iNTERVIEW: Gene Simmons

(June 1995) In 1995, KISS released the book Kisstory, a 440-page, 9 pounds (4.1 kg), detailed chronicle of the group’s history to that point. That same year, the band embarked on a unique and well-received Worldwide Kiss Convention Tour. Sensing it was time for a change, Kiss made the decision to abandon their trademark makeup and costumes. The band officially appeared in public without makeup for the first time since their very early days on a September 18, 1983, appearance on MTV, which coincided with the release of Lick It Up. The tour to promote the new album and the unmasked band members began in Lisbon, Portugal, at Pavilhão Dramático de Cascais, the band’s first concert without makeup since early 1973. Lick It Up became Kiss’s first Gold record in three years. I spoke with Gene about the changes and the road ahead…

By Michael Bell

MB: Alright, I’ve got you on the speaker phone… I hate technology. How about you?
GS: We don’t get along well, no.
MB: I’ve got a million questions to ask, just as I’m sure every interviewer does…
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: What about that record?
GS: Listen, it’s better that I talk awhile and then you sort of bounce stuff off me, because there’s like twenty years to talk about and we wont get anywhere. I’ll help you… We’ve got this record coming out, June, and then in July, August, we’ve got an hour and a 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 Year’s… 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 book stores. It’s a monster book. It weighs 9lbs. A foot and a quarter wide long by a foot wide, 450 pages. Each one comes in a hard shell case. Each one is numbered and signed by the band, and the only way to get it is that when you get the record of 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 out own vaults and that’s what’s coming out.
MB: There’s something you’ve touched upon. The marketing and merchandising of the band.
GS: The only thing 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 choises. One, you can sue them which costs a lot of money or you 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: How far back did you recognize the importance of marketing control? When did you take a more hard core business approach?
GS: I don’t know if you can really ever use those words. If before you cross the street you look both ways incase 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 it makes you a genius. It’s common sense.
MB: What about bootlegging? Some artists view it as flattering and 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 activity’s great and it’s unequalled 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 band. You get up on stage and play a Stones song, and that’s what it is. There are no tribute bands for anybody like KISS tribute bands. They have to put on make-up 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 “Trekie” conventions, and they’re just as committed to their things. I’m a big StarTrek fan.
MB: Did you have any idea in the beginning that you’d be going to shows and kids would be showing up dressed just 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, the fact that, in a lot of ways everything 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 is another double tribute album that came out in Australia that had a lot of bands from down there plus American bands.
MB: How does that make you feel to see so many huge acts in their own right making this new tribute album? I mean there’s Lenny Kravitz, Garth Brooks…
GS: Very proud. The irony is that we’ve got the coolest of the cool but there’s a behind the 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 rumours of Madonna wanting to be on the album?
GS: Yes, that too, for a while she was on doing I Was Made For Loving You.
MB: But it never made it to the record.
GS: Oh, politics and who knows what.
MB: How much of that decision making did you do?
GS: None. I didn’t want to do any of that. You just throw a party for yourselves. Artists have one agenda and business people have another agenda. An artist will refer to their record as my next record. A record company or the managers or even stores will refer to it as ‘When do you have product?’ It’s a different point of view really.
MB: How do you enjoy doing movies?
GS: Movies are fun, but home movies are much more interesting.
MB: What kind of home movies, Gene?
GS: That’s like people ask me “Do you like sports?” and I say ‘Yeah, indoor sports.’
MB: How about the influeence you’ve had on so many bands? More pride? When bands say they cut their teeth on early 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 Mototown 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 whoever 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 to come after us. It’s important that you read the whole book to get it. One chapter’s not going to give it to you.
MB: I can’t help but think you work all the time.
GS: I love it. I’ve been very lucky. And the irony is, that 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. (laughs)
MB: Any really memorable moments in the past year?
GS: Oh my god, every time you 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 Fredricton. He named his child, Paul Stanley Fredericton. You know? I mean when you have children named after you, and Beth… and there’s a whole new generation of babies named Domino. Then it really hits you that it’s not just songs. It’s a good thing, I mean our concious is clear, it’s a good thing really that we didn’t take up the banner of religion and start taking about that because we could have really fucked up a lot of people. We never told anybody 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. Once voice is way more important to me than any movement. To me it’s much hipper when a guy stands up and says “OK, you guys believe in something, I don’t.” Without the single voices you never get the Einstein’s, or the Jesus Christ’s or Buddha’s… history was “Ok, I don’t agree with the status quo. I think for myself.
MB: What about the moment the band decided not to wear make-up?
GS: You know, we’d been doing it for about 10 years and we played…
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 what? There is nowhere else to go with this. We’re just going to end up being caricatures of ourselves.’ So we got rid of the make-up because we had to move on.
MB: So with all your confidence and success you stripped the make-up and walked confidently onto…
GS: The answer is no. The truth of the matter is, when the make-up 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 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 3 part harmony singing, pop rock bands that were selling records. A lot of the rock bands started to look 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 the pictures, and some years when we looked like dorks. There are some photos of me growing up that I wouldn’t show anybody. I’m sure it’s the same with you.