Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Very Candid Conversation with Mike Pinera

Mike Pinera is a guitarist who has played with some big names such as Iron Butterfly and Alice Cooper. His career got off to a start with the band Blues Image. In  1970, Blues Image would score a #4 hit, “Ride Captain Ride.” To this day, “Ride Captain Ride” is frequently played on classic rock radio stations, and the song also appeared in the Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman. Shortly after  “Ride Captain Ride” hit the charts, Blues Image broke up, and Pinera would go on to join Iron Butterfly. He helped co-wrote and sang songs on Iron Butterfly’s Metamorphosis album. Iron Butterfly broke up shortly after touring the Metamorphosis album.

Mike then joined a band called Ramatam, which showcased a female Jimi Hendrix-inspired guitarist, April Lawton, and Jimi Hendrix’s drummer, Mitch Mitchell, on drums. In both Ramatam and Iron Butterfly, Mike was using the talk box on his guitar (an effects unit that can shape and modify the sound of a musical instrument to apply speech sounds such as singing) before Peter Frampton and Joe Walsh would later popularize the item. Like classic guitarist Pete Townsend, Mike claims to have invented his own version of the talk box. In the late 1970s, he had a brief solo career and a #70 hit, “Goodnight My Love.”

After his solo career, Mike joined Alice Cooper on the album Special Forces and toured with him. He would also play on Alice’s Cooper’s Zipper Catches Skin. In the 90s, Mike formed the Classic Rock All-Stars, which is composed of members of the Monkees, Rare Earth, Steppenwolf, and Blue Oyster Cult. The group played some of their classic hits from the 60s and 70s. In addition, he has currently reunited with both his former bands, Blues Image and Iron Butterfly.

In this candid conversation, we talk about Mike’s time with Blues Image, Iron Butterfly, and Alice Cooper. We also talk about what he is up to currently. I want give thanks to Paul Guzzo from the Tampa Tribune who helped me contact Mike, as well as Mike’s wife Valerie who helped set up the interview. But most of all, I want to thank Mike.

Jeff Cramer:  What encouraged you to play guitar?

Mike Pinera:    In the 50s, I listened to Chuck Berry. Elvis Presley had a great guitar player who played with him by the name of James Burton. They also had a great lead sound from “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” That really inspired me. I liked the sound of blues mixed with rock and roll. That really got me going.

JC:      Tell me about the period of playing guitar that led up to Blues Image.

MP:     I put together a band while I was still in elementary school called the Impalas. We played cover material and stuff we liked. We kept leaning over to R&B. All of the other bands in Tampa, Florida—my hometown—were playing a lot more “bubble gum material.” We started playing some deep stuff. We got so good so quickly that we became one of the most popular bands in Tampa. That got me looking around to try to see how we could evolve.

The best place to play in Clearwater, Florida, is at a show called The Clearwater Star Spectacular, which happens every weekend during the summer at a the Clearwater Beach Auditorium, a big auditorium. The biggest stars in rock, pop, and R&B played there. One time in the 60s[Mike was born in 1948], I walked in there  and said to the gentleman who was promoting it, “You’re doing this wrong.” He said, “What do you mean I’m doing this wrong? This is the biggest show of its kind on the East Coast.” I said, “You’re paying too much for the bands.” He said, “How would you know that?” I said, “I’m a musician who plays in a band, but I’m also in the musicians union. I’m in the American Federation of Musicians. I look at my books to see these backup musicians who come with these stars from New York City. I look to see how much they get per hour, and these guys get triple scale, and then the star has to fly in the players. That’s additional expensing. Then, there’s their hotel.” I continued, “You could get us to back-up all the stars who want to be backed up, and we’ll play the parts at a fraction of the cost.”

The guy started laughing. He said, “That sounds good in theory, but how do I know you can handle the parts?” I said, “I’ll give you an example. I know you have Gene Pitney coming in a couple of weeks. He’s a great writer. He tends to write movie things and anthems, and they’re very difficult to play. It’s not like the normal rock and roll.” I said, “Why don’t you let my band make a cassette of us playing his biggest hits. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow. You can send it to him in New York City and ask him if he’d like to have us back him instead of bringing all those people with him at a higher price.” He said, “All right. That sounds good.”

We worked really hard and we got some of Gene’s biggest songs down, like “Town Without Pity” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” He sent it to him. Lo and behold, Gene got back and said, “These guys are perfect. I’ll use them. That will save me the expense of bringing all these people with me.” The promoter said, “Good. That passes off the savings to me. I don’t have to pay you so much.” They started laughing.

That summer, we played every weekend, backing some of the biggest stars in rock and pop and R&B. Some of them wouldn’t budge. They had to have their guys—like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. They didn’t want a pick-up band. After the other bands heard that we could play their songs so well, we ended up becoming very, very popular in the whole state of Florida. We learned a lot being with these stars and watching how they handled themselves and their managers.

After a while of playing in Tampa as the Impalas, the following summer I decided to go on the road. So, I called the band Mike West and the Motions. We went out. It was a four-piece band. We went out and played in Reno, Nevada. We got very good very fast. We spent the summer playing some big casinos in Nevada. We came back and started playing the number-one nightclub in Tampa at that time. It was called Deano’s. We were very popular. We were packing them in. We finally looked at each other and said, “If we want to really progress, we have to go to Miami,” because that’s where people were coming in from New York and a lot of the record industry. So, we just packed up our car and went to Miami. We went to the biggest place there and said, “Can we audition for you?” We did, and we got hired. Within a short amount of time, we were not only the most popular band in town, but we were drawing huge crowds. We started thinking about it and said, “Why play for other people, especially with the dock holding? I didn’t like luring little kids into a big showroom where they had to use fake IDs to come watch us play because they liked the band so much. They were getting drunk, and you could tell that they had never really drank that way before. I felt bad. I felt like I was leading people the wrong way. 

We went to Miami Beach on Collins Avenue. That’s the beach. We rented a bowling alley that was owned by some motorcycle guys. It was a very big bowling alley, and the business was for lease. So, we brought in all of our hippie friends and tore out the lanes and just made it one big concert theater with a big, concrete floor. We brought in PA equipment. We changed the name of the band to Blues Image.  We called that place Thee Image. We had some other partners. They handled the finances like sending the deposits for the groups. On opening night, we had Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention play. Then, we had the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page, and Cream with Eric Clapton play. Every weekend there was a really big group there—the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia. We would open for them, so we got to be friends with them and jam with them. Eric Burdon from the Animals, had said, “You guys are so good. If you ever come to LA—and you should because you’d get signed—come by my offices and I’ll introduce you to my manager, and maybe we can get you guys going with a record deal.” By this time, we were playing original material. It was good. It was blues. It was definitely blues. It wasn't pop, but we were the Blues Image.

The Blues Images's group photo

JC:      So when did you take up Eric’s offer to go to LA?

MP:     We played for another year at Thee Image. We were having record crowds, but that didn't go well with the city. Collins is only one strip. There’s only one way in and one way out in the area where we were. Traffic was backing up over the causeway. Hotel owners, who had big nightclubs and big shows, were getting mad because these hippies drew another two thousand people to the beach. It somehow spilled over to the police, and they started harassing our clients and our customers with unprovoked attacks on people—they were looking for drugs and weed and all of that stuff. Eventually, we just got disinterested and said, “You know what? We've played with just about every major band that we like in the industry. Let’s take our chances and go to LA.” We went there not knowing what we were facing. We found some friends there who were from Miami, and they let us sleep on their floor. We’d get up every morning and go down to the Sunset Strip and visit the different managers from the different groups. Eventually, there would be one who would say, “We’ll help you.” Sure enough, we went to Eric Burdon’s offices. His manager was there. Eric said, “I’d like you to take good care of these guys. They’re really good, and they’re friends of mine.” We played them our demo. It was a little 45-RPM single called “Can’t You Believe in Forever,” which I wrote. They booked us at the Whiskey a Go Go.

That night, at the Whiskey a Go Go, the bass player from Iron Butterfly was there. He heard me playing. He said, “You guys need a manager. I can bring in our manager, and there’s no doubt that he can get you guys signed into a deal with the same label that we’re on.” I said, “Wow! Great!” We booked another show at the Whiskey. The managers came, and we were signed to the management office in about a month. About a month after that, the managers called the labels, and the labels came to our house. We were way up in the mountains outside of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. It was Granada Hills. We saw a limousine come up the side of the road. They got out, and it was all the executives and producers from Atlantic Records. They walked  into our garage. We played for about an hour, and they said, “Okay. You’ll be hearing from us.” They signed us. Now, we were signed to ATCO, which was really a subsidiary of Atlantic around 1968. They put a great producer with us. He was an engineer. His name was Bill Halverson. He was doing Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first album at the same time that he was producing us. We would run across the hall and listen to them play. We became friends. They would come over and listen to us play. Stephen Stills and David Crosby and I became good friends.

What happened was that the album ended up becoming what we were. We were a blues band. The record label said, “We don’t hear anything commercial here.” We said, “Who said we are commercial? We’re what you heard in the garage.” They said, “Okay. We’ll give it a try, and maybe something will happen.” They put out the first Blues Image album in 1969. It didn't sell because it wasn't getting radio airplay—radio wasn't really friendly to blues at that time. We didn't really get a lot of airplay, but the critics loved the band. We got tours with Santana, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors. It was people like that whom we were appearing with, and we were doing quite well.

 So, we got back to LA after that series of tours, and our partners from Miami Beach that had Thee Image with us now wanted to open a new club on Sunset Strip and call it Thee Experience. They wanted us to be the house band again. We said, “Sure.” We got that, and Jimi Hendrix would come in and jam with us. He would tell us, “I didn't even go home. I just got in from the airport from my tour and I came right here to jam with you guys. We were jamming with Hendrix and Jim Morrison and the Who. There were a lot of great players who were stopping by to jam with us.

JC:      How did you come up with the song “Ride Captain Ride”?

MP:     It was time to do the next album. The managers got together with the record label and said, “We’re going to need a commercial producer who has hits out right now and knows how to take a band like this and turn them into something commercial.” We didn't even like that word—“commercial.” So, they found a producer by the name of Richard Podolor. At that time, Richard was doing Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night. He was a little too much of a pop producer for Blues Image, but we stuck with it. We had been in the studio for about a month or so, and it was getting toward the end of the time that had been allotted for us. The record company came in and listened to what we had. They said, “This is not hit music. It’s better than it was. It’s not blues, but we need to hear a hit, or we’re going to pull the plug and there won’t be another Blues Image album.”

We got a little hysterical. Our keyboard player, Skip Konte, came up to me and played and few lines of something. I said, “That sounds really good. Let me see if I can do something with it.” The producer came up and said, “You’ve got until the end of the afternoon. If you don’t play me something that sounds like it could be a commercial hit, I’m going to have to pull the studio time away and give it to one of my other bands that’s doing really well.” Within ten or fifteen minutes, we had written “Ride Captain Ride.” [To hear “Ride Captain Ride” click here.] I sat in front of a Rhodes piano that said, “Model-73.” It had seventy-three keys. I just started singing “73.” The whole story just started coming on by itself about an imaginary journey, with people who were on a boat going from coast to coast and pull into marinas and say, “Does anybody want to go somewhere where we can have our own place and be free and get away from all of this pollution and traffic?” That was what the song was supposed to be about. The producer heard the song and said, “This is the hit. Let’s work on this. Drop everything else.” So, we worked all day on “Ride Captain Ride.” At the end of the day, everybody listened to it and said, “This is the most commercial thing we have. This could be a hit.” The record label heard it and said, “Okay, we’re back on track. We’ll give this serious promotion.” They did. We went out on tour. Now, we were playing with the Who at eighty-thousand-seat stadiums. We had gone up quite a bit from halls and theaters to stadiums. We were doing quite well.

Then, as fate would have it, I got a call from the Pentagon. They wanted to know how I knew about a secret spy ship called the USS Pueblo. I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” They said, “Don’t give us that. There were seventy-three men. They sailed out of San Francisco. They got captured by a Korean destroyer out in international waters and were taken to Korea. It almost started an incident. The Koreans are saying that it was a spy ship, so we’re having some serious problems. Meanwhile, your song is out telling the whole story. It was exactly seventy-three men and exactly San Francisco.” I said, “It’s just a coincidence.” They didn't believe it. I assured them that the song was written about two months before it was recorded. I said, “How could I know about it four months before it happened, because that’s when I wrote the song.” They agreed with me. As it turns out, when I was on tour, sometimes people would come up to me who were on the crew of the Pueblo and say, “Thanks for writing that song for us. That’s really great.” I said, “I wrote it for you, but I wrote it for everybody else, too.”

JC:   Yet, with a successful hit from Blues Image, you would join Iron Butterfly in the same year.

The band now had a top hit. We were out on tour, and we were getting a lot of airplay. We started having some internal problems. It’s the basic problem that hits most bands, especially in that time period. Managers believed that a rock band had a life of about three years before they started arguing and would break up anyway. They said, “We’re going to just work to death and make any penny we can before you guys break up.” We would be out on tour. We would come back and they’d say, “Go right  into the studio and start working on your next album.” We said, “Are you kidding? Mike’s the main writer. He hasn't had a chance to write anything. He’s been doing one-nighters for the last few months.” I didn't have a problem when we got home. I just said, “I need a little time to write.” The other guys who had families with kids and wives said, “No. We want to take some time off here. We’re burnt out.” The record label wouldn't hear it, and neither would the managers. We got overworked and over-stressed. Now, we were bickering and arguing. My parents were back in Tampa and they were older. They were on their own and they needed help. I said, “If we don’t fix this problem with the band, I’m going to have to go somewhere else where there’s no arguing. I’m a Libra. I like harmony.”

 As it turns out, Iron Butterfly came to me and said, “We’re getting ready to let our guitar player go, and we want to offer you the gig first.” I said, “I can’t really leave Blues Image.” Things weren't getting better. They were getting worse, and my parents needed money. I said, “You know what? I’ll do it.” I left Blues Image. I joined Iron Butterfly and went right into an astronomical salary. With the records from royalties and all of that, I was able to go home to my parents. I said to my father, “What’s your biggest worry?” He said, “I’m going to lose the house. I won’t be able to give it to you. My pension is just not enough to pay this.” I said, “Guess what? You don’t have to worry. I just paid off your house for you.” He was shocked. He said with a laugh, “You mean all of that noise you used to make in the garage finally paid off?” I said, “Yeah.” That was the first thing that happened that I felt really good about. Secondly, we bonded in Iron Butterfly. We were out there on tour. Our opening band was Led Zeppelin. I had met Jimmy Page back at our club in Miami at Thee Image. He said, “Good to see you again.” I said, “Good to see you.” We were both in different bands. Then, the group Yes became our opening band. We were international now that Iron Butterfly had jumped up and had a worldwide audience where before it was kind of just limited to America. I started writing some stuff like “Butterfly Bleu” and “Easy Rider” and things like that for the Metamorphosis album.

Concert flyer of Mike (corner, 1st left) in Iron Butterfly

JC:      Yeah. Doug Ingle used to write everything and was the lead singer. Now you were writing and were also a lead singer on that album.

MP:     Yes. That’s right. That did cause a little bit of friction in the band mostly because the producer, Richard Podolor, was doing the production. He was trying to make the band sound commercial. I had recording equipment in my home, so when I would write a song for the Metamorphosis album, I wouldn't just present it through the guitar. I would actually record it in my house, play all the parts myself, and bring it in. It almost sounded like a finished master. The guitar sound was very big—it was huge. When we’d get it into the studio, the band would say, “Let’s do that one. Let’s do that one.” The producer would somehow homogenize the guitars, and they would sound a lot thinner than they sounded on my demos. If you listened to the album as compared to demos on YouTube or some of the live stuff of Butterfly, you can hear the difference right away. [To hear a live version of “Stone Believer,” where Doug and Mike trade vocals, click here.] The guitars are much bigger.

We made a mistake. The mistake was that the sound of the band drastically changed too quickly. So, when people bought the Metamorphosis album, they were expecting to hear more of the psychedelic rock of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and hippie stuff like “Flowers and Beads” and stuff. They heard a much more sophisticated sound and in-depth songwriting. This caused a little bit of a hassle. Had I known better, I would have slowed everything down and said, “Hey, guys, let’s not abruptly change our style. Let’s blend our fans and our friends into the new sound little by little.” Doug was writing folk songs on the acoustic guitar. He had brought in a co-writer. I didn't understand why he needed that, but he liked it. It got to the point that while we were recording Metamorphosis, the producer would come to me and say, “We really need to give Doug somewhat of an identity in your songs.” I said, “Fine. He’s invited to my house. I’ll go to his house, and we can write together.” Doug didn't have time to write. He was with his family, which I respected him for.

What happened  was that, I would write the songs, and I would ask if anybody wanted to participate. Nobody had a whole lot of time, so the song would end up being written and sung by me. Very weird things were happening. We would finish a session, and when we came in the next day, the producer had stayed in with Doug after we had left and stuck his voice into the song and put his lyrics to a song that really didn't need any more put into it. It was just being put in to patronize him a little bit. I would say, “What is this?” Richard would say, “We've got to get Doug in there.” I said, “Yeah. You could have asked me what I thought about it before you recorded it in there. You've actually made it part of the master recording already.” So, the band wasn't getting into it. They were kind of staying away a little bit. I wasn't mad. I said, “Doug, if you had time to write it in the studio, you could have just come to my house.” It didn't happen that way. It happened the way it happened. That happened on several of my songs. I would come in, and they were different songs. Doug was now singing in places that didn't need vocals. There would be twenty-four bars of something that had his voice, and then my voice would start. It was strictly done out of politics. That was okay. Again, it did not lend itself to the band evolving higher than it had gone.

 Even though the critics were talking about how this was the best Iron Butterfly album ever and were getting letters from fans saying they loved the styles and that we were much more mature, the majority of the fans did not go for it. The record company did not promote it very hard. They were saying, “This is a band that can promote itself. Just give the record to the DJs.” By that time, the record industry was such that you didn’t just give your record to the DJ. The record label had to get involved with promotion. What happened was when the band came into a particular town to play a gig, the  local  radio station that was playing the band a lot would get tickets from the label  and would be the presenter of the band. There were a lot of promotional tactics that were not used with making Butterfly strong enough. As a result, a couple of my songs made it to the charts as singles, but the album didn’t do so well.

I discovered the band Black Oak Arkansas. Lee Dorman, who was the bass player of Iron Butterfly, and I produced them. We got them a deal with Atlantic Records. A new part of my career had opened up. I was now a producer and engineer, as well as a composer and recording artist and singer.

JC:      So what caused Iron Butterfly to break up?

MP:     Tragedy fell to the band. Apparently, the managers were not paying the taxes and were keeping the money for investments. Some of the investments didn’t pan out. At the end of the year when we would audit, the accountants would say, “There are hundreds of thousands of dollars missing here.” The taxes were not being paid. So, the IRS came in. For instance, Lee Dorman had a multi-million dollar business selling exotic cars in Beverly Hills—the Ferraris and Lamborghinis and all of that. They took away all of that because he didn’t pay the taxes. He thought they had been paying them the whole time. It was the same thing with all of the guys in the band. They had mansions, and they took away their homes. I was living at Lee Dorman’s, but I had a motor home, and that’s where my recording studio was. It didn’t phase me at all. I didn’t have much to lose except the money that was in the accounts. The band had a big meeting, and we found out that legally we could not prosecute these managers to get out of our management contract and get new managers. What we could do was file criminal charges against them, but that wouldn’t do anything. We would still be managed by the very guys who we were suing. So, somebody in the band had a bright idea and said, “Why don’t we break up. It might take a year, it might take two years. Let’s just take a hiatus. We can then get back together, and the management contracts will have run out.” Everybody said, “Yeah. Let’s do that.”

So, I got a call from Jimi Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell. Jimi had just passed away, and Mitch wanted to know if I wanted to do a band with him. He found some girl guitar player who played just like Hendrix. Her name was April Lawton. The group was called Ramatam. Me, Mitch, and April went and did an album for Atlantic. It was way too progressive. It was really far out. By that time, we all had a bit of money. The critics loved it and loved Ramatam. We were on tour with some very big bands. April was very fragile. She had never been on tours like this before.

JC:      You used the talk box with Iron Butterfly with “Butterfly Bleu” and you used the talk box a lot on the Ramatam album.

MP:     Right.

JC:      That was before Frampton and Joe Walsh starting using the talk box.

MP:     That’s true. I used it on the Iron Butterfly Metamorphosis album on “Butterfly Bleu.” I used it a little bit more in Ramatam; I used it differently than the guys who came after me. They were doing it by phrasing words, where I was making psychedelic sounds as well as phrasing words. I was having conversations with myself saying, “Help me,” in a high octave, and then in a low octave, I would say, “No. I can’t help you, baby.” People were laughing and were kind of shocked when we went on the road and did that stuff live. I was the co-inventor of that. The other guys—Frampton and Joe Walsh and everybody—starting using it. They got the notoriety for it. I got the royalties. It was a time when I wish I had a PR agent who would have said, “Hey! Mike’s got this invention that everybody is using.” I wasn’t into that part of business. I just wanted to make songs. First, the talk box was called the “magic bag.” It hung on my shoulder with fringe. It was sold to a big music company, and then they put it on the floor with the tube up to the mic. Of course, that limited the area that the guitarist could walk around because that tube that had to be in your mouth was taped to the mic. You had to stand there with that mic, whereas I was standing there running around the stage with a wireless mic and the bag. Thank you for noting that. That did happen.

JC:      Ramatam has two distinct music styles throughout the album. There was music similar to what you were doing with Iron Butterfly, and then there was music written by Tommy Sullivan (who was in the Brooklyn Bridge) doing numbers that were much more mellow. Was there ever any friction over the musical direction of Ramatam?

MP:     Not really. We worked together as a team. We worked together on our guitar harmony part. I wrote most of the songs on the album. I really encouraged the other members to write. The bass player wrote one. April and Tommy wrote the rest. As a matter of fact, Mitch Mitchell and I and our families—my wife Valerie and his wife—had a big house. It was a fifteen-room mansion on Long Island. One of the rooms was a ballroom. The people who were there before us who built the house apparently liked to party. So, there was a ballroom with a stage. It was all wood. It just sounded like a really cool theater. We would rehearse the band there. April would come over and she’d have some ideas of how the guitar part would go. We worked together harmoniously. If there was any competition, I wasn't even aware of it. In the end, Ramatam broke up as good friends. We just weren't getting any airplay. The record label wasn't going to promote it because it was just too far out. It was too much progressive rock. We all said, “It’s better that we do other things that are more friendly to airplay.” We broke up as friends. We would work out our parts diligently. I would listen to April if she wanted a lead to be a certain way. I would say, “Let’s go that way. I’m not stuck on anything.” We had a whole different style than the Ramatam’s second album (which I didn't play on) because it was a bit more of funk psychedelic influence in that first album [You can hear the funk psychedelic style in Ramatam’s “Whiskey Place”, click here.] The next album didn't quite have that. I think April liked Styx and groups like REO Speedwagon.

JC:      At the time, people could not believe that a female could play the guitar well. I know this is a sensitive subject, but there was some rumors as to whether April was a man or not.

Ramatam (Mike in Middle)

MP:     I heard that one too. We heard that one many times. I've never seen or heard anything to the contrary. It once got to a peak where I was getting letters and people saying to me, “Do you know that’s a guy?” I said, “Prove it. Show me some pictures of her before and after.” Nobody would ever prove anything. I went up to her one day and said, “April, I really feel bad about asking you this, but I have to just for my own piece of mind. Are you a guy?” She says, “No! Of course I’m not.” I said, “Okay. That’s it. You’ll never hear that from me again.” That’s how it ended.

After Ramatam, I joined a band that Carmine Appice had called Cactus. As I joined the band, Jeff Beck came to one of our rehearsals and asked Carmine if he wanted to do an album with him with Timmy Bogart, the bass player from Cactus. They called it Beck, Bogart, and Appice—BBA. Carmine left the band with me and Duane Hitchings, the keyboard player in Cactus. He said, “When we finish with that, we’ll come back and play with you guys and we’ll join Cactus again.” I didn't feel good about calling it Cactus because I knew they had a lot of fans. So, we called it the New Cactus Band, and the album was called Son of Cactus. That was in the mid-70s. I can go on and on about the bands that I was in and the stories. While there are so many good memories, some not-so-good memories was that I was started losing a lot of my friends to drug overdoses and stuff. That hurt a lot to see people who you were very close to. You wanted to say, “Hey, man. Don’t get so stoned. Don’t take stuff that you don’t even know what you’re taking.” One by one, the guys I was jamming with on a weekly basis, who were the top artists in the world, were dying all around us. I felt really bad about that.

By the end of the 70s, I got a solo album deal. I got a call from the record label. They asked if I would do a Mike Pinera album. I got signed to Capricorn, which was the Allman Brothers and a lot of the Southern rock bands. I did the first Mike Pinera album, which was called Isla. I made another solo album called Forever. [One of Mike’s solo songs “Goodnight, My Love” can be heard by clicking here.]  That one was distributed by Capital Records. At that time, I got a call from Alice Cooper wanting to know if I wanted to become the lead guitar player in the Alice Cooper Band.

Mike Pinera's Forever

JC:      Talk about your time with Alice Cooper.

MP:     Initially, I said that I couldn't join Alice Cooper because I had contractual problems. I had to go out and promote my album. I couldn't be doing something else. They said, “Why don’t you do open for Alice as Mike Pinera and promote your album. That satisfies the responsibility. Plus, you’ll be promoting your album. Then, you can take a break, throw on some different clothes, and you can come out with Alice and be in the Alice Cooper Band.” I did that from the late 70s to the early 80s. I was in the Alice Cooper Band with Alice.

I had known Alice way back when we had our club Thee Experience on Sunset Boulevard. Alice was the house band there along with Blues Image. It was a really good vibe. The music was a little bit too weird for people, especially for the record company. That was Alice. Alice said, “When everybody else was normal, I was weird. A lot of people are weird, so I’ve got to get weirder.” We were all trying to write songs for Alice that he liked but that didn’t sound too much like anything else that was out there. We had a great time for three of four years touring. We made two albums.

Mike (center) on tour with Alice

JC:      Alice Cooper refers to the two albums you did with him, Special Forces and Zipper Catches Skin as his “blackout” period. What were your memories of Alice at the time?

MP:     When I joined the band, I was told by the management that Alice had been through rehab and was not drinking anymore, and he would really appreciate it if all of the new band members were not drinking around him. I said, “You won’t have a problem with me because I don’t drink period.” They were really concerned with that. When I got there for the first rehearsals of the new band in ’79, it was great. Alice looked so good. He was so wholesome and was smiling and laughing a lot, and he was very healthy. We talked at length about the old days when we used to play together at Thee Experience. Everybody in the band knew each other. We were all good friends. It was a tight band. It was a good rock band. We went out there and got on that tour bus, and Alice got on that tour bus with us. He had the money to fly in a Learjet to the different shows, but he wanted to be part of the band camaraderie. He was on the bus. We were all on the bus. We would travel during one-nighters all up and down the United States.

One hairy story in particular was that we were booked at the Toronto Sports Stadium. There were eighty thousand people there. They were very emotional and very passionate Alice Cooper fans. Alice had gotten some kind of food poisoning or something. He was really sick, and he said, “I’m not going to be able to go on.” The promoter said, “Great. I’m going to go out there and tell them.” He said, “No. I want Mike to tell them. I don’t want you to tell them. I want it to come from somebody in the band, and Mike is like a spokesman for the band, so he’ll go out there.” I said, “Are you sure you want me to go out there in front of eighty thousand people and say we’re not playing?” He said, “Yeah. You do it.” The doctors came and said, “He’s really sick. We better take him back to the hotel.” They left. There I was onstage. I said, “How’s everybody doing? I’m Mike Pinera from Alice Cooper.” They went crazy. I said, “I’m sorry to say that we’re not going to be able to play tonight. Alice is very sick.” They were politely quiet for a minute. Then, the promoter came onstage and grabbed the mic from me. I knew what pissed them off. I had said to the audience, “Don’t worry. We’ll work with the promoter to get a back-up date. We’ll have a make-up date and hold on to your ticket stubs.” I probably shouldn’t have gone there, but I thought it was the right thing to do, and that was what Alice would have wanted me to do. So, the promoter said into the mic, “I’m not doing any make-up date. You guys have blown the can. I’ll never hire you again.” The crowd got agitated. There was a riot. They were overturning police cars and setting them on fire. We got out of there. When we got to the hotel room, every channel was coming live from the Toronto Sports Stadium from what they were calling the Alice Cooper Riot. In the morning, may be five or six, hours later, we were at the airport getting ready to fly out, and on the magazine stands there were T-shirts that read,  “I survived the Alice Cooper Riot at the Toronto Sports Stadium.” That was quite hairy. That’s not too easy to do, especially when you get to your hotel room and you see that your roadie is on stage trying to clean up your guitar and put them in the cases and there are Molotov cocktails flying and stuff like that. I had not seen that side of the rock industry before. That was about it. We didn’t miss any shows other than that one.

We went all over the world. We did a one-hour TV special in France called Alice Cooper in Paris. They let Alice produce it and write it. Alice and I would sit down and come up with weird locations to go to. We were in underground subway stations, abandoned subway stations, junk yards, and all kinds of weird places. There’s actually a DVD out right now called Alice Cooper in Paris. It was the band’s special. It was our band. It’s quite good. It’s very tight. [“Vicious Rumors” from Alice Cooper in Paris can be heard by clicking here.] There’s another guitar player in the band—John Nitzinger and myself. We were doing a lot of lead harmonies. It was pretty out there. It was a good experience playing with Alice. I see him from time to time now. We reminisce. There will be people in his hotel room, because they do those VIP greet-and-meet things. They’re sitting there with Alice. There are maybe twenty people with Alice. I’ll walk in and he’ll go, “Oh my God. There’s Mike Pinera—the only guy that I’ve ever had in my band that I was truly afraid of. I call him the Mr. Rogers of rock and roll because he’s so quiet and so polite when you talk to him in person. Then, he goes on stage and becomes this monster.”  It’s nice to see Coop down. I almost saw Cooper at Johnny Depp’s house.

JC:      How did you almost see him at Depp’s house?

MP:     We were recording at Johnny Depp’s in the Hollywood Hills. He’s got a big house there and a studio. He was out making a movie, so we were invited to come in. I was in there with a couple of musicians and we were jamming. We were there for about a week, actually. What a house and collection of memorabilia. We left, and then I got a call that Alice had just gotten there right after we left. He was there with Paul McCartney, Slash, and David Grohl from Foo Fighters. They had just gotten there to do some jamming and recording. We had just missed them by a few minutes.

JC:      It doesn't get any better than Paul McCartney!

MP:     Yeah. Next time I see him I’ll be like, “You know I just missed you at Depp’s house?” Of course, he’ll know. We’ll have something else to talk about.

JC:      What did you do after Alice?

MP:      I took a break and resurfaced in 1988 with a compilation tour of artists of bands who were from bands that were well known. Each guy would come up and play a few songs.  Micky Dolenz would come up and play three Monkees songs. Chuck Negron of Three Dog Night would come out and play Three Dog Night songs with a great backup band. I did that for a couple of years. We were playing big fairs and festivals. I started noticing how the younger kids were getting more and more into classic rock. It wasn’t just the older baby boomers coming to the shows anymore. By the early 90s, I formed my own band called the Classic Rock All-Stars, which was that same formula. It was lead singers and players from well-known bands all in one band. We would take the stage together. There was no backup band. We would back up each other and play each other’s songs. The very first Classic Rock All-Stars in 1992 was Pete Rivera, the singer and drummer of Rare Earth, Jerry Corbetta, the singer and keyboardist of Sugarloaf, bass player Dennis Noda from Cannibal and the Headhunters, and Micky Dolenz, who was in the first Classic Rock All-Stars. Micky left after about a year. He was replaced by Spencer Davis. We just kept the band going. Eventually, it ended up being the four guys—Jerry, Pete, Dennis, and myself. We kept that band going all through the 90s playing big fair and festivals all summer. We did very well with that. [To hear the Classic Rock All-Stars perform “Ride Captain Ride,” click here.]

We had a lot of our veterans who came home from Desert Storm and Vietnam say that our music kept them alive, motivated, and encouraged. These days, it seems that the only thing parents and kids really have in common is classic rock. Dad likes the Rolling Stones and so does the kid. We found that a lot of the families came together to the concerts, where there were not too many other acts that they could enjoy together or afford. There are some great bands out there. They’re from the classic rock period. Somehow the tickets have sky rocketed up to $200 to $300 a seat, and so a lot of families cannot afford that anymore. They go to one concert a month as to where they used to go to one every weekend. I do have parents who come up to me and say, “I’m so glad you guys are here for free.” In a lot of cases we find sponsors. Sponsors say, “We can afford to sponsor you. I wish more groups would do this because this is the only time we get to see our kids.”

 When I was a teenager and I started to play music, most of my friends were in gangs in Tampa and they were on drugs and all of that. My dad pulled me aside and said, “Son, we’ve got to spend some time together.” I said, “Well, I don’t feel like going fishing. I don’t feel like working with you in the garden.” He said, “I’ll tell you what. Let’s make it a point that when I get home from work at four o’clock every day we’ll watch American Bandstand  together.” I said, “I can groove with that.” My dad was so wise. He found something that we both liked. We’d sit on the couch and watch the show together. He’d pat me or give me some noogies on the head with his elbow and say, “See? That’s music. The Supremes. Baby Baby.  Where did our love go?” I’d say, “Yeah, Dad. Watch this next band. They’re called Eric Burdon and the Animals. Watch this. This is real music.” So, we bonded.

 But back to the band . . . there was no real motivation about the band. A few individuals like myself wanted to record new originals and do what we always did—write some new stuff and go record it. The band as a whole said, “This is not the kind of band that the audience want to hear new material from. They just want to hear us doing each other’s hits.” That kind of kept the band at an even keel.

JC:      Did you anything else besides the Classic Rock All-Stars?

MP:     At the end of the 90s, I said, “I’m going to go ahead and start a record company myself. I’m going to start a television company, too.” I noticed that MTV, which once played great music videos, was now starting to get a little decadent with drugs, violent music, death metal, and all of that. I started a company. It was called The Music and Entertainment Network. It got so big so quickly that some Wall Street traders came up and said, “We’d like to take you public. We want you to be the CEO of the company.” The company went public and did very well. When I went public, the stock was at 10¢. About six months later, it was at $8.00 a share. A lot of people were doing very well.

 I didn't want to use MTV’s early videos because everybody had seen them already. I wanted to start shooting classic rock bands that we were on tour with—really big ones. I asked them if they had any vintage footage that nobody had ever seen before. Every one of them had some. Pretty soon, I had five hundred hours of never-before-seen performances—live interviews, in the studios, on tour buses—of well-known classic performers. It was all clean. It was really good. We went back to Wall Street. We had several offers from some very big companies like Time Warner to take us under their wings. We didn't want to be owned by another company. We just wanted somebody to say, “Here’s your channel. Put up your classic rock network.” It doesn't happen like that. You have to buy the time and all of that. As it turns out, the classic rock network and all of that footage got out on a few test runs. We tested it in Florida for about a year on a network there. It was all testing totally positive. The people who have the power of the pen were still not content to give us a channel. We didn't have anywhere near the amount of money to take that to a 24/7 channel. So, after knowing that it worked, VH1 Classic came out, and now there was already a 24/7 channel that played classic rock.

 I was very grateful that part of it happened, but I wasn't really fit for that kind of life. It was starting to take away from my time from producing and writing and all of that. When you’re the CEO of a public company that was doing as well as we were, there were a lot of things you had to process. You had to watch that nobody in your company was doing any insider trading and all of that, because there are a lot of ways to mess things up if you’re into that. Eventually, I just walked away from it. I still have the public company. It’s not active. Who knows? Maybe I’ll do it again.

 At the same time, VH1 Classic started playing “Ride Captain Ride”;  it was spreading the word of Blues Image. It revived a certain thirst for that kind of sound. So, we started playing some gigs as Blues Image. I called all of the original members. One member had passed away, but other than that, we had everybody else. The result was fantastic. Everybody wanted a total reunion and not just for about a month or so, but I couldn't do it longer than that. I already had too many obligations. But it did show me that classic rock was back, and the young kids were coming to shows wearing tie-dye T-shirts and peace symbols.

Speaking of reunions, I’ll let you in on a little scoop.

JC:      What’s that?

MP:     We just reformed Iron Butterfly with some original members. A lot of the guys died. Ron Bushy, the original drummer and founder of the band, and myself, and Doug Ingle, Jr.

JC:      Doug Ingle, Jr. You mean Doug Ingle’s son?

MP:     He sounds just like Doug and looks just like Doug.

JC:      Is he playing keyboard and singing like his father?

MP:     Yeah. We've got a new bass player. We've got some shows that we’re going to do. Where do you live?

JC:      I live in Philadelphia.

MP:     Oh! Well, Philadelphia is a bit far. We plan to tour a lot as Iron Butterfly and we’re making a new album. It’s the same thing with the occasional reunion with Blues Image. I’ll be sure to give you a call if we’re ever in your area. I’ll invite you to come down on our guest list.

JC:      That would be awesome. Thanks, Mike.

MP:     Thank you, Jeff.

Mike Pinera today

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Very Candid Conversation with Neal Smith

While just about everyone is familiar with the name Alice Cooper, many people aren’t aware that Alice Cooper started as a group. The Alice Cooper band started in the late 1960s, with Alice Cooper as the lead singer. They first signed with Frank Zappa’s label, Straight Records, as a psychedelic act. It was not until 1971 and their third album, Love It to Death, that they became the heavy metal act that Alice Cooper is known for. From 1971 to 1974, the Alice Cooper band performed a lot of music that Alice Cooper still performs today as a solo artist—“No More Mr. Nice Guy,” “School’s Out,” and “I’m Eighteen.” In 1974, Alice disbanded the group to go solo and released Welcome to My Nightmare in 1975. Since then, Alice Cooper has remained a solo act. The group tried to carry on in 1977 without him under the name, Billion Dollar Babies. They recorded one album, Battle Axe, before they disbanded. In 2011, the Alice Cooper band, as well as Alice Cooper as a solo artist were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realized the band was just as essential to Alice as the E Street Band was to Bruce Springsteen. In other words, the band itself was just as important as the singer was.

Neal Smith was the drummer of the Alice Cooper band. Not only did he provide great rhythms, but he was also involved in writing songs. When the group broke up, he continued in the music business for some time, but he eventually left to become a realtor. Although Neal is currently a realtor, his musical side has not left him. He has formed a group called  KillSmith  in which he plays drums, guitar, and sings. Like  the Alice Cooper band, KillSmith is heavy metal, but the band also explores many other musical styles. Neal expects KillSmith’s third album to be released in late 2014.

In this candid conversation with Neal, we discuss Alice’s early day as a Zappa-signed psychedelic act, Alice’s classic days, the Billion Dollar Babies era, Neal’s time as a realtor, getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and KillSmith. Once again, I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview. But most of all, I want to thank Neal for taking the time to not only talk to me, but to provide some of the photos I used for this interview.

Jeff Cramer: What encouraged you to pick up your sticks?

Neal Smith: I actually played trombone when I was in grade school, and my music teacher thought I was terrible. I always wanted to play the drums, so I started playing drums. I was happy about it, and my music teacher was happy about it. I'd always loved the drums, from the early rock and roll of the '50s and the '60s. I started banging on pots and pans in the kitchen with wooden spoons like a lot of people did before we could buy drums, and that's what got me going.

JC: How did you meet Alice?

NS: We all went to school together to a junior college—Glendale Community College—in Phoenix, Arizona. I was playing drums in another band called the Holy Grail in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1966 to 1967'67. Alice (or Vince, as he was known) was also in a few of my classes. Glen Buxton and Dennis Dunaway were in some of my classes. As a matter of fact, their drummer at the time, John Speer, was in a few of my classes. We became friends because we were local musicians and the only guys with long hair at the time in the school. That was how our friendship started, and that was before we ever played together.

Later, when the Holy Grail had broken up, I rekindled my friendship with them in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, and they gave me a place to stay. I always tell people when I joined Alice Cooper it was called the Nazz. Not only were they some of my best friends, but they were also writing original material. That was key to me.

I was very, very impressed that we were writing music. It was conducive of the sixties. Of course, there were certain elements that will be psychedelic, but it was a lot of experimental music, and that was our attraction to each other. It was a little bit different from what the other drummer John was into.

JC: How did Frank Zappa discover you? You were on his label initially.

NS: We were friends with the GTO's, and we hung out with them at the Whiskey a Go Go on the Sunset Strip. Miss Christine who was one of the girls in the GTO's—well, they all hung out with Zappa, but Miss Christine was a babysitter. She kind of lived at their house a lot and took care of Moon Unit, who was a baby at the time. So, after we became friends with her, she told Frank about the band and that he should listen to them. She said that we had band called Alice Cooper and the lead singer's name was Alice. That kind of perked Frank's ears up, and we went over to his house and did an audition. He pretty much signed us on the spot.
 The Alice Cooper band, a 1969 psychedelic act signed by Frank Zappa

JC: When you were signed to Zappa’s record label, the first two albums, Pretties for You and Easy Action, were psychedelic music. It wasn’t until the third album, Love It to Death, that the Alice Cooper band became known as a heavy metal theatrical band.

NS: It had to do with the song writing. We were just forging some very original music for Pretties for You and Easy Action. If those albums would've caught on and sold, and were gold and platinum albums, I'm sure we would've continued in that vein. [“Apple Bush,” a tune Neal wrote during that period, can be heard here.]

That didn't happen, so our music started to change and we started writing in a different vein. You read the songwriting credits—all of us wrote on the album. We all played our instruments and everybody was creative in the songwriting effort. You know, Alice was just one of the guys in the band. Alice is a great guy, I love him, but there's a band of five people, and he was not the craziest person in the band.

JC: Were you still signed with Zappa when that whole “chicken incident” happened?

NS: Yeah.

JC: Since you were there, what really happened?

NS: We were playing the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival, and we went on stage right before John Lennon. I think we did our show between the Doors and John Lennon. We did our crazy show, and at that time we released Pretties for You and Easy Action. We sold about 20,000 albums across the United States and Canada, so we were far from a successful band, but our reputation piqued their interest in watching us play. We did a big, giant outdoor arena, which holds about 20,000–30,000 people, and the Toronto Varsity stadium was a great venue for us to play.

We wanted to make an impact, and we were on, it was dark. We had a great light show. We did our crazy show, and there are still segments of my crazy drum solo on YouTube to this day [To hear Neal’s drum solo, click here]. During the end of the song we were playing, we did this big, psychedelic rave with a drum solo, and just go nuts and everything. There was a chicken on stage, and Alice threw the chicken off the stage, and whatever happened to it happened to it. I mean, we were on stage playing, so we never saw what was happening to it on the ground. But the next day, all the newspapers across the country said, “Alice Cooper bites the head off a chicken and drinks the blood.”

It was freaking great. We loved that stuff. From that day on, that kind of opened the door for us to do anything that we wanted to do because more people came to see us than not. And either people say, "That's great, what a crazy band," or they were just totally disgusted, which we were hoping for anyway. They were totally disgusted, and they wouldn't have anything to do with us.

Zappa was one of the first people who heard about it. He said it was a great story whether it was true or not—it didn’t matter. It’s just an amazing story. We’d  been in Time and Newsweek, and the reputation of the band and what we were doing was so different from anybody else. Nobody could really put their finger on it, but that one show kind of encapsulated everything that we were up to that point.

Alice Cooper as heavy metal act 

JC: You mentioned the Doors. On the album Killer, is “Desperado" really a tribute to Jim Morrison?

NS: Well, you know we knew the guys. I mean, I knew John Densmore and Robbie Krieger better than anybody, more than I did Jim Morrison, although I'd met him a couple of times.

JC: But is the song really a tribute?

NS: Alice wrote the lyrics, so we wrote the song. As you can tell throughout our albums, the band is originally from Phoenix, Arizona. There are always influences from the southwest, whether it's historically or whether it's contemporary, but those things exist as part of who we were and who we are. And, like I said, Alice wrote the lyrics to it. He may have been inspired by some of Morrison's lyrics. No matter what you do when you're creative in music, there’s always an inspiration and you kind of go with it.

So, Alice is the only one who could really answer that question. Jim Morrison's name was never mentioned when we did the song. Alice may have wanted to take on a bit of a persona with the way he presented the song, or the way he sang the song, and he was influenced by that, but we didn't sit down and say we were going make it a tribute to Jim Morrison. And some of it has a Doors’ vibe to it. I suppose someone could read that in there, but it wasn't something that we consciously thought about or talked about.

JC: Love It to Death and Killer contain straight-up heavy metal. School's Out and Billion Dollar Babies is the beginning of Alice's theatrical side. On School’s Out, your sole credit is for "Alma Mater.” It’s actually one of the most sentimental songs that Alice Cooper ever done. I think it really captures the whole feeling of being a teenager and waiting until school ended, but then you really realize you do miss it, especially if you had a good time with your friends.

NS: Yeah, we lived in Los Angeles, and we'd move to Detroit, and then we moved to Connecticut near New York. We all lived together in a mansion in Greenwich, and I was in my room with my acoustic guitar that I wrote most of my songs on.  I had idea in that chord structure, and while I was picking through the chord, I came up with a melody. Alice also came up with some of the lyrics. That was how we wrote the albums—we’d all sit down and listen to the songs. We’d work them out if everybody agreed to do the song.

I think “Alma  Mater”  adds texture to School's Out and gives it a little bit of a flavor that none of our other albums had had up to that point. [To hear the song, click here.] And I think that was one of the great things about the group Alice Cooper—we did a lot of different things. The song, "Blue Turk," is kind of jazzy, and then we had some straight rockers and some great ballads. It’s not like “Ballad of Dwight Fry"—that's a ballad. It wasn’t a cheesy girl-boy “I'm in love,” or “I fell out of love” bullshit stuff.  I mean, it's what we did. "Alma Mater" is a slow, it's a ballad, but it really fit into the context of the album. Alice tweaked a lot of the lyrics in that song, too.

I don't even remember ever really talking about it when I wrote the song originally, but it was just something that had a melancholy feel to it. That's the kind of mood I was in. I was happy it was on there and in the new Super Duper Alice Cooper movie. As a matter of fact, “Alma Mater” is playing as the credits roll at the end.

JC: That's good. In addition to songwriting, you have a lot of good drum licks, like on the “Billion Dollar Babies,” the title track itself, “Return of the Spiders” from Easy Action, and the drum solo near the end of "Halo of Flies.” [A live version of “Halo of Flies” can be heard here. Neal’s solo is at the 6.19 mark.]

NS: I never want to be a glorified metronome. I think there's a time and place to hold the beat down, and then there's a time and place to really have fun and go nuts. That band certainly gave me the opportunity to do it, but again, everybody in the band was sort of sharing in that same spirit of creativity.

When I was writing drum parts, the only people I was ever thinking about were other drummers. I really didn't give a fuck about anybody else. I'm writing my parts, and if the song sounds good and a drummer listens to it and likes what I'm doing, that's the biggest compliment I could ever have. So, I really targeted my drumming to other drummers, and over the years, I’ve been lucky. I've had people contact me and say they were inspired by the work I did. That, to me, is the biggest compliment and biggest success I ever had in my life.

JC: After Billion Dollar Babies you returned to more straight-forward rock and roll with Muscle of Love, which was going to be the last album for the group. In your opinion, why did Alice break up the group, or why did the group disband?

NS: Well, that's not my opinion; it's what happened. There’s only one story—we took a year off, so everybody could do solo albums, and Mike did an album called In My Own Way. Dennis helped me with my solo album called Platinum God, and Alice did Welcome to My Nightmare. Alice found success with Welcome to My Nightmare. After that, we all agreed to do an album tour. We'd get back together and record the ninth Alice Cooper album.

Alice just reneged on the deal—that's all it was. There’s no other story. He was the only one who kept it from happening. He just wanted to continue a solo career. And again, if Michael would have found success with his album like Peter Frampton did after he left Humble Pie, maybe Michael would have kept going.

Mike, Dennis, and I got together as Warner Brothers was screaming for another album, and we [as the group Billion Dollar Babies] put together the album Battle Axe. It wasn't called Battle Axe at the time, but we put together a group of songs and we wanted Alice to come back with us. We were going find a guitar player because Glen was having problems at the time. We all wanted to get together, but Alice went and did his second solo album, and he took his solo career from there.

I mean, we were making tons of money. Who wanted to stop doing what we were doing? But Alice had found his own success. I never agreed with it but, I was totally supportive of everything everybody did in the band. There was obviously a problem because he didn't own the name. We all owned the name “Alice Cooper.”

So, a couple of things had to be handled legally, but there were never any lawsuits or anything like that, because I, for one, didn't want be in any lawsuits with my best friends. I know other bands have done that, but we had done a lot. We had become very successful, and I wasn't about to have it all just rot in court and make a bunch of attorneys very wealthy. We broke up at the height of our career, and if a band's going to break up, it's better doing it that way than a lot of other ways.

JC: When I listen to Battle Axe, a lot of it sounds like the Alice Cooper band, only that Alice is missing on vocals. I was first taken aback when the music shifted directions near the ending, where the music sounds more like Emerson, Lake and Palmer than Alice Cooper.

NS: That was due to Bob Dolan, our keyboard player. Plus, I sort of wanted to experiment a little bit more with some other stuff—not fusion or jazz, or anything like that—and that was the direction that we went. Bob came up with some of these ideas, and I said, “That's great.” It just pushes your talent to farther limits than you've ever gone before, and that's why it was exciting for me. I thought Dennis and I as the rhythm section did a great job with those arrangements, and they were really fun to play. It would probably take me a long time to learn them if I had to learn them today.

A radio ad for the Battle Axe album

JC: The group Journey originally came from the original classic Santana lineup. The label clearly liked the music and the songwriting but realized a lead singer was needed if the band was to succeed.

NS: Right, right.

JC: And as you know, they got Steve Perry and became their own band, no longer in Santana’s shadow. Did you ever think of getting a new lead singer?

NS: No, our singer was Alice. We were still a band, but Alice wanted to go solo. Dennis can sing, Mike can sing, I can sing, and you know we did that. We had two guitar players. Mike Marconi played with us, and Bob Dolan—who was on the Billion Dollar Babies tour with the Alice Cooper band—played all the keyboards for the Battle Axe album. There was a lot of talent there, and I wasn't going to have auditions to find a lead singer.

You know, we did everything in the context of what we knew, and I was very, very happy with the album. It was a great stage show. Unfortunately, there were some management problems, and we just couldn't get the thing off the ground. So rather than beat a dead horse, we all just kind of walked away from it. It was a great record, and we had a lot of fun doing it—it was also a huge theatrical show. So, any comments that have ever been made about us not thinking in theatrics is almost ludicrous, because we put about a quarter of a million dollars into the show and had a big production. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, but we ended up with a great album anyway.

A theatrical look at Billion Dollar Babies live

.JC: What happened after Billion Dollars Babies?

NS: In the late ’70s, when Alice was on the road, Dennis and I stayed in Connecticut. I think Alice moved to Los Angeles and then he lived in Chicago for a while, and then he moved back to Phoenix, so he was doing his thing while Dennis and I were still in Connecticut. We put a band together called the Flying Tigers. We played around the East Coast for a couple of years, and it was a four-piece band. It was like the Beatles—two guitar players, bass, and drums. Dennis played bass, I played drums, and the lead singer's name was Paul, and the lead guitarist’s name was David.

We played for about three or four years, and then music started to really change in the ’80s, I had some personal issues with a divorce, and I was working with so the band, so it was time for the band to end. At that time, I had told people that if they ever needed any help with drumming I'd love to play if it was some music that I liked. The Plasmatics was one band that asked me to play with them, and I recorded their second album, Beyond the Valley of 1984, in the early eighties. Then Buck Dharma from Blue Oyster Cult did a solo album in the '80s. I wrote one of the main songs on the album called “Born to Rock,” and that was a music video that played quite frequently on MTV.  I played a couple of songs on that album.

In the mid-1980s, Alice called me and Dennis up and wanted to get together and do pre-production with Kane Roberts on a new album he was working on. It was going to be the Constrictor album, so he and Kane came to Connecticut and we worked out all the arrangements as a live band at my studio for two weeks. We knew that Alice and Kane were going to record the album with all synthesized drums and synthesized bass, but he wanted to work out the arrangements with a live band. It was great, because he had gone through some tough times in the early '80s, and if you see the movie Super Duper Alice Cooper, you'll know what I'm talking about.

So, we all got together. You have to remember that Glen, Alice, and I shared the same room on the road for about four or five years, and we lived under the same roof, so we're pretty close. It's like being brothers in college or something. You go through a lot of experiences together and that sort of thing. And sometimes, those are the only people you can really talk to. Alice kind of opened up to me on what had happened with his fights with the demons of rock and roll in the early '80s, and he straightened his life out and came back big-time in the mid-1980s, and then by 1989, he had the big hit with “Poison.” I thought that was great, and we're all still friends and everything. That kind of takes us up to the ’90s.

I actually got out of the music business. I started working in selling residential real estate in Connecticut and it totally changed my life. I'm around a whole new set of people. There were a lot of great people in the music business, but there were a lot of flaky people and I was just kind of tired of it.

JC: What made you choose to become a realtor? As you know, a realtor is such a different profession than being a drummer.

NS: Well, when the band was together, I had actually started investing in properties, and I was making money that way, too. I'm a Libra, so I have a balance between business and being creative. I've always had that desire to learn more about investing in properties,  so that was a very natural thing for me to do. I met a lot of friends that were in the real-estate business.

A friend of mine owned a real-estate company, and I got my license because I was interested in the business and the subject of real estate, residential real estate, and I thought it would be good for me to have that knowledge. The next thing I knew, my friend offered me a job in her company and that was about thirty years ago. Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been doing that mostly full time until a couple of years ago, with the Hall of Fame, and the economy slowed down a little bit. I’m still doing real estate,  but I’ve been putting a little more time into the music lately.

JC: We'll get to the music you are doing now with KillSmith. In the meantime, I want to talk about being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It wasn't just Alice—all of you were inducted?

NS: Absolutely, yeah.

JC: Describe that experience of getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

NS: It was kind of a bittersweet thing for me, because I knew that we were qualified to be inducted in the mid-1990s, twenty-five years after our first album. Our first album was in 1969, so I think we were actually eligible to be inducted in 1994. It was ironic that we were nominated eighteen years after we were eligible, and then we got inducted. Glen, our guitar player one of my best friends in the world, he had passed away by then, so that was the bittersweet part of it. But he was the heart and soul of the band, and to me the honor was really for him. He was the one who sort of got me in the band—between him and Mike Bruce—because I was pretty good buddies with them when their drummer quit.

Alice Cooper band rehearsing for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame show

It was a very, very special thing, and it was great that we all got back together. We did some shows and we played, and it was an amazing night at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was like the old days we partied all night long. It was great. It was fantastic. And, of course, we were inducted in with a great group of musicians, so it was a fantastic night and I'll certainly never forget it.

I was hoping—and I know Dennis was too—that we would do a few more shows after that, which would have been ideal, but again it just never happened. It goes back to the same reasons from when the band took the year off. I'd love to do some shows together with the original band, but I don't think it's ever going happen unfortunately for the fans. That's the only reason I'd really care to do it—for the fans—but it was a great party, man.

JC: You did agree to appear on Alice's three tracks for Welcome 2 My Nightmare.

NS: Yeah, that was in the fall of 2010 before we were nominated for the Hall of Fame. It’s funny, because I'd been trying to get the four of us together with Bob Ezrin to do some recording for about ten years. One day, I finally got a call and Bob wanted to hear you know the music we'd been working on, and Dennis had a song called “A Runaway Train.” I had a song called, "I'll Bite Your Face Off," which was the single off the album, and then Mike Bruce had a song called "When Hell Comes Home" on the album. Not only did we play on the album, but we wrote the songs that we played on. They came out as collaborations, but the original ideas for the songs were we each put of them together.

It was great. You know, it’s always great seeing Bob, and it was great being in the studio with Alice, Dennis, and Mike—all four of us. That was fantastic. I'd still love to do that and do a whole album, too. It’s still on my bucket list. Maybe it'll happen, maybe it won’t, but at least we got to go into the studio and do the three songs together on Welcome My Nightmare. That was a great opportunity for us.

JC: So, tell me about your new project, KillSmith.

NS: With the way recording has changed through the '80s, the ’90s, and the 2000s, if you can put a pretty good, steady track down on a recording, it can be fixed almost seamlessly. You can't even tell where it was fixed if there are mistakes. So I thought, what the hell, I would try to record some stuff.

I started doing some recording with a friend of mine, Peter Catucci. He is a bass player, and lived close to where I live in Connecticut. He had a studio, so we put a band together and we did two CDs by the name of Cinematik. One was called Cinematik and the other was One Full Moon Away. It’s really lighter stuff. It was all hand percussion. I've always wanted to experiment with playing and writing a whole album of just hand percussion instruments, so it served two purposes.

I got to do that, plus Peter and I got to be really good friends. I actually started to get into the heavy metal bands of the '90s, and one of the main bands was Rammstein out of Germany, if you're familiar with them.

JC: I've heard of the name, yes.

They're just amazing, and their Mutter album is one of my favorites. To me, that's like the Sergeant Pepper of heavy metal albums. It's just an amazing record, and probably one of the only albums I still really listen to. I had some songs like them that I thought would sound great, so I put an album together in Peter's studio. I laid down the drums and the guitar, and he was the bass player, so we basically had the rhythm section right there—bass, rhythm guitar, and drums. And then we just built the songs from there. We had some keyboard players and other guitar players come in to play. I don’t play lead guitar. I don’t ever want to play lead guitar, but I play rhythm on all the songs.

KillSmith Two album cover

The first album came out in 2006, and it was called KillSmith Sexual Savior. Then, around 2011–2012, right after the Hall of Fame, I released my second Killsmith album called KillSmith Two. From KillSmith Two on YouTube, I've got a song called “Squeeze Like A Python.” [To watch the video, click here.]

JC: Yes, I saw the video and I realize the woman dancing in the video is the director.

NS: Right, yeah.

JC: That was interesting. I would have not guessed it.

She also took all of the videos. She took all the footage, so it was a lot of work, but it came out great and we’ve gotten a great response to it on YouTube.

We’ve just finished our third album, and I'm working on the new one right now called KillSmith and the Greenfire Empire. KillSmith and the Greenfire Empire is more like a concept album. Instead of being heavy metal all the way through from beginning to end with the exception of a couple of minor changes, this has a lot more texture to the music. There's even like a little bit of a New Orleans jazz blues kind of a song.

In the first two albums, I produced with a drummer and mixed with a drummer. He's great, but the newest one I mixed with a guitar player. There's a noticeable difference. Anybody who's heard the first two albums will notice a big difference in production on the third album. I'm kind of excited. I love them all, but it's a nice change for me in the brand-new one. All the music is done; I'm just working on the packaging, and hopefully by sometime in the late summer or early fall of this year, 2014, it'll be released. I actually have ballads on there. I have some of the heaviest metal songs I've ever written. I invited some female vocalists and a couple of other male vocalists that I've worked with in the past, some friends of mine to appear on the album.

I'm mixing that up with not only singing most the vocals myself, but I'm bringing in some other elements to weave a more interesting tapestry to tell a story. Every single song has something to do with the storyline, and that's something I had never tried as a solo artist before. It’s actually kind of nice because the theme's sort of there, so you always have a theme to work within and it's very different. It's fun to do.

That’s the project I'm working on, and I’m very, very excited about it. If we can find an audience and we can play some shows, that would be great. We had done some rehearsals about two years ago to take KillSmith Two out on the road, but it just didn't work out.

The fact that Alice Cooper the band has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame almost gives it some legitimacy, and I'm the kind of person who doesn’t want to be too legitimate. In my real-estate business, it's a very straight business but when it comes to music, I like to be a little bit on the other side of what's acceptable, what's the norm, and that’s my comfort zone. I think with the KillSmith stuff I'm still able to stay in my comfort zone.

JC: Is there anything else besides KillSmith?

NS:  I'm helping a friend of mine with a movie right now, and I been working on that for about a year. It's called Desolation Angels: Rise of the Boas. It's about the Russian mob in the tri-state area of New York and their Mexican cartel allies. There’s a group called the Boas, a mercenary group of a very covert organization of the government that disrupts organized crime. I play one of the main roles in the movie, and I'm also going to be writing some of the music for it as well, so I'm kind of excited about that.

The Billion Dollar Babies album was just released a few months ago in the super audio format on CD, and the whole album was remastered in super audio. It came out great, and there's been a huge buzz and response to it. So, there's been a lot of things going on.
 And, of course, there’s the new Super Duper Alice Cooper movie, which was fun to watch. I hope a lot of people and all the fans get a chance to see that.  Alice, Dennis, and I, and Shep Gordon, our manager, were in the Tribeca Film Festival for the opening of Super Duper Alice Cooper, and it was a lot of fun to be there. A lot of fans were there to see the movie and there was big party afterwards. We are lucky enough at this stage in our life that we still get a chance to get together and hang out once in a while.

Neal Smith today—2014