A Conversation With Dennis Woloch: Part 1
Dennis Woloch was the Art Director for 20 of KISS’ albums, including studio, compilation and live records. He worked with the band from their early days all the way through the mid-1980s. I met Dennis at the 2016 NJ KISS Expo and he was kind enough to speak with me for two hours about everything he worked on with KISS. Below is part one of this discussion. Part two can be read here.
You started working with KISS prior to designing the cover of Alive! What did you do for them at that time?
Some advertisements. Promotional posters, one or two of those. I also went to the first album photo session and Bill Aucoin asked me to help them put on their makeup. Being the Art Director that I am, I hired someone else to do it. (laughs)One of the things KISS fans always gripe about is that Peter’s makeup on the band’s first album cover is significantly different than what we’re used to normally seeing.
Bill said, “I’m managing this band, they wear makeup but they don’t put it on very well. We’re doing a photo shoot for their first album. Would you come to the session and help them put their makeup on?” I guess he figured because I’m an artistic guy I would know how to do it. It was a strange request for me, being in advertising and graphic design, but I said, “OK, sounds interesting.” But then I thought about it and I knew this guy David, who was an illustrator. He had done Broadway posters, so I figured he’d like this gig. He said, “Yeah” and went down there with a couple of his assistants. They invented that look for Peter’s makeup. But it wasn’t successful, nobody liked it. KISS modified it later. I recently saw an outtake from that first album shoot and it was pretty bad.
Well, thankfully they got it right as time went on.
That one didn’t require me to be creative from the outset. They already had a photo from Fin Costello that they thought would make a good cover for the album, so they handed me that photo. Bill asked me my opinion and I said, “Yeah, this is nice. Let’s use it.” I had to design it, of course. If you gave that photo to five different designers, you’d get five different designs. People would do different things to it. They’d make it smaller, maybe with a color border around it. It could be done in many different ways.
I took a look at it and wanted to make it a full-bleed photo where it went to the edges of the album. I wanted it to be as big as humanly possible, since it was a live album. I also didn’t want to overpower the photo with the album title or the band’s logo, so I kept those relatively small. I tucked the logo in the upper corner, which eventually became my style. I did that almost every time.
I also suggested to Bill that they call it Alive! They were simply going to call it KISS Live, or something like that. I said, “How about we call it Alive!? That would be cool, right? They’re so animated and with the stage show they’re like animals coming alive.” Bill said, “Alive, OK. That’s great!” Then I did it in that stencil lettering to make it look unsophisticated since it’s live. That’s the front. It didn’t require a lot of concept. I looked at it, decided what to do and we did it.
For the back cover we decided to use the photo of those two fans holding up their sign. I cropped it the way it is so we had space to add the track info. I made that black band across the top. Instead of having it say Side One, Side Two, Side Three, and Side Four, I decided to simply call them One, Two, Three, and Four. The idea was that it read the way you count down to the start of a song: one, two, three, four. Since it was a live album, that made sense to me.It’s a double-record set so it has a gatefold. This gave me two more surfaces to design. They made it easy for me. They told me that the first three albums didn’t sell well, so on the right side I included those three album covers with the phrase “More KISS.” It’s a good marketing idea, and I think those first three albums sold better as a result of the success of Alive! And, of course, on the left side there’s the notes from the band.
Bill said, “I want to have messages or liner notes from the members of the band to the fans.” Ordinarily, that would have been regular typography on the album. But I thought hand-written notes would be cooler, written on little pieces of paper to add shadow, depth and texture. So, that’s what we did. I collected a bunch of different kinds of paper and different pens, and we had each of the guys write something. Peggy, one of our writers at the time at the agency, helped a couple of the guys with the words. You can imagine which two guys she had to help. (laughs)You also came up with the KISS Army logo, correct?
Yeah, I did but not entirely by myself. My friend and colleague, Vinny, helped me with that. I’ve known him since I was nine years old. (laughs) We went to grammar school, high school and college together, Army – everything. He was looking for a job for quite a while and our agency was getting busy so I hired him.
At one point, the KISS fans started to call themselves the KISS Army and we were told that they needed a logo for this. I was too busy to get started on it, but Vinny started to make doodles. Small pencil thumbnail sketches. I noticed one of them had Sergeant stripes and I said, “Vinny, that’s a good idea.” That’s all he had, but it was a good starting point, so I said, “Vinny, I’m going to design that logo. You’re not designing it.” I felt bad taking it away from him. But I took it away from him because I felt like I was a better designer. Well, I am a better designer. (laughs) I just felt I could do a better job with it and that it was fairly important.
It took me a couple of days to do it. It took me a while to work out the lettering because that’s not something I’m used to doing. Then I had to decide on the colors, the shape and exactly how everything should look. I remember feeling so bad because I worked next to him, so I’d try to include him by asking him regularly, “Vinny, what do you think of this?” I did it out of guilt. (laughs) Then, many years later, Vinny didn’t remember any of that. (laughs)Did you design the album art for the KISS album collection The Originals?
The one with the atomic bomb on it? Yeah, I did that one. At the time, I didn’t have any particular idea what would be good for a three-album collection, so I must have been going through pictures to get an idea going. And I saw a bomb and said, “There you go, a bomb!” (laughs) I really don’t know why I picked that. But I do remember searching for that photo in stock photo houses. Years ago, before computers, you had to go to libraries, back-date magazine stores or stock photo agencies – there were a lot of them in New York back then – to get photos. And they charged a lot for photos. Today, you can get beautiful photos for a fraction of the price. I’d call up and say, “I need photos of the atomic bomb and I’m coming down at one o’clock.” And they’d have a stack of photos waiting for me when I got there. They’d put me in a little room with light boxes, magnifying glasses and little loops and I’d look through all of these pictures. Some were big transparencies, some were small 35 mm slide-size. Sometimes they’d give me thousands. Oftentimes, it would take all day.
The best part about that cover was an accident. If you look at it, you’ll see that where Gene’s face is it looks like a little bit of fire is coming out of his mouth. That just happened. Their photo was superimposed as a transparency and I noticed the fire coming out of Gene’s mouth, so it worked it nicely.What was it like designing one of KISS’ most important studio albums, Destroyer?
Alive! was relatively easy for me because I didn’t have to be creative and come up with an idea. When Destroyer came along, at first, they didn’t have a name for the album so they let our advertising agency name it. Vinny named it, as a matter of fact. He had a list of 10 names and on the list was Destroyer and they picked that. So, when I went to design it all we had was the title.
Sean Delaney was around a lot then. During our conversations it came up that we should make the guys look larger-than-life, like superheroes. I thought of Frank Frazetta immediately as someone that should do the artwork. He was the best at that. I found his home number and called him up. His wife answered the phone and tried to convince me that she was his agent. I hate that. I prefer to talk directly to artists; I don’t like dealing with agents. I feel that if I can speak directly with an artist, we can connect and bond over having a similar mindset and perspective. So, I begged his wife to please let me speak with Frank and she eventually gave in.
I explained to Frank who KISS was and I told him, “They’re going to be world famous.” I told him about how they paint their faces and everything. During the conversation, we started negotiating what he’d be paid for the project and it started to get tense. I remember I was sitting on a wooden folding chair and it was around nine or 10 at night. I’m sitting on this wooden folding chair and it breaks and I’m sitting in a pile of sticks and it made a noise like BOOM! But I never stopped talking. I never missed a beat, I just kept talking. I didn’t want to say, “Ooops!,” “Ow!” or “Excuse me, Frank, while I recover from this.” (laughs) I didn’t say anything. I just kept talking. Frank said, “What the hell was that?” I said, “My chair just collapsed and I’m sitting on the ground in a pile of sticks.” (laughs) And he laughed and laughed. But we couldn’t make the deal. It was $15,000 or something – just too much money for the time. And he only wanted us to use it on the album cover, nothing else. I said, “Frank, who’s going to want to do that bookkeeping? We want to buy the album artwork outright. We’ll pay you a little extra money to own it outright so we can own the rights to reproduce it on anything we want to reproduce it on.” I said, “These guys are going to put it on underwear. We’re in the marketing business. It’s going to be on lunch boxes, you name it.” That’s when he gave me that big number. I said, “Frank, I’ll run it past them but I don’t think they’re going to go for it.” That’s what I did, and we couldn’t make the deal work. It was too much money.
I still wanted to do fantasy art, and I knew there were other artists out there doing that style. But none of them impressed me the way Frank’s work did. One day I took a lunch break and went to a comic book store and stared at a wall of comic books and magazines. I saw this magazine called Creepy with a robot in a room with computers. There was mist in the air, like something just happened. Maybe he had just been in a fight. What impressed me about it was the colors and the feeling of it. Not the technical dexterity, but the soul of the artwork. Pathos. I figured I’d bring it back to the office and find out who the guy was, but his signature was funny looking. I opened up the magazine and looked at the publishing information and got the number from information and asked to speak with the art director. The guy on the other end of the phone said, “I’m Ken Kelly’s agent.” I said, “No you’re not, you’re just trying to make an extra buck. Get me his number.” The guy started to laugh and he said, “I’m just kidding.” I knew he wasn’t. I could smell his bullshit a mile away. He gave me Ken’s number, and I gave him a call.
I told Ken what I was up to and asked to have him come in and show me his other work. Ken hadn’t done anything like this before. He had been doing these Creepy covers and making about $150 or $175 per cover, which was not a lot of money. He busted his ass. He worked hard and earned his stripes. So, I gave Ken a lot of money. (laughs) He was very happy. He had never gotten that much money for a job. But I trusted him. I told him, “Halfway through I’ll need to see a sketch of what you’re doing. If it’s not what we want, we’ll have to cancel the job and I’ll give you a partial payment because no one works for free.”
Unfortunately, Ken did a great painting that they couldn’t use because the band changed their costumes. That pissed me off. I said, “ We hired an artist, he did this beautiful painting and he has to start all over again because you decided to change your costumes. Where’s your brain?” I guess they weren’t thinking like that. They thought nothing of it. Some people think it’s easy for artists to change things. It’s not. Ken didn’t mind one bit. He went back and created a new version of the painting with updated costumes and it turned out great. The first painting was a little brown, so when he changed it for the costumes I asked him to make it more blue. I also asked for heroic poses – fists in the air. He was sitting in a chair and I got up on the table with my fists in the air and I said, “Like this. From this angle. See what I mean?” He said, “Yeah, I got it.” And in the background there would be flames and destruction. Then I said, “I need you to do a back cover for me. Same scene, just no KISS in it.” I needed space for the track titles and other information.With Rock and Roll Over you went in a completely different direction, correct?
Yes, I was thinking of a circular design or something like that. I also always loved Michael Doret’s work and wanted to hire him for something. I showed him pictures of the band and told him who they were. Like Ken, he had never heard of them.
Michael does this flat, graphical work that is the polar opposite of what Ken Kelly does, which is painting. Michael does this flat stuff, that is almost Japanese in a way. I wanted to use him because it was so different than what we had done before. I didn’t want to get stuck in any kind of a groove. I wanted to keep changing it and keep it exciting each time. Michael does not remember this, but I know it happened. When he came in to discuss the job with me, he brought in an image of an upside photo where if you turn it one way you see one thing – like a man’s face – and if you turn it another way you see something else – like a goat. (laughs) So, he said, “Maybe I could do something like this where you can see different things depending on how you’re looking at it.” I said, “Well, I don’t think the band is going to like it. Combining their faces isn’t something that’s going to appeal to their individual egos. I don’t see that looking great. It might be clever but I don’t know. Do something else.”
I described each guy’s persona to him to see if he could, somehow, work them into the artwork. This guy’s the Spaceman, this guy’s the Demon, this guy’s the Lover, and this guy’s the Catman. I think that’s what helped Michael take off in the direction that he did. He went off and did a very tight pencil sketch of the artwork. It’s very interesting. The faces are a little different on it, especially Paul’s. That was the only change that we made. Paul saw the sketch and said, “Make my hair different. My nose is too wide.” He just wanted to look more handsome. I don’t blame him. And Michael did a very fine job interpreting what Paul had to say.When I told everyone that I wanted to use Michael as the artist for this album, it was met with a cool reception. I said, “No, it’s going to be great. It’s going to be really good.” So, they let me go and do it. I let Michael go the way he wanted to go. To do a job like that, most people would have used Zip-a-tone or Pantone sheets. You know, the Pantone color system. PMS colors. They all have a number. Every color under the rainbow. The Pantone people created sheets and you could cut them down with an X-ACTO knife and rub it down and it would stick onto your cardboard. It had a little waxy back to it so it would stick. You would create artwork like that – cutting it out, overlapping. It was very thin and transparent. You’d lay it out and you’d see your drawing under it, and you’d take an X-ACTO knife and you’d cut. You’d go color by color by color and butt them up against one another. It was very laborious, obviously. But that’s the way Michael planned on doing it, and that’s the way he did it.
I said, “Mike, I don’t want to do it that way.” I know a lot about print production so I said, “If we do it that way, Michael, they’re going to shoot it and they’re going to do a color separation of it in camera, with filters, like they’d do with any other piece of color artwork, like a photograph.” They separate it into the four colors that get printed: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Then they combine them on the printing press and out comes your full-color at the end. I said, “Things lose a lot of vibrancy when that happens, through all of those filters and techniques. It’ll look great, but it could be better.” I told him, “I want you to pre-separate it, Michael.” I wanted him to do it on acetate in black ink. So, there was no full color artwork of the Rock and Roll Over artwork that exists. It was all black ink on clear acetate. One on top of the other; layer on top of layer, with registration marks so they would line up perfectly. We did six of them, and that was printed on a six-color press, not a four-color press. He moaned when I asked him to do that. He said, “Dennis, don’t make me do that.” I responded, “You know how much better it’s going to look in the end.” So, he did it. I don’t remember what we paid Michael but we didn’t pay him enough. It could have been designed the other way, but it turned out so much better this way. He did it and the job came out fabulous.
Many KISS fans consider Rock and Roll Over to be the band’s best studio album, as well as being one of their best album covers, so I guess all that hard work paid off.
Yeah. And when people ask me what my three favorite KISS album covers are, I always say Destroyer, Rock and Roll Over and Creatures of the Night.For Love Gun you brought Ken Kelly back into the fold. What was your plan behind designing the artwork for this album?
I wasn’t ready to use Ken Kelly again so soon. I didn’t want to. I definitely would have used him again at some point, but I thought this was too soon. We just did that. There was only one album in between. C’mon. But everybody else loved Ken’s work so much. Maybe they hadn’t been fully on board with Rock and Roll Over as a cover, even though it was a damn masterpiece. So, they made me use Ken again.
Ken comes in and we had meetings with the band. A lot of that design was Ken, more than me. And on Destroyer, most of that was me with a little bit of Ken, if you know what I mean. Ken already had his feet wet with the band and felt comfortable in that environment. I had very little to say about the front cover. I asked him to do a back cover again. I said, “Same thing as Destroyer. Use the same scene, just take the people out.” Because I felt my contribution to that album was minimal, I was feeling a little left out. So, I suggested that I work on the inner-sleeve. At that time we were one of the few acts doing fancy full-color inner-sleeves. Most people simply had white inner-sleeves.I came up with the idea to write out KISS in blood on the inner-sleeve of Love Gun. I said, “That’ll be a powerful image. And we should do it on green marble, to match the columns on the front cover of the album. It’ll give it a cohesive look by carrying that theme throughout.” So, I went looking for some green marble and couldn’t find any. I bought a piece of marble that wasn’t green but wound up not using it. Instead, I found this nice blue marble contact paper, which I knew I could turn to green later in post-production. I also got a gallon of beef blood from my butcher. I went down to the photographer’s studio, David, because he always did a great job shooting still life photos. We set up the shot and I was dipping a spoon into the blood to try and spell out the name KISS and it wasn’t working. The blood wasn’t thick enough to hold the shape. So, I started to cook it on the stove he had there, then I added flour or corn starch and that worked, but that made it turn brown. I asked David’s assistant to go to an art store to get me red acrylic paint – cadmium red. He came back with a pint or quart of this stuff and I started to dip my spoon in there and I wrote it once. I wanted it to look haphazard but I was very careful too. And I added a couple drops to make it look more interesting. To give the photo more schmaltz, David created a shaft of light and it turned out great. To this day, I love that image more than some of my album covers.After Love Gun you worked on Alive II, KISS’ second live album. What was your approach going into that one?
The thing I remember most about that one was that we didn’t have any good live stage shots, like we did for Alive! Of course, with the first live album that photo was staged. They weren’t really playing there. I was looking for a live shot. And, believe it or not, there aren’t any shots where all four guys look good. It’s impossible. To get two guys to look good is damn hard. Three guys is damn near impossible. And four is impossible. Especially the drummer. You never see the drummer. He’s behind a cloud of smoke, he’s blurry or hidden in the background. It’s awful. We just didn’t have any photos at that point. I kept looking and looking. I had to beg for photos at that time. I’d tell them, “C’mon. Get some photographers out there to take some shots we can use. I need more photos, guys. I need photos for the projects I’m working on and I’m stuck with the same old photos.” That’s what I had to do for Alive II. I had to dig through these photos, and I decided to do closer shots of each of the guys. And instead of making them really huge, I decided to make the typeface really large. Something different than what we had done before. Big KISS logo and Alive logo and the photos of the guys in the remaining space. I guess I got bored with myself because I decided to change the color of the KISS logo too. I made it a red/purple color instead of a red/orange/yellow. It is what it is. It looks OK. If I had better live shots of the band, it would have come out different. But I didn’t.