Despite the weirdness and controversy and general bad behavior all around, Kiss was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 10 of this year, and Ace Frehley, who first put on his Spaceman makeup in 1973, stood tall with his original bandmates—Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, and Peter Criss—to affirm all the things that music critics and business pundits often can’t understand, but rock fans adore. At the core of it, however, all the hoopla didn’t really matter much, because Frehley transcends industry honors. He belongs to the people, and his true legacy is inspiring thousands of girls, boys, men, and women to play guitar. Bravo, Spaceman!
But, as important as he may be to rock guitarists and the Kiss Army, Frehley never launched a prolific solo career. After the media assault of simultaneous solo albums with the other members of Kiss in 1978—where his record totally kicked ass on Paul’s, Gene’s, and Peter’s efforts, and produced the only bona fide hit with “New York Groove”—he released Frehley’s Comet (1987), Second Sighting (1988), and Trouble Walkin’ (1989) in the ’80s, and then disappeared into some interstellar wormhole (and a Kiss reunion) until 2009’s Anomaly.
And yet, some degree of peace and solitude appears to be beneficial to Frehley’s creative engine.
“I have Attention Deficit Disorder,” he says, “so it’s too easy for me to get distracted.”
Which is a big part of the reason most of Frehley’s new album, Space Invader [eOne Music], was recorded at Creation Lab studios in the sleepy, rustic town of Turlock, California, with just drummer Matt Starr and bassist Chris Wyse as the main collaborators. Without a bunch of people drifting in and out of the studio, and only short trips to his hotel to sleep interrupting the recording process, Frehley was able to concentrate completely on making music.
The game plan is now reaping benefits, as Space Invader is garnering enthusiastic reviews and excellent sales projections. And while Frehley didn’t venture far from the guitar tones, style, and songwriting that made him who he was back in another time and another musical universe, apparently that’s still enough to thrill fans in the here and now.
You’ve stated that you went back to the formula for your 1978 solo album for Space Invader. What exactly is that formula, and how did it inform your new songs?
My solo album when I was with Kiss was pretty much tracked live with just me and Anton [Fig, drummer]. After we’d get a basic track, I’d go back and overdub a bass track with a Fender Precision. [Editor’s note: Will Lee also did a couple of bass tracks on the album, and he and Fig later became members of Paul Shaffer’s band on Late Night with David Letterman.] And that’s exactly the formula I used on this record, except I wasn’t working with Anton, I was working with Matt Starr. Well, I did track a few things in my home studio to a drum machine, and then I’d have Matt replace the parts with live drums.
Were there any surprises while you were recording the album?
I don’t think so, but the songs I’m most excited about are “Space Invader” and “Past the Milky Way.” While I was in the mixing process in Los Angeles, both of those songs were just instrumentals, and I had perhaps two weeks to finish them. I like working under a deadline, though. I like to have that pressure, because sometimes it jumpstarts my creativity. So while Warren [Huart, Space Invader co-producer] was mixing the other tracks, I’d be back in my hotel room with a portable Pro Tools rig and a microphone working on the vocals and melodies for “Space Invader” and “Past the Milky Way.” Then, I just went into the studio and cut the vocals on this great-sounding Neumann U47 mic. Also, all the solo work on “Past the Milky Way” was done at Warren’s during the mixing process—which was a lot of fun and a big surprise, because I used a Les Paul that was just hanging on his wall and some crazy amp that I don’t even remember.
You decided to do a pretty bruising cover of Steve Miller’s “The Joker,” which, on the surface, seems like a strange choice for you. What inspired that idea?
One of the vice presidents at the label, eOne Music, came up with that one. He had a lot of insight into my persona, and he had some ideas about what my fans might like. I didn’t put up a fight, really, because I didn’t want to do “New York Groove” when it was suggested to me in 1978, and that song became my biggest hit. Sometimes, other people’s insights are right on. They also suggested that I do some kind of take off on Steve’s The Joker album cover, and maybe have me wearing a mask and makeup. I shot that one down [laughs].
The interesting thing about that track is that I was doing some drum edits and I accidently erased the drums on the first verse. I mean, you can hit “undo” and it’s like nothing happened, right? But when stuff like that happens, I say to myself, “Maybe there’s a reason for it.” So that’s why there are no drums on the first verse. I ended up overdubbing a hi-hat with a delay, and I brought the bass in slowly to build the track until the chorus, when everything is in. The arrangement was an accident, but it was one of those good accidents.
When you track guitars at home do you mic amps or go direct?
When I’m in my home studio, I usually do both. I’ll mic up the amps, and, for the direct stuff, I use the Zoom G3 and a rackmount Line 6 Pod Pro. I think most of the rhythm guitars on “The Joker” were done with the Fender tweed tone on the Pod. That’s also the only song where I used a Stratocaster for the basic track, instead of a Les Paul. All the lead work is Les Pauls, however.
Were there any new or unexpected pieces of gear that showed up during the Space Invader sessions?
I didn’t use anything much different than what I’ve used in the past. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, right? I usually track basics with Marshall amps, although I also used a Bad Cat 1x12 combo that happened to be in the studio. I also experimented with the solo for “Space Invader,” using an old Gibson amp with a 6" speaker and a wah-wah in that crazy middle section.
For guitars, I used my Les Paul Standards and Customs for most of the main tracks, and I doubled stuff with Fender Strats and Teles. There are also a lot of acoustics on the record—most of them tucked under the electrics—and they were Gibson and Guild jumbos and Taylors. All of my effects were out of my Zoom G3. I like the G3 because it has a variety of sounds that are easy to dial in. I’ve used Zoom stuff my whole career. In fact, the delay on the smoking-guitar solos I did onstage with Kiss on the reunion tourwas from a Zoom pedal.
What about strings and picks?
I’ve got boxes of Gibson, D’Addario, Ernie Ball, and Dean Markley strings sitting around, so I’ll just grab whatever is near and throw them on. I beat the crap out of my strings when I’m playing rhythm, so I usually change them every day, and when you change them that often, I don’t really notice any difference between the brands. Lead work isn’t quite as taxing on strings. When I’m cutting rhythm tracks, I usually like a little heavier gauge— say, .010-.052—because they stay in tune better, and they’re a little more resilient. But when I’m doing leads, I use a lighter gauge, maybe like .010-.048 or .009-.046.
I don’t know who makes my picks—I get them by the gross—but I’ve been using mediums for years. Sometimes, I’ll use a lightgauge pick for complicated rhythm parts to get more flexibility, and I’ll use a heaviergauge pick for playing bass and doing staccato guitar parts, but 80 percent of the time, I’m using medium-gauge picks.
You’ve said you don’t like using pedals onstage…
No. I always trip all over them [laughs].
So how do you boost your solos? Are you using solely the guitar’s Volume knob?
When I’m playing a rhythm part, I’m usually running the guitar at about 75 to 80 percent of its maximum volume, and when the lead comes in, I crank the Volume knob to 10. Sometimes, if a solo demands more punch, my roadie will goose the volume back at the amp. He also runs my delays for me. I have three different presets, and we practice when to hit them during the set, and he nails it nine times out of ten.
Do you ever consider evolving, changing, or otherwise messing with your tone?
My tone is pretty well established over a 40-year career. I plug a Les Paul into a Marshall.
Of course, a lot of players use the Les Paul/Marshall combination, but few—if any—of them sound like you. What other factors contribute to that Ace Frehley tone?
I guess it’s my technique. I hold the pick very loose—so loose that it often falls out of my hand while I’m playing. When I play lead, I sometimes hit the string with the pick and my finger to get that harmonic sound, and I’m usually resting my wrist on the bridge. Does this all add up to an “Ace Frehley” tone? I don’t know…