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Gene Simmons Q&A: On Kiss Empire, New Album and Advice for Lady Gaga
"You wanted the best, you got the best!" has been Kiss' battle cry for nearly 40 years. Anyone making that boast can't afford to be modest, something Kiss bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons is clearly not. His public confidence seldom falters, but after selling 100 million albums worldwide and inspiring thousands to rock 'n' roll all night and party every day, his swagger is justified.
Simmons has worked with longtime Kiss partner Paul Stanley to maintain the band's vitality in song and brand. They have licensed Kiss' likeness to 3,000 items, according to Simmons. The latest products include the Kiss Monster Mini-Golf Amusement Center in Las Vegas; the Kiss Coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and emblazoning Hello Kitty and "Family Guy" merch with Kiss imagery. Simmons is also a multi-hyphenate entrepreneur in his own right who, in between writing books and making TV appearances, is involved in ventures like conversational translator service Ortsbo.com and high-end estate planning company Cool Springs Life.com.
Even while being interviewed, Simmons keeps busy, plucking possible song titles and headlines from the conversation as he chatted about Kiss' latest studio album, "Monster" (dropping Oct. 9), the upcoming Kiss Kruise to the Bahamas and having Motley Crue join Kiss on the road for an outing simply called the Tour, which wound through the United States from July through September.
Billboard spoke to Simmons the day of Kiss' Sept. 21 date at PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. Never one to lack for talking points, he explained how Kiss' face paint is more recognizable than the visages on Mount Rushmore -- and that you shouldn't be surprised if someday you see the God of Thunder rocking out onstage with Mother Monster.
How are you?
I'm deliriously happy.
I'm glad to hear that. That's not what most people say when I ask that question.
Well, I get to be Gene Simmons another day.
Who came up with the idea of Kiss and Motley Crue going out on tour together?
Well, we took Motley out on their first tour in 1982, when they first started out, because we always like to give new bands a shot. We also took the following bands on their first tour: AC/DC, Rush, Cheap Trick, Bon Jovi, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden. If there's a big band, we took 'em out. And that has to do with, likewise on this tour, there's a new band called the Treatment that we gave a shot because we always like to give new bands a shot if they've got the goods, and Motley's done pretty well for themselves. It just sort of happened. [Kiss manager] Doc [McGhee] used to manage Motley and we were going out and we always try to ramp up our shows and try to give the fans more: more show, more effects, more everything. And we felt, "Well, why not give them also Crue that comes on before us?" It really warms the stage up because we're of like mind in terms of making sure people get a show.
Is there friendly competition between the two bands to one-up each other onstage?
There's competition with anything and anybody. Mostly though we're in competition with our pasts because there's a legend we have to live up to. Next year is going to be our 40th year and it's clear to us and it's clear to everybody when they think about it is, if you look around and look at anybody doing pyro and making the stage sort of a more bombastic experience, from McCartney to anybody. Where do you think they got that from, Cirque du Soleil?
Ah, no. When you're trying to think of things to do with your shows, how do you keep it fresh after four decades?
There still has to be a connection, whether you're doing effects or anything else, to the music. It has to always come back to the music. So I spit fire doing "Firehouse." I still try to find kind of an ethereal or other kind of connection to it. You can't just decide to do "Beth" and blow the stage up. That would be kind of silly, wouldn't it?
Yes, not exactly the way to present a ballad.
Yeah, and we don't do ballads. We don't even do "Beth" this time. It's just straight ahead.
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You recently wrapped up your reality show "Gene Simmons Family Jewels" that went for seven seasons. What made you decide to end it now?
You can't very well be on tour for two years and do a reality show. There's so much going on. In two or three shows the Kiss/Motley tour ends and we continue on, go to Mexico to do a stadium there and then we go to South America to do the stadiums there in November. Before then we do a Kiss Kruise on Halloween at the Bahamas with 3,000 crazed Kiss fans for four or five days.
Have you ever considered doing a reality show for the band?
No, I don't think that appeals. And not everybody likes it. Paul [Stanley] hates it.
The reality show you did?
All reality shows. He doesn't watch them.
What did he say when he found out you were doing yours?
He shrugs his shoulders because I do things that I wanna do and I do lots of things. He says, "You're doing what?" . . . When Paul hears I get involved with a new thing, he goes, "Oh, boy. Here he goes again."
You are involved in so many things, and you're successful. What is your secret to being a successful business man?
You have to be informed. You can't just decide to learn how to spell "entrepreneur" correctly, because it's not easy to spell, but don't people understand what it means. Some people throw around phrases like "marketing" and "entrepreneur" all the time and have no idea what it means. So you have to be informed. And you have to be qualified. And part and parcel of that is being informed, and partly it's experience and being at the right place at the right time with the right thing. It's a lot of those things. It can be all those things and still never get a chance. Even after you do get the gig, you have to perform. You have to be able to deliver and delivering means the bottom line, in essence making the entity more money with you than they had without you. That's what it all boils down to.
You're not successful in one area, you're successful in multiple ones. Some people can just go to two or three areas and find that's the extent of their reach. That's why I wonder if there is anything even more in particular you have learned that you are able to apply to all these things.
First of all, I'm insatiable, and you have to recognize just what kind of an appetite you have for doing things. I don't wanna go on vacation. There's nothing about it that appeals to me. People look forward to doing that; I look forward to getting up every day and doing something. I like to approach every day like it's the only day I will ever have. Some people, by the way, if given one day of life, would sit around and watch "I Love Lucy" reruns and wait to die. I can't do that. Gotta leave a mark. If I was one of the pharaohs of Egypt I certainly would have done one of those pyramids. I wouldn't have just said, "Look, I ruled. That's it." Not enough. Gotta leave a big imprint.
I would have loved to have seen what Egypt would have looked like after you got done with it. I'll bet that would have been a spectacular visual.
It was spectacular without me, but I would have changed a few things.
Just imagining the Demon paint on the Sphinx.
Ah, now you're rocking out. Imagine that? Speaking of iconic images, do you know that those faces, those four iconic images, that have been around just under 40 years . . . You know that our faces are better-known than the faces on Mount Rushmore?
I can believe that. I saw the clip [on the Kiss website with a meme of] of Kiss makeup on Mount Rushmore.
That's also true-I tried to do that, by the way, in one of the shows we did. We got close. Can you name three presidents on Mount Rushmore?
I don't know if I can do three. I know there's Washington and there's Lincoln, and I'm also thinking Grant.
No. [For the record, from left to right, the faces are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.] That's interesting, because everybody knows what Kiss looks like. From marketing assessments, Kiss has the most recognizable faces on planet Earth, which is a pretty bold statement to make but I can prove it to you. As we both know, because we're both learned, Sweden is a monarchy, which means it has a king. And a queen of course. Do you know what the king of Sweden looks like?
Do you know what's interesting is that everyone in Sweden knows what Kiss looks like?
I remember back when George W. Bush was in office a reporter was asking people on the street who the president was, and somebody said, "George Clinton." And I don't think they meant Parliament-Funkadelic.
They have no idea. But there's no mistaking Kiss anywhere you go. Which is why the Kiss Hello Kitty deal, which launched in 90 countries, those little Hello Kitty faces now have Kiss makeup on them, which is why Kiss on "Family Guy" [merchandise] just launched worldwide, so that little kid in Dockers is wearing my makeup.
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When you decide when you're going to take merchandise and brand it with Kiss imagery, what's the criteria for determining it should go on that product?
You just know it. Most things are OK. Kiss crack? Not such a good idea. Even if you spell the crack with a "K."
At the same time, there are people who would say, "There's no way that you're gonna put Kiss makeup on Hello Kitty and it's gonna work."
But they're wrong, because it's already a blockbuster around the world. See, anybody who makes that assessment-anybody can make an assessment, everybody has an opinion-that doesn't mean it's qualified.
Has there ever been a product that the band has rolled out that really didn't take off?
Well, they keep coming back and re-upping. That means it's working. But lest we wax too poetic and too long about licensing and merchandising, we have 3,000 items. We outsell the Beatles and Elvis put together. It is a Kiss empire. And there's your headline. You can go to Las Vegas and visit the Kiss golf course, you can go to Myrtle Beach [S.C.] and go to the Kiss Coffeehouse. Lots more stuff being planned, but it really evades the main point. It really begins with the songs. It started with four guys off the streets of New York who wanted to put together the band they never saw onstage. [So we said], "Let's write the songs we can do bombastically live. And let's add visual elements to make the songs come alive and make them 3-D." And that's really the idea, which is why over the years, everyone from Garth Brooks to Cher has covered our songs.
With the new album, the band biography I received said you guys were looking to give a nod to the bands who influenced you. Who are some of those bands?
Almost without exception English bands. We follow the Beatles' songwriting format, A-B-A, verse-chours-verse basically, and Kiss really was designed to be the Beatles on steroids. Four guys who can write songs, four guys who can sing. So when you get a new Kiss record like the "Monster" record, which drops this month, you'll find everyone in the band takes a turn singing lead. We've all got songwriting credit, unlike any other band, by the way. So there's the classic Stones, Led Zeppelin and the rest, where there's one lead singer, this guy only plays guitar, only one guy sings and the rest don't. But the Beatles weren't like any other band. Everybody in the band sang, which is why you knew everybody in the band.
With the four of you all contributing to the album, how is it that you narrow down what's going to be used? It's great you have four people contributing, but then you have to sift through the material and put it together.
It really was a planned effort. Everyone sits around and says, "We need two more songs," and we put in a pile of five, and you always write more than you need and sometimes a song is torn apart like Frankenstein, you only use this part, and carry on that part to another part. We thought, "Gee, that's like putting together Frankenstein's monster," except we found out that our past influences did exactly that. Lennon would come out with a full song and McCartney would say, "Well, I don't like most of it, but I like the middle eight, the middle eight bars." And Lennon would say, "Oh, really? What do you got?" He's got a whole song. "Well, I really like that chorus. Why don't we use my bridge with your chorus and put together a song?" That's how "Rock and Roll All Night" was written. I had a song called "Drive Me Wild," which had a verse, "You drive me wild, I'll drive you crazy," and Paul had this chorus idea of "I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day," so we stuck them together and presto. It's sort of like cooking. When you put food together, they really have nothing to do with each other. A tomato has nothing to do with meat. You put 'em together; pretty damn good.
It also has science involved, but you have to know what elements are going to complement each other.
And you don't really know until you do it. As much as I love, and it's more fun to talk about toys and games because you can visually see it, it really begins and ends for us with the music and the songs. Because we all figured out that silent movies don't have a lot of impact, which is why since talkies came in we'll never go back to silent.
If you met somebody who had never heard of Kiss and never heard your music, you have this new album in your hands and you're asked to pick a track to best represent what the band sounds like, what track do you think you would pick?
"Wall of Sound."
Why that one?
We all have our favorite. Music is feeling. You can try to verbalize it. It really just hits you or it doesn't. And it could be any song on the new "Monster" record because all the songs rock. There's no orchestras, no voice choirs, no strings, no keyboards, no glockenspiels. Just two guitarists and a bass and that's it. Good enough for the Beatles, good enough for us.
The intro track, "Hell or Hallelujah," it sounds like there's guitars coming at you from every direction.
Yeah. The guitar harmony. The guitar heard 'round the world. You may want to write that one down. That's pretty good.
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In the song "Freak," Paul is singing, "This is who I am, and if you think that's a freak, that's fine. I'm happy being the way I am." I thought it was an interesting song coming up at a time where, Kiss has always embraced who they are, but when I think about all the kids that are out there today and how bullying has become something that people recognize as a problem, I thought that was a neat song to come out right now.
You're picking up on an interesting thing. When "Freak" was being written, Lady Gaga got interested in singing on it, because it espouses her emotions about being comfortable in your skin and all that stuff. And that's a healthy message for everybody. For a while Paul and I were going to sing it, for a while I was gonna sing it, and then Paul and Gaga were gonna sing it, and then finally I suggested Paul should sing it by himself, let's just do a band album. And while it's great that Gaga-who in my estimation is the only rock star out there, modern. There's nobody else-talks about self-empowerment, all that stuff, we made our imprint and stuck our foot firmly into the ground almost 40 years ago and said, "This is who we are, take it or leave it." So in the days of tie-dyed shirts and hippies and anti-war stuff and schools being closed down, we didn't care. We are Kiss, we are alive, we are our own definition. We've never looked over our shoulder to see what's in fashion, what's not, we don't care. And Kiss continues today. Fashions come and go. Punk came and died. Grunge came and then died. Thrash came and then died. New romance came and died. Alternative came and died, then they called it indie. We. Don't. Care. Kiss is its own definition.
What is your relationship with Lady Gaga? Do you just see her casually or are you in touch with her?
She's a fan. She came backstage a few tours ago before her meteoric rise, went to the shows, hang out with the kids in the front. They didn't know who she was, so she was there as a fan and then came backstage and told us about how she has Kiss parties where they all dress up as Kiss and run around. If you go to Kiss online and on one of the sidebars, you'll see Taylor Swift was playing with Keith Urban and you can Google this. Put in "Taylor Swift in Kiss makeup." This has been done by lots of people. Stone Temple Pilots, Taylor Swift, Lenny Kravitz. So Keith Urban's doing "It's in His Kiss" or some song like that, and Taylor and the whole band come onstage wearing Kiss makeup.
But you can't quite come up onstage and walk out trying to look like Willie Nelson. You can't walk up onstage and try to look like Robert Plant. It doesn't work. There's only one band, there's only one entity you can walk out onstage and try to visually look like. With any other band or any other imagery, it simply does not work. Even with Mickey Mouse you have to put on a headdress or some kind of mask. Not with Kiss.
How likely do you think it might be in the future that you and Gaga do something together?
Oh, we'd be open to it. She's terrific. I don't like that kind of music, but if you listen to what she did with Tony Bennett, the girl can sing.
I know she had started out as a straight singer/songwriter.
Oh yeah. She could do straight-ahead rock. I would get rid of all the dancers and the beds onstage. If I were her I would come out with a rock band next time and just rock it out.
But I could see her sharing a stage with you guys. I don't know what it would look like, but I could see that happening.
We're an open invitation to anyone who dares step up on that stage with us. That includes Motley.
With the Kiss Kruise you have coming up, how does that differ from other cruises out there?
We have a ball out there. Just 3,000 people in the Bahamas going nuts. Stopping off at islands. We'll do Unplugged and we'll do concerts and there'll be Kiss contests and all kinds of stuff. It's gonna be a great time for friends, family and fans. By the way, they just gave me the high sign [to wrap up]. So in short order we . . . have "Monster" the album dropping this month, any day now, and "Monster" the book, you go to KissOnline or GeneSimmons.com you can order the book, which [contains photos that go] all the way back to the beginning [of Kiss' career]. And we have only just begun to rock. That's not a bad song title [either]. Not bad.