Interview by SickthingsUK, September 2015
Ken Mary should be a familiar name to any Alice fan. The powerhouse behind the 'Nightmare Returns' comeback tour and the 'Raise Your Fist And Yell' album/tour Ken's career has included stints with 'Fifth Angel', 'Chastain', 'Accept', and 'House Of Lords' as well as his own 'Soul Shock Remedy' project. Currently Ken is a sought-after producer with his own SonicPhish studios and is also working on a 'Drumming Hall Of Fame' movie. There's even the possibility of a new band in the future! Read on...
SickthingUK: Hi Ken! Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. Maybe we can start at the beginning. You started drumming while still in high school in Seattle, WA. What drew you to the drums?
Ken Mary: Hi Si, thank you for asking and great job with your site! I actually began drumming at age 12, but I knew by the time I was 6 that I wanted to play drums. I was always banging around in the classrooms with pencils and pens, and it actually got me in trouble a few times. When I finally got to the grade where they asked each student if they wanted to play an instrument, there was not a second of hesitation. I knew I wanted to play drums. So that’s where it actually started. I think it was something inside me just waiting for an opportunity to be expressed.
STUK: 'Fifth Angel' was your high school band, but just as they were being noticed you got the Alice Cooper gig. Was it hard to take the job with your own band just signed and on the rise?
Ken Mary: Well, I think it was a little bit of a difficult decision, but it was such an amazing opportunity. Alice even then was a complete legend and of course everyone knew he would be a future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer as well. Although initially no one in Alice’s camp was really sure about whether the tours would be a success, it certainly seemed like the right time for Alice to make a comeback. And I believe those were some of the most successful tours of his career, other than the early tours in the 70’s.
STUK:How did the AC gig come about?
Ken Mary: I was playing the Whiskey a Go-Go, which is a very famous club in LA. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s it was one of THE places to play in LA. Everyone from The Doors and Led Zeppelin, to Van Halen and Motley Crue played there. I was doing some touring with a guitarist named Randy Hansen (amazing player BTW who does a Jimi Hendrix tribute) in the summer of 1986. Some people that were working with Alice’s management company saw me play at that show and asked if I would be interested in auditioning for Alice’s new band.
STUK:You've said you were a huge Kiss fan; how aware were you of Alice Cooper before joining the band? Did you ever see Alice live before joining the band?
Ken Mary: Well, I was too young to have seen Alice the first time or really know too much of his material, but of course I knew the classics and the hits. They were continually played on radio well into the 80’s and even today. As a kid I loved the song “School’s Out” of course. I will say I became even more of a fan when we were working together; when I had a chance to really hear the whole of his material.
STUK:Do you think playing with Alice, and losing so much time working with Fifth Angel as a result, reduced the bands chances of taking it to the next level when Epic re-issued the first album?
Ken Mary: In retrospect, no. I think the opposite actually. I was working to promote Fifth Angel while I was on tour, and ended up doing many interviews in Europe and across the US for Fifth Angel that would most likely have never happened without the Alice tours. It was a bit of a give and take. I think also had Epic really “pushed the gas pedal” on the band that would have made the bigger difference. On the first album, they really sort of tossed it out there and didn’t really put a great deal of effort or promotion into it. They had us grouped in promotion with some very new bands that had less of a track record than us. When they saw that we actually sold fairy well, they were more interested in the second album; the second time around. But that’s a whole story in itself . . .
STUK:How did you approach playing such classic well known songs with the guy who co-wrote them? How much did you listen back to the original versions of songs and how much did that inform your playing choices?
Ken Mary: As you know, when I joined Alice the rock music scene had again changed. If you look at Alice’s career, he always keeps his music current. We knew this time around Alice was coming back with an attitude, so to speak. You know Kane Roberts, you know Alice . . . it’s really no surprise that the late 80’s version of the band was going to be powerful and dangerous. As a band, we did listen to the original versions very closely, and did our best to retain the heart and emotion of the songs, and at the same time inject new urgency and aggression into them.
STUK:The 'Raise Your Fist' band performed the classic songs in a very different way to previous Alice Cooper bands. Was this a deliberate change in style that Alice asked for, or just something that naturally came from the musicians in the band, especially Kane's distinctive style?
Ken Mary: Well certainly Alice and Shep Gordon (Alice’s manager) had full control over what was going on at all levels, so in that sense I would say it was very deliberate and intentional. At the same time, it was to some degree a result of the musicians that were selected to be in the band as well. There was a great deal of that power and aggression that came naturally from the style of the musicians selected to be in the band.
STUK:Are you aware of how the new 'metalized' approach to the songs continues to split fans opinions?
Ken Mary: I’m not really aware of it, but it seems kind of funny. If you like the other versions go listen to them. If you like the heavier versions, then go listen to those. (grin) For someone to be divisive over that seems weird to me. You are free to listen to whatever you want!
From Saint&Sinner: Did your line up of the band ever record any studio versions of your song arrangements?
Ken Mary: No, we didn’t. It would have been fun to do that, though, and I wish we would have. I’ve heard many of the live recordings from that era that are floating around, and some of them are quite good. Especially considering they are truly live with no overdubs or cleaning the tracks up.
From Tuneylune: How about your favorite Alice Cooper song you recorded on and why?
Ken Mary: I think “Freedom” or “Lock Me Up,” mainly because of the drum tracks. I like the feel and groove of those two songs.
From Daggers&Contracts: When you were recording "Roses On White Lace" did you recognize how special that song was?
Ken Mary: Well, we felt the whole album was special and I do believe all the musicians involved in that record felt honored to be a part of the album. As I mentioned earlier, Alice was already a legend then.
STUK: One of the very first shows was televised live on MTV on Halloween to be potentially seen by millions. That must have been both exciting and frightening?
Ken Mary: I was told the estimated TV audience was 20 million, and the performance was recorded at Joe Louis Arena, which was packed to capacity with 22,000 screaming fans. For me that was totally exciting and not frightening at all. I had been preparing my whole life for a moment like that. I had been on tour with Randy Hansen quite a bit (as I mentioned earlier) and I believe because of that I felt completely prepared physically and mentally for Alice’s tour. I will say that in hindsight, that was probably the most fun I ever had playing. That was a special time. There were bigger shows I have played, and certainly ones that were more important from a career perspective, but hands down that was the most fun.
From VinceRaven: Were there any songs you remember the band rehearsing that never made it to the live show, or any songs you really wished had been played live but weren’t?
Ken Mary: There were no songs I remember being cut, but I would probably have to speak with some of the other band members to verify that. For me, we played all of Alice’s hits and those were the songs I personally loved. And I had favorites to play live including Elected, 18, Welcome to my Nightmare, School’s Out, Under My Wheels, and Billion Dollar Babies. Also newer (at the time) songs like The World Needs Guts and Freedom were great, too.
STUK: As the Nightmare show was released on video soon after [as 'The Nightmare Returns'], do you ever go back and watch it again?
Ken Mary: I’ve seen some clips on Youtube and a friend sent me the DVD. It is fun to go back and watch, but it was quite a time ago and a very different me as well.
STUK: I have to mention that the 1986 tour was the first time I saw Alice Cooper live, seeing six of the UK shows and loving every minute of them. Was it as much fun as it seemed?
Ken Mary: Absolutely. The performances were always an incredible experience, and the guys that were in the band and Alice were great to work with. There was a staff members that will remain unmentioned that I do not have particularly fond memories of, but for the most part everyone within the organization from Alice to Shep and of course the band members were amazing to work with. And I do have to say that crowds from that era were simply the best ever. Go watch the footage. People were just there to have fun. Pure fun. And they did. Go and watch a concert today. IMO, I don’t think it’s even close.
STUK: Back then there seemed to be a bit of a separation between Alice and the band. How much did he interact with the band offstage?
Ken Mary: I think you may be referring to the stage set-up a bit to gather that impression? The band had risers and it was an elaborate stage set-up so everyone had their “space.” The drum riser was probably 7 feet in the air, so I can see why someone may feel like there was a “distance,” lol. Again, Alice was great to work with. He is a very down to earth person and very intelligent, and to my knowledge had no problem interacting with any of the band members. That being said, he was clean and sober, and some of us were young, dumb, and wanting to go out to the clubs and pubs. Alice would tend to go back to his hotel, and we would go hit the town. I’m not proud of it, but I have said in other interviews that yes, we did have a few nights of some strong drinking. (Again, please refer to the “young and dumb” statement above.)
STUK: The band was put together after 'Constrictor' was recorded, but was showcased on 'Raise Your Fist and Yell'. How was it working in the studio with Alice for the first time? How much input did you have into the songs you recorded?
Ken Mary: Working with Alice was an honor, and also it made you a little nervous because what you were recording would of course be there forever. We actually had a tremendous amount of input into our parts. Michael Wagener (Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Megadeth, Skid Row) was producing. He was really great to work with as well, and made the process a great deal of fun. To my recollection, I do not remember anyone changing any fills or recommending any changes as far as what I recorded, so I believe as individuals we had somewhat of a free hand to create what we wanted.
STUK: Side two of the original vinyl is held in very high regard by many fans. 'Prince Of Darkness' through to 'Roses On White Lace' seems to me to be the perfect example of the 'Metal Alice' and still stands out today. Do you think that the album is still overlooked due to the huge success of 'Trash' which followed it?
Ken Mary: That could be I suppose. Trash was huge as an album, but I do not believe those tours were as successful as the tours we had been on. I believe “Raise Your Fist” could certainly have done much better and some of that had to do with the record label MCA, IMHO. They didn’t have rock acts at the time, didn’t understand Alice, and made a bit of a mess of the marketing of that record. Seriously, we were playing sold out coliseums everywhere. Was there any other act out in that era selling that well live that did not have huge album sales to match? Again, just my opinion but it is interesting that Alice moves to a new label and then Trash does extremely well. That being said, I will say that the song “Poison” still stands today as an incredible songwriting masterpiece.
From Pitkin88: What did you think of the more commercial mainstream direction Alice took after you and that lineup left?
Ken Mary: I liked it. I really don’t personally have a problem with an artist changing and experimenting. Who wants to buy the same album over and over again? (Actually, I will bite my tongue on that. There are plenty of hugely successful bands that will remain unidentified that are putting out pretty much the same album over and over and people love it.) I think that is one of the great things about Alice. He is never afraid to go in a new direction, to take chances, to change and grow. Isn’t that what being an artist is all about?
STUK: Your time with Alice ended after the 'Live . . . In the Flesh' tour in 1988. As the whole band disbanded after the tour, how did you feel when Alice moved on without you?
Ken Mary: Most people know I left Alice’s lineup to join House of Lords. Did I know Alice would continue to be huge? Of course. We all did. Again, he was a legend even then. You remember Kip Winger went out on his own after the “Nightmare” tour, and I felt as well that being in more of a “band” situation was going to be my future. I totally loved my time in Alice’s band, and in retrospect it was the most fun I ever had touring. (Once you have your own band, you have to worry about expenses, ticket sales, where the album is on the charts, is my manager ripping me off, how much the road crew is costing us, is the band getting along, etc. etc.) It was a difficult decision to leave and I knew there may be consequences that would not be what I envisioned. At the same time, I wanted to try and make my own mark and was ready to take the risk.
From Old School Vet: Are you satisfied with your part in the Alice Cooper history? If not, what would you change?
Ken Mary: In terms of my history with Alice? It would have been nice if there was more footage, photos, and recordings from those tours. Nowadays with social networking, you sneeze and it’s on Youtube. I would definitely like to have had more of what is available these days in that regard. What would I change? That’s easy. I would change the hair and the clothes. I would have liked it better if in the 80’s we looked more like bands did in the 70’s, like Led Zeppelin. You go back and look at their photos and they still look cool, lol.
STUK: What would you say you took away from your time with Alice?
Ken Mary: I learned a great deal actually. 1) Have a great manager like Shep. Without someone like that, the music business is simply crazy and can eat you alive. 2) Showmanship is an integral part of the music business. It’s OK to entertain people AND play great music. 3) Be kind to everyone. 4) Have some fun and don’t have a bad attitude. 5) Maintain a good sense of humor. (Alice is one of the wittiest guys ever. Just listen to some of his interviews.)
STUK: While on the road with Alice AND having Fifth Angel taking off, you were also playing with David T. Chastain, playing on five albums between 1986 and 1989. How did that come about?
Ken Mary: Mike Varney asked me to play on one of David’s records, and we ended up working well together so we continued that recording relationship. David is a very serious musician, but also a very nice guy to work with and very down to earth. I very much enjoyed working with him as well.
STUK: Did you ever have the time to play live with Chastain?
Ken Mary: Unfortunately, I did not. That would have been fun, though!
STUK: You went straight from Alice into 'House Of Lords' with Angel keyboardist Gregg Giuffria and future Alice bassist Chuck Wright. How did that come together?
Ken Mary: Gene Simmons was working with Gregg to put together a “supergroup.” Gregg and Chuck saw me perform with Alice Cooper at Long Beach Arena in LA, and really wanted to get me in the band that was forming. I auditioned along with some other major players, Matt Sorum being one of them. I always joke that I ended up in HOL and he ended up in Guns and Roses. Who got the better end of that deal? lol
STUK: Working on the first 'House Of Lords' album also brought you into contact with Gene Simmons (the album was released on Simmons' record label and he was executive producer). How was it working with a guy you had been such a fan of in your youth?
Ken Mary: Interestingly enough, all the financing and personnel were RCA, but Gene played a very important role in the development of the band. Working with Gene was incredible. As you mention, when I was a kid I was a huge Kiss fan. I used to joke with Gene that he owed me money from all the posters and albums I bought over the years. To get the opportunity to hang out with Gene, gain some of his knowledge, and have him do his best to ensure our success was awesome. I always liked Gene, and in my dealings with him he was always honest and a good business partner.
From Kyle Wolfe: What do you remember about writing and recording the classic intro to 'Pleasure Palace', which is mostly Gregg Giuffria on keyboards and you on the drums complementing each other very well?
Ken Mary: I remember working the parts up in the rehearsal studio and recording the tracks for that for what we thought would be the demos. We recorded at Track Record in LA and the recording went together very quickly. Since we had all done a great deal of recording in other bands, House of Lords was ridiculously, insanely fast in the studio. We would get great tracks in one or two takes. Gregg and I just worked to create a soundscape where the drums and keys did compliment and also support each other. It was very natural, and we really didn’t need to put a bunch of thought into it. It just flowed out.
STUK: The band had substantial success, but never seemed to quite manage to break through to that next level. You left after second album 'Sahara'. Why?
Ken Mary: I just really felt like it was time to move on. There were some weird things going on with the finances (and just for the record, Gene and the band itself was not involved) and I was not happy with where the band was headed. When you look at what happened with the 3rd album musically and even business wise, I feel like I definitely made the right choice as well.
STUK: The band reformed in 2000 but it took four years before 'The Power And The Myth' was released, and that was without one of the band’s founders Giuffria. The band was very much perceived as Giuffria's band. How was it trying to move forward without him?
Ken Mary: Well, it would have been nice to have Gregg involved as he was a founding member and a very important one at that. I did speak with him and he was going to come down to my studio and do some keyboard tracks, but I think his businesses had so much going on that we were never able to get the schedules to line up. Moving forward was fine, although if everyone had their choice Gregg would have been involved as well. I think many bands do not recognize the chemistry that was created at the height of a bands career. There is something special about the members and the chemistry between all the musicians, and it really takes everyone to draw that together. I think that album is a good example of that.
STUK: Between the split and reformation of 'House of Lords' you worked extensively with Chris Impellitteri. How did that come about?
Ken Mary: Chris and I had worked together for years on recordings, I think since the late 80’s. Originally Chuck Wright had played on some earlier albums and suggested that Chris get me to play on his next record. Again, Chris, Chuck and I worked very well together so I ended up playing on a great many of Chris’s records.
STUK: You toured for a while with German band Accept? How did that come about, and how did you find working with them?
Ken Mary: Ah, Accept. Great guys. Peter and Wolf are awesome. Stephen (the original drummer) had some back problems that required him to leave the tour. At the time, Accept and House of Lords had the same manager, so they asked if I would be interested in doing the tour and filling in for Stephen. It was a great many songs to learn in a day or two, but I managed to get it together and we continued the tour. Working with them was great, and we are all still friends. Peter and I did some recording on Don Dokken’s record “Up From the Ashes” as well. Anyway, I saw Peter and Wolf at NAMM this year (2015) and we went out to breakfast. Same great guys as always! And they have a great sense of humor . . .
STUK: Around 1992 I understand you were forced to step away from touring due to back issues. That must have been a low period to realized you couldn`t continue?
Ken Mary: Yes, that was a very low period for sure. Even recording drums at times was painful. I would get up from playing drums and have intense shooting pain down my left leg. There were other reasons as well, but that was certainly a major one.
STUK: On a not so serious note, you stood in for Stefan Kaufmann in Accept, who was out suffering lower back problems, and then after you played with them you also started to suffer the same thing. Is Accept bad for your back or was it simply pushing your body too hard for so long?
Ken Mary: Ha, ha. Yes, it’s all Accept’s fault! No, it was just years and years of playing without back support and playing really, really hard. Most drummers that have performed for long periods of time develop back problems, although with some of the newer equipment you are much less likely to have issues.
STUK: Did you have to have treatment or operations?
Ken Mary: I went through physical therapy which helped a tremendous amount. I also now use the Roc-N-Soc motion throne (BTW I do not endorse them I just love their product) which has totally solved the problem. It’s a little weird to get used to as it moves around a bit while you are playing, but it keeps pressure on your back from being focused in one area. I highly recommend it for all drummers. It allows me to play everyday now without pain or problems.
STUK: You returned with a new project, 'Soul Shock Remedy' but as a singer, presumably because of you back issues. Why did you change the spelling of your surname to "Mari" on the album or was it an error?
Ken Mary: Wow, you really did your homework!! There were a couple of reasons for Soul Shock Remedy. I wanted to have more of an expression in the music, and writing lyrics and singing was a great outlet. The back issues certainly played a part in that decision as well. As far as Mari, I was just trying to get some separation from my previous career, and have people accept the band for the music and not who I was or my background. Of course, that did not work out well because everyone knew it was me anyway, lol.
STUK: 'Soul Shock Remedy' folded after just one album and you are quoted as saying you would "never do that again, and I didn't". Was it the combination of back issues, and stress of running a band that forced you into production, or was it something you had been interested in all along?
Ken Mary: I always loved production, and had the opportunity to work alongside some of the greatest producers and engineers in music history. Here’s just a few: Michael Wagener (Ozzy Osbourne, Metallica, Megadeth, Extreme, etc. etc.), Andy Johns (Led Zeppelin, Van Halen), Mac (Queen), Howard Benson (Daughtry, Creed, My Chemical Romance), Garth Richardson (Rage Against the Machine, Trapt). Production was always a major love of mine, and I was interested all the way back in Fifth Angel, for which I played a part in co-producing along with the band.
STUK: Did you build the SonicPhish studio from scratch, and where did the name come from?
Ken Mary: Originally it was “Big Fish” recording, as in “big fish in a small pond.” The name was kind of a joke actually. I had moved to Phoenix from LA, and it was a bit of a wasteland out here. Now Phoenix is the 5th largest city in the US, and has a decent music and recording scene. The name eventually morphed into SonicPhish. I really don’t remember how, but as the years went by I thought Big Fish sounded kind of “amateurish.” I did start the studio from scratch, really as far back as Alice’s The Nightmare Returns tour. I started with a 4 track recorder and sequencing keyboard I took to my room in each city to write with. Then later it grew into an Akai 12 track, then Adats and then an SSL and Protools HD. Originally it was going to just be for my projects, but I started producing for some friends and they ended up getting record deals, so it developed very naturally.
STUK: Do you get the same buzz from working on a great song in the studio as you did playing live?
Ken Mary: It’s a different buzz. Live is so immediate. There is nothing like that. It is a huge adrenaline rush that is (I would think) almost impossible to duplicate. Working in the studio is amazing too, though. The process, the comradery, the chemistry, and creating something tangible from just an idea in your head is one of the great gifts. It’s like making a painting. And when you think about it, what would life be like without music or art? The world of production is amazing and I do love it.
STUK: Recently you've been playing again, thanks in part to a 'Roc-n-Soc motion throne', a drum stool which helps alleviate back problems. It must have been good to be able to play when you wanted without the pain.
Ken Mary: Again, wow, you really do your homework! Yes, I really can’t describe how amazing it is. And I feel so much healthier and in shape playing drums all the time again. It works an amazing amount of muscles, and when I sit down and play it’s like going out and jogging. I always work up a sweat. And I love it. It’s great getting back to something that is so core to my being.
STUK: Moving to the present, it was fun watching the Drummerworld video you did recently, especially seeing that you still seem to love throwing in the stick twirling whenever there is space! It made me wonder... Have you ever thrown a stick in the air live, missed the catch, and realized you'd run out of sticks?
Ken Mary: Thanks a good question! No, I have not ever run out of sticks. But I did have something funny happen on the second Alice tour. During that tour the stick tosses were getting quite high, sometimes over 15 feet. Once I tossed a drumstick into the air and it got stuck in the lighting truss that was way above my head. So I’m waiting for the thing to come back down and it never did. My tech saw it and was laughing as well. I’m not sure if anyone in the audience saw it, but I was laughing pretty hard.
STUK: You're hosting a new film called 'The Drumming Hall of Fame' that is currently in production. Could you tell us how you got involved and more about the movie?
Ken Mary: Yes, a drummer friend of mine (that is also a double Emmy Award winning producer) and I had lunch, and we were talking about working on projects that we wanted to do, as opposed to something we were getting hired to do. We both are at a point in our careers where we can do a little bit to give back and put something together that we are doing for the love of the art, as opposed to money. We tossed around many ideas, and the Drumming Hall of Fame idea sort of stuck as it is something we both care deeply about. He asked if I would host it. Usually films like this are hosted by someone that does not have an extensive background in what the film is about, so we felt like this could be interesting. My experience could give the film a way to really have an insider’s view and at the same time bring the information to the public in a way that non-drummers will love it as well.
STUK: During the production, you are presumably meeting many drummers who have influenced or inspired you over the years. Do you still get a little 'starstruck'?
Ken Mary: Absolutely. These drummers have influenced generations of players and are all amazing in different ways. Many of them have influenced me as well. So it is a tremendous honor to be able to sit down and chat. It is our goal to show everyone at their best, and we will work diligently to cement their place in music history. I also have the responsibility to ask questions that other drummers would like to ask but do not have the opportunity to.
STUK: Is there anyone you wanted for the film but couldn`t get (so far)?
Ken Mary: Yes, Alex Van Halen, Dave Weckl, and Neil Pert are all on tour, so their time as you know gets a little cramped. Having an hour or two to sit down for a film while you are on the road can be very difficult. We hope to get them soon. We also may have to produce more than one film, just as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has new inductees every year. There are so many talented, influential, and amazing players there is no way to include them all in one film. We figure the first go round will be 10-12 players.
STUK: I know other drummers always ask this so what gear/setup are you using nowadays, and how does it compare to what you were using back in the late 80s?
Ken Mary: I am actually using whatever I feel like using at the moment. I still have my Yamaha kit, and a 1968 Ludwig that I play on a great deal. I have some Zildjian, Sabian, and Paiste cymbals I use, and DW 9000 pedals. I sold some kits back in the day I really wish I had held onto, but that’s another subject! I am looking at newer kits, and the new gear is great, but the gear we used in the late 80’s was great, too. I don’t see huge differences actually. The high end kits are all still amazing, and the gear I used to tour with was incredible as well. Those kits took an incredible beating and held up very well. I think one of the differences now is you have so many more drum lines from the drum companies. They have so many different levels of gear in different price ranges. That is something quite different from the 80’s and early 90’s. They did not tend to have the lower entry level lines they have today.
STUK: Apart from your studio and the film, do you have any band projects we should watch for?
Ken Mary: Not yet, but I am toying with the idea of doing something band wise again. I’ll keep you posted for sure!!
STUK: Finally, and I ask everyone this, do you have any last words for all the fans reading this?
Ken Mary: Yes! Thank you so much for your support over the years. I truly mean this. The music business is not an easy business. The people that love the music as much as we do is what this is all really about. It’s not about us. It’s about you, the people that appreciate our music. Without you we cannot do any of this, so again, thank you so much!!!
A huge thank you to Ken for taking the time to answer our questions! Make sure you check out the link to Ken's official site below, as well as keeping up to date with him on social media at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and following the progress of the 'Drumming Hall Of Fame' movie.