||ALICE COOPER GUITARIST NITA STRAUSS IN CONVERSATION WITH TONY CONLEY
Nita Strauss had the type of year in 2014 of which dreams are made. She parlayed years of hard work with such acts as The Iron Maidens, Femme Fatale, Critical Hit, and Jermaine Jackson into a job with one of the most prominent and prestigious touring bands in the world, Alice Cooper.
She took to it like baby to breast, and it seems to be the most natural fit in the world, as she emerges in photo after photo mugging with the king of shock rock and flying her Ibanez guitars like flags of victory, and never once taking the smile off of her face - and who could blame her, right?
2015 appears to be promising more of the same, and now there's even talk of a Nita Strauss solo album, which will even sweeten the pot. I caught up with Nita on a rare day off in the Hollywood hills of her hometown, Los Angeles.
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I asked her how the hell she was doing, and about that ever present grin:
Nita Strauss: "I am so great. It's so awesome to be back home in LA for a few days. You know, that's the best part - I always have a good time."
I asked if she'd give me a brief rundown on her first year with The Coop:
Nita Strauss: "I guess it is almost the first year, huh?
"It's been like nine months now, or something? It's been just amazing, we started out with those headline shows, and then we joined up with Motley Crüe for all those shows, 80-something shows with them, which was such a blast - we had so much fun with those guys.
"We're going back out with them again this year.
"We ended it up with Alice's Christmas Pudding show (a long running charity evening held in Cooper's hometown of Phoenix, Arizona) - it was my first year doing it, and getting to jam at the end with Jonny Lang, Brad Gillis, and some of the greatest guitar players on the face of the planet, and then we went over to Chuck Garric's place in Maui to do his charity event benefitting the Maui food bank, and that was amazing, too!
"Playing with Steven Tyler, Nuno Bettencourt, Sarah McLachlan, the Offspring guys, it was just really, really cool. Glen (Sobel, Alice Cooper drummer), Chuck, and I were basically the house band of the night, so we backed everybody up - so we had the best seats in the house! We got to jam with everybody, it was a blast!
"There's not really a better way to ring in the new year than right exactly at midnight I was onstage with all those guys playing 'Revolution' by The Beatles. Exactly at midnight! That's cool."
Coincidentally, I had just been speaking with Black Star Riders' Damon Johnson (ex-Cooper alumni) about this very gig, and he had been singing his praise for what Nita Strauss has brought to his old boss's band. I told Nita that I got a sense of family feeling from Johnson's words, and I asked if that was a fair impression:
Nita Strauss: "A sense of family is the perfect way to put it. We've had Damon, Jason Hooks, we've had a lot of Alice's ex-band members come up and jam with us on this last tour.
"It's just like welcoming back a brother that's been away, off to college, or moved away, or something. It really is a family."
I was curious to hear about the differences between going from playing mostly club gigs to a much larger production with the Cooper band:
Nita Strauss: "Honestly? For me, there wasn't a huge difference.
"I just love playing guitar, and that's it. It doesn't really matter if I'm playing the Viper Room for 400 people, or playing in Madison Square Garden for 15,000 people. I'm always going to do the same show. I just love playing guitar so much.
"The real difference is just that I have bigger monsters to stay out of the way of on the Alice Cooper show than the The Iron Maidens' show."
Not just contending with bigger stages, there is also the matter of Cooper's extensive career spanning setlist which is anything but easy - the songs are sophisticated and adventurous. I asked how she went about figuring out what to play, and where:
Nita Strauss: "Actually, they were really awesome about that. Chuck Garric is kind of like the official MD (musical director) of the band, and I asked him for a copy of the set with Orianthi's guitar and vocals very high in the mix, so I could hear exactly what parts I should be learning.
"Once I had that figured out, I asked him to send me another one without her guitar in the mix at all, with her guitar and vocals completely muted, so I could be sure I wasn't just following along - in fact, I did that last night since I'm getting ready to go back out on tour on Friday.
"it's easy to play along with a record, but it's harder to play along when the parts are taken out. Also, we play the songs very differently from the records. The tempos are different. I've heard Glen call it, Alice Cooper on steroids because we play it faster, louder, we add more guitar parts in, it's a very complex arrangement that we're playing, so it really wouldn't make sense to practice along with the record. Different solo sections, all kinds of stuff. It's an amazing tool to have the actual live set to practice along to.
"You know, people complain a lot about modern technology, but I kind of disagree with that. It's such an incredible tool, all this new technology.
"I use this program called Transcribe a lot. I don't use the transcription function so much as I use the ability to slow the song down, or speed it up, or pitch shift it in real time. Last night I wanted to go through the setlist, which is in Eb, but the guitar I had with me was in standard - so, I just pitch shifted it up, and it took one second. I could play the set in E standard, and not have to worry about detuning my floating bridge down to Eb, which would would have taken an hour."
Another project that I've seen Nita's name associated with of late is the Hired Gun documentary - it's a film about the realities of being a musician for hire:
Nita Strauss: "That's right, Hired Gun is such a cool documentary.
"I believe it was the brainchild originally of Jason Hook, who was not only in Alice's band, but of course, now he's in Five Fingered Death Punch, but he also was a hired gun for Hilary Duff, and like some pop artists. It was his idea to kind of show what it is that we do behind the scenes to make these big shows happen. The guitar player from, Pink, all kinds of bands.
"So, he teamed up with Fran Strine who's directing it. It just basically takes the uneducated fan through a little bit of what we do behind the scenes.
I asked Nita about the differences between the hired guns of today and their predecessors, the session players of yesteryear:
Nita Strauss: "To be honest, I don't think it's necessarily a skill that translates.
"For me, I do both studio work, and touring work with different bands, and I think a lot of studio guys are just great studio guys. They're great at sitting down and nailing the stuff in the studio.
"Being a hired musician is much more than just playing the parts properly. The stage presence, the attitude, being easy to work with, being easy to travel with - you know there are so many things that people don't take into account about being a hired musician.
"I do hear a lot, 'Oh, why did she get this gig, there's a lot of better guitar players than Nita out there to play with Alice Cooper.' And, I think a lot of the reason is that I'm very seasoned at touring, I'm really easy to get along with, I'm not a prima donna on the bus, or anything like that.
"A lot of guitar players are very difficult to work with! I've made it a point to not be difficult to work with, and that's why I think I work so much.
"It's not just about getting the gig, it's about keeping the gig. Anybody can, if you want to work hard enough, and you prepare enough, anybody can go in and nail the gig. It's getting them to ask you back that's the tricky part!"
I've seen what seems like a hundred great photographs of Strauss hamming it up with her boss onstage - I asked her just how much instruction and direction came with the gig:
Nita Strauss: "You know what's funny? None.
"None, whatsoever. When I came in they had some choreography - they said, 'OK, well, Alice is going to go here, and you follow him, and then you turn your head, and then you do this, and in this part you're going to go here, and Alice is going to point at you, and you're going to shake your head.'
"And, the first production rehearsal we went through that, and Shep Gordon (Cooper's manager for the last 40 years) was there overseeing everything, and he goes, 'You know what? Cut that out. We don't need any of that, just do a big rock show', and that's it.
"Alice is so easy to work with, he has such energy onstage, I just take my cues from him. Yeah, there are certain parts where all three guitar players and the bass player go to the center riser at one part. There are little things like that, but as far as all the ad lib kind of stuff like Alice will pull my hair, or Ryan and I will go together and do a certain part - it's all different all the time."
Having had an occasion or two in which I've shared a few cocktails with Ms. Strauss, and coming off a rather sad chat I recently had with the wayward bassist of one of rock's beloved bands, I asked Nita how she went about managing the desire to have the occasional beverage, and the responsibility to rock:
Nita Strauss: "Honestly, it's very easy. It's very easy because this isn't a party tour.
"To everyone around me, it's no secret that I like to drink, anybody that has seen my social media for a day knows I like to drink.
"But everyone said, 'Oh, you're going on tour with Motley Crüe, you'd better get your liver ready.' But you know, Alice is 30 years sober, the guys in the band don't drink much, maybe a glass of wine after the show, but not a lot. Nobody drinks before stage time, including me, which is different to say the least for me. But it's really a healthy environment.
"All the Motley guys are sober, except for the singer, and it's not like a huge party tour. We'll go out and drink on days off, but generally it's a mellow vibe. Generally, bus call is like 10:45 or eleven, I'm asleep by eleven, I get up and go to the gym every morning - it's a healthy, happy family that we've got going."
As the Cooper band cranks it up for another season on the road, I asked Nita if she was bringing out any new guitars this year:
Nita Strauss: "No - you know what? Why mess with perfection? Why fix something that ain't broken?
"Actually, I had a thought in my head for a new guitar that I wanted to bring on this tour, and I just didn't make it happen. I love what I'm using right now, this arsenal of two S-series and the two RGs are just perfect for this gig. I don't need anything new.
"I thought about bringing a fixed bridge in, one of those Art series, but what am I going to do with a fixed bridge? I'd just want a whammy bar!
"I'm looking at three of my favorite guitars right now, two of which I actually have to leave at home. I've got my black S-series, which is my workhorse on tour that I use for the majority of the set, my 1987 Jem 777, and my RG550. I'm looking at the two pink, flashy guitars, and I'm like, 'I have to leave you guys here...'
All of the aforementioned guitars belong to the Ibanez brand, and I asked Nita about her relationship with the Japanese guitar company:
Nita Strauss: "I think I've been with Ibanez now six or seven years.
"It was an absolute dream come true. I was playing other guitars before, I had Gibsons, ESPs, Washburns, Parkers, I've had a lot of guitars, but the first Ibanez I played just felt right in my hands. It was love at first play, it really was.
"All my heroes growing up played Ibanez - looking at Vai, and Strain, and at the time John Petrucci, and Ibanez was always the dream. So, when my ex-manager brought me in to meet with them, I sat down with their then A&R guy Rob Nishida, and he said, 'What do you want from us', and I said, 'I don't want anything from you guys, I'm just so happy to be sitting here in your custom shop and offices, all my heroes have been Ibanez artists, and it would just be the dream to look at the roster and see my name there.' And, somehow, some way, that's how it all ended up. and I think that just having gotten the Jermaine Jackson gig didn't hurt!
"But yeah, Rob Nishida took me on, and they gave me that RG550 that I'm looking at right now, and it's been great. Ibanez is a great company for support. The guys that run their custom shop, Alex that works in their custom shop is a wizard.
"He can do anything - I'm pretty good at setting up my own guitars, but Alex is just amazing. I had a problem with one of my guitars, and I had to go to the airport for the Femme Fatale shows this weekend, and they said just bring it by. He took the whole neck and bridge out, and fixed it and had it back to me in like ten minutes. Took the neck and bridge off! Ten minutes, and it plays perfectly!"
She's never say it, but I think that it would be a grand idea to see an Ibanez Nita Strauss signature model at NAMM 2016:
Nita Strauss: "You know, I think 'grand idea' is the perfect way of describing that.
"I would love that - and I know exactly what I would want to do with it, too. Whenever they're ready, I'm ready! I've got some cool ideas, actually. I've been thinking of what I would want to do if I had a signature amp head, too. I have some rad ideas for that. I know a couple of things that I'd do that I don't see anyone doing - so, I'm excited to get that going at some point, as well.
Currently with the Alice Cooper show, Strauss's amps have been seen wielding the Backstar logo:
Nita Strauss: "Yup, I'm using Blackstar Series One with EL34s, and those have been just perfect for this tour, because they're versatile, they've got a really kind of classic rock sound - much more than my Bogner. My Bogner is amazing, it can do almost anything, but it can't do that.
"So, it's a really great classic rock tone, and you always have the overdrive, that OD2 (UK lead setting) for those really punchy, really distorted leads, so it's a really great amp for this gig.
"I'm getting all my effects out of a Rocktron Prophecy II pre-amp, actually the same one I've been using for seven or eight years. I've had the same unit, and it's funny - I actually had to have my tech overnight it for the first day of the tour. I was like, 'Send me my Rocktron unit and my controller (Rocktron All Access), because I was using all this new stuff, a TC Electronic G-Force, and a Ground Control, and it just didn't feel right, and I was like, 'I just need to have my own shit.'
There's a lot to be said for the comfort zone afforded by having your own gear on the job, when failing is just not an option:
Nita Strauss: "Absolutely, it makes all the difference in the world, and my fly rig is a Boss GT-100.
"I fly around for all my one offs, and stuff, all the stuff I've been doing in the Dominican Republic, and stuff. That was all with this little pedal board, and it's so great because I see every guitar player struggling with local backbone, 'This head doesn't work, I'm not getting enough distortion, I don't like the JCM800, I like a JCM2000'. I'm like, 'I'm just using the power section!'
"My rig sounds exactly the same, my cable just goes into the effects return, and that's it. I'm not even using (the amp's) front end, so it's comforting when you're out and about to have your own tone, and your own setup. And that's how it was with my Rocktron unit.
"I was in touch with the guys at Rocktron, because our first show was in Michigan, and they are in Grand Rapids (Michigan). I was like, 'Can you just send out a new one', and they said they could, but I said, 'You know what? I just want mine. It's already programmed, I don't have to think about it, the patches were already labeled on my midi controller, it's just easy.
"It is pretty funny, though, because you probably saw my rig rundown with Premier Guitar, and they talked to Ryan Roxie first, he showed his pedal board, which is really well set up, and then Tommy Henrikson went next, and he said, 'My pedal board is about as simple as it gets', and then I went last and I said, 'Actually, my pedal board is about as simple as it gets'. My pedal board is just my midi controller, and one seven pin midi cable, that's it!"
I know that for her listening pleasures, Strauss likes her metal heavy, so I asked what she'd been listening to of late:
Nita Strauss: "You know what's so funny? I love that you said that because I'm dying to find out about some new bands to listen to for the gym, and stuff.
"I've been so caught up in going over stuff, and learning new material that I haven't had time to listen to music as a fan in a while, and that's something I think everyone needs to do, is just enjoy music, enjoy being a fan of music, and discovering new music.
"So, anybody that's reading this, if you have anything you think I'd like, feel free to send it my way."
It was getting to be about that time, so I asked Nita what else she had happening in 2015 that we might want to cover:
Nita Strauss: "Just a lot of touring. I'm going to be with Alice for most of the year, with some really cool, we're going to be doing a lot of festivals over in Europe this summer, which I'm really excited about - I finally get to go play on some big stages.
"Then, other than that just writing for my solo album, which I'm really excited about. That's coming together really nicely."
I hadn't heard anything about a Nita Strauss solo album, but the idea instantly intrigued me so I asked for some more info on it:
Nita Strauss: "It's still in the writing stages right now, so we shall see what it ends up sounding like.
"There's a part of me that wants to do a straight out instrumental shred album, and there's part of me that wants to get singers, and have singers do their thing on it."
I had just spoken with Richie Kotzen, and I had asked him a theoretical question, positing what he would do if Jimmy Page called and asked him to do a record. He responded in the affirmative, and asked me whether I had heard something (I hadn't, but thought it a grand idea - I'm all about the grand ideas). So, I asked Nita who her dream singer for a solo project might be:
Nita Strauss: "Richie Kotzen, now that I think about it!
"Richie is amazing. I saw him at a little club in the valley called Paladinos. I went with Courtney (Cox) from The Iron Maidens, and we were just totally blown away by his incredible singing. I wish he had done more soloing, but Richie's going to do what he wants to do. I like The Winery Dogs stuff, too.
Nita mentioned wanting to mention her website, and I would recommend you check it out for all things Strauss:
"Nita Strauss: "I've wanted to do my own site for a while now, and it's so important now with social media being the way it is to have one place for all people to go and find out everything that you're doing.
"Some people like Facebook, but they don't like Twitter, some like Instagram, but they don't like Facebook. So, having my own site is a really easy way. Anyone who wants to know where I'm going to be on tour, people are always like, 'When are you coming to Winnipeg, Brazil...', and all I have to do is go, 'Check out Nita Strauss dot com/tour, and it makes things really easy.
"There's a ton of exclusive video content, and stuff like that on the site, as well. I do, 'Ask Nita Anything' once a week, which I am actually supposed to do today, shoot.' But, there's a form on the site where people can write in and ask any kind of questions about guitar playing, restaurant recommendations, or marriage proposals, whatever they want!'
Yeah, it's rough being Nita Strauss these days....