TOMMY: BETTER THAN THE REAL THING
May 31, 2010
Rock On Tommy

Sure, some KISS fans will always think that Ace Frehley is the band's real lead guitarist. But, Matt Lamy asks, could current Spaceman Tommy Thayer be better than the real thing?

Becoming the new lead guitarist in a band that has been together for 35 years is never the easiest job. Much less so when that band is KISS, with its larger-than-life characters and hordes of obsessive fans. But Tommy Thayer doesn't look like a bundle of worries when we catch up with him, relaxing over a coffee at Gibson's UK headquarters.

Thayer isn't the typical hired gun. His relationship with KISS spans back to 1985, when his previous band Black 'N Blue supported KISS on tour. Since then Thayer has gradually become an increasingly important part of the KISS company. In fact, pick up any of KISS' albums, DVDs or box sets from the last 15 years and you will find his name among the credits, whether it's for being Gene Simmons' assistant or executive producer. So when Simmons and Stanley asked Thayer to take over the "Space Man" lead guitar role when Ace Frehley left Planet KISS in 2002, it was like the final stage of a 20-year apprenticeship.

"If Gene and Paul bring a new person into this band, not only do they have to fit in terms of being able to play with the right style and feel, but the most important thing is probably personality," says Thayer. "Finding somebody that you can live with, travel with, be with all the time can be tough.

"I first met these guys 25 years ago, so there was a comfortable rapport already established before I started playing in the band. It wasn't like Gene and Paul had to audition somebody and see what he was like and if he would change -- would he turn out to be a drug addict, etcetera. None of that was in question."

With everybody in KISS having their own unique identity, we asked Thayer about his bandmates. "Eric Singer, in my mind, is one of the greatest drummers in rock and roll," he emphasizes. "If I had to play in any band I would want him to be the drummer because he is amazing, and he hits hard. He's a great guy, too. He's the fire and energy of the band, both off-stage and on-stage. The off-stage part can drive us all a little crazy sometimes, but he is a fabulous guy.

And Gene Simmons? "Gene is a go-getter and one of the hardest-working people I've ever met. He's always got ideas about a million different things, some of which work, some of which don't. His mind is always busy. People don't realize how solid he is as a musician, though. If you really watch him, he's a great bass player. There are lots of great parts and moving lines, and he moves up and down the neck spectacularly.

What of Thayer's guitar foil, Paul Stanley? "Paul is a great guy, he's got a real sensitivity about music and being creative. He's the driving force in that aspect of KISS. He's the leader, and he knows music better than anybody in this band. He knows everything, every song, every band going back years and years. At the end of the day the buck stops with Paul when it comes to the creative side of KISS. He has the final word on anything we do."

Contrary to presumptions, Thayer says life in KISS is not all work and no play. "The idea that Gene and Paul are really serious is a misunderstanding. We all have a great time; it's got to be that way, but we're serious about what we do, deadly serious. At the same time we enjoy the spirit and the vibe with the four of us. When I get on stage I'm always smiling, and that's because I'm having a great time."

With his all-American chin and thick black hair (it's his own -- we checked his roots,) Thayer looks much more like the KISS comic book Spaceman than the booze-ravaged face of Ace Frehley ever did. His ability to pull off KISS licks seems effortless, but he's quick to dismiss the idea that he's doing an Ace impersonation. "This is the way I play. When I play KISS songs it just sounds right. It's not me trying to mimic anything.

"The reason it works is that I grew up in the mid-70s with what I call second-generation British hard rock bands, the ones that inspired US groups like KISS and Aerosmith: Led Zeppelin and Bad Company and Mick Ralphs and Jimmy Page. There was a great band called Foghat who were huge in the States.

"Ace Frehley was certainly part of the group of guitar players that I paid attention to. So today when I'm playing this stuff, people say to me, oh, you're just mimicking. But I have to say no, I'm just playing KISS songs... and probably doing it as well as anybody ever has."

Thayer was able to put his own mark on a chapter of KISStory during the making of the band's recent Sonic Boom album, contributing some vintage KISS solos and also writing and singing a lead vocal. And the guitar sound? If you didn't know better, you'd swear Sonic Boom was recorded in the late 1970s.

"There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle," Thayer explains. "We don't use active pickups. I played Gibson Les Pauls with Gibson pickups. Amp-wise I used my signature amp by Hughes & Kettner, which is a great amp -- not modern-sounding, more like a souped-up Marshall. I also used a late-'70s Marshall JMP, an old 50W 1973 Marshall and an older-style Hughes & Kettner combo called the Statesman. So it was all classic-type equipment to begin with.

"We recorded to tape, and that makes a difference. We weren't turning the gain up to 10 -- we went in the other direction and kept things distinct so that when we strummed the guitar you could hear every string. All this means that this stuff translates to the live stage perfectly."

That live stage might be a gargantuan KISS spectacular nowadays, but Thayer learnt his live chops in small venues around Portland, Oregon. "Playing clubs really enhanced my musical palette, but performing on a big stage like a KISS stage is a whole different monster. You really have to project to a big crowd and everything has to be more expansive."

The day we met Thayer, KISS were about to play an intimate show for 500 KISS fans at the Islington Academy. Considering the British music press haven't always been kind to KISS, why pick London for this special treat?

"Well, for us, this is the holy ground," Thayer says. "I don't know if you guys understand that. Britain is where all the great bands came from, the ones that influenced everyone in KISS the most. Starting with the Beatles on through Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. Even into the 1980s with Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. I'm a big Def Leppard fan -- when they first came out I thought they were a great ballsy rock band. High 'n' Dry was a great album and it's still on my top-10 list."

With a tour schedule that proves they are as popular as ever as a live draw, and now an album that even the critics like, the KISS juggernaut looks set to rock and roll onwards.

"There is such a good vibe about Sonic Boom, and such good reaction from the public and fans that it can only make us feel that perhaps we should make another album before too much time goes by. We've talked about it a bit already, although nothing has been set yet, but it's definitely not out of the question. Never say never.

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Did You Know?

Royalties from Thayer's H&K amp go to the Children's Hospital in L.A.

His fave KISS tracks: "Things I don't hear often, like Anything For My Baby"

His KISS debut was KISS Symphony with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Thayer is on the board of trustees at Pacific University in Oregon