published: 26 /
Drummer/percussionist/songwriter Neal Smith discusses with Lisa Torem his early influences, the 2017 UK reunion of the original Alice Cooper group, solo milestones and the alchemy of true friendship.
Neal Smith may be most well-known as the drummer/percussionist/co-songwriter and co-founder of the American shock rock group, Alice Cooper, although his post AC career is equally impressive. Neal Smith possesses six gold and five platinum records and has been honoured by the industry and fans with one of America’s most esteemed awards - With the other original members of the group: Vince Furnier (Alice Cooper), Dennis Dunaway and Michael Bruce (guitarist Glen Buxton died in 1997), Neal became inducted into the 2011 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and, during that same year, contributed to Alice Cooper’s ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’.
As an accomplished and sought-after percussionist/arranger, Neal has performed and/or recorded with a long list of players, including the Billion Dollar Babies, the Plasmatics, Bouchard, Dunaway and Smith and Cinematik. His solo career recordings feature debut ‘Platinum God’ plus multiple studio albums with Killsmith.
In 2017, with the remaining, original members of the Alice Cooper group, Dennis Dunaway and Michael Bruce, Neal performed in the UK on a five-city tour with the current line-up of the Alice Cooper group. In addition, he also co-wrote several songs on Alice Cooper’s ‘Paranormal’.
Since 1985, Neal has also enjoyed a successful career as a realtor in Connecticut, where he is commonly referred to as the “Rock n’ Realtor”.
In interview with Pennyblackmusic Neal Smith brings fans up to speed with the Killsmith ‘Greenfire’ project and his reactions to the reunion of the original Alice Cooper Group in the UK.
Fans will also read about Neal’s heartfelt tribute to a long and irreplaceable friendship.
PB: Thanks for allowing us to catch up with you, Neal. Regarding your drumming career, what are your earliest memories? What was the influence of your family?
NS: During WWII, my mother played trombone in the marching band in high school in Medina, Ohio, where I was born. The only instrument I had in the house when I was ten years old was a trombone. I told my mother I wanted a drum kit because I banged on everything in the house, including spoons, pots, pans and all that crazy stuff. She said, "No, that’s all we have," so I took the trombone to school a couple of times and that was a big disaster. I never understood it.
But I had a cousin from a very musical family. They had all sorts of instruments, including a field snare drum. I borrowed the drum and started taking music lessons in elementary school and junior high. In 1961, I got my first drum set after I played snare drum for two years. I took private and public lessons on the snare drum and learned some of the techniques. I really nailed that before I got a drum set. I highly recommend that, not that people do it that way anymore.
So, it was really early on. I was twelve years old. From there, I played in the marching band, school orchestra and rock bands in high school. Then when I was fifteen, I moved to Arizona and played in the bands there and just kept playing until I found some people in and after college - we just happened to get along. Then I started playing with Glen Buxton, Dennis Dunaway, Michael Bruce and Vincent Furnier. We got together and the rest is history.
PB: How did your time with the original Alice Cooper group impact and/or refine your songwriting and arranging skills?
NS: First of all, the number one issue that I don’t think is really talked about, regarding the original band, is that there were no limitations for what we did on any level. Whatever we wanted to try and experiment with, there was nobody dictating what we could or couldn’t do. That never happened. And as musicians, we grew from that.
I went way back to a lot of my early influences, all the way from Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Sandy Nelson and even Alex Duthart - no one is going to know who Alex Duthart is, but he was the pipe and drum champion in Scotland in the late '50s and early ‘60s. Alex was one of the best snare drum players ever.
So it was a combination of those players, and then by the time we were recording albums in the late 1960s and 1970s, of course, there was Keith Moon of the Who, Ginger Baker of Cream, Ringo of the Beatles, Charlie Watts of the Stones and Mitch Mitchell of Jimi Hendrix.
I would often think about how one of my favourite drummers would play a particular part and when I would write the part it could be something like, say, Sandy Nelson, ‘Let There Be Drums’ (‘Drums and More Drums!’, 1961) or Ginger Baker with Cream or Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix. How would that drummer handle this part? And by the time I played it with my technique, it didn’t sound anything like them, but they were originally my inspirations when I needed to really come up with something that would set the part of the song.
Even ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ goes back to the basic rudiments of drumming. That’s a flam (Neal illustrates this point by chanting, “bop-bop a bop-bop a bop bop.”) Those are all flams. And so I combined all my knowledge and influences of percussion and I just had a vast amount of information to tap in on all the time.
With Dennis as the rhythm section, that was absolutely perfect because, although the two personalities between Dennis and I couldn’t be more polar opposites, when it comes to playing music, we lock in like the insides of a train track. We’re perfectly parallel to each other, all the time, no matter what. So that was just one of those natural things that happened with the band.
PB: It’s no secret that preparing for a multi-city tour across the pond requires stamina, especially for the drummer. How did you physically and emotionally prepare for last year’s original Alice Cooper reunion in the UK?
NS: From the onset, we were playing clubs with fifteen people, and we mostly played for crowds of 20,000 people. The band was never shy at all. We always wanted to be onstage big time. ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ and ‘Muscle of Love’ are two of the most demanding songs that we played on this tour. We were playing five songs, about half an hour’s worth of music, but I keep stressing that when I wrote and played these in my twenties — they weren’t written for someone who is seventy years old to play in 2017.
I just turned seventy last September, so that’s where the challenge is. Originally I wasn’t even going to play on ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ but when I was in Arizona, and Michael and I were working on the set, one of his best songs is ‘Muscle of Love’ and I still think there’s not a lot of positive things said about the ‘Muscle of Love’ album, but I think it’s one of the best albums we recorded. We used to say, this kicks ass, and one of the main reasons is because of ‘Muscle of Love’ - there’s no other song. Michael even did a new arrangement of it that we did in the UK, which, I think, is better than the one on the album. It’s on his solo part and he makes it such a power rocker. It was one of the best songs and Michael played it great. We put it in the set and then by the time that was in there, I said, "Well, let’s put ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ in there."
To me, it’s a gruelling five songs.
We work for about two months before we do a show. Nashville was the first time that we actually did the set live. We had been practising for about a solid month and once we went through the songs, and even a month before that, while I was out in Arizona last year in the spring. So, emotionally we’re always ready to go. I’m ready to go on stage right now. I love it. I’ve never had stage fright. I’m kind of a show-off and the rest of the band is too.
Physically, we thought, this is great. We’ll go and play in the UK and lose a couple of pounds, which we did and it worked out great. I just turned seventy. I don’t have arthritis. My joints and everything else work great. I attribute that to always playing and always keeping limber and loose and light; my hands and arms, especially.
PB: Did the tour go as expected? Were there any surprises?
NS: I was pleasantly surprised that the shows sold out or were close to sold out. I knew it was going to be on a bus and I’d never been on a bus tour in my life. The last tour that I did, we had our own jet planes. So I told Alice originally, "I’m going to take a step down to do this tour, compared to what we used to do." I was only kidding, of course… That was the only thing that was new to me.
We only had four bus rides between the shows. It was a beautiful bus, only six months old. If Batman had a double-decker bus with sleeping compartments on it, that was his bus. That was so cool.
Other than that, it was exactly what I anticipated. We had long, long days and a lot of travelling. Playing the shows was actually the easiest part of it.
PB: In 2016, you commemorated the late Glen Buxton in a unique and touching way. The tribute began because of a neglected instrument. Can you elaborate?
NS: The neck less, stripped down, beat up guitar relic that I acquired was Glen’s white Gibson SG custom guitar. It is what was left of the same, exact guitar that he is holding on the back cover photo of our first hit album, ‘Love It to Death.’ I thought, like all of Glen’s other guitars, that it had just vanished into rock and roll history never to be seen again. As luck would have it, years later, it surfaced, or at least the broken body did, enough that a new guitar could be built from the ground up around it.
I had seen Glen off and on in the late 80s and 90s. Then he passed away in 1997. A couple of years ago, someone contacted me. He knew I was looking for a Fender Telecaster guitar. (He lived in Connecticut, in the town right next to Greenwich where Glen had lived.) So I bought the guitar. He also said he had a friend who had some Glen Buxton relics from the band’s era, and asked me if I would like to take a look because he wanted to sell them.
A couple of weeks later I went back and met this guy and we became friends - he lived in Greenwich. He had acquired a guitar of Glen’s that had been smashed to smithereens and I know for a fact that the guitar was gone, totally smashed up, stripped down, just the wood was left in the body and the tuning heads were gone from the neck, so that neck was totally useless. Dennis has that neck. He got that from Glen a long time ago. So I ended up with the body of the guitar.
(Neal explained that there were a lot of relics at the man’s home, but “I was only interested in the guitar.”)
I thought it would be cool if I could keep the body the way it was, or rebuild it. I wanted an SG Custom. After about five years, I found Pat Wilkins, out of Van Nuys, California through Rick Tedesco of the Guitar Hangar. We sent it out to Pat. It took about nine months from October 2016 to the summer of last year, 2017. It’s amazing. He rebuilt it. Gibson guitar supplied all the new hardware. It’s all new hardware, but it’s all from the specs of the late 50s and early 60s.
I wanted to leave the relic the way it was. Glen had carved a big “A” in front of it. There was a cigarette burn on it. I left all the nicks and scratches and the gashes and the gauges and the burns. I left everything in there. Gibson aged all the parts. Because it was such a special piece, I wanted everything in gold. It never was gold in Glen’s guitar because he had a nickel plated horseshoe, Bigsby bar, but I wanted to do it all in gold and it came out amazing. It had been in storage since I picked it up in 2017. I haven’t played it yet, but I hope at some point to use it on my next solo album.
PB: Glen’s guitar rekindled a lot of memories.
NS: It’s a piece of our history. I guess it would be more so, but you have to remember, I have every drum I ever owned. I have the drums I played on ‘Easy Action,’ ‘Pretties for You,’ ‘Killer,’ ‘School’s Out’ and ‘Billion Dollar Babies’. The only drum set I don’t have is the one I sold last year, but everything else I have.
I still have a lot of our band history around me all the time at my home in Connecticut. After the guitar was finished and I had it in my hands, the first person I sent an email to was Janice Buxton, Glen’s sister, who I’m very close with also. I wanted her to know that it was in safe hands. And it’s not going anywhere.
PB: What a beautiful testimonial to a friend! It sounds like a very emotional journey.
NS: How could it not be? We’re both from Akron, Ohio. That was our bond even before we started playing music together. Yeah, it was emotional and I’m very excited about recording with it.
I won’t travel with it, other than locally in my car, but it will never be on an airplane, unless I rent an airplane and it’s sitting right at my seat and never out of my sight. Some people asked, "Why don’t you bring it to the UK and play it on some of the shows?" That’s never going to happen. That means I’d have to put it in an airplane and I don’t trust anybody when it comes to something like this. That’s why I have all these things on me. It is very emotional and I’m very happy that I’ve been able to find it and acquire it and restore it and that I had the wherewithal and the finances to restore it. It literally came back from the grave. It had to be glued back together. It’s harder than building a guitar from scratch because you have to salvage that one piece but they did a beautiful, beautiful job.
PB: Let’s talk about your solo career. Can you bring us up to speed on ‘Killsmith & The Greenfire Empire’ and put it in historical context? More specifically, how did you communicate with your colleagues about co-creating the arrangements and reflecting the tone of the album?
NS: It’s the same that I’ve done on all Killsmith albums. The first was ‘Sexual Savior,’ the next was ‘Killsmith Two’ and then ‘Killsmith and the Greenfire Empire.’
I recorded and arranged everything myself. I have a drum machine that records the whole song and it’s almost like a metronome. Once I find the perfect beat to a song, I put a guitar on there and then a bass. ‘Killsmith’ is two people. Pete Catucci played on bass with me. We recorded it in his studio in Connecticut.
I write the song, put the arrangement together and then put the drums and bass down. It’s like building a song from scratch. Once we get the basic tracks down, they go down to the studio, record their parts over it and then we build the song from there.
Amazingly, It does sound like the band was in the studio playing it live. That has a lot to do with the drumming on it. Most drums on music like that are programmed. I don’t program it. I put a beat in there to start with and then I play live drums over it. I think that’s a big part of it.
It’s just like everything else. I just let the song go where it wants to go when I do an arrangement. One of my favourite songs on the 'Greenfire' album is 'The Killsmith Overture’, which is basically a guitar riff that I’ve had around for years. I really wanted a song that starts from nothing and then becomes something really exciting, very orchestrated and musically theatrical.
This girl that sang on it, Lady Elizabeth Dellinger, did four songs. She’s unbelievable. I played the song. She sang right along with it. Unlike any other singer I’ve ever met, I never heard her in the studio sing a bad note. She went through it once and recorded it. So I’m lucky enough to have musicians like that to work with.
Same with the lead guitar. I had Doug Wahlberg, who has his own band, The Doug Wahlberg Band, in Connecticut. He plays all over the New England area. I’ve known him since the 70s. He’s been in bands with a friend of mine. He’s an amazing lead guitarist. He came in and put the leads on the songs.
Rick Tedesco, who restored Glen’s guitar, has a studio and plays the guitar. And he has the Guitar Hangar, which is a great store in Danbury, Connecticut. So he has a million guitars to choose from (Laughs).
He and I produced the album and mixed it together and when it needed more guitar he would do that as well. All the Killsmith albums were put on a 16-track. We rebuild the songs and then when we need background vocals or lead guitar, I play the rhythm guitar on all the songs, and that’s something that goes back to the band.
Even when we started the band, I had a set of drums and I had a guitar. And on that guitar, I wrote songs like ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name,’ ‘Alma Mater’ and ‘Unfinished Sweet’. It’s a nylon string, classic Spanish style guitar and I still have that guitar as well.
So I’ve always played guitar. But of course, I had help from Michael Bruce and Glen Buxton who showed me chords as time went on. So I took that and then I taught myself keyboards. I would play the chords on guitar and then find the chords on the piano or a synthesizer. I play a lot of keyboards on the Killsmith albums, but I really have a killer keyboard player, Pete Hickey, that comes in and plays real great classical keyboard stuff. He’s also a Connecticut musician, and he’s just phenomenal. So we get all these people to build these songs.
And then the story… In the mid-90s, when Alice and I got together, we started talking about a concept for an album, an Indiana Jones kind of picture story and we never did anything with it. So over time, I had these songs that fit together like a puzzle. I recreated a whole new story, ‘Killsmith and the Greenfire Empire’. It’s actually like a children’s story book. I had an artist from Florida that did some great work on it. She did about half a dozen drawings. It also comes with a CD. It’s a very violent story but I wanted all of the drawings to be like a children’s book. It’s like a dream thing.
‘Killsmith and the Greenfire Empire’ is a combination of a lot of great people. I call it “the last rock opera” because it’s such a story. Every single song has something to do with the album. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it. It’s like the ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ album. There are so many different kinds of songs.
PB: How does this most recent project compare with the previous Killsmith albums?
NS: Both Killsmith albums were driving kind of metal punk, but there’s a lot of variety here. There’s even a Christmas song, ‘Noelle No Wonder’. That’s been very popular. That’s the keyboard player. Pete Hickey did a beautiful job on that song.
I have another song, ‘Good Morning Blue Soul Land,’ a Dixieland blues song, like Fats Domino. I have a great singer, Hubert Martin. That’s right down his alley. He’s been in jazz, rock, blues and funk bands his whole life and he just nailed that song. It’s one of my favourite songs that I’ve ever written and that somebody else sang.
So it’s online, nealsmithrocks.com. Don’t forget, I don’t spell it like Neil Diamond or Neil Young. I spell it correctly. It’s also on CD Baby as well.
PB: You stated in a previous interview that you conceptualize not just sonically, but visually. How does that tie in with this project?
NS: I would love to do the whole story as an animation. And even on my album, ‘Platinum God,’ the title track is an eight-minute piece, inspired by movies. So I always envisioned it as a theatrical, animated piece.
I starred in a movie ‘Desolation Angels’ a couple of years ago and I wrote the theme song, ‘Desolation Angels/Rise of the Boas’ (NealSmith/KillSmith). That theme song is also on YouTube. It’s a very violent movie. I play a Russian drug lord from the Tri-State area of New York. It will probably never be released but it was a fun project to work on.
PB: On ‘Greenfire,’ I love ‘Pandemonium’; Rick Tedesco’s tsunamic speed and the frightening, beautiful rhythms.
NS: I’m a big fan of the song, ‘Wipe Out’. In fact, I used to be in a surf band in California and we played ‘Wipe Out’. I always wanted to do a metal version of a song like that, that’s real crazy. The skateboards and the surfers inspired me to do something a little crazy. That’s right down their alley.
Rick Tedesco played lead guitar on it. He played some crazy, crazy stuff, which was exactly what that song needed. It’s funny. ‘Pandemonium’ and ‘Noelle No Wonder’ are the two most popular songs off of that album. They got the most hits on YouTube.
PB: What’s your protocol for the studio?
NS: The song is basically done by the time Rick gets it. All we need is the instrumental on guitar. The rhythm guitar, drums, the bass and the vocals are already on there and then Rick puts on lead guitar and special effects. So all I do is orchestrate a direction because I want to let the creativity come out from the musicians I work with, as I do when I’m creating it. Ninety percent of the time, whatever it is, they get it. There’s only been several times when I work with somebody, and they have no fucking clue what I’m talking about and I put my hands up and say, "I do need to find somebody else. We’re not communicating here" and that’s the perfect word for it, because it’s chemistry and communication, and again. That was the magic of the original Alice Cooper band. We always knew where we were going. That was the chemistry.
But with the Killsmith project, I just gave it direction. We go through several takes and if they don’t understand what I’m saying, I’ll just say, "Yeah, that’s it. Just go with that idea," and on ‘Pandemonium’, that’s what happened with Rick and he just nailed it. He even has a part where it sounds like an English emergency vehicle, an ambulance or something and that was all done on guitar.
That’s what it is, a big street fight with guns blazing, people getting killed in the streets of this imaginary town and the chaos that occurs. I thought, "This is perfect." I could visualize people getting killed in the crossfire, gangs fighting in the street and the ambulances coming in to get people out. It’s loud and there’s absolute chaos. I’m lucky that I can find people to work with that just nail it.
PB: With a concept piece like this, you open yourself up to comparisons: ‘TS Sorrow’ or ‘Tommy’. Is that fair game?
NS: Everything that’s new is always compared to something else. Even when the Beatles came out, you had to find a category for it. ‘Tommy’ is a phenomenal piece. ‘School’s Out’ is an album where every single song is not about the story, but it is a loose concept. But in ‘Greenfire’ every song was written to be part of this story, whatever that means. I’m a song person. I like songs, whether they’re country, whether they’re rap, whether they’re classical. It doesn’t matter.
Obviously I don’t mind being compared, but I consider this the last rock opera because nobody is doing rock operas anymore. I don’t consider ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to be a rock opera. That’s like a soundtrack. To me, a soundtrack is very different than a rock opera. I don’t mind the comparisons but I would just love to put it in some kind of visual context at some point.
PB: We’ve covered a lot of territory. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
NS: The band changed its name on March 16, 1968 to Alice Cooper from the Nazz. We played a show in Santa Barbara, California at the fairground there where they had a lot of events. It was with Blue Cheer and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. That was the official first date, which I consider the birthday of the band, Alice Cooper.
This year, March 16, 2018, is the fiftieth anniversary of our band and at this point there has been nothing officially talked about regarding our anniversary, which I’m a little disappointed about. But I have to look at the fact that we had the opportunity last year to play to fans in the UK. I personally feel that we’ve let our fans down over the - years and not because of Mike, not because of me and not because of Dennis--that’s all I’ll say about that.
As far as performing more, I’m very thankful that we had the opportunity to do it. I’m always happy to be with Alice, to be with Dennis and to be with Michael. Whatever we do, It’s always great. We’re a club that’s very, very exclusive and, unfortunately, we lost one of our members twenty years ago. It’s also the twenty-year anniversary of Glen passing away, so I can’t believe that’s been twenty years either.
But it’s a very exclusive club; what we went through, what we achieved and the longevity which I never visualized. So I was very happy to have the opportunity to go to the UK, do these shows as the original Alice Cooper group, and I hope, even though nothing has been discussed yet, somewhere in the year 2018, we do something to underscore, underline and celebrate the original band.
We had the opportunity to tour in the UK. Maybe we’ll have the opportunity to tour in the United States somewhere as well. I’m happy for what we were able to do and record. I still would love to do an original Alice Cooper album. I don’t know if it’s ever in the cards. We did three songs on the last album, ‘Paranormal,’ which was great because Bob Ezrin was involved.
Bob was like the sixth member of the band. It’s always such a treat when we’re all together. It really is. There’s probably no time when I’m happier than when we’re all together in the studio and recording. I’m very thankful for what we’ve done.
I do thank the fans in the UK for supporting us. Maybe we’ll be back again someday and have the opportunity to do that for fans in the US and even in Canada, because I love Canada. We’ll see what happens.
PB: Thank you.
The top four photographs were taken by Philamonjaro at www.philamonjaro.com. The lower photograph was taken by Patrick Brzezinski.
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