Strange to think that KISS went a full decade – 11 years, in fact – without releasing an album of new material. Even more remarkable is the fact that when KISS did hit the studio again – to make 2009’s Sonic Boom – their return to form was spectacular. Monster, the band’s just-released follow-up, provides conclusion proof that KISS’s comeback was no fluke. Packed with full-throttle rock and roll, the album distills the spirit of KISS to its no-frills essence.
“There are no symphony orchestras, no boys choirs, no keyboards, no outside producers and no outside songwriters,” says Gene Simmons, who, along with KISS co-founder Paul Stanley, credits lead guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer with reinvigorating the band. “The best thing we did was to turn inwards to ourselves.” In the following interview, Simmons and Stanley talk about making Monster, creating distinctive guitar riffs and holding onto their inner child.
How did making Monster differ from making Sonic Boom?
STANLEY: Sonic Boom was us discovering who we are today, as a recording band. We had proven ourselves as a live entity, and we had our history down pat, but the question to answer was: who are we in the studio, today? Monster, on the other hand, is a band that’s totally sure of what we can do. We were all confident about how great this album could be. My role as producer, as I saw it, was to be a director and a coach, to make sure we kept our eye on the goal.
What was the writing and recording process like?
STANLEY: We wrote the songs primarily at my house. After that we went into rehearsal. We didn’t spend a lot of time on that, but that’s why it’s called “rehearsal.” You don’t want to go into the studio and do anything except record. If you’re spending time in the studio learning to tie your shoelaces, you’re just wasting money. We were prepared, and we went in and did things just like we did in rehearsal. We recorded facing one another – just an arm’s length apart.
Did keeping things simple – just two guitars, bass and drums – steer you down a certain creative path?
SIMMONS: The first few albums we put out were band-made, band-played and band-designed. And then we veered off and started doing lots of other stuff -- concept records, symphony orchestra albums, all sorts of things, all over the map. Those things are like going to a fancy French restaurant, where things taste good but afterwards you have an upset stomach. There’s too much butter, it’s too creamy, there’s too much of this and that. Ultimately, the best food is Mom’s home cooking. Pride comes into play as well. It all starts in your heart and soul. You know in your heart what’s good, before anyone else hears it. You sort of go, “Gee, that’s damn good. Let’s play that again.” The best measure of that is that we’re actually playing the new album in the dressing room, when we’re getting ready to do a show. Invariably, someone walks in and says, “Who is that? Turn that up!”
How old were you when you first picked up a guitar?
SIMMONS: I was 14. My mother bought me a Gibson SG Standard, a beautiful guitar. I held it for a long time before I knew anything about how to play it. The first chord I learned was a “C” chord. I played it the way folk players play it [begins singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”]. I wrote my first song with that chord. It was called “I Wanna Be a Sailor.” Melodies started coming into my head as I learned new chords. I wrote “Deuce” when I was 19.
Why did you switch to bass?
SIMMONS: I’ve always been a pragmatist. Everybody else was playing guitar. I could see clearly that if I wanted to be in a band, maybe I should play bass, since there were fewer bass players. Of course, some of the bass players for the biggest bands in the world started out as guitar players. Being able to play guitar gives you a different perspective as a bass player.
Who were your main influences?
SIMMONS: Paul McCartney, above everybody else. His approach wasn’t based on how Motown bassists played. The Motown guys were stupendous, but when you listened to those records – everything from The Temptations to The Supremes to Stevie Wonder – the bass line was never something you hummed. It wasn’t a hook. When you heard Beatles songs, sometimes you actually hummed the melody of the bass. “Taxman” is a good example. A lot of those Beatles songs served as the basis for metal – or certainly hard rock. Think of those bass riffs [hums the riff for “Day Tripper”]. Whatever the bass is playing, the guitar is playing. That’s true of “Lady Madonna” and on and on.
Most KISS riffs have a signature, something that tells you right away it’s KISS. Are great riffs a dying art?
STANLEY: I agree, there is something distinctive about KISS riffs. But I also think most great riffs have already been written, and Jimmy Page probably wrote most of them. “Black Dog,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Heartbreaker,” “Dazed and Confused,” on and on. Granted, much of what Led Zeppelin did was based on Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, you name it -- but they took those things and skewed them in a way that created a signature. Most of what’s come afterward has been based on that. Has anyone else come up with riffs that great? There have been other good riffs by other players, but most of them tip their hats to those same sources. I doubt they’ll stand the test of time as well as the originals.
Do you see irony in the fact that KISS’s style, today, is closer than ever to what it was in the‘70s?
SIMMONS: That’s a compliment of the highest order. Painters often talk about the innocence of children. Children put their hands in buckets of paints – all colors – and start to smear on a canvas. It’s all impressionistic. As a musician, it’s extremely hard to recapture that innocence you had when you were a kid, when you were in a garage, by yourself, plugging into an amp for the first time. If someone tells us we’ve recaptured something we had on those first few records, that’s the highest compliment. That’s the hardest thing to do – to get back to the purity and essence of who you actually are. Free unencumbered emotional expression exists in innocence. We’re fighting against knowing too much.