Gene Simmons has been perfectly happy as a member of Kiss, the band he co-founded in New York City circa 1973 with friend Paul Stanley. Although Stanley has toured outside the band before and, more recently, taken to performing with his R&B cover band, Simmons was reluctant.
“The idea of solo tour never appealed to me,” he says, speaking from his California home on a recent Sunday afternoon. That was until he teamed up with Wizard World, the company that produces a series of comic book conventions across the country. The organizers tapped Simmons, a lifelong comic enthusiast, for some appearances and asked if he’d be interested in playing live as well.
“I said, ‘I’d love to, but the conventions don’t sound good.’ These are hollow halls that don’t have good acoustics,” he notes. “Why not take over a theater or arena someplace and do some shows? That’s really where the genesis of the idea started.”
To form his band, he tapped players who had worked with a variety of other acts including former Mötley Crüe vocalist John Corabi, and committed to five dates. Key to his commitment was making sure that fans had affordable tickets, keeping the price range to around $35. “I didn’t want people to get gouged on tickets,” he offers.
Simmons, however, is a notorious multi-tasker with a variety of business concerns. He’s hitting areas, including St. Louis, that are home to the Rock & Brews restaurants that he and Stanley have been opening across the U.S. The pair will expand the franchise to include a resort and casino in Bramen, Oklahoma, where Simmons appears on April 6.
The dates, one might say, are a mix of business and pleasure. For fans, there’s a bonus: Simmons has been digging deep into the archives to craft his sets. Some shows have featured cuts from his 1978 self-titled solo album and choice tunes from Kiss’s considerable discography.
“We’re playing things that Kiss has never played and will never play,” he offers. “When you go to a Stones’ concert you want to hear ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and all the usual stuff. With Kiss, it’s difficult for us to dip into all the nuggets because we’ve had so many records. With my band, I can do anything I want. And, yeah, we’ll end the show with ‘Rock and Roll All Nite.’ We’ll invite everybody in the audience to jump up on stage. You can take over the microphone. I’m fine with that.”
The group’s first date, in Cleveland, Ohio, featured an unplanned tribute to rock’s founding figure, Chuck Berry. Learning of the music legend’s death shortly before taking to the stage, Simmons and his band decided to play “Johnny B. Goode.” Simmons’ praise for the late guitarist and songwriter is sincere as he discusses the significance Berry has had for all musicians who followed.
“The backbone of rock ‘n’ roll is guitar,” Simmons offers. “Without the electric guitar, you wouldn’t have rock ‘n’ roll. Not in this form. There was Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis who did it on keyboards, but intrinsically, when the solo comes up, you want to hear some guy wail. Chuck Berry was the guy. He was the guy that Keith Richards and George Harrison learned from and, clearly, without Chuck Berry, there wouldn’t have been a rock ‘n’ roll, or there certainly would have been a completely different form of it.”
Kiss has now released 20 studio albums, a range of live recordings, including the classic Alive! release, and a variety of compilations. The band boasts more gold records than any other band in the U.S., a matter that leaves Simmons sounding positively stunned. “It’s weird,” he offers, “because we never set out to do anything except trying to avoid working 9 to 5 and putting on more makeup and higher heels than your mommy.”
There has been some debate about whether Kiss will return to the studio for another album of original material. The last studio effort was 2012’s Monster but an absence of new songs has not kept Kiss from continuing to play before packed houses. If Simmons isn’t certain about the future of the recording arts, he has plenty to keep him busy. “We don’t have enough time to discuss all the stuff I’m doing,” he offers. Among that stuff is his film company Erebus, aimed at making high-quality horror pictures, and a wealth management endeavor.
Still, there’s no denying that he takes pride in the endeavor he started all those years ago in a New York City loft with a fellow Brooklynite, a guy from Queens and one from The Bronx. “Kiss continues,” he says. “We have a great time. We love being on stage together. We love blowing stuff up. We start the European tour May 1 in Moscow. Every day is amazing.”
The Gene Simmons band performs Thursday, April 6 at the Southwind Casino in Bramen, Oklahoma. Wichita’s Jenny Wood also performs on the bill.