In a candid conversation, Tommy Henriksen opens up about following his dream from the rock clubs of Long Island to the world stage, and everything in between.
Twenty-eight shows. Seventeen countries. Six weeks. As I sat down to chat with Hollywood Vampires guitarist Tommy Henriksen on the heels of the band’s recent epic romp through Europe on one of his first true ‘off’ days, the exhaustion from the Port Jefferson Station native was palpable.
Having been among the lucky few to snag a ticket to one of three sold-out shows in the U.S. at the end of July, there was no doubt in my mind as to why. His dynamic guitar playing and showmanship alone put rock stars half his age to shame (Henriksen turned 59 in February). This is a band that gives its all on stage and off, often performing as many as five shows a week, coupled with an intense travel schedule, VIP meet and greets and impromptu pre-dawn autograph sessions with legions of devoted fans camped outside hotels for hours.
“That is some dedication, man,” Henriksen says of those fans who are somehow always tapped into the band’s whereabouts. “And I go right out there, and I sign shit—even though I’m tired, I want to go to my room…I make sure everyone’s covered. You know, whatever else you need. You want me to sign anything, you want to take a picture, you know…hey, when they’re not there, that’s when I would worry.”
That’s not to say there are any regrets. “I’m not complaining. I’m explaining,” Henriksen clarifies, a line he has oft been heard to utter during his recent slew of Instagram live streams, a fun behind-the-scenes bonus that has generated near feverish levels of interest from the HV fandom, many of whom are drawn to Henriksen’s unique blend of down-to-earth accessibility and bonafide rock stardom. They don’t call him ‘DiS ViciOuS’ for nothing.
It’s a niche community that has swelled since the band’s founding a little over a decade ago, one assumes, thanks largely in part to the popularity of its co-founder, actor, artist and musician Johnny Depp, along with fellow rock legends Alice Cooper and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. But often lost in the somewhat fantastical origin story is the role of one, Mr. Thomas Henriksen, who was by then a guitarist with Alice Cooper’s group, and a witness to the project’s evolution from bar band to tribute record to full-fledged touring production on a scale like few others.
Band of Brothers
Speaking of the band’s initial jam session at the 100 Club in London, Henriksen recalls his first impression of Depp, who at the time was filming Dark Shadows with Cooper and had yet to be widely regarded as the stellar musician he now is.
“As soon as you meet someone, you know, I can tell if I’m going to be friends with this guy, or I’m gonna be like, ‘Hey man, cool, see you later.’ Because you can always tell. And as soon as I met Johnny, there was this thing. I was like, ’Yeah, this guy is gonna be in my life.’ I just knew it.”
That first performance quickly gave way to further late-night sessions at Depp’s West Hollywood home, piecing together potential band rosters. Fast forward through several local gigs at The Roxy, an album filled with rock & roll covers of their ‘dead drunk friends,’ a headlining set at the Rock in Rio festival in September of 2015, and a Grammy performance the following February.
“That was one of those other things,” Henriksen marvels, the achievement still seemingly fresh in his mind. “If you would have told me I was going to play the Grammys, I would have been like, ‘I gave up on that dream like years ago.’ But Johnny made that happen.”
From L.I. to LA
While he may credit Depp with his latest round of good fortune, suffice it to say that Henriksen is a self-made man. In a life marked by countless pivots, one can’t help but find his unabashed candor thoroughly refreshing. There is no ego here, only a deep appreciation for every moment that has brought him to the present day as a 13-year veteran of the Alice Cooper Band and founder of his latest passion project, Crossbone Skully, whose debut record is set to be released in late September.
As he recounts the peaks and valleys in a decades-long career dotted by more than its fair share of twists and turns, he speaks with a bluntness that embodies his Long Island roots. But make no mistake, there is a soft soul within, grateful to be on the journey of a lifetime.
“All of these things…I always look at it this way,” he reflects. “They led me to what I’m about to do. And I’ve learned from every mistake I’ve made. And I make new mistakes, you know, because I’m not…I’m not one of those guys. It’s like, I just go with my gut.”
Raised on the classic rock of the ‘70s, Henriksen grew up listening to artists ranging from The Who, Keith Richards, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd to Kiss, AC/DC, Aerosmith and Cheap Trick, among countless others.
In a neighborhood filled with guitar players, local instructor Jim Kleinklaus dispensed lessons at $5 an hour, making house calls. After just two, Henriksen opted for the self-taught path, drawing musical inspiration from friends like Bobby Rondinelli and brother Eugene, who currently fronts the Van Halen tribute band, Completely Unchained.
While initially reluctant to play bass, this proved to be the most fruitful path forward at the outset, a skill he eventually expanded upon decades later when offered a role as guitarist in Alice Cooper’s band, by watching videos of the likes of guitar heroes Ace Frehley, Angus Young, Chuck Berry, Link Wray, Jeff Beck and Pete Townsend on YouTube.
Once of age, Henriksen took his bass guitar to the suburbs of Long Island. “Eighteen was the drinking age, and rock clubs were everywhere,” he says. “You were able to play these clubs and really hone your craft, you know, by playing cover songs, originals.” His first band, Ruffkut, featured his brother Gene on drums. This eventually led to a gig with the German metal band Warlock, featuring lead singer Doro Pesch.
Initially skeptical of shifting into an entirely new genre, Henriksen recalls, “I remember my mother telling me ‘Go see the world, Thomas, go join the band. What’s the worst thing that can happen?’” Once back on U.S. soil, the seeds of stardom firmly planted, he realized he needed to move to LA. And so, with a 1982 blue Camaro and $1,500 in his pocket, he drove out to the west coast with ‘a pipe dream.’
The Dream Weaver
Once in LA, Henriksen met Jeff Pilson of Dokken at The Rainbow, leading to his joining the band War & Peace. Around 1990-91, he landed auditions for Ozzy Osbourne and David Lee Roth in quick succession, both of whom rejected him because they didn’t approve of his long, flowing locks.
This ultimately inspired him to chop his hair and start a punk band, Parade of Losers (P.O.L.), where he signed a deal with Giant Records. Their song “Stupid,” inspired by an ex-girlfriend’s playful teasing, became an alt rock hit, leading to a spot on The Jon Stewart Show, as well as a slot touring with Bush.
“Til we got kicked off,” he laughs. “Cause I was cursing too much. I was just crazy back then, you know. I was always cursing and yelling and fighting people, and just being like, you know…like a dumbass ignorant Long Island guy.” He collapses in hysterics, recalling that period of time. “Cause you know, like, when you grow up around here, you don’t know anything, you know what I mean? And I’m not saying Long Island…but when you’re in this Long Island thing, man, you get out of it and you think everyone’s like you. And no one’s like that!”
The tour, and his brief punk rock career, seemingly over, Henriksen opted to sell his equipment and take the $10,000 banked to hole up in an apartment with his buddy Louis Marciano on Sunset Boulevard and Sierra Bonita, determined to pour all his energy into songwriting for as long as the funds would last.
Thanks to a steady diet of Bumble Bee canned tuna (with mustard) and ramen noodles—and furnishings highlighted by a milk crate with a television—nearly a year and a half passed. “We’d be playing Playstation and look at each other like, ‘We’re such losers, man! Look at us! What the fuck are we gonna do??’”
But it wasn’t a complete loss, as Henriksen channeled his creative energy—and some inner soul searching picked up during a brief stint in therapy—into crafting songs reminiscent of Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen. Eventually, Marciano headed back to New York, while Henriksen waited for the sheriff to kick him out.
Fortune, Fame & Fate
It was at this point that a bit of good fortune smiled upon him, as Pilson—set to head out on tour once again—called to ask if Henriksen would watch his house. Once he played him some of his latest demos, it became clear that a new musical direction was beckoning.
But in the meantime, he needed money. Henriksen picked up a gig working as a runner for Alice Cooper’s band, earning $50 a day to do everything from carry future bandmate Ryan Roxie’s bags to odd errands. This turned out to be quite temporary—one week to be exact—before he had a falling out with a disrespectful member of the camp.
“You don’t talk to me that way, pal,” Henriksen recalls saying. “I don’t care who you are.” And so, having nothing to lose but a measly $50, he stood his ground. “As I was being fired, I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ll probably get a record deal in about two weeks from now.’ And you know what? I did. And then two weeks later, I was a millionaire, which was funny.”
After being signed to Capitol Records by the president of the company, the deal quickly fell apart following the executive’s untimely dismissal, yet another in a long line of career starts and stops Henriksen would become an expert at overcoming.
“I’ve never used, you know, growing up the way I did as a crutch,” he quietly reflects. “You know, single mom, five kids, welfare…I mean, my mother did everything for us, you know, and there’s not one day I ever don’t think about my mom.” He continues, “My mom was like my dad and the mom all in one. And if it wasn’t for my mom, I don’t think any of me and my brothers or my sister would have that drive, because it all comes from her. It’s all from Mrs. Angela Henriksen. Yeah…You know, that’s how she worked. She was the one to set the pace of how we’re gonna live our life. She always told me, ‘Thomas, do whatever makes you happy. Just don’t break the law.’”
That pursuit of happiness led Henriksen to found his own label with Jimmy Iovine at Interscope. There, he devoted himself to writing for other artists, working as a producer and engineer for the likes of Lady Gaga, Kesha, and projects like American Idol, until creative differences drove him to part ways with Iovine.
“I never cared about money,” he explains. “I still don’t care about money. Never have, never will. Money doesn’t make a person. The person makes the person, you know what I mean? Money just enhances either the evilness in you or the selfishness, or money can also enhance the great, positive things in people too, which I’ve seen.”
That chapter behind him, Henriksen made the trek to Nashville, where he was promptly greeted by the culture shock of a part of the nation more concerned with his politics and religious beliefs than his musical sensibilities. He recalls his puzzlement, “I was like, ‘We’re writing songs. What does fucking politics gotta do with this bullshit?’”
Cue, another key moment in Henriksen’s life, when producer Bob Ezrin entered the picture, later reintroducing him back into the fold with Alice Cooper. After working with “Coop,” as he affectionately refers to his mentor, as an associate producer, guitar player, bass player, programmer, mixer and engineer, Henriksen accepted the invitation to join the touring band—on the condition that he could ‘try it out’ to see if he liked it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Moments and Magic
Thirteen years later, while preparing to head out on the next leg of the Alice Cooper Band’s tour, Henriksen contemplates, “See, a guy like me…I live in the moment. I don’t live, you know, I’m not thinking about fucking two years from now. I’m thinking about, ‘What are we doing today?’ You know what I mean?” He emphasizes, “I’m not thinking about what I did yesterday. I don’t ever go, ‘I did this, I did that…’ I don’t give a fuck what anybody did. Dude, what are we doing now? What’s going on now? How are we going to make this place better? I don’t care what you did 20 years ago. If you sold a fucking million…who gives a shit? Nobody cares, you know.”
That mantra has shaped his career, particularly his time with the all-star Hollywood Vampires. An idea that sprang from a seed back in 2011 blossomed in large part due to Henriksen’s hands-on involvement. From poring over piles of personal journals entrusted to him by Depp to craft songs for what would become their sophomore record, Rise, to demoing those same songs for Cooper and collaborating with Perry on accompanying riffs, there is no part of the process that escapes Henriksen’s unique stamp.
Fans will be fortunate to catch a glimpse of this behind the scenes magic next year when the full-length documentary of the Hollywood Vampires’ most recent tour is released on streaming services. A collaborative effort between director Dan Catullo and the HV team, this ‘day in the life’ was designed to depict everyone who plays a role in the creation of such a large-scale production—from the band to the crew to the devoted fans packing the seats at each venue.
“People need to see what’s going on around here,” Henriksen says. “You read shit. Most of the shit you’re reading…it’s lies.” He shakes his head, alluding to the greatly exaggerated rumors which persisted throughout the tour, ranging from drug overdoses to—at one point—the death of Johnny Depp in a hotel room in Budapest. Instead, he hopes the sneak peeks of pre-show rituals and band camaraderie will quell some of the misconceptions. “That’s the stuff I want to see. I don’t want to see the show,” he says. “I can see the show on YouTube any time I want. I want to see the good shit.”
He recalls the pure exhilaration of having Tony Iommi from Black Sabbath and Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones sit in with the band on tour. “Whenever I’m with guys like that, I just think about everyone in my neighborhood, you know? I’m going god damn, man.” His face lights up, smiling. “You know, I always think about all the dudes in the hood, growing up, and all the guys who played rock and roll. And I’m always like going, man, these guys would love this. So I try and feel like I have them with me, you know?”
The Path Forward
The road thus far may have been long and winding, but the ultimate goal has always remained clear to Henriksen—to work hard, to be a good person every day, to be a great dad and husband. “I want to do right by people, you know what I mean?” he says. “I want to lead by example.” When not on the road, Henriksen makes his home in Switzerland with his wife Sandra and son Finn.
“You don’t go to school for that stuff, you know,” he explains. “And I’m just grateful that all these things that led to there…I’m still trying to be a rock star, you know what I mean? It’s like I sit back sometimes and I go, you know, I still have a dream. Even though I’ve been doing this other thing which has been amazing, you know, and I love doing it—I still want to sing and do my own thing too, you know.”
I think it’s safe to say we are all eagerly looking forward to witnessing the next chapter.
Long Island fans can see Tommy Henriksen hit the stage as part of The Alice Cooper Band on September 9 at Jones Beach in Wantagh, NY.