Tommy Thayer: The Epiphone Interview
Introducing the Tommy Thayer "White Lightning" Explorer Outfit
Longtime Epiphone Signature Artist Tommy Thayer of KISS is back with his third custom Epiphone, the new Ltd. Ed. Tommy Thayer "White Lightning" Explorer Outfit featuring the classic Explorer body in a Custom Metallic White finish plus Seymour Duncan® JB™ Humbuckers chosen by Thayer, Grover® Rotomatic machine heads, and a custom hard case.
Since 1985, Thayer has been part of the KISS family where he started out as a songwriter and video producer before taking over the role of the legendary "Spaceman" in 2002. Thayer's presence in the band coincided with a kind of renaissance for KISS both on record and on the road that shows no sign of dimming. Though the band has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when it comes to talking about guitars and influences, Thayer is still the kid from Beaverton just outside Portland, Oregon who stood in line week after to week to see rock shows at the Paramount Theatre.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone.com, Tommy, and congratulations on your new White Lightning Explorer Outfit. What inspired your new signature model?
For four or five years now I've had the good fortune of having two beautiful Epiphone signature model guitars. Both have been really well received. Traditionally, I've always been a Les Paul player, but occasionally I'll play an Explorer onstage. Two years ago my second signature Epiphone, the White Lightning Les Paul, struck a chord (no pun) with musicians and KISS fans around the world, selling out a limited edition run of 1,500 guitars. To keep that momentum and I guess continuity going, I've decided to do a limited edition White Lightning Explorer. My new Epiphone White Lightning Explorer is hot, loud, and delivers the big sound I need onstage every night. It's an instrument that suits musicians from all walks of life. My Epiphone signature guitars are a tried and true part of my arsenal. I never leave home without 'em!
Do you find notice any changes to your approach when you go from playing the Explorer to a Les Paul?
I've played Les Pauls forever, but always loved the tonality of Explorers, SGs and Flying Vs. They are in the same ballpark as Les Pauls but with what I've always considered more mid-range and punch. Explorers always felt and looked right to me onstage, so a few years ago Gibson made me two silver sparkle versions. When Epiphone and I talked about a new guitar for 2017, an Explorer model made sense. Playing-wise, my Les Pauls and Explorers are similar. Obviously the guitar designs are completely different, but the neck contour, pick-ups, tuners and chrome parts are the same. I've noticed you can reach the highest notes on the neck of the Explorer easier than on a Les Paul.
Take us through a typical KISS sound check/rehearsal. Does the band have a set group of songs you play to get a feel for a venue?
When we're getting ready for a tour we usually get together in a small rehearsal room to work out a set list and just play lots of different things. We play the classic tunes, some deeper KISS cuts and actually jam on other music we all like for fun. The main point is to get loose, limber up and start singing. A few days before the tour starts, we get to the venue in the first city and rehearse several times on our big stage to get comfortable, work out monitor mixes, and practice effects, pyro, lighting and video. Most important is to make sure the set list is dynamic from start to finish.
Does KISS ever reference the original records before a tour to see if a detail has slipped by?
Funny you should ask, sometimes we do reference the records to check a guitar, bass or vocal part. The roadies will usually have the entire song catalog on hand. When we rehearse for the KISS Kruise and we're playing more obscure tunes, we do a lot more of that.
What is the process like for KISS in the studio? Does the band do a lot of prep and demo work before going in the studio or is there more of a collective compositional atmosphere?
In my experience it's always different. For our last two records, Sonic Boom and Monster, we didn't do demos on purpose. We've found that the spontaneity and honesty of recording a tune the first time can get lost when you try to re-record it for the album. Generally we like to do all the prep work and arrangements in a rehearsal space at $30 an hour rather than in the $200/hr recording studio. On the other hand, we collectively wrote "Back to the Stone Age" completely off the cuff in the recording studio in an hour or so, so there are no rules.
As a band, what artists do you listen to for pleasure? There are--after all--only a handful of rock 'n' roll bands that go back as far as KISS! Do you compare notes with contemporaries in that way?
It's an easy question to answer. We listen to music every night together in the dressing room when we put on our makeup. Everyone comes from a slightly different place as far as favorites. Strangely, Gene favors stuff like 50s and early 60s pop, doo-wop and R&B. Paul likes 60s & early 70s pop and rock. Eric and I go more for early to mid 70s rock and hard rock and 80s metal. I'm generalizing; we all like great songs, great riffs and great guitar players.
Vinyl is back--as you know! What's old is new again. For some engineers, working with tape is great. For others, it feels like an extra unnecessary step since digital has improved so much. Do those differences matter so much to the band anymore?
It makes a difference to me. The evolution of digital media hasn't necessarily improved the experience of listening to music or enjoying photos. These days for the convenience of listening to music on your device, whether it's streaming or it's iTunes, the audio quality of most digital files is vastly subpar compared to vinyl or a CD. Also, music is everywhere to the point of oversaturation, it's overdone. Now people are taking a zillion photos of everything today on their smartphones, and it trivializes the art of photography. Plus the harsh clarity is unflattering. It's no wonder Photoshop is so popular (laughs). The quality, the drama and richness you used to get from film, and actually printing your photos is lost. Technology has enabled the arts to become disposable. It's too bad.
When you have time off, what kinds of musical experiences do you seek out? Are you secretly playing jazz on a vintage Epiphone in the back of a club? Perhaps hunting for classic Bubble Puppy 45s--what's your life like when a tour is not going on?
Friends always ask, hey do you want to go to this concert or let's go to such and such club to check out a band. You know I love music, but when I get home from a tour the last thing I want to do (laughs). Growing up there wasn't anything greater or mystifying than going to concerts at the Portland Paramount Theatre and Memorial Coliseum. It's what drove me to do what I do. I enjoy listening to music. I'm soon setting up a killer stereo at home with a turntable and vinyl records, nothing better!
Is there a typical KISS fan? How old are the fans at the shows these days and how are they learning about the band?
No there's not a typical KISS fan. KISS fandom is a phenomenon unlike any other. The KISS Army is probably the most famous fan club in music and entertainment (laughs). It's tribal. Multi-generational. The beauty is that KISS fans today are of all ages with newbies coming to see the band every day. From the stage Paul asks the crowd every night, "How many of you people have never seen KISS before?" and at least 50 percent of the audience raises it's hands. I'm baffled why new fans are constantly coming to the shows, but I know one thing: The uniqueness of the KISS personas, imagery and the show has a timeless quality that appeals to kids the exact way it did to me when I was 13, 14 years old.
I think you mentioned you have some vintage Epiphones at home. Can you tell me about them? Maybe there could be a Tommy Thayer signature acoustic in the future.
Jim Rosenberg (Epiphone Pres.), what do you think? (laughs) The pride of my guitar collection is my 1963 Epiphone Texan acoustic. It's beautiful, just like Paul McCartney and Peter Frampton have played for years. When I graduated from high school in 1978, my parents wanted to give me a nice guitar as a gift, which was so cool of them. My mom talked to my friend Greg Georgeson who knew a lot about guitars, and he helped them pick out the guitar used at a downtown Portland guitar shop. At first I thought it was just a cool used acoustic guitar, but as every year goes by it becomes more of a really special and sentimental procession.
Do you have a favorite classic KISS album?
Either Dressed to Kill or Alive! Before I even learned to play guitar, I'd come home from junior high and play air guitar to "Deuce" off KISS Alive! in my parent's living room. "the hottest band in the land... KISS!"