Menacing stage props and theatrical antics have been Alice Cooper's specialty since the '60s. The shock-rock pioneer helped clear the way for Madonna’s pop excess, Rob Zombie’s horror-movie camp and Lady Gaga’s headline-fetching outfits. Cooper's newest tour shares billing with Marilyn Manson, the most notorious shock-rocker of the '90s. It’s their first co-headlining venture, and their show on Monday at Merriweather Post Pavillion will also feature an over-the-top set from GWAR, Richmond's heavily costumed metal act famous for drenching audiences in fake blood.
Cooper answered questions about his over-the-top stage shows, finding sobriety and how it feels to be a rock star at 65:
Q: You and Marilyn Manson teamed up with GWAR for Monday's show. It sounds like a shock-rock dream come true. Are they joining you on any other dates?
A: "That’s the only show we’re doing with them, even though I really like those guys. They take the theatrics to [another level]. I hope people see the humor, because it’s really funny. The first 20 shows, it’s Alice and Marilyn. It’s the tour that people have been waiting for -- the teacher and the mentor, the whole thing. The two shows work well together though, it’s great. His show is more of a really raw, industrial, dark kind of a show, whereas Alice is much more of a Vaudevillian classic -- in some places, it’s really scary, and in the next places it’s slapstick -- and it’s pure classic rock. I've probably got the best touring band in the world right now, it’s the best guys I've ever played with. Then you throw GWAR in the mix, and it’s like we should probably call this Halloween 2."
Do you generally try to keep up with other elaborate stage performers?
"We did some things with Slipknot, and any time someone is doing something new, I try to see it. I went to see Lady Gaga, and I said 'Jeez this is really good.' She basically does what I do. I created a character, Alice Cooper, and I write songs for that character. I perform as that character, but I’m not that character. Gaga does the same. She created her own character, she writes the song and she writes the show and she performs it as Gaga. There’s a separate life there, and I think that’s maybe the only way you can survive that."
Do you find there are some people who don’t separate life and performance very well?
"People always ask me about why Jimi [Hendrix], Janis [Joplin], and Jim Morrison all died at 27. I say, 'Well, they were trying to be Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all the time, and you can’t.' The fact that Jim Morrison got to 27 is a miracle. You can’t do that much abuse to yourself and survive. When he was on stage or writing, he was absolutely brilliant. Courtney Love is like that: When she’s acting or making records or on stage, she’s brilliant. When she’s off stage is when the trouble happens. So, these guys were my best friends, they were my big brothers, and they were falling off one by one. So, I started to realize we were the next generation: Me and Ozzie [Osbourne] and Steven Tyler were the next generation. I can see the problem there, and I started to figure it out."
Did everybody figure it out?
"Yeah, and I can say that because we’re all here. We’re all in our 60s now and we’re still touring, we’re still doing the big shows. I’ve got more energy now than I did when I was 30. I mean, there was a different work ethic then. Our big brothers died at 27 and we’re in our 60s, so we had to have learned something. Look at Iggy Pop. Keith Richards, how is he still alive?"
He seems immortal.
"If there’s ever a nuclear war or a meteor hits the world and it’s over, there’ll [still] be cockroaches and Keith Richards."
Does touring with hugely theatrical acts like GWAR and Manson force you to up the ante with your own stage show?
"I do that every night anyway. Sometimes we tour with Cheap Trick, sometimes we tour with Iron Maiden, we’re doing a lot of co-headlining tours these days. With that, you’re best friends, but every night, you’re trying to blow them offstage. That’s just part of the fun of it. When I went out with Rob Zombie, every night he would add something to his show. I would watch him and think, 'Oh, really? I have to add something to my show.' We’re best of friends, but we’re still trying to up each other. That makes it healthy, and the audience gets a bigger better show every time."
As an avowed Christian, do you have any issues touring with the author of 'Antichrist Superstar'?
"You know, the funny thing about it is, I never have approached him about anything on that. I've defended my faith and he defends his, so we meet in the middle somewhere. I stay away from politics and religion on stage, but it’s an interesting talk when we talk to each other. It’s basically about how do you separate the character from daily life. We both have different views on how that works, and I told him, 'What I think is, eventually you’re going to have to separate it.' In order to fuel that 24-hour character, you either have to drink or drug yourself into it, and pretty soon that won’t last. I tried it, and I was on my way out just trying to maintain the character. I had to say, 'I’m going to play this character, I’m not going to be this character.' "
There have been so many musicians that haven’t been able to separate that persona from their lives, and there have been a lot of consequences to that.
"It’s an unnatural lifestyle. Usually, the story is you’re in a high school band, you play in a garage, and you put some guys together, and you never expect to make a record. You make a hit record, and it’s like winning the lottery, you become a touring band. It’s like becoming a touring golf pro -- there's 100,000 guys who are good, there’s those guys who actually get paid to do it. I tell bands this all the time, that golden age is over.
"To maintain that lifestyle for 45 years, you just have to learn how to navigate it. It took a lot of mistakes to be able to enjoy it now. A lot of guys have come close -- Ozzie has come close, Eddie Van Halen has come close -- all those guys come close to almost checking out, but you finally find a way to live with it.
"Here’s a kid from the Midwest and the middle of nowhere, and all the sudden you’re driving around in limousines with unlimited money and unlimited everything. That’s the fastest prescription for killing yourself I can think of."
As a recovering alcoholic, does being around drug and alcohol abuse make touring difficult?
"When I came out of the hospital, it was a whole different thing. I was the classic alcoholic, my doctor said I was a textbook alcoholic. He said, 'You drink in order to get things done, it’s like a medicine for you.' I said, 'You’re right.' I was always on a golden buzz: I drank all day, but I never slurred my speech or anything. When I came out of the hospital, I kept waiting for the craving to come, and it never came. It was a miracle. I tell people I’m not a cured alcoholic, I’m a healed alcoholic. I never went to AA or anything like that, and I give all credit to God for that. Even the doctor said, 'This is a miracle that you’re not falling back on alcohol every time there’s a stressful situation.' So, it’s gone. It’s just gone."
You've put out a lot of records: 28 studio albums at this point. How do you approach putting together a set list?
"It’s the hardest thing in the world. Well, I thought it was hard for me until I went and saw [Paul] McCartney. I saw his setlist backstage and it was 38 songs. Every single song was something I wanted to hear. He said, 'Well, that’s our odd number days. Here’s our even number days.' And it was just as good.
"So, we play 28 songs from different eras. You have to play the hits, that’s what people came for -- there’s 14 songs right there. And then you think, 'What do the hardcore fans want to hear, and what will surprise them.'"