Veteran rockers Kiss ready to roar again

“Look at Kiss culture,” says Gene Simmons, radiating pride. “People tattoo their bodies with Kiss faces, name their children after our songs, have Kiss conventions. “This is Planet Kiss; we just live on it. The stage is holy ground, and what we do is electric church.”

Holy hyperbole! The kabuki kibitzers of big-top rock are back in greasepaint and spandex, armed with a new album and a fresh stage spectacle to solidify a legacy built on thundering riffs, pyrotechnics, superheroic role-playing and hucksterism. The singer/bassist, 60, and guitarist Paul Stanley, 57, are meeting in the Sunset Strip office of manager Doc McGhee to chat up Sonic Boom, Kiss’ 19th studio album and first since 1998’s Psycho Circus. The album, out today exclusively at Walmart, is a three-disc set with a CD of re-recorded hits and a DVD of a Buenos Aires concert packaged with 11 new songs. It’s $12, “the price of a sandwich,” Simmons crows. The band began writing last spring, rehearsed tunes in May and recorded in June, wrapping up Boom by mid-July. Reviews have lauded the album’s return to the crunch and muscle of ’70s classics Destroyer and Love Gun. “To describe the process: Stop trying to show off and get in touch with what happens naturally,” Simmons says. “Through the years, we’ve wandered and had other agendas, one of which was to make critics happy — with The Elder (a 1981 concept album), and to follow the dance thing — with I Was Made for Lovin’ You (a disco track on 1979’s Dynasty). We’ve played around with symphony orchestras and boys’ choirs. The thing that changed the game was touring this last year and getting a tsunami of e-mails and letters asking ‘Where’s the new record?’ ” Crafting Boom was one of the easiest and most joyous projects in the band’s 36-year run, Stanley says. But he would not have stepped in the studio without the title and authority of producer. “In the creative process, democracy is vastly overrated,” he says. “The whole idea of everybody having a say is terrific, but in the end someone has to make a decision. We’ve had some failed attempts in the last decade or two at trying to make a great Kiss album. I have to chalk that up to having band members who perhaps had the wrong priorities or no priorities. “I didn’t want any outside writers. What you wind up with is somebody’s interpretation of what Kiss is. Who knows better what Kiss is than Kiss? I wanted to capture the spirit, the hunger of the band at its best.” Guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer flesh out the Kiss lineup, replacing originals Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, who have had a rocky history with the band and made their most recent exits in 2003 and 2004, respectively. To those who suggest their absence diminishes Kiss, Stanley snaps: “Put Willie Mays in a baseball uniform and see how well he hits. The magic you remember isn’t there. “Quite honestly, the whole idea that there were four people putting in the same amount of effort is nonsense. Never happened. This is the band in its ideal form. No other lineup could have made Sonic Boom.” Kiss Army still a force Fans certainly seem satisfied with the overhaul. “Kiss remains an international phenomenon, (and) the Kiss Army remains strong,” says Ray Waddell, Billboard’s editor of touring, noting that the current U.S. leg of the band’s Kiss Alive 35 tour, a global trek launched in 2008, is ahead of projections. “With Kiss, I believe reputation has more to do with selling tickets than any new album. Like a lot of other heritage rock acts, Kiss’ audience is multi-generational. The difference with Kiss is the band has always had huge appeal to young male teens, and the visual aspects of their shows are particularly engaging to the YouTube generation.” The Kiss fan base is steadily replenished by youngsters, says Detroit-based music journalist Gary Graff, who caught the band’s Sept. 25-26 launch at Cobo Arena, where 1975’s Alive! album was recorded. “I was struck at the Detroit shows by all the little Genes and Pauls and even Aces who were running around, 8- and 10-year-olds who had their faces made up,” Graff says, describing the band’s appeal as “four guys strutting around in makeup and giant boots, blowing fire, spitting blood, blowing things up. Kiss is a comic book come to life with no pretense of being anything other than entertaining. It’s the ultimate Guitar Hero experience, and both the songs and the themes — sex and rock ‘n’ roll — are so elemental and base that they have a timeless and cross-generational appeal, the kind of thing people never get tired of. “As for Sonic Boom, I don’t think we’re looking at another Destroyer here, but at least it sends a message that the group is, if you will, alive and trying to add to its legacy.” Will the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame add to that legacy? Eligible since 1999, Kiss is among nominees for the 2010 induction. Hall of infamy is more like it, Simmons says. “It’s a nice organization, but it’s like the Boss Tweed days in New York, back-room politics where 10 guys from Rolling Stone decide who gets in,” he says. “Tutti Frutti, I get it. The Eagles, I get it. But Madonna? Show me one iota of rock in that. You’ve got a little headset and the track playing in your ear and dancers on stage. Come on! If you’re not playing guitars and drums, it ain’t rock.” Stanley’s conflicted, as are Kiss fans, he says. “There are days I’m not sure I’d consider it being inducted or indicted,” he says. “We’re already a member of a very exclusive rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame. We’ve lasted this long. We’ve influenced people in every form of music, from Garth Brooks to Lenny Kravitz. There are doctors, politicians and street sweepers who cite us as influences. We’ve made our mark. If somebody wants to invite us into their club, that’s fine.” Giving critics the kiss-off Kiss, long a popular target of the music press, has never kissed up to critics and vice versa, though the same revisionism that upgraded Led Zeppelin over time seems to be casting a kinder light on the Kiss saga. “Art to me is the name of a nice guy,” Simmons says dismissively. “Critics never understood. Put them on a roller coaster: Everyone else has the time of their lives, and critics say, ‘What does it mean?’ They missed the ride. “Anytime we meet a new band, they say, ‘We cut our teeth on your records.’ When you see fireworks at Paul McCartney’s show, where do you think that came from? ‘N Sync? Why should I care about critics when we have 3,000 licensed products, 35 years of touring and every band in the book pointing to Kiss as the pivotal reason they wanted to do something big on stage?” Ah yes, the Kiss mantra: sex, dough and rock ‘n’ roll. The Wal-mart pact includes Kiss Korners stocked with branded goods from fleece blankets to wigs to M&Ms. Could it be that some detractors are simply appalled by a mercenary band’s pipeline of 3,000 trinkets? “I’m appalled it’s not 6,000,” Simmons cracks. He props his foot on the coffee table, pulls his wallet out of his silver-tipped cowboy boot and flashes a Kiss-logo Visa card. At the other end of the spectrum: the Demon, Starchild, Spaceman and Catman faces on new cheesy Mr. Potato Head collectibles. “Couldn’t wait to do it!” he says. “Dorks rule, baby.” Stanley is puzzled by knocks against the Kiss assembly line. “We’d be idiots to put out things fans don’t want,” he says. “The idea that we’re genius businessmen is ridiculous. If someone says, ‘Gee, I’d like a belt buckle,’ we give it to them. And anybody who says, ‘I’m only in it for the music’ will find himself washing cars and wondering where the money went. Gene and I believe in working hard and making no apologies for what we get for the hard work.” Besides, touring and merchandise are crucial lifelines to offset losses incurred by piracy. “You grab an album and leave a store, they put you in handcuffs,” Stanley says. “And yet someone on the Internet can decide whether or not I get paid. File-sharing, that’s like me stealing your car and telling you I’m sharing your transportation.” ‘What we do isn’t charity’ Illicit downloading is one reason the band resisted recording new material for a decade, says Simmons, sneering: “These freckle-faced college kids have destroyed an entire industry by stealing. I don’t believe in socialism and, the last time I checked, what we do isn’t charity.” It’s drug-free, fun-driven capitalism with zero tolerance for rock-star clichés that glamorize self-destructive behavior. “When we first became very successful, everyone fell prey to their own vices,” Stanley says. “Drugs, alcohol, women, sycophantic friends. There are piranhas just waiting to put one arm around your shoulder and the other in your pocket. That rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is a cartoon, and it’s pathetic. You’re either a laughingstock or you die. Being a musician who lasts 40 years is nothing short of hard work.” For all their swagger and ego, Simmons and Stanley say they’re humbled by the band’s longevity and express enormous respect for the Kiss Army. “We’re privileged,” Simmons says. “There but for the grace of God, anyone of us would be asking the next person in line, ‘Would you like fries with that?’ What have I got to complain about? I’m filthy rich. I’ve been there, done that and owned the T-shirt with my own face on it.”


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