KISS: A rock'n'roll fairytale
By JADE LAZAREVIC
KISS have never done things by halves. From the cartoon make-up and the costumes to the elaborate theatrics of their live shows - we're talking fire breathing, blood spitting and fireworks-shooting guitars - the KISS philosophy has never equated to less is more. The iconic rock band returns to Australia in October, bringing their spectacular The Spider stage production to Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and - for the first time - Newcastle.
The spider - which can be motioned up and down like a giant puppet - weighs 43,500kg, with 220 automated lights and 100 multi-coloured LED lights. If that wasn't enough, the show uses 900 pieces of pyrotechnics, 20 flame machines and 300kg of dry ice. It is the ultimate, epic rock show.
"Yeah, well, that's what we're known for," KISS lead guitarist Tommy Thayer says with a laugh.
"There's no such thing as less is more and we take pride in the fact we probably shoot off more pyro than any other act out there. And it should be noted that KISS was actually pioneering in all that stage effects stuff, like pyro, that everybody uses now. It all started with KISS and so we are the originators."
Thayer had spent the morning rehearsing with KISS - Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Eric Singer - when he spoke to Weekender last month from Los Angeles. The band was preparing for the European/UK leg of the band's world tour, which kicked off in the US last year, taking in Canada, Japan and South America before heading to Europe (they perform in Vienna tonight) and, finally, Australia.
Like everything associated with KISS, the European/UK tour is huge - arena venues and a headline spot on the bill at British heavy rock festival Download that draws 120,000 through the gates over three days.
It is an incredible position for a band to be in 42 years after it played its first show to an audience that, according to Simmons, had less than 10 people in attendance.
Thayer, a life-long fan who joined the band officially in 2003, says KISS are "bigger than a band."
"It's a phenomenon. It's iconic. Those characters, the make-up, the outfits, the show, I think it's something that is legendary in a way," Thayer says
"When you get to that level in a band people just come in droves, they want to keep coming to see it. KISS is one of those rare bands that is at that point where it's become iconic and it just keeps going.
"Of course we need to do a great job, we need to play really well and put on great shows and we work hard at that, but with that in mind, people keep wanting to come and see KISS and see the show and hear the music and see the spectacle."
It was during the band's 2003 tour of Australia that Thayer played his first concert as an official member of KISS.
The band performed with the 70-piece Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a concert at the Telstra Dome (now Etihad Stadium) which was recorded and released as a live album, Kiss Symphony: Alive IV.
Thayer said moments like that make him pinch himself. "That was a big introduction to me into the band - it's not bad being in arguably one of the biggest, most legendary groups ever," Thayer says.
"KISS is a band that I've had my eyes on ever since they first came out in 1973 when I was younger. I was always a fan and I've always felt KISS is one of the most outrageous, over-the-top, dynamic bands that ever existed.
"So being in the band is a complete honour and sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind myself that I'm actually in it.
"It's every guitar player's dream come true to be in a band like this."
KISS are among the big rock acts of the '70s that inspired Thayer to pick up a guitar as a 13-year-old kid growing up in Portland, Oregon.
He is what you could describe as the ultimate fan and his journey into the world of KISS is the perfect rock'n'roll fairytale.
In his early 20s, Thayer formed hard rock band Black 'n Blue who played around Portland before relocating to California, where they built a following around clubs on LA's Sunset Strip and landed a recording deal with Geffen Records.
The band released its debut album in 1984 and scored a spot opening for KISS on a two-month tour the following year.
Thayer developed a friendship with Stanley and Simmons, the latter of whom produced Black 'n Blue's next two albums.
The band split in 1989, however Thayer remained close with Stanley and Simmons, co-writing songs for the band's album, Hot In The Shade.
At one point, Thayer even played in a KISS cover band but he downplays it as not being a serious job, simply as "a bit of a goof".
By 1994, Thayer had been hired by Stanley and Simmons to work for them, doing everything from making coffee to odd jobs.
"I kind of needed a job so they offered me a part-time job to come work in the KISS organisation and I just did odd jobs and then I ended up working full-time by the mid-90s," Thayer recalls.
"When they started the reunion tour [in 1996] I was the road manager, so I was just more focused on getting into the music business at that point because you don't get many more chances as a musician.
"When you get a record deal and that record deal runs its course, you don't usually get too many more shots at it and so I was looking at more of a business approach or management approach to my career.
"Things just came full circle and after a few more years I became the lead guitar player."
Thayer, 54, says the notion that he orchestrated his move into the band is simply not true.
"It's funny because people have always said 'Oh Tommy, you had a grand design' or 'You planned this out perfectly and you're so smart' and all this sort of thing.
"But it really didn't work out that way."
Thayer first performed with the band in 2002 when he was on stand-by to fill in for original guitarist Ace Frehley who had returned to the band after first splitting in 1982 and rejoined for the reunion tour in 1996.
Frehley would often turn up late to go on stage - or not turn up at all.
His unreliability had become so common that Thayer had his own "Spaceman" outfit - the one worn by Frehley - ready to go backstage in the event that the guitarist would fail to show up.
In 2002, KISS was booked to play a private show in Jamaica.
Frehley refused to play, so Thayer got the call that he was needed.
"Doc McGhee, the band's manager, had called me and said 'The other guy's not gonna show up for this gig, we know that now for sure, so we want you to make sure to be ready to play and come down and don the make-up, put the Spaceman outfit on and do this gig'," Thayer recalls.
"So the first gig was really as a fill-in. We didn't know where everything was going at that point but then, by the time we got to the beginning of 2003, I was officially in the band.
"They said 'We want you to do this' and so it was as simple as that."
That's not to say his introduction into the band as the Spaceman has gone without controversy.
Last year, Frehley spoke out against Thayer in an interview, describing him as "just a guy up there copying me and trying to move like me and trying to sing like me and trying to play like me".
Thayer is aware of Frehley's comments.
"I don't want to get into a back and forth but I'm sure you can kind of assess what you think when you hear all that," Thayer says.
"I think he had every opportunity in the world to continue in KISS and be in KISS as long as he did the right thing, but it worked out better for me and he has to lead his life.
"As far as the jabs and all that, he can say that stuff and I'm not going to say anything bad about him.
"I just wish all the best to everybody in whatever they're doing."
KISS emerged in the '70s to become one of the biggest-selling acts of the decade.
It was as much about the theatrics of the band as it was the music that earned them a fanatical base of followers, who became christened as the KISS Army, with thousands of members all over the globe.
The tongue-wagging Simmons formed the band in New York with frontman Stanley in 1973, drummer Peter Criss finalising the original line-up alongside Frehley on guitar, with each adopting their own cartoon-style character, complete with signature make-up.
The band has released 20 studio albums, with sales topping the 100 million mark, and boasts a back catalogue of classic rock anthems: Rock and Roll All Nite, I Was Made For Loving You, Love Gun, God Gave Rock'n'Roll To You, Shout It Out Loud, Detroit Rock City.
In 2014, KISS finally had their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If the band has it their way, KISS could go on forever.
Stanley was recently quoted as saying he would like to see KISS become "immortal" and continue on after he is finished.
Thayer says there is every chance it could happen.
"It's possible, I mean, it's already kind of happened with half the band, to be truthful," Thayer says.
"But it's hard to imagine KISS without Paul or Gene. But at the same time, who's to say somebody won't come along that blows everybody away and they could take over and continue on.
"Anything's possible, you never say never and I think part of the KISS philosophy is there are no rules and anything could happen."