Legendary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame drummer and founding member of the original Alice Cooper Group, Neal Smith, has released a new solo album, “POP 85/95”, this June.
The Alice Cooper Group was one of the biggest bands in glam rock history and true pioneers of the genre, influencing countless bands like KISS and Motley Crue. Since their break-up in the mid-70s, Neal has been busy putting out records, became a real estate agent, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, performed on recent Alice Cooper albums, and in 2017 toured the UK with the reunited original Alice Cooper Group.
With his latest solo release, “POP 85/95”, Neal brings back vintage 80s and early 90s pop-rock songs in full forces. There are eleven infectious groove-oriented songs that showcase his talents as a singer, songwriter, keyboardist, and drummer. All the songs are melodic and infused with a hint of blues guitar while offering a pop sensibility. Songs from the heart about love and heartbreak, where redemption is ultimately sought, and the power of the guitar is king. His new album can be ordered here.
Correspondent Robert Cavuoto spoke with Neal about his new release, what it was like to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the legacy of being in the original Alice Cooper Group, performing on Alice‘s upcoming “Detroit Stories” album, and his thoughts on the impact of the virus as it pertains to sporting events and live concerts. Read the transcript of the conversation below!
I think it’s great that you are putting out this album now; fans need to be entertained as well as provide a distraction to what is going on in the world.
This record is a time capsule from an easier musical time. You realize that many of the things we took for granted, like going grocery shopping or walking in the park, have changed. I think it’s going to change forever. It’s like we landed on a different planet; it’s a whole new world. I hope I’m wrong, and suddenly, something will make it go away like past viruses. With everything going on, we should truly appreciate our friends and family even more now!
You have eleven songs that were written and recorded over a ten year period between 1985 and 1995 but were never released. Tell me about the album and the impetus for releasing it?
The first three songs on “POP 85/95” were recorded in the late 80s. One of the songs “Secret Eyes,” help get a record deal for the band Dead Ringer with Dennis Dunaway from Alice Cooper, Joe Bouchard from Blue Oyster Cult, Charlie Huhn from Ted Nugent and Jay “Jesse” Johnson on guitar. We got a deal with Grudge Records, which was created by former CBS Record executives after they had significant restructuring changes at CBS in the 80s. Dead Ringer didn’t last too long, but the first three songs on “POP 85/95” were from that demo. After that, I continued to work with Jay to write songs. I was programming all the drums because I found it irritating that a keyboardist or an engineer programmed the drums on the music I heard on the radio. I was compelled to do it myself, so I programmed the drums using a keyboard and also played all the keyboard parts. Using a four-track, I then added vocals and Jay‘s guitar work. So these songs are just guitar, vocals, drums, and keyboards. In order to put it out, we went back in, cleaned it up, mixed the EQ, and although there was plenty of bottom from the keyboard, I wanted to add bass so I sent the tracks to Peter Catucci, the bassist in my solo band, to add bass. We then remixed and remastered it in a studio. Initially, I did this to preserve the songs, but they sounded so good I decided to release them. They are all just glorified demos, but Jay‘s playing is so good on these songs I wanted to showcase his performance as well.
The production is very consistent sounding from song-to-song and year-to-year. Which songs are the oldest and which are more recent?
As I mentioned, the first three songs on the album, “If I Only had You,” “Dying to Love You,” and “Love Set the Night on Fire” are the oldest as they were done on a 16 track in a studio in Connecticut between 1987 and 1988. The other songs with the programmed drums were all written and recorded between 1993 and 1994. Those songs were clustered together because when I get ideas for songs, they just start flowing, wave-after-wave. It’s been 30 years, so I can’t recall exact dates, but all the songs were written in that time frame and have a similar Pop feel. I’m happy with the vocals as the guitar compliments them, but there are no background vocals. They were recorded on tape and have a warm quality. I’m a fan of Phil Collins and really admired what he did after he left Genesis with his solo career. He wrote Pop songs that were powerful with great percussion work. He was an inspiration to me.
You can hear the passion and emotion in your voice on songs like “If I Only Had You” and “Dying to Love You.” Do you recall if some of the songs were written about someone or maybe something you were going through?
I went through a terrible four-year divorce between 1980 and 1984, and then I got out of music business in 1985 when I got my real estate license. I may have gotten out of the music business, but the music didn’t get out of me, so between 1985 and 1995, I wrote all those songs. When you go through a divorce, you meet people, you date them, you fall in love, and you fall out of love. That’s why I say these songs are from another era.
Can you share some insights into the creation of “Distant Drum” as it’s one of my favorites?
My father was in the Navy during WWII. I had seen some photographs he had taken while in South Pacific with these very attractive Polynesian and Asian women. We never really talked about it as my parents got divorced when I was five years old. I’m not sure how much he would have shared anyway. What if he was in love with one of these women, and never saw her again when he came home? The inspiration for this song is when somebody has your heart, but they’re 1000s of miles away. The song has an Oriental feel to it.
I love the fact that you mention in the press release that the songs are sexy and politically incorrect.
[Laughing] I’m glad you mention that. My album has a disclaimer that they were written and recorded 30 years ago. Some things are politically incorrect, but it’s a time capsule. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t give a damn if I hurt someone’s feelings. If you don’t like what I’m saying, don’t listen to me. If you don’t like what I’m playing, don’t listen to it. In Alice Cooper, we broke every rule in the book and still had monster hits. We found a way with producer Bob Ezrin‘s help to create hits and still keep the character of Alice Cooper intact. When you talk about the emotion of the “POP 85/95” songs, it’s honest and raw. Even when it feels like a war, it can still be a loss, just like death. Even though you love someone, you can still hate them; it’s all very complicated. Romance and relationships are complicated, but it’s all based around love, and you try to make it work as best as you can. Some of the stories might not have happened, but you know somewhere out there, it has happened to someone. With the Alice Cooper Group, we loved what we were doing. Nobody came close to doing anything like it once we created the name and the character. It was clean slate back then, and we could create anything we wanted, and it worked out well.
Speaking of politically incorrect, if “School’s Out” was written today, it would be quite controversial in this politically correct world.
I agree 100%. I have thought about that a lot of times. The lyrics “School’s been blown to pieces” is obviously a time capsule of the early 70s. Nobody would ever say that now. The best video of that song was on The Simpsons when they trashed the school. It’s so Alice Cooper and Rock & Roll to trash everything. It’s purely theatrical; nobody wants anyone to get hurt or explode anything. It’s no different than Saturday at the movies, its entertainment. That’s what we were doing. I’m sure some places would take certain lines out of the song before playing. I would never write a song like that now. I live a few miles from Newtown, Connecticut, where the tragedy at the elementary school happened. I would never say something that could be catastrophic to a school. We were criticized for a lot of the things that we did with Alice Cooper; I could only imagine if we did it now. That’s one side of the coin; the other side is that this type of stuff will happen anyway. You are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I get emails from new and longtime fans who are school teachers, and they tell me they played that song at the end of the school year for their class. Some have even been principals and played the song through the loudspeaker. God bless them, that’s so rocking and cool. I’m humbled. All five of us wrote that song as well as “Elected” and “I’m Eighteen” that is why all of our names appear on the credits. We were just writing it to put on the album; we didn’t know that 45 years later, it would be played around the world. I’m glad it did, and I’m glad Alice is still out there. He would still be out there if it weren’t for the pandemic. We used to threaten a lot of people back in the day. We were politically incorrect then, and I’m sure we would be now to some degree.
The original Alice Cooper Group reunited for a tour of the UK in 2017, why do you think it never happened in the US.
Mostly due to logistical reasons. The tour was contained to the UK, which is about the size of Texas. It’s not the biggest country in the world, and we were at most three to five hours between venues and traveled on big, beautiful buses. Logistically, it made sense. We talked about doing it in the United States and Canada, but we haven’t ruled it out, so you never know. Michael, Dennis, and I never thought we would get to play together anywhere as a band. We talked about it, but it never happened. Then we did Alice‘s “Paranormal” album, we played a show together in Nashville, and played the Music Business Awards. The ball started rolling. We have some songs on Alice‘s next album that will be coming out. I wrote one song, and Dennis wrote another. So you never know what will happen once the album comes out! There is no release date as they are still working on it. We were happy to play on, and I think the fans will be really excited. I already had some feedback from the people on the engineering side who said the song I wrote was one of their favorites.
I’m assuming that will be for his upcoming release, “Detroit Stories”?
I believe this album is an extension of his “Breadcrumbs” EP, I don’t know the name of it, but there are a lot of Detroit influences and Detroit musicians who played on it.
The original band worked together on Alice’s last few albums like “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” and “Paranormal”, do you think the original band still has the same chemistry it did from the 70s?
Everyone that I spoke to, especially the fans, say those songs that we worked on together jump off those albums. I know when all four of us sat down to play with Ryan Roxie on guitar it was the most comfortable musical feeling I have ever had with a group of musicians in my life. That’s the same way it felt when we jammed in the desert of Phoenix, Arizona, in 1967. It’s that natural energy which catapulted us as a band. Alice‘s band is great and doing their best to represent our songs. When we did the shows in the UK and Nashville fans were crying, and not in a bad way [laughing]! In a happy way they saw something they never thought they would see. It was phenomenal as it could have ever been for us too. When we are hanging out, we still have that same stupid sense of humor and telling the same jokes for years and years. There is that fun side of it, too. When we started, there were seven of us all living under the same roof, and there were never any fights. I called it “the party that never ended,” that is why that chemistry was so amazing with the band. Glen Buxton and I were in fights but with other people! It was never a good idea to fight us as we were both from Akron, Ohio, and we don’t fight fair [laughing]. It’s so easy and natural that I don’t notice it, but the fans do.
How has your life changed since being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
That’s a great question. At my home in Connecticut, I have my Hall of Fame Award on display along with two golf balls in plaques on the right and left sides of it. They are for the two hole-in-ones that I got in 2015 and 2016. I still don’t know which I appreciate more than the hole-in-ones or the Hall of Fame award. I’m an avid golfer, which Alice got me into it in the early 90s when I would visit Arizona. I still can’t believe I got them. As far as the Hall of Fame is concerned, it was bittersweet for me because we were qualified in 1995 before Glen Buxton passed away in 1997. On my 2005 “Killsmith II” album, I have a song called “Kiss My Rock & Roll Ass.” It’s an up-tempo Chuck Berry type of song, and there are a couple of lines in there directed at the Hall of Fame. I wasn’t too happy because Glen passed away before we got the award. We were like brothers, and he and I were the closest people in the band. He was also a huge part of getting me in the band when their drummer quit. On one side of it, I was disappointed because he wasn’t around, and on the other, I was excited for the fans who stuck with us over the decades. I was more excited for the fans than myself. Having a #1 record in the world with “Billion Dollar Babies” and “School’s Out”, which I think went to #2. That was above and beyond anything I could have ever imagined. We also had five platinum and six gold albums, with that comes the money, success, and fame. The Hall of Fame was the cherry on top. During my induction speech, I said the award was dedicated to our fans worldwide. That even humbled me more and made me proud. There is another part of me that people don’t understand, which is why I love my Killsmith project. I like to be on the cutting edge; I don’t want to be Barry Manilow that is accepted by society and music fans; I want to be doing something different. Not necessarily revolutionary but keeping it on the edge. “POP 85/95” is a little more commercial, but I loved being on the dark side of Rock & Roll, and that is what the original Alice Cooper group was all about. We threatened a lot of people, which is why the kids loved us, and the parents hated us! I’m also happy that we get to now vote for future inductees.
What are your thoughts on the virus and its impact in 2020 on sports, concerts, and horror conventions where you meet fans?
Unless there is a miracle cure or vaccine for the virus, I don’t think it will happen. I’m not a prophet, but I know this year in 2020 from January to February when the virus was first introduced, things have changed; we are turning a page in history. Twenty of the states that opened as of June 2020 and trying to get back to normal have seen their cases skyrocket. Places opened here last week in Arizona, along with the protests, which I’m behind 100%, I think that will spread the virus even more. The virus loves people and seeing people congregating closely together. I think it is going to be a different world now. I have to fly back to Connecticut, and I’m concerned about airports and airplanes. You just have to follow what the CDC says, be smart by wearing masks and gloves, and use hand sanitizers. People are tough, but this virus is tougher, and we have to learn to live with it until they get a vaccine. My advice is not to listen to the stupid politicians and follow what the doctors and scientists are saying. You have to be responsible and take care of yourself and loved ones by not bring it home and spreading it to them. The big conventions that I attend in New Jersey and recently here in Arizona should not happen until we get past this. My big concern is the Super Bowl as I love football and many teams. I don’t see how 70,000 to 80,000 people can get together in a stadium with coordinated seating. I can’t even begin to guess how they will remedy some of these things. The Super Bowl is one of my favorite days of the year. I look forward to Super Bowl more than Christmas [laughing]. It’s going to be interesting, and thank God I’m not in politics!