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.So the visual elements, including the big productions and the makeup, were always part of the presentation?
Everything. A concerted effort was made to explode like a cluster bomb, not just one explosion but every piece of the explosion explodes again. In point of fact, we promoted our own shows, we paid for it, we advertised ourselves, put up our own posters, before anybody did. We had a logo and trademarked it before anybody knew what that was.
When we played the Diplomat Hotel [in New York on July 13, 1973] and took over the ballroom, we were second on the bill and we rented out the whole place, paid the headliners the Brats and some other local bands to play. But when we invited people, we just positioned ourselves as “Kiss, 9:30, Masters of Metal,” before there was such a thing as “heavy metal.”
I used the offices of the Puerto Rican Inter-Agency Council, where I was the assistant to the director, and after they left I mailed out a photo and a one-pager and an invitation for everybody in the music business to come down and see us-managers, agents, producers-at the Diplomat Hotel, and they did.
Windfall Records, Mountain’s label, came down, a few other people, and this guy named Bill Aucoin, who became our manager. When they got there the entire front row was filled with girls wearing black T-shirts with “Kiss” in glitter. [Co-founder/guitarist] Paul [Stanley] and [drummer] Peter [Criss] had stayed up all night the night before and literally glued the shirts and hand-poured glitter on them, and gave the T-shirts out to girls and put them in the front row.
You only get the respect you demand. We created our own buzz. So when people came to see us at the Diplomat Hotel, they saw the place was completely sold out-although they weren’t there to see us, they were there to see the headliner-but the people we invited didn’t know who was the headliner. They came there to see the 9:30 show; the headliner went on at 11. So they saw us and the entire front row was Kiss girls; it was our show. It cost $5 to get in, you saw three bands, we had about 350 people there, it cost $1,000 to rent the place. We probably made two grand.
It seems very early on you placed a lot of importance on touring hard.
There was no choice, because we weren’t the Starland Vocal Band. We didn’t do singles. We wrote songs like “Strutter” and “Deuce” and “Black Diamond,” and that wasn’t a radio staple. “Torn Between Two Lovers” was not Kiss.
But your first album recorded on the road, “Alive!” in 1975, got you a lot of traction.
The history is pretty well-known. The whole live record thing was started by Kiss. Before Kiss, nobody did live records as a career choice. Then after “Alive!” came “Frampton Comes Alive”; everybody used the “alive” thing, they even used our engineer. And they all did double-albums because we were out of our minds.
The first three records kind of floated, though we were huge live. By the third record we were playing Anaheim [Calif.] Stadium and Atlanta Braves Stadium, but we still hadn’t sold records because we didn’t have singles. This was 1976, and by ’77-’79 we were the No. 1 Gallup Poll group in all of North America. No. 2 was the Beatles, No. 3 was the Bee Gees or Led Zeppelin, depending on which year you’re talking about.
“Kiss mania” is not even a description of it. We owned your children. We owned them. They looked like us, they painted their faces like us, they walked like us, they knew our songs, and they tattooed their bodies. And eventually they had children and they named them after our songs.
When did it start to become the Kiss Army?
That started in 1975 in Terre Haute, Ind. A guy named Ray Sharkey, I think, was a fan who wanted his local radio station to play Kiss in Terre Haute, but they wouldn’t do it because it wasn’t the Bee Gees or Pablo Cruz. And he threatened them; he said, “Me and my friends, we call ourselves the Kiss Army. We’re going to come down there and surround the station,” so the radio station gets nervous and calls the cops. The radio station refuses to play Kiss, the newspapers send over a photographer, the next day a big photo of thousands of fans surrounding this little station, which looks like an outhouse in the middle of a cornfield outside of Terre Haute. [The] headline [was] “Kiss Army Invades Terre Haute,” something like that, and there and then the Kiss Army was born.
Did you trademark it?
Immediately. And 35 years later, the Kiss Army still exists, but it’s certainly a volunteer army. Everybody proudly belongs and marches. Jagger or [Jimmy] Page or anybody out there would give their left nut to have Kiss fans. Are you kidding me? What are you going to do, tattoo Michael Jackson on your ass?
The army has been amazingly loyal to Kiss, even through lineup changes.
We had to [make lineup changes]. We had to, because there’s an ethical and moral commitment that we made to ourselves and our fans: We treat the stage as holy ground. This is electric church. And when we get on that stage, our call to arms starts off with “you,” our fans, not “our” or “we.” “You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world, Kiss!” We say our name last, you come first. And the vow we made to ourselves was, “Dear God, if you ever give us the chance, we will never take it for granted, ever, not one single show, at any time. And if any one of us doesn’t deserve to be out there, we will kick his ass off that stage.” And if you use drugs or alcohol in Kiss, you’re out. If you can’t respect yourself and your body, how the hell can you respect the band, and especially the fans who put you there in the first place?
[Guitarist] Ace [Frehley] and Peter, in the beginning, belonged in the band, and later on they did not. They belonged home so they can save their lives and try to turn their lives around, not onstage. This is not a babysitting service, this is the Olympics and if anybody catches anything in your bloodstream, you should be thrown out on your ass. Your medals should be stripped, you’re gone. And [current drummer] Eric Singer and [guitarist] Tommy Thayer are professional, they love it.
What did you like about the exclusive Wal-Mart deal with your new “Sonic Boom” album, and why did the band decide to go that way?
The world’s a different place. I’m not a fan of downloading for free. I don’t believe in anything for free. The kids next door that we think are sweet and have freckled faces were never punished for stealing everything. You can literally point to a million people out of work-the truckers that truck the records to the stores, the stores themselves that used to hire people, the gasoline they used, the warehouses-an entire industry is wiped out because some college kid didn’t want to pay for songs. And who’s to blame? The record industry, for never having a repercussion.
If you try to break into my house, I’ll shoot your head off. Are you out of your fucking mind? But fans were allowed to break into stuff that people created and simply take it without paying for it, and that is nobody’s fault but the record industry. It was lax. Wal-Mart is a real company. We met the Walton people-they’re fine upstanding people, we’re big fans of them, and they give millions of people jobs and we’re all for it. And they’re willing to charge for the product. Last time I checked, Kiss is not a charity. I will let you know when I want to give my stuff away for free. I don’t want you to determine that.
Does it bother you when people say you’re just in this for the money?
Anybody who simply wants to do it for free should give me any dollar they don’t want. They’re all full of shit. Everybody lies, but we don’t. Of course we want to get paid for what we do, but there’s also a tug of the heart, of pride. We created this thing-this ain’t the Monkees, baby. We’re the mother and we gave birth to Kiss and I’ll be damned if anybody’s going to tell me what it is, how it walks and how it talks. And do I want to get paid for that? You bet your ass I do.
But you still have fun when you get onstage, right?
Beyond that. Of course. It’s a thrill, an honor and a privilege, but who says you have to enjoy it? That’s not a prerequisite. How about treating it like craftsmanship? Whatever you can do, do it well. Most of the people on planet Earth, if they’re lucky enough to have a job, they go to a job they probably hate. They go to work and all they want is to get paid at the end of the week. We consider that the salt of the earth. Why is that any less valid than what I do? Forget the thrill of it, you like getting paid. And the better job you do, the more money you make. Even God passes the fucking hat around.
You made a memorable point at Billboard’s Touring Conference last year about professionalism and being on time for shows.
Pride. It’s self-respect. For fuck’s sake, just do it for yourself. Say what you mean, mean what you say. Shit out the Axl Rose disease in your system, get rid of that. Excuses are for the next guy that winds up in jail and becomes very popular there, becomes somebody’s girlfriend.
Billboard video above: Backstage at the 2008 Billboard Touring Conference With Gene Simmons
Do you care what critics say?
Of course. But that will still never get them laid. They were ugly bastards before who never got laid, and no matter what, they still look like Bob Lefsetz. They shine my shoes. I bury them in my backyard. You guys are just jealous that we get seas of pussy and you get nothing. I go to see movies or a band when somebody that I know says, “I just saw this.” I trust his word. Not somebody who gets free tickets who’s a failed human being.
When it comes to building a career, what do a lot of bands get wrong?
They don’t listen to Gene Simmons. When you’re dishonest with yourself and your fans and sugarcoat everything you say, you’re full of shit-you can smell that a mile a way. Be who you are. It’s difficult for me to accept someone who’s worth $100 million-and I am-who gets up and starts talking about rain forests and whales and acid rain. Shut the fuck up. Play your songs, and if I want information, I’ll go to people who are qualified to talk about it. I don’t want rock stars talking about the environment in the same way I don’t want environmentalists talking about rock.
What’s your take on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I think it was a good idea, but it’s clearly political. It’s Boss Tweed, it’s the old New York rotten system, where you get 10 guys in the back room who decide who’s going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I want nothing to do with that. It’s a sham and those guys mean nothing. You should take a look at the photo of the guys that vote on it. Fucking scary.
What would you still like to accomplish with Kiss?
There’s nothing we can’t do. We’re developing a Kiss animated show, like a superhero, X-Men kind of show. We have a Las Vegas Kiss show that’s being planned. I just came back from Singapore. There’s nowhere we can’t go and nothing we can’t do.
This is the weird thing. There’s something going on here that even we and I don’t pretend to understand. All I know is we are not going to take it for granted. We take it deadly seriously. And we intend to live up to our own legend. We intend not to let the fans down, the fans that have been there for 35 years and are probably in their 50s, some in their 60s, and the new 15-year-old fan who’s heard about the legend of Kiss.
So many things in life are not real. Santa is not real. Superman is not real. Kiss is real. And we’re going to make sure that when you leave that show, your first Kiss show or the 100th, you’ll walk away, whether you love the band or not, and say, “That is the best fucking thing I’ve ever seen on planet Earth.” That’s a vow we make to ourselves and anybody who’s willing to come out there and see us.