By David Iozzia
Dennis Dunaway is a bass guitarist best known for being the original member of the Alice Cooper Group from 1967 to 1975. He co-wrote some of the classic Alice Cooper material that after 30 years still receives airplay on FM Rock radio: "School's Out," "I'm Eighteen," and "Under My Wheels." His bass playing was more than just straight-ahead rock. It also showcased Latin, blues, and jazz influences, and his songwriting also showed a sinister side. Dennis wrote some of the darker songs on Alice Cooper's records: "Killer," "Dead Babies," and "Black Ju Ju."
In 1999, Dennis formed Bouchard, Dunaway, and Smith with his rhythm section partner from the Alice Cooper Group, drummer Neal Smith, and ex-Blue Oyster Cult four-stringer Joe Bouchard. They released two records, "Back From Hell" and "Live in Paris." Dennis mentions during our chat that he's been holed up in his basement for a lot of years, disenchanted with the music business and writing songs for the fun of it. His latest project is a rock band called the Dennis Dunaway Project, and they just released an incredible debut record titled "Bones From The Yard." Being a lifelong fan of the Alice Cooper Group, it was truly an honor to interview Dennis Dunaway about his new record.
Dave: Hello Dennis. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to do this interview for my website. Where are you now and where do you call home?
DENNIS: I'm at home in Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Dave: Best of luck to your new band and with the release of your new record, "Bones From The Yard." First off, introduce your bandmates in the Dennis Dunaway Project and tell me how you hooked up with them.
DENNIS: Rick Tedesco plays guitar and sings. He also produced "Bones From The Yard." I met him through Ian Hunter of Mott the Hoople fame. Russ Wilson, who worked with Rick on and off over the years, plays drums. Russ is influenced by heavy rock, and he's played a lot of jazz with some notable musicians teaching him when he started on drums. He brings a new element to the style we're playing. Ed Burns is on keyboards and lead vocals. We actually have three lead vocalists: Ed, Rick, and myself. Ed's played keyboards since he was a youngster. We're all seasoned musicians who have been around the block a couple of times. The chemistry is so good because we all do it for the love of music. I determined that early on; it was really easy to see.
Dave: Let's talk about what I'd think was the step by step in creating "Bones From The Yard." When you first sit down to write, I'm guessing it's not on bass guitar. What's your writing style?
DENNIS: I write with the bass, with the guitar, and even with a MIDI keyboard. Even if I'm just sitting down with an acoustic guitar, I hear the full production in my head. I'm the worst keyboard player in the world, but I know where the notes should be. I bash my way through it and edit it until it's right. After the first run-through, my family thinks I sound like a chimpanzee banging on a keyboard. After I edit it, it comes out right, at least for demo purposes. I also do very abstract electronic style music with MIDI sounds. It's not really the type of music that involves scales; it's more like experimental sound collages. I began as a painter in high school, and I like abstract painting. I like abstract music as well. Most of my songs lately were written while I was driving the car or walking my dog when I had the least amount of distractions. If the song is good enough to stick in your head and you can remember it later, then that's something to be said for the song.
Dave: Throughout your career, you've written some what I would call darker tracks. Did those songs require a different headspace or a different environment?
DENNIS: Yeah, I'm usually in a dark basement or something. I've always had a liking to that style of music. I also like minor chords and that has something "major" to do with it. Hey, I didn't realize I was making a joke there.
Dave: Were new songs written together or were existing songs significantly re-worked once you hit Rick's studio?
DENNIS: When it first began it was going to be a solo project. I had been holed up in my basement for a lot of years and I was pretty much disenchanted with the music business. I was going to just make music for the fun of it by myself and not perform it publicly or try to record it. When Rick built his new studio he wanted to bring in a band but like any new studio, everybody is afraid to be the first to come in until the bugs are worked out. I had plenty of songs and we decided to do a solo demo thing. Within weeks, it kicked into a higher level project. I decided that it needed a singer who could hit a range on certain ideas I had that I could no longer hit. I didn't want to have to change keys on those songs. We found Ed Burns and brought him in. Rick, Russ, and I had written a song called "Kandahar," and we had a general idea of how we wanted the vocals to sound. We casually put Ed on the spot and asked him how he'd handle the vocal. Not only did he nail the vocal idea melody-wise, he also wrote a keyboard part for it. That song was obviously a collaboration between the four of us, as is "Needle in the Red." As far as songs I had written previously, I don't hold the reins very tight on any of the tunes. On a couple of them, I was insistent on how the treatment should be, but I'm pretty open-minded, as long as everybody falls into a pocket that doesn't disrupt the feel that I intend. That's what's great about this band; they fall in instantly! We didn't have to do much exploration to find the right pocket.
Dave: How does this band decide who handles the lead vocals on each song?
DENNIS: Everybody is very nice and courteous to the other guys. There's no friction and that could happen at some point, but it's unlikely. Everybody respects each other's talent. I'm the first to get out of the way if anybody else wants to sing. When Ian Hunter got involved, hanging around the studio as "a fly on the wall" as he called it, he thought I should handle all of the vocals. Some of the songs were written a few years ago, in a different key when my voice could hit higher notes. I started re-writing a few of my bass parts, simplifying them so I could sing and play the bass, but some of the songs needed an extra kick vocally. I sing "Satan's Sister" and "Red Room," which are more character-feeling parts. Ian is Scottish, and he says that in Scotland you could be a terrible songwriter but as long as you mean what you are saying, everybody will like you. If you're a great vocalist just singing the notes, you'll get booed off the stage. Ian put me in the category of being somebody who means what he says. I sing about some pretty abstract things, but I do mean what I say.
Dave: At what point does Ian Hunter come in adding piano to "Little Kid (with a big, big gun)"?
DENNIS: Ian's an interesting character, and he's a joy to be around. He has a million great stories. He's brash at times, which is his humor, and that's great. We didn't blatantly ask him to play. If you ask him to do something that falls into a professional category, he might say that we have to talk to his manager. If you drop a subtle suggestion and let him come up with the idea himself, then he'll do it. Rick played him the song over dinner one night and told him that I thought the song would be perfect for a Jerry Lee Lewis-type of keyboard part. We lucked out when Ian said he'd do it. Then we got the ex-Blue Oyster Cult bassist Joe Bouchard to play cowbell on it. Joe was a little easier to talk into it.
Dave: I guess the cowbell is now synonymous with Blue Oyster Cult's history.
DENNIS: Christopher Walken, who played the producer on that Saturday Night Live skit, used to be neighbors with Joe Bouchard. That skit made a whole new age group aware of Blue Oyster Cult. Joe appreciates it and never gets tired of "the cowbell" reference.
Dave: Many an artist has said that you never finish a mix; you abandon it, and make it ready for public consumption. Is that a statement you can self-relate to when your records are in the mixing stage?
DENNIS: There is a certain point where if you don't set a deadline, you'll be working on it forever. That was a luxury we had; we didn't have a deadline. We set our own because you wanted the record to get out there while it was still fresh. There was probably a few more things I could have done to a few of the songs. Yet this album came closer than any record I've ever done to reach the level of ideas that I initially imagined. We worked really hard mixing, but it's different than the old days. Technology today lets you tweak the mix as you do the overdubs. Then we got the song as good as we can get it. Mixing is funny because you usually have to hear all of the music out of a little speaker. That's the trick. Some people have a magic ear and others don't. Then we brought in Pete Moshay, who mixed the record with Rick at A-Pawling Studios in Pawling, New York. Pete's worked with artists like Hall & Oates and Barbra Streisand. At first I was leery that this wasn't his style of music, but he brought a whole new outlook to the thing. He's amazing and the mix is one reason that the record sounds so good. Pete's slick perfection complements our rowdy approach. I couldn't believe some of the things he was able to do. In all my years in the studio, I was always keen on hanging out during the mix. I wouldn't verbally interrupt but I tried to watch and learn as much as I could. Unlike most producers, Pete was very candid about teaching us and explaining what he was doing while he worked. It was an eye-opener.
Dave: Wow. A magician that gives away his secrets.
DENNIS: That's very rare.
Dave: Now that the record is done, your next challenge is getting the record heard. No record company is there to dictate what single to release, but you have to upload song clips at your websites and MySpace pages. Is your thought process to "wow" listeners with the best tracks, the heaviest tracks, or to show a range in musical styles?
DENNIS: I've never been good at choosing singles. "School's Out" was an obvious choice back in the old days. Most of the other singles I disagreed with the record label, and I usually disagreed with what radio stations would be playing from other bands. I don't think commercially. This album differs from any other record I've done because of the variety of different styles of songs and subject matter, yet it all ties together. Every single song has been picked as a favorite in the different reviews that I've read. The samples posted at MySpace are not the final mixes; they were rough mixes. I think we were going for range with a rock and roll song and a ballad.
Dave: I think the music fan listening to the clips at your MySpace page will hear a variety of music styles. Anybody familiar with your bass guitar work probably would expect that because of the varying musical influences you've displayed. Was you intent with "Bones From The Yard" to record a record that had a little something for everybody or did it naturally evolve that way?
DENNIS: I just write and I go with the flow with whatever subject strikes me. I like to pioneer and go wherever the creativity takes me rather than to dictate what I'm going to write when I sit down. My target audience is always anybody who likes music.
Dave: I'm linking all the websites and MySpace pages so fans can give your record a listen. Until they get there, since they can only read text at my website, how would you verbally describe the musical direction of "Bones From The Yard"?
DENNIS: Hopefully, it's an exploration of new territories that are uncharted. My goal is always to come up with something that nobody's done before. I don't always reach that level. I'm a conceptual artist and I start with a blank canvas and create. It's spontaneous and off-the-cuff.
Dave: Now that I've told the fans where they can listen, where should music fans go to purchase "Bones From The Yard"?
DENNIS: You can buy it at www.myspace.com/dennisdunawayproject or at CDBaby. You can download it from iTunes.
Dave: Like so many bands today, there are advantages in self-producing your own record. Is artistic self-control the biggest one?
DENNIS: Having your own artistic license is a big advantage. Also, you don't need a record company to pay an exorbitant amount of money to put you in a recording studio so that you could put out something good. There's a lot of competition but that also gives a greater opportunity for the cream to rise to the top. There's a lot of great bands out there now but many rely on Pro-Tools and the editing capabilities instead of the artistic integrity that went into the idea. Being able to put out a record and get people all over the world to hear it without having any restrictions on your career is an advantage. In the old days with record contracts, you couldn't hop into the studio with your buddy who is in another band. You needed to get permission or do it under another name.
Dave: You can self-market the band the way you choose, but that takes up a lot of time and effort.
DENNIS: Yeah, self-marketing is a lot of work. Ian Hunter told us after we got the final mix back that "the easy part is over." That's true because there's so much else out there. Getting a new record is not such a big deal these days when you've got your Blackberry and your large screen TV. Things like that can prevent you from taking the time to go on the Internet to scout out all of the new and interesting music being created.
Dave: From my perspective as a music fan, I think today's marketplace has more musicians creating for the sake of their art form without the pressure of "the bottom line" and trying to make a fortune.
DENNIS: That's the biggest advantage to the changes in technology. Unfortunately, it came about because stealing music electronically became commonplace.
Dave: How difficult was the adjustment for you to the music industry of the 21st century?
DENNIS: I was disenchanted with the way it was before so the changes in the music industry didn't break my heart. I must say that Warner Brothers was a great record company to be with back then. I have plenty of platinum albums on my wall because of them. They did a great job over the years.
Dave: Are there any live shows planned for the Dennis Dunaway Project?
DENNIS: We recently had a CD release party at the Cutting Room in New York City. We have a very solid live performance. As we refine it we'll stick to local clubs in the tri-state area until the show is a cut above what most club bands are doing. It's getting there fast; every time we play it gets better. We have a lot of irons in the fire including a possible European tour and a Midwest tour centered around Cleveland. We have possibilities to open for bands that have significantly booked tours. All of those things are on the horizon, but the music business is always like the "carrot hanging in front of the donkey." It all looks great but getting the contract signed is sometimes elusive. We're thinking very positive though because of all the positive things that have happened with the record. It's taken on a life of its own.
Dave: Given your background with Alice Cooper and his theatrical stage show, what should fans expect at a Dennis Dunaway Project concert?
DENNIS: It's definitely a high-energy level show. We have several ideas of a theatrical nature that we might try soon, but we don't want the theatrics to be what's talked about. The music is definitely the featured event. Our performance, doing it as tightly as we can with as much energy as we can, is the only theatrical element right now. We add some Alice Cooper classic songs to the set. On some we do our own versions of them, others are done very faithfully to the original. That depends on the song and the mood we're in. That's the same thing we do with songs from "Bones From The Yard." Some we re-create live to mirror the recording. On others, we take a lot of liberty and approach them with a whole new style.
Dave: Have you given any thought to a follow-up record?
DENNIS: Yeah, we're working on it now. We've written five or six songs already. As always, I plan on making this my masterpiece. But I say that every time out. The good thing is that we'll go into the studio as a unit. "Bones From The Yard" was halfway through before it had a full-band feel as opposed to back-up guys and a solo guy.
Dave: What's the status of your autobiography?
DENNIS: The "unauthorized autobiography" is very near completion. One of the setbacks was getting so involved with recording "Bones From The Yard." I'm a "live in the now" kind of person instead of "live in the past." Also, I'm writing it myself and going into it I wasn't really a writer. As the book progressed and I studied writing and reading other material, I became more proficient at writing. I kept going back to the beginning and revising. What's also taken time is that I'm trying to be as true as I possibly can to the personalities of everybody from the original Alice Cooper Group. I want everybody's flaws and everybody's talents to show. I want the readers to feel like they are actually in the station wagon and in the hotel room. I want them to feel like they are backstage and onstage with the band. I don't put the emphasis on the different cities and shows so I take a little bit of liberty here and there. My main thing is giving the reader a true insight into the personalities of the guys in the band. Despite the friction, those very different personalities had similarities that allowed everybody to work together and complement each other. The friction was a good part of it and what drove the band to higher achievement.
Dave: I recently interviewed Damon Johnson, who has played lead guitar for three years in Alice Cooper's band. He went on and on about the Xmas Pudding show in Arizona in December 2006, calling it one of the honors of his life. That show saw Alice backed by you, Michael Bruce, Neal Smith, and Damon, who filled in for the late great Glen Buxton. Share your thoughts on that performance.
DENNIS: Damon's a good guy, and he was a great choice filling in for Glen. He did it with a lot of respect, and he wasn't afraid to incorporate his own playing style when it was necessary. Nobody could play like Glen, I don't care who you are.. I've heard people kind of sound like Jimi Hendrix, but I never heard anybody sound like Glen. He had a fiery temperament with a sound comparable to an angry hornet! That concert was great; it was a wonderful night. We were together again backstage for six hours, doing press and talking to all the other musicians. The show backstage was practically as good a show as the people got out front. When we got up onstage, from the first note, there was something about hearing the people that made the recordings play the songs. It was just right and the sound was the way it should be. Glen wasn't there and that's an element that was surely missed. Alice's vocals were great, Michael sounded great, and Neal always sounds good. Those songs sounded just the way we played them the hundreds and hundreds of times in the 70's.
Dave: I never saw that original lineup in concert, but I wore out many copies of "Killer," "School's Out," and "Billion Dollar Babies." Damon and I share an opinion that there have been bands where the individual musicians are better technically, but your lineup had a groove and pocket that not too many groups can duplicate.
DENNIS: We tried harder I think. All of our waking hours were spent working together on music or on concepts. We'd be in airplanes and restaurants talking about the show. I'd wake up in the middle of the night and write a song from a dream. "Killer" was written that way. My new band has some of those elements as well except it has to do with experience and built-in knowledge. But you still have to overcome that. It can become an obstacle when you've played all these years and you've come up with something that works well. You tend to use that again. I try to break down those barriers and make everybody add a new twist. It's a lot of extra work to do things like that. If you don't keep pushing at all times then you're not going to be different. Coming up with something new and being different is what it's all about.
Dave: On a personal note Dennis, thanks for the song "On The Mountain." As somebody fighting drug addiction, it's great to hear a song about the tragedy of drugs instead of the glorification.
DENNIS: More power to you and hang in there. Personally, I've always been a bit more on the conservative side. I was around plenty of wonderful people who I saw go down. Addiction is a grip that changes people forever. Coming back from it and being able to survive is something you've got to do. Life is worth living, and you don't need drugs to write good songs or play good music. Life does that for you. Just seeing the smiles on your kids' faces when you do things together is what it's all about. When drugs are in the picture, your priorities are different.
Dave: Is there anything else you'd like to promote or are there any other aspects of the record that I neglected to cover that you'd like to talk about?
DENNIS: My daughter Renee designed the album cover and all of the packaging for "Bones From The Yard." We told her how we wanted a mysterious feel and something reflective of the record's title. What she came up with was unbelievable. She also designs the stuff for her own band, Jetsetter, who just released a new record titled "VasoVerga." Fans can check them out on MySpace or at www.gojetsetter.com I'd also like to plug www.guitarhangar.com, which is Rick Tedesco's online guitar sales company in Brookfield, Connecticut. They sell mint guitars, rare guitars, and all kinds of cool stuff.