Alice Cooper Guitarist Nita Strauss Talks About New Solo Album and Working With a Legend: Exclusive Interview
“By not disappearing, but by thriving, that's how you have the last word." Those were the words Garbage singer Shirley Manson, who was honored with the Powerhouse Award at the fifth-annual She Rocks Awards on Jan. 21 in Anaheim. The yearly event puts the spotlight on female role models in the business and pays tribute to noted women from all walks of the industry.
This year, they had something extra to celebrate -- the release of She Rocks Vol. 1, the new compilation on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label that showcases an eclectic mix of 11 female guitarists, curated by Vai and former Guitar World editor Brad Tolinski. For Alice Cooper guitarist Nita Strauss, getting the opportunity to be a part of the She Rocks album was a big thrill on a couple of different levels.
“It’s really a dream come true for me to get to do something like this. I started playing guitar because of seeing Steve Vai,” she tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “So first of all, even to get asked to be on this album was a dream come true, and then to get to do it in this way, to showcase this awesome up and coming crop of female guitar players that are out there, it’s mind-blowing to me. All of my life, I’ve wanted to do an instrumental track or an instrumental album or do something, because that’s what I grew up listening to -- Vai, [Joe] Satriani, Paul Gilbert, all of the greats. So to get to contribute something, even if it just ends up being this one song, which I don’t think it will, but to get to contribute to that world is really, really awesome.”
Watch Nita Strauss' 'Pandemonium' Video
Her contribution, "Pandemonium,” was written in about an hour, she says. "It definitely takes me on a journey emotionally. It tells a story, and I’m really curious to see what people make of what the story is. Because I think it definitely does take you on a journey.” The song doesn’t overstay its welcome, clocking in at less than three and a half minutes. But it lit the fuse for Strauss to bite the bullet and pursue the idea of doing a full record. Once she dug into the writing process, she realized she wanted to make it a collaborative experience.
“I started writing music, and it turned into something that sounded like it needed to be a band,” she says. “It didn’t sound like something that was indulgent enough to just be like, This is the Nita Show. They sounded like band songs. I’m a band person. I might come across like kind of a show-off onstage and stuff, but I like collaborating with people. So I threw together a great group of girls. I thought it needed a great female lineup, and I think I’ve almost got it the way that I want it now."
Growing up, Strauss notes there weren’t a lot of female guitar heroes to look up to, something that makes her even more pleased to be part of the current surge of “great female players.”
“There was Jennifer [Batten] and there was Michelle Meldrum, and that was basically it," she recalls. "There were great players and great songwriters, but I’m talking about really proficiently good players, technically great players. I didn’t know who any of them were -- I didn’t even know who Jennifer was until I’d already been playing guitar for four or five years, because I was just listening to Metallica and stuff. I think it’s good that they’re calling this Volume 1, because I think there’s a lot more names that need to be showcased and recognized in this scene.”
She says it’s been interesting to see how things have changed -- not just in the music industry, but in other areas. “My boyfriend kind of pointed out to me a while ago -- he said, It’s cool to see that the UFC has female headlining fights now. There are female race-car drivers [like] Danica Patrick. There’s all of these female boxing Olympians making names for themselves. All of these really strong females making names for themselves in what were traditionally male-dominated spaces. And I’m not usually one to get too hung up on the male-vs.-female side of things, but it is interesting to see the dynamic shifting and it’s happening across the board. It’s cool to be a part of that.”
For anyone who's had the chance to see Strauss play with Alice Cooper -- particularly her showcase solo that leads into “Poison,” you would think that just hearing her plug in and play would be enough to silence the haters. But as she related in a interview on the No Guitar Is Safe podcast, she’s heard a laundry list of things steadily throughout her career, like “Can she really play?” and “Is that amp even plugged in?”
“It’s funny, even now, I recently announced that I’m endorsing Marshall amps, which is such a cool, cool thing as a guitar player,” she says. “I’m 30, and I’ve been touring since I was 15. So it’s been a long journey to get here. You see a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, well, she’s only getting those guitars because she’s a pretty face.’ I try not to comment back on Facebook on all of the negativity too much, but I did have to say at one point, somebody was really starting in on me, naming all of these guitar players that were better than me that should have the recognition, that should be on the cover of Musician’s Friend -- which I was on the cover in December. ‘Why is she on the cover? Because she has boobs.’ And I said, Well, when all of those guys spend their entire lives in vans, hungry, cold and tired, driving through the night, hoping to sell enough T-shirts at the next show to get you to the show after that. When all of those guys take time away from their families and studies and their friends to pursue their dreams, then they can be on the cover of all of those magazines.”
Strauss admits she’s faced a number of challenges along the way -- including the development process for her featured solo on “Poison.”
Watch Nita Strauss Perform 'Poison' With Alice Cooper
“I went into this tour knowing that we weren’t going to be doing the ‘Dirty Diamonds’ solo section that we had been doing the prior two years," she says. "I had this thing planned out with this really spooky kind of beat that Tommy Henriksen and I had put together from the song ‘DaDa.’ We had a really creepy backing track for me, and it was going to be this slow-moving kind of spooky thing. We ran it for Shep Gordon, Alice’s manager, on the stage once, and he hated it. [Laughs] He was like, ‘This is terrible.’ I think his words were, ‘It kills the show.’ And I was like, okay ….well, s---! He said, ‘Why don’t you just go up there like Eddie Van Halen and just do a solo?’ That’s what every guitar player thinks they want to hear until they actually hear those words. And I was like, ‘Uh, okay! Well, can I plan something out?’ [And] you know, what non-guitar players say, ‘Just play. Just play something.’ And it’s like, ‘Awww, man!’
Undeterred,she spent that night after rehearsal in her hotel room, woodshedding material for the solo. “What I landed on was, in Alice Cooper Trashes The World, Al Pitrelli used to do this amazing solo into ‘Poison,’" she says. "So I sort of started writing from the end backwards, and I was like, I’m going to do a little nod to Al Pitrelli at the end and end my solo the same way he ends his. So once I had that, I kind of figured out where I was going to go. I grabbed this lick that I did on That Metal Show, this little sort of neo-classical thing that I had thrown together for that -- and I just sort of built on that, hit those high points with the dives that are the real crowd pleasers. It does change a little bit from night to night. I never want it to be sterile, so that little fast metal part with all of that tapping, it’s never quite the same, because I don’t want people to just go and see the same thing all of the time -- I want it to be exciting.”
She’ll be back on the road with Cooper this spring, with U.S. dates beginning in mid-April, and then launch some summer dates with Deep Purple. She says the experience has been a fun one -- and also one that was surprising when she first got the gig.
“One thing that I didn’t think of as a casual Alice Cooper fan was the amount of complexity that goes into a simple-sounding song. A lot of these songs sound pretty simple -- and some of them are kind of simple. 'I’m Eighteen' is not a very complex song. But there’s songs like 'Billion Dollar Babies,' that song has a lot going on, and you don’t really hear it until you sit down with a guitar and you go, Okay, there’s some inversions here and there’s some interesting stuff going on.”
And even with three guitar players in the lineup, she says there’s a method to the madness -- nobody gets bored. "Having three guitar players, for me as a guitar player, it’s such a luxury. We don’t use any backing tracks. We don’t have any extra guitars or synths or anything except for some rain samples and stuff like that that we can’t play. There’s no extra layers going on in the song. Everything’s being played and sung and done by us. So having three guitar players really fills it out. In an age where everybody’s got these really expansive Pro Tools backing tracks and everything going on during the show, it’s nice to have that third layer of guitars."
As far as the upcoming Alice Cooper album that’s been in the works, Strauss says she’s still waiting for the details. “I’m actually pretty much in the dark, to be honest,” she says. “Fans will comment on my Facebook and say, “I heard you’re coming to Hungary!” and I look and I go, “We are?” And then I Google “Alice Cooper Hungary” and I see [a date in] August 2017, and I say, “Okay, I guess we’re going to Europe!” So there’s [some shows] in the U.S. announced for spring, there’s at least one as far as Europe in the summer and I’ve heard some whisperings beyond that. But really right now for me is about just being home. Getting this [solo] record out, working with my original project and we’ll get back to the Cooper stuff in a couple of months, like we always do.”
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