chords, even though I think playing up the neck [is more how my sound is defined]. Even a lot of bass players that play the early Alice Cooper songs, where I hear them play my parts they can’t stand to play the part up the neck. Say, on the pre-chorus part on “I’m Eighteen,” where I play this high bass part, they have to go down and play an A, an octave lower, because generally a bass player’s job is to hold down the bottom. I could get away with it because Neal was holding down the bottom so fully. I could stop playing and there would be plenty of bottom end on most of the Alice Cooper tunes.
Yeah, you and Neal were such a huge part of the band. It kills me to hear people talk about the early Alice Cooper group albums and refer to Alice Cooper as a “he.” Alice Cooper was a band.
Well, that’s just the nature of the music industry. If you feel bad for us, you also have to feel bad for Scotty Moore and Bill Black. Rockabilly was started by those guys, but all anybody knows about is Elvis. You know, we’re not the first group of people that that’s happened to, though I do resent having my creativity assigned to other people. That hurts me more than anything. However, I’m still playing; Neal and I have not gone a week, on an average, in all these years without playing together. We’ve been a rhythm section since 1969.
You’ve been playing with Neal now for over 30 years. How much of an impact does his playing have on your own style?
We have ESP. I know what he’s going to do without looking, and vice versa. When Neal and I play together it’s like we’re at home. There’s no comparison. And when I hear other people play our songs, as good as those musicians are, there’s always a major, key element missing.
Do you pay much attention to the guys playing bass in Alice’s band? Do you think they try to emulate your style/signature lines or are they doing their own thing with the classic ACG songs?
One of Alice’s bassists asked me at one point, “What can I do to play like you?” I told him, “Don’t play like anybody.” [Laughs]. If you want to be like me, don’t copy anybody, that’s how I feel. I think Alice has top-notch musicians. Anybody that pays for a ticket to see his show gets their money’s worth. Alice sounds better than he has in many years, but as far as the rhythm section – and the guitars as well – I like what we did. Also, innovation-wise, I don’t think anyone has touched us.
I would have to agree.
That’s why Alice’s show is still half an attempt to duplicate what the original band did. But I like all of the guys I’ve ever met who have worked with Alice, and I respect them, technically. Greg Smith was with Alice about as long as I was – maybe longer – but he played a lot of my parts with completely different positioning, without using a pick. I thought, “Wow, he’s got a tough job, doing that.” But he did it well.
During Alice Cooper live concerts, was there room for improvisation or did you mostly stick to set arrangements?
In the early days it was extremely improvisational. Then, as we got to point where we were filling larger rooms, we decided we had better build in some safety nets. We did have room [for some improvisation], mostly the type of thing which was popular in that era, but we did it in our own style. For example, during a guitar break, if Michael was doing the guitar break he could go as long as he was into it, or he would read the audience, and then he would cue us back in and we’d [come right back], as opposed to the early days where we had no idea where we were going. Personally, that’s what I wanted the band to do. I wanted us to be like an abstract, improvisational group that nobody had a clue of what was going to happen and every single night was different. We still maintained that a lot in our shows, but that didn’t always work. As we got to the big stadiums we wanted to guarantee that everyone would walk out feeling that they’d seen a professional show. So, Glen might do a guitar break that would go on as long as he wanted, and we would take it different places. If he started doing a different kind of a rhythm, I might pick up on it and Neal would pick up on it and all of a sudden it would go somewhere that had never been planned. But he would cue it back into something tight. During an evening, and even on the Billion Dollar Babies tour, we would have, say, the ending of “My Stars” go into something where Glen would fire up his Echoplex and it would get very ethereal and spacey. It would go on until we felt it was dragging. Then Michael would cue a big ending that we had written. It would always end up tight.
Endings are something that we learned in the early days. Somebody came to us one night in the real early days and said, “You guys are really good, but every time you stop playing it’s like you don’t have an ending, and that’s what people remember.” All they remember is that it sounded bad right at the very end. We worked very hard at song endings from then on. On stage, our music kept evolving. If we recorded, it’s almost like a snap shot was taken of that moment because “I’m Eighteen” and these various songs would keep evolving after [being captured in] the studio. They’d change on stage for each tour. One song would go into another and that type of thing.
We used to pride ourselves on medleys in the early days because we had more songs than we could play in one night. We would do a Rolling Stones medley and a Beatles medley and we got quite good at that — Michael Bruce especially. Over the years we had a lot of songs that we started but never finished. That’s how “Halo of Flies” came about. “Halo of Flies” is actually a medley of germs – we called them germs – that’s all it was. We just mapped it all out on a chalk board and named the parts, and we did it in one afternoon.
On “Muscle of Love” you do this trick on your bass during the verses, mimicking the sound of a motorcycle revving up. How did you do that?
That’s a common question from bass players who try to learn that song. I played that part live on stage, but in the studio, that sound is actually a squeeze drum being played by one of my favorite bass players, Jack Richardson. A squeeze drum is something that you hold between your knees and when you hit it, you squeeze your knees and that bends the note. It’s a big African drum, I think.
“Blue Turk” is my favorite AC song, how did you come up with jazz feel on that song?
You know why I like that song? Because Glen Buxton loved that song. Glen played so well on that, and he clicked in so well with those New York horn players, those jazz guys we hired for that track. They were on the same wavelength. Every time I hear that song, it inspires a nostalgic feeling for Glen. I love what he played on “Blue Turk.” As far as me playing a jazz feel, it’s really what I’d call pseudo jazz [laughs]. I love jazz players like Stanley Clarke, but I’m not a jazz player. During rehearsals, Mike Bruce and Glen and I would get in a sort of beatnik frame of mind and then we’d play these little jazz things, just for something different to run down during a long day of playing hard rock. This was just simply a piece that came out of that practice. It’s just a typical kind of bass run which a jazz player would do, except it’s on an electric instead of an upright.
What have been a few of the highlights of your career?
One of my favorite moments was when the Alice Cooper group played outside Frank Zappa’s bedroom door and landed a record deal by doing so.
That was your audition?
We showed up at nine o’clock in the morning, because he’d promised to come to two of our gigs and hadn’t. Alice was going out with Miss Christine of the GTO’s at the time, who was also babysitting Moon Unit. She said, “Frank’s going to be home tomorrow.” And we said “Oh great! Can we come over?” So she said, “We’ll set a time for nine o’clock. I’ll ask him and I’ll call you if it’s not okay.” Well, we showed up at nine in the morning instead of nine at night [laughs], and barged in with all of our equipment, set up outside of Frank Zappa’s bedroom door and started playing. His door cracked open and then his hand came out, like, “stop, stop!” Then he stuck his head out and said, “Let me get a cup of coffee and then I’ll listen.” After he listened, he signed us.
My other favorite memory was opening for Led Zeppelin on their very first show in the United States at the Whisky A Go Go [in Los Angeles]. That must have been in 1969. Playing the Hollywood Bowl was a biggie, just because that marked our return to LA, coming back as a success after leaving as a starving band. Also everybody was there, including Elton John. You know, Elton John never wore glitter until he saw us that night. All he talked about was how we dressed [laughs]. I also like this guy, Trevor [Bolder], the bass player for David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars. He was talking about how they were a blues band and David Bowie was trying to talk them into glamming out. They didn’t want to, so he made them go and see our band in London and then they decided that you can glam out and still look tough.
There you have it: Alice Cooper Started Glitter Rock.
When it comes down to it, I think my wife started glitter rock. [Note: for those who don’t know, Dennis’s wife Cindy is Neal Smith’s sister. Cindy designed costumes for the band in their early days and also danced on stage during the Billion Dollar Babies tour.] She’s the one that found these chrome fabrics and we were brazen enough to wear them when all anybody wanted to do was beat us up [laughs].
Another cool thing was when we got to back up Gene Vincent in Toronto at the Rock & Roll festival. That was a highlight, definitely. And one of my favorite gigs was right after we played the Toronto festival. One of the local clubs invited us over because they had invited people who needed a place to crash to come and bring their sleeping bags and just camp out in this club. The club owner hired us [to play], thinking that Alice Cooper sounded like a girl folk singer. Then we come in and he’s going, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, where’s Alice?” And we’re like, “We’re here, it’s us’ and he’s like, “No way, no way!” We promised him that we would tone down our show, but we didn’t. We came out on stage to a room full of people sleeping in sleeping bags.
That is so surreal. I can’t even imagine that.
For some reason, I hold that memory dear to my heart. That had to be in 1969 or early 1970, but it was later the same night as “the chicken incident,” or the early morning after. The other thing I like about the chicken incident night is that it was a rock and roll festival. Our band backed up Gene Vincent, so we would have some reason to be there. John Lennon was there also. John and Yoko had arrived and went into the backstage area of the stadium for a press conference. John decided that they were going to sit on our [feather] pillows, which we needed to rip open on stage. It turned into a stand off where we refused to go on stage without our pillows and John refused to give them up. Finally he gave us our pillows just in time for that part in the show. Plus by that time several people had run home and gotten more pillows, so we had tons of pillows by the time we were ready to rip them open.
Among those who know your work, you’re widely considered to be one of the greatest and most under-rated bassists in rock history. What advice do you have for young bassists who are truly dedicated to being excellent at their instrument?
First of all, if you have the burning desire that it really takes to be a great bassist, it doesn’t matter what anybody says. Advice is not going to hinder you or give you that magic desire. Knowing when to compromise and knowing when to stick to your guns is extremely important. A lot of times, I find that when there’s something I really think would be great, and I’m the only one who seems to think that, if I let it slide, when I come back the next day either I’m able to give other people a second stand on that point and win them over, or by the next day I realize it’s not as great as I thought it was. A lot of times you hear about bands breaking up over an incident like that. I think it’s better to let it slide and come back. That way you can re-evaluate how important it really is. No part is important enough to break up a band over. Frank Zappa said; if you stick together long enough, you will make it. A lot of it simply has to do with being able to stick together. It’s hard and it can mean a lot of compromise.
The other thing is just to sit down every day, even if it’s just for the fun of it, and play for half an hour. Concentrate on practicing the things you find the most difficult, because if those get easier, everything else will. Also, if you work with musicians that are better than yourself you will improve much faster than you will by working with musicians that are equally or less accomplished or as you.
It’s been great talking to you Dennis. There are so many fans of the original band that still love all those staggeringly influential records you guys made. I’m sure they will love this interview.
They’re out there alright. You know, I never knew. I used to feel totally erased from history until I went into the hospital about five or six years ago. I was in bad shape. But I could not believe how much mail I got from fans around the world and also [how much I get] because of the Internet now. That’s when I really realized there are a lot of people out there that remember the original band, and that really makes it worthwhile. That’s really all it’s about, for me. I’m thinking about music all the time. It’s an artistic thing, and that’s what I’m driven by. I still have the same challenges that I’ve always set for myself, and that’s to make the bass part be the ultimate, most unique bass part, and bring something that’s never been done before to a song. I don’t always achieve it, but that’s always my goal.
For more information on Bouchard, Dunaway & Smith: http://www.nealsmith.com