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

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