Full Throttle Rock Interview with Tommy Thayer
Who is the greatest rock band of all time? Depending on who you speak to this is an argument that could rage until the end of time. For some it may be The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, some might want to argue it’s AC/DC or Led Zeppelin, and for a younger generation it may be Nirvana. Personally I think you can keep all of them because there is only one clear choice as far as I’m concerned and that is KISS. For 40 years this group of superhero rock and rollers have been conquering the world with their brand of good time rock and roll and influencing generations of would-be rock stars. Their work ethic, particularly when it comes to touring, is second to none and there is no corner of the world the band won’t play; the same can’t be said for others. Once again the band has ventured to the land down under, which has always welcomed them with enthusiasm, as part of the 40th Anniversary tour. I caught up with guitarist and all round nice guy Tommy Thayer for a chat about the band’s rich history, the current tour and playing golf.
Rock Man: Firstly, welcome back to Australia. You’re here as part of the 40th Anniversary tour and Australia has played a big part in the bands success over the journey, hasn’t it?
Tommy Thayer: Well there is no question about it, and particularly in my journey with KISS. My first official show with the band was in 2003 here in Melbourne for the KISS Symphony concert. But of course KISS has been near and dear to the hearts of Australian’s for a long time. The first time the band was in Australia was in 1980 and it was akin to ‘Beatlemania’; when they came it was over the top and it was a huge tour. I was not here at that time, but I have heard all about it and I have seen all the photos and I have seen the newspaper headlines from that tour and it looks like it was over the top.
RM: So going back to 2003 and that KISS Symphony show in Melbourne, that is an incredible way to announce your arrival in the band.
TT: It really was because it was this full blown concert with the Melbourne Symphony at the Telstra Dome, at the time, and there was 40/50,000 people there. The entire Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was in KISS make-up and we recorded it for a live album and DVD as well, so there was a little pressure involved in that first gig I did. But once I got past that it has been smooth sailing ever since.
RM: Congratulations on all you have achieved in your career. Do you shake your head and wonder sometimes “How did I get so lucky”?
TT: [Laughs] Yeah, well I don’t know if it is, they say the harder you work the luckier you get. So I am not sure it necessarily is luck; I have been very fortunate but again, I have been fortunate to find a vocation and find my calling in life to what I love doing which is music and playing guitar and doing this sort of thing. So if you combine that with a lot of drive and perseverance like I have and a never-giving-up type of attitude, it all kind of seems to work out and I have been fortunate like I said. But it does have to do with how hard you work and how much you put into something as well, for sure.
RM: So I guess an extension of that is do you ever have moments, maybe on stage for example, where you think to yourself “Holy smoke, I’m in KISS, arguably the biggest band in the world!”?
TT: Oh, there is no question about it. I have had a lot of those kind of moments. I have had those experiences of looking around on stage or in stadiums and coming down on lifts for the first song as we were playing Detroit Rock City and looking out at 60/70,000 people and thinking “Oh my God, how great is this?” and “How Did I get here?”. But again, somehow it all works and one thing always leads to another and sometimes I have to pinch myself and think “This is amazing”, and I am so fortunate to be in this situation. But I definitely never lose sight of that and never take it for granted either.
RM: Now, in the past the band has brought some pretty big tours here however this time around you’re bringing with you the ‘Spider’ stage. How exciting is it working with this massive stage set up?
TT: Well it is really exciting to have a stage like the ‘Spider’ stage and we are really proud to bring it over to Australia. We used it all last year in North America and it was to great response and great reaction. The stage is big; it is massive and it moves and it really makes a big impact and I believe it is the best stage that KISS has ever used. I am just glad we have it here on this tour and I think the Australian fans and the fans in New Zealand are going to be blown away when they see it.
RM: So is there a part of the setlist each night that you look forward to the most?
TT: Hmm… that is a great question. You know, I can’t really say that there is one part that I favour over another part of the set. We build the set so it is dynamic and from start to finish, it is like a roller coaster ride. So every part of it is great and I enjoy playing every part of the show and there is never a KISS song I don’t enjoy playing either; it is a thrill to play any of them. So it is hard to say one song or one part of the show is my favourite.
RM: So further to that, how much influence do you and Eric Singer have in contributing to what the setlist will be on any given tour?
TT: You know Eric and I, believe it or not, have a lot more say in that than people probably imagine. If anything we might make more suggestions than the other guys in the band as far as that goes [laughs]. Sometimes we like to push Paul [Stanley] and Gene [Simmons] to try different songs and stuff that hasn’t been played as much, and usually we are the ones who do that. You know, just because of our backgrounds and being KISS fans growing up in a sense gives us a slightly different perception on it and perspective on it. Paul and Gene, they know it is tried and true and know better than anybody what works, but sometimes it is good to push them a little bit and pull out something that hasn’t been done as much. Some of the fans get a kick out of hearing other things sometimes; especially when we do the KISS Kruise which is a deal we do every year now for the last five years on a big cruise ship with 3,000 of the most dedicated KISS fans. We try to pull things out for that that are more obscure and unusual because that particular group of fans appreciate that more.
RM: And does that extend to the setlist for the pre-show meet and greet package you provide?
TT: Absolutely. A lot of people don’t know we do a meet and greet package and what it is, it starts out in the afternoon we get together with these particular special fans there is usually about 50 of them and they come in and we go backstage and we pick up our acoustic guitars and we do a short acoustic set almost by request. It is really cool and the whole idea is just really a personal sit down experience with the fans and we kind of goof around and shoot the shit a bit, and it is a great experience and people love it. So that is in the afternoon, and then we sign autographs and all that kind of stuff after we play the acoustic set and then in the evening before the show those same people will come backstage again and we take photos with everybody individually before we go on stage. But that acoustic deal is a great experience and we do get the opportunity to goof around like I said and play songs we normally wouldn’t play, some more obscure stuff and less heard songs.
RM: There is this mythology that when the band stated out there was this ‘all for one, one for all’ mentality within the band. Then during the 1980s/90s the band was viewed as the ‘Gene and Paul Show’. Now today with yourself and Eric do you feel it has gone back to that original ‘all for one’ philosophy?
TT: Well, I think it is kind of a combination of both. Everybody knows that Paul and Gene have had this band for over 40 years now and they started it. Now that Eric and I have been in the band for 10/15 years I think it is now a combination; ultimately they are running the band and in charge but as far as day to day stuff and making decisions about the setlist or other things, we are quite involved in a lot of that stuff too. It definitely is more that way now than it was say during the reunion tour or something, to be honest with you, but a lot of people know my involvement as well goes way beyond playing lead guitar. I do a lot of the videos and a lot of other types of things for KISS, so I am involved on a lot of different levels, probably more than other band members have been and so it is unique and a different kind of role that I play a lot of times. So like I said, it is a combination and I think we take pride in the fact that we have four guys that makes this band really rock these days, you know, it is a good combination; we have good comradery and we enjoy being around each other and it is a real band for sure.
RM: Recently there has been a lot of commentary from other well established musicians, journalists and even some sections of the fan base on whether KISS should continue recording albums or which members should or shouldn’t be in the band. I would have thought the only people qualified to know what’s best for KISS would be the four guys in KISS. How frustrating does that get for the band and what do you think is driving this need for others to comment?
TT: [Laughs] Well, first of all you are right it is ultimately and only up to the people in KISS and at the end of the day it does not matter what anybody else thinks. I think that our attitude is we hold true to that and you have got to expect this stuff; KISS is an iconic band and it has been around for more than four decades, and it is a legendary band and there is always a million people taking different points of view on this or that with the band or having opinions about everything. You know, you listen to some of the stuff but at the end of the day we make the decisions and it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks.
RM: So can you give me your thoughts on the fan base, the KISS Army. Every band claims to have the best fans in the business but none of them come close to the passion and loyalty of the KISS Army, is that a fair assessment?
TT: It is, isn’t that true? The KISS Army, I have never seen a fan base or fans of a band like the KISS Army or the fans of KISS. It is truly amazing and they are the best fans in the world; they are the most dedicated, and many fans come to hundreds of shows and they follow the band around the world. They are so intensely dedicated it is insane [laughs]; you have got to love it and it is really what drives the band and keeps the band on the level and keeps the band alive today with great support. So they are so important and we love to embrace the many fans we know and sometimes when they travel we tty to take care of them and set them up with tickets when we can and do that sort of thing. But we have the best fans in the world and it is unlike any other band or artist out there, I mean who puts tattoos all over their body, or they wear the costumes and the make-up of the band at concerts and that sort of thing. It is uniquely KISS and you can’t ever take that away, it is so cool.
RM: It appears to be a prerequisite if you have been or are a member of KISS, you release a tell-all book. Do you have any plans to put pen to paper and write a memoir?
TT: [Laughs] A lot of people have asked me that. I really don’t have any plans to do that. I read a lot, I am actually an avid reader and I read a lot of books, I read a lot of biographies, you know, particularly musicians and artists and things like that. It is always very interesting to me but I figure doing a book would be an awful lot of work and probably not much return [laughs]. I think it would be an interesting process to go through but in a lot of ways it really does not appeal to me either because it is a little too, you know, putting your life out there in front of everybody. I am kind of more of a private person, so again, I wouldn’t say it will never happen but it is not something I am definitely planning on doing.
RM: I would imagine you would have a lot of great stories to tell though?
TT: [Laughs] You know, you are right. I am in a unique position in this band because I had the opportunity to be around every member of KISS through the years and work with them all in different capacities and different ways. Either working in the band with them or behind the scenes with them, and I do have a lot of interesting experiences and a lot of interesting stories and things like that that I am sure people would love to hear. Again, I am not one to talk too much and I usually keep that stuff to myself or just for the people that are closest to me, so we’ll see, you never know.
RM: So as it stands right now, do you think the band will record another album in the future, and if so would you like to contribute a bit more on vocals?
TT: Of course I would love to. But when you do a KISS record it has to be definitive KISS and I think that is why it makes more sense for Gene and Paul to sing more of the songs and that sort of thing because that is the way it has always kind of been. I don’t see that changing and I don’t what to see it change either. It has been great the last two records we have done, Monster and Sonic Boom; I have had the opportunity to do a lot of songwriting and co-writing with those guys and that has been a great honour and a great experience to do that kind of stuff. So if we do another record I would love to write some songs and be involved just like on the other two records we have done. But as far as singing goes, you know, I like it but I do not know if there really is a place for it; there are so many other things we need to try to do and those guys do such a good job with what they do anyway.
RM: I have to be honest with you, I think there is a real place for it. I think your vocal contribution on both of those albums is outstanding, they are killer tracks.
TT: Well I appreciate that and it was fun doing them. Particularly on something like Monster, I got the opportunity to really start playing some guitar that is more my way of doing it probably. Or I should say playing guitar and having the opportunity to branch out a little bit more, although Sonic Boom was amazing and I love the record because the intent was to make a ‘classic’ KISS record and that is what we did from top to bottom. So again, on Monster I got the opportunity to play a little bit more and branch out a bit so that was kind of cool too. I would say doing another record is a possibility; we just have to see what happens because you never know, we don’t plan too far ahead with things but I could see it happen.
RM: So over the years the band has chalked up many milestones and awards. Recently you were awarded the honour of being named ‘America’s Number One Gold Record Award Winning Group of All Time’. How important is that recognition for the band, I guess particularly for Gene and Paul?
TT: Well I think being the ‘Number One Gold Record Award Winning Band’ by the RRIA is a huge honour. I think it is very significant, of all the American groups of all time KISS has got more gold records, so that just speaks for itself. This band is legendary and iconic and has this great legacy and this rich history that really underscores that when you get that type of recognition.
RM: Now I need to try and get to the bottom of a particular topic. In 2014 you joined fellow rockers Alice Cooper and Alex Lifeson from Rush to participate in the Medlock-Krieger golf tournament. So can you explain to me what is it about golf that attracts so many hard rockers and metallers?
TT: [Laughs] You know, that is a good question. I don’t really know why that is, but there are a lot of musicians that like to play golf and it is true that a lot of the PGA golfers like to play guitar and wish they were on stage being musicians. So there is this strange kind of back and forth there. But the thing that we do there with the Robbie Krieger and Scotty Medlock’s event is it is a golf tournament, but more than anything it is a fundraiser for St. Jude’s Hospital which is the most important part. Also the evening of the event there is a big music all-star jam thing. So you have got a lot of these guys that are legendary rock and roll guitar players and singers like Alice Cooper and Alex Lifeson, and Robbie Krieger and Danny Seraphine from Chicago, and Phil Chen who played with Rod Stewart, and Jeff Beck, have the opportunity to get up and play together. It really is a lot of fun and is quite cool. I was always a big Rush fan, particularly in the early days and when I hear that Alex Lifeson was going to be there I told Robbie and Scotty, I said “I’ve got to play with Alex Lifeson” and they go “Cool”. Then I said “We have to do something like Working Man” so they told Alex that I would like to do Working Man and he thought that was cool, so we played that and Sebastian Bach came up and kicked some ass on the vocals and it was a great experience playing with Alex Lifeson. And of course Alice Cooper is a dream come true kind of thing too, I mean getting up and playing I’m Eighteen and School’s Out and that sort of thing is unbelievable to do too.
RM: Once again, welcome back to Australia and congratulations on all that you have achieved. On behalf of everyone here at Full Throttle Rock I would like to wish you and the band all the best for the remainder of the current tour and for the future.
TT: Well, I sure appreciate it and we are excited to be here and we are looking forward to a rockin’ tour.
Australian 40th Anniversary Tour Dates:
Saturday, October 3 - Perth Arena
Tuesday, October 6 - Adelaide Entertainment Centre
Thursday, October 8 - Melbourne Rod Laver Arena
Friday, October 9 – Melbourne Rod Laver Arena
Saturday, October 10 - Sydney AllPhones Arena
Monday, October 12 - Newcastle Entertainment Centre
Tuesday, October 13 - Brisbane Entertainment Centre