KISS concert tour a 'victory lap'

By L. Kent Wolgamott / LaCrosse Tribune

Four decades, hundreds of shows, a couple dozen platinum albums, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. KISS has, by almost any measure, conquered the rock world.

Now the band is back on the road — in celebration.

“Everything now is a victory lap,” founding member Paul Stanley said in a phone interview. “We won and continue to win. To go out there every night is a celebration. It’s at the very least as much fun and in some ways, it’s a much deeper experience. We’ve got all this history and these connections and we’re out there celebrating and high-fiving the fans.”

On this summer’s Freedom to Rock Tour, KISS primarily will be high-fiving its fans in smaller cities in the Midwest, Plains, West and Canada, including an Aug. 6 show at the La Crosse Center.

“As well it should be,” Stanley said. “We built our following playing places other bands ignored. The truth is most bands at the time thought the U.S. consisted of the East Coast and West Coast and the rest was places you flew over. We never believed that. ... You don’t choose where you’re born and you don’t have to make excuses for it. The people always remember who is there for them.”

Some of those people started following KISS in the 1970s — and are now in their 60s. But unlike most fans of veteran bands, the KISS Army continues to gain new enlistees with each generation.

“I think we appeal to people on different levels,” Stanley said. “Young people can come because of what we look like and there’s a vibe, so to speak, of celebrating life. For people who are older, they might have seen us before. But it’s also what we sing about — individuality, self respect, celebrating life, not hurting yourself and not hurting others. I guess that we’re kind of Superman crossed with Elvis Presley.”

The Elvis Presley part comes from KISS’ brand of rock ’n’ roll, a hard rock approach that’s led to the sale of 100 million albums. Superman begins with the band’s trademark makeup, turning the quartet into masked rock heroes out to save the world.

“I think that very much we have been able to present a powerful and consistent image, pretty much for 40 years,” said Stanley, also known as The Starman. “Certainly that was by design. But I don’t think any of us knew it would be iconic and it now has a life of its own.”

For most of those 40 years, KISS has been known for an over-the-top live show, filled with spectacular lighting, pyro, blood spitting, fire breathing, flying rockets and music delivered at high volume.

That kind of show was unique to the band back in the ‘70s, but not so much these days.

“It’s no secret at this point that any band with money can do a KISS show,” Stanley said. “KISS is in every band and every band’s show at this point. But no other band can beat KISS — a crappy band with a laser is still a crappy band.”

So KISS now creates a show aimed at one-upping the previous tour, then adds a set list that’s designed to never bore and give the fans — and the band — the songs they want to hear and play.

“Everything we play are songs that I love,” Stanley said. “There isn’t a song we do I’m not proud of. When bands change songs that make them totally unrecognizable, it’s because they’re bored. The truth is, it’s an insult to the fans. ‘Love Gun,’ ‘Detroit Rock City,’ ‘Rock and Roll All Night’ — those are great songs that have stood the test of time.”

Stanley has written or co-written most of KISS’ hits. He says he knows when he’s penned a great song, and he only completes the ones he knows are good.

“There are songs I don’t finish,” Stanley said. “I tend to self edit. I don’t finish songs I don’t think are good. If six or seven songs are needed for an album, I complete six or seven songs and I know they’re good. Songs from (the 2009 album) ‘Sonic Boom’ and (2012’s) ‘Monster’ are now becoming classic. The only way for a song to become classic is for it to endure the test of time. Usually the songs I write I know will.”

Those performances are critical for singer/rhythm guitarist Stanley, who never wants to disappoint the fans who pay good money for a good show they’ll remember for years to come.

“Everything exists for the show,” Stanley said. “That’s where we justify our existence and where we justify the other 22 hours of the day. The travel part is easier now. But in some ways, the performance itself is harder. But that’s part of the dedication, to go out there and work our asses off for ourselves and for the fans. Because we’re fans of KISS, too.”

Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons have been together for 43 years, having started the band in 1973, with guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss completing the classic early lineup. That edition of KISS saw its first three studio albums sell modestly, but the group managed to launch the early versions of what would become a continually more extravagant live show.

The commercial breakthrough came with the 1975 concert release, “Alive,” a double LP. Featuring the hit “Rock and Roll All Night,” it opened the door to a string of hit studio albums that continued through 1979’s “Dynasty.” But Frehley and Criss were dismissed in the early 1980s, and with the band’s popularity waning, the ‘80s edition of the group dispensed with the makeup and went on to enjoy a resurgence with a pair of platinum albums (1985’s “Asylum” and 1987’s “Crazy Nights”).

Frehley and Criss returned for a blockbuster reunion tour in 1996, but the reunion didn’t last.

Since then, Stanley and Simmons have seen eight other members cycle through the band, with Tommy Thayer now handling lead guitar duties as The Spaceman and Eric Singer on drums as The Catman.

Asked how long he’ll keep going, Stanley revealed what is likely to be the future of the band.

“I’ll go until I’m done,” he said. “I believe KISS should continue and will continue without me. Anybody who doesn’t believe that is already 50 percent wrong with the makeup of the band. Somebody can come into the band in place of me. He doesn’t have to be a clone of me. I didn’t invent the wheel. I had a lot of musicians as influences and brought that in. If someone comes along with those same influences and adds me to it, he’ll fit fine in KISS.”

WHAT: Concert featuring Kiss, with special guest Caleb Johnson, “American Idol” season 13 winner

WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6

WHERE: La Crosse Center, 300 Harborview Plaza

COST: $82.50

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