October 08, 2009
Lead guitarist Tommy Thayer, 48, grew up a KISS fan in the Portland, Ore., area.

As a child, he dressed up as original KISS lead guitarist Ace Frehley for Halloween. A quarter-century later, he replaced Frehley as the band's main ax man.

"I've been a fan of KISS since I was 13 years old," Thayer said in a phone interview. "I discovered KISS when their first record came out in 1974. I hadn't even started playing guitar yet. I saw a feature in a magazine called Circus. I saw some live photos of KISS doing a performance, and I thought, 'These guys look menacing!' They had cool guitars and platform heels. I got my first KISS album for Christmas in 1974, and I was on my way.

"I dressed up a couple of times, like all kids do," Thayer said. "I actually put on Ace Frehley back then. It's kind of ironic, actually. I used to come home from junior high school and play air guitar to KISS Alive!"

Thayer eventually formed a band, Black 'N Blue, and moved to Southern California to hit the Hollywood club scene. In 1985, Black 'N Blue toured with KISS as an opening act.

Thayer formed a friendship with Gene Simmons and asked the KISS co-founder to produce Black 'N Blue's next record. But it was during that studio work that Thayer became more involved with KISS itself. He wrote songs, recorded demos, managed tours and produced and edited film and video.

When Frehley rejoined the band for the 1996 reunion tour, Thayer re-taught him the licks from the old KISS songs. In 2002, when Frehley left the band again, Thayer was on standby, ready to permanently take over the lead guitar role.

Back to the future

The new live act is loosely a tribute to the '70s KISS hits, Thayer said.

"It's really a combination of all the eras of KISS - the '70s era, which was originally when the band started out, but also bits and pieces from early '80s and late '80s and even stuff from the early '90s," he said. "We've got a whole new stage, new outfits, a lot of new bells and whistles. Another exciting thing about it - the reviews critically, across the board, have been spectacular. In times past, critics haven't been good to KISS, but even the critics are giving it a thumbs up."

KISS' stage personas have made it possible for the band to live on, even as membership changes. "It's pretty multigenerational; when the kids see KISS, it's the characters, the music," Thayer said. "Everything is kind of timeless about it, and it seems to keep working."

There have even been recent reports that charter KISS members Simmons and Paul Stanley might pick their own stage replacements - perhaps on a reality show - while maintaining creative control of the act. Theoretically, KISS could continue with a hand-picked lineage for generations to come.

"Part of what KISS is all about is thinking outside the box," Thayer said. "I suppose it's possible. Someday, that could happen. It would have to be somebody really good, though."

Would Thayer recommend that older KISS fans take their children to a KISS show?

"Sure. When people first came out in the early '70s, they were wondering, 'What is this?' It was very cutting edge, underground almost. There were all these rumors, and Gene was kind of demonic. But like anything, KISS became more mainstream. It's still very rock 'n' roll and rootsy, in that respect.

"But we have all kinds of age groups, from kids to people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. It's good for everybody, good for family and a great show. There's nothing to be afraid of."