KISS rocker Gene Simmons talks about his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and why it's a mixed blessing
For many music fans, it’s hard to imagine a time when KISS didn’t exist. Many people grew up to the transgressive sounds of the band, whose name may or may not be an acronym for Kings (or Knights) In Satan’s Service. From their elaborate stage personas complete with black leather costumes and thick make-up, Their shows were the stuff of legends. Forty years later, they still are —and the band is still going strong.
On April 10, KISS will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s an honor they deserve due to their enduring influence (if you don’t believe that, read this article in Esquire about how KISS is largely responsible for today’s indie rock), but it took them fifteen years and a long, hard slog to break down the walls of the Hall of Fame. Their induction, though, is largely thanks to the dedicated fans who make up the KISS Army.
After failing to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years ago — 13 years after the band was eligible — they suggested they could “just buy it and fire everybody.” This year, the band took a more practical route and encouraged fans to vote for them; KISS won the honor by earning 17% of the fan vote. To celebrate the induction, as well as the band’s anniversary, KISS is turning to their fans for big ideas as how to mark the occasion.
Just don’t expect them to play nice now that they have that laurel tucked into their black leather crowns. The band will not be playing at the induction ceremony alongside other inductees, including Nirvana (possibly to be fronted by Joan Jett), Hall and Oates and Peter Gabriel, and for a good reason: The Hall insisted that only the original lineup — singer Paul Stanley, bassist Gene Simmons, guitarist Ace Frehley, and drummer Peter Criss — would be inducted, despite the fact that six other musicians have been official members of KISS, including Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, who have been in the band for the past decade.
TIME talked to Gene Simmons about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, celebrating 40 years as a band and what they owe their fans.
TIME: You’ve been in KISS as long as, or longer, than many of your fans have been alive. How does it feel to soundtrack so many generations?
Gene Simmons: Well, it doesn’t suck. There’s no substitute for hard work. There just isn’t. You can sugar coat it however you want, but there’s not. But not everyone has the same DNA — not everyone is designed to run marathons, most people don’t finish the race. Many people in rock bands are very dysfunctional — they don’t have their heads screwed on right. They don’t understand that, but for the grace of God, you’d be asking the next person in line, ‘Would you like some fries with that?’ When you forget that and start to believe that — in the patois of the street — you’re ‘all that,’ it’s not long before you move back into your mother’s basement.
What are some of the other lessons you’ve learned in doing this for over 40 years?
The idea that you have to experience something in order to know if it’s bad for you is the biggest load of bullshit that I’ve ever heard. We all know that a bullet isn’t good for you — you don’t have to be shot to know that. It’s nonsense! Drugs and alcohol are not even unique, they are such a cliché. You’re kidding — you’re going to ruin your life for the same old, same old? Really? The original guys in the band started a band 40 years ago. The original lineup lasted seven years and, you know, there have been ten different lineups. We’ve survived ten different lineups.
That’s been in the news a lot lately due to your upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It’s such a boring conversation. People forget that it applies to almost every single band these days: AC/DC, The Stones, Metallica, Iron Maiden. Some bands don’t even have their original lead singers! It’s tough to keep a band together! Cain and Abel didn’t do so well, either, and they were brothers.
True. KISS is one of the few bands to have not performed at the induction ceremony…
Why should we? We’ve been around longer than the Hall of Fame has been around, by about 20 years. We started before this organization was even a thought. We appreciate getting the award, but they are going to only honor the first seven years of the band — Ace, Peter, Paul and myself, and that’s fine. We appreciate that. Then they said, ‘We have an HBO special and we want you to close the show and make it big,’ and all that stuff. And we said, ‘Okay, and you’re also going to be honoring Tommy and Eric who have been in the band longer than Ace and Peter, right?’ They said, ‘No, no, actually we’re not.’ We said, ‘Wait a minute, you have the Grateful Dead, and you inducted all 25 or so members, plus a lyricist who was never even in the band. Metallica had a bass player who, I think, was never even on a record. The Chili Peppers had 8 or 9 members in. And you’re not going to honor ours?’ So, we are certainly not going to be playing there. You either honor all or none.
Right, but it’s disappointing to the fans.
The Hall of Fame award is important, because it is important to the fans, but otherwise it means nothing to me. It’s a political organization made up of ten guys. A few of them are good guys, but I know for a fact that some members voted to keep Deep Purple and the Dave Clark Five and great rock bands out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and get Run DMC and other hip hop acts into the Hall of Fame.
And you don’t think that’s acceptable?
I’m not finished. I want to start a movement. I want to get Aerosmith and AC/DC into the Hip Hop Hall of Fame. Does that make sense?
Sure, Aerosmith did have that massive crossover hit with Run DMC.
You’re picking at straws. That’s not the issue. The issue is that it’s a rock band. What would it be doing in a Hip Hop Hall of Fame? You have Madonna and Blondie and all kinds of bands that belong in something else —the Disco Hall of Fame, maybe — and the hip hop artists can certainly get their due, but they are not rock and roll. First of all, because they’re spoken word records! They are welcome to run their organization anyway they like, but it’s clearly not open to the public. It’s a political organization and whatever those guys like, they self-validate, but KISS has never looked over its shoulder to see who liked us and who doesn’t. Not everyone liked Jesus, either.
How have you kept fans interested over the last 40 years?
There may be something intrinsic in the DNA of the band —we put on the makeup and the platform heels and we are forever young. It’s very flattering, though, to have new fans. Most rock bands have a built-in obsolescence factor. There are a few other bands that have been around for 40 years and I don’t want to see their faces, I’d rather just listen to their music. We start our 40th anniversary tour this summer with Def Leppard and we dare every 20-something band out there to step up on that stage with us.
What can fans expect on the 40th anniversary tour?
The biggest stage show they’ve ever seen! We’ll have a spider that is 60 feet wide and 80 feet high — this thing practically gives birth! We’ll have more firepower on stage than most third world countries and we do everything, including flying through the air and shooting rockets. And, oh yeah, we play some songs.
From throughout your 40 year history?
After so long, are there certain songs that you’re sick to death of playing?
No, because whatever you think you’re sick of, and whatever preconceived notions you have about a song, they are wiped away when you hear the roar of the crowd and the smell of the grease paint. There’s your title.
You’ve partnered with Tongal to reach out to your fans to help mark the band’s 40th anniversary.
Yes, because KISS has always been outside the mainstream — we’re the black sheep. We’re like a wild animal peeing on the ground and saying this is our territory, and we’ll be damned if we let anyone else tell us who we are. We are anti-fashion — we’ve never been in fashion. I mean, look at us, we wear more makeup and high heels than your mommy ever did — studs, leather, armor, we blow up stuff. In the days when guys on stage look like models or pizza delivery boys and glamour is gone, there are no more rock stars. We are guilty as charged by our harshest critics that we are making complete spectacles of ourselves — you’re goddamn right we are. And, to those who said we sold out a long time ago, you’re goddamn right we did. Every night! We sell out every single night.
That said, we’ve never really looked at corporate America for how we want to market the band. It’s not like this is a new U2 tour. We don’t look like the rest of the bands, we don’t act like the rest of the bands. We have 5000 licensed products, including everything from KISS condoms to KISS caskets. We are a decidedly different animal, and we prefer everything we do to be authentic, but authentic to KISS. We’re not REM or Radiohead, so we don’t pull the “artistic” lever. We’re not poets, we’re not artists, and we don’t pretend to be. Don’t kid yourself — we are an empire — but we are not run like that. We want to tap into the young, fresh, untainted minds of the new creative community that is coming up and doing cool stuff. All the big corporate entities that are cool now, like Twitter and Facebook, are run by pretty young people doing cool things while dressed in t-shirts and sneakers. We want to hear what our fans have to say, because sometimes out of the mouths of babes come great ideas.
You proudly say that you sell out every single night and that you’re not artists.
It’s not up to the person who creates something to say they are an artist. How arrogant is that? It’s up to the people who see what you do to say you’re an artist. You don’t determine that, your value and place in the pop pantheon is determined by the people. It’s America: Of the people, by the people, and for the people. Our strength comes from the masses, not from the critics. We’re intrinsically an American band. We’re like McDonald’s, billions served.
You run the band like a business, then.
It was never just called music. Those people are idiots who think it is. It’s always called the music business. We take care of business, we do our job, we get up on stage on time, there’s no Axl Rose disease. There’s no nothing. If members of the band get high or drunk, we kick their sorry asses out. We do treat the band like a business, but the core of what we do is creative. We write our own songs, we play our own instruments, there are no Beyoncé backing tracks, there are no fake musicians backstage. What you see is what you get. Every night. We go play for our bosses. Our fans, who are standing on their seats, cheering.