Presents A Conversation With Gene Simmons of KISS

by Gerri Miller

Gene Simmons is worshiped by fans as the fire-breathing bass player in KISS, but his talents as a dealmaker, marketer and mastermind of the two-decade KISS phenomenon are the object of equal admiration among his peers in the music business and those who aspire to it. With the release of the DVD edition of the summer comedy Detroit Rock City, featuring KISS (the VHS version comes out Jan. 11) serving as a starting point, Simmons went on the record about the status of KISS in the new millennium and his extra-curricular projects while imparting some pull-no-punches advice.

G: What does the DVD release have that wasn’t in the theatrical release?
GS: There's lots of special stuff on it, interviews with the people involved, writer, director, producers, behind the scenes stuff people haven't seen, different points of view of the concert sequence, music videos, an instructional segment, deleted scenes, bloopers. It's the first movie that's going directly to DVD, not video.

G: The movie was very funny but wasn’t in theaters very long. Any theories?
GS: You have to ask the people. On any weekend there may be three or four movies I want to see and I'll only end up seeing one. Sometimes it's just a toss of the coin. Sometimes it’s heads. Sometimes it's tails. That’s life. The main idea is to get out there. It's like training a championship horse. Once you enter the Olympics, you're in the game and that's the best you can hope to do and you're competing against whoever is the best that day. Someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. In hindsight we have nothing to be ashamed about. We're proud of the movie.

G: Were you disappointed at all?
GS: Sure, a little bit, but on the other hand, what other bands have movies about them?

G: Was the marketing at fault?
GS: No, New Line did a fine job. People knew it was coming. We certainly did enough interviews.

G: Did the R rating hurt it?
GS: Yes.

G: Do you think people might have been confused, thinking it was a KISS biography or concert movie?
GS: Tough to say. Life is often a Rorschach test, you throw the ink on the paper and people see different things in it. I see a butterfly and you see an explosion. So it's difficult to tell. Again, in terms of marketing, and painting and artwork, if we all knew how to do it nobody would ever make a mistake.

G: Now it has a second shot. Do you think it will do better?
GS: Up to [the public] of course. The only thing you can do is create something. If everyone knew how to make a hit song or a hit movie, believe me everybody would be doing it. All you can do is the best you can do.

G: For the record, describe the movie in a nutshell.
GS: It's not a KISS movie in the same way that there are all these biographies. It's not a biography. It's about four KISS fans, once upon a time in a magic place at a magic time with four magic characters who are off to see KISS in Detroit Rock City. It's very Wizard of Oz. There are similarities because in The Wizard of Oz, it's not about the wizard. If he never appears it's still not about him. It's about these characters Dorothy and the Lion and the Tin Man who learn about themselves on the yellow brick road. Each one has a life lesson they have to go through. It's more about the journey.

G: Personally, does the millennium mean anything to you?
GS: The only thing it means to me is that a special thing called KISS not only continues to exist but continues to thrive.

G: Lately there have been rumors that Ace [Frehley] doesn't want to do it anymore, that Peter [Criss] is tired, that Paul [Stanley] wants to do Broadway.
GS: All of that is probably true, but it's a relationship. Guys and girls understand that. Sometimes somebody wants out. And the door is wide open. Anybody can leave at any time. Everybody's got enough money.

G: You've told me before that you never have enough, Gene.
GS: Well, that's my philosophy about everything, girls, food--as long as your heart's ticking, use it or lose it. Ironically enough, it is about the money and the power and the fame but it's really not. Because for me, I don't do the diamonds and the jewels and the Rolex watches.I don't do the private jets. I fly commercial. I don't run around with security guards and posses.

G: But you do live well.
GS: Of course, as well I should. For me, money is just a sign of how well you do something, because there is no other way to gauge it. For some people it's about having money to buy something, they want to go shopping. It’s about getting the stuff. For me it is the end itself, not the means. But back to Ace and Peter. Has Ace said he would leave? Oh, sure. Once a week, in the past, and always. That's Ace. What do you want me to tell you? Ace is a singularity in science. Black is white and white is black. To get Ace to rehearsal at 2:00 he needs a 10 AM wakeup call. You think I'm kidding? That includes sending the doorman up to his room to bang on the door. But you know, it is as it is. Like when you get married and have a family it's part of the package. You hate the way he snores at night but you like the guy so you put up with it. I put up with it too. It's all part of Ace. Part of his charm.

G: If Ace decided he really wanted out, or Peter did, would you consider going on with others?
GS: Of course, without question.

G: Might that include asking Bruce Kulick or Eric Singer to come back?
GS: That I have no idea, though obviously everybody in the band loves Eric and Bruce, including Ace. They get along perfectly. It was Eric Singer who actually suggested we have Peter come up with us [at the MTV Unplugged]. But what we want to do a year down the line or 10 years down the line it's really tough to say.

But I just left [Ace] at rehearsal and he was happy as a pig in shit.

G: Peter has various arm injuries--how is he doing?
GS: Peter had an operation on his thumb, something about the cartilage being broken, he had to have a cast for many months. After he plays he dips it in ice. But we continue.

G: What’s the plan for touring after New Year’s?
GS: We're doing another show in Anchorage, Alaska on the 2nd of January. The idea being, while we're up there--we're probably not going to do Alaska ever again. We haven't been there since 1974. We went there opening for Savoy Brown and Manfred Mann, and Manfred Mann never showed up.

G: Then what?
GS: Then we're going to take a little break. I'll be working on Rock and Roll All Nite, the CBS movie of the week. It's a KISS-related story although it’s not about us. It's about two fans. It's written by Jeff Arch, who wrote Sleepless in Seattle.There's work to be done on that, and finishing KISSTORY II.

G: Wasn't that supposed to be out already?
GS: I didn’t like it. It wasn't good enough. The printing wasn't good. There were some copyright issues, and we had to use some different photos. The clearance of that stuff…you're talking about over 10,000 photos. It's shipping now.

G: So is there going to be a tour?
GS: Doc {McGhee, manager] already has the first 30 dates penciled in. We're planning at least 60 dates, first starting in the States and we'll see where we go.

G: Are you calling this a farewell tour?
GS: I'm not.

G: But do you consider it that?
GS: It depends on Ace and Peter. If they want to go longer it won't be and if they don't, it will. Anybody can come and go as they please.

G: How will the show differ from your last run?
GS: The songs from the ‘80s that we’re adding, all the way up to Psycho Circus.

G: Including Revenge?
GS: We're talking about songs now but there's only so much time. We're fooling around with “Domino” and “Take it Off” and “Unholy.”

G: I hear you’re recording the New Year’s show.
GS: We're going to record Alive IV. But it won't just be those songs that appear on there, we may take songs from the tour. Any number of possibilities. We may record the entire set the way it is or may add songs from throughout the tour.

G: A lot of fans would rather have a studio album than another live one. Is this a contractual thing?
GS: We're contracted to do three more studio albums.

G: Will there be a studio album?
GS: I'd like there to be.

G: Has any work been done?
GS: No not now, there's just no time. But sometimes we write on the tour. I know I will.

G: What about your movie projects. You completed a role in Wish You Were Dead.
GS: I play an Italian hairdresser who's straight and works in Texas doing hair for the girls of the Mob. It's a black comedy, kind of like Pulp Fiction. Mary Steenburgen, Christopher Lloyd, Cary Elwes, Lin Shaye are in it.

G: Did you enjoy it?
GS: Sure, I love it.

G: Want to do more?
GS: It's all about time. For me KISS is the most important. Eventually I’ll do more. There are 18 things at various stages of development.

G: Have you made any New Year's resolutions?
GS: What can I say, I've been blessed. We're doing great. We're happy. But in terms of resolutions, you're supposed to say, "I'm not going to do this stuff that I did in the previous year". The magic word is strive, strive for greatness in whatever package it comes in. So I'd like to get better at what I'm doing. And the fact that I like to make my own deals and that KISS steps up and takes responsibility for what it does makes us different from other bands because other bands say 'management messed up.' If we mess up, WE mess up. We take the kudos as well as the criticism.

G: On that score, I've read comments from fans who complain that KISS is more about merchandise than music.
GS: You buy a ticket, you're entitled to your opinion. What they're not used to is complete honesty. From all the other bands there are fantasy spins. You see guys on stage who are worth millions of dollars walking around in torn jeans and T-shirts singing people's lyrics. And all that is great. But never mistake that for reality. It's fantasy. Trust me, the guy drives a better car than you do. But we've always been very up front with the fans. Part of being up front is your best friend will tell you when your breath stinks. And it goes both ways. The fans tell me, "Hey Gene, you've put on a couple of pounds." And I can tell them they're wrong. To the people who complain about the merchandising: don't buy it! You are allowed to pick and choose what it is about a band, whether its their songs or their stage show or whatever, that you like. Some people buy the records and never go to see the band live, some people only go to see the band live. They're allowed. If you don't like the merchandise, don't buy it. I can point to millions of fans who love the stuff and they buy it. The great thing about KISS fans is you'll never find two who agree. I have a 500-page computer printout from a guy who asked, “What would you do if you were KISS’ manager?” It's warped perception. It's not real. Bottom line, you're allowed not to like anything you don't want to like because you’re paying for the privilege.

Another thing, when you're the underdog, when you haven't made it it's easier to be loved. Once you've been around close to 30 years, everybody knows every nook and cranny, every sweat gland, and familiarity breeds contempt. The cliché is true. I'm not surprised that the fans complain. I'm surprised that they don’t complain more. That 500-page thing I got, no two pages are the same. These people should get together and let me have one point of view. These viewpoints are so diverse, who am I supposed to listen to? You can't win. The only thing you can do is aim for the middle and like what you're doing.

G: What do you think of the state of music at the moment, and where do you think it’s going?
GS: I think there's a lot of hope, a lot of good stuff. Prince is doing his thing on one end, Rage Against the Machine on the other, Metallica is still making legitimate stuff. Now all we need is some meat and potatoes straight-ahead rock and roll and we'll be fine. Buckcherry with better songs will be a band to watch out for.

G: What do you think of all the teen pop music out there?
GS: I like it. Anbody that has a problem with it, they're missing the point. It's not for you. It’s meant to appeal to a 12 year-old girl. It's very professionally done, very clever songwriting. I like Backstreet Boys more than ‘N Sync. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, it's all very well done stuff. Much better than The Partridge Family and New Kids on the Block. It’s clever, there's more craft to it. I took my kids to see Backstreet Boys live and they flipped out. I'm a big fan of anybody that does anything well. It doesn't have to be my taste. I think Rage is every bit as valid as the Backstreet Boys but it's for different people. The one thing I see is the young bands don't pay dues. They don't listen to old records, and they don't have a frame of reference. That doesn't mean you need to learn to read and write music, but you need to know where it came from. You can't just play the 'Satisfaction' riff and think you invented it.

G: What's the key to longevity, being around as long as you have?
GS: People always point to luck. It's true, you can be lucky, you can hit the jackpot. Once. But the truth is the only way to the jackpot is hard work. The harder I work the luckier I get. There's just no shortcut. There is such a thing as being at the right place at the right time but to be realistic and pragmatic about it, whether you actually get to make a living at it or you're playing high schools and trying to get laid--which is all well and good and lots of fun, but at the end of the day if you wind up working at McDonald's it would be all for nothing. Maybe somebody else has a different point of view, you know, “all for the glory of rock 'n roll, I just want to get up there with the lights.” If that lifts your skirt, fine. The unfortunate thing is everyone else around you will be getting rich and you'll be on a breadline. I say if anything is worth doing well, it's worth getting well paid for.

G: What are the most important things to know about survival in the business?
GS: Unfortunately, music is the least of it. Structure is almost everything. Whether you write a good song or a bad song is just the beginning. What you do with it is all of it. If you own your own publishing that's good. If you give it away, it won't matter if the song is a bomb, at least not initially but if it's a hit and you put in all the work and somebody else gets it you will feel like an idiot. A poor idiot. The lazier you are, the more you are your own worst enemy. The more you think you don't you don't need to know something and look the other way, the easier it is for someone to pull the wool over your eyes. You have a choice, you can deal with it or not, which means everything happens around you and you don't know what's going on.

G: What else?
GS: Getting a good manager, good acountant. Sign your own checks. Trust no one. Get a second opinion. Don't even trust God! There are too many bands: Sting, Billy Joel, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, everybody you can name has been burned to the tune of untold millions of dollars by [dishonest] managers, agents, business managers. I'm sure everybody understands that before you cross the street you look both ways just in case. If somebody runs you over, whether they mean it or not, what's the difference--you're still run over. There's no difference.

G: So, get a lawyer…
GS: Get more than one. Use lots of lawyers. Get a second opinion because they can be wrong.

G: Have you ever been broad-sided by something you didn't see coming?
GS: Nothing major. There's always penny ante stuff but nothing that sidetracked KISS. I'll tell you what I never saw coming, Ace deciding to quit the band the first time."You're committing suicide!" "No, I know exactly what I'm doing. It's my career and I want to show you guys I can do it!" So he went broke twice. Without KISS he was nothing. Everybody's got an ego. But I'd be an idiot to go out on a solo career.

G: Is dealing with the inter-band stuff harder than dealing with the external entities?
GS: There's a simple answer, death is easy, living is hard. Sometimes you don't want to get out of bed. Everything's tough, but it's only relatively so. We've got the life of Riley here. Most people have to get up and go to work for a living. Whatever hardships we have are kid's stuff.

G: But at the beginning you had to work at it, didn’t you?
GS: If you're struggling with something you love and it's something you want to do, it's not work.