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By Tim Grierson
KISS have been the godfathers of good-time rock for 35 years. Having unleashed their best album in years, they're still not ready to hang up their platform boots. Paul Stanley explains how they're showing the pretenders how it's done.
Paul Stanley is a man in perpetual motion. At 57, he and his bandmates in KISS are days away from the next leg of the group's seemingly never-ending Alive 35 tour, and he's so consumed with last-minute details that he had to postpone our initial interview in Los Angeles to focus on rehearsals before catching a flight to Detroit, where the band will kick off the tour. Later, relaxing in the band's Motor City hotel, KISS's venerable guitarist and vocalist takes a moment to reflect on the group's recent record-breaking concert tallies.
"In the last year," he says, "we played to about a million people. Our tour of Europe was our biggest and most successful ever. We did 30 shows in about three months and played probably to about three-quarters of a million people. And then after that, we did the stadiums of South America, playing to somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 people a night. And then we went on to Canada and did 15,000 to 90,000 people a night. It's been a terrific year for us."
Their terrific year will end with another milestone -- the release of Sonic Boom, the band's first studio effort since 1998's Psycho Circus, an album that neither their fans nor KISS themselves recall all that fondly.
In the 11 years since, Paul and bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons have solidified their lineup with the welcome additions of guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer. That band unity can be felt throughout the taut Sonic Boom, which features lead vocals from both newer band members. But perhaps more importantly, the album gets back to the down-and-dirty essence of quintessential KISS albums like Destroyer without labouring to achieve the effect. Still, the spectre of Psycho Circus haunts Paul - when asked if Sonic Boom was their last attempt to make one last great KISS album, he admits, "Really, I think it was more about not letting the last album be our last album."
Paul may be intensely busy dealing with tour and album logistics, but his spirits are high as he looks to the future as well as to the group's past. Speaking with Metal Hammer, he discusses KISS's legacy the bands they've influenced and why he still keeps making music even though he's filthy rich.
It's been 11 years since KISS's last record. Why did you decide that now was the right time for a new album?
"Another question would be 'why not?' Psycho Circus was enough of a reason not to do another album for me - it was a really good and heartfelt attempt to try to make a KISS album when there wasn't a whole band. But when you're more in contact with attorneys for band members than the band members, it doesn't really make for a creative process that involves four people."
So what changed?
"The time since then has been a very, very strong one for the band. The lineup has been stable for a long time, and that's because the band really is at its best, which is four individuals coming together with one focused goal - KISS. I think what people saw in the tour of the last year is a band at its peak. You can't make an album without that. I didn't want to see the KISS name on something that I had to apologise for."
What do you say to people who contend that Sonic Boom can't be a classic KISS album if it doesn't have the classic KISS lineup with Ace Frehley and Peter Criss?
"A classic album would be made by four people with a classic point of view. We weren't trying to make an album that sounded like it was recorded 35 years ago. We weren't trying to make a retro album that somebody could confuse with one that came out before. What was important for me was to capture the spirit that the band has today. That's classic. It's not classic because it's mimicking something else -- it's classic because it's vibrant and it's got all the spit, piss and vinegar that a band should have."
How did Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer contribute to Sonic Boom?
"We couldn't have done this without Tommy and Eric. It's always funny to hear people have this idea that the band is [just] Gene and me. Sonic Boom is the four of us -- anybody who thinks we could have done this without them is out of their mind. They're as big a part of this album as any of us are. From writing to rehearsing to recording, this was a four-way project. What made it so much fun and so powerful was the fact that four people were all working toward a common goal. People weren't trying to showcase themselves but [rather] make a great album. When you make a great album, everybody gets showcased."
You said last year you wouldn't make another KISS album unless you "could do it the way I wanted to do it." How did that play out with Sonic Boom?
"It really came down to some guidelines of what we should and shouldn't do. And the first [rule] was 'No outside songwriters.' It's very easy to do less work and have somebody write the majority of the songs for you, but what you wind up with is somebody's interpretation of who you are. Also, 'No old material.' The songs had to be for the album. When you start with the premise that band members have entitlement, it kinda precludes songs that may be better from getting on the album."
Gene was reluctant about making a new album too, complaining about illegal downloading. How did you deal with that issue?
"Well, it's a reality and something that you try to prevent as much as possible, certainly before the album's out. In the grand scheme of things, though, it wasn't as important as [making] this album. We had a great album in us. For the KISS legacy and for the ongoing story of this band, we saw that as taking precedent."
This album came together pretty quickly, right?
"We literally got together and wrote. Gene initially was a little ambivalent about the idea of he and I writing together, because we've got a long history at this point of writing on our own and doing everything our own way. But it was essential to the album that we do that and that the chemistry be there. And as soon as we sat down and wrote, it was effortless - very cool and a lot of fun. It was uncharted territory for all of us. It was terrific. We did it on days off on tour, or we did it when we were home. But it was everybody sitting around on chairs or on the sofa, the easiest thing we've ever done."
Because you've got a fanbase that spans generations, how do you decide who your audience is? Is Sonic Boom used to lure in new fans or a gift for people who've stuck with you?
"For me, we thought of it as a gift for the band. That's where it all starts. It was a gift for us to reinforce and revitalise and redefine who we are. It starts with us - we did it for us. I was talking with Tommy, and we were both saying we've got no apologies, no qualms, no regrets about this album. It will sell what it will sell, and it will get the accolades that people decide [it should.] But it didn't take a year of toiling over it - it took the spirit of a rock n' roll band."
So many bands have been influenced by KISS - like Marilyn Manson, Immortal, and Rammstein. What do you think of these bands that pay homage to you?
"The whole Norwegian metal scene is pretty dark, and it certainly takes it to another place. As do Rammstein or any of these other people. But look, we didn't create this genre. We took our influences and created KISS, so it only stands to reason that others are going to take KISS and create their own [band.] Ultimately, it's going to be up to the public to decide whether or not they like it, and to what degree. So, sure, there's a lot of bands that are influenced by us, but interestingly, there's a lot of bands who don't sound anything like us that were influenced by us."
"Like Garth Brooks. The first time I saw Garth in concert, I went back to see him afterward and told him what a great show it was. He got teary-eyed and said 'Anything you like out there, it's because of you guys.' You don't have to sound like us, look like us or put a show on like us to have been influenced by us. The influence doesn't have to be blatant - it's more about spirit."
A lot of newer bands don't have the showmanship that you guys bring. Why do you think that is?
"One of the problems nowadays is that a band can sell a few million albums and then go on tour, but that doesn't prepare them to know what it takes to entertain a large audience. We come from a school where, no matter how successful your albums were, you built a following and built your ability to perform by starting in a club. Then you were third on a bill, and second on a bill. You'd better believe that by the time you headlined, you knew what it was about. The reason classic rock bands sell tickets is because people know that they're going to get something worth going to. You don't learn that craft overnight."
Y'know, a lot of people wouldn't want to be labelled "Classic Rock."
"I'm proud to be in the category of classic rock bands - what's better than the word 'classic?' Are you kidding? If you want to call Led Zeppelin a classic rock band and then you want to call us a classic rock band, I'm not fighting. If I'm going to be lumped in with anybody, let me be lumped in with my heroes. That doesn't preclude you from being current. It means that you have a solid history and a foundation, which most bands will never achieve because they won't survive that long."
What about younger bands? Do you go out on tour thinking that you want to school them on how it's done?
"I don't think about that. What I think about is the audience that's coming to see us. Some of them are young enough that maybe they've only heard the legend of the band, or the idea of this band that goes out and gives 100 per cent and tries to give you an amazing show and really dazzle you. I only think about going out and being as good as they expect or better. But it's also about living up to our legacy for those who have seen the band - and to blow it away. Look, there's always going to be a certain amount of doubters who wonder if we can do it again. Whether it's the new stage or 'The band's older,' or 'Can Tommy do what Ace did?', everybody's got some preconceived idea. We try to go out there and smash those preconceived ideas to bits."
So you don't feel you have to compete with other groups?
"We compete against our legacy. The only shadow that we're in is the KISS shadow and the KISS legacy. It's like an Olympic athlete - every time you go out, you do your best to try to beat your best. You can't always, but our track record's pretty damn good."
Other artists like Motley Crue and Ozzy Osbourne have headlined festival tours with bands that are clearly influenced by them. Does a KISS festival appeal?
"Honestly, and whoever you speak to may deny it, but those [tours] are for financial considerations. It's the idea that you can get more people with more bands. You know, you pay some of them a lot less, but the audience is getting that much more in terms of bands. It's not just a benevolent and philanthropic move by anybody to do that. Ha ha ha! Sorry to burst the bubble for anybody, but it's because of economics. We're happy doing things our way. And that's the way we're gonna continue."
Cynics will say "Why are KISS still touring or making new music? Aren't they rich enough already?"
"Some people are never gonna understand that when you're wealthy, you don't have to do stuff for any other reason except that you find a personal challenge in it. I don't have to work - that's documented. But I would die if I didn't. This is what I do. But to continue doing it, it has to be vibrant, and it has to be new, and it has to be alive."
KISS finally got nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How did you feel when you heard the news?
"My first thought was 'This is really great for the people who've been fighting to get us in there.' It shows that their voice is being heard. Look, I applaud all the people who are fighting to get us in. But I also applaud the people who have been fighting to keep us out. Ha ha ha! They're all part of what makes KISS what we are."
You said that you're only competing with yourself. But isn't that daunting? That legacy is a lot to live up to.
"Competing against myself means that I can't lose. I've won for 35 years. The terrific thing is to go out on stage every night and go 'We're better than ever.' Rarely a night goes by that I don't go over to the side of the stage and say to my guitar tech, 'Is this amazing or what?' Because it is."
It sounds like you're a guy who really appreciates where the band is at this stage of their career.
"The champ doesn't always win every fight. The guy who wins the most fights is the champ. People forget Muhammad Ali didn't win all his fights. But he's the champ."