40 years on, KISS still thinking outside the box; group set for Youngstown concert
For better or worse, KISS has defied traditional conventions of the music business for more than 40 years. With its superhero-like appearance and bombastic over-the-top live performances, the group became a pop culture icon in the ’70s, working its way to the top of the rock heap. In its four decades, numerous lineups with and without makeup have come and gone, but the iconic imagery and sound of the original band has remained a staple of musical and pop culture. So much, in fact, that band founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons have actually suggested that the group will continue for generations to come with new members carrying the torch.
Currently, KISS is comprised of Stanley and Simmons along with “new” members, longtime drummer Eric Singer and the band’s longest consecutive-serving lead guitarist, Tommy Thayer.
“The challenge is that this is a group that’s been around for 40 years, and people know and love KISS for as it was and as it is,” Thayer said. “There’s a lot of sentimentality to that and history. I can understand (the idea of Kiss moving on for generations) being frustrating for some people.”
For Thayer and KISS, however, the group has been an ever-evolving machine. In the late ’70s, the band tried its hand in disco and concept albums. In the ’80s, the group took off its makeup with great fanfare and rolled out gold and platinum albums in the vein of the glitz and glam of the decade. In the ’90s when grunge and industrial music were exploding at the same rate glam metal was melting into a hot pink puddle of useless goo, Kiss stripped back its sound to a more honest brand of rock. The band re-applied the makeup while reuniting with original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss in what was one of the highest-grossing tours of the decade. After a few reunion tours, Thayer replaced the again-departed Frehley as permanent guitarist, and Singer returned to the drum throne.
In short, the history and legacy of KISS is a complicated one, but according to Thayer, it’s the music that fans keep flocking to.
“There’s new fans coming in at a faster rate than anybody even imagined,” Thayer said. “I think that over half the people at our shows on this tour are new fans. It actually surprised us. Although some people are very sentimental about the beginnings of the band, and not that it’s not important, it’s really about looking ahead and looking forward.”
Even if that forward means a KISS without Gene or Paul?
“As strange as that sounds, I think it’s a possibility,” Thayer said. “Especially in a group like KISS. KISS has never been a band that’s played by the rules. It’s always been about finding new ground and thinking outside the box.”
“It’s already happened with 50 percent of the band already,” Thayer said with a laugh. “It’s definitely not out of the question.”
KISS is set to perform Aug. 26 at Covelli Centre in Youngstown as part of its “Freedom to Rock” tour. The jaunt is based on doing secondary markets, according to Thayer.
“It’s important to us to play these cities,” he said. “In some cases, we haven’t been there in 10 or 12 years or more, and they’re great markets. In a lot of ways, the fans and the crowds that are coming to these shows are even more excited than most regular tours, because they haven’t had the opportunity.”
Recently, Thayer chatted briefly about his history with KISS, his unique perspective on the group, and what’s in store for the group moving forward.
Q. You first worked with Gene, who produced albums for your old band, Black ’n Blue, and later helped write songs with him for the Kiss record “Hot in the Shade.” Was it intimidating when you first met him?
A. “When I first met Gene and Paul, it was 1985, and Black ’n Blue was the opening act on the ‘Asylum’ tour. We ended up doing the dates, and it was a great experience. We asked Gene to produce our next record, which was ‘Nasty Nasty.’ He ended up producing that and the follow-up, ‘In Heat.’ We started working in pre-production with them for our record, and it was immediately a real learning experience with Gene. He was real hands on. It actually surprised us in a lot of ways. He was on tour at the time with Kiss, but he would fly back to L.A. on days off just to get together with us to do pre-production and arrange songs. We were always impressed with how diligent he was. It was a great experience. He taught us to be open-minded and try things when sometimes when we though for sure something wouldn’t work. He was always very thorough in that way. I can’t remember what point it was, but he asked me to write with him for songs they were working on for ’Hot in the Shade.’ I had done a fair amount of songwriting up to that point already with Black ’n Blue, and I had a lot of background in that. It was more just a thrill of working with a band suddenly on that level and writing music and songs with Kiss. To potentially have a song on a Kiss record, that was an exciting prospect at the time.”
Q. You have one of the most unique perspectives of anyone that’s ever been in Kiss, in that you’ve worked with nearly every member at one time another. How has that helped you in Kiss through the years?
A. “I am in the unique position in having had the opportunity to work with everyone but (‘Animalize’ guitarist) Mark St. John. I maybe met him once or twice, but he wasn’t around for a long period anyway. All the other guys I had the unique opportunity of working with all of them. I don’t know who else besides Paul and Gene have been in that position. It’s been very interesting. Every one of them are unique and interesting people. We’re all unique and quirky in our own ways. We were all talking about this as a band the other day. I don’t think you get in this kind of situation unless you’re kind of a quirky individual to begin with! (laughs) I think that holds true to everyone that has been in this band, and quite honestly most groups that are successful, there’s some interesting personalities involved to say the least.”
Q. You’re the longest consecutive serving lead guitarist in Kiss, too, which I think might surprise some people who still think you’re the new guy. What’s the biggest challenge about being in the band?
A. “You’re right, I am the new guy. They call me the Ronnie Wood of Kiss! (Laughs) It’s always a bit of a challenge being in that position, because the band established this legendary career well before I was even involved, obviously. There are big shoes to fill, and it’s a legendary group, so you have to be good and on your game, but you also have to be the kind of person that can really sit in well and work well personality-wise more than anything. Without that, it’s the downfall of most all bands. You don’t get along. You misunderstand each other. There’s friction, and it doesn’t work and becomes impossible. I think that’s what had happened in Kiss in the early days with the original guys. For whatever reason, it becomes almost impossible to be together and be a group. That’s why Kiss has evolved, and I don’t think that’s unusual. After 40-plus years, that things like that will happen. You grow and you go different directions and become different people than you were when you first started out and were 23 years old.”
Q. The band’s most recent album “Monster” garnered the group some of the most positive reviews in years, but you don’t get much of a chance to play that material in the live setting. Obviously, many of the fans want to hear the classic Kiss stuff. But does the nostalgia side of things ever become frustrating for the band in that you can’t play more newer material?
A. “Ideally we’d like to, but it’s not frustrating, because we couldn’t be more blessed than having the nostalgia or the history that people want to continue to hear those classic songs. You can’t be any luckier than to have a situation like that. Ideally we’d like to play some of the newer stuff, and we do sometimes. But really when people come to see Kiss, they want to hear those other great songs they grew up on, and I understand that. It’s the same way with the Rolling Stones or any other group that’s been around for 40 or 50 years.”
Q. Speaking of which, will there be any plans to record a new album down the line?
A. “It’s harder to make a decision to record a new record these days, because with all the time and effort and resources that go into doing it, in almost all cases, it doesn’t pay off anymore. It becomes kind of a waste of time in a sense. Creatively, it’s nice to have an outlet sometimes, but it’s almost like there are more important things to spend your precious hours of the day doing. In this day and age, there are a lot of platforms to get your music out there besides just the conventional recording business. We did this crazy Kiss and Scooby Doo thing last year, and I know it’s a kid’s thing, but in terms of attracting new, young fans, it’s astounding what things like that can do for your career. It’s more about continuing think outside of the box. It’s such a different world today.”