|Gene Simmon's band KISS has had a huge influence on today's contemporary music & artists. The KISS catalog includes twenty-seven albums recorded over twenty-four years, selling 75 million albums worldwide, and the movie "Detroit Rock City" is out in late Summer.
GC: How involved did the band get with the movie "Detroit Rock City"?
Simmons: The band - not very. The band simply showed up for a day at the end of shooting. We were actually on tour and we were playing Toronto. (The movie was shot in Toronto and the Sky Dome is the place we played.) On the day off, the following day, we drove to this place an hour outside of Toronto, and there was a recreation, spooky, but a recreation of the KISS stage as it looked in 1977 with everything done to scale. It was very spooky! So we put on our outfits that we wore back then (the '77 Love Gun tour) because the movie "Detroit Rock City" takes place in that era, and did about a sixteen hour shooting day from every angle because basically KISS appears in the movie simply as a performance. The story is less about KISS and more about these 4 characters on the Yellow Brick Road off to see KISS in Detroit Rock City. In a lot of ways it resembles "The Wizard of Oz" more than any film I know because "The Wizard of Oz" is less a film about the Wizard and more a film about these four characters on the Yellow Brick Road. That's what "Detroit Rock City" is about. But, of course, it's also about more important things like how to get laid for the first time! That's really what it's about.
GC: Are you happy with how the thing came out?
Simmons: Very happy, most importantly, because it captured a certain spirit. What's interesting is that Hollywood and rock and roll are really two different worlds. There's this kind of other world that involves sort of a different sensibility which is why, when rock and roll movies are done through Hollywood, there's always that sense of "Gee, how come they don't understand what it is?" So we were very lucky in that I wound up producing the movie. That meant that whatever that feeling was, the vibe, hopefully it remains intact. And the interesting thing about the movie is that even though it's a movie that takes place in the '70s I think it plays very well today. I mean I don't feel like I'm looking back at the 1800's with covered wagons and Indians. It doesn't come off like a period piece. If anything, the spirit of the thing still works because it's always been then, as it is now, as it probably always will be: "Hon, you and me against the world." Which means when you and I (or I) have a point of view: "I love Diet Coke in my Corn Flakes," everybody can make fun of it all they want, but if that's what I love, that's what I love. And people always make fun of you for all kinds of things, you know. You love a sports team that's not in favor, people make fun of you, or you're in the wrong religion, you know. The basic idea is that it's got to start with passion. It's got to be whatever it is you feel in your heart, which is probably the distinction between KISS and most bands out there. Because KISS has always been about passion, not fashion. Fashion is a lot of cowards looking over their shoulders to make sure they're marching into step. KISS, rightfully or wongfully, whether the music is good or bad is beside the point, KISS has always been out of fashion. We're out of fashion now and I promise you we'll be out of fashion tomorrow because fashion is fleeting. Fashion is hemlines going up and down, up and down. Pasion always begins with your heart. You love something and it doesn't matter if anybody else gets it or not. It's much more important. It almost sounds like I was running for office, doesn't it?
GC: Now acting is nothing new to you. Obviously you're from "Phantom In the Park" from way back in the day. Any more acting plans in the future?
Simmons: At the end of this summer I'll be in the movie called "Wish You Were Dead" which is kind of an ensemble piece. There'll be lots of kind of cutting edge actors in it, but it's only going to be for a short time. Other than that, it's back to being in KISS and everything we're doing because there's a lot of stuff that's being done.
GC: You've made a huge name for yourself in music. And there are probably a lot of people that would like to be like you. What kind of advice would you give to an entry-level bass player?
Simmons: Well, the best advice I can give is never to listen to advice. Because there's never going to be a rule that's going to apply the same way to you as it does to me. It's like, you know, "How do you swing that bat to get the homerun?" I mean it sounds good. You plant your feet. You do the thing but then there's the variable of, is it a curve ball, is it a this or is it a that? Only you can determine when you should swing and how you should swing. So I don't want to tell somebody, "Here's the steps to do it." If it were that easy, everybody would be doing it and everybody would have a successful career. We are, I'm told by Billboard magazine which keeps tracks of those things, right behind the Beatles in the number of Gold records by any band ever. That's fine and I would never be cocky and say I don't appreciate it - of course I appreciate it. But KISS is a very peculiar band. Most bands can't survive by our rules because our rules are based on not having rules and pretty much ignoring the vibe out there. We're not above being boors, you know, I think that practicality overrides credibility most of the time. It's like, let me see, I don't want to use the jail analogy. There's lots of things we wouldn't normally do but with survival at stake, you will do it. Either adapt or you're gone. Sometimes that means you change your stripes as long as the spirit is the same. So clearly that goes in the face of, let's say if you're a Thrash man, you've got to go keep playing that Thrash or otherwise you're dead. Because when Thrash dies, and Thrash did, then it's over and you're gone. You're swept away like dinosaurs with the Jurassic period. And if you're a, I don't know, a Grunge man and the only thing you do is Grunge, well when Grunge dies, guess what, you're gone too. Perhaps KISS has survived because we just haven't been a part of any movement. I mean, we were supposed to be heavy metal...heavy metal bands basically grimaced, and sang about dragons and elves and we didn't want to do that. We sang ballads and we even did a disco song and, you know, we did whatever the @#!* we wanted to do because we felt like doing it and perhaps that's ultimately the only thing that I can suggest to anybody. You can talk about the rules, what you should do, what you shouldn't do. Ultimately the only thing I can say is: be true to your own heart and it doesn't have to make sense to anybody else - period. But that's not going to guarantee success.
GC: What should an intermediate player be looking at equipment-wise?
Simmons: Well, you have to take a look at some reality that winds up determining everything. If you're playing in a big hall you need a big amp, Okay? It's the RMS power, not the peak power you need to look at. So if something is listed as 400 watts peak, don't believe it. It means that it's probably closer to 200 RMS power which is plenty. 200 is a very powerful amplifier. And don't forget that your sound system has got to be bigger than your equipment, otherwise you'll never be heard. In fact, you're better off using a very small amplifier off stage and letting the big sound system do all the work. People should remember that whatever it is that they think they're doing to capture a great sound can be a waste of time you don't know what the sound system is like. As soon as you put a microphone in front of your amplifier that's one variable. And then it's going to go through the board and there's different eq there, that's another variable. Somebody is going to be giving it their taste, "Oh, I think it needs more highs, more lows." That's another variable. Then it's going to come out of the speakers that are much bigger with bigger cabinets. So it's foolhardy to think, "Oh yeah, I've got the perfect sound on stage." You'd be shocked at how different it sounds out there.
GC: You designed a Signature bass amp with Ampeg and your own basses, the Axe and the Punisher. Tell me what you've done to make them Signature basses. What is specifically that you've customized?
Simmons: Here's what I've found through the years. That there's only a piece of any particular bass that I like and it never quite lives up to it totally. There's an element of the old Les Paul bass that I like but I didn't like the booming sound, there wasn't enough clarity. I liked the body shape basically with the 2 horns. It was sort of based on an SG model body. I also liked the compactness of the instrument. With other basses I liked the pick guards or the bridge guards. The metallic chrome bridge guard on the old Music Man and Fender Jazz basses. But I hated those big basses because you couldn't play on the fret board and they didn't quite have the punchiness that I was thinking about. I also wasn't crazy about those pickups. I liked EMG's. So, you know, it's like, anything that works. It's basically taking the advantage of different areas and combining them into a new mutation. So the Punisher and the Axe, if anything, are less new things on the face of the planet and more mutations of what's gone before. They're easy to tune. You know, each bass comes numbered and signed because I'm sure people are going to line up and buy them. I think they're the best basses on the market, both of them. The Punisher is more for play and the Axe is more for show. You know, the more anxious you are to get laid, the more the tendency is to put on the Axee. Interesting thing is that musicians have always talked about Axees as the name for their instruments, "Hey, I got to play my Axee!" But only I can play the Axee because I own that trademark. The Axee is mine!
GC: Is there any difference between your live setup and what you use in the studio?
|Simmons: No. I set up two Ampeg SVT bottoms. If it's a song that has a lot of breakup, I turn the levels up to about 4, the trebles about three quarter, basses about 6, and then the graphic that's in there is based on what kind of sound you like. Then if the song pumps, if it's less about the breakup and more about distinction of song, I just turn the level down, it works just fine. Of course, in the studio it gives you the benefit of being able to go direct to the board as well. But, there's no great mystery to basses and amplifiers and any of that stuff. The best gauge should be your ears. It doesn't matter what you're playing because when you hear music on the radio I defy you to tell me what brand of cymbals are on the track.
GC: Tell me what KISS is into these days.
Simmons: Well, let's see. "Detroit Rock City" our motion picture comes out Friday the 13th of July. August 23rd WCW and Turner will be debuting "The Demon" which is a KISS wrestler. It's going to be a wrestler dressed up like me! I'll be wrestling on Monday nights. It's a continuing character.
GC: Right on!
Simmons: Left arm too! Then I'm finalizing the KISS Circus Cartoon Show with Fox Kids which is going to be KISS as super heroes. And that will be for hopefully the next 8 months or so. Then there's going to be a CBS Movie of the Week called "Rock N Roll All Night" which is kind of like a story again, not so much about KISS, but about two fans actually and what happens to them one magical evening. But I can't get into specifics. Jeff Arch, the guy who wrote "Sleepless In Seattle," will be writing it. So there's lots of very very exciting stuff going on. We make records and we tour and we always try to live up to our almost self-fulfilling prophecy. If you go out there and say, "You wanted the best, you got the best!" You'd better get out there and give them a show!
GC: Do you feel pressure to keep doing more than the last tour? To one-up yourself?
Simmons: Hey, anybody who is a champion always feels pressure! Whether you top it or not isn't the point. I mean, if you hold the world record in pole vault jumping, as an example, it is your, I think, God-given duty to get out there! And, whether there's anybody jumping against you or not, if you are a true champion you will get out there on your own when nobody is looking, when there's no prizes, when there's no nothing, and try to beat yourself. It's always about trying to do the best you can, whether there's glory or money in it at all. There's such a thing as pride. So ultimately if you're a true champion you're in competition only with yourself.
GC: Your shows are so amazing. How do you keep it fresh for yourself when you're doing that?
Simmons: "Fresh" is overused. There is such a thing as fresh food but I usually like leftover food better because it tastes better. You know the vegetables talk to the meat and the meat talks to the potatoes and everybody gets along. You get that flavor. Fresh and original and all that are highly overrated. Original! I'll tell you what's original: jazz bands getting up there and jamming. I personally don't care. I'd rather not subject the audience to a jamming thing where some things work and some things don't. I'd rather get out there and make sure that when they see us that all the bits are worked out so that when you walk out of there it's more than likely guaranteed you will have seen the show of your life. I think that most musicians, who call themselves musicians anyway, are highly overrated. The real musicians are in jazz clubs and they're starving to death. When more rockers start to think of themselves as entertainers we'll all be better off! Which reminds me of a joke: Two guys are going through the jungle and they hear drums - bumpa bumpa bumpa bumpa bumpa - and it keeps going on and on and on and on. One guy turns to his friend and he says, "Oh my God, these drums just won't stop! This is really bad." The other guy says, "No, no, no, it's not bad. Next comes the guitar solo!" It just keeps going on and on. It's like: "Shut up and play a song! I don't care how well you play your instrument. I didn't come here for you to show off for me. I want songs and I want a show!" All those guys who style themselves as virtuosos are deluding themselves. The real virtuosos are in jazz bands and classical symphonies, the real people who started when they were six and kept doing it. This virtuoso thing in rock and roll is highly overrated and is actually out of place. They shouldn't have Guitar Institutes, they should have Songwriting Institutes!
GC: When you write songs, do you write them for live performance? Do you write them for the stage?
Simmons: No, it just sort of happens. Which is why some songs can never be played live. Some songs just lend themselves to it because of the feel and sometimes what they're about. Like War Machine: "War machine, you better watch out, I'm a war machine!" You know, whether the people know the song or not it just sort of immediately says, "Oh, I can see a visual there. I can put something into it and it will work well live." Certain things work well live. Other things you just have to sit back and play the song. Like on Beth, Peter comes out and sings that, there's no spotlight, there's no stage show, there's no nothing, he just sits down and sings it. It's difficult to have, you know, skyscrapers blowing up and Armageddon while the guy's going "Beth I can't come home and see you."
GC: Do you have a songwriting routine?
Simmons: Yes there's one routine. It's called "The Working Man's Routine." You shut the phones off, get up out of bed, turn off everything and get to work. Writers of books have the right kind of idea which is you get up and you go to work. You sit in front of your typewriter. It's doesn't mean you'll get something every time. That doesn't matter. You put in the time. Rock musicians are by nature lazy. Otherwise they wouldn't become rock stars. They'd actually work an honest living. Let's just assume that being in a band is a dishonest living because we don't really have to work for a living. Having said that, you should put in the time. Have some pride in what you do! Get in there and do the work! Show up on time! Even that's no guarantee that you're going to write a song people like. The batting average for an album is: you write 100 songs. You record 10 of them. Maybe people will like 1 or 2. So you're batting 1 or 2 out of 100. And sometimes, entire albums go by and people are just going to go "I'm sorry." So there is no quick fix. The only thing I can say about luck is: The harder you work, the luckier you'll get - That's all she wrote!
GC: Do you still practice a lot?
Simmons: No. Kids do that. When you're a kid you pick up your instrument and you keep plugging at it to figure out how to do those kinds of things. But I play more to enjoy myself and less to practice. I play when it feels good. You're just kind of strumming along and you just sort of let it take you. But the idea of sitting there and trying to move your fingers faster is not what it's about.
GC: Do you warm up before a show?
Simmons: Never. Ace does. For me it's kind of 0 to 90 in 5 seconds, because I like the adrenaline to take me there naturally. Boxers are the same. Sometime they run around and punch the walls before they get into the ring. Sometimes they just sit there and watch cartoons. Again, there's no play-by-numbers way to do it.
GC: Do you have a studio at the house?
Simmons: No, I wouldn't dream of doing that. I'd go out of my mind! 24 hours a day people send me demos and tons of stuff. I've got a very archaic 4-track studio which basically I can take on the road and do anything with it. When an idea hits me I just kind of pop it in. But a real studio, I'd go out of my mind. I'd get caught up in demoitis, and the sounds of the thing instead of just the structure of the song. I like to get the stuff down fast, bang, bang, bang. You know, I don't think KISS has really yet mastered the studio. We're still much more about live and unfortunately most of the time we don't spend as much time as we should in the studio. It's just irritating, you know, you're in there, and there's nobody to give you a sense of what you're doing right or wrong. It's kind of like contemplating your navel. It's interesting but I don't know if it gets you anywhere. If we were in the studio and there was an audience there for the whole thing just to kind of go "Yeah." Then you'd go "Oh, that bits good, that bits not." We're not always the best judges of our own stuff. I mean, you look in the mirror and the only thing looking back at you is yourself. What kind of perspective is that?
GC: Anything that I haven't asked you about that you want to say?
Simmons: No. Life is good. It's good to be me. I love it. And don't ever believe any rock star who says it's miserable. He's lying! Go out there and dig a ditch for a living and then complain. The last thing I want to hear is white boys whine because they're too rich! Get out of my way!
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