A Conversation With Gene Simmons
In addition to recently interviewing Barry Manilow and John Oates, I interviewed the God of Thunder: Gene Simmons. I’ve been a KISS fan since September 4, 1996, when I saw the band perform under the Brooklyn Bridge on MTV’s Video Music Awards. So, having the opportunity to speak with Gene Simmons was a surreal one, especially when I answered the phone and he said, “Hi, this is Gene Simmons.” I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did conducting it.
In January you announced a partnership with Wizard World to launch your first-ever solo tour. This is a unique deal where you perform a concert in a particular city, followed by a weekend-long appearance at Wizard World in said city. How did this idea come about?
People that know me think of KISS and some business stuff. But underneath all that – the soft, white underbelly – is I’ve been a comic book geek all my life. KISS has had a long and proud history with comic books, going all the way back to the mid-’70s, starting with Marvel comics. Our KISS comics were the biggest sellers they had. And through the years we’ve had other comic book companies put out different comics. In the last year or so, Dynamic comics has started putting out KISS comics, as well as the Demon comics – my own comic. Of course, I’ve got the Simmons Comics Group, which puts out my characters: Gene Simmons’ House of Horrors, Zipper and Dominatrix.
So, Wizard World wanted me to come by and do a deal for five conventions. They wanted me to do a Q&A and stuff like that, for comic book fans. Then, when we started talking with each other, we said, “Hey, why don’t we make this a two-day event?” Take over a local concert hall, put together a band of rockers and go do some obscure KISS stuff. That’s exactly what we’ve done, and we’ve done about two or three of them so far. They’ve been loads of fun and everybody’s been having a great time. If you go to WizardWorld.com, you’ll get the lowdown there.
You’ve been performing some deep cuts live with your solo band, such as “Charisma” and “Got Love For Sale.” What made you want to dust off these album tracks and play them live?
When the masses show up at our concerts, they’re the diehards who’ve been with me since day one. If you’re five-years-old, fifteen-years-old or even twenty-years-old, you still don’t scratch the surface because we’ve been around for forty-three years. If KISS played what they used to call in the music industry a b-side of an album, some of the more obscure stuff, most of the people wouldn’t know it. If you go to the Stones and they play something obscure, everybody sits down because they don’t know it. They know “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and a few others. Doing these smaller concert halls, which hold 1,000 to 3,000 people, means they get filled up by real diehard fans. They don’t want to hear the same-old, same-old. They want to hear nuggets, as they say. It’s a hoot for me because I’ve never really had a chance to do this stuff live. It’s been a lot of fun. There’s nothing like playing “Charisma” and seeing a few thousand fans mouth every single word. Lot of fun.
There are numerous KISS podcasts that KISS fans listen to on a weekly basis. Some of my favorites include “Pod of Thunder,” “The KISS Room” and “PodKISSt.” Do you listen to KISS podcasts? What are your thoughts on them?
I have and it amazes me that people have the time. It’s appreciated. If I’m traveling and someone gives me a tape or we get a signal where we are. When we’re in the jet, it’s tough to get a signal up in the air but sometimes they do. I’m blessed but I’m also cursed because part and parcel of being, I guess, me and going where I go and being what I’m in, KISS – there’s very little time to do anything else. But I do remember when we first started there was all sorts of time. 10 hours every day we’d be stuck in the back of a station wagon, driving from city to city. There was lots of time to do stuff. But, of course, that was the day before digital. Way before digital, when you had to stop off at a gas station to make a phone call.
Paul publicly announced on stage that KISS is going to record a new album. You’ve said that you don’t want to record a new KISS album. Which is it? Is KISS going to record another studio album or not? And, if so, when?
There’s some writing going on. Not too long ago I wrote a song called “Your Wish Is My Command.” It sounds anthemic, like something that might have come off Love Gun, maybe. But I’m not incentivized. The idea that you work your ass off and then someone with freckles on their face decides they want to download your music and file share – that’s not what I work for. How’d you like to be a plumber, come over somebody’s house and work all day to fix their plumbing and then when it’s time to get paid they say, “No, I just wanted to say thank you.” No.
You do work and you get paid for that work, right?
Why shouldn’t I?
Right. Makes sense to me.
I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you have enough money.” That’s what I need: an eighteen-year-old kid telling me when enough is enough. It doesn’t affect me at all. And it doesn’t affect the Stones or U2 – a lot of the bands that do well. There’s only a handful, actually. The saddest thing of all is that the next great bands, with the talent and the charisma and all that stuff, will never have the chance that we did – because there’s no music industry. There’s no way for them to pay the rent. They’re going to have to give away their music, practically, for free.
My daughter last year, Sophie, had a huge song that was released on Casablanca: 10 million downloads. Do you know how much she made?
Wow! That’s nuts.
It almost makes you say, “You know what, I’ll get a day job.” The saddest part of all is that, it’s not aliens from another planet, it’s not another country that invaded us and did that. No, no, no. Your next-door neighbor, the fans, are killing new music. They’re killing the bands that want to create music for them. That’s who’s killing it. You’re killing it, by not paying for it. Imagine how long a supermarket would stay in business if everybody went in, took the food and went away and didn’t pay for it.
Not very long.
No, wouldn’t last very long at all.
Many people complain about the audio quality of Hotter Than Hell. Do the original multitrack master tapes still exist? If so, what’s the likelihood of KISS remastering or remixing the album to dramatically improve the way it sounds?
That’s a good point. In those days we were making two records a year and touring at the same time, and doing media and all of that stuff. The plus and the minus of KISS at that time was we simply didn’t have the patience to stay in the studio. We would take two or three weeks, record, write, and, in some instances, write the material right there in the studio – and release it two or three months after that. So, we, obviously, didn’t have the time nor did we have the expertise or the experience on our second record to know what good sound was. It takes a while to understand that.
You’re right, sonically it doesn’t live up to it. Yet, there are people that like that stuff. Now we’ve got virtual this and 3D exists. But I don’t like 3D. (laughs) My favorite stuff is moody black-and-white stuff. But technology guys will go, “You’ve got color and cinemascope and that and 3D.” Yeah, I don’t like that as much. I like black-and-white, sort of, moody stuff.
At any rate, I get it that audiophiles want something a little more fidelic. But I think it’s worth noting that the songs on Hotter Than Hell are, ya know, it’s not symphony. It’s not even close to Destroyer. The songs are pretty much straight ahead: two guitars, bass, drums, boom. The songs are hummable and people still like it and we still do some songs off of that record. Live, it sounds just like that record but better, obviously, because the guitars are turned up. But I have to say that, maybe, the way it was recorded was more in keeping with the kind of songs they were.
Finally, the last answer is, yeah, we should go back and remaster Hotter Than Hell and do something. And, yeah, we do own all those tapes. I will put it into the idea pot. It’s the not the most important thing right now but, sure, we’ll revisit that.
Before you and Paul hang up your boots, would you like to have one more concert or project featuring all living members of the band, including Eric, Tommy, Ace, Peter, Vinnie, and Bruce? If so, what would that event or project look like?
I don’t know. This is our first time down this road. I’ve never been in KISS before. Good god, anything is possible. But it’s worth noting that both Tommy and Eric have been in KISS longer than Ace or Peter. A train ride and the experience of that train ride depends on when you get on the train. If you get on the train in the middle of that trip, then that’s your perspective. I’ve gone to Stones shows, more than one, obviously, and sat next to somebody who never heard of Brian Jones and didn’t know anything about the past. They just know the here and now because they’re younger. There are plenty, maybe a few million, of KISS fans around the world – there are no signs being held up saying “Where’s Ace?” or “Where’s Peter?” believe it or not. Never, ever anywhere. And that doesn’t mean that Ace and Peter weren’t as equally important as anyone else in the band – they were…then. But the perspective now is it’s not at the forefront of people’s minds.
At the end of the day, KISS has been about the here and now. It’s never, for us, been about, “Ya know, we used to do this and we used to do that.” You gotta get in the ring and prove it. Don’t tell me stories about how once upon a time you were champion. When you get in the ring, you’ve gotta knock them out. That’s always been our thing. The band is healthier, mentally and physically, than it has ever been. And we’re actually a better musical unit because everybody in the band cares about it. There’s no drugs, no booze, none of that stuff.
Ace and I get along fine. I went to see his solo band a few weeks ago and they sounded fine. They were good, solid. He seemed to be having a good time.
Being in KISS is very, very tough. Physically, you’ve got to be in shape. Soon as you fall out of shape, it’s tough to catch up.
Frank Zappa sold a box set of the most popular Zappa bootlegs. He called it Beating The Bootleggers and it was available through his own label. Why doesn’t KISS do the same thing? You are one of, if not the biggest, bootlegged band of all time. The fans would love it and you’d make money by essentially taking the money out of the bootlegging community.
But you don’t make a dime. Everybody steals everything. Those days are gone. Unless, and if, an entity steps up and puts the cash on the table, there’s no incentive. Why would you give away your stuff for free, especially if you consider it valuable? Beat the bootleggers. Well, let an entity like a distributor – a record company, basically – or retailer pay for it. Somebody’s got to pay for it. There’s plenty of stuff in the vaults. On the day we figure out the business model, then great. You’re a farmer, you grow food and work hard. Then you want to take it to market. Well, the trucks are there and the stores are there. But the question is, who’s going to pay you. (laughs) That’s a fair question.
Speaking of ways KISS could make money, Barry Manilow offers his fans ManilowTV for $9.95 a month. In exchange, fans get five curated full-length concerts each month to watch on their computer, smart devices or TVs. This would be a great way to leverage KISS’ vast video library. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t like that model. The model I like is a broadcaster turns around and says, “Gene, I’m going to give you millions of dollars to do a radio show.” Great! Then they figure out it costs $9.99 a piece, you fart over here, you can make 10 cents over here – they figure that out. I don’t want to be in the wholesale or retail business. Somebody steps up, puts money on the table. Then, sure, you can have it. They figure it out. You want to do a TV show? Great. Somebody comes up to me and pays me to be on a TV show or in a movie. Then they have to figure out how they’re going to get the money back and make a profit.
When you get paid, is it dependent on you reaching a particular quota or do you receive a lump sum?
That’s right. You get your lump sum. I like that model.
KISS’ catalog of music, released and unreleased, is currently under the complete control of Universal. When does this contract end, and when do those rights revert back to you and Paul?
Not too long from now. Pretty soon. Rights and rights reversal, those are gray areas. People are suing each other all the time. The answer is soon.
Sonic Boom was a Walmart exclusive, which means fans can’t buy or stream that album digitally anywhere. When does this exclusivity deal expire so fans can get a digital copy of this album?
Gee, I don’t know. Good question. (laughs) I’ll have to look into that. I thought that was a decent record. I thought it was OK.
Sonic Boom is one of my favorites, and I love all of KISS’ music. You guys did a knock-out job with that.
That’s a nice compliment because the hardest thing is to do something that’s decent much later on in life. The easier thing – if you’ve got the goods, if you’ve got the talent and you’re in the right place at the right time with the right thing, it’s easier at the beginning. You know what I mean? You write your best stuff. If you take a look at the first few Zeppelin records, the Stones, the beginning of almost anybody – the definitive sound and approach comes out. For me, it’s still a communications breakdown and that stuff.
When I interviewed Tommy Thayer in November 2016 he said that KISSology 4 is 85% done. When will it be 100% done and released?
It’s been done for a while, and we’re trying to do a release of KISSology 4 and a box set of one, two, three, and four. We own all of them. It takes a long time. In the early days, before Napster and all that, there was a real business model. You had video companies and record companies and they’d pay you money and you could pinpoint which month something was coming out. Again, the incentive for us is we’re going to put stuff together but we’re not going to give it away for free. There’s a difference between commerce and charity. KISS is not a charity. What I do privately is, yes, I give money to charity. Yes, I do. But I’m not interested in KISS becoming a charity. We work, we get paid. You don’t pay us, you don’t get something. We’re trying to figure out that model, which is to say as soon as an entity steps up and pays for it, they can put it out.
It’s always funny to me when people say, “All you ever think about is money.” I say, “Oh, because you work for free, right?” (laughs)
Obviously, this mindset has served you well.
It serves everybody well. You work all week and at the end of the week you want to get paid. Everybody is exactly the same. You do stuff for money.
Your reality TV show, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, was very successful. What kind of positive or negative impact did that have on you and your family?
It hasn’t affected us at all. If anything, it made us closer and more appreciative. Family is the best thing but it’s also really tough. Even though Cain and Abel were brothers, they didn’t get along too well. Shannon and I have been together now 34 years. Nick is 28 and Sophie is about to turn 25. Everybody is grown up, healthy, happy – everybody works, that’s the thing. No drugs, no booze, no cigarettes. If you have family as the centerpoint, you’re doing OK. We clearly seem to have beaten the odds.
Your family has turned out terrific. Clearly, you and Shannon have done a great job raising your children.
That has a lot to do with the value placed on the word “no.” Your kids are always going to test the walls, no matter what it is. They’ll say, “Why not? I can do it if I want to.” That’ll lead to smoking cigarettes, drinking, getting high and all that other stuff – because they always see their parents as the safety net. “They’re gonna bail me out.” How about no? How about, no, we’re not?
A year or two ago KISS was promoting the upcoming release of the You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best documentary. And you guys even shot a video backstage saying it would be shown at the recent Japan Expo, but it wasn’t. Why hasn’t this documentary been released yet?
It is complete and it’s done. It’s been done for over a year. But there seems to be some litigation involved and we’re staying away from it. Filmmakers and people who worked on it are going at each other and we want nothing to do with it. We own the content. But they have to get their house in order, and there’s always time. There’s so much on the table. We’ll be jumping off the tour shortly, then doing some other stuff, casino shows. We did a superdome show and we were the kings of Mardi Gras this year. Then we’ll jump on the KISS Kruise, which leaves from New Orleans. It’s a busy time. We’re as busy as we’ve ever been and really happy. That’s really an important point. When guys in the band really get along with each other, it shows on stage. The last thing you want to do is go see a band that can’t stand to be with each other.
Having seen the current lineup multiple times, I can attest to that. You guys are fantastic.
And in the beginning so were Ace and Peter. In the beginning it was great. There was a sense of, like, wow, how lucky can four idiots be? Look at us, we’re actually living the dream. Then, when you take it for granted, that’s when all of the poison seeps in.I want to share something with you. I’m getting married in September. And when my cousin, who is my best man, said to me, “So, what do you want to do for your bachelor party?” and you announced your concert in Philadelphia and Wizard World appearance I said, “That’s what I want to do.” So, my groomsmen and I are going to see you on June 2 at the Trocadero in Philly and get dinner. And they paid for me to do a VIP meet and greet with you the next day at Wizard World.
Will your bride be with you at the Troc?
No, just me and my four groomsmen. Like you, I don’t drink, do drugs or anything like that. For me, music is my outlet.
Good for you, whether you do it because of me or because it’s an individual decision. I’ve never taken my finger and shaken it in anyone’s faces. Life has choices and you should make your own choices. How stupid or how smart do you have to be to realize that drugs, booze or cigarettes won’t make you smarter, run faster, get bigger muscles, make your schmeckle bigger – there just is no upside. I could almost understand those things – numbing yourself or fooling around with cancer, because that’s what cigarettes are – if there was some benefit. If they made you smarter or richer or made your schmeckle bigger, I could almost understand. “Oh, OK, that’s why.” But none of that stuff happens. If you get addicted, the worst things happen. You ruin your life, you ruin everyone else’s life and you become a bum. It just doesn’t work. And it takes a genius when they get out of there and get straight to say, “Oh, OK. I’m straight now. Now I know.” Oh, shut up. You always knew that. Any kid, before he picks up a cigarette, knows there’s a chance he’ll get cancer and addicted and all that stuff. Everybody knows this stuff. There’s no excuse for it. But I think everybody should have the right. You want to jump off a building? Be my guest.