October 19, 2009
By Julio Diaz

Some bands should need no introduction. But if KISS needs one, it should the words that have brought the band onto the stage for decades:

"You wanted the best, you got the best!"

Over the course of more than 35 years, KISS has established itself as one of rock's biggest bands. With its iconic makeup and costumes and timeless hits such as "Detroit Rock City," "Rock and Roll All Nite" and "Calling Dr. Love," the band has weathered personnel changes and changing fashions to stay on top.

And this year may be the band's biggest yet. The new album, "Sonic Boom," was released last week through Walmart stores and online, and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart -- the group's highest position ever on the chart. And original members Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss have been nominated this year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Frehley and Criss are long gone from KISS, of course, replaced by Tommy Thayer on lead guitar and vocals and Eric Singer on drums and vocals. Thayer, a long-time KISS fan who worked behind the scenes with the band for more than a decade before taking on the lead guitarist role, spoke to the News Journal by phone ahead of Monday's concert at the Pensacola Civic Center.

Q: KISS was an inspiration to you growing up. What did you think when your old band, Black N' Blue got the call to open for KISS back in 1985?

A: Well, that was one of those life-changing experiences. I know that sounds kind of dramatic, but there are a few things that have happened in my life that are dreamlike experiences. When I found out we were going to tour with KISS, that was one of them. When we got to the first stop in Little Rock in November 1985, that's when I met the guys, and we were a little intimidated by Gene because he puts on such an aura.

Q: That was the start of a long relationship with the band and with Gene in particular. Has he been something of a mentor to you?

A: He has, and Paul has too, actually, but initially I got to know Gene more because he produced two of our records. Later, he asked me to write with him for KISS. When Black N' Blue ran its course, they hired me to come and work for them, and that was kind of a dream job. I worked on the "KISStory" book and the KISS conventions, and that led into the whole reunion with the original members. Everything came full circle and I was thrust into the band officially. It's interesting how life takes you sometimes.

Q: Talk about your role in the band during those years.

A: I was doing all kinds of things -- editing video, actually even producing and directing some of the DVDs. I just started taking on things. The thing I had going for me is that I knew KISS inside and out because I'd loved the band since they started. Plus, I'm a hard working guy. Whatever I do, I put 110 percent effort into it, and when you do that, things start happening for you. So that's how it went. As the reunion tour started and through that era of the band, I was working behind the scenes, and I was actually focusing more on a career in the music business. I had done guitar playing, and you only get so many chances. But ironically, things came full circle. It's been a great ride.

Q: Talk about the first time you took the stage as a member of the band. What did that feel like?

A: Taking the stage for the first time as an official member came very naturally, because up to that time, I had played and recorded and soundchecked with the band many, many times. When other guitar players didn't show up, I was very much in the works already. When it came time for me to step on stage for the first time, it was a great feeling but a very seamless transition. It was different than a lot of situations that you might imagine -- there wasn't an audition, it was just "Tommy, this is your time, we want you to do this, so here you go."

But when you step into one of the biggest rock 'n' roll bands in the world, there is a certain degree of pressure involved, and with that in mind, there's a certain degree of competence and you have to step up and really take care of business.

Q: Did you ever doubt that you could step up?

A: No, I never doubted that I couldn't do an amazing job in KISS. But they are big shoes to fill -- TALL shoes to fill (laughs). I never doubted that I could do it well, but there are certain high expectations to fill, and you have to do it. But I've always been real confident that I could do it well.

Q: You've been the lead guitarist in KISS for about 7 years. Is it odd to you that people might still think of you as the new guy?

A: I'll always be the Ronnie Wood of KISS (laughs). I've been in the band a lot longer than some other members were over the years, but I'll always be the new guy. When you have a band that's been going on 40 years, you'll always have that.

Q: Tell us about the new album.

A: "Sonic Boom" is the first studio album released by KISS in 11 years, so it's a real milestone for us. As we recorded this thing, we began to realize how good it really was. The key to the success and the way the whole thing came together is that we did it with no outside influence at all. It didn't dawn on me until we were halfway through it that we didn't play it for anyone else -- not the label, not management, nobody. That's why it's a pure KISS record to the core, because we just did it ourselves, almost like a new band starting. Nobody heard it until it was finished, mixed and in the can. I think that's why it turned out so terrifically, because it's pure and we didn't overthink it to try to satisfy anyone else. We just did it from the gut. So it's a great pure rock 'n' roll album and the pure essence of KISS. I think it covers all eras of the band pretty well, and that's what's cool about it. We couldn't be happier, and so far, everybody's ecstatic. The reviews and impressions couldn't better -- which is right in line with what we think.

Q: Do you have any favorite tracks? Obviously, you're singing lead on "When Lightning Strikes," so that must be a highlight...

A: I sing lead on "When Lightning Strikes," and I co-wrote a few songs, too. I think they're all really exceptional songs, and I think its one of those albums that you want to listen to start to finish. I love them all.

Q: "Sonic Boom" is being distributed exclusively through Walmart stores. Talk about that.

A: As you know, the music industry has changed a lot, and you don't really have conventional record stores anymore on a retail level. This deal with Walmart was put together, which is mutually beneficial. They are the biggest retailer of music now, so it's a real coup and its been a great partnership so far. It's a good deal, and they are setting up KISS Korners, kind of kiosks in the store where you can pick up the album and other merchandise.

The other thing is that there are two bonus discs in the package -- a DVD of a live show in Buenos Aries and a disc of re-records of KISS classics. So there's a lot of big value in this, and the package is just $12. It's something anybody should be able to pick up. Lot of depth in that.

Q: There's a lot of buzz about release, including talk that it could be KISS' first No. 1 album...

A: It looks like it'll be either No. 1 or No. 2, and we hope it'll be No. 1. It'll be the highest chart position for any KISS record ever, either way. We're all very pleased and proud. KISS is in the hearts and minds of everyone right now, it seems. It's an exciting time in the world of KISS.

Q: And the band's been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the first time, which is a subject of some controversy, with the band having been eligible for nearly a decade. Talk about that.

A: KISS probably should have been nominated sooner, because it's one of the biggest rock 'n' roll bands ever. KISS is nominated this year, and I'd love to see that happen. As far as I'm concerned, KISS probably should have already been in there. The band is really excited, particularly for the four original members, it's well deserved. In my mind -- and I know in millions of fans minds -- KISS is one of the most important rock 'n' roll bands of all time.

Q: The tour is all new, too. Tell us about the set-up.

A: It's the biggest stage we've ever taken out, it's about 30 feet wider than the stage last year. We've got a huge video production like never before. The lighting, the sound, the pyro is all over the top. It's really a stadium stage packed into arenas. Lot of bang for the buck, that's for sure. When you go see KISS, it's not four guys in jeans staring at their shoes. There's a lot going on and you never go home feeling like you didn't get enough bang for your buck.

Seeing a KISS show is one of those things that everybody needs to do once in their life. Now's the chance, and Oct. 19 we want to see that Civic Center packed to the gills, like it always is for a good KISS show.