July 29, 2010
By Scott Mervis

Photo by Sebastian Willnow

When Gene Simmons makes reference below to the Kiss Kasket, he isn't kidding.

The iconic hard-rock band actually took its marketing to the extremes of a casket emblazoned with the Kiss imagery.

Price: $4,500.

Big smiles at the funeral: priceless.

"I love livin'," the bassist known as The Demon once said, "but this makes the alternative look pretty damn good."

Kiss never could have imagined a Kiss Kasket -- could it? -- when it formed in 1973, but the concept from day one was that would be not just a band but a brand. Three and a half decades later, Kiss just might be the most recognizable rock institution in the world.

Last year, the band built on its empire by turning the release of "Sonic Boom," its first album in 11 years, into a merchandising bonanza at Wal-Mart, complete with Kiss Potato Heads. For its current tour, up to four children will be admitted free with each adult purchasing a lawn ticket, meaning that adult is advised to bring a big wad for shirts, toys and other items.

The fire-breathing, blood-spewing bassist, who, at 60, doubles as a reality star of "Gene Simmons Family Jewels," is the perfect man to rule over this empire in that he is completely unapologetic about the band's intentions.

In an interview last week, he talked, in his calm melodious voice, about the state of the Kiss Army.

So you guys are about to go on tour?

Actually, we've been on tour for 21/2 years, on and off. We started in Melbourne, Australia, to 80,000 people. We went through stadiums in South America, then did the outdoors in Europe over a year ago and did a run of America and Canada. We just finished a second European leg and went to places we hadn't been before -- 90,000 in Nuremberg just to give you a sense. We're coming back to America again, playing places we hadn't before.

We've taken over promoting ourselves at the shows -- in other words, every ticket that's bought there, we take it all. What that also means is we can do something that's never been done before. At almost all the shows, with the exception of two, if you're 14 or under, if you come with one adult, the four of you will get in for free as our guest. We can only do that if we promote the event ourselves. We're taking a buck out of every ticket and going directly to Wounded Warriors, our servicemen who are coming back.

I guess Kiss has become a family show -- it wasn't like that in the '70s.

It's grown full circle a few times. When we first started there were a lot of 14-year-olds and they grew older and became moms and dads, and guess what, their kids liked us, too. They grew up and they had kids. It's been 36, 37 years since the first tour. We have three generations of fans.

I imagine that's a great merchandising opportunity for you guys?

You're right. We have 3,000 licences, everything from condoms to caskets. That also means the oldest American beverage, Dr. Pepper, also decided to present the shows and also do these commercials.

You were just at the Arena in December -- that building might not be there much longer. I don't know if you know that or not.

I didn't know. I didn't know it was going to go away.

There's a new arena that's opening with McCartney in August. They tried to get a big final show for the dome, but it ended up being James Taylor and Carole King.

No, that's not the right last concert. We closed the Cobo Hall in Detroit. You could say we closed it with a bang.

I bet. Anyway, how will this show be different than the one in December. Will there be a different focus?

Different songs. We're adding "God Gave Rock 'n' Roll to You," "Beth," "Crazy Nights," three songs off "Sonic Boom." A good chunk of the show is songs we hadn't played before or barely played. New technology, new effects.

How would you assess the Wal-Mart/"Sonic Boom" experiment?

Fantastic. It if wasn't for Wal-Mart, we would not have made the album because you don't want to go to work and do it for free and neither do we. This is not a charity. It actually is called Music Business, not Music Friends. Working your butt off for months to write songs and record them and then have some kid in college think he can download it for free is not my style. In the same way that he goes to work at the end of the week, he wants his pay check, he doesn't want me to say, "Hey you worked all week -- that money is mine."

Yeah, well his paycheck is much smaller these days.

Well, then, much worse.

Seems like from the start it doesn't seem like Kiss was a band that shied away from being too commercial?

We were the only one. Everyone else lied. Any band that doesn't want to be commercial is actually lying. What it actually means is, "[Expletive], I wish I could be in Kiss instead of Radiohead." Not the musicality, but for the pure unadulterated fun -- of going out there and seeing someone who's 4 years old and doesn't know about music or anything else who wants to sleep with the Kiss teddy bear or something. And to someone who's 50 or 20 and goes to the Kiss Coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach. When a band can rise to the level of brand, yes songs are important, we hope you like the song, but that's it? That's not enough for me.

Well, don't you think people get into it for different reasons?

Who cares? If you go see "Avatar" and see it for the special effects and don't care about the story, that's fine. If someone goes because they love the love story, that's fine. If you go in because you think the story is poignant, how the white man beats up the natives, that's fine too. Come for your own reason. Clearly there's a cultural thing going on around the world when people name their children after our songs, get tattoos of our faces and there are Kiss tribute bands, including Mini Kiss.

You got some good reviews on "Sonic Boom." Has critical favor ever been important to you?

Not really. When you're a teenager and you're hanging out with your guys and running around, you love your mom and respect her, and she goes, "You know, I really like your friends." "That's nice, mom," but that's not why you do it. Critics are failed human beings, actually. There are no credentials for becoming a critic. You just are. You never have to have done anything, so there's no experience, there's no resume. If you asked me to critique new bands I would have a qualified opinion. I've been in a band, I've written songs, I've done that.

You're in a whole industry where no one needs credentials.

Well, yeah, except the doing it. You don't have to read music, but when you get the for-the-people, by-the-people who anoint you successful, that is its own credibility.

You were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but weren't selected ...

The bands that were selected were LL Cool J, Madonna and a few other disco acts.

This year was the Stooges, Genesis, The Hollies ...

Listen, we love the Stooges but if you walk up to any kid on the street, the masses we're talking about, and mention the Stooges, they'll go "Yeah, I love Curly, I love Moe." They don't have a clue what the [expletive] you're talking about. The fact that Grandmaster Flash or LL Cool J or Madonna is in the Rock Hall makes it a sham [editor's note: LL Cool J is not in it]. By the way, we wish you well, but it's backroom politics. Fifteen guys get together and decide who gets in. They asked us to put our outfits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I said, "What's our slice of the ticket price?" he said, "No, no, you don't understand, it's promotion." I said, "I'll tell you what we'll do. We'll have the Kiss of Hall of Fame and we'll put your stuff in and you won't get a penny."

It's been 36 years and you're a good deal older than when you started, how difficult is it to run around in those costumes and fly up to the rafters and stuff?

Oh, physically, it kicks your [behind]. A strange fact of life is, 20-year-olds in bands mean nothing. The biggest bands in the world are, you know, 55 and over. U2, the Stones, McCartney.

That's odd because when you were a teenager you weren't going to see guys who were 55 years old.

Well, rock 'n' roll itself was a new thing. Before the late '50s it didn't even exist, so it's a very young thing. It ain't classical music. It hasn't existed for hundreds of years, so the rules are changing every year. So is country. When I was a kid, they didn't look like Keith Urban.

I get this feeling that Kiss is such an enormous institution...

That's pretty accurate.

... that it might exist after you guys aren't in it anymore? Even after you and Paul are 80 years old and retired, I can envision a Kiss tour.

With somebody else -- you got that right. And we'd be happy if it did. Of course.

Kind of like Lynyrd Skynyrd is doing right now ...

No, not the same. You're talking about iconic imagery that transcends generations and invades all of American and world culture. Skynyrd does music. There's no imagery and iconic sense of it.

They do have imagery ...

What is the imagery?

Long hair, beards and biker garb, with a Confederate flag.

On Halloween, I've never seen anybody dress up like that.

So it would be called "Kiss," not "A Tribute to Kiss."

No, it would be called Kiss if we sanction it. When a king takes over a country at the behest of the people, he's called King, not the tribute king. You anoint, you crown.

Have you been impressed by the stage spectacle of any other acts?

I like Lady Gaga. The rest of the rock world is pretty pathetic. Musically, I like Muse. There are a lot of English bands that are interesting to me. Melodically, Keane is interesting. But what can rise to the level of iconic imagery where even little kids sit up and take notice? The test of time is the ultimate test.

Have you met Lady Gaga?

You mean has she met me? We spoke last week. ... That's all I can tell you.