An Interview with Kane Roberts of The Alice Cooper Band

All images courtesy of Kane Roberts/Getty Images


By Andrew Daly
andrew@vinylwriter.com

If the 1980s guitar scene was about big-haired, waif-framed guitarists, ax-slinger Kane Roberts never did get that memo.

With guitar stylings as muscular as his physic, Roberts set the tone for Alice Cooper’s late 80s revival, which gave way to a second chance at glory after the infamous 70s shock-rocker had fallen from grace at the onset of the decade.

Before a chance meeting with Copper, however, Roberts was waiting in the wings, dividing his time between local club gigs, and dealing cards at underground blackjack tournaments, “Before the games, I’d play shows earlier in the night at clubs, and make maybe eleven dollars at the door, so I had to do the blackjack stuff to sort of survive.”

For Roberts, his life as a musician would consist of a delicate interplay between hard work and fate, and as fate would have it, his demo tape made it into the hands of super-producer, and longtime Alice Cooper cohort, Bob Ezrin.

Ezrin was so smitten with Roberts playing, and unlike-anything-else-image, that both he, and Cooper’s manager, Shep Gordon, brought the aspiring six-stringer in to meet the shock-rock originator. For the snakebitten Cooper, chemistry with the young guitarist was immediate, “Now, me and Alice, we’re not sitting near each other, but he and I start laughing about everything, so we immediately became friends, and it was just very solid.”

Robert’s presence from a musical standpoint was nothing short of watershed, and in short order, the duo, along with a decidedly all-star band, hit the studio to record what would become Cooper’s metal-laden return to form Constrictor (1986).

For the tandem of Cooper and Roberts, success in the studio came quickly, but on the road, they were hit with unbridled bombast from an unsuspecting fanbase, some of which were old guard, and some of which were new to Cooper’s particular brand of grizzled theatrics, now ringing across arenas with an 80s glam-ridden twist.

In the wake of the Nightmare Returns Tour, Roberts and Cooper shot for the moon in bringing in the likes of Kip Winger, and Ken K. Mary for Raise Your Fist and Yell (1987), and once on the road, Roberts, now equipped with a guitar mimicking a fire breathing machine gun, stunned audiences with his bravado, artistry, and virtuosity.

Just as Cooper had, soon enough, the rest of the world took notice of the torrid force that was Kane Roberts, and in 1987, Geffen Records came calling. At a crossroads, Roberts, always one to march to the beat of his own drum, bet on himself, amicably parted ways with Cooper, and set forth on a journey to record under his own name, and beyond.

In the thirty-five years since his departure, Alice Cooper’s fanbase has never forgotten Kane Roberts, nor have they discounted his immense contributions to Copper’s still-existing sound. Roberts’ role in Cooper’s career resurrection is immeasurable, and the two records they recorded together still, to this day, prove to be some of Cooper’s finest work.

Most fans assumed that Roberts would continue on with his solo work, as well as his many other varied interests, until mid-July of 2022, when the news broke that Cooper’s longtime guitarist, Nita Strass, would be departing for pastures anew, leaving the Alice Cooper Band in need of someone to do some seriously heavy lifting.

As he prepares to hit the road with Alice Cooper for the first time in thirty-five years, Roberts recently took some time with me via phone to run through his return to the fold, and more.

Andrew:
You’re back with Alice Cooper again after all these years, Kane. How did it happen?

Kane:
You know, Alice, and I, of course, are friends, so we talk all the time. And, you know, I’m a big fan of Nita, actually, I’m a big fan of his entire band right now. They’re all very good. And Alice, he knows that, so when Nita implied that she’d be leaving for a little while, I guess it made sense to Alice for him to call me. But before that, Alice had played on my The New Normal album, with Alissa White-Gluz from Arch Enemy on the song “Beginning of the End.” And then they both agreed to be in my video and all that stuff, so he knows I’ve been active, and then recently, I wrote a song with him, so we’ve been in touch musically as well.

But the call from Alice to join, it came out of nowhere. I was just sitting at home watching TV or whatever after I was done with my day, and then Sheryl Cooper called, and said, “Hey, Alice wants to talk to you.” So, Alice got on the phone and said, “Hey, do you want to be in the Alice Cooper band for the fall tour?” and I went, “Yeah, sure,” because it’s nothing but fun when we’re together. So, I’ve been listening to the set and everything, and it kicks ass. It’s really been kind of a natural thing, and of course, I’ve had a crap ton of stuff to get together. You know, there were also these existing musical arrangements that have been developing with the band over the last eight years, or whatever, but all this stuff is in my fingers. I’m working really hard, and yeah, it’s great.

Andrew:
How have you gone about ingratiating yourself into the existing band, and then finding balance with Ryan Roxie, and Tommy Henriksen?

Kane:
Yeah, you know, on the surface it would seem like it would be some kind of dynamic I’d have to crack through, right? But these guys are very professional, and by the way, they’re really nice people too. So, we’ve been talking with them a lot and everything, and it’s just going to be five weeks of fun. Coming in, I told Alice right off the bat, I said, “I’m not gonna come in and upset the applecart. I want to fit into what’s going on. Any of the ensemble stuff that needs to be done, I’ll just grab what Nita’s been doing. We don’t have to change any arrangements and stuff. I’ll just shred my way to hell with them as they are.” So, it’ll be fun, and it’ll be a really good thing. It’s easy because these guys are just so fucking cool. We all have been talking back and forth, and it’s been very good.

All images courtesy of Kane Roberts/Getty Images

Kane:
You mentioned that you’re not going to upset the applecart or change any arrangements per se. This said, your style is definitely different than that of Nita’s. There are some similarities being that you’re both metal guitarists, but you both have your own nuances. Will you harken back to your early days with Alice, or go with a more modern approach?

Kane:
I’ve been playing so much, and it’s one of those things where my playing has evolved, and it’s changed radically since my first go-around with Alice. But, you know, the core of it is still where it all began with things like Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Eddie Van Halen. And, of course, I’ve been listening like crazy all the time to the great guitar players that are out there now like Zakk Wylde, Paul Gilbert, and Steve Vai. I know there’s a whole bunch out there, you know, there’s so many I could name. I mean, when I think about it, Dimebag [Darrell] is still one of my favorites of all time, and all his stuff is a matter of influence for me as well. And with Nita, her instincts are to play a certain way and to inject her riffs at certain points in the songs, and those will be there, but there will be a difference there too. She brought such high energy to it, and that’s always been my approach as well, so it’s not going to be that much different, but of course, our playing styles are really quite different.

So yeah, I’m just gonna bring where I am right now to the party and just see where that takes us. You know, one of the things about influences, Andrew, is that they are the lifeblood of everything we do. But the whole point of it is the audience because you could learn, let’s say, the Spanish language in your house, but if you never speak to people, it kind of doesn’t really have a function, and it doesn’t really mean a lot in terms of influencing culture or spreading good or bad news, or whatever it is. Like, I’ve been working all this time on the guitar, so I can get up in front of the audience, and there are people that love me, there are people that hate me, and there are people that don’t give a fuck about what I do, you know? But it’s an honor to stand up there in front of all of them, and to me, that’s sort of the linchpin of the whole thing. Sure, there are all these other concerns, and these dynamics that you have to take care of, but that’s where all the pressure is.

For me, I want to get up and give the fans something special, and maybe something they haven’t seen before. So, all of that other stuff sort of clears away a lot of the elements that you have to maybe push around as you’re walking into a system. I mean, one of the things you’re sort of touching on is how do I feel walking into a situation that’s already been there, right? That’s never been a problem of mine. And with this, there are no meetings or situations that go into it, and I get excessively nervous about that stuff anyway. It’s more like, I only focus on what the main event is, and of course, playing for so many people, the fans, and the audience, because they’re the core of what we do.

Andrew:
A lot of Alice Cooper fans will remember the way you might have played over thirty years ago, but as you mentioned, while the soul of your playing still remains, you’ve evolved in many ways. In what measurable ways would you say that your playing has evolved most?

Kane:
Well, one of the things is, for example, the technique, and the shred aspect of it has changed. So, in other words, if you look at any guitar player, and I don’t care what level they’re at, they’re going to talk about how their hand picks on the strings. You know, can you shred up and down the six strings? Can you blunt the strings? Do you hit harmonics with your thumb on the strings when you’re playing, so it gets kind of a squeal in the middle of a note? It’s all of that stuff. It’s things like phrasing, and all of this stuff, and that is what has changed the most for me. Also, there are certain speed elements that I’ve upgraded over the years as well. So, maybe I’ll do a few less bombs, or squeals, or less of the tremolo bar pulling way up and down like Nita did. But you know, the effects will still be extremely high energy, and of course, Alice’s music is very special, like, if you’re playing one of the classic songs, which are absolutely genius, there’s a certain sort of respect you have to give them.

I guess, what I’m saying is I’m not going to shred over something like “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” [Laughs]. I’m going to play what I think is appropriate in that way. And then, of course, you know, he’s doing “Roses on White Lace,” and a few songs that I wrote with him from back in the day, and with that stuff, I can just like bloody it up really, really good. So, it’s about how you perceive each moment that you’re playing, and what you’re going to offer to the audience, and the rest of the band as well. I know it’s gonna be a lot of fun. You know, Sheryl, Alice, and I are really good friends, and Bob Ezrin too. I actually just had lunch with Alice and Bob Ezrin. He’s in the studio right now, so I went down there, and I was listening to what they were doing and everything. I might play and sing a little bit on that as well, so the relationships are developing. I’m feeling like I’m getting woven back into the family pretty good for these five weeks.

All images courtesy of Kane Roberts/Getty Images

Andrew:
With you back aboard, Kane, can we hope for more songs from Constrictor and Raise Your Fist and Yell in the setlist?

Kane:
No, no. So, the thing is, I think this is Alice’s final tour for this year. I’m fairly sure of that. I might be wrong, but my point is that they’re not going to change the show at this late juncture. I mean, Alice might drop a bomb and say, “Hey, let’s do there one, or two different ones,” you know, that that could happen. But the point is that right now, I think it’s enough of a change as is, you know? You’ve got this big guy coming in, and then with my style layered on top of that, it’s already a change. I’m looking at it right now like this: I just want to go in and play the songs, and as I said, it’s all in my fingers. I just want to come in and play things in such a way so that it’s a seamless transition. And there’s a choreography that goes on all over the stage, and even as big as I am, I’ll probably get trampled by that giant baby, so that’s the main thing I’m worried about. [Laughs].

Andrew:
Going back a little bit, when you first joined Alice in the 80s, he was in a little bit of a downturn. Take me through how you first entered the Alice Cooper fold.

Kane:
I was looking to work, so to make money, I was dealing cards in these illegal blackjack games. These guys would go to a hotel, and they’d rent this big conference room every weekend, and they’d show me where all the guns were, and all this stuff. And then, I’d deal cards at these blackjack games, and that’s how I made money. I was playing in clubs, and doing some rough recordings, and I had given a cassette tape to this guy Don Pesceone at this company called Screen Jumps Publishing, and he gave it to [Bob] Ezrin. Well, Ezrin saw something, and they brought me down there, and I sat down in this room with all these people who had really changed culture, like Shep Gordon, Ezrin, and Alice Cooper. Well, me and Alice got along immediately, and I think in Alice’s position in those days, you know, that’s one of the things that were important, and Shep was brilliant in that way, he really understood what the artist needed. He understood what Alice needed, not only to be successful but also to be functional in that process.

Andrew:
Going into Constrictor and Raise Your First and Yell, what was the collective vision to elevate Alice’s music from where it had been?

Kane:
Well, once we got together, we just really got into it, and we made Constrictor, which came out great. And then, before the tour, we discussed what was going on, and my notion was always, I didn’t want Alice to seem like he survived rehab, I wanted him to come back as sort of a nuclear version of what he had been. So, my thought was, “Look, there’s Van Halen, there’s Ozzy, and all these insane bands out there. We have to upgrade the energy level in the sound to make it much more metal.” I mean, that’s always where I came from, but I also wanted to preserve the sort of historic events in terms of the music, and retain the essence of the classics. So, we agreed on that, and so that’s how the album and that tour came about.

So, we came off the tour, and we went in and we recorded, Raise Your First and Yell, and it was killer. We just tore right through it. We had Kip Winger, Ken K. Mary, Paul Taylor, and all these guys. After we had that done, we hit the ground running. It was a really good process, and we had a really good relationship, and on the road, it was incredible again. Of course, it ended when I got the record deal with Geffen, and Alice had changed labels as well from MCA to Epic, and then he did Trash, and everything. But we didn’t end on bad terms or anything, and there wasn’t any controversy, we just sort of stepped in different directions a little bit. And even though I left, we maintained our friendship and our communication throughout all of it.

All images courtesy of Kane Roberts/Getty Images

Andrew:
To me, it’s undeniable that when you came in an immediate bond was formed, and those two records changed Alice’ssound. So much so, that you still hear it in his music to this day. When you look back on it, how do you measure the importance of those two records, Kane?

Kane:
Well, in my life, of course, they were critical. But for him, I think that Alice is just one of those guys who absorbs creativity. Something could happen to him during the day that has nothing to do with music, and it would actually influence his performance somehow. So, he’s one of those guys, and I think we settled into that, and the tours were just so successful. When I came in during the mid-80s, the recent tours up to that point had been a little rough in some areas. So, when I came in, I wanted to shake things up, and do things that hadn’t been done before, so we could show the world a new and revitalized Alice Cooper. And I think once that happened, along with the momentum of what we were doing in our sound, and how we looked at those shows, things just took off. I mean, like, the second tour really almost had a culture of violence with what we had on stage, and that sort of aggressive momentum influenced everything that Alice did after that, I think. It influenced a lot of stuff; not entirely, and not 100%, but I think you’re right, you do see certain elements of what we did still. I’d call it more like Alice’s evolution, do you know what I mean? I’m happy to have influenced that a little bit, but Alice always takes the bull by the horns and just runs with it wherever he wants to go.

Andrew:
What are the origins of the infamous machine gun guitar?

Kane:
Well, you know, here’s the thing, and a lot of people don’t know this, and this shows us the brilliance of Shep Gordon, Alice’s manager. So, some kid called up and said, “Hey, I’ve got a guitar that might be good for the Alice Cooper tour,” and Shep was like, “Let’s have the kid come in.” Ok, so Shep saw it, and he said, “Hey, Kane, take a look at this guitar, and meet with this kid.” Well, I did, and the guitar that was on stage is pretty much what the kid brought in. I remember when he first brought it in, I looked at it, and I went, “This thing’s ridiculous.” [Laughs]. The kid was an army brat, he had been around weapons his whole life, and he followed his dad around from base to base, internationally and everything.

So, he built this insane guitar, and it played amazing too. Honestly, that’s one of the things that shocked me, you know, that it played so well. I think the kid was like twenty years old, and he just put together this incredible instrument. So, he showed it to me, and then he demonstrated that it shot these flames like ten feet. Like, it used what was actually called a cold spot, and I was amazed by it. And when we went on tour, I started using it, and it became a big part of the show. And I gotta tell you, Andrew, I had no idea that there was anything that would make people think of Rambo at the time. [Laughs]. I get it now, you know, this guy has got a gun belt, this machine gun guitar, and the only thing I was missing was the headband. [Laughs].

Andrew:
Will we see the guitar on stage this time around?

Kane:
Back then, at first, I thought it was just crazy, but it ended up being a signature thing, and now everybody is expecting me to do it this time around. So, I know that right now it’s in process in terms of getting it done, so we’ll see what happens. Because there’s a lot of things involved with doing that, and of course, I told Alice, I said, “You know, a lot of people took that idea, and now we have to compete with that.” Nikki Sixx is now shooting flames, and the same thing with Gene Simmons, and they even had a heavy metal guitar player in the new Road Warrior movie that shot flames with his guitar too. So, I said, “We’re competing with that now. Whatever we do, if we do use it, it’s got to be a lot more robust than then what we did before.” So, they’re working on that right now, and we’ll see. I think it would be fun though, so we’ll see what happens.

All images courtesy of Kane Roberts/Getty Images

Andrew:
You mentioned that it played amazingly. What conventional guitar would you most compare it to in terms of playability?

Kane:
Well, I was a total Kramer guy back then. And you know, if anybody else picked up that guitar, it looked huge on them, so it sort of fit me well because of my size. It sat very well. Like, once I put on the strap and everything, it didn’t feel heavy or whatever. And the thing about Rick Johnson, and his company which is called Stremel Guitars, he has this thing where he makes the necks very fluid, and it’s very easy for you to play with your left hand, and the right hand is awesome too, but my point is that the necks themselves are always really good. So, like I said, I was a Kramer guy back then, but this guitar had the feel of like a primo Kramer setup, so it was perfect for me.

Andrew:
Did that guitar affect your playing on stage at all?

Kane:
So, the only influence it had was at the end of the solo. I had to flick this one switch that armed it, and then at the appropriate time, hopefully, pointed away from the audience, I’d shoot it, and the flames would come out. So, there was one time when we were at a theater, and it didn’t shoot, and I went, “Ah, shit. Okay.” I don’t know why, but it didn’t shoot, and it didn’t shoot the night before either. So, it didn’t work, and I did the dumbest thing, I did the thing you’re never supposed to do on stage because you’re just supposed to roll with it. Well, what I did was I kind of looked back at the drummer, Ken K. Mary, who is a phenomenal drummer and everything, and I was like, “Oh, Jesus, it’s not working again.” So, I did that, and Ken, he like pointed at the audience, and I turned around, and it was shooting flames over the audience. [Laughs]. Man, I wasn’t paying attention, and it hadn’t been working, so I wasn’t expecting it. So, it’s one of those things where it had all of these sorts of, for lack of a better word, all these sorts of attachments, and fireworks that went off with it. They didn’t really influence my playing, but part of it was in my head for sure. But I will say this, that guitar played so well that I looked forward to playing it every night.

Andrew:
You mentioned that when parted ways with Alice, you two remained friends. With Alice shuffling his ensemble often over the years, were you ever offered the opportunity to return prior to this?

Kane:
We definitely talked about it. We talked about it a few times, but it just didn’t take place. And I gotta be honest with you, even though we were writing together, even though he was on my album, and even though he shot the video with me and Alissa, I never expected this. I basically thought, “Well, his band is just really good. They’ve been together for eight years or something like that. They’re solid.” To me, it was just one of those things where you said, “Hey, that’s the Alice Cooper band.” And by the way, something else to think about is that I’m sure it’s a big deal for him too, you know? Alice has had this family for a long time, and Nita has been with him for eight years, I think. So, you know, it’s a change for him too.

All images courtesy of Kane Roberts/Getty Images

Andrew:
With that being said, what made now the right time?

Kane:
Well, I’m sure there were probably some safer bets, but he gravitated towards me, which is just the way he is. I said the other day, you know, one of the things I say to younger guitar players because I did a couple of seminars here and there where I said, “You have to have faith. And if you work hard enough, the world will beat a path to your door.” I think that’s true for any field, and with anything that we do. If you work hard enough, something will find you. It’s just the way I think, and how I feel life operates, and I’m living proof of that. I worked very hard, and the only band that ever would have hired me was Alice Cooper, and he found me, you know what I mean? I mean, I was like 230 pounds, and playing guitar in the 80s, who was gonna hire me? Alice was the only one. So, I really think that has sort of come around full circle again. It’s just his nature, you know? Alice, he never goes for the safe bet.

Andrew:
You’ve got this five-week run, which will finish out Alice’s touring schedule for the year. Beyond that, Alice will still need a guitar player, right? Do you expect to carry on with Alice in a touring, or perhaps even recording capacity?

Kane:
Well, I do want to record and sing with him. Beyond that, I don’t know. Right now, it’s five weeks. So, if it’s more than that, we’ll see what happens. But right now, that’s all it is. And you know, there’s a sort of a semblance of perfection in that, right? It has a beginning and an end to it. But if it evolves past that, there will be reasons why it should, and if it doesn’t then there will be reasons why it shouldn’t. So, we’ll see what happens.

Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at andrew@vinylwriter.com

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