May 05, 2010
KISS have never been a band to think small, but they have rediscovered the joys of working like a struggling club band. Richard Hodkinson meets a re-energised Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley

by Richard Hodkinson

KISS have never been a band to think small, but they have rediscovered the joys of working like a struggling club band. Richard Hodkinson meets a re-energised Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley

It's hard to remember a time when KISS - as a brand, as an image, as a logo - did not serve as a universal shorthand for rock'n'roll. Or at least for the excesses of rock'n'roll.

For 35 years lazy magazine editors have been able to reach into the archive for pictures of Gene Simmons breathing fire or Paul Stanley pouting outrageously and the point is made: this is what rock music looks like.

And it might be reasonable to suppose that the men themselves conform to this archetype; that the past four decades have been an exercise in barely diluted hedonism lit by a thousand flash bombs, peopled by a million groupies and financed by uncounted piles of dollar bills.

And so they have. But meeting Simmons and Stanley - the two remaining original members of the band they founded in 1973 - is an experience that many fans and most aspiring young bands would find mildly unsettling, because it quickly becomes clear that this is a duo driven by something other than the desire for fame and cash and Charlie. Whisper it gently, but the ethos that underpins the KISS success story is... the protestant work ethic. Go figure.

Several times our conversation moves back to the sacking of fellow original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, and when it does, what rankles is the former members' refusal to work hard enough, to deserve the privilege of what Simmons describes as becoming 'a kind of God walking the face of the Earth'. "Ace and Peter couldn't do it," he says, discussing the pair's drink and drug problems. "When they came back for the reunion tour in '95 - it's almost embarrassing to tell this story - but Tommy Thayer, who had been in a KISS tribute band, had to sit with Ace and teach him his own solos! Y'know, if you use for 30 years your brain is going to be mush..."

Stanley, too, is quick to reveal this frustration with former colleagues: "We were so limited with Peter and Ace because they couldn't learn new songs, so our set was the same year after year. People would ask 'why doesn't the set change more' and we'd go 'oh, the classic songs..' whatever. But the truth was we couldn't change it."

All this might be characterised as the kind of ungracious bitching that occurs whenever a band breaks up, but the relief felt by Simmons and Stanley to be rid of dead weight, and their enthusiasm for the current line up (completed by guitarist Thayer and drummer Eric Singer) is palpable. This is candour, it seems, not sour grapes.

The new album, Sonic Boom - their best since the early '80s - has seen a return to the writing and recording practices of their earliest work, and, by their own accounts, has been fun to make: "It's a lot to do with not having to babysit Ace and Peter. I'm sorry to say that as soon as they left the band, it became enjoyable again," says Simmons.

The band's last studio album was 1998's Psycho Circus which, despite a belting title track, was something of a curate's egg - good in parts. Fairly small parts, at that.

"The results of that album were a reflection of what went on in the studio," says Stanley. "Y'know, trying to make a KISS album when you don't have a KISS, making an album when you're in contact with attorneys more than the people who are supposed to be in the band doesn't make for great music." Members of the band were barely on speaking terms for Psycho Circus, practically phoning in their parts and demanding quotas of their own songs on the album: "And the problem with song quotas is that good songs get left out because you have to put on somebody else's crap," says Stanley.

The contrast with the recording process for Sonic Boom could not have been more marked: "The rehearsals were quick and the recordings - well, all the songs on Sonic Boom were, at the worst, second takes. We did one, I think, that was a third take and Eric was worried he'd lost the spontaneity...," says Stanley, clearly thrilled by what he describes as 'the spirit' of the new line-up. "The classic line-up was classic at one time," he says, "but there comes a point when you don't want to put Pele on the field anymore."

"Plus," says Simmons, "you have to be fit - what we do is exacting. If you're in the Stones, you can drink all night and then run around on stage OK. But we do two-and-a-half hours on 8-inch platform heels with armour and studs and 30-pounds of other stuff, blowing shit up, flying through the air... There are no female backing singers, no one backstage doubling us. It's exhausting, so if you've got members of the band who can't keep up - and we have in the past - let 'em stay home."

The new album was, for the first time in decades, written exclusively by the band's current members (and produced by Stanley). The results are great, so why had it been so long since Simmons and Stanley wrote as a team, given that the combination had worked so well through the band’s formative years? "Because we became big babies," says Stanley. "We became spoiled kids who wanted things our way. And Sonic Boom wasn't going to be about anyone getting their way - it was about making the best album we could make. I said to Gene that it was important that we write together, and he scratched his head and was a bit leery about it, but as soon as we began writing, it sounded like it was supposed to sound."

Simmons describes he and Stanley as 'two sides of the same coin', but, speaking to them in the incongruous setting of the cutesy Charlotte Street Hotel, it becomes obvious that, while they must have always shared a similar vision, the two men have contrasting, if complementary, personalities. Simmons speaks in expansive generalisations, making sweeping gestural statements that often - usually - diverge widely from the central subject. A discussion about Simon Cowell segues disorientingly into a monologue on mankind's atavistic inclination toward song, illustrated by the example of opposing sides singing Christmas carols together on the front line in 1914. An instinctive, unstoppable raconteur, he paints with the broadest possible brush, while Stanley, more thoughtful, at times quite guarded, addresses the detail.

A simple question - what is the best song you've ever written for the band? - elicits revealing responses from the duo (I interviewed them separately). Stanley thinks for a moment before answering ('Love Gun') before going on to justify his choice in some detail. Simmons, in contrast, seems bewildered to be asked the question. He is silent, by my count, for a full eight seconds. And eight seconds is a long time for Gene Simmons to remain silent. When he, at last, answers ('Deuce') his reason given is that the song has opened the band's show for decades. That means the fans like it. So it must be good. Art doesn't come into it - this is showbiz, folks.

Simmons is the soul of KISS, Stanley its musical intelligence, and everything is grounded in that unforgiving work ethic. And, listening to stories about the band's early days playing the New York club circuit, it seems it always has been. They've paid their dues: "One of the first shows we did was at South Edmonton College, or something," says Simmons, "filling in for someone who'd cancelled. And [the show] was in the lunchroom. There was no stage - they just put the lunch tables together and we put our amps on there and, of course, it collapsed. They were big amps..." So you turned up with the costumes, the whole show, to play an obscure student union? "Of course! It's KISS! It's not Fairport Convention, c'mon..."

A reputation for staging a more energetic live show that most made support slots difficult to come by at first, a problem that might have proved terminal for the band. "It's true we couldn't get on tours," says Simmons, "so we ended up on the strangest bills you could ever imagine. We opened for Savoy Brown and Argent and Manfred Mann, and we were not allowed to do encores - that was in our contract. But then, with Argent, we tried to squeeze in an encore because the audiences were going nuts - I'd be breathing fire, giving birth on stage, whatever the fuck we had to do, y'know? And when we tried to do the encore, our power would be pulled by Argent's road manager. One night, the third of fourth time we try it, we notice the power was still on, but we don't have any more songs to play, so we start the set again. And we get halfway through before we go off - thank you and goodnight. We found out later that Junior, our black road manager - a lot of our road crew at the time looked like Hell's Angels, because they were - had got the Argent road manager in a headlock and had locked him in a case at - I'm not supposed to say this - at knifepoint. The next show we were thrown off the tour..."

Success, when it came, came quickly, and the band progressed from falling off lunch tables in South Edmonton, to headlining major arenas within 18-months of releasing their debut album: "I remember," says Simmons, "we put the band together in New York City, on 10 East 23rd St, and Madison Square Garden was on 33rd St - ten streets, you could walk it - and I remember walking in the front doors, through the crowd (nobody looked at me twice), walking backstage, putting on the makeup and then walking up on stage and blowing the roof off. That was cool..."

The potential, though, was always there for a spectacular implosion - conflicting big egos, drink, drugs, and musical differences that lead to near break-ups, dalliances with disco, actual break-ups and eventually, the dreaded concept album. "Success just seemed to breed the worst in all of us," says Stanley. "Let's be honest, there were some guys in the band whose creativity was marginal anyway, and once they became slaves to sycophantic friends and drugs and alcohol - not only did they have nothing to offer, but they slowed the vehicle until it wasn't moving at all. And, also, Gene and I lost that hunger, that passion. It was something we had to re-find, and it took quite a while to get it."

Part of that recovery process involved losing the makeup and toning down the wardrobe (it could hardly have been toned up, now, could it?). Of the decision to unmask, Stanley says: "I wanted to do that because I kind of felt that we’d become…” a long pause here... "a parody of ourselves. We were a menagerie. Somebody would leave the band and, suddenly, we were five steps away from having Elephant Boy and Snail Man. It became silly, y'know, instead of our saying, 'this is what we started as, and this is how we'll continue', which is where we are now. When you have four figures that look that iconic, don't mess with them, y'know? Puppy boy.. man!"

I met the band the day before KISS played a rare one-off club show at the 800-capacity Islington Academy ("It's in a shopping mall? That's perfect for KISS!" said Simmons on being given the news of the venue's inauspicious location). On that north London stage, even from 20-feet away, the band look and sound utterly indistinguishable from their 1977 manifestation. No other band has aged so invisibly. The show is fantastic.

At least, the fans think it is fantastic. Critics have always been ambivalent at best, openly hostile more often. Doesn't that ever hurt, even a bit? "I'd rather know what 20,000 paying members of the audience think than one guy who may have his own reasons for liking or disliking us,' says Stanley. "Some of the most vehement negative reactions we've had should probably be worked off on a psychiatrist's couch, y'know? C'mon, we're just KISS, folks..."

Simmons answers the same question, typically, by pointing out the compensations of rock stardom, the perks not shared by those of us who only get to write about rock stardom: "Look, the Pope doesn't get groupies for Godssakes... I'm 60 and I can walk down the street and still... [a sweeping gesture of the arm to indicate the passing high-class totty of Charlotte Street] anything that moves. And if it doesn't move, we can work something out. What other job gives you that?"

Critics be damned, then. But with another huge arena tour about to kick off, can a band whose appeal lies so much in the physicality of the live show, perform like the KISS of 30 years ago?

"When we're on stage today," says Stanley, "we have to be not as we were, but as people remember us. When we first put together a show for the reunion tour [in 1995], we had to put together a show on a scale bigger than ever before, because that's how people remembered us." Because people expected the pyromaniac's wet dream that was the gatefold photo of the classic Alive II album? "Yeah, but if you look at that photo, there's only about a hundred lights - there's nothing up there. We did that photo during a sound check in San Diego. We went up on the lifts and they set everything off, every bomb, every pyro effect we had. So, did that ever happen in the show? No. But it's what people think they remember. And that's what we have to deliver every night."

But, as Stanley admits, the physical preparations for a tour are harder now he and Simmons are closing in on pensionable age. Both look fantastically fit up close, but there must be a temptation to call it a day, lie back, play with the kids, get fat, spend the money? "Y'know," says Simmons, "I could buy jewellery, watches, all that stuff. Do you see any of that on me? No. I'm having such a ball just being Gene Simmons. And… I'm my own biggest fan."

Kiss play Wembley Arena on 12 & 13 May.