August 11, 2010
A conversation with the Kiss icon, who'll bring The Hottest Show on Earth to NEPA

by Nikki M. Mascali
Staff Writer

Fans don't go to Kiss shows to hear an agenda. They don't go to find out who they should vote for in the next election or to hear the band's opinion on an oil spill.

"We don't talk about acid rain or who's going to save the whales or what political party you should vote for - we don't care about that. Most people yawn when they start to hear that," bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons told the Weekender from Los Angeles where the band was recording "Venus and Mars" for an upcoming Paul McCartney tribute album.

"Next time I want to find out about acid rain and the rainforest, I hope it's not from a rock star. In the same way, I don't want to find out from a scientist what other song I should put in the set, so I think rock stars should shut up, get up on stage and do what they're designed to do - otherwise, you're not qualified to tie my shoelaces."

Actually, there is something on Kiss' show agenda: To give its legion of fans the greatest show on the planet. A Kiss concert is an extravagant display of pyrotechnics, elaborate costumes and face paint, Simmons' blood spitting, Simmons and vocalist/guitarist Paul Stanley flying through the air and music that has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide since the mid-1970s.

Local fans will get to see Kiss' summer tour - called The Hottest Show on Earth - Sunday, Aug. 15 at Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain.

The band has been touring the world consistently for the past two-and-a-half years, starting with Australia - where it performed in front of 80,000 people - before hitting Europe and South America twice each.

"This time, we're only doing one single day in as many cities as we can fit in in a 35-show schedule and doing a few things I'm not aware that anyone else has done," Simmons said.

For one of them, Kiss partnered with Guitar Center to offer unsigned bands across the country the chance to open for the band at each of the tour stops. Winners - like NEPA winner The SilenTreatment - join the ranks of bands like AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Rush, Motley Crue and Iron Maiden, who all cut their teeth opening for Kiss.

"It says something about us," Simmons said. "It says that we're fans as well as being in a band. We get off on solid bands as much as fans do."

Simmons and Stanley founded Kiss in New York City in 1973 with lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. The four wanted to "be the band we never saw," as Stanley said on last year's A&E documentary "Kissteria."

The band adopted the makeup and ensuing characters: Simmons the Demon, Stanley the Starchild, Frehley the Spaceman and Criss the Catman.

Criss left Kiss in 1980 - Simmons and Stanley have stated he was fired while the drummer maintained he quit. Frehley left in 1982 to pursue a solo career, a year before Kiss infamously removed its makeup. Various lineup changes occurred over the years - the band would variously include Eric Carr, Bruce Kulick, Mark St. John, Vinnie Vincent and Eric Singer until Frehley and Criss returned for a reunion of the original members in 1996.

That same year, the four put their makeup back on and brought back to life their on-stage characters. This version of Kiss would remain through the band's 2000-2001 U.S. Farewell Tour.

When Frehley chose not to remain in the band following the reunion shows, Tommy Thayer donned the Spaceman makeup and costume in 2002 and would become a permanent member of the band the following year. Singer, who first joined the band in 1991 following Carr's death, returned in 2001 after Criss left, reportedly over a contract dispute. Criss returned in 2003, but later that year, the band reportedly decided not to renew his contact, and Singer became a permanent member of the band and took over the Catman persona.

It's been nearly 19 years since Carr died of heart cancer, and Simmons said that the drummer, who was in Kiss from 1980 until his death in 1991, surely would have returned to reprise his Fox character after Criss left for good.

"Sure, oh yeah," Simmons said, his voice adopting a reverent tone. "He was a sweetheart and a hell of a drummer. He could write, he could sing. It was very tragic what happened to him, but I'll tell you that Eric Singer carries on the tradition."

"Sonic Boom," released last year, was the first album to feature this current lineup. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and was, as Stanley told Rolling Stone recently, "the first album in the next phase" of Kiss.

Asked to elaborate on Stanley's comment, Simmons said, "It means there are no more alcoholics or drug addicts in the band; That's a good start."

He likened Kiss to an athlete who has been found to be using performance-enhancing drugs.

"Any team gets revitalized when founding members who are dysfunctional are kicked out," he said. "And you respect that they were a part of the band and deserve any accolade that anybody else in the band gets, but it would also be the death knell of the band if they were in the band today."

As the only constant members of the band, Simmons and Stanley have both stated they'd like to see Kiss go on after they retire from the band.

"Why should any one person determine what something is?" Simmons mused. "When I was a kid, I used to think that without Mickey Mantle, there couldn't be a Yankees. Actually, there could. ... So anybody you think who's the definition without whom something can't exist, winds up being a momentary lapse of judgment.

"No one is too big for anything. Everyone can be replaced - and should be if they can't carry the weight."

With a character named the Demon who spits blood and breathes fire on stage - which Simmons said he does "only when it's that time of the month" - and reportedly bedding more than 4,000 women and often displaying his long tongue, Simmons shows a different side of himself on his A&E reality show "Gene Simmons Family Jewels."

The highly rated show, which finished its fifth season last month, follows the personal lives of Simmons, his longtime partner Shannon Tweed and their two children Nick and Sophie.

To Simmons, though, he's just being himself.

"I've never made any bones about what I believe in or who I am," Simmons said. "I never wanted to get married - and I'm not. I've been happily unmarried with Shannon for 27 years now, but the idea of marriage is out of the question.

"I've never been high or drunk in my life, and that continues. And those are the same rules for the household. People think they're seeing a different side of me, but they're just seeing a clearer picture. There's nothing different."

Including his friendship with Stanley.

"Good God, we live a quarter of a mile from each other," Simmons shared with a laugh. "And if he wants a cup of sugar, I have lots. And if you are what you eat, I must be a really sweet guy."

Almost as famous as Kiss' music - which includes 19 studio albums, nine live albums and 57 singles - is the band's vast array of merchandise. The Kiss logo has been put on everything from Marvel comic books, dolls and "Kiss Your Face Makeup" kits to condoms and the Kiss Kasket.

And the marketing campaign shows no sign of stopping.

"Kiss crack probably wouldn't be a good idea because you have to spell 'crack' with a K," Simmons replied when asked what the band wouldn't put the logo on. "I'm talking to you on a Kiss cell phone. The new generation of high-definition televisions are going to be Kiss-branded. They're massive - can't wait to get my hands on them.

"There are Kiss cameras that just hit - we're giving them out with the backstage experience people can get. The Kiss scooter just hit the stores and almost completely sold out. There's lots of fun stuff."

Though there are longtime touring bands like The Rolling Stones and even "younger" bands like U2, with its 37 successful years behind it, Kiss is kind of in a class by itself.

"There are some solid bands who do this stuff," Simmons said. "But...we are the ones that kicked every band in the nuts, and, in essence, laid down the gauntlet (to say) it's not enough to come out there and sing the next song - you have to have a show."

When asked if there are any bands on the rise today that he could see having the longevity of Kiss, Simmons didn't pull punches.

"No, not in rock. It's a pretty sad state of affairs," he said. "I'll tell you who has the legs and the guts and the balls to hang in there and is fearless is Lady Gaga. She's got the goods."

One thing Kiss has made clear over the years is loyalty to its fans - the members of the Kiss Army. Two fans unofficially founded the Kiss Army in 1975, and in 2007, after a period of inactivity, the band named the Kiss Army its official fan club. Among its members is former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

During "Gene Simmons Family Jewels" and "Kissteria," viewers can see a very real look at what happens behind the scenes and how the band members interact with fans, which is almost always with a smile, an autograph or a photo.

"Well, look, don't be in a band. Pick up plumbing, become a dentist," Simmons said. "Part and parcel of this is some of you is owned by the fans... I think you owe it to yourself to be nice to your bosses. Without mincing words, the fans are the bosses. We just work here.

"The amount of love and admiration we have for them, I'd like to think, is unequaled. We sing their praises, and rightfully so. The Kiss Army is legendary, they're self-named, and I don't care if you're a U2 fan or a Rolling Stones fan, there is no name for that."