Interview: Gene Simmons

Gene Simmons

(1994) I was especially excited to get this interview. I was a huge KISS fan as a youth. Of all the personalities I’ve interviewed, none was as successful and down to earth as Gene Simmons. I spoke to him by phone from his studio while he mixed some film scores for “Kisstory”. We talked about the early days and present. We also had a heart to heart about KISS losing the makeup…

Mb: OK, I’ve got you on my speaker phone. I hate technology. What about you?
GS: We don’t get along too well, no.
Mb: I’ve got a million things to ask, as I’m sure all interviewers do…
GS: Let me start talking. It will help you a lot. It will give you a lot of meat to refer back to. First of all in June, I have a strange record coming out called “Kiss My Ass”.
Mb: Yeah, what about that record?
GS: Listen, it’s better that I talk awhile and then you sort of bounce stuff off of me, because there’s like twenty years to talk about and we won’t get anywhere. I’ll help you… We’ve got this record coming out in June, and then in July and August we’ve got an hour and half long video, “Kiss My Ass” the video, which we’re editing now. Sort of “The Making of…” And then in mid August, early September we’re going to be headlining stadiums in South America. Then, we’ll come back and finish the next studio record, which is a lot heavier. Very much in the same vein as “Revenge”, the last studio record. That will come out hopefully by the holidays, Christmas. New Years… And then, we’ve been actually working on this for a year, a book called “Kisstory”, which we’re publishing ourselves. It will not be available in bookstores. It’s a monster book. It weighs in at 9 lbs, a foot and a quarter long by a foot wide, 450 pages. Each one comes in a hard shell case. Each one is numbered and signed by the band. The only way to get it is when you get the record or the video there’s a phone number you can call and you’ll get all the information. That’s the only way to get the book. That’s something we’ve wanted to do for the longest time and instead of all these bootlegs and unauthorized KISS books that come out, where they never have the cool photos cause they don’t really know what happened. So this stuff comes from our own vaults and that’s what’s coming out.
Mb: There’s something you’ve touched on. The marketing and merchandising of the band. Is that something you noticed as important from the beginning, to control the product and marketing?
GS: The only thing that we recognized, in all fairness to anyone who thinks we’re genius, is that we started seeing a lot of people using the KISS logo in ways that I didn’t want it to be used. I kept screaming about it to lawyers, managers, everybody, saying “What is this. I don’t want that” They said, “You have two choices. One, you can sue them which costs a lot of money or you can put your stuff out first, before it appears.” That’s the only reason we started doing that. I mean everything happened at the same time. Pinball machines, KISS shoelaces, everything. Past a certain point it became so big, such a big industry we started to forget the music. We had to curtail all of that stuff and continue, otherwise the band would have become obsolete.
Mb: So when did you take such a hard-core approach to business?
GS: I don’t know if you can really use those words. If before you cross the street you look both ways in case some car doesn’t watch the lights from green to red because you don’t want to be run over, it doesn’t mean you’re smart. It just means that you want to live. I’m not sure that taking care of business makes you a business man. I don’t want to get raped. Don’t bend over for the soap. Somebody’s pointing to that guy saying “Look how smart that guy is.” I just don’t want to get raped. Do you? I don’t think that makes you a genius. It’s just common sense.
Mb: What about bootlegging? Some artists view it as flattering while others…
GS: I appreciate it when it comes from fans, but when there’s a profit built into it, then I question what it’s about. Fan activities… great and it’s unequaled for any band. There ain’t no ZZ Top convention, there are no fanzines. There are a lot of great bands… It’s easy to be a Stones cover band. You get up on stage and play a Stones song, and that’s what it is. There are no tribute bands, like KISS tribute bands. They have to put on makeup and design outfits and get bombs and all that. KISS conventions are their own things. There’s nothing like that. The only thing that even parallels it in any shape or form is Treky conventions, and they’re just as committed to their thing. I’m a big Trek fan!
Mb: Did you have any idea in the beginning that you’d be playing shows and kids would show up dressed like you?
GS: You know, when you go to sleep at night and no one’s watching, and you dare dream beyond the unreachable dream…. Yes. You dare hope, and you dare dream, yes, you dream big. I mean, everyone wants to be bigger than shit, that fact that, in a lot of ways everything that we ever hoped for came into being in spades, is amazing to me. I mean, I was just doing a Norwegian interview and I just found out that some of the biggest Norwegian bands just put out a double album, 16 groups, a KISS tribute. A Norwegian KISS tribute album called “Flaming Youth”. And there’s another double album that came out of Australia that had a lot of bands from down there plus some American bands.
Mb: How does it make you feel to see so many huge acts, in their own right, making this new tribute album? I mean, there’s Lenny Kravitz, even Garth Brooks!!
GS: Very proud. The irony is that we’ve got the coolest of the cool but there’s a behind scenes story that most people don’t know about, which is that, over 50 bands wanted to be on the record. At various points we had Soundgarden doing “War Machine”, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots with Ozzy Osborne, Tears for Fears, Soul Asylum, Spin Doctors… you name it.
Mb: What about the rumors that Madonna wanted to be on the album?
GS: Yes, that too. For awhile she was on doing “I was Made for Loving You”.
Mb: But it never made it to the record because…
GS: Oh, politics and who knows what.
Mb: So, do you enjoy making movies?
GS: Movies are fun, but home movies are much more interesting.
Mb: What kind of home movies Gene?
GS: (laughs) That’s like people ask me “Do you like sports?” and I say “Yeah, indoor sports.”
Mb: What about the influence you’ve had over so many bands? How do you feel when so many bands have cut their teeth listening to KISS albums?
GS: You know, it’s nice to hear, but we’re always forced to stand up and say “Thanks, but nothing begins and ends with us.” If someone’s pointing at me, I’ll turn around and point to the Beatles. The Beatles will turn around and point to little Richard and Motown, and so on.
Mb: Who do you point to?
GS: I point immediately to The Beatles. Hopefully any caring music fan.. if they love Soundgarden or who ever, and then you find out they love KISS and they wound up listening to KISS and then you say “Wow, that’s cool.” Just be aware that no chapter… this is not an entire book. We are not the end all or b-all, we’re just one chapter in the book of rock and roll. There are chapters before us and chapters that will come after us. It’s important that you read the whole book to get it. One chapter is not going to give it to you.
Mb: You know, given the fact you’re talking to me, I can’t help but think you work all the time.
GS: I love it. I’ve been very lucky. And the irony is the harder I work the luckier I get. Nothing is by accident. You may hit the jackpot once, but the only way to continue winning is to work your ass off. That’s why 20 years later I no longer have an ass.
Mb: Any really memorable moments in the past year?
GS: Oh my god, every time I wake up. Somebody says something that either… some guy sent some presents in the mail and also a photo of his child. The guy’s last name is Fredericton. He named his son, Paul Stanley Fredericton. You know? I mean, when you have a child named after you, and Beth… and there’s a whole new generation of babies named Domino, after our last record. Then it really hits you that it’s not just the song It’s a good thing, I mean our conscience is clear. It’s a good thing that we didn’t take up the banner of religion and start talking about that, because we could have really fucked up a lot of people. We never told anyone who to pray to or what political party. It was never about that. It was just about enjoying life. The word “I” is the most important word in my lexicon. Wow, that’s a big word, like gymnasium. (laughs) One voice is way more important to me than any movement. To me, it’s much hipper when one guy stands up and says “OK, you guys believe in something I don’t” Without the single voices you never get the Einsteins or the Jesus Christs or Buddhas.. history was “OK, I don’t agree with the status quo. I think for myself.”
Mb: So what about the moment the band decided not to wear makeup?
GS: You know, we’d been doing it for 10 years and…
Mb: It was killing your skin?
GS: No actually it was healthy because you ended up washing your face more than you usually would. We were playing Rio for about 200,000 people the biggest show we ever did. To give you a sense of what 200,000 people is, it’s 4 times as big as any 50,000 seat stadium. It was beyond big. And we said “You know? There is no where else to go with this. We’re just going to wind up being caricatures of ourselves” So, we got rid of the makeup because we had to move on.
Mb: So, with all your confidence and success you stripped away the makeup and walked strongly into…
GS: The answer is “no”. the truth of the matter is when the makeup came off and we started recording “Lick It Up” and when it came off, I felt naked. The very first series of shows we did was in Portugal and that very first show, getting up on stage was the most embarrassing moment of my life. If you take a step back you might think “The guys wear makeup on stage that must be awkward. ” But no, it felt like home. It was really hard to get used to it. It wasn’t really until the 90’s that i felt comfortable with myself. During the 80’s it was a very bad period for me. I couldn’t figure out what was comfortable for me. I think music in general sucked during the 80’s. It was the corporate, poofy haired, sweet three-part harmony singing pop rock bands that were selling records. A lot of the rock bands started looking like your girlfriend, and so did we. It was a terrible time and it took a while to live that down. But you know what? It’s no different than your life. There are some years when we looked cool in our pictures and some years when we looked like dorks. There are some photos of me growing up that I wouldn’t show anyone. I’m sure it’s the same with you.