KISS’ Paul Stanley: “Vomiting out songs is not for me.”
I recently interviewed KISS’ frontman and guitarist Paul Stanley for a short print feature that appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent. The whole interview was interesting, so here’s the full transcript. – bk
Bill Kopp: After all your years of touring, this current KISS tour will bring you to some cities where you’ve never played. Do you find that audiences are pretty much the same everywhere, or are certain cities or parts of the country more engaged?
Paul Stanley: I think all audiences are very much the same. The nerve that we touch, so to speak, is one of self-empowerment, celebrating life and giving spectacle. Everybody can tune into the bad news; you just have to put on the internet or TV or radio. Everybody also doesn’t need to make an excuse for wanting to escape. And that’s what we do: we dazzle, and we give you a night off. That doesn’t change from town to town, city to city.
The fact that on this tour we get to go back to some cities we haven’t been to in decades, and to ones we haven’t been is one of the things that makes it so much fun. Nobody chooses where they’re born, and nobody should have to make an excuse for it. So for us to go back to where it all started and how it all started – and to bring to these stages one of the greatest shows we’ve done – is something that brings a smile to my face.
BK: Aerosmith recently announced that their next tour will be their last. Do you feel like KISS is a kind of standard-bearer for the kind of rock that became popular in the 70s? What I mean is, do you feel that you have any kind of obligation to keep going when others who started around that time have cashed out?
I can’t say. But I will say that farewell tours are vastly overrated. And they often turn out to not be so. It’s all well and good to announce for one reason or another that you’re gonna do a farewell tour – whether it’s because you hate each other, or you’re just tired of doing it – but the fact remains that once that tour is over, most bands historically have found out that they really didn’t want to stop. Perhaps it makes a band feel that being around each other is a little more bearable when they think it’s gonna end. But I have to say, in our case, we learned a lesson a long time ago and have no plans – and no thoughts – of stopping.
BK: KISS was among the first – if not the first – to fully recognize and capitalize upon the concept of merchandising and branding. I was 11 in 1975 when Dressed to Kill came out. Most of my friends were (or at least pretended to be) members of the Kiss Army. Where did the ideas about of merchandising and branding come from?
PS: That’s a great question. Quite honestly, we had a brilliant partner in the beginnings of the band; that was Bill Aucoin, our manager. And really, he was so much more than a manager. He had so many interesting ideas that fell in line with ours, and also enhanced ours. And one of his [ideas] was to merchandise. The idea of merchandise and fan clubs had become so snickered at and looked down upon as thought it was for a generation of – I don’t know if you want to say – teenyboppers. But the fact remains that people want to wear the colors of their team; they want to wear the jersey of their sports hero. And the same follows suit in rock.
All we did was give people what they wanted, and suddenly we’re called geniuses. The fact of the matter is, we just made things available that people had wanted all along. But they had been denied by bands who were too caught up in what they thought was cool or not cool.
BK: You and Gene Simmons have been making music together since 1970. That’s 46 years or so. Gene’s known for being pretty outspoken and outrageous; after all these years, does he surprise you with anything that he says or does?
PS: (As he laughs), no. Y’know, sometimes I just shake my head, but that’s just part of who he is. For better or worse, I think he enjoys getting under people’s skin, and he enjoys saying things for shock value and impact. That’s part of what makes him who he is.
BK: Offstage, Gene is much more in the public eye than you are. What do you do when you’re not on tour or in the studio; are you basically a private person?
PS: Anybody’s private compared to him. I have my other band, Soul Station: my r&b band that does Motown and Philly soul. I have other projects that go on. And I have family. And I don’t really want to expend energy thrusting my family or my life into the news. For me, it taints it, and also makes it a bit too calculated. I see people who do that; it’s just not part of who I am. I get the exposure and the accolades and whatever else I need from the band and some of the other things I do, but the idea of constantly seeking press is exhausting. It’s just not who I am.
BK: When you’re on, you on; when you’re off, you’re off.
BK: What’s your favorite KISS song to play live, and why?
PS: I would have to say there’s two. “Detroit Rock City” and “Love Gun.” Just because they’re two great, well-written songs. They just stand up so well to time, and they’ve only grown greater with the years that have passed. They’re both – in their own ways – so much declarations of who KISS is. They’re both really calling cards.
BK: Can you tell me about your songwriting process?
PS: I’m not one of those guys who waits for inspiration. If you do that, you may be waiting years. I think part of the talent is being able to call up inspiration; in other words, creativity should be something that you are in control of, as opposed to the opposite. So I sit down with it being necessary to create; I sit with a guitar, and I just keep playing until something works for me. And then I build on that.
Also, I’m very much about self-editing, so I don’t have lots of songs that haven’t been heard. Because quite honestly, if I don’t think a song is good enough, I don’t finish it. Pretty much, with few exceptions, the songs I write are on our albums. I write specifically for an album, and if I don’t think the song is good enough, I go on to another. I write what is necessary, what’s needed. I have a pretty good sense of who I am and what I want to project. And I work to maintain that standard.
It’s interesting, because to write songs like the ones that are on Sonic Boom or Monster, some of those songs over time will become classics. But the classics are not born overnight. These things happen by virtue of how they weather the years. The memories and the time period that are attached to it are what really give [a song] that luster. “Psycho Circus” has become a classic song. “Lick it Up” became a classic song. But it didn’t happen immediately. Songs like “Hell or Hallelujah” are songs that will stand the test of time. But that is really what it takes: the test of time. I have a standard, and I usually think I don’t fall short of it.
BK: Kind of a combination of creativity and quality control…
PS: Totally. Yeah. I think creativity is great, but just to vomit out songs, so to speak, is not what it’s about for me. It’s a craft, and I’m not shy about saying that anybody can write a song, but that doesn’t make you a songwriter.
BK: Your sound changed – for the better, I think – with Destroyer. How much of the credit for that change would you give to producer Bob Ezrin, and how much would you claim for yourselves?
PS: Well, I give the band credit for being open to learning, and to taking somewhat of – if not a back seat – at least opening our minds and ears to the possibilities. So Bob very much raised the bar; he made us work much harder to elevate the standard and the quality of what we were doing. And we did. So in that way, it’s certainly Bob. What came out of it is us. It was the right time, and it also took our acceptance and willingness to listen to somebody. And Bob was certainly the right person. He was brilliant on an album like Destroyer.
BK: Kiss Rocks Vegas is due out in August, right in the midst of the tour. What can you tell me about that album? How will it be different from all the other live sets you’ve released?
PS: The visuals are what make it so great. We got a chance to play a venue that’s much smaller than what we would normally play. And yet we had the opportunity to put on a bigger show than we might normally do. The fact that we didn’t have to travel with the show we put together meant we could install a show in that venue that wasn’t practical for traveling. Bringing it in piece by piece was like putting a ship in a bottle; people would come in and ask, “How did you get this all in here?” We got it in a piece at a time. It was a terrific, monumental show in a small venue, and we reveled in it. We did a great show and had an amazing connection to the audience. It was something worth documenting.
BK: How big a deal was it for you in 2014 when KISS was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
PS: I think it meant a lot to some of our fans, because there is a segment of the population that mistakenly believes that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is some sort of popularity contest [among] the general population. That’s not the case and never has been. It’s a very closed club of questionable judges who decide who’s in or out.
That being said, I know that it was very validating, because people who are fans could now say that we were in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So it was very important. It was also important because we got to knock down a barrier, allowing other bands like Deep Purple, who have long deserved to be in there. At this point the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – instead of crumbling and falling, which was a real possibility as they lost credibility – is changing. They’re changing. The old guard is being kicked out, and perhaps we’ll see it become what it’s supposed to be. So it was important on a lot of levels.
BK: Are there any plans for more studio work, or are you concentrating on live performance?
PS: At this point, we certainly don’t need to record more, but I’m not opposed to recording. There just has to be more reason than a paycheck. Now, it really is about the reality that albums don’t necessarily sell anywhere near what they once did. And fans – for the most part – are happy to listen to what you’ve done before. If there’s a reason personally to create, then it’s worth doing. But it’s certainly not a necessity. Whether it was Sonic Boom or Monster, those albums were done because it felt like there was a reason to do them.
I’m not opposed to doing another; I just want this next one – if it happens – to not be a continuation of those two albums, but to really go off and spread our wings a bit. It doesn’t mean we’d do a concept album, or something where people don’t recognize it as us, but I don’t want to be shackled by anything we’ve done. And that’s really always been the mantra of the band; we don’t live by the limitations or restrictions of other bands. At this stage of the game, if we go in the studio again, I want to have freedom to continue on the path as opposed to standing still.