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Most lists of 100 things to do before you die involve travel to exotic locations and participating in some sort of extreme sport, but if you are a musician your bucket list should also include attending a KISS concert.
For the last 35 years KISS has staged a spectacle unlike any other in the rock and roll business—one that keeps getting bigger and better every time they go out on the road on tour. This year’s tour, called ”The Hottest Show on Earth,” is a two-hour extravaganza filled with enough fireworks and pyrotechnics ”to bring down low-flying aircraft,” promises KISS rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley.
”When we go on stage, we want people in the audience to go, ’This is what a rock concert is supposed to be!” says Stanley. ”Our show started out by us wanting to get up on stage and show people how it was supposed to be done. We wanted to be the band that we always wanted to see but never saw. We still go out there every night and try to be the ideal band.”
Fans can always count on seeing bassist Gene Simmons spewing mushroom clouds of fire, Les Pauls that shoot fireworks, and more confetti than a Wall Street ticker tape parade celebrating a World Series victory by the New York Yankees. This year’s tour includes massive video screens that give fans close up views of all four band members in performance, multi-colored flame explosions, and hydraulic platforms that lift band members high into the air while spraying out more fireworks and pyro.
”Whenever we go on tour we always try to top the previous tour by doing more or coming up with a different angle,” says Stanley. ”We always want to come down from the heavens at the beginning of the show. We want to come down to all of the people and rock them in the church of rock and roll.”
”We’re involved in every aspect of the production,” adds Simmons. ”Anywhere, any time, anyhow our logo, name, or likeness appears it’s our responsibility to make sure that we can stand behind it. There isn’t one iota of any piece that goes out there without us okaying it. We have to be proud of what we do.”
Considering that KISS has licensed between 2,000 and 3,000 different types of products, that’s much more involvement and responsibility than most bands are willing to devote to their careers. In addition to the usual clothing lines, trading cards and action figures that many bands currently market to fans, KISS has gone even further by offering their own specialty coffeehouse and custom made KISS Kaskets, like the one in which Pantera guitarist and devoted KISS fan Dimebag Darrell was buried.
The incredibly high standards that KISS apply to their show and merchandising efforts also apply to the opening acts that the band brings out with them on tour. Over the years, a wide variety of artists and bands, including AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, John Mellencamp, Mötley Crüe, Tom Petty, Rush, Bob Seger and many, many others, have opened for KISS.
”From the very beginning KISS has broken a lot of other bands,” says Stanley. ”We may not have made them famous, but we gave them the opportunity to get famous. We feel it’s our obligation to give other people the chance to go out there into the arena as gladiators so our audience can give you either the thumbs up or the thumbs down.”
For this summer’s tour KISS has partnered with Guitar Center for a unique GC Onstage competition that offers 22 unsigned bands in 22 cities once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to open for KISS. Fans in each city will select their five favorite unsigned bands, and the members of KISS will review each of the five finalists and select one winning band for each show. In addition to opening for KISS the best of the 22 bands, as selected by Kiss, will win a $10,000 shopping spree at Guitar Center.
”All bands are welcome at a KISS concert,” says Stanley. ”Somebody is going to get up there on stage before us each night. This may be your chance to hit the big time.”
While the members of KISS aren’t revealing what they’re looking for from the bands they’re likely to select as winners, they do offer a few words of advice to all aspiring bands that hope to find success in the music industry. ”Don’t copy us,” says Simmons. ”Don’t grow a beard just because the guy down the street is growing a beard. Don’t wear your hat backwards or sideways. Don’t do the obvious thing. Do your own thing. Most importantly, be a team. A band should be like the four legs on a table or the four wheels on a car. Everybody has to hold up their share. Get rid of the losers, alcoholics and drug addicts. They’re vampires and they’ll suck the life out of you. A team in disarray is a team of losers that will not win. To be effective you need to be strong and speak as one. It’s all for one and one for all.”
Stanley adds: ”Listen to your inner voice. You know within yourself what you should be doing. The people around you who tell you that things are impossible are the ones who failed, and people who fail always need somebody else to cry with. Those are the people you don’t need around you. You need people around you who will spur you on and will tell you what is possible. But ultimately I recommend that you don’t listen to advice. We didn’t and you don’t have to.”
When it comes to building a team, the current KISS lineup is the band’s strongest ever. While some diehard fans may still miss original lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss, guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer have given the band renewed vitality and energy while keeping the band’s original sound intact.
”Most people don’t realize that a lot of that sound is due to Paul’s guitar playing,” explains Thayer. ”Keith Richards plays a certain way in the Rolling Stones and that’s why they sound like the Stones. Paul Stanley plays a certain style of rhythm guitar and that’s why it sounds like KISS. Whenever we’ve gone in the studio, sometimes it doesn’t feel right until Paul lays down his rhythm guitar tracks.”
Stanley adds: ”We’ve had a template and a blueprint from the beginning. That was to follow in the footprints of all of the bands that we loved—Humble Pie, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Who—bands where the guitar formed this iconic, huge sound. By having two guitar players who played together in tandem and played off of each other, we created something that’s classic and classical. We’ve had different guitarists in the band from time to time (Frehley, Vinnie Vincent, Mark St. John, Bruce Kulick), but it’s not about who is in the band. It’s about having everybody in the band believe in the same thing. The teams that win the World Series or the Super Bowl aren’t always the teams with the best players but rather the teams with the best spirit. Our spirit has never changed, and it’s probably healthier at this point than it’s ever been.”
Stanley has been associated with several guitar companies over the years, but Thayer is a devoted fan of the Gibson Les Paul, and he owns a variety of Standard, Custom and Deluxe models. His main stage guitar is a 1960 Standard reissue featuring Gibson 498 humbucking pickups. One of Thayer’s more recent acquisitions is a 2009 Gibson Explorer with a custom silver sparkle finish that he plays during encores.
Last year when KISS was recording their latest album, Sonic Boom, the band decided to go for a classic sound reminiscent of the band’s mid-Seventies efforts. As a result, Stanley and Thayer decided to put some of their more recent gear aside in favor of equipment dating back to the Seventies or earlier. Thayer used several of his original Seventies Les Pauls, and Stanley dusted off some guitars and amps that hadn’t seen action since KISS released their Dynasty album in 1979.
”We used the same classic vintage tube amps and guitars that our heroes used to play,” says Stanley. ”It was really a way for us to pay homage to the bands that we loved, but we also paid homage to everything that KISS has created in the past. It was the gear that we always loved—gear that you can still find at Guitar Center’s vintage guitar department.”
Thayer adds: ”The interesting thing with the sound of KISS—particularly the guitar sound—is that it’s a timeless sound. It worked very well 35 years ago and it still works just as well today. That sound will live forever, so you never really want to get away from that.”
More towards the back of the stage, Singer first started playing drums with KISS in 1991 when the band hired him to replace Eric Carr, who had passed away from a brain hemorrhage. He remained with the band until 1996 when KISS reunited with original members Criss and Frehley for the Alive/Worldwide tour. Singer went on to play with Alice Cooper and Queen guitarist Brian May before KISS finally brought him back as a full-time band member in 2003.
Playing a nine-piece Pearl Masters Premium drum kit with double bass drums, Singer gives the current KISS sound the muscle and punch the music demands. The kit includes the Pearl Eric Singer ES1465 signature snare, a 6.5×14″ snare with a 10-ply maple shell. Recently he switched from shells with a Black Comet sparkle finish to clear smoked acrylic shells.
”The change was more for aesthetic reasons than anything else,” explains Singer. ”We have this amazing, huge video wall behind us and I didn’t want to block the view of it. I also wanted the lights to come through my drum kit, which added to the overall look of the stage and the video wall. Fortunately those acrylic drums sound really good, too.”
Singer says that he prefers to use the same kit in the studio and on stage: ”What I play is what I play. I may change some cymbal weights around depending on what type of music I’m recording. On Sonic Boom I wanted to go for what I wouldn’t call a retro sound but more of a classical sound. It was more of a Seventies-style recording process using analog two-inch tape the old school way. We used more vintage gear and went for an organic, traditional sound.”
Singer’s kit also includes a vast assortment of Zildjian cymbals, including a pair of 19″ Z3 Medium Crash (one has an 8″ inverted splash on top), 21″ K Custom Hybrid Ride, 16″ Oriental China trash, 12″ Z3 splash, 9.5″ Zil bell, 8″ and 6″ A Custom splash, and 14″ Avedis rock hi-hat cymbals. ”I’ve been with Zildjian my whole life,” says Singer. ”That’s what everybody played. My dad was a drummer and my first kit had Zildjian cymbals so I’ve played Zildjian since I was a kid. Zildjian cymbals were always considered the best and to me they still are. It’s really about having gear that works for you and provides the sound that I want and need. That’s what Pearl and Zildjian both do.”
With Thayer and Singer now permanent members of the band, it seems likely that KISS will live on longer as a live and recording act as well. Despite announcing a farewell tour in 2000 and telling the press that their 1998 effort Psycho Circus was likely to be their last studio album, KISS has gone on several tours since then and made a strong recorded comeback with Sonic Boom. Stanley has even expressed his desire to enter the studio to record another KISS album after ”The Hottest Show on Earth” tour wraps up.
After spending nearly four decades rock and rolling all night and partying every day, Simmons and Stanley aren’t anywhere close to retiring. Both agree that the current state of KISS is the best it has ever been, which is exceptionally good news for anyone who has ”attending a KISS concert” on their bucket list or even longtime fans that want to experience the band in peak form.
Stanley agrees that now may be the best time in the band’s history to witness a KISS show: ”Eric is bar none one of the greatest drummers in rock and roll, and he proves it every night. It’s awesome to have him on stage with us. Tommy just blows us away every night. Gene, for all his hot air and everything else he spits out there, is a monster bass player. At the end of the day this is all about the music. What we put on the outside is all the fancy chrome and color, but man there’s an engine in here that’s been working 35 years.”