INTERVIEW BY MARKO SYRJALA
Neal Smith is an American drummer, best known as the Alice Cooper group’s original member from 1967 to 1974. He performed on the group’s early albums PRETTIES FOR YOU and EASY ACTION, the breakout album LOVE IT TO DEATH, and the subsequent successful albums KILLER, SCHOOL’S OUT, BILLION DOLLAR BABIES, and MUSCLE OF LOVE. The original band broke up in 1974. Smith founded the Billion Dollar Babies with former Alice Cooper group colleagues Michael Bruce and Dennis Dunaway, Bob Dolin, and Mike Marconi, and released the album BATTLE AXE (1977). Later on, Smith has recorded and toured with Buck Dharma, The Plasmatics, Deadringer, Bouchard Dunaway & Smith (BDS), and Cinematic. In 2011 Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the “Performer” category, as a member of the original Alice Cooper band. He also performed on Alice Cooper’s WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE (2011) album. Currently, Smith works primarily in the real estate business in the New England area but is still active in the music world. Neil is running an industrial rock project called Killsmith, which released its third album, KILLSMITH & THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE, in late 2014. I met the legend in his office in Connecticut last November, and here’s what he had to tell about his current activities, the past, and the future. Read on!
Metal-Rules.com: Neal, what’s going on in your life and career right now?
Neal Smith: What’s going on? Currently, I’ve got a couple of projects that I’m working on, and of course, the biggest one, the first one is my third KillSmith album/CD. That’s called KILLSMITH & THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE. I have been working on it for about two years, and it’s my first concept album that I have ever tried solo, which means I have 11 songs, 11 brand new songs, and every song is about the theme. Greenfire is actually an ancient drug from pre-Columbian, South America, discovered by a little boy. He discovers it secretly in ancient ruins around the rural village. He’s born in the rainforest in the mountains. He finds what it turns out to be a piece of stone slate with lettering on it, didn’t know what it was, and found some emeralds, an emerald treasure with it. Eventually, he goes to school and studies pre-Columbian languages and thought the writing was something extraordinary. It was a formula for a sacrificial drug, but he found out that it became very popular worldwide when he manufactured it. Very dangerous, very addictive. Soon, he becomes the biggest and the most notorious drug lord in the world. He was a bully when he was a kid, and he became “Diablo the Emerald King.” He builds a big palace in the middle of the jungle. So that’s the story. There is a fictional land called Blue Soul, and there is the other main character who is ex-military. His name is KillSmith, his nickname, and he’s like a secret agent but strong like a Herculean Hero. So, it’s two big things, and he’s in the military, but he goes up the ranks fast because he’s an excellent marksman; he never misses anything he aims at. He goes to a very secretive, special operative force, and he eventually retires after many successful missions around the world. Successful from that, he retires, marries his wife with, long sweetheart; her name is Noelle. She’s later killed in the crossfire between two rival gangs, and that’s when he gets insane, and KillSmith wants his revenge, he goes directly to the source and the Emerald King. So that’s the story. Also, the CD has was released at the end of September 2014. I’ve also written and published a book about the complete story. It’s like the size of a children’s book. It has a CD inside and then the whole story and contains all the songs’ lyrics.
Metal-Rules.com: Is it going to be a comic type of thing?
Neal Smith: No, It’s a book with illustrations, but not comic book style. I don’t know how many words were in there, but I have six illustrations in the book, and the rest is the story. That’s half the book, and then the other half are the lyrics to the songs. The story fills in the album gaps, but I just call it a deluxe CD because it has the CD slapped on the inside cover. It was released in the middle of November 2014.
Metal-Rules.com: So, who are the musicians playing on the album?
Neal Smith: Like most of the KillSmith albums I’ve done, it’s Peter Catucci and me. He’s a bass player, and this is the fifth album we have done together. Before KillSmith, we did two albums with a band called Cinematic. It was a three-piece band with world-beat sound with lots of hand percussions. Peter played bass and sang, he’s a great singer, and I had a guitar player called Robert Mitchell that played in these two CDs in the mid-2000s. Before that, I was in a band with Dennis Dunaway called Bouchard, Dunaway, and Smith in the early 2000s, as well. Then we wanted to try solo projects, and I started the KillSmith, so I play drums, write the songs, and play all the rhythm guitars. It’s very heavy metal stuff. Bands like Rammstein inspired me because I really love that band, and I think they are great. There are other big metal bands that I like too. But they were one of my inspirations. Between the two of us, I played the drums, Peter plays bass, I play guitar, and I also play some synthesizers. That’s all the rhythm tracks, and then I sing everything. On the first album, SEXUAL SAVIOUR, I sang all the songs, Peter did back up with me and some reinforcement vocals. It’s the same thing on KILLSMITH TWO, the second KillSmith album, and this new one. In addition to that, I bring in some really good guitar players. I don’t play lead guitar. That’s not my thing.
Metal-Rules.com: So, you have many special guests on the album. Would you name them?
Neal Smith: So I have lots of guests, yes. I had two guitar players on SEXUAL SAVIOUR, I had three on KILLSMITH TWO, and I had three on GREENFIRE, the new one. In addition to that, I also brought in an amazing keyboard player, Pete Hickey. On the new album, I have a ballad called “I Remember Blue Soul Land” and a Christmas song called “Noelle No Wonder,” and Pete does an amazing job on the keyboards in those songs. The first two albums are pretty heavy metal all the way through, and I needed this style of music because the story needs to have a little more musical texture. I still have the heavy songs, the heavy metal songs, but then I added something different, something almost like a New Orleans type of blues, jazz songs. Then I have a couple of ballads. I mixed it up with that. But I also brought in some other vocalists, so it’s more like an opera; we would have different people singing. I brought in a female vocalist, Lady Elizabeth Dellinger. She helped me reinforce songs. I have kind of the New Orleans Jazz, Blues song. I had a friend of mine called Hubert Martin, he sang on that. I wrote the song thinking about Fats Domino, the American great Rock N Roll star of the ’50s and ’60s. I wrote the song thinking about him and Hubert singing the song, and he’s very, very close to that kind of feel. Peter Catucci sang the Christmas song on the album, so I have the four vocalists that helped me.
Metal-Rules.com: Do you have any plans to play any live shows with KillSmith to promote this album?
Neal Smith: That’s always possible, but plans right now are more on the lines of doing some videos or animated videos, not quite sure. Or maybe getting a screenplay written because the book is a whole story. Even though it’s a short story, there is a whole story in it, and a good screenplay writer can write a movie around it. So, I’m not really sure what we are going to do after.
Metal-Rules.com: Maybe you should sell this concept to Broadway people? “Laughs”
Neal Smith: It certainly could be with the cast of musicians that I have. It’s a fun story; the thing about the drug is that it’s addictive like cocaine and heroin. It’s psychedelic like LSD, but there is a secret ingredient in it. That’s not a secret, but the secret ingredient is bushmaster venom; bushmaster is a poisonous snake in South America. It’s the most poisonous snake in America, and it’s a cousin to the American diamondback rattlesnake. If you put a little bit of that venom in the formula, it gives the drug time travel quality to it. So you do not only get stoned and high, but you get addicted to it, and it will also take you into the future. If you go far enough in the future, you witness your own death, and you actually die, and that’s why people start dying from and overdosing from the drug. That just scratches the surface of what it’s all about. There is a story there, and no, I was not stoned on drugs when I came up with the idea. Although a long, long time ago, back in the ’60s, I did a few drugs myself.
Metal-Rules.com: I was going to ask if this story is based on real-life experiences… “Laughs.”
Neal Smith: My inspiration, of course; I know what I’m talking about, let’s put it that way. But as far as the drug itself, I came up with that fictitious idea… I researched pre-Columbian cultures and sacrificial drugs, which is what Greenfire is, and they sacrifice adults and children. Which is what this drug was used for. It is fictional but based on facts from the research that I did.
ALICE COOPER BOOK
Metal-Rules.com: You mentioned that you are also writing a book about the Alice Cooper Group. When is the book finished?
Neal Smith: I’ve finished probably about 60% of that. I have been working on that for quite a while. After the Hall of Fame, things started to pick up for us, and I had the KILLSMITH TWO album released. As we were nominated in the fall of 2010, I worked with Alice, Mike Bruce, and Dennis Dunaway on Alice’s WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE album. After that, I pretty much got very busy with the real estate business, as you well know, residential real estate in Westport, Connecticut. So between that and my music, I put the book on the back burner for a while, so I just kind of had to put it aside to do these other projects. But I plan on getting back into it hopefully soon, now this project, the GREENFIRE project, is completed, and like we were just discussing, maybe some screening of that. But in the meantime, it’s up to me. I’ve got to sit down and start writing my book. I have a co-writer Gail Worley in New York, that I work with. She’s been very helpful. Gail helped me with the KillSmith and GREENFIRE CD/Music book too. As I said, I’m probably 60% the way through, and I’m about to get back to writing again very soon.
Metal-Rules.com: It’s going to be interesting because, in my opinion, there aren’t any outstanding Alice Cooper books out there.
Neal Smith: The problem is that you have to hear the stories from everybody in the band. There are five different stories. Unfortunately, Glen is not around to tell his side of the story, and boy, I would love to read that book. Don’t forget Alice and Glen and I roomed together for about five or six years. We were under the same roof every single day. In the same room every single day. The only thing that kept privacy was when there is a young lady in the room with you, that she was under the covers with you, and that was it.
Metal-Rules.com: Then you had your five-minute privacy “Laughs.”
Neal Smith: “Laughs” That was privacy; otherwise, we knew everything else about each other that was going on. We were very, very good buddies more than when people are in college and become good friends. We were together for about seven years. I was in the band that long. Of course, Dennis was in the original band all the way back to high school. But that’s why everybody’s story is so different.
THE EARLY DAYS OF ALICE COOPER GROUP
Metal-Rules.com: Going back to the Alice Cooper group’s early days and when you were working on your first album with Frank Zappa’s help. Once PRETTIES FOR YOU came out, Dennis said that you were like the kings of the world, and you were thinking that the album is going to be the big breakthrough, but it didn’t happen. How was your reaction when the album failed to succeed?
Neal Smith: Dennis was absolutely right. I thought it was going to be like the next SGT. PEPPER album. Why not? One thing we all had in common in the band was an amazing abundance of confidence. We believed in ourselves and everybody in the band. Nobody in the band was a straggler. Everybody had the same determination and drive. I think that’s why I got into the band when their drummer quit because we all had the same vision of what we wanted. The way we dressed, the way we looked, the way our hair looked, and the whole mage, every single thing was right in sync. We gave it a shot, so what I was doing was actually developing who we are every time we would record a record. We’d just take it to that next step, and I think that everybody’s image and talent grew. I had been playing instruments longer than anybody in the band. I started playing my drums when I was 10 years old. So I have been playing a long time by then, and now I was 20, so I had been playing for at least 10 years. But what does that mean that the more you play, the more you want to learn, and the more you want to create. That was the other thing that we all had in common, and we didn’t want to play anybody else’s music. We wanted to write brand new songs, but we wanted to do something to change music. Not because we didn’t like what was out there, but we just wanted to do our own thing. We were inspired by many great bands from the ’60s from the British invasion, but after we had been through bands in college and high school and played other people’s music and you know all about that; with The Spiders. Then we wanted to create. That was my attraction. Not only were all best friends, but as artist and musicians, we all wanted to write brand new music. On top of that, we all had the same background as far as our theatrical influences. I had already played in amateur theatre as a drummer, so I knew the connection between music and theatre. Nobody talks about that too much, but when I was still in Akron, Ohio, before I moved to Phoenix. I was still in junior high school and just starting high school. By the time I was 15, I was already over six feet tall. So I was passing for an adult. I wanted to get through my teen years as fast as possible. I wanted to be in music to play with the big kids, and I did pretty rapidly. I played in a local theatre in The Three Penny Opera and The Fantastic’s. They were two big musicals at the time. So on top of that, our love for old movies as far as horror movies and science fiction, even Westerns, and that filtered into all of our songs over the years and into our theatre on stage we were inspired by movies like “West Side Story” and “Clockwork Orange” as time went on. These were the things that the first album being a commercial flop for us, but it was a creative success and now EASY ACTION; we wanted to do the same thing, but we wanted to have a better producer. So, David Briggs, who had done some work with Neil Young, became our producer for EASY ACTION, but again it wasn’t the right mixture. It wasn’t the right marriage between him and us because he just went to the studio to record and get it done as fast as possible. He didn’t get it. He called the song “Lay Down and Die, Goodbye,” and it’s been documented before. He just said; we will record that psychedelic shit. I’m going; psychedelic shit? That doesn’t sound like we are really connecting here. So that Easy Action album didn’t happen successfully for us. In fact, both albums together sold about 20,000 copies around the US and in Canada. But what it did do was to solidify our underground following because we were out playing concerts in front of thousands of people all the time.
Metal-Rules.com: What size of shows you played at the time?
Neal Smith: Don’t forget, we started off touring once PRETTIES FOR YOU was released. One of the biggest things Frank Zappa did with us was to put us in front of the crowds to open for him and The Mothers. So, we would play university concerts, which happened right away with Frank. We didn’t do tons of shows, but then we began to roll; we could now book colleges and universities ourselves because we had already started doing college concerts. So, our management booking agent would put us in universities, then, of course, the late ’60s was massive on the big outdoor concerts, especially around the United States like Woodstock. We never played Woodstock, but there were plenty of big outdoor shows in the Midwest and plenty of them in Canada. These big three day festivals, doing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in front of 50, 60,000 people that’s where our big break came in Canada. Canada, we never played in front of a small audience, never. When we were up there, the first show we played in Toronto’s university stadium was two shows; one was in the middle of the summer. One was late in the summer. The latter was the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival with the chicken incident. Before we had the record deal here, we were playing in bars as everybody else did. Then it moved pretty rapidly once we had the record deal. We still weren’t making tons of money. When we started, we were making a couple of 100 bucks a night, and now we made like $1000 per show. That pretty much stayed the same way for a while. The second album got us into the movie “Diary of a Mad Housewife” during the EASY ACTION. So again, now we’re in the movie, and Time Magazine started doing stories about us. Magazine articles about us started making us a household name across the United States. So, we didn’t look at our commercial failures. If anything, we were looking for the next stepping stone to let more people know about us. Because going back to our original motto is that we didn’t care if somebody loved us or fucking hate us, we don’t care, we just want them to remember us. And believe me, even if they hated us, they remembered us.
WORKING WITH BOB EZRIN
Metal-Rules.com: A significant turning point in the Alice Cooper Group career happened when you started to work with producer Bob Ezrin. How did that collaboration start in the beginning?
Neal Smith: Yeah, that was a huge thing. Because now we went from what we thought was a better producer for EASY ACTION, now we’ve had our second chance. Most people in the music business record an album, and it doesn’t work. You are lucky, fortunate to get a second chance. We had our second chance, and that didn’t work out commercially. Still, because of our tenacity and our management’s tenacity, Shep Gordon and Joe Greenberg from Alive Enterprises, none of us were about to give up. So, we just shifted from Straight Records to Warner Brothers Records. If we were going to continue recording, Warner Brothers wanted to hear a new demo, and that demo had a song on it called “I’m Eighteen.” And not only did they hear the demo and like it, but “I’m Eighteen” was already starting to get airplay around the Detroit area and in Canada right across the US border. How did that happen? It happened because after the two albums like we always did in our democracy, it was a 100% democracy, and we were all leaders in the band. Everybody agreed to everything. We each had a 20% say on everything, and we had to have a really totally unanimous agreement on whatever we decided to do. One day we said; now we need a producer that’s not only a good producer, but he also needs to have had a string of hit records. And who had a great string of hit records in the late ’60s but a group of guys from Canada? We didn’t realize it at the time, but that also gave us Canadian content, which would open up our market from the United States to Canada. Shep and Joe, our managers. They were relentless with Jack Richardson, the producer for Nimbus 9 out of Toronto, and he was relentless to come and see the band. Finally, after he said no, the managers get back to him, but Jack Richardson kept saying no. Every time, time, and time again. He said; this is a disgusting band. Nobody even knows what they are. Jack was one of the people we scared, including most of the adults back then. They didn’t know what to do with this band. They couldn’t even put a label on us, and that’s the scariest thing of all. They couldn’t figure out what we were; guys, girls, gay, straight, or whatever. We just went out there and had a blast, but they are still trying to figure out what we were. This gave us a lot of fuel for controversy because we just took everything and threw it back in their faces, which made it even more confusing. But anyway, Jack didn’t want anything to do with us. He was then producing Guess Who? His clean-cut, short hairband out of Canada. These are the kind of boys that you want your daughter to date. So, finally, Shep and Joe were successful in their relentless pursuit to get Jack as our producer. We were booked to play at Max’s Kansas City in September of 1970 in New York. That was pretty close to Toronto. Finally, Jack says, “Okay. I have this new kid that just produced some records, and I think he’s great, he’s working with us, and he’s called Bob Ezrin”. Basically, he was just starting from the ground up in the studio, and there was time, so Jack said, “I’ll send him down there, check the band out.” We were all very happy. It wasn’t Jack, and we were a little upset that it’s a new kid coming down to see us. Jack planned to send this new kid down to New York and that we would play, and it would scare the hell out of him because Bob Ezrin’s background was all classical music and really straight-laced classical stuff. Jack just basically told Bob, “Get on that plane, fly to New York, then say, “forget about it to these guys.” But Bob Ezrin got it, and I still get chills to this day because that one event made the difference in what we did to get to where we had to go. Without that one event, it may have never happened for us at all. That was a one-shot deal, and again, like everything we’d ever done, we all knew that it was our one shot, and we had to make it happen. But again, Bob Ezrin understood. He got us and what we were doing right away. He went back and told Jack Richardson 180 degrees different from what Jack was expecting to hear, and he said there is a whole new wave of music coming and either it’s going to pass us by, or we are going to sign this group, work with this group and be a part of the new wave.
Metal-Rules.com: Unlike your previous producers, Bob worked actively with the band, and he helped you with writing, especially with arrangements. That must have put the band on a whole different level, right?
Neal Smith: Bob. Again as I just explained, everything we did, from the rhythms to the songwriting, we all had to agree on. Everyone contributed to putting the songs together. At some point, to go where we wanted to go, there had to be a great producer. Bob became the sixth member of the band; he was the one that had the final say for everything. Part of being a successful producer is arranging songs commercially, so what we had to do is find that delicate mixture to keep Alice Cooper with the raw image that was Alice Cooper plus making it commercial. How do you do that? How do you take something that’s so outrageous and what we were doing on stage and make our music commercial enough so DJs will play it on the radio and still keep our identity to the song 100% Alice Cooper? And all of a sudden, instead of selling thousands of records, it starts selling hundreds of thousands of records. That’s what Bob did; he was the final person that got it. “I’m Eighteen” was a song that was originally eight minutes long. It was a very long jam song we played on stage. He turned it into three minutes long, and it made it a commercial success. So, that’s what he did as much as anything else with the sound and the production. The arrangement was its key. Maybe more key than anything else, so he was absolutely right with that.
Metal-Rules.com: “I’m 18” was a success, the next album, KILLER, went platinum, and the band became really famous. How much the success started to change the band and its members?
Neal Smith: I think that the three albums LOVE IT TO DEATH, KILLER, and SCHOOL’S OUT were like a trilogy. The only thing that ever bothered me was early on, even on the PRETTIES FOR YOU and EASY ACTION albums; it was solo pictures of Alice by himself. Because I kept saying, if we keep doing this, it’s just going to set Alice up like a solo artist, and at some point, he can just walk away. Alice Cooper was a band and had to be marketed as a band, not a solo act, because it could be the end of the band, but the management kept insisting no, that’s never going to happen. No, but Alice was being set up, which was the only thing I was ever uncomfortable about from a business standpoint. But I understood that having a band called Alice Cooper and a lead singer named Alice and a lead singer does take center stage, and I was cool with that.
Metal-Rules.com: “Lead Singer Disease” “Laughs”
Neal Smith: Yeah, lead singer disease, I really like that. But I can’t dissect every single album that we did. All I know is that in my mind that once we reached a certain point and we were always establishing. Because it goes back to when we changed the name of the band to Alice Cooper. What is Alice Cooper? It was whatever we made it because it was a totally blank slate, totally clean? As time went on with our failures with our successes, all of a sudden we started… Dennis’s idea was to make the electric chair for “Black JuJu,” We put Alice in there, and then the snake was my idea because I had my pet snake Kachina. Two of the key ingredients for our earliest theatrics were right there, and then we just built on that; all of a sudden, we said… The Doors took the dark side of the rock a little bit further, but we can blow the hell out of that. We can take it a lot farther; we can make it our own thing. That’s exactly what we did, and if I think of KILLER now… because every time there was more success and the amount of money we were making on the road, we had a little more money to work with. It’s all about money and always is, what you can do to the difference between a low budget movie and a high budget movie. Like a Spielberg movie these days, and the money doesn’t always necessarily make it a better film, but at that time, as we were kind of going up the ladder in every single step that we took, it didn’t matter. But one thing that did bother me and I think bothered some of the other band members too and still to this day when they talk about PRETTIES FOR YOU and EASY ACTION about; we weren’t good musicians we had to rely on the theatrics, and I would always say, “Have you listened to those songs?” We wouldn’t write the arrangements out, and we just memorized them. That wasn’t written music. I said, “These are really bizarre and strange arrangements.” To say that we are not competent musicians is just an insult and stupid, purely stupid. But it was a stigma that even though LOVE IT TO DEATH still haunted us a little bit. But again, with theatrics, I think nobody really knew what we were all about. People tried to put a label on us, but they couldn’t find one, we weren’t like anybody else, and we were pleased about that. So, when we wrote a song like “Halo of Flies,” that was the turn-around point when the critics said; okay, these guys can really play. So, to me, not only the fact that KILLER was our first platinum album and that my pet snake Kachina was on the album cover, but we finally got the credit we deserved for being the great musicians that we were. Alice’s solo bands get through the arrangements even today, but it doesn’t sound like the original band. It never has, “Halo” is a tough song. It’s a tough song even when Joe Bouchard, Dennis and I, Bouchard, Dennis, and Smith played it. We went through Europe in the early 2000s; it took me two weeks to re-learn the song. I hadn’t played it for a long time; it took me two weeks… I wrote the drum parts, and it took me two weeks to re-learn.
Metal-Rules.com: On the early albums, you and Dennis are musically the band’s key members. Your drumming and Dennis’s bass playing together is something unique, and it made the songs sound very different from other band’s stuff.
Neal Smith: Thanks. “Laughs” I mean, we are one of the best rhythm sections in Rock N Roll ever “Laughs.”
Metal-Rules.com: When I spoke with Dennis about it, he said that maybe the secret of your playing was the fact that nothing was ever planned?
Neal Smith: None, and that went back, all the way back to when in 1967; a month or two before I was in the band, we used to go in the Arizona desert and jam. It was Glen, Mike and Dennis and I. We’d drink some beer, smoke some dope, and go out in the desert and plug in the amps way, way out in the desert under the stars, and we’d just play. We were all just moving as one unit, especially Dennis and me. And he’s absolutely right, we didn’t plan those ideas, and some of those ideas filtered into PRETTIES FOR YOU and EASY ACTION. That’s true. We really have a similar sense for two completely different people. But when it comes to playing the music, it was like when I sense where he’s going, and he senses where I am going, we just flow just as smooth as it can be. I think that’s why the rhythm sections; you just can’t get a bass player, a drummer, studio musician to come and play as we play. It’s like Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman with the Stones. They have some great bass players now, but they’ll never have a sound like Charlie and Bill.
THE GOOD TIMES AND THE BAD TIMES
Metal-Rules.com: In your opinion, at what point was the Alice Cooper Group at the peak of its career?
Neal Smith: I think without a doubt, when BILLION DOLLAR BABIES went to number one in Cashbox, Record World, and Billboard Magazine were all in the same month of April of 1973. We were, all the way back when I joined the band in Santa Monica, and we were moving to Topanga Canyon. We would have been happy, Marko, to get a record deal, have a gold album, and hit single on the Gold album. There is a lot of one-hit bands out there. But maybe it was because it was prolonged for so long that we didn’t go away. I think that’s a big thing about bands today. They come and go so fast. They have no chance to establish or put down strong roots, so people anticipate their next album. When I was a kid, the next Stones album, the next Beatles album, the next Jimi Hendrix album, the next Cream, you just waited for it. You were always anticipating that next album coming out. But now, it’s the next band; it’s the next thing that’s happening. So I think that we worked that to our favor intentionally or unintentionally, and every album that went by, I think we were just on a role of writing songs. We never really sat down and said, how are we going to outdo our last album? But once it all started happening, not only was the music working but the business side also. Alive enterprises with Shep Gordon and Joe Greenberg were doing great on the business side, working the press and PR. Going to Europe for the first time was very critical for us. Because as big as we were in the United States, Europe could be as big if not a bigger market for Alice Cooper. So, it was a laid out strategic plan, and when we went to Europe, we wanted to pretend like we were invading Europe. Every single town and city we played in, we wanted to conquer that city. In the United States, by then, we had pretty much done it, but it had been accomplished over a long period of time. So when you go back to LOVE IT TO DEATH on the song like “Caught in a Dream.” It goes, “You know I need a houseboat, and I need a plane, and I need a butler and a trip to Spain.” All the things did not exist for us at that time. We were still just scraping by when that record was recorded. None of us had a bank account or anything, on our third album, LOVE IT TO DEATH. By the time we got to writing SCHOOL’S OUT and climbed to number two in the Billboard charts, again, now we have a gold album, platinum albums, and a double-platinum album, and now we’re there. Then we had BILLION DOLLAR BABIES, and now we were throwing it back in the faces of the people that said, we didn’t know what we were doing, but they (Alice Cooper) didn’t have a chance. After B$B, we essentially felt that we were blunt, and in my opinion, that’s telling everybody that; go fuck yourself. The people that criticized us, and we don’t care about the critics, because again, even when they wrote bad stuff, you read it and you go, “this is more interesting than any review we have ever heard,” and then they say “it’s terrible.” I go, “how could it be terrible? It sounds so entertaining?” I think they are all very special albums to me, even MUSCLE OF LOVE. I love that album a lot, and believe me. Bands would be happy to put an album out and sell eight or 900,000 copies and then consider that a failure. In my opinion, it was a great album and very underrated. I still love playing the title song “Muscle Of Love” to this day. It kicks major ass! It didn’t reach the platinum status, and I think it could have and still might one of these days. I don’t know how it didn’t. I know there were some logistics problems with the packaging itself. But BILLION DOLLAR BABIES was definitely going to be an interesting album, and it had a lot of different textures, a lot of different songs. That’s what I have sort of used as an outline for the new KILLSMITH GREENFIRE album. I just like the idea of telling the story with different musical styles. Like a soundtrack album, I would do the same thing. But basically, we were, “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” It was a great song Michael wrote, and again, look how many songs Michael wrote on our music. He really was the major musical influence on our band. Dennis wrote, and I wrote, and Glen had some great chops like at the beginning of “School’s Out,” that’s forever his. Glen came up with that on his own. So, SCHOOL’S OUT is a great album. But I think, just in general, the good news is BILLION DOLLAR BABIES, and the bad news is BILLION DOLLAR BABIES because that’s, unfortunately, Glen was out of sorts when BILLION DOLLAR BABIES was recorded. He didn’t play anything on the album.
Metal-Rules.com: The dark side of success.
Neal Smith: Yeah. The demons of Rock N Roll definitely kicked in, and you can say what you want, about everything with the band and what happened. But Glen was really the band’s heart and soul, and his influence got Mike and me in the very early band.
Metal-Rules.com: When Glen’s ability to play was getting worse, Bob Ezrin was then forced to use some outside players. What you liked about that, and how it affected the dynamics of the band?
Neal Smith: Glen wasn’t contributing, and that was cancer that was a building that never healed, unfortunately. Bob’s job was to put together hit albums. Obstacles that came and Glen comes in the studio, and his guitars totally messed up and not in tune and can’t be fixed or whatever, it’s up to him to take care of his equipment. My drum equipment was always in top shape. That was my responsibility, and after a while, we weren’t just partying. We all had a big responsibility in what we were doing. It got to be a business, a big-time business. After playing in the early days of the band of St. Monica, the band made about 75 to 100 bucks a night. During the BILLION DOLLAR BABIES tour in 1973, we were making around $1,000,000 a month. Things change. You just can’t do the same kind of partying and pushing the limits as you were doing before.
Metal-Rules.com: Steve Hunter and late Dick Wagner were Bob Ezrin’s trusted men in the studio, and they played on several Alice Cooper Group and later Alice Cooper albums. How well did you know them?
Neal Smith: I never really saw Dick Wagner much because whenever he or Steve came into the studio, that was pretty much with Bob. So, we weren’t really around. And I liked the work that Dick did on “My Stars,” which is one of my favorite songs, and the guitar work on the intro of that song is just amazing. But I didn’t know him that well. I know Steve Hunter very well, and I’m glad that he was the one who was chosen to fill in for Glen on the Hall of Fame show induction in 2011. I think it was great from the standpoint of the music quality and the standpoint of politics because he’s someone that was there with Alice’s early successes as a solo artist. It kind of bridged that gap. So, he was the perfect person. Maybe at some point, Steve would have been the one to move into the band. But I got to tell you that Glen was a nasty motherfucker, and again anybody else is a schoolboy in comparison to him. That’s why he and I got along so well. I miss Glen like crazy. But again, I think that Steve was great as we took to the Hall of Fame show, and he fit right in with us and everything. It was very disappointing we didn’t do more shows, but I wasn’t really anticipating any more shows. But it was a good opportunity I think that was lost because none of us are getting any younger, and I’m glad Alice is still out there doing it. Good for him, I don’t know how… I think he can go on as long as he wants to. He’s like the energizer bunny, and he just keeps going and going!
THE BREAKUP AND BATTLE AXE
Metal-Rules.com: The band had problems with Glen and Alice but, in brief, what was the main thing resulting disintegration of the original band in 1975?
Neal Smith: There are many different theories about what happened, and the biggest thing is the facts. Mike wanted to do the solo album after MUSCLE OF LOVE was released, and we returned from our 1974 South American tour. That was one of the problems that arose. After that, we all agreed to take the next year off, and the agreement was 100% unanimous between all five of us. That’s how our Alice Cooper Democracy worked. We agreed each band member could record a solo record album and then tour to support it, but for the next Alice Cooper album, we are going to record as a band, and we’d bring it all back together again to do that. That’s the bottom line; all the stories that you hear and they are out there, not all of them are true. By this time, Warner Brothers had released our greatest hits album, and when they didn’t get our ninth Alice Cooper album, they sued us to get that album. That’s when Dennis, Michael, and I started writing an album to fulfill our contractual obligation with Warner Brothers. That became a BATTLE AXE album, and we were writing an album for our part of the deal. Instead of coming back and working with the three of us, Alice decided to record GO TO HELL, his next solo album. If the BATTLE AXE album’s songs were crafted with Alice and Bob Ezrin, as they normally would have been, I’m sure we would have possibly taken those songs in another direction. There are some great songs on there, had they been produced by Bob, I’m sure he would have arranged them differently. But we have started off with an album. The writers, the players, and the producer can work it in any direction.
Metal-Rules.com: You, Dennis, and Michael wrote a new album, which later became BATTLE AXE album, but you also designed the completely new stage show, which Alice Cooper Group never used. Tell me something about that project?
Neal Smith: We spent tons of money, thousands of dollars on the stage. So, how can anybody sit back and say; we were not into the theatrics. The stage was elaborate, and there are still some photographs of it floating around on the internet. But that’s another story, but there was never anybody saying that Neal Smith isn’t in the theatrics. I was doing theatrics when I was 15 years old in theatres. I was playing in the theatre band, I understood. That’s a slap in my face. I understood theatre, and I was as influential in the theatrics of the band as everyone was. As a matter of fact, Rolling Stone Magazine listed the top theatrical props in Rock N Roll, and Kachina, my pet snake, used in the band, was number one. And you think about it. Kachina is not really a prop, but I mean she was, and; Alice, of course, still uses the snake till this day, and he always will; that’s part of what we created. Believe me. If you took everything that the original band created away from Alice’s show, there wouldn’t be a lot to look at.
Metal-Rules.com: What happened for the Battle Axe stage?
Neal Smith: We used it. We had a small tour that we had to the Midwest, and I think it ended up there, and we probably just get rid of it after that “Laughs.”
LIFE AFTER ALICE COOPER
Metal-Rules.com: When Alice Cooper Group was officially dissolved, what kind of relationship you have had with Alice after that?
Neal Smith: I never had a problem with Alice. No. I went to see the show “Welcome to My Nightmare” three times and then “Go to Hell” I think I went to see it in New York. I kept in touch with him as many times as he comes around, and I go to his shows. One of the things that happened was when we had our house in Greenwich, right after that, we all got our own places; Dennis and I shared a house on the beach in Old Greenwich. Mike got a house in Greenwich and Glen got a house in Greenwich, and Alice moved into an apartment in New York City. So, there was a kind of a wedge between us. That was never good because that was the first time that we were ever separated. That’s one thing that’s really not talked about a lot, but I think that in general that I always knew that bands would break up. Eventually, that’s what happens to every band. And I’d really rather break up at the top of our game than playing in some bars and small clubs somewhere with a rubber snake and using a cardboard guillotine, Chopping Alice’s head off. I wasn’t happy with the break up because we created a monster. We created something great, and it didn’t end up great, but we were so close to owning the world. Shep Gordon even said it many times; we were so close to becoming very, very rich. We were very close to becoming wealthy and having a dynasty. I know we had big success with five platinum albums and six gold albums. We were very close to just breaking out wide open as a band Like Pink Floyd or AC/DC.
Metal-Rules.com: From your perspective, how it was to see when Alice totally lost it in the late ’70s. He was totally out of control, both physically and musically.
Neal Smith: Alice was the last person ever to get high in the band. The fact that he went off to the deep end after the band, I was kind of shocked from that standpoint. Over the years after the band’s breakup, Alice shared a lot with me, and I know a lot more than probably most people know about. All the way back to the time we first split up and the outside pressures that wanted him to go solo. I mean, I know him, and our conversations will forever stay confidential. He told me that after the band broke up, he missed the impact of my bass drums blasting him from behind, feeling the power on the stage when he was on stage. He told me later on that that’s gone. All the power that the band once had was gone. It was a totally different act. It was conceived, with different studio musicians… You could have a studio musician come up and play Who songs, but it’s not Pete Townsend. That’s one of the huge differences, but as far as… My point is the fact that he became so dependent on other substances. I think it was the environment that he was in, plus we always, as a band we had each other’s back. When there is a tour, that’s over. The guys that Alice hired went away. He’s just sitting there without a net now; there’s not anybody around to support him. He had his family, and Sheryl is amazing, and because of her, it’s probably why he’s still alive today. But in a way, it didn’t surprise me that he took a fall so fast that he got into the substances he did so heavily really did surprise me because that’s not like Vincent or Alice at all. He was a pretty straight guy, and I think that was again the influences of people he was around more than anything else. Back then, I did everything everybody else did, but I never did drugs in great quantities. First of all, I wouldn’t spend any money on drugs. Why buy it when it was always around for free. We got to think about what I was just saying; we weren’t there as a band to have each other’s back all the time. He may have felt a little lost without that, feeling a little insecure. Drugs can fill a lot of holes in your life.
RECONNECTING WITH ALICE
Metal-Rules.com: Alice Cooper’s career finally went as it went, but in 1985 he made a comeback, and he was a changed man. And what many fans don’t know, you and Dennis then worked briefly with him again. Would you tell me something about that thing?
Neal Smith: I had always held my hand out to everybody in the band because we put the BATTLE AXE album together at my house in Greenwich, Connecticut, by the time I had my own place with a large studio. Alice or anybody in the band that needed the studio mine was always available. I told them early on after “Nightmare,” I said, “I’ll always be here to work with anybody in the band.” So, in ’85, after we had gone through all that crazy stuff, Alice called me up and said; “Neal,” “I’m working with Kane Roberts on a new album called CONSTRICTOR and it’s all going to be computer drums, so I tell you that and computer bass. But we want to work the arrangements out as a band, and we want to work with you and Dennis.” They were in Chicago, or wherever they were, so they flew back to Connecticut. I had just sold my big house because I went through a divorce at the time. I was renting a smaller house with a friend of mine. In the basement of this house, I had blankets hanging from the ceilings for walls, and that’s where I had my studio. I said; fine, whatever. I just had a small studio with a tape recorder and some recording equipment. So, Kane and Alice came back, and along with Dennis, we worked for two weeks and put that album together. But again, you said our relationship, even when we are not together as a band, was still there. When we get together, whether it’s two years, whether it’s five years or ten years, it’s always great. I have always kept that door open, and eventually, we did get together with Alice for that session. Unfortunately, Glen passed away in 1997. A couple of years later, in ‘99, Alice opened his Cooperstown restaurant in Phoenix, and he wanted us to play there with him for the grand opening. We went there and played. It was great. The door has always been open; we’ve never slammed it on each other as time went on through the ’90s to the present. Through the ’90s, I actually started going out to Arizona to visit with Alice and Michael Bruce. I was working in real-estate and started doing well again financially. The ’80s was a little rough for royalties, so it was great for Alice to get back out on the road because whenever he’s out there, it certainly stimulates our catalog selling albums since part of the income we lived on is from our royalties. But once CDs came out, once the Internet came along and our songs started showing up in movies, it really just elevated everything. Right now, the way everything that’s going, it seems like another new movie comes out every year with one of our songs featured in it, and it just keeps going and going. So yeah. I never wanted to go to war with anyone in the band. I never wanted a lawsuit. We, management and band, had just gone through a big lawsuit with Frank Zappa; Alice might have mentioned that it was over publishing. When a lawsuit was mentioned against Alice, I said; look, I know certain guys wanted to go to war, but I said, I’m never going to. I said; we just made many attorneys really rich off the Frank Zappa lawsuit, and I’m not going to make some more attorneys rich and have my best friends hating each other over money. I won’t do that. It’s just not me. We continually all stayed good friends, and we get together from time to time over the years. It could be like I said; it could be two weeks, it could be ten years. We’d sit down together and tell the same stupid jokes, same stupid sense of humor, “You remember this?” And we are laughing at the time. What’s more important to me? Money or that? To me, our friendship’s worth much more. These are people I chose to be my family, people in your family sometimes you are stuck with being your family. But your friends you can choose, and this was my second family, and Glen was like my closest buddy. He was like a brother. It all comes down to whatever happened, it was unfortunate, and I could always take care of myself. But I feel bad for the fans because I think we kept some really good records from coming out through the late ’70s and ’80s, and there weren’t many great rock bands at that time. There was a lot of crap with disco-punk and some great punk, too, like the Plasmatics. I actually played one of their early albums. So, I was keeping busy and what I wanted to. But finally, I needed to get totally away from the music business. That’s why I got into the real-estate business in 1985. And I just had to put that life behind me for a while.
Metal-Rules.com: Alice went back to the top with his 1989 album TRASH, a worldwide success. Was it surprising for you that he managed to do it again without the original band?
Neal Smith: When you are working with people really close, you want to see them be successful. I had seen what had happened, from all different standpoints on Alice’s demise in the late ’70s, early ’80s to coming back. He looked great. I saw him when he was like a skeleton in the early ’80s. I don’t know how he survived; I don’t know how he even lived. It’s impossible. Then by 1985, when we got together with Kane, he looked great again. He later made his comeback, and I’m thinking; this is not only great for him, but it’s also good for everyone in the original band. It’s great for the whole band because he’s doing all of our songs, and 60% of the music he was playing was our original songs. I said that’s good for everybody, and he’s healthy. That’s what he’s got, but he had to have another killer hit album. I think he certainly did with TRASH, and he needed that hit record. And believe me, I would have been as happy if Dennis would have had a solo hit or Mike Bruce, who is a great songwriter, had a solo hit record. I would be ecstatic about that for any of them, and it’s good for all of us. I’m never jealous. God, I wouldn’t be jealous. I’d say; that’s fantastic. It’s that kind of attitude that now when we’re all in the Hall of Fame and Alice wanted to do WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE, he chose one of Mike’s songs and chose one of my songs and one of Dennis’s songs. We write them and put them on the WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE album, and Michael, Dennis, and I played them on the record. I think there three of the best songs and stand out on the album. And doing it all with producer friend and legend Bob Ezrin made it perfect.
Metal-Rules.com: So, how was the overall process of making WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE?
Neal Smith: The funny thing is I was trying to do a project like that for about ten years. Bob Ezrin moved to this part of Connecticut, and I helped him find a house here in Stamford in the early 2000s. As a matter of fact, it was not too far from where Dennis lives. Bob was here in Connecticut for a few years. So when we got together, we talked, and it rekindled our friendship, our relationship, and I think musically. But again, that’s how it all starts, just by everybody trusting each other and just being together. And at that time around 2000 that would be great. I love Bob, and as I said, he was the sixth member of the band. Unfortunately, Glen is already gone, but it would be great to get Bob, get Alice, get me, get Dennis, get Michael to write and record a new album; with the same formula we had for years and many hit records. I had already talked to some guitar players, and believe me, if I mentioned my names, you know every one of them. They would be happy to commit and play the lead guitar. But it didn’t happen right away, and I thought it would never happen. Alice and I had been together occasionally talking about music things because I went out to play golf with him in Phoenix many times during the ’90s and the 2000s. So, when I got that call about the WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE album, I was very happy that there was finally going to be an album that all of us would work on together. That’s great, it was Alice’s album, and I understood completely what he was doing. He was trying to make the best of everything he’s ever been involved in and then try to put together a hit record.
Metal-Rules.com: How did he succeed with that album, in your opinion?
Neal Smith: He succeeded because we actually got to the studio and recorded some new music together. I can’t talk about them, but there have been a couple of other times that we’ve been in the studio since then with something new in the works. Those are for some things in the near future. But at this point, I’m pleased about that and again happy that the song that I helped write, “I’ll Bite Your Face Off,” was the single off the WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE album. On my solo KILLSMITH TWO album, there is a song called “Evil Voodoo Moon.” That song was one of several that I submitted to Bob and Alice for the album. They, along with their guitar player Tommy Henriksen, re-wrote it and re-arranged my song and created “I’ll Bite Your Face Off,” and Alice re-wrote the lyrics. Like he did for all those songs. We wrote songs and as a band, and it was Alice’s job to write the lyrics to the songs or rewrite them as he saw fit, and he always did a fantastic job. I think he’s a totally underrated lyricist, but fortunately, that’s changing, and he’s getting the credit he so justly deserves. I think he’s one of the best lyricists ever in Rock N Roll. It was always fun in the band to sit there and see Alice really write his very vivid lyrics. I always try to aspire to that spirit and creativity in my song lyrics inspired by Alice along with Michael and Dennis.
THE LAST WORDS
Metal-Rules.com: Anything more you want to say, the last words?
Neal Smith: Anyone who wants to know what’s going on will go to my website www.nealsmithrocks.com. Spell it right, because I’m not Neil Yong, I’m not Neil Diamond. They don’t spell their names correctly; that’s up to them. I spell it correctly N-E-A-L. I already told you about the KillSmith project, the book, etc., but I‘m also working on a movie, and it’s called Desolation Angels / Rise of the BOAS. I have been working on it for about a year, and hopefully, it will be out sometime in late 2015. I play a Russian drug lord, “Yury.” It’s about the Russian Mob and the Mexican Cartel working in conjunction in the Tri-States area of New York. A militant group, a deep secret group in the United States government, comes in to put a wedge between them and try to destroy the two organizations. Also, I have written the theme song, and I’m making the music for the movie album too and bringing in outside music, but I’m like the music coordinator from the movie. So that’s one of the other projects I’m working on.
Metal-Rules.com: Thank you!
Neal Smith: Thank you, Marko.