Exercises His Freedom to Rock
by Ken Sharp
For a group routinely dismissed by short-sighted critics as a flash in the pan, a joke band comprised of talentless, cretinous musical goons soon to be forgotten and quickly discarded on the junk heap of failed rock bands past, KISS are having the last laugh. Detractors be damned, 46 years since the original band – Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss – first came together, in 2016 KISS continue to transcend the parameters of what a rock band can do. Whether starring in their own Scooby-Doo! cartoon (Scooby-Doo! & KISS: Rock & Roll Mystery), teaming up with menswear designer/clothier John Varvatos, or collaborating with Japanese teen sensations Momoiro Clover Z on “Samurai Son,” the band’s first # 1 single in the “Land of the Rising Sun,” yesterday and today KISS stubbornly follow the beat of their new drum and continue to thrive, loudly…. Witness their latest “Freedom To Rock” tour, which is drawing in a significant generation of younger fans eager and excited to be baptized KISS-style.
We sat down with the band’s resident “God of Thunder,” Gene Simmons, who offered a primer in all things KISS, past, present and future.
The new KISS tour is labeled the “Freedom to Rock” tour. When did you first feel the freedom that music provided as a creative outlet?
That’s a very good question. When you’re a pimple-faced little kid, we’re all trying to figure out where we fit on the chess board of life. We try to hang to or latch on to that thing that makes us acceptable. It’s usually not mathematics unfortunately or sciences. The kid that excels at math and science, for the rest of the kids at school don’t just go, “Oh yeah, I need to hang out with that guy.” The pivotal moment for me – and I think lots of people – was watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was a very clear vision; here are four guys who look alien. They were very small, had a very small physical stature. They were a little feminine with crazy haircuts – the rest of us had very short hair. They were singing and playing in ways I hadn’t heard before and the girls were going absolutely crazy! Because I wasn’t from America (ed. note: he was born in Israel and moved to America at age eight) and I always felt like an outsider, I connected to them because they also didn’t feel like they came from here. They talked strange, that British and Liverpudlian accent I’d never heard before, not in movies, or anywhere else. I thought, “Gee if I did that, maybe I can be accepted too?”
Going to KISS shows today, there is a multi-generational appeal; young, middle aged and old, all united in their love of the band. For this new tour, you’re encountering audience demos that are getting younger. How do you account for that?
Well, we’re showing up in car commercials. Every Halloween everybody dresses up like us. Our cartoon, KISS and Scooby-Doo!, was very big and successful. The KISS Rocks Vegas show played in movie theaters and just came out on DVD, and had special editions that come with vinyl, too. We have a very, very long history; this is our 43rd year, believe it not. So I think it’s a combination of parents wanting to share that thing that got them as kids. It’s difficult for parents to say, “Let’s go see a Lawrence Welk show” because that doesn’t connect with younger generations. But something about KISS, I don’t want to say it’s timeless, but it connected with a five-year-old back in the ‘70s and it sure connects with a five-year-old now. You can’t help but have a good time at one of our shows, when everybody is going nuts onstage. That kind of a good time is infectious. You can’t fake it. You can’t fool the audience. The people will see right through you if you put on a fake smile or you’re not putting out your best. The band are alive and well, and I think we’re playing better than we ever have.
Growing up, who were your personal heroes?
When I was a kid in Israel I didn’t have any heroes. We didn’t have TV and we didn’t have radio. I didn’t know about heroes. All I knew was the bible that our people wrote, but I didn’t want to be Moses. There were just no heroes until I came to America and started going to movies and saw television. I saw Superman, read comic books and all that. Then you start to have notions of being a hero without restriction, no limitation.
Today, who do you count as personal heroes?
(long pause) That’s a good one, that’s a good question. I will tell you, it may be a cornball answer but it’s the truth: my mother. Above and beyond the horrific early life she had, being in a concentration camp, she always worked and never complained. On her own terms she succeeded, despite any adversity. That’s where I got my work ethic.
Speaking of heroes, tell us about KISS’s involvement with the “U.S. Chamber of Commerce Hiring Our Heroes” program.
We take lots of things for granted in America. Let me remind everybody; if you lived in many Asian countries or South African countries you could find your head in a garbage pail. Or in Africa where you could starve to death, or have disease and in Iran and North Korea. The freedom you have here people just take for granted. You have every opportunity in America; the sky’s the limit. You cannot fail. Literally, you can declare chapter 7 or chapter 11 bankruptcy and then do it again. It’s even difficult to convict criminals. People can be killers, unfortunately, and then get sent to a really cushy psychiatric place where they feed you and they’ve got television. It’s a very lenient area with all the opportunities in the world; you can’t fail.
So the “Hiring Our Heroes” program honors America. While we have all these freedoms and all this opportunity, the people who protect this country and sometimes give the ultimate sacrifice, their life for a belief, come back to America and our military just says, “Well, good luck, thanks very much, see you later….” They’re physically battered and mentally battered. It’s difficult for them to get jobs. We have contributed cash to Wounded Warriors and lots of organizations. We do that as well on this tour. Nice big fat checks. We do it at our Rock & Brews restaurants; the opening day is always just for vets, it’s closed to the general public. We give them a big check and we honor them and we feed them. It’s the least we can do. On tour we hire local vets; we pay them and they help our road crew put on the greatest show on earth. The US Chamber of Commerce got wind of what we were doing for the vets and wanted to connect with us and we wanted to connect with them. Every once in a while the government gets it right, I’m happy to say.
The band is also spearheading the Wounded Warriors Support foundation and the home giveaway program.
We connected with Dr. Pepper and a few corporate entities. A few shows ago, one of our proud vets, three tours in Afghanistan, came onstage. He was honored and he helped the road crew and he made some money putting up the stage. Then onstage Kiss and the Mayor of the city turned around and said, “We have a brand new home with a fully paid mortgage. Thank you for your service.” The emotional part of being able to do that is huge. You look out in the audience and you can see people crying. Giving away a brand new home is a really rewarding thing to be able to do to honor our servicemen.
KISS is throwing a major KISS Expo in Japan in October. What can fans expect?
KISS Expo is a lot of the stuff from my collection but also virtual, you can stick on glasses and hop up onstage and play with us. It’s quite an amazing thing with the technology but that’s no surprise, the Japanese are very advanced in that field. It’s almost sold out. The big Japanese artists are attending. There’s a guy named Yoshiki who is in a group called X Japan but there it’s just X. We recorded the song “Samurai Son,” with Momoiro Clover Z, who are little, little girls, sort of pop space girls and have an enormous fan base there. It turned out to be our first # 1 single in Japan, so they’re coming to the KISS Expo. Everyone will be descending on that because a lot of those artists grew up worshipping KISS.
I’m flying over solo to the KISS Expo in October. I’m going to stay for a week, meet the press and play nice and all of that, and then Yoshiki is going to come down and open the KISS Expo with me. KISS is why he decided to get into music. So I’ll be at the KISS Expo, hosting people and meeting them and doing all of that. Then the day after the expo I’ll be joining Yoshiki, who’s doing a three day X Japan festival. There will be 100,000 people there, so I’ll be going there and joining him onstage to do a few songs.
There is talk that the long-awaited KISS documentary, You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best will be showcased at the KISS Expo for the first time, is that correct?
Yes, the documentary will be premiered at the KISS Expo.
Will you be bringing the KISS Expo to the States?
Yes, it’s going around the world.
Speaking of Momoiro Clover Z, what’s the story behind “Samurai Son,” KISS’ first # 1 single in Japan?
Sometimes it’s the right time and the right place. In that case, it was an idea pitched to us that sounded like fun and it worked out great. We’ve never chased singles as such. We’d stick a few out; “I Was Made For Loving You” did well around the world and “Beth” did well in some countries. But when you think about it, there have been lots of bands that have had lots of hits that didn’t get anywhere we’ve been. And there are some bands like Zeppelin, AC/DC and a few others that have done very well with no hit singles. Come to think of it, I think AC/DC might have had one hit single. Anyhow, it’s tough to stay true to who and what you are and play the singles game. The best of them I suppose were The Beatles and The Stones, who continued to have hit singles and somehow it all sounded like authentic Stones and Beatles. Other than those bands it was always a case of giving up their identity to try and get a hit single.
The KISS Rocks Vegas DVD/CD has just been issued, which chronicles a KISS residency in Sin City, Las Vegas. What made that event a must see for the fans?
It probably became what it became because we didn’t plan it. We were trying out new gags, a flying saucer routine, a new stage show and some different video screens. We played that one venue day after day and finally realized, ‘Well, why don’t we open the doors and get the fans in?” and it just naturally became what it became.
Are there any plans for a return engagement?
We probably will go back but it’s got to be right. You don’t want it to be one of those: “Okay, here’s Rod Stewart, here’s Santana and now KISS.” It has to be right and something special. You don’t want it to be just another concert in Vegas, you want it to be an event.
This is the 6th KISS Kruise. I understand that the band or some of its members were initially reluctant to go on cruise, why? What were your apprehensions?
The reservations were that it was uncharted territory. The reservations were that everybody attending were KISS fans who expect to be treated a certain way. One of the things that we pride ourselves with, and I don’t say this lightly, the fans are the most important thing. We know some of them by name; some of the fans we keep in touch with personally. We don’t advertise it but these are really important people in our lives. Once you get on the cruise you’ve got a few variables that are completely out of your control. You’ve got a ship full of personnel, and they’re used to doing business a certain way.
Since we didn’t know them and hadn’t worked with them in the past, we didn’t know how they were going to treat people. You can check into a hotel and hate the way people treat you and you can check into a hotel and find that the personnel are terrific; cordial and smiling and all of that. So you had two variables; you had Sixthman who was the promoter of it and their crew and then you’ve got the ship’s personnel. Then you’ve got food issues. We’ve all heard horror stories. You don’t want a ship full of people getting sick; none of which we control. So the reservations were not having the control. We entered into it slowly and because of that you find the fans don’t just enjoy it but absolutely love going on the KISS Kruises. I’ve got to hand it to Sixthman who do an excellent job.
Beyond financial remuneration, it seems the band truly enjoys being on these cruises.
That’s right. Hey, I bring my family and my friends. We do things there that we don’t do anywhere else without security guards and barricades and all that kind of stuff, and really get up close and personal with the fans.
What have been the highlights for you on the KISS Kruises?
It’s the young kids. You really appreciate fans who have been with you since the beginning and who have tattooed their bodies and name their kids after the songs; that’s always amazing. But when you see the lights go on in a five-year-old’s mind and eyes is great. We point this out and we talk about it. Look, I wasn’t even born in America. When I first came to America I was one of those kids. The difference between you and anybody else, there’s no class at school that teaches you how to do that.
You decided to roll up your sleeves and put in the time and the effort and the work to get where you are. That’s for me too, and the Pope, and the President. When you look down at the kids and look in their eyes and they’re looking at Mom and Dad and then this five-year-old little putz steps in front of their parents, usually they’ll hide behind, and put their hand out and say, “Hi! I’m Jimmy, nice to meet you.” You think, there you go, there’s that first big step, that mom and dad gave me birth but the rest is up to me kind of thing. So the best part of it is that the kids come on the cruise along with the grown up, who can flirt and gamble, and the kids have all the fun stuff, the pools and the games and all the other stuff.
Tell us about the Gene Simmons Master Class happening on the KISS Kruise.
It happened sort of naturally. I was invited to take part in one of those Rock & Roll Fantasy Camps. Basically, you get a chance to get up there and jam with, I don’t know, Chubby Checker, and Ginger Baker, or whoever is there. I saw some of the younger fans there and they were about 15 and had their own band. I think they were called Rebel. They wanted to jam up there and then use the Gene Simmons association and smartly spread it on social media. Because they could already play a few riffs on guitars and drums, I said, “We’re going to try an experiment. You’re going to write a song in under an hour. It’s going to be your song; you’re the writers and the publishers and all that and I’ll take you through all the steps. I’m not going to put words in your mouth or chords; you’re going to come up with them. You’re going to come with the feel, the melody and the lyrics.”
Then it occurred to me that it is in point of fact very easy to learn to write your own songs. In the rap world you can certainly write your own rhymes. Anybody can do it. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good; that has something to do with whether you have talent and whether you can recognize your own creation. There’s something called the 10,000 hour principle. If you really want to do this well, you’ve got to put in 10,000 hours, because while practice might not make you perfect, it certainly makes you better. So for those who take my master class on the KISS Kruise, they’re going to learn all kinds of stuff.
This idea also reminded me that I did exactly the same thing when I did that English TV show seen around the world called Rock School. What I did was show with these troubled kids who had drugs and alcohol issues – the fathers weren’t at home, it was a small town and nobody cared about it, so they were aimless, directionless and didn’t care about anything. These kids are truants and didn’t go into school. As a curiosity all of a sudden the attendance was close to full because this weird guy from this group called KISS was going to be coming in with TV cameras, so of course they came in. I found out which in the bunch had a voice, which in the bunch had never played an instrument and literally assigned instruments to them. “You’re going to play drums, you’re going to play guitar…”
See everybody, whether it’s McCartney, or Hendrix, started off not playing an instrument. We’re limiting the number of people that can take part in the master class because of the amount of time. We may have 50 to 100 people taking part, but even if you’re watching me show somebody how to come up with their own thing, it unlocks the thing in your mind. At any point you may have ten bass players and ten guitar players and I’m going to show them that there’s not much difference between bass or guitar. The Queen song, “Another One Bites the Dust,” once you come up with that lick you can write the song. (Imitates bass riff for “Another One Bites the Dust.”)
Any parting words?
It sounds like a cliché but it’s true, we owe it all to our fans. Without them we would be nothing. We hear and we obey. We continue to be dedicated to the notion that our fans deserve the best, which is why our shows are always jam packed with more. We always believed that you have to have substance. People thought we were selling records because we had a great show. That’s stupid because when you buy a KISS record all you get are ten songs. You never got a flash pot. People that bought those records liked the songs. KISS are absolutely some of the most stubborn people on the planet. I won’t get off the stage until I’m goddamn ready. No one else can tell me what to do, I will decide my own fate.
KISS “FREEDOM TO ROCK” TOUR DATES:
Aug. 29: Rochester, NY (Blue Cross Arena)
Aug. 30: State College, PA (Bryce Jordan Center)
Sept. 1: Allentown, PA (Great Allentown Fair)
Sept. 3: Worcester, MA (DCU Center)
Sept. 4: Portland, ME (Cross Insurance Arena)
Sept. 7: Bridgeport, CT (Webster Bank Arena)
Sept. 9: Richmond, VA (Richmond Coliseum)
Sept. 10: Huntington, WV (Big Sandy Arena)
Oct 29: Uncasville, CT (Mohegan Sun Arena)
Nov 12: Monterrey, Mexico (Northside Festival-Parque Fundidora)
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 25, 2016.
Photos 1-2 2016. Courtesy of KISS. All rights reserved.
Photos 3-6 ©2012 Al Soluri. Courtesy of KISS. All rights reserved.