Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper and Joe Perry: backstage with the Hollywood Vampires

Johnny Depp never wanted to be an actor – the film star’s teenage dream was to make it big in a band. And now, with Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, he has. Will Hodgkinson meets the Hollywood Vampires

In the centre of Copenhagen on a balmy Saturday night, 20,000 people have crammed into the Tivoli Gardens for a concert by the Hollywood Vampires. The young crowd in this toffee-apple-bright, 19th-century amusement park are losing themselves to what is essentially a very good bar band, playing Break On Through (To the Other Side) by the Doors, Baba O’Riley by the Who, Ace of Spades by Motörhead … One classic after another from the golden age of rock.

Alice Cooper, the 70-year-old teetotal golf enthusiast born Vincent Furnier of Detroit, Michigan, who once terrified parents everywhere with a vaudeville horror routine involving mock executions, chopped-up bloodied dolls and live chickens chucked into the crowd, growls through that perennial favourite of naughty kids everywhere, School’s Out. There is a roar of approval when Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 67, a man whose former heroin habit once saw him actually die for a few seconds in the late Seventies, hits the massive riff to Aerosmith’s anthemic Sweet Emotion. The biggest roar of all, however, comes when a second guitarist, in a headband, white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a black waistcoat, steps out of the shadows to sing “Heroes” by David Bowie. Perhaps it’s not surprising. The second guitarist is Johnny Depp, after all.

“That song has been so relevant to me,” says Depp the following afternoon, which turns out to be his 55th birthday. He talks in a quiet, slow, low burr of indeterminate origin, a bit British, a bit like Marlon Brando. “Especially over the past few years.”

Getting to interview the Hollywood Vampires has not been easy, and that is because of events in Depp’s life over those past few years. These include allegations of drunkenness and cruelty (which he denied) from former wife Amber Heard, although a $7 million divorce settlement proved remarkably effective in making them disappear (she formally withdrew the allegations); bizarre tales of outrageous profligacy, such as buying a French village, shooting the writer Hunter S Thompson’s ashes into space and a $30,000 monthly wine bill; and then, a week before the Tivoli gig, a photograph of Depp looking gaunt and ashen in a Russian fan selfie, bringing rumours of a deadly illness or – worse – of him losing his looks.

I’m under strict instructions not to bring up any of the above, not least because a few days before we meet a German journalist did just that, resulting in all future press being cancelled and panic among the large Depp camp. Somehow, though, I’ve slipped through the net. Perhaps it’s because I like the band, or perhaps it’s because I can see Depp for what he is: a sweet, shy, slightly lost guy who became one of the most charismatic Hollywood stars of modern times when all he ever really wanted to be was one of the boys in the band.

“I never left music. I never stopped playing,” says Depp, looking not gaunt and ashen but, with eyeliner, a mohawk and countless tattoos on muscular arms, like the kind of middle-aged man whose vision of heaven would be sitting on a porch with Keith Richards, strumming his way through Wild Horses, a bottle of Jack Daniel’s within swigging distance. “But I gained a certain amount of success in another field, which is still a mystery to me. When I first went to Los Angeles with my band we drove across country in a rented van, breaking down along the way, searching for the almighty record deal. It was my life. Then the acting thing started to happen, the band broke up, and I got a job [on cop show 21 Jump Street] where they were going to pay me $1,200 a week. The first thing I did was call my mom and say, ‘Hey, you can quit your job.’ ”

Depp is sitting with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry in a hotel lounge, all dressed in black, all weighed down by enough chains, rings, trinkets and necklaces to fill the kind of treasure chest Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean gets into all kinds of scrapes to find. The interview was meant to start two hours earlier, but none of the assistants, tour managers and men of unclear role hanging around outside and (despite protestations) inside the room seemed capable of going up to Depp’s hotel room, knocking on the door and telling him to get a move on. Eventually, he came down anyway and now here we are, with two music legends and one actor, enthusing about the rock’n’roll fantasy world they have created.

I never left music. But I gained a certain amount of success in another field, which is still a mystery to me

It was Alice Cooper’s idea. The original Hollywood Vampires was an early Seventies drinking group that met at a dive on Sunset Strip, Los Angeles, called the Rainbow Bar and Grill, where in a private upstairs room the rock stars of the day would escape the pressures of fame to swap tales of debauchery, flirt with a no-nonsense, gum-chewing, peroxide blonde waitress called Schatzi and drink each other under the table.

“All we did was drink, and people only saw us at night, so naturally we became the Hollywood Vampires,” says Cooper, who still looks like the cadaverous folk devil of Seventies tabloid fascination, despite being very personable and surprisingly punctual. “Keith Moon would walk in dressed as the Queen of England one night and Hitler the next. Harry Nilsson was there, arguing with John Lennon. John could be very funny, but if he was in one of his ‘I’m going to change the world’ moods, forget it. The more he drank, the worse it got.”

As fun as this was, Cooper did notice a problem: people kept dying. “The fact that Jim Morrison of the Doors even got to 27 was a miracle. I would get high with Jimi Hendrix, and I would look at Janis Joplin and Brian Jones, and see how the music business wanted them to be creative and do something nobody had seen before, but they all went out at 27. You learn from that. Jim Morrison is dead because he tried to be Jim Morrison all the time. I would be dead too if I tried to be Alice Cooper all the time. Once I got sober I realised that art is illusion. It is stuff we create. It is not reality. Now I can go shopping, I can play golf, I can go to the cinema if I want to, and it is more fun to play the character than be the character.”

Alice Cooper can also ask world-famous actors to join his band, as he did in June 2011 on the Pinewood set of Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s gothic comedy horror starring Johnny Depp as an aristocrat cursed with the immortal life of a vampire. Cooper was there to make a cameo in the film and he had a gig at the 100 Club, London, the same night, so he asked Depp, who he had heard could play guitar, if he wanted to come on stage for a few songs. Mutual friend Joe Perry got wind of it soon after and in September 2015 the Hollywood Vampires made their debut at LA’s Roxy, a tiny venue next door to the Rainbow Bar and Grill. The surprise at that concert, which featured guest spots from Marilyn Manson, Kesha and other assorted rock types, was how much Johnny Depp held back. He could clearly play, but he didn’t want to be the main attraction. He wanted to be the cool, Keith Richards-like guitarist, jamming with his buddies while the lead singer pranced about the front of stage.

Depp’s teenage band, the Kids, didn’t get anywhere in LA. But after Depp started making a name for himself as an actor, record companies that wouldn’t previously give them the time of day came out of the woodwork. “Mate, I was livid,” says Depp, who has a way of making steady eye contact that is strangely calming; more disarming than intimidating. “One record company guy saw us and said, ‘Really like the band. Just dump everybody and make the guitarist the lead singer,’ meaning me. I didn’t sing. I still don’t sing. I never wanted to be the frontman. I wanted to be the guy who stands just away from the lights.”

It was Alice Cooper who convinced Depp to take centre stage for “Heroes”, having told him that he had heard him in another Tim Burton film, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and knew he could hold a tune if he had to.

“We’ve seen all his movies …” Cooper begins.

“I haven’t,” Depp interjects.

“But really,” Cooper continues, “we think of him as a guitar player. Do you think me and Joe Perry are going to get on stage with a guy who can’t play? That’s your proof of his ability, right there.”

“I visited him on the set of Black Mass,” says Perry in a lackadaisical Boston drawl, citing the 2015 film starring Depp as the gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. “I was inhis trailer the whole time and I never saw him without a guitar. I’ll go to his house and I’ll never meet another actor; it’s all musicians. I see people as energy, and when Johnny is on stage his energy is complete. He’s doing what he always wanted to do.”

Nonetheless, Johnny Depp remains swamped by celebrity. When he performed “Heroes” at the Tivoli, the screams from the crowd made it almost impossible to hear whether he could sing or not. Bowie’s art-rock epic about two lovers meeting at the Berlin Wall is uplifting and emotional and needs space to breathe. For Depp to be drowned out was, presumably, as frustrating for him as it was for us, the non-screaming members of the audience.

Do too many movies and you’re more comfortable in front of a camera than you are in life

“A strange thing happens when you do too many movies,” says Depp, flouting the smoking ban with a roll-up cigarette hanging permanently from the corner of his mouth, which proves that being a celebrity does come with benefits. “People get to know who you are, which is a real trip and I’m still not used to it. Then you get more comfortable in front of a camera than you do in life. If I’m in character I can do anything. I can make a complete ass of myself, as I have done many times – and get paid for it.”

“You can have a sword fight,” offers Joe Perry.

“And be taught by the guy who taught Errol Flynn. I don’t want to be one of those whiny, complaining actors … Shit, I don’t even know if I am an actor, I never made that decision … But the acting life makes the normal life harder.”

It seems Johnny Depp has three lives: as an actor, as a rocker and as a person. It is reconciling the three that proves difficult.

“In a band you have to establish a character the way you do in a film, and if you don’t grab them immediately you’re dead,” he says. “And it hits me now: when I’m with the band, people are looking at me as the actor guy. It’s a novelty. Occasionally, I’m playing guitar and I’ll think: what the f*** are you doing? You’re Edward Scissorhands. You’re Whitey Bulger. You’re the Mad Hatter. You’re everything different from what you are on stage.”

You wonder if Depp takes the method acting approach to being in a band, although most bands don’t have a private jet in which to zip off to gigs. He looks and sounds the part, and clearly has a love for this kind of music. He reveals how, playing a Gypsy guitarist in Chocolat back in 2000, he spent hours mastering the famously difficult style of three-fingered Roma jazz virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Playing a role as an actor or a musician must, to some extent, eat into his reality. It probably helps explain why the past few years have been so chaotic.

“The concept of being a ‘serious actor’ is the biggest oxymoron going. I still can’t take acting seriously, but a bit of method is a useful thing,” he says. “I’ll never be the guy who plays Henry VIII and grabs a giant turkey leg while ignoring the packet of Doritos on the table, but I do jump in and out of character. At the end of a production there is always a period of depression, because I’m a shy person in life and in character I can be anything. There was great safety in playing Edward Scissorhands because he has innocence and purity. I based him on a dog I had. Captain Jack is a combination of Pepé Le Pew and Keith Richards, with a bit of Wile E Coyote from Road Runner. I love it that Wile E Coyote can get thumped by a giant boulder, and then you cut to the next scene and he has a little bump on his head. He never gives up. And he never wins.”

Now there is the question of how far Depp, Alice Cooper and Joe Perry will go with the Hollywood Vampires. All three are busy men. And it isn’t easy to get them in the same place at once.

“There’s a huge difference between Aerosmith and the Hollywood Vampires,” says Perry, the Keith Richards to Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s Mick Jagger, and with an equally fractious relationship to match. “We have a Japanese guy who comes to every Aerosmith show. He’s the only guy I know who ever went up to Steven and said, ‘Mr Tyler, your heart wasn’t in it tonight.’ Steven was f***ing flabbergasted.” Perry’s perennial gloom breaks out into what is almost a smile at the memory. “The same guy said to me, after a Hollywood Vampires show, ‘You’re playing things you couldn’t play in Aerosmith.’ It’s true. It’s a lot looser.”

“My normal show is set in cement,” says Cooper, whose concerts generally end with his head being chopped off by a guillotine. “Alice never talks to the audience because Alice is not human. I don’t want them to relate to him. I don’t want them to like him. That’s why, when we do “Heroes” with the Hollywood Vampires, Alice can’t sing it. David Bowie was the hero. I’m the villain.”

David Bowie went to Alice Cooper’s first London show in 1971 and picked up a few tips for what would become Ziggy Stardust. “People wanted a feud between us, but it didn’t exist. We were both doing rock theatre, but he was creating a new movement in rock’n’roll and we were putting that theatre on top of hits like [I’m] Eighteen and School’s Out.”

Depp doesn’t have a main band to take him away from the Hollywood Vampires, although he does have what he refers to as the “day job”. He’s been increasingly taking on songwriting duties for original material on a forthcoming second album. One of his tracks, I Want My Now, is inspired by his friendship with Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, who spent 15 years in a British prison after being wrongly convicted of an IRA pub bombing, which illustrates how Depp’s fame has enabled him to engage with people with stories to tell. His original impetus for joining the group was to rediscover the camaraderie you get in band life, something he’d lost on his way to movie stardom.

“The Hollywood Vampires was never meant to be a supergroup,” says Depp. “It was, ‘Let’s be a bar band. Let’s do these songs by people we admire.’ It’s an opportunity to turn young people on to, say, 7 and 7 Is by [Sixties LA folk rockers] Love.”

Where, then, is rock’n’roll going, if it is left to men in their fifties, sixties and seventies to soundtrack teenage rebellion?

“It’s a classic form of music now,” says Joe Perry with a shrug of resignation. “There are so many great songs out there, sometimes I wonder, why bother writing new ones? We’re a garage band. Johnny’s studio is in a garage, actually.”

“My pet peeve is that young bands are so introverted,” says Cooper. “They want to look like everyone in the mall. They don’t want to scare anyone. They sing about things that are safe. Where’s the swagger? Where’s the sex? Rock stars are meant to get out there and shake their butt. You should think: man, this is fun. I will never be this age again. I look good, I sound good, the girls are crazy about me. I tell young bands: don’t tell me about politics or pollution. Tell me about your girlfriend. Rock’n’roll is an attitude. It is as close to a biker band as anything. For our generation, that’s what it was all about.”

All three “principals” in the Hollywood Vampires, as tour management lingo has them, have kids in bands. Johnny Depp’s 16-year-old son, Jack, has a band called Clown Boner. “It is one of my proudest moments,” says his father. Joe Perry’s sons Adrian and Tony were in an outfit called TAB the Band. “They put out great records and shit, but they didn’t stick with it and one of them went off to be a lawyer,” he says, heavy with parental disappointment. Alice Cooper’s son Dash has a heavy rock outfit called Co-Op. “They’re good. They just had a No 5 hit in the US.”

When our time comes to an end, Johnny Depp doesn’t want to stop talking. He tells me he has discovered the joy of Jack Daniel’s and cola in a can. “You can get it from the 7-11,” he enthuses. But there is a photoshoot to get through and a birthday party to prepare for, which Depp says he is not looking forward to. “I am as old as Methuselah,” he proclaims, although he actually has a way to go: that biblical patriarch died at the age of 969. Before they are whisked away by a small army of employees I ask these three no longer young men, each of them so clearly in love with the spirit of rock’n’roll, if they were president for a day, what would they do?

“I would triple the teachers’ salaries,” says Alice Cooper. “I would get a key to Area 51,” says Joe Perry, referring to the classified air force base in the Nevada desert. “Who killed the Kennedys? I’d see the real shit. Everything would work after that.”

“I would do the exact opposite to what the majority of presidents have done,” says Johnny Depp. “Mostly, though, I would sit in a room and think.”

He thinks about this for a moment.

“I would think quite a lot.”

By The Times