Longtime Alice Cooper Guitarist Steve Hunter On New Album, Classic Alice Records, Michigan Scene and More!
(Lead Photo by Karen Hunter)
Steve Hunter is a guitar legend of the highest order but one of the most unassuming, quietest, nicest guys in the business. Steve, along with guitarist Dick Wagner, became well known as one half of the blistering guitar duo that worked with Alice Cooper after the breakup of the original Alice Cooper band. Steve played on classics like “Billion Dollar Babies” “Welcome To My Nightmare”, “Alice Cooper Goes To Hell” “Lace and Whiskey” and performed on countless other artist’s albums as well including Aerosmith, David Lee Roth, Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel. Hunter deals with eyesight issues but still continues to contribute greatly to the rock and roll landscape, having recently toured with Alice again in 2011 before taking a break once again to get back to writing and recording. His latest album “Manhattan Blues Project” is a star studded affair, featuring tons of celebrity guests and I was happy to talk with Steve about everything going on and more, read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: Hi Steve, thanks for talking with us. I’m a fan of your work dating back to the Alice Cooper days. I have heard a lot about your latest album from a lot of people, including ( original Alice Cooper bassist Dennis Dunaway) who I interviewed and it sounds like it came together in an interesting way. How did Manhattan Blues Project come together?
Steve Hunter: It’s kind of a weird story, yeah. I had toured with Alice in 2011 and right before I went out on the road with him I had been working on songs for a new album. I didn’t really have any direction or anything but was just kind of putting some things down. I had worked out an arrangement of “What’s Goin On?” which is one of my all-time favorite songs and I had agonized over it, trying to find something that was really nice and I finally found something that really worked for me. I had so much respect for that song and that single that it was kind of scaring me a little (laughs). I didn’t want to tarnish it because it’s such a brilliant song. So I worked out an arrangement for that and then a friend of mine had posted some pictures of Manhattan that she had taken on an early spring day in 2011, it was a beautiful blue sky and everything, just a gorgeous series of pictures and one of the pictures just really inspired me to write a song and that’s kind of where the whole project got started. Of course, the rest of 2011 I was out on the road with Alice so I had to wait a year to get back to work on this project.
LRI: So that was kind of the reasoning behind you leaving Alice’s touring band again after working the “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” cycle?
Steve: Yeah, that was exactly it. At the end of that tour I thought, “You know I really need to finish that album”. It was starting to eat at me a bit and I was like “You know, I really need to do this thing”. I was hearing all these ideas and things were popping in my head and all I could think of was how I needed to get home to get back to work on the record.
LRI: I am not in the record making business but if I were I would write an album inspired by your home turf of Arizona. I drove out west a while back and just fell in love with it, what is it specifically about Manhattan that speaks to you?
Steve: Well, I agree with you about Arizona, you could write several albums about Sedona alone for sure! I think a lot of it was that so much of my history was spent in New York, especially in the 1970s. I spent so much time there doing Alice Cooper records, Lou Reed records and other sessions. We rehearsed Peter Gabriel’s first solo tour in New York and I just have this huge history there and have always had this love/hate relationship with the city, especially back in the 70s. Back in the 1970s New York was a much tougher city than it is now, it’s a really cool, awesome place now. But back in the 70s I was like back and forth to the city whether recording or playing gigs there and just developed this real love for the city. When my friend took those photos it seemed like she was seeing the city in this whole different way and it occurred to me that I should kind of try doing the same thing musically because I have such a history in that place, going back 40 years. I wanted to write songs about the more melancholy, mellow side of New York City. I mean, by no means is New York a mellow city, but it does have its moments and when they occur they can be pretty cool. There’s some moments of real beauty and peace in that city and that’s what I wanted to capture on the album.
LRI: You’re a very well respected artist in your own right but this album features guest spots which are just unbelievable, how on earth did guys like Johnny Depp, Joe Satriani, Marty Friedman, Jason Becker and countless others come to be involved and how is that for you, did you just start making phone calls? (laughs)
Steve: Yeah, literally I started making phone calls. It kind of started when I was in San Francisco for a benefit for Jason Becker and all these guys showed up to do this concert for Jason. So many people showed up to help raise money and awareness for Jason who is just a dear, dear friend of mine who I’ve known for a long time now, since the David Lee Roth days when we were both working with David. I just love Jason and I wanted to be there so I was there and Joe Satriani was closing the show and he actually came up to me and asked me if I wanted to play with him on a blues tune called “Going Down” and I said “Of course, I’d love to” and we just had such a great time playing together. When I got home and started working on the album and the track “Twilight In Harlem” I got to the solo part and thought out loud to my wife Karen, “You know, I’d really like to have Satriani play on this”. I thought the worst he could do was say no and I wrote the solos. I actually wrote the second solo for Steve Vai but he was so busy there was just no way he could do it so I asked Jason “Who do you think could do this second solo?” and the first name he shot at me was “How about Marty Friedman?” and I just thought “Great, that’s great” because I love Marty’s playing. That’s how that song worked out and from that moment on I just kept asking people and again I was thinking the worst they could say is no (laughs). To my surprise, everybody I asked after that said yes (laughs). I was just blown away by that. I asked Tony Levin to play bass on a few tracks and he did and it was just one after another to the point where I was like “Holy cow, I asked Johnny Depp to play on my record and he agreed to” (laughs). I just was in complete astonishment.
LRI: You have Johnny Depp and and Joe Perry on the SAME track!
Steve: That was interesting, by the time I got to getting Johnny Depp I was like “Well, I might as well ask Joe Perry to be on it with him” (laughs). I knew Joe’s guitar tech, he’s an old friend of mine and we toured together with Tracy Chapman way back in like 1996 or something but he was also Joe’s tech. I asked my friend “Do you think Joe would consider playing the second solo on my new album” and he was like “Well, you know what, I’ll ask him, can’t hurt to ask” so I sent him the track and low and behold a couple days later I got a solo from Joe Perry. I was completely blown away by the whole process, it was just the most wonderful time. I told them both “Plug your guitars in and just have fun” and it sounds to me like that’s what they did because it turned out really, really great.
LRI: And you got in contact with Johnny Depp from the impromptu gig you did in England with Alice, right?
Steve: That’s exactly right. That’s where I met him and he is just such a great guy, he came up onstage and jammed with us and played with us and we got along really well. Again, I’m thinking, “Well, all I can do is ask” but he was well up for it and said yes, he was like “Yeah man, send me the track” and I did and he came back with this great solo.
LRI: Do you think Johnny still gets a big kick out of playing guitar, no matter how busy he gets?
Steve: Oh yeah, I mean when he first moved to Los Angeles he had a band, I think they were called “The Kids” and they used to play all the time, I used to see them in the L.A. Weekly. They were trying really hard to get a record deal and nothing was happening and then the next thing you know Johnny was acting and became wildly successful as an actor. Still, I don’t think he ever lost his love for playing, I think he still loves playing guitar.
LRI: I know you are from Illinois like I am and also the late Ray Manzarek from the Doors, a band Alice has always had a symbiotic relationship with. Dennis Dunaway told me some great stories involving Ray, Jim and The Doors. Do you have any thoughts on the passing of Ray earlier this year or of The Doors?
Steve: I was really saddened by that like so many were. I used to live on a street called Beachwood in Los Angeles and Ray must have lived on the same street because I kept seeing him in grocery stores and places like that. We would see each other and kinda like nod at each other but I never really got a chance to speak with him and I wish I would have now. I thought he was an extremely talented keyboard player, musician and writer. Some of the stuff he did with the Doors will always still be some of the most beautiful stuff out there as far as I’m concerned. Robby Krieger is a good friend of mine, we toured together in the 80s and I got to be pretty good friends with him then but I never really got a chance to sit and talk with Ray and I’m really sorry that I didn’t to be honest with you John.
LRI: Speaking of Illinois, how did you get to Mitch Ryder and Detroit from Decatur, Illinois?
Steve: That’s a good question. A good friend of mine John “Polar Bear” Sauter had somehow or another gotten a gig playing bass with Mitch Ryder in Detroit. He called me one day and said “You know, Mitch is auditioning guitar players you oughta at least come up here and try out” and I thought maybe I should because I’d always loved Mitch’s singing and loved the Detroit Wheels. I grabbed a guitar and drove all the way to Detroit from Decatur, it was like an 8 hour drive in the snow and all that. I will never forget it because was the first time I got to plug my guitar into a Marshall half stack. I almost didn’t care if I got the gig as long as I got to play through a Marshall, it was my first time (laughs). I plugged in and we just kind of jammed on some Cream tunes and had wonderful fun and I ended up getting the gig. That got me out of Decatur and I met Bob Ezrin who produced the Detroit album (1971). That’s how it all kinda started for me.
LRI: When I spoke with Dick Wagner he told me people really don’t understand just how vibrant and amazing the Detroit and Michigan scenes were in those days. Was that your experience as well?
Steve: Yeah, when I think back on it, I kinda got in on the tail end of all the really cool stuff that was happening in Detroit. There were still a bunch of really cool theatres and clubs, a place called Sexy Sadie’s I think, The Rooster Tail and all of these really great rock and roll clubs. Everybody played em. Right around the time I got there was also close to when Motown moved out of Detroit and things just started getting a little weird. I don’t know, to this day, what happened but it just started to fall away or quietly fade out. Detroit had a really major, big rock scene for quite a while, MC5, Ted Nugent, Grand Funk Railroad and all that stuff, I mean they had a really, really big scene. I still don’t understand it but I guess that’s how things work with cultural trends or cycles, they just run their course I guess. I guess that’s what happened but it’s sad.
LRI: You worked with Lou Reed and are still friendly with him. His collaboration with Metallica made a ton of headlines, did that surprise you or did Lou’s interest in doing that make perfect sense to you?
Steve: That’s an interesting question because the truth is it surprised me but yeah, that’s Lou Reed (laughs). The thing that I’ve always admired about Lou is that he’s never afraid to try anything, anything that catches his fancy, he’ll go for. I’ve always respected him for that, that takes some real courage to do that sort of thing and put yourself out there like that but when I heard “Lou Reed with Metallica” I immediately thought “Ok, now how is that gonna work?”. The funny thing is that I’ve never really heard much of it for whatever reason but just the thought of it, that seems like a really strange combination. Having said that, I know Lou and he’s done strange combinations before and they’ve been really cool. Having not really heard the album, I can’t really comment on the music but just the concept of it is very typical Lou.
LRI: You were friendly with the original Alice Cooper band before and after the breakup of the original lineup weren’t you Steve?
Steve: Oh, absolutely. They were all great guys, I met them in 1971. I got along really great with Glen (Buxton, late Alice Cooper guitarist) and also Michael (Bruce, guitarist) and even Neal Smith (drummer). Dennis (Dunaway, bassist) was kind of a quiet, shy guy in those days until he got onstage where he became outrageous and cool as hell. Dennis was so quiet back then that I really didn’t know him as well as the other three guys in those days but now Dennis has become a really dear friend of mine. I knew all of those guys and when we played Detroit’s Cobo Hall they all came to the show. I love those guys, they’re still good friends of mine.
LRI: Obviously Alice went on to have a very successful career as a solo artist and you have been a huge part of that but what did you make of the band dynamic of that original lineup?
Steve: Well, it would make sense that they definitely had their own chemistry but bands are complex things. There’s band politics and culture and all these things that make a group work together and function well together and something always enters into the picture that you’re not expecting and you can’t always be ready for that all the time. It’s funny, some people compare a band to a marriage but I compare it to a living organism, to keep it alive all of the parts have to be functional and they all have to have a common, uniting goal. Look at the Rolling Stones. I wouldn’t think those guys are all like deep buddies with each other but they somehow or another manage to make that band function on an incredible level for 50 years. I think they discovered how to make those band dynamics work for them.
LRI: Do you have any particular memories about working with Alice and Bob Ezrin on “Years Ago” and “Steven” from the Nightmare album?
Steve: Well, I’ll tell you they were as fun to do because they were so creepy. We really approached the “Welcome To My Nightmare” album like we were working on the score to a film, a horror film. It got really psychotic and really creepy and man did that make for some great music. I loved it. You got to sort of get into your own personal creepy mode; it was almost like you wanted to hide under the covers to play guitar on those tracks. It was really cool and all of my memories of “Welcome To My Nightmare” are all really wonderful.
LRI: As you were working on the recordings were there already concepts or discussions about the stage show that would accompany the tour in 1975?
Steve: Well, I didn’t know about that exactly first hand but I did know that they were already kicking around ideas about how to present the stage. I didn’t hear any specific ideas but I know they were having meetings. “Welcome To My Nightmare” was a total concept from the music to the staging and everything and I think you’re right, I think Alice and Shep (Gordon, famed Cooper manager) and Bob (Ezrin, producer) were all working on that behind the scenes. I didn’t really know until we got to the soundstage and I saw the stage for the first time.
LRI: I imagine that blew you away just like it did the audiences that saw it….
Steve: It did. It was awesome. The first thing that hit me was “Oh man, this is gonna be fun”.
LRI: So you really enjoyed the theatrics of it all. When I spoke with Dick Wagner he was a little ambivalent about all of that and tended to just care about the musical side of things, which I can understand.
Steve: Oh sure, sure, I can understand, absolutely but for me I thought “This is gonna be a blast to do this every night because first of all we’re gonna get to play some great rock and roll music but secondly we are gonna put on this show, the likes of which no one had ever seen before, how cool is that??”. I mean, I am not exaggerating when I say I was thrilled by it all.
LRI: “Goes To Hell” was an amazing album, maybe a little underrated and maybe there was some pressure to follow up a smash like “Nightmare”. Were you disappointed that you guys didn’t get to tour the record?
Steve: Well, yes and no. I think there are some really great songs on that album, I agree with you. You have to remember that I was basically a side man, I was hired to go out on things and a lot of times I really didn’t have that strong of an opinion because it was Alice’s show. It wasn’t my show and I just figured “Well, if he wants me to play guitar, I’m there” because I have so much respect for Alice, his talent and his gift. It was so much fun working with him so whenever he wanted to go out I was more than happy to be a part of it. I sort of kept myself out of the loop on purpose because all I really wanted to know was what I needed to know to do my job and to enjoy being onstage with someone like Alice. To me, everytime I ever walked onstage with Alice Cooper it was a blast. He’s one of those kinds of guys where you just watch him onstage and you have to smile.
LRI: Do you have fond memories of making the “Lace and Whiskey” album or was that a difficult record to make?
Steve: No, I have to say, once again, for me it was always fun working with Alice. If I remember right I think we did “Goes To Hell” and “Lace and Whiskey” roughly at the same time. I think we used a lot of musicians on the basic tracks and just went from one album to the other. It was a lot of fun making those albums, I was kind of bummed I didn’t get to work on “From The Inside” but Alice used a different producer and that’s the way it goes sometimes. You don’t always get to work on the stuff you wanna work on. I did do the tour which made up for it (laughs). Again, it was a blast, it was like “Wow, this is great” (laughs). There was some silly stuff on the “From The Inside” album but for me silly is good.
LRI: The stage elements with the giant bottles and everything are hilarious and awesome.
Steve: That’s Alice, he’s the only one who could get away with that. I loved all that stuff and just thought it was so cool.
LRI: Do you think the “Alice Cooper Show” live album is a pretty good snapshot of the era?
Steve: You know it was, it was a very good snapshot. We had to do that album in kind of a hurry, I don’t even remember if we had a really good soundcheck. When I listened back to it I thought “This is pretty much kind of a thumbnail look at that entire tour” and it was really the only live album we did other than the “Welcome To My Nightmare” video that we did. It’s the only actual live album we did but it’s great and it was great fun to actually do it live and actually hear it back live.
LRI: Unfortunately I never saw you guys back in the old days but I have seen Alice a few times in the new era and I have to say he is still amazing. His focus, his determination on stage is as solid as ever, does that kind of surprise you?
Steve: That’s kind of a difficult question to answer. In the 70s it was a different energy, first of all we were all younger, I mean I was 26 and Alice and I are roughly the same age, he’s just a few months older than me. It was a different energy than it is now but, having said that, the energy that was put into those original songs, all of those songs, going all the way back to “Killer’ and “School’s Out” and all those albums, that original energy is still there. I know that when I learned those songs again for the 2011 tour, I found myself thinking “My god….it’s still in my fingers” (laughs). Here I am, I’m playing “School’s Out”, I haven’t played it for 35 years but the way I played it 35 years ago and the way I felt it, is still kind of in my fingers. It’s a really bizarre thing to explain to you but songs like that, songs that have such a strong backbone and a really strong energy, it’s really hard to deny when you go back and revisit them. I think, with Alice, every time he sings “I’m Eighteen” he feels almost the same way he did back in the 70s. I think that energy is just in the song. With me, when Alice asked me to do that tour in 2011 one of my goals was that if I’m gonna do these songs I have to pay homage to them. Those parts worked so well, why would you change them, the thing is, they’re perfect for the song so you need to pay homage to them. When we did “Halo Of Flies” for instance, we tried to stay as close to the album arrangement as we possibly could, we added a little newness and freshness but basically I wanted to pay homage to those parts. Those guys worked so hard on them and the way they put them together is what makes that song so magical and what made all the songs work for that matter. So, it was important to me, and I know (guitarist) Tommy Henrikson felt the same way, that we had to put the same energy into those chords and parts as was there in the originals when they were done.
LRI: Thanks for talking with me Steve, really appreciate it, last question. You have this great new album to promote and Dick was talking about playing some more shows, would it be possible for you guys to go out and maybe tour together?
Steve: I tell ya what, right now I am having a little trouble, right now I have some eyesight problems that make playing onstage a little more difficult for me than it used to be. Now I’m trying to work out ways of fixing that so that I’m a little more comfortable onstage playing. I had a little bit of a problem in 2011 with Alice, although we did find ways to work around it about 90% of the time but it makes me a little nervous sometimes as far as going on tours. As far as your question about Dick, that’s a difficult thing. We had this really special thing in the 70s, there was no question about it, we just naturally played really well together. It was the kind of thing where we hardly even had to discuss what we were about to do, everything just fell into place but after we left Alice we sort of went our separate ways. I had to really reinvent myself, the 80s were really hard on me, as soon as the 80s hit nobody wanted to hear my kind of playing anymore. Seemingly all of a sudden the phone didn’t ring and I couldn’t get work, I went on all kinds of auditions and I just could not get work anywhere. I really had to reinvent myself and the problem with that is, if you’re trying to work and you’re trying to pay bills and reinvent yourself then you’re getting further away from the way you were in the 70s. Your playing is morphing and moving into a new direction. Dick and I tried over the years, many, many times, we tried getting together to do something but we could never get anything to jell. We tried writing together but it just didn’t work with the focus on us and the cool thing with Alice and with Lou Reed was that we had that focus but it was on somebody else (laughs). As soon as we focused on Alice or as soon as we focused on Lou that was when all the power came out of us and you know I just think that’s fine, don’t mess with that (laughs). We tried so many times over the past 35 years to get something to work and it just never happened, we couldn’t get it to jell in a way that worked for us. So I say, “Go out there Dick, do as many shows as you can possibly do. It’s a blast, I know it is and you’ve got great music, go out there and do it!” I’m into instrumental guitar music, it’s an entirely different thing and we’ve both evolved and changed so much that I don’t think we could ever go back and revisit the 70s, I just don’t think it’s even possible.
LRI: Would it be possible to go out and do 5 or 10 dates and play your album in its entirety at some blues clubs, say Chicago, New York, L.A., Detroit and Memphis?
Steve: You know what John, I would love to do that. If there’s someone who could finance that it would be the most amazing thing but even on a small scale it’s an expensive undertaking to do that sort of thing. I’d have to hire a band and rehearse and everything but I would love to do that. Especially in blues clubs because blues has been in my blood since the 1970s, even earlier than that. I discovered the blues in the 60s but I didn’t know how to play them. I’ve always been a blues guitar player and I love blues clubs. I’d rather play blues in a club any day than in an arena because that’s where the blues belongs, that’s the home of the blues.