It would be hard to come up with a more prominent rock'n'roll bassist than Gene Simmons of Kiss. The Kiss co-founder, reality TV star and entrepreneur has his fingerprints on virtually all segments of the music industry. Born Chaim Witz in 1949 in Haifa, Israel, and the only child of a Holocaust survivor, Simmons ignited the Kiss explosion in 1972. The band remains a touring, licensing and merchandising powerhouse, and it launched the U.S. leg of the Kiss Alive/35 tour Sept. 25 in Detroit. The group released "Sonic Boom," its first album of new material in 11 years, Oct. 6 exclusively through Wal-Mart and Sam's Club.
As was demonstrated last year in his keynote at Billboard's Touring Conference, when Simmons deigns to impart his worldview it's a wild ride, and his Billboard Q&A is definitely no exception. Spiced with a series of nearly unprintable (but admittedly funny) jokes, Simmons offers his unique take on merchandising, branding, professionalism and owning our children.
What is the biggest myth about Kiss?
That there's some grand master plan. That we're brilliant beyond belief, that we're masters of merchandise and all that stuff. That's giving us a lot more credit than we deserve. It's a simple idea. When you love something, and people use the word "passion," you tend to look at every rug and pick it up and see what's under it.
For argument's sake, if you're a stamp collector worth your salt, you'll know every minutia about it, you'll spend all the free time you have, above and beyond your job, because you love it. And you'll know every obscure stamp, which date it came from, what condition it's in, what's the marketplace. You'll know about it because you care about it. So everything begins with a tug of the heart.
People see this cold business savvy and it starts the other way around. It starts with, "Wow, I'm in Kiss"; everything else is the what-if, could-it-be, what could it be? You start with a dream without limitations. It's only when we wake up that we say, "It's not going to happen, it probably won't." Never listen to people, and believe in your own dreams.
My point of view is "Earth," that's not such a cool name for the planet. "Planet Kiss," now you've got something. If every inch of ground is Kiss ground, and the air you breath is Kiss air and the food you eat is Kiss food, then we've got something. Brand everything. And you should pay us for every step along the way.
Was there any sort of creative objective when you started?
Well, before Kiss there was no template. There was Disney off on the left-hand side, with their cartoons and lifestyle branding. If you were a little kid, your life was filled with Disney, you covered yourself in Disney clothing and wrapped yourself in Disney sheets, and the Disney movies had some kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval. And over on the right side you have the world of rockers, which is inhabited by morons. There but for the grace of God we'd all be asking the next door neighbor, "Would you like some fries with that?"
We never went to school, we never learned to read or write music. We still can't, none of us. [Paul] McCartney to this day cannot write a single shred of music. Nor can [Mick] Jagger or [Jimi] Hendrix if he were alive, and so on. We all do what we do by the seat of our pants, except some of ours are made out of leather and are tighter.
Musically was there an objective for Kiss?
The template was the Beatles. Kiss always fashioned themselves as the Beatles on steroids, with lots more makeup and higher shoes. The idea was everybody sang, everybody was a star, instead of the Stones kind of model or the Temptations or those kinds of bands where there's one singer and everybody else is in the background. The thing that I loved about the Beatles is they all looked like they came from the same Beatle mother. It was like the perfect band in terms of look, merchandisable, eternal. Except they never trademarked their haircuts or anything much about their faces. Kiss was the first band of any kind to ever trademark their faces. It's in the Library of Congress. Which is why 35 years later there are literally thousands and thousands of things with our faces on them, anything from Kiss M&Ms to Kiss Mr. Potato Heads and Kiss Visa cards. We have Kiss Kondoms and Kiss Kaskets. We'll get you coming, we'll get you going.
Why aren't we talking today about merchandise from Wicked Lester, the band that first brought together Kiss' original members?
Because Wicked Lester never had the legs, it just didn't have the right spin. Wicked Lester was kind of like the United Nations-you had one of everything in it. You had a Norwegian, an Italian, two Jews and a partridge in a pear tree. It was a Doobie Brothers kind of band, where if you take a look at it there's one of everything, but you can't quite put your finger on what it is.
The perfect bands for me were bands that had a sound you could instantly recognize, and you could not take a member of the band and put them in another band. I love U2 and the Stones, but I could take the Edge and stick him in the Kings of Leon and nobody would know. You could take Charlie Watts and stick him in Dave Matthews Band and nobody would know. There's a kind of facelessness to most bands.
We wanted an audiovisual band, because as kids we went to see all of our favorite bands because we loved the music. And then we went to see them live and they turned their backs on us and stared at their shoes. It was such a big visual disappointment. So the idea with Kiss was, "Let's put together the band we never saw onstage." Because there was plenty of good music. Every band was making good music. There was lots of great music going on and there still is. And with most of these bands there's either one guy you care about or they're just boring.