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. Sheesh.
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 marketing razzle-dazzle.
In the studio’s game room before we went to hear the new tracks, you said that, creatively speaking, democracy is overrated.
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 100 percent.
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.
I was knocked out at how energized and ballsy the tracks sounded. It’s like a raw, brazen record from a band that has something to prove, rather an act that has been famous for decades.
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.
It’s funny, because that proves the truth of the old Beatles thing. You play live until you’re absolute mothers, and then you write some good songs.
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.
roaring because it has fangs. Did you all sit around and write the songs together?
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.
But, still, you were looking for a certain quality level and vibe. How would you assess whether a song was “Kiss enough” for the new record?
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.
As the producer, where you also visualizing how each song would sound on the album?
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 recorders…
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.
What do you feel are the main elements of a great rock song?
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.
Now, you actually recorded the basics live in the studio, correct?
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.
What were the first songs you recorded?
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.
Did you record to tape or DAW?
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.
So, there was no microscopic editing going on, then?
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.
How did you split up the guitar roles in the studio?
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.
Did you guys do your solos live, or did you come back and overdub them?
Thayer: After the basics were recorded, we’d come back and overdub the solos and sweetening parts.
Did any notable gear make the scene during the sessions?
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.
Paul, did you have an overall view—from the performances to the songs to the audio production— of what the finished album would sound like?
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.
You certainly don’t have to pick out a band, but it would be helpful in understanding your production concept if there were stylistic things you were staying away from?
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
Which of your heroes were floating around the creative ether while you were recording the album?
Stanley: Obviously Zeppelin. You can never go wrong with Zeppelin. Or Free and Humble Pie.
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.
Gene, what informed your bass lines on the record?
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.
Tabloid question warning! Paul was musing earlier about how Guitar Player readers probably hated putting Ace Frehley on the cover back in the day. Why do you feel that some musicians have never given the band members much respect?
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 yourself.
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.