Gary James' Interview With Ex-Alice Cooper Drummer
Neal Smith was the original drummer in the Alice Cooper band. That's him pounding the skins on hits like "School's Out", "I'm Eighteen", "Billion Dollars Babies" and "No more Mr. Nice Guy". He played on the "Pretties For You" album, the "Easy Action" album and of course "Love It To Death", "Killer", "School's Out", Billion Dollar Babies and "Muscle Of Love". He has six Gold and five Platinum records to his name. The Alice Cooper Group was the first band to introduce a little something called theatrics to the Rock stage, something that has now been widely accepted. The group sold over 25 million records. In 2011, the Alice Cooper Group was inducted into the Brock And Role Hall Of Fame. Neal Smith has just released his latest CD, "Kill Smith And the Green Fire Empire" (Kachina Records)
Q - Neal, it's been 34 years since we last spoke! I interviewed you back in April 1980.
A - (laughs). Well, how are you doing?
Q - And I think every 34 years we should speak!
A - Absolutely. I've got it on the calendar now.
Q - Is it your hope or intention that "Kill Smith And The Green Fire Empire" becomes a movie?
A - Well, it certainly is food for thought. I'm currently working on a movie with a friend of mine called Desolation Angels: Rise Of The Boas. We've been working on it for about a year and it'll be another year before it's finished, so I'm kind of teething on that sort of thing right now. It's an original story. It's a great story. The new CD is out ,"Kill Smith And The Green Fire Empire", but I am also in production of a 30 page book. It's a small book. It has got the CD in it, but it tells the whole story and has all the lyrics and illustrations of the story. It is not a screenplay, but it gives enough of the information that from there a screenplay could be written. Just things I'm toying with. Trust me, I have seen a lot worse movies than this. It is an adventure movie and it has got all the good elements.
Q - Where did you get this story line from?
A - I don't know. It's just one of those things that I've been writing over the years. As a matter of fact, when Alice and I got together, it was about five years after the "Constrictor" album, I started going out to Arizona in the early '90s. Alice got me into golf. A couple of times in the mid-'90s we got together in his house and had a couple of White Castle hamburgers and Cokes and started talking about like a concept. We never developed it, but it's not the same story at all. I started thinking about it after we were together. Every once in a while I'd write a song and I never thought about a concept album. "Billion Dollar Babies" what sort of a concept. "School's Out" was sort of a concept. But this is more like a Rock Opera where every single song has to do with the theme of the album.
Q - And this is the third "Kill Smith" project, correct?
A - Exactly. There is "Sexual Savior", "Kill Smith 2" and now "The Green Fire Empire".
Q - I never realized there were two CDs before "Green Fire". Were you actively promoting them?
A - Yeah. I've been promoting them, but this one for some reason just seems to be getting a lot more attention than the other ones. The other ones are certainly available, but this has a little more depth to it I think because, I don't like the term Rock Opera 'cause it is a concept. The other ones are pretty much Heavy Metal all the way through from beginning to end whether it's a slow tempo or an up tempo, but this I've had some variety on the music. Sort of like "Billion Dollar Babies". There would be something like "Mary Anne", just kind of a piano, Broadway kind of thing, but I sort of texturized it with a Blues Rock thing. A friend of mine, Hubert Martin; there's a song I wrote a while back and I sort of patterned it after Fats Domino. I imagined him singing it. It's about Blues Soul Land. It's called "Blues Soul Land". It's telling about this euphoric country where everything is perfect in it. It's a great society. You almost visualize it when he sings the song like in the morning. And of course the yin and the yang of that is Green Fire is actually a drug and when this drug takes over the country Blue Soul Land as well and this idyllic, beautiful country just becomes totally destroyed by it and so that's where the tension comes in there. Kill Smith is actually a Special Ops military man and he's retired. His wife and he live together. The results of the violence and drugs impact him in his life. With grave consequences he goes after the Green Fire Empire and Diablo, The Green King, who discovered him and makes this drug. So, that's where the story evolved from.
Q - I can almost see that in an animated film.
A - Animation is another great media and I love it. I love in the Kill Bill movies the animation thing they threw in those movies was great. It's almost like a Japanese oriental and I can see that style in it, 'cause it's very, very, violent. There's romance, but there's a lot of violence, so a lot that could certainly look great animated.
Q - I visualize it as a sort of a Beatles' Yellow Submarine animation film.
A - It has that element of creating a country or a nation that doesn't exist. It could be European, Canadian, the United States, different parts of the world., but there's eleven songs that tell the whole story. Between those are gaps, some things that are talked about in the book that I've written that will hopefully be out in the next month or so, along with the lyrics. I think the lyrics are very audible. You can understand them. They tell the story. I've heard a couple of people say they wish they were on the CD. On the CD you'd probably need a microscope to see them, but the book will be a little more legible. Eventually I'll offer the book as an e-book as well.
Q - On this project you're the lead vocalist, backing vocalist, drummer, percussionist, rhythm guitarist and you play synthesizer.
A - Well, Pete Hickey is actually the genius on keyboards. I play some rhythmic fill on the synthesizer. Rhythm guitar is what I really have fun with. I blast the rhythm on all the songs. I've been playing guitar since I played drums. I started when I was like ten, eleven years old and I always had a guitar. I didn't know how to play it, but with the band I always had guitars with me and unfortunately had some of them stolen on the road. I still have some great guitars, a 1956 Les Paul Junior, '61 Fender Stratocaster, a 1973 Flying V. These are great, classic guitars. Over time, when I was hanging out with Glen (Buxton) and Michael Bruce, the guitar players in Alice Cooper of course, they would show me some chords and I just took that a little further. In the '80s I bought "Fats Domino's Greatest Hits" album and I learned keyboard from that. I really like his style of playing. I like Fats Domino. If you write songs at all, you've got to be able to play some piano. To me, it's the main writing instrument these days.
Q - How long did it take you to put this latest project together?
A - It's been about two years. I started about two year ago (2012).
Q - Are you performing at all during that time period?
A - No. I was actually, for the Kill Smith Two, I was in rehearsals with Peter Catucci. He's the bass player. We recorded at his studio here in Connecticut. He and I are really the Kill Smith. He's the other half. We have other musicians that come in and join us on the recording. Some of them have been on all three albums and some of them have just come in on this new one, on "Green Fire". So, between my guitar, the drums and the bass, we have the basics of the instruments for recording. Now, for the stage, for playing 'live' I've got to bring two guitar players and a keyboard player, bass and myself. So, anywhere between four and five musicians total. And we were actually in rehearsals to do some shows and I started getting the idea for "Green Fire" and writing songs. I intentionally stopped the rehearsal so I could get into the studio and start putting this stuff together. To me, that was important. I'm much more excited about at this point like you said about the animation or some aspect of "Green Fire", but if there's an opportunity to do 'live' shows and we can get a strong fan base, I certainly would not rule that out.
Q - Have you ever heard of this act Skrillex? It's like a DJ with a bass and lights and a sound system. It's strange the direction music is taking.
A - I know. That's the problem. Rock is sort of difficult to get audiences for these days. Of course Alice and Motley Crue and big name acts... to do something new and get any kind of following is rough. That's why Rap, Country and DJs are big draws, except for Classic Rock acts. Something new is a little bit difficult to break out. That's why I think my media is a little more to screen. If it's there I would certainly consider doing something like that.
Q - Alice Cooper will be returning to the Onondaga County War Memorial next week with Motley Crue. That's his first time back in that venue since December, 1973, the Muscle Of Love tour. I consider Alice Cooper a group effort, yet on the marquee it would say Alice Cooper, not the Alice Cooper Group.
A - That band's name, like The Who or The Rolling Stones, was Alice Cooper. We decided at some point to call Vince (Alice) "Alice" and it worked. Some people say that could've been the biggest mistake we ever made, but I disagree with that. We needed a gimmick and Vince was willing to go along with it, but we never thought anything except the band would be together as long as it possibly could, that he would totally walk away with the name and the recognition. Some of that was orchestrated by the P.R. people for whatever reason. And again in the inner circle of the five of us it didn't matter. Nobody really cared what the public's perception was. That wasn't the point. If we make a million dollars, we all get $200,000. Nobody got more or less than anybody else. Legally, we all owned the name the same and we divided up the money the same. So, that was never an issue. Over time it certainly hasn't helped that a lot of the truths about the band have been embellished for whatever reason to reflect different views. So, it's been more time than the band was actually together, and the band was together seven or eight years. We did an awful lot, but without that band nobody would have cared anything about us forty years later, I'll tell you that.
Q - Was song writing credit split equally?
A - Song writing credit was the only thing that was different. You see, a song that has my name on the song, like "Alma Mater", I got all the money. If you see a song like "School's Out", all five of us wrote it and we'll all divide it up. If you see a song like "No More Mr. Nice Guy", that's Mike and Alice. They divided the song writing on that. Song writing is a different element. I'm just talking about when records were sold or when the tickets at concerts were sold when we were on the road. There was no leader in the band. Alice went out and did the interviews and talked and all that sort of thing. He was perceived as a leader, but everything was a democracy. We basically agreed on everything all the time anyway. We had a blast. I always called it the party that never ended. But I'm just saying in general. that gets down to the nitty gritty of song writing. On the first two albums, "Pretties For You" and "Easy Action", our names appear on all the songs. It says written by Alice Cooper and that means the band. So, we all divided everything equally and we were going to do that. When we were doing "Love It To Death", we changed our minds and said if we write the song, whoever wrote or co-wrote the song, their name should be on there. That's how they were represented from that time on through "Muscle of Love".
Q - And everybody was comfortable with that?
A - Absolutely, yeah.
Q - In 1974, Alice took the year off.
A - We all did. We all agreed to do that.
Q - Who comes in that year? Kiss.
A - Their first album.
Q - In the Alice Cooper group, Vince was the most identifiable as the lead singer. Did anybody ever say, "Hey Vince, we want an image too"? On that Muscle Of Love tour you were all wearing sailor suits.
A - Without make-up, I think we all did. I had the longest hair in Rock 'n' Roll. That was my statement and the biggest drum set in Rock 'n' Roll. Everybody had their own image. Eventually, during '73 and '74, the magazines wanted to know everything about everyone in the band and for a long time that was just focused on Alice, but it became so big that they did stores on the whole band, every guy in the band. So, eventually that did happen. We felt comfortable with what we were doing. I wore make-up, but it was my own thing, more theatrical make-up. Dennis had his own thing, but it was nothing like Kiss did. Ace finally told me one time, 'cause I knew him pretty well. We used to live a mile apart from each other. He said in interviews, "Alice Cooper had one guy as an image of Alice Cooper. Each guy in Kiss wanted to have their own identity with the make-up." So, that's certainly no secret. That's cool. They took the theatrical thing in another direction. That's all. To me, I never thought Kiss was copying us. They did their own thing, their own stage thing. As far as I'm concerned it was just another direction for theatrics. It was a compliment. We inspired them to do it or whatever their inspirations were. I didn't want to have five guys (with make-up). That would almost be stupid. We considered ourselves one of the hippest bands in the world at the time. We didn't want to look like clowns. I mean, that was not going to happen. I'm not a terrible looking guy, so I don't have to cover my face with make-up. Everybody in the band was pretty good looking and I'm not saying that's negative about somebody else that wants to do that. From the outset, if that's what bands want, that perception, that's cool. But when you build to a certain point, my thing was I just wanted the most outrageous looking drum set in the world. I still had ideas about my next couple of drum sets. From the silver sparkle to the chrome to the mirrored drum set, I still had another one or two sets that I wanted to do that would've been just unbelievable and nobody has ever done them. I think that's the element that Alice has lost by just having studio musicians playing with him. We were a band and everybody was doing their own thing. It would have only gotten bigger and better. So that's what his decision was. He wanted to do that. We all agreed to take that year (1974) off and get back together to do the ninth album, but he was the one that reneged on that.
Q - That drum set of yours was custom made? You couldn't go into a music store and buy a drum set like that, could you?
A - No. What Premier did; I want from Slingerland to Premier, they sent me the shells and then my roadies; it was actually Dennis' idea for the mirrors. These mosaic tiles are about a half inch by half an inch and they can wrap around a cylinder like a drum. So they glued 'em on there, the whole set of twenty-two drums. It took a long time to do it, but they just looked unbelievable. When those stage lights hit them, it looked like a thousand laser beams flashing off my drum set once the fog hit it. I mean, it was just an unbelievable drum set. Of course, Kiss used that in their drum set a few years later.
Q - You could have your own line of drum sets, couldn't you?
A - I guess I could. At this point DW Drums helped us out at the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and we did some shows out in Los Angeles. They're a great drum company. But at this point, again I'm more excited about my new music more than anything else. If the band ever got together to do something on a spectacular level, which we better do pretty quick 'cause everybody's getting a little bit older, but Alice is doing great on that stage and we're all the same age. I would certainly consider the possibility of putting together another set of outrageous drums.
Q - Merchandising, marketing is the big thing in music, especially today.
A - Oh yeah, and Kiss started that. That's great. I remember one time we had some marketing. We were selling things on the road. We were somewhere in Ohio or Kentucky at the airport. Our road manager has a suitcase and he has $25,000 in cash in it. He gave us each $5,000. I'm holding this big wad of money. (laughs) I'm thinking where am I going to put it? I don't have a pocket big enough. So I had to go into this boutique store and I bought this black leather woman's purse. (laughs) I had this purse and I threw $5,000 in cash in there. Believe me, it wasn't all hundreds. I wish it were. So again, we split everything up equally.
Q - How is Dennis coming along with that book he's writing on the Alice Cooper Group story?
A - I talked to him the other day. He sounded like he's getting pretty close to finishing everything up with it. It sounded like maybe he was trying to get it done by the holidays this year (2014). I'm not really sure. It's been a few months since I've seen him and talked to him. I've been working on a book also for about ten years, but I think I'm about half way through mine. And they'll be totally different. I was in other bands in high school. I grew up in the Mid-West. I started my music career a long time before these guys did. So, everybody's story is always a little bit different.
Q - Shep Gordon is regarded as this brilliant personal manager, yet he had no prior experience in personal management when he negotiated your contract with Warner Brothers Records. How did he do that? How did he know the contract was fair?
A - First of all, he was a business major. When he came out to Los Angeles, he and Joe Greenberg were partners. It was my sister Cindy, Dennis' wife Cindy Smith Dunaway that worked in a boutique and right after Frank Zappa saw us and wanted to sign us with his manager, Herbie Cohen. There was no way. What little business sense I had, that was a conflict of interest. Bob Dylan had his own manager. The Rolling Stones had their own manager. The Beatles had their own manager. We wanted that person that was unique to us and we were the number one band they had to work with. So, my sister was working one day in the boutique in Hollywood, West Hollywood and these two guys come in from New York. They'd been in a couple of times and she asked them what they did. They said, "We manage bands." She goes, "That's interesting. My brother, Neal, is in a band called Alice Cooper. Frank Zappa wants to sign them, but they're looking for their own manager." So that's how it actually started. It wasn't Jimi Hendrix or Lester Chambers or anybody else. Those stories have all been elaborated over the years for some crazy reason. I think that's the most amazing story, but it's the truth. So, Shep and Joe came to see us, but if you know business, they're looking for a product. So that was great. We know music. We had the music part, but we needed the business part. Believe me, I was with Shep a lot of times in those days. We talked about a lot of things as a group and what we wanted to do and how we wanted to handle things and what we wanted in contracts and they (Shep and Joe) were able to do it. We gave them carte blanche on the business end of it. He negotiated with Frank Zappa, which wasn't a big company. Frank just had Straight Records. He had a couple of acts on it, these fledgling freak shows from Los Angeles. But that's cool. We got our foot in the door for recording and we went from there after "Easy Action", put a demo together and got on Warner Brothers. Our drive and determination with the music and his drive and determination as the business machine and by hook or by crook to get that demo and "I'm Eighteen" was on it. People knew who we were but we needed to sell records. We needed a hit single. So, we got Bob Ezrin and Jack Richardson involved in that and they recorded "I'm Eighteen" and that was on the demo tape, the version you hear today on "Love It To Death". So, that was what they were able to do. He (Shep) graduated with a business degree. For us that was great. We were willing to take a shot. Nobody else was out there to help us out. So, it worked great and he had a great career in managing. We got from starving in Topanga Canyon into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Q - And how fortunate you are that management didn't rip you off. The stories I've heard from other artists...
A - I don't have an accounting, but all I know is over the years, trust me, forty years after the band sort of split up in '74, '75, and we're still getting the royalties we're making is a testimonial to how we established the business back then. Through the internet and through movies and CDs and digital downloads, it keeps getting bigger. It doesn't get smaller. It's just amazing. Shep still has his pulse on it. At this point our contracts ran out a long time ago and it's just basically a hand shake. We still honor our agreement from then and so does he, so it works great.
Q - I like to hear that. I really do.
A - We'd heard about the horror stories of early Rock 'n' Roll and Motown. That's why we did the things we did. We certainly weren't experts. We had a lot of faith in Joe Greenberg and Shep Gordon. They split ways about "School's Out" I think. Shep totally took us over for whatever reason. We never found that out. But at any rate, we had a lot of meetings together and talked about a lot of things over time. They basically did their job and we did our job. We all had the same vision. We just wanted to make Alice Cooper a household name and sell a lot of records and try to entertain people. That's what it's all about in the long run. Just to get on stage, entertain and give 'em a hell of a show and give 'em some great records, and we did that.
Q - And so, who handles your business now? Do you have a manager?
A - No. I just basically do everything myself. I've been in the residential real estate business for about thirty years, so I can handle any business that comes along.
Q - You're selling real estate?
A - Yeah. I've been selling residential real estate since 1985.
Q - That's quite different from being a Rock drummer, isn't it?
A - Yes it is. I'm with William Pitt Sotheby's, the Sotheby's affiliate in Westport, Connecticut. So, it's all styles from beginner homes to luxury mansions. I might be giving a speech in Boston in a few weeks about going from one career to another. Basically, we had money and I heard the stories about people spending it all. I just figured I could still spend half of what I made and either save or invest the other half. In '72, after "School's Out", I bought a house in Arizona and a few years later I sold it and tripled my investment. I understood it. I did it myself. The band, back in the early '70s, there were tax shelters, real estate tax shelters and we were involved in them as a group. Our accountants got us involved in them. That also piqued my interest in real estate. There were three things I wanted to be when I went to college, when I met all the guys. I wanted to be either a musician or a pilot or an architect. So of course in real estate there's a lot of great architecture. In New England there's a lot of historical architecture as well as contemporary. So, it piqued my interest. It was a fluke. I really didn't want to get a real estate license to start selling, but the opportunity was there. The first two weeks of 1985, when I had my licence, I sold a house. People fixed it up and flipped it and I sold it again and all of a sudden I was on my way. I said this is as nice as a royalty check. I'd just gone through a divorce, so a lot of royalty checks were disappearing. So, it was financially rewarding for me and then it was another way to make a living.
Q - When you're showing a home, do you ever get recognized? Do they make the connection?
A - Well, first of all I have my hair a lot shorter, even in the mid-'80s. It was Neal A. Smith, is how I present myself in the real estate business. I really kept Neal Smith the Rock person away from that. Occasionally there would be people or people I knew that I would work with in a residential transaction, but a lot of people never knew it. I had friends that knew me for years and they go "What? You were part of the original Alice Cooper Group?" The early to mid-'90s, after I'd been doing it for about ten years, then the cat was kind of out of the bag on that. As time goes on, after the Hall Of Fame, I'm in my mid-60s now, I still do it, but I'm not hustling business like I once did. I did everything from real estate videos to I had my own real estate talk show on the radio. All sorts of different advertising campaigns I did to bring in business. At this time, if somebody wants to work with me, my past clients or customers, I'm happy to do that.
Q - Neal, notice throughout this interview I've always said "the Alice Cooper Group." Interviewers always seem to think Alice Cooper was and is the singer. But it was more than just the singer. It was always about the band.
A - It was a great band. We were one of the first bands to come out of the British Invasion. We were baptized on that music and Phoenix was a test area for all the music that came out of the U.K. back in the mid-'60s. We got music that nobody in the country ever heard, like The Move and The Pretty Things. They had singles on the radio, testing that market in Phoenix, and we heard all this stuff which just kind of inspired us more. What a great variety of music coming out from the U.K. That was our background.
Q - And don't forget, the idea of having three or four guys on stage with long hair, playing Rock music, had gotten old. So the idea that theatrics had entered the picture, a stage show, that was exciting.
A - I never thought about it that way, but you're absolutely right. It was a fresh spin on it.
Q - People say there was David Bowie and there was Marc Bolan. I don't think Bolan was around long enough and David Bowie wasn't like Alice Cooper.
A - It was more of a light art. I know there was the guy element in there which was a theatrical thing in itself like Elton John. I mean, Elton John is a good buddy of ours. We used to hang out with him when he first broke. He actually came to our shows at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. That was an amazing show. Alice and I were backstage and he came back and said "Thanks for showing me what Rock 'n' Roll is all about." The next night he was glitter and theatrical from that minute on.