Rock legends KISS and make up - Interview with Gene Simmons
By Simon Collins / The West Australian
Gene Simmons first realised the commercial potential of the Kiss brand back in the ’70s.
The iconic rock band was between tours and Simmons was hanging out in New York’s West Village, taking in the colour of a Halloween parade in the city’s gay stronghold.
“The streets were full of all these outrageously dressed people,” the 66-year-old recalls from his Beverly Hills home.
Behind men dressed as Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross and Cher, Simmons says, casually reeling off of names of women he’s either managed or managed to sleep with, he spotted four guys dressed as Kiss. Full make-up, black costumes and towering platform boots, but no instruments.
“I was so taken aback by it,” Simmons chuckles. “I realised ‘Wow, this is bigger than a rock band, this is culture. This has become iconic imagery’.”
He jokes that while four buddies might try to go to a Halloween party as the Rolling Stones, it’s going to be tough for whoever has to dress as Charlie Watts.
That moment in New York sowed the seed for the apparently limitless range of products adorned with the Kiss logo.
While they’re not the only band with pinball machines, baby onesies or branded booze, Kiss truly broke fresh ground when they released their own coffin, the Kiss Kasket, in 2001.
More recently Kiss introduced a limo service, built an indoor mini-golf course in Las Vegas and established LA Kiss, a team in the nascent Arena Football League.
And then there’s the Kiss Kruise. The fifth instalment sets sail from Miami for Jamaica in October, after the band completes the Australian leg of its 40th anniversary world tour. Simmons, Paul Stanley, Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer previously played Perth Arena in February 2013.
Kiss Kruise V co-stars hard rockers Steel Panther, Fozzy, Lita Ford and Aussie tour support act the Dead Daisies. There’s also tattooists, magicians, face painting and other activities to float the boat of diehard fans.
“Marriages happen on there,” Simmons adds. “We sometimes do ’em. Marriages happen right there on the ship and some divorces too.”
Is there anything Kiss won’t put their name to?
“Crack,” the entrepreneurial rocker growls. “Even if they said ‘Crack with a K’.”
Known as The Demon and God of Thunder on stage, offstage Simmons is the ultimate salesman. He plays a hands-on role with Kiss’ various businesses. The current tour kicked off in June last year, and even on the road he spends hours working on projects.
Born Chaim Witz in Israel and raised in New York City, the rock god says he got his work ethic from his Hungarian Jewish mother Florence, a Holocaust survivor who raised the family single-handedly after being abandoned by his father.
The thing Simmons sells harder than caskets, cruises and gridiron is Kiss, insisting that even 40-odd years after they first donned the greasepaint they still serve up the best live show on the planet.
“We introduce ourselves with ‘You wanted the best, you got the best. The hottest band in the world, Kiss’,” he says. “Either those words mean something or it’s just show business.
“And for us, it means something. It’s a call to arms. When we get up on stage, it’s electric church, for the glory of rock’n’roll.”
Do Simmons and fellow founder singer/guitarist Stanley ponder how much longer they can do it?
“We think about it all the time, because unlike the Stones or (Paul) McCartney, we’re not going to be doing this into our 70s,” says Simmons, who still breathes fire, flies through the air and stalks the stage on 20cm platform heels while wearing well over 20kg of “armour”.
“Sometimes I wish I was in U2 or the Stones where you can stick on a pair of jeans and sneakers and a T-shirt, and you’re ready to go.”
Does Chaim Witz ever curse The Demon, his alter ego damned to eternity in a rock show that’s hotter than hell?
“No, it is glorious,” Simmons laughs. “Women have this thing too. It is torture for women to put on make-up, do their hair and put on the little black dress, but when they go out — va-va-voom.
“We’re the band, because of the make-up and everything, that outsells the Beatles and Elvis combined. We have 5000 licensed products, our own Kiss golf course, our own football team... we’ve gone where no band has gone before.”
KISS play Perth Arena on October 3, supported by the Dead Daisies. Tickets from Ticketek.