Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper on Undead Supergroup Hollywood Vampires

Four famous musicians, one A-list actor and a fierce version of 'Brown Sugar': An afternoon with the world's coolest cover band

"Music is the fastest way to emotion," says Johnny Depp, seen here with Joe Perry and Duff McKagan. Credit: Ross Halfin

There's a break in rehearsals for the Hollywood Vampires — a band made up, as singer Alice Cooper says, of men who've all had near-death experiences. The group recently released its self-titled debut, a blast of classic-rock karaoke featuring covers of "My Generation," "Manic Depression" and an un-reinvented "Whole Lotta Love," not to mention a "School's Out"/"Another Brick in the Wall" medley. Now the band is in a Burbank warehouse, getting ready to play its first shows.

Cooper, looking gothic-casual in a black T-shirt and black jeans, gives his longtime manager Shep Gordon a big hug. Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry's dark-copper-colored chest is covered in puka shells, and he's mumbling something about working as a janitor in a synagogue. Natural hair color seems largely absent. Drummer Matt Sorum and bassist Duff McKagan — Guns N' Roses' old rhythm section — are having a laugh as a dude in a bandana, baggy jeans and black boots listens respectfully. That would be Johnny Depp, the group's surprisingly adept second guitarist.

Things have been going well today, but now producer Bob Ezrin walks over and shakes his head. The Vampires' set runs 44 minutes, but they're supposed to play for an hour. Cooper suggests they pad out the set with "Brown Sugar." Depp launches into an impeccable Keith Richards imitation, and the song reaches a joyous crescendo as Depp and Perry trade licks.

Ezrin applauds and tells the band to take a short break. Sorum talks to a hanger-on about how he used to keep it together during shows by sweating the booze out onstage. "When I was in GNR with Slash and Duff and everyone, I gauged my alcoholism on their drinking," Sorum says. "They drank all day. I always started at happy hour. I would kind of ease into the gig. So I'm like, 'I'm not an alcoholic.'"

Depp and Cooper met on the set of Depp's 2012 film Dark Shadows. Hollywood Vampires started with the idea of recording a covers album, giving them an excuse to fool around in the actor's well-appointed studio ("He has the best guitar collection I've seen," says Perry). The band took its name from a 1970s L.A. drinking collective that included Cooper, Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson and guest stars like John Lennon and Ringo Starr. Eventually, the new Hollywood Vampires cut an album, with a number of tracks paying tribute to rock greats who drank or drugged themselves to death — Moon, John Bonham, Jim Morrison — some of whom were friends of Cooper. (Cooper himself quit drinking in the 1980s after his doctor told him he could either stop or join his friends in the hereafter.)

Recalling all those ghosts might've been a melancholy experience for Cooper, but he shrugs off that suggestion. "These are historical characters," he says. "When you're talking about a John Lennon, that goes beyond being a guy you drank with and into Abraham Lincoln. You're over the sadness of it, and you're now going, 'All right, if John were here, what would he do?'"

For his part, Depp acts like he's won the classic-rock Powerball. Music was always at the center of his life. His first $600 went toward a '56 Telecaster. The guitar was later stolen, but he played in bands long before he started acting. Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare got him through some tough times. "I approach my work as an actor in the same way I play music," says Depp. "There is this element of chance — grabbing some moment that you didn't really plan on. Music is the fastest way to emotion." He puffs on what he calls a "poison stick" and admits there's something nice about being in a band rather than being the sole focus of a project, like on a tent-pole film. Perry has to sometimes entice him to the front of the stage.

There have already been fantasy-camp moments. Depp's friend Paul McCartney stopped by the actor's studio, and they banged out "Come and Get It," a 1969 song McCartney wrote for Badfinger. During the recording, Depp found himself staring at Perry with a "can you believe this shit?" look that Perry returned with a grin.

I ask them if, now that they're older, they were doing anything to protect their health as they get ready for a series of gigs that will include a festival in Rio. Perry says he's a closet health-food junkie. Cooper shoots me his ageless demonic grin. "Me? White Castle."

It's time for more rehearsal, before Depp has to go catch a flight. At one point, the Vampires launch into "My Generation." And for a second the world's most famous cover band makes one of the world's most covered songs sound almost young again.