DEFENSIVENESS IS IN THE AIR. PAUL STANLEY JOKES WITH HIS CREW ABOUTHOWGUITAR
PLAYER READERS HAVE ALWAYS HATED KISS. GENE SIMMONS DISMISSES ME WITH, “OH BOY,
THE MEDIA IS HERE,” AND WALKS INTO THE MAIN STUDIO ATCONWAYSTUDIOS IN LOS ANGELES
WITHOUTFURTHER COMMENT. I LOOK ATTOMMYTHAYER—WHO IS PROJECTING NOTHING
BUTGOOD VIBES—AND STILL CAN’THELP MYSELF FROM WONDERING IF HE THINKS I’M GOING
TO ROAST HIM FOR DARING TO BE THE IMPOSTER SPACEMAN IN ACE FREHLEY’S MAKEUP.
I’m further thrown off my game when
drummer Eric Singer appears to be the Kiss
member most excited to talk to Guitar Player.
(He doesn’t play guitar, but he collects them,
and he possesses a truly impressive knowledge
of vintage instruments and guitar gear.)
All I’m trying to do is listen to the band’s
first new studio album in more than a decade,
and put the guys on the cover of the magazine.
Everyone relaxes a bit (including me)
when co-producer Greg Collins spins the
first few tracks of Sonic Boom [Roadrunner]
in Conway’s control room. Produced by Stanley—
who was extremely earnest and focused
in his mission to create a monumental, no-
B.S. Kiss album—the songs rage out of the
studio monitors with a rawness and vitality
that rivals the energy any of the 20-something
acts on the Warped Tour can deliver.
As an added plus, the guitar tones are huge,
the riffs striking, and the solos explosive.
It’s a Kiss klassic!
It’s also a rather bountiful set of goodies
for the Kiss faithful. Distributed exclusively
by Wal-Mart, Sonic Boom is a three-disc package
that also includes a re-recorded selection
of classic Kiss songs and a live DVD containing
six performances from the South
American leg of the Kiss Alive 35 tour. Happily,
by the time the band decamps to a studio
lounge to discuss the album, everyone is far
more interested in talking music than
makeup, preconceptions, misperceptions, or
Stanley: I think to maximize the work,
somebody has to have final say, and it can’t
be about compromising or placating somebody.
There had to be a unifying concept in
terms of solidifying what Kiss has always
been, and not diverging from that too much,
and yet not making a retro album. I think
the heart and soul of what we’ve always been
is what makes us what we are. At times, a
lack of focus from members—or disagreeing
tastes—would cause us to do things that
dissipated the intensity of the band. Too
much was left to everybody’s interpretation
of what the band should be.
I also wanted to make sure that everybody
was participating 100 percent. I think
that, regardless of whether it’s a democracy
or not, the key to making a great album is everybody putting everything into it. There
had to be ground rules. There were no outside
writers. There was no punching the
clock, and then leaving to do another side
project. It had to be a full commitment from
everybody, or it wasn’t worth doing. Nobody
here got to call their part in. Commendably,
everybody rolled up their sleeves and participated
Finally, I wanted to make sure the performances
were honest. I think that, arguably,
we have a band that has chops, and I wanted
to make an album where the songs were
strong, the melodies were memorable, and
everything grabbed you immediately.
Thayer: Paul had a real focused vision
of what we were doing—which hasn’t always
been the case for Kiss unless there was a
strong producer involved. I’ve been around
Kiss for a long time, and I’ve seen things
not work when there were too many cooks
in the kitchen. In this case, Paul took the
helm, and he ensured everything was
focused and precise.
Simmons: You’ve got to hand it to Paul
for getting in there and saying, “This is the
target.” My writing style is all over the place,
but not on this album, because Paul said,
“Focus on this.”
Stanley: Somebody had to say, “No, that’s
off track,” or “No, that isn’t genuine,” or
“No, that’s not something we would do.” It
couldn’t be about somebody wanting a song
on the album just because they liked it. We
didn’t write 40 songs and then pick the 12
or so that we thought would work together.
Everything was written specifically for the
album, and if a song wasn’t in that unified
mindset I was looking for, then it was put
aside. There was nothing put on the album
to placate anybody. If it didn’t belong on the
album, it’s not there.
Simmons: Well, we were truly jazzed.
The band has always been big, but it may be
bigger now than it has ever been before.
We’re playing to stadiums full of people, and
a lot of young people—a whole new audience—
and they kick you in the ass. You have
preconceived notions about what Kiss means
and who are we and if we’re playing something
from when the band started in 1901.But 15 year olds have never heard that material,
and they don’t have any preconceptions.
So it’s a whole new ballgame for us, and we
have to deliver.
Stanley: This band is terrific in concert.
It deserves to play new material, to record
a new Kiss album.
Stanley: Yeah, the big mystery was
solved! But it’s also sincerity. It’s being proud
of what we’ve been, and reconnecting with
it. We didn’t have to recreate the energy and
vitality because it is still there. This lion is
roaring because it has fangs.
Stanley: No—in twos or threes. We would
say something like, “We need a defining Gene
song,” and then we’d work to create it. We’d
ask, “What are the elements that make up
that kind of song? What are the certain kinds
of riffs, the certain scale, the certain lyrical
attitude, and the certain melody?” So it was
really using things we’ve done in the past as
templates, but not trying to replicate them.
There was homework [laughs]. At one point,
I said to Gene that we should write together.
He goes, “Well, we have different ways of
writing.” I said, “Listen, we need to sit down
and write because that chemistry is undeniable.”
When we focus on the chemistry, Kiss
is truly a band to be reckoned with
Simmons: The process started with us
sitting around with guitars, and plugging
them into those tiny Marshall desktop amps.
We’d get a format—sometimes, just chords—
start to hum melodies, and then we’d try it
out as a band. Then came the rewrites. The
basic riffs and point of view would be set,
but the parts were constantly changing until
we were 100-percent happy with the song.
Stanley: We took this very, very seriously,
but that didn’t mean it wasn’t fun. It was
fun because it was so productive. We were
writing on off days during our South American
tour—playing a stadium one night, and
then sitting on a sofa the next day writing a
song. If we wrote something that wasn’t
good, it was thrown away—simple as that.
Writing doesn’t have to be an exercise.
Stanley: A patron once asked Michelangelo
how he cut a statute of a horse out of a
block of stone, and he said, “I cut away everything
that didn’t look like a horse.” Writing
Kiss guitar parts are like that. You hear a riff
and you go, “That first part sounds like us,
but the second half doesn’t.” Then, you keep
paring away until it sounds like Kiss.
Stanley: No. The classic rock writers didn’t
approach things like that. You didn’t write
a song and say, “Wait until you hear the production
it’s going to have.” Where I come
from is, if it doesn’t sound good on one guitar
or one piano, it sucks. Don’t tell me how
you’re going to embellish it—you have to
have a great song to begin with.
Thayer: None of us have home studios.
We literally record our songs on little tape
Stanley: That cost $39.
Thayer: And that’s how we document
the foundation of our songs.
Stanley: Like idiots. And that’s what we
refer back to when we’re deciding whether
a song makes it—the music coming out of a
tiny, crappy speaker on a cheap cassette deck.
Stanley: I think great songs have dynamics,
and they go full circle. You want to wind
up where you started—not go on a journey
that takes you very far away from home. And
dynamics—whether it’s breakdowns or easing
up on the energy or impact—always make
a song more interesting. But the main thing
is seeing what doesn’t belong in a song, and
having the guts to just cut it out. We were
brutal this time about cutting parts that were
superfluous or unnecessary. If it didn’t make
our song any better, it was gone. That process
of refinement took us longer to get where
we were going, but it ensured we did the
best job we could.
Stanley: Yeah. This was a throwback to
the good old days of rock and roll sessions.
When we cut tracks, Tommy was to my right,
Gene to my left or playing in the other room,
and Eric could see all of us at all times. Let’s
set the record straight—Kiss didn’t always
record that way. What some people consider
to be the glory days was not four guys playing together. I remember on previous albums,
somebody would visit the control room, look
out into the studio, and say, “Where’s the
band?” We’d have to explain, “Well, we don’t
play as a band. We record our parts one at a
time.” This time, if you walked in and looked
through the glass, there we were.
Thayer: And every song was done in two
or three takes max.
Stanley: For the amount of time we’d
spend cutting something a fourth or a tenth
time, what are we going to get that’s significantly
better? If we’ve got the song, and the
tempo’s right, what are we going to get on
the tenth take—some magic that we didn’t
get earlier? I doubt it. But somebody has to
say, “That’s enough.”
Singer: For me, the recording process
was a very no-pressure situation. We weren’t
using click tracks, we played live, and we’d
focus on one song at a time—instead of me
feeling like I had to do all the drum tracks
for the entire album in three days.
Thayer: “Never Enough,” “Hot and Cold,”
and “Danger Us.” We recorded the album in
sections in-between tour dates. We did like
three or four songs at a time, and when we
cut those first three songs, we really started
getting excited, because the tracks kind of
exceeded our expectations. That inspired and
rejuvenated us, and got us even more excited about doing the next group of songs.
Stanley: We had to make sure that the
first set of songs set the bar. I didn’t want
us to go into the studio and be groping
around trying to figure out what we were
going to do.
Stanley: Both. First, we recorded to analog
tape, and then we threw it into Pro Tools
for mixing. But, even when the tracks were
in Pro Tools, the key was remembering that
the music we love was not made under a
microscope. What it looks like on a computer
monitor isn’t as important as what it
sounds like to your ears. Technology is not
a bad thing. It just can be overused and misused.
Pro Tools is a terrific tool, but it doesn’t
take the place of four guys writing a great
song and playing it and singing it.
Stanley: No. Let’s not forget that the
things that we love about Phil Spector’s productions, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin was
the spontaneity, and perhaps the lack of perfection.
There are some songs I’m real fond
of that have obvious mistakes.
Thayer: Rock and roll is not perfect, and
that’s exactly what makes great rock and roll.
Simmons: It’s the same as when we perform
live. It’s honest. No click tracks, the
drummer is not wearing headphones,
nobody is backstage playing guitar, there
isn’t stuff running off a hard disk, no synth
pads, and no vocal samples. If you hear a
mistake, it’s real.
Thayer: In Kiss, there are always distinctive
guitar parts, and Paul is very focused on
the chord voicings and how things were done
in the band’s past. But I grew up on this stuff,
so even though I wasn’t around in the early
days, I naturally know where to go. Basically,
we’d sit down, and someone would come up
with a great riff, and the other guy would
play something that complemented it.
Thayer: After the basics were recorded,
we’d come back and overdub the solos and
Thayer: We didn’t use all the latest and
greatest amps that are out there—even though
I have a new Hughes & Kettner signature
amp. In the studio, I used one of their older
combos—a Statesman. Paul played some old
Marshalls and some old Fender amps.
Singer: And a whole bunch of Les Pauls
and other goodies.
Stanley: Organic, epic—if the two can
coincide. It was really important to me that
Greg [Collins] did the album with us,
because he gets what we’re about. He has a
great audio library in his head—and a lot of
great reference points—so both of us knew
what we didn’t want the album to sound like.
Stanley: That wouldn’t be fair.
Stanley: There were a lot of later-period
bands that were, for whatever reason, called
“heavy metal” bands. They came after Zeppelin,
and their music tended to sound
incredibly compressed and cold and little. It
didn’t sound big. Listen to the Raconteurs.
That is an organic, vital-sounding album. In
its own way, it’s sonically closer to a Led Zeppelin
album than it is to a Winger album. In
our case, I think we dug a little deeper, and
tried to get back to the bands that influenced
us, but kind of kick it up. It’s almost like this
album is Kiss and its heroes on steroids
Stanley: Obviously Zeppelin. You can
never go wrong with Zeppelin. Or Free and
Thayer: Mick Ralphs of Bad Company.
English, blues-based hard rock.
Stanley: It’s all just terrific stuff that we
still listen to in the dressing room—all the
classic English bands. Those have always
been our heroes, but I think we captured
those influences better this time. We’re better
players, and we’re more adept at fully
realizing what we’re trying to accomplish—
at delivering our own version of what those
bands did back in the day.
Simmons: My style is less of a Motown
groove approach—it tends to have its own
melodic thing. Players such as Jack Bruce
always appealed to me because they
approached their parts more the way string
quartets do, where the bass isn’t necessarily
tied to the rhythm. I like to play a
melodic riff that works with, or works off
of the guitar.
Stanley: That’s a signature part of Kiss
that was gone for a while. When we listened
back to our old records, I said, “Hey, whatever
happened to those great walking bass lines?”
Those lines are part of the underpinning that
touches an emotional nerve in people who
don’t even know much about music and compels
them to say, “That’s Kiss.” Whether you
can articulate it or not, those elements are part
of who you are as a band, and if you veer too
far away from them, you only end up confusing
yourself and your audience.
Singer: Many times in the past, if someone
had an idea for the bass, Gene would
go, “Okay, you play it.” This time, Paul would say, “No. You’re going to play bass because
your feel and tone is critically important to
the Kiss sound.” And Gene does possess a
lot of the elements that people are used to
hearing in classic Kiss albums.
Simmons: At the end of the day, the most
important thing you can do is stay true to
yourself, and that’s a tough one. It’s easier
said than done.
Stanley: As we’ve proven! From time to
time, we let ourselves get sidetracked, and
we’d end up scratching our heads going,
“How did we get here.” But for this album,
we got the road map out. We weren’t going
to get lost.
Stanley: I think there’s a certain segment
of people who tend to focus on what’s on
the surface. If something is overt or blatant,
they take that as a means to cover up what
isn’t on the inside. So, you know, the box is
beautiful, but there’s no content. However,
that view isn’t necessarily the case.
Thayer: I love the whole Kiss persona
and the look, but I also really love the music.
The band has this fantastic image, but you’ve
got classic songs, too. You still hear those
songs, and you just connect immediately. I
know that because I’ve experienced it myself,
and, today, I see young kids at our concerts
singing all the songs.
Simmons: We’ve been doing this a long
time. All the critics who said we’d be sweeping
the floors are dead now. They’re dead,
they’re gone, and they don’t matter. So now
you can take a look at Kiss as just a band.
This record, I have to say, really came about
because of the excitement the band generated
on the European and South American
tours. It’s nice to be comfortable in your own
skin, but it’s another thing when hundreds
of thousands of people are out there saying,
“This is the coolest concert we’ve ever seen.”
You feed off that, and then you start to rediscover
Stanley: Yes. That process of rediscovery
was critical to making this album. As a result,
I think that’s why the tracks sound—like you
were saying—young. But we also have the distinction
of being a band with 35 years behind
it, and we’ve found our mojo again.
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