Russell Hall | Music & Musicians
For a long time, beginning in 1999, Paul Stanley wasn’t sure Kiss would make another studio album. Worse, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Ironically, it was the making of the previous year’s Psycho Circus—the much-ballyhooed record that featured original members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley reunited with Kiss founders Stanley and Gene Simmons—that put Stanley in that frame of mind. As he tells it, Criss and Frehley were recalcitrant participants, at best.
“What we learned is that you can’t make a great Kiss album without Kiss,” he says. “When there are two people in the studio working, and two who are refusing to come in, or who have their attorneys on the phone all the time, that’s not a good situation. Psycho Circus was interesting in the sense that it made me never want to go back into the studio, and at the same time, I felt I’ll be damned if that was going to be the last album we made. The band, during the reunion period, went south pretty quickly. It was something we managed to keep alive in much the same way a paramedic might keep a stroke victim from dying.”
To say Stanley and Simmons have kept Kiss alive is an understatement. Since the group’s 1974 self-titled debut, Kiss has released 20 studio albums, 10 live records and 13 compilation discs. Including solo records, they’ve been awarded 28 gold albums, more than any American rock group. Worldwide album sales are colossal—more than 100 million.
There’s another facet to that success—the group’s merchandising empire, and it’s unrivalled in rock. The Kiss brand offers everything from baby bibs to action figures to caskets (spelled Kaskets, of course). There’s also a miniature golf course, a coffeehouse and even a Kiss Kruise. The vast array of goods is served up without apology. “It all begins with the songs, no question about that,” says Simmons. “But there were never any rules for being in a rock band. People just thought there were. For us, it’s not enough to just be a Radiohead or a U2. That’s why we have 3,000 licensed products.”
Kiss continued to tour after Psycho Circus, albeit in ever-changing configurations. Criss left in 2001, replaced by Eric Singer, who had previously served as the band’s drummer in the early ’90s. Frehley departed the following year, and longtime Kiss associate Tommy Thayer stepped in as replacement on lead guitar. Thayer’s position was made permanent, but in 2003 Criss returned for KISS Symphony: Alive IV, a concert album with Australia’s Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A year later, Criss was out, Singer was back.
Since then, the lineup of Stanley, Simmons, Thayer and Singer has coalesced into a finely tuned rock machine that has achieved its greatest success on the road. World tours in 2008 and 2009 solidified the group’s status as a premier live act, as the band’s chemistry rose to a level commensurate with the group’s spectacular stage show. In 2010—following a decade of resistance to the idea—Kiss released Sonic Boom, a no-frills studio album that captured the band’s sound from their mid-’70s heyday.
Kiss’ latest, Monster—produced by Stanley and production vet Greg Collins—fully embraces a stripped-down, back-to-basics approach. “No boys’ choirs, no symphony orchestras, just meat and potatoes,” says Simmons, alluding to the adherence to two guitars, bass and drums. The goal? Raise the bar while keeping things simple. “We sat facing each other as we recorded,” he says. “The idea was to get things in the first, second or third take. I didn’t want to lose any of the urgency and passion of what we were doing.”
Simmons and Stanley emphasize that no other Kiss configuration could have made Monster. The spirit of camaraderie is evident in the song credits. Thayer wrote or co-wrote nine of the 12 songs, and Singer co-wrote one tune and takes lead vocals on the Stanley-penned anthem, “All for the Love of Rock and Roll.” “This lineup is the embodiment of everything the band wanted to be,” says Stanley. “To think any other lineup could have made this album would be enough to get you committed. I’ve been there from the beginning, and I know.” Stanley and Simmons discussed the music behind the theater, their creative partnership and the Kiss legacy.
Was there a goal with Monster?
STANLEY: To hark back to the music and artists who influenced us and capture that spirit. That doesn’t mean copying anybody. It means finding that spot they touched. I grew up hearing bands at the Fillmore East nearly every weekend. Those bands played like their lives depended on it. There was also a joy. It almost felt like being in church, like gospel. James Brown didn’t go for perfection—he went for passion. Same was true for Motown, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Stones, early Elvis and on and on. Sonic Boom stayed close to our past, to things we had done previously. But forMonster, I wanted to make the album we never made.
What was your role as producer?
STANLEY: To set ground rules. It’s important that everyone know what the expectations are. One rule was no outside co-writes, just like the last album. I wanted to make sure everyone was totally committed to making this album—and that we all understood there were no quotas, no entitlements. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the band 10 years or 30 years—if the songs aren’t good enough, they don’t go on. Once those parameters are made clear, everyone is willing to work harder. That said, we never had more fun making an album.
Tell us about the songwriting process.
SIMMONS: We used to do demos on our own and bring them to the band. This time, we got together as a band and started tossing riffs and chord patterns and melodies at one another. That’s why the songwriting credits are all over the place. “Back to the Stone Age” is a good example. It started with Eric talking about how much he loved the MC5 and their energy but the masses just didn’t get it. We talked about where that energy came from, and out of that we started to jam. Within two hours we had a bed track. I had this back-to-the-stone-age lyric idea—a battle cry against technology robbing your soul—and we added that. That song was written and recorded in one day.
What makes this lineup special?
SIMMONS: This lineup should have been Kiss from day one. We’re like marathon runners—it’s built into our DNA. Ace and Peter, bless them, were as important as Paul and me in the formation of the band, but they just didn’t have it in their DNA to go the distance. Marathoners never run at full speed. You have to be mindful of the long road. A team is only as good as its members—like legs of a table or tires on a car. One flat tire messes up everything. Everybody has to carry the load together.
What inspired the concept for Kiss?
STANLEY: The Beatles, in many ways. Those ’60s British groups all looked like real bands. No member of the Beatles could have fit into the Stones. No member of the Who could have been in the Dave Clark Five. You had unified images of those bands, and at the same time there was an emphasis on the individual members.
SIMMONS: We also took pride in having the same freedom the Beatles had. Their philosophy was, “No matter what kind of music we do, it’s still the Beatles.” That’s what was amazing about them. The Rolling Stones were trapped in being the Stones, in a sense, whereas the Beatles were not trapped in that way. They could do music hall, psychedelia—anything—and they did. Yet somehow it always sounded like the Beatles.
Do you think theatrics and merch have overshadowed Kiss’ musicianship?
SIMMONS: It makes no difference. It doesn’t matter whether people come for the show or for the songs. Passion and love for something depends on where you are in life. A 5-year-old who loves Kiss doesn’t know about music. They just know that, visually, there’s something that pulls them in. It’s hard to imagine Elvis in a live situation without visualizing him shaking his hips or doing karate moves. If it’s about nothing but music, then close your eyes and don’t look at the stage. In fact, stay home and listen through headphones—it will sound better.
Is there an inherent conflict between artist and businessperson?
STANLEY: That notion comes from people who have no hand in it. Critics, in general, want you to live by rules they don’t live by. They deem rock ’n’ roll valid when somebody is tattooed from ankle to neck and walking a ledge of drug intake. Curiously enough, critics don’t look like that and don’t live like that. As far as merchandise goes, we’ve never put anything out that there wasn’t a demand for. I’ve been doing this for 40 years. Whether it’s the business model or the lifestyle, I’ll be damned if someone is going to tell me what’s valid and what’s not. At some point people have to surrender and acknowledge the power, the credibility and the validity of this band.
What’s the secret to your relationship?
STANLEY: Focusing on priorities. Putting aside things that aren’t important. Knowing its limitations. If you don’t expect something from someone that you can’t get, you will never be disappointed. We respect one another, and we put personal points of view aside for the betterment of the band. If one of us feels very strongly about something, the other acquiesces. It’s a matter of being pragmatic and realistic.
SIMMONS: Also there are no drugs and no booze. We both come from working-class families, so we understand the work ethic. We know that but for the grace of God, we’d be asking the next person in line, “Would you like some fries with that?” There’s always a huge debt of gratitude to God, to our fans, to everybody who’s given us a chance to get onstage and make a complete spectacle of ourselves. We also have a particular respect for each other. We disagree on all kinds of things, but we agree on one thing: No one’s allowed to touch or hurt Kiss. It’s our baby, our child. Brothers understand that. Brothers can fight like cats and dogs, but let someone say something bad about the family, and watch out.
Advice for aspiring musicians?
SIMMONS: Study the things that came before you, and then turn that upside down and make it your own. Listen to Hendrix, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin—whomever you like—and learn to do what they did, really well. Call it influence, call it a rip-off, call it what you will—but Hendrix did it, the Beatles did it, everyone did it. A chef who creates a new dish is using ingredients that already exist. He or she is just preparing them in a new way.
What will be Kiss’ legacy?
STANLEY: That story will be told by the fans who love us. But I will say a couple of things. First, we continue to serve as a wake-up call to fans regarding what they should expect from bands. Fans do us a favor by showing up—not vice versa—and we’re a reminder of that. Second, you only have to look at any band out there doing a real show to see that our DNA is in that. Those shows will always be categorized as Kiss-type shows. I don’t care who it is—from rock to country—if there’s a theatrical element, or any kind of bombast, it’s Kiss. M