Nita Strauss - Autumn 2018
1986 was a really important year for rock music. Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, Van Halen’s 5150, Europe’s Final Countdown and Billy Idol’s Whiplash Smile were all releases that became staples within the library of any self-respecting
rocker. It was also the year one of the most exciting and important guitar icons of the 21st century made her first attention grabbing squeal. Born on 7th December of that year, guitarist Nita Strauss would eventually fall in love with the instrument
as a teenager after watching Crossroads, the film starring virtuoso Steve Vai – interestingly also released in 1986 - where he plays the part the devil in the movies duelling guitar finale. From that point she never looked back. Nita committed
herself to mastering the guitar and her unstoppable devotion ensured she never deviated from the path. This passion would enable her to build a CV which includes playing in bands such as The Iron Maidens, Femme Fatale and We Start Wars, but it’s as
part of Alice Cooper’s touring band that she is perhaps best known. Nita is now one of the most respected, technically proficient and overall mesmerising artists in rock today. It’s with huge excitement that we catch up with Nita in Wichita, Kansas
on the latest leg of Alice Cooper’s Paranormal tour. Despite being perhaps one of the busiest artists in rock, and after a day of taking care of business, she looks surprisingly fresh. The imminent release of her debut album Controlled Chaos provides
a heartening display of excitement and we are here to hear how the whole project came together.
I would like to come straight on to the music and your forthcoming solo album Controlled Chaos. It’s due for release on 16th November but we have already been teased with 2 tracks: Pandemonium and Our Most Desperate Hour. This promises to be an absolutely incredible record. But it’s the latter tracked I would just like to take a moment to focus on. Our Most Desperate Hour in my view is perhaps the most perfectly balanced instrumental track. To explain what I mean we have skill, flare, gorgeous harmony lines, key changes and all this against the backdrop of the most beautiful melody. Fans can sing along to it. Overall this suggests that this is an album not just for guitarists but for all rock fans. So the first question I would like to ask is what was your vision for this album?
Well it was exactly that! I wanted to make an album that could sort of be a gateway for the average rock or metal fan that might not pick up an instrumental album, listen to it and say ‘Hey, I kinda like this!’ And hopefully will lead them to the masterpieces from like Vai and Satriani, Marti Friedman and Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker and Tony MacAlpine, and all the incredible guitar heroes who paved the way for this. The average rock fan might not pick up a Paul Gilbert album. They might not want something without singing on it and I hope the exposure I can bring with the bands I have played in that I can bring it to a whole new audience.
You’ve been part of the Alice Cooper band for many years now and Alice’s touring band has been stable for number of years. In fact many of Alice’s fans now consider this band to be the real classic line-up. In short, these are the musicians the fans want to see! Were you disappointed not to have been part of Alice Cooper’s latest album Paranormal ?
The Paranormal album, of course I would have loved to have played on it but I’m so grateful that I am on the latest live album, A Paranormal Evening At The Olympia, which was actually recorded and filmed on my birthday in Paris, and I can’t really ask for more than that – to be a part of the touring band and get to perform these songs live is just an honour in and of itself. That being said, if they ever did decide to call me to play on a studio album I’d be thrilled.
You will shortly be going on tour with Angel Vivaldi and Jackie Vincent. That’s a serious guitar rock show! How would it feel to be performing not as part of the Alice Cooper band or as part of The Iron Maidens or as part of We Start Wars but to be hitting the stage as Nita Strauss?
I’m really excited for it. I think I have a bit of a leg up on many other solo artists because I’ve been doing guitar clinics for so long, so I’m very accustomed to being on stage all alone. You know, whether it’s something like playing the national anthem or doing a clinic, some of my clinics will draw 3 or 4 hundred people so it’s like a rock show. So I’m very used to just being up there alone. The exciting thing for me is going to be performing my record almost in its entirety, performing all my songs and just being up there and playing all the notes! Rather than making room for a vocalist or trying not to step on anybodies’ toes, this is the time to break out and shine and do what I do best which is play the guitar.
You are involved in so many different projects and we have named a few here, for example Alice Cooper, We Start Wars and of course not just your solo venture but all the guitar clinics you do. What’s your priority and how easy is it to balance everything?
It’s really difficult juggling act! I wouldn’t even know how to begin to define the priority. The priority is just making space for everything in my life. When I found out at the beginning of 2018 that I was going to have for months of touring time off I was in a panic! I said to my boyfriend Josh ‘I don’t know how I’m going to pay my bills or what I’m going to do’. He said ‘Don’t panic! This is a gift. This is an opportunity to make your record and make your own album!’. So I think it’s more a question of just using your time wisely and fitting everything in in its place. I do 7 days a week on tour. I do 5 Alice Cooper shows and 2 guitar clinics a week. So it’s just prioritising what’s important. I could prioritise my rest and my sleep and I could work less, or I could prioritise my career and make sure I fit everything in that I can right now. I choose to prioritise my career. But I have pencilled in 3 days of rest in January!
You will be ready for that I’m sure!
I will be! For the solo tour we’ve scheduled in 29 shows in 31 days. We get home the day before Christmas, we leave again the day after Christmas, and then the 2nd January until 5th January I have blocked off – I am not working on those days! (Laughs!) But having your own career and being your own boss, the only days off are the days you give yourself. You realise that when you are your own boss, a day off is a day wasted! It’s a day when you’re not making things happen and you’re not working towards your goals. So it’s not like working 9 till 5 when you get home and your job is over. Sometimes I’ll be doing interviews like this, or talking to Australia or talking to Europe, stay up late into the night or do a morning radio show or something like that. So there’s no down time… which is kinda crazy.
Does it feel like work?
Sometimes… not all the time. They say that if you do what you love you never work a day in your life but I think it’s more like if you do what you love you work really hard all the time and never stop and never take breaks and never rest because you are so passionate and driven for what you want to do. So does it feel like work? It does. I’d be lying if I said practising and writing and doing sessions and playing on other people’s records and playing on other people’s tours isn’t work. It is a real job but I do feel very blessed and very lucky to have it.
An artist who has been a huge influence on you is of course Steve Vai. You recently had the opportunity to join Steve on stage. Tell me what it meant and how it felt to be performing alongside your idol.
It was incredible! Steve had this amazing 52 hour jam where it was 52 hours of consecutive music. It didn’t stop for 3 days and in this jam it was Nuno Bettencourt and some of the highest calibre players that have ever stepped on a guitar stage. Steve Morse was warning up while I was on stage with Vai. Some of the highest calibre players who have ever picked up the instrument were a part of it, and when Steve sent me an email and asked me to be part of it, I was so torn because I had to fly out to London that day to do the London Guitar Show and I thought I couldn’t do it. I was heartbroken and was thinking about how I could change my flight – what can I do? Then I realised that the jam started at noon and I didn’t have to be at the airport until 3pm. The airport is about an hour from where we live in Hollywood and I said ‘I can play but only if I can play early in the day’ and he said ‘No problem! You can be first!’ So I was the first guest of the 52 hours so no pressure! But Steve was really amazing to play with and so generous with the jam. Vai can outplay anybody and for him to not just play circles around me but thoughtfully trade off and play together was amazing.
What is interesting is that it was only fairly recently that you actually met Steve. Many people think because you are the established artist that you are and that you have been playing at such a high level for so long that your paths would’ve already crossed much sooner.
Yeah, before we even met, I had been to both the motherships, I had actually been to Steve’s house when he wasn’t home… not in a creepy way! (Laughs!) I used to live right up the street from where Steve lives, we were both on the Ibanez roster – I’ve been an Ibanez artist now for 10 years – and everybody I know knows him and everyone that I talk to is just so surprised: ‘What do you mean you’ve never met him? But he’s so nice!’ but I’d never had the honour. And finally we did meet at Generation Axe in 2016.
Did Steve comment on your playing at all?
He did. We met at Generation Axe and I was with a couple of the Ibanez reps and Josh my boyfriend. Steve came up and he was talking to us, introducing himself and shaking hands with everybody. So when he got to me I said ‘Hello, my name’s Nita, it’s really nice to meet you’ and he just said ‘Hi, I’m Steve’ and just moved on. And I hate to say it but I was a little disappointed, maybe he’d know who I was. But I thought that’s okay, how should he know? But then he actually turned back and said ‘Wait, are you Nita Strauss?’ and my heart just like fell into my stomach and I said ‘Yes, I am!’, and he complemented my playing really generously and that’s when he asked me to participate in the She Rocks album which ended up becoming Pandemonium which ended up becoming my first step into this realm of guitar music. So I have Vai to thank for a lot of things in my guitar career but I think maybe the most important of all, besides inspiring me to pick up the guitar in the first place, is giving me that push, though he didn’t know it, to create my first instrumental song.
I think it’s nice that the little bit of disappointment you felt when Steve walked past, it only lasted a few seconds – that’s all!
(Laughs!) But it was like this weird thought in my head because I don’t know why I thought that he might know me! Why should he? I guess if you’re really paying attention in the guitar community you pay attention to who’s coming up but I don’t know Steve and I don’t know how much attention he pays. How egotistical of me to have that fleeting disappointment! (Laughs!). It’s kinda out of character for me. The first thing Steve said to me after ‘Are you Nita Strauss?’ was ‘You say the nicest things about me in your interviews’. That was really nice and kind of embarrassing because that means he must have read what a huge influence on my life he’s been, but hey, how many people have the opportunity to tell their hero that they’re their hero? I’m very grateful!
There is a question I want to ask which is perhaps a little bit more personal. You recently shared that you’ve been sober now for three years – which is absolutely fantastic! From the social media discussions and support that followed, it’s clear that your openness has already been quite inspirational. Can you take us back to that time when there was a sequence of events where you knew it was time for something to change.
I’m glad to talk about it now. I didn’t talk about it for 2 years. I didn’t talk about it at all because I just wasn’t there yet. My close friends and family knew, of course the band and Alice knew but I just didn’t want to make a thing out of it, mostly because I’m a person who doesn’t like to show a lot of weakness and I felt that having an addiction was something that I couldn’t put out to the music community. Finally on the 2nd year anniversary of my sobriety I decided to make a post about it and the amount of outpouring of love that that post got – not just people saying congratulations but people saying ‘wow, I’m going to do the same thing, I had no idea there was someone out there who was successful who’s had a great career that’s struggling with the same thing’. Seeing that really opened my eyes because if you can show weakness and vulnerability and can inspire others…. so that was when I really started becoming more open, talking about it in my interviews, talking about it in my clinics, and it all really came down to my mental health and physical health. When I finally quit drinking I was 50 pounds heavier than I am now, I was fighting my with my boyfriend constantly, I was always unhappy, I was always seeking this crutch to stand on because being on tour is hard! It’s lonely! I’m gone 10 months out of the year. I miss family birthdays, anniversaries, friends’ weddings – life goes on while you’re away and it’s an easy thing to just medicate it with partying and having fun. I’m not saying anyone needs to change the way they live their life because I did, but if it’s something that becomes 7 days a week where they’re struggling to have a normal day without having a drink, that is the point that I was at and that’s the point where I would say they should take a look at their life. September of 2015 I had my last drink and from that month forward everything in my life has just sky-rocketed! I immediately dropped weight – I think I literally lost 20 pounds in the first 6 weeks. I was working out but I wasn’t like thinking ‘I’ve got to lose weight!’. It was like my body giving a sigh of relief saying ‘this is so much better!’. It was just water. My body was just holding water from all the booze I was drinking. So I was losing weight, my skin looked better, my hair started growing faster, my nails started growing faster, my relationship with my parents is better, my relationship with my boyfriend is nothing like what it was – it doesn’t have like that volatile, combustible energy like something might explode at any minute. My whole mental health and everything have just taken a turn for the better. And aside from all that, my career has gotten so much better. I have put out an album, I put out my signature guitar, I’ve got my signature pickups, I’m on the cover of magazines, I’m able to do a monthly column in Guitar World which are the columns I grew up reading. I almost feel now like I’ve been given this gift and if I was to throw it all back in God’s face, or whatever amazing force gave me this gift, by starting drinking again… I just can’t do that.
Finally – and it’s all about scheduling of course – do you have any plans to tour the UK?
Oh, definitely in 2019! It all just depends on my day job – the best day job in the whole world: playing guitar with Alice Cooper – anytime I have off from my day job will definitely be filled up. There are plans for UK, South America, Europe, Asia. It’s just a matter of what dates I have available and making it happen.
As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect on what an absolutely wonderful guitarist, performer and all round inspirational person Nita really is, and it’s with a huge amount of love and support that we wish her the greatest success for her incredible debut solo album. Controlled Chaos is available now.
In the meantime, check out the video below for the lead single Our Most Desperate Hour below.