By Ken Sharp
Outspoken and brash, arrogant and opinionated, profane and vulgar, supremely narcissistic and sexist, are among the colorful descriptions both the public and media foist at KISS founding member Gene Simmons. Acutely aware of how he is perceived, Simmons even named his last solo album, “Asshole.”
When meeting with the “God of Thunder,” he’s polite and gracious proving there’s much more behind the self-proclaimed “Man of 1000 Faces.” The band, or brand, as Simmons often likes to describe the Roll and Roll Hall of Famers, are not content to rest on their laurels and count their mountainous pile of greenbacks, but continue to press the envelope with a keen understanding of the transformative power of how a rock ‘n’ roll band can be marketed in the 21st Century. Yet as Simmons attests, his aspirations for KISS have far exceeded his expectations.
“It is really weird that KISS, which never really started out as anything, but this bizarre dream of four knuckleheads off the streets of New York just wanting to do one record, that four decades later, the RIAA crowned us as the No. 1 gold record award-winning group of all time in America. It’s amazing especially since we’ve only had three hit singles, ‘Beth,’ ‘I Was Made For Lovin’ You’ and ‘Forever.’”
For a group routinely dismissed by short-sighted critics as a flash in the pan, a joke band comprised of talentless cretinous musical goons soon to be forgotten and quickly discarded on the junk heap of failed rock bands past, KISS are having the last laugh. Detractors be damned, 43 years since the original band — Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss — first came together, KISS continue to transcend the parameters of what a rock band can do; whether starring in their own Scooby Doo cartoon (“Scooby Doo & KISS: Rock & Roll Mystery”), teaming up with menswear designer/clothier John Varvatos or collaborating with Japanese teen sensations Momoiro Clover Z on “Samurai Son,” the band’s first No. 1 single in the “Land of the Rising Sun,” yesterday and today KISS stubbornly follow the beat of their new drum and continue to thrive, loudly.
We sat down with the band’s resident “God of Thunder,” Gene Simmons, who offered a primer in all things KISS, past, present and future.
Goldmine: The act of songwriting was something you worked hard to master.
GENE SIMMONS: Well, initially I just sang in bands. We did cover songs; everything from Otis Redding to Wilson Pickett to The Ventures and, of course, Beatles songs, whatever was happening at the time. Listening to The Everly Brothers helped me learn how to sing harmony, too. Then my mother bought me a Gibson SG Standard and I didn’t know what to do with my fingers so initially I was just pressing single notes. Then I noticed the way people were holding C chords and G chords and all that and started to fool around.
GM: How would you describe the early songs you wrote?
GS: The first songs, in retrospect, were the kind of things Lennon and McCartney wrote but I don’t mean anywhere near as good. People would ask them what their words mean and both of them would say, “We have no idea, we just put words on there that sounded good.” And initially, the kinds of songs that I wrote as a kid didn’t really mean a hell of a lot. I had a song called “My Uncle is a Raft.” One of the lyrics was “My uncle is a raft and he always keeps me floating.” I had fond feelings about my uncle George and I’m sure all that McCartney stuff like “Uncle Albert” and the lyrics “hands across the water” really don’t mean anything. It’s not like “Penny Lane,” which really meant something about his childhood memories. But a lot of the words in Beatles songs like “I Am The Walrus” don’t mean a lot; they’re just interesting words that are stuck against the melody and the meter. So those first few songs of mine were very simple. Stylistically, they were vaguely Beatlesque or Everly Brothers-ish, “Wake Up Little Susie,” that kind of stuff.
GM: What was the breakthrough for you as a songwriter?
GS: The irony was that I noticed if I was gonna be in a band, I didn’t see myself as a lead singer. Physically I was too big and I didn’t see guys my size doing that. I could sing well enough I guess, at least as good as Eric Burdon and (Mick) Jagger, those guys, who sing pretty straight ahead. I mean, anybody can sing “Satisfaction.” There’s no vocal histrionics on it but I noticed everybody was looking for bass players because there were plenty of guitar players and plenty of drummers. So I could play a little guitar. My mother bought me a Kent bass, a bass which looked like a Hofner, the one Paul McCartney played in The Beatles, but of course was a cheap version made by the Japanese. Bands immediately wanted me to join their group because they didn’t have a bass player and because I knew chords. If someone said, “Play an A or B or G,” I knew where they were on the fretboard. So I immediately joined bands. The first band I joined might have been The Missing Lynx and then I really hit my stride with a group called The Long Island Sounds and then after that we had a group called Cathedral which had a Hammond B-3 organ. By that time I’d been starting to write my own songs or co-writing songs. One of the early ones was a song called “She,” which KISS later recorded for the “Dressed to Kill” album. I wrote that with the guitar player in one of my bands, Stephen Coronel; I used to go to school with him. That song and a few others including “Goin’ Blind,” which was initially titled “Little Lady,” wound up being recorded by KISS.
GM: Going to a KISS show today, there is a multi-generational appeal — young, middle-aged and old all united in their love of the band. You’re encountering audience demos that are getting younger, how do you account for that?
GS: Well, we’re showing up in car commercials. Every Halloween everybody dresses up like us. Our cartoon, KISS and Scooby Doo, was very big and successful. The “KISS Rocks Vegas” show played in movie theaters and just came out on DVD and special editions that come with vinyl, too. We have a very, very long history; this is our 43rd year, believe it or not. So I think it’s a combination of parents wanting to share that thing that got them as kids. It’s difficult for parents to say, “Let’s go see a Lawrence Welk show” because that doesn’t connect with younger generations. But something about KISS, I don’t want to say it’s timeless, but it connected with a 5-year-old back in the ‘70s and it sure connects with a 5-year-old now. You can’t help but have a good time at one of our shows when everybody is going nuts onstage. That kind of a good time is infectious. You can’t fake it. You can’t fool the audience. The people will see right through you if you put on a fake smile or you’re not putting out your best. The band are alive and well and I think we’re playing better than we ever have. What we’ve got is four people who believe in the same thing — the notion that we’re damn lucky to be up on that stage. Once you feel the same thing in your heart you feel like a team. I feel stronger and more powerful with the makeup on. What you wear and how you dress definitely has something to do with how you feel. And it’s no different than commandos and Indians wearing war paint because the fiercer they looked, the fiercer they felt.
GM: Back in the ‘70s, KISS never jammed with any musicians on stage. Now in the past 10 to 15 years, KISS has jammed onstage with a few — Joe Perry, Phil Collen of Def Leppard and very recently, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick. Over the years, who were some of the folks who wanted to come up and jam with the band that you said no?
GS: Everybody. Name a big band and the singer or the guitar player wanted to come onstage and jam with us. Elton John wanted to jam with us in the ‘70s. We were thinking back to The Beatles and Zeppelin and going, ”They never jammed with anyone onstage.” I mean, I’m a big Beatles fan but I wouldn’t have wanted to see Jagger jam with them onstage. I want to see The Beatles. When the Stones first came out you’d never see (John) Lennon onstage with them; it was the Stones. The purity of it was important.
GM: What changed your thinking?
GS: Well, with KISS, when you’ve been around for over 40 years, maybe part of it is the celebration of, ‘Wow, look how far we’ve come!’ It was great to play with Rick Nielsen. He rocked it! We did “Rock and Roll All Nite” and he played the guitar solo. He flew in from the middle of Cheap Trick’s tour just to jam with us.
GM: What is the source of your ambition and drive?
GS: Well for me, it’s very clear because I wasn’t born in America. We had nothing when I was a kid. We literally didn’t have a toilet: it was an outhouse outside; that’s why they call it an outhouse. There was no plumbing; we had nothing. But I didn’t know that as a kid; I was happy. I had bread and jam and as long as I had that I was happy and that’s still the bane of my waistline ‘cause I still love that stuff, sweets, especially with a very thick crust. So when we came to America, “The Land of Plenty” and all that, I was shocked that I had every opportunity and every advantage as a first generation legal immigrant that native born Americans who’ve been here for centuries had. Well, in that case there’s no excuse not to succeed.
GM: Growing up, who were your personal heroes?
GS: When I was a kid in Israel I didn’t have any heroes. We didn’t have TV and we didn’t have radio. I didn’t know about heroes, all I knew was the Bible that our people wrote but I didn’t want to be Moses. There were just no heroes until I came to America and started going to movies and saw television. I saw Superman and read comic books and all that. And then you start to have notions of being a hero without restriction, no limitations.
GM: Today, who do you count as personal heroes?
GS: (long pause) That’s a good one, that’s a good question. I will tell you, it may be a cornball answer but it’s the truth — my mother because above and beyond the horrific early life she had being in a concentration camp, she always worked and never complained and on her own terms, succeeded despite any adversity. That’s where I got my work ethic.
GM: Speaking of heroes, tell us about KISS’s involvement with the “U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes” program.
GS: Well, we take lots of things for granted in America, Let me remind everybody; if you lived in many Asian countries or South African countries where you could find your head in a garbage pail or in Africa where you could starve to death or have disease and in Iran and North Korea, the freedom you have here people just take for granted. You have every opportunity in America; the sky’s the limit. You cannot fail. Literally you can declare chapter 7 or chapter 11 bankruptcy and then do it again. It’s even difficult to convict criminals. You know people can be killers, unfortunately, and then you get sent to a really cushy psychiatric place where they feed you and they’ve got television. It’s a very lenient area with all the opportunities in the world; you can’t fail. So the “Hiring Our Heroes’ program honors America because while we have all these freedoms and all this opportunity, the people who protect this country and sometimes give the ultimate sacrifice, their life for a belief, come back to America and our military just says, “Well, good luck, thanks very much, see you later.” And they’re physically battered and mentally battered and it’s difficult for them to get jobs. We have contributed cash to Wounded Warriors and lots of organizations and we do that as well on this tour. Nice big fat checks. We do it at our Rock & Brews restaurants; the opening day is always just for vets, it’s closed to the general public. We give them a big check and we honor them and we feed them. It’s the least we can do. So on tour we hire local vets; we pay them and they help our road crew put on the greatest show on earth. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce got wind of what we were doing for the vets and wanted to connect with us and we wanted to connect with them. Every once in a while the government gets it right, I’m happy to say.
GM: The band is also spearheading the Wounded Warriors Support foundation and the home giveaway program.
GS: We connect with Dr. Pepper and a few corporate entities and a few shows ago one of our proud vets, three tours in Afghanistan, came onstage. He was honored and he helped the road crew and he made some money putting up the stage. Then onstage KISS and the Mayor of the city turned around and said, “We have a brand new home with a fully paid mortgage, thank you for your service.” The emotional part of being able to do that is huge. You look out in the audience and you can see people crying. Giving away a brand new home is a really rewarding thing to be able to do to honor our servicemen.
GM: The “KISS Rocks Vegas” DVD/CD has just been issued, which chronicles a KISS residency in “Sin City,” Las Vegas. What made that event a must see for the fans?
GS: It probably became what it became because we didn’t plan it. We were trying out new gags, a flying saucer routine, a new stage show and some different video screens. So we played that one venue day after day and finally realized, ‘Well, why don’t we open the doors and get the fans in?” and it just naturally became what it became.
GM: Are there any plans for a return engagement?
GS: We probably will go back but it’s gotta be right. You don’t want it to be one of those. “Okay, here’s Rod Stewart, here’s Santana and now KISS. It has to be right and something special. You don’t want it to be just another concert in Vegas, you want it to be an event.
GM: The KISS Kruise … why are these selling out quicker than ever?
GS: Well, the word has certainly spread. People have the time of their lives on the KISS Kruise. I’ll be an officiant at a wedding on this cruise. People are getting married, some get divorced but they bring their families. It’s really something to see. I’ll also be holding another songwriting clinic on the ship. There are people who went off after last year’s songwriting session that I held on the ship that have went off and the Library of Congress has records of people who have written their first song and I taught them to do it.
GM: The “Creatures of the Night” album sold modestly when released in 1982 but is now considered one of the band’s best albums. Why do you think that album has generated such recognition decades on?
GS: It might have been a pivotal moment when that generation latched on to us. Of course, we started out as a band 10 years before that but if you’re 40, it might have been the album at 10-years-old that you connected with. “Creatures” was also an album that when it came out originally was not popular. It was a slump for us in America but at the same time we were playing stadiums in South America.
GM: There is an “Elder” comic coming soon. That album is beloved by a dedicated section of the KISS community and they don’t like it because it’s a joke, they like it because it works for them. Stripping away the commercial disappointment, as a record, as a creative entity, how does the Elder hold up?
GS: I think there are some songs on “The Elder” that hold up for me. I like the sentiment of “I” and I like “Only You.” But it was not a good time for the band. Ace wouldn’t even come to the studio … surprise! He stayed at home while we were in Toronto with Bob Ezrin and we had to literally make copies of the masters and Fed-Ex them to Ace who would be in his home studio in Connecticut and decide what to put on. Right there, it was the beginning of the end; Ace hadn’t shown up on other records and was either drunk at home or whatever but it finally started to become the straw that broke Ace’s back on that album.
GM: You’ve been talking about a Gene Simmons box set for quite some time. Any release plans? What would be some of the key audio included on it?
GS: It was ironically going to be called “Monster.” I’m still finalizing the deal for the box set. Nowadays with download and file sharing, I’ve got to protect (from) people’s ability to steal my stuff. I refuse for anybody to steal stuff I’ve worked on. You’ve got to make a distinction between charity and commerce; this is commerce. I give plenty to charity; this is no charity. This is my work. The box set might be called “Alter Ego.” It’s gonna be a monster box set with at least 150 songs people haven’t heard before. There are a lot of them that feature me playing all the instruments; bass, guitar, drums, lead and background vocals. Quite a number of the earlier ones, I’m producing and arranging and engineering, all of it. That came from the McCartney stuff. When I saw McCartney go off and do things like his first solo album, “McCartney,” where he played all the instruments or “Ram,” I’m going, “That’s remarkable, just remarkable.”
GM: Paul (Stanley) was quite hard on you in his book. He’s spoken about how today your relationship is better than it’s been in a long time, why?
GS: You have to figure out that the person next to you isn’t you. So sometimes you don’t’ understand why I might have a different appetite than him. I make no excuses for having a record company and now a film company. Our first film was just finished and it stars Anne Heche, Wesley Snipes; it’s a good movie and I’ll be doling lots of them. I wanted to act and produce records and have a record company because I’m unapologetically insatiable. If I have an appetite for something I want it! But it is true, as other things take more time you don’t’ do your other stuff in KISS as well. So we do have a better relationship today because you live and you learn. You understand that despite it all we both share a great work ethic, we show up on time and do the work and we never “Axl Rose” our way out of anything. I think the same way a “Kardashian” became a 72-day long time reference, I think Axl deserves that thing that could become a verb, “Don’t Axl your way out of this thing.” I think that’s appropriate.
GM: You’ve always been very humble about your ability as a bass player while Paul has recently championed you as great bassist. Exuding ultra confidence about everything you do, why do you seemingly undersell your ability as a bass player?
GS: It doesn’t matter, either you like it or you don’t. Very few people write for Guitar Player magazine. When I was growing up as a Beatles fan, I heard a Beatles song and you’d listen to it and you’d go away humming it. You only later realize that every once in a while you’re humming a bass part. Now that’s good! You can’t hum a Motown bass part, can you? The songs are the star but somehow McCartney, maybe because he started out as a guitar player, approached bass more the way a string quarter or cello plays; it’s got its own melody against the melody and chords that go by.
GM: Well, you incorporate that style too on some KISS songs like “Strutter,” “Nothin’ To Lose,” and “Goin’ Blind.”
GS: Yeah, that was my main influence. It opened my eyes to, “Gee, if I hear a melody on the bass why do I have to be stuck playing a rhythmic part playing along with the drums?” I can just fly off and do my own melody. So no, it’s not a lack of confidence in my bass playing; I’m delusionally confident in anything I do, it’s just that you realize in a song you’re part of the puzzle. You are not the puzzle, versus in other areas — film company, record company, producer — you are the puzzle. You are the whole kit and caboodle.
GM: Lastly, what is KISS’s legacy?
GS: It’s a great story. Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter are really four bums off the streets of New York who had a dream and started following that dream on the yellow brick road and literally found the pot of gold and the answer to all their prayers at the end of the rainbow. When we introduce ourselves with “You wanted the best, you got the best,” we are not only proclaiming to the fans that they are about to get a treat but also throwing down the gauntlet for ourselves each and every time we step up on that holy stage.
BTW, Goldmine honors KISS in its own Hall of Fame: