Nearly four decades on, Kiss remain an ongoing and unlikely rock & roll success story, standing high on platform heels and painted in kabuki black-and-white, unloading fireballs and grinding hard-rock hooks around the world. Led by founding members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, Kiss has been back touring arenas and stadiums since the mid-Nineties, but the onetime platinum-selling quartet finally returned to the studio as a fully functioning recording unit with 2009's Sonic Boom.
The band has a new album, Monster, released today by Universal, and produced by singer-guitarist Stanley. He's taken the leadership role in the studio, and he wouldn't have it any other way, guiding Simmons, guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer to a sound that's loud and swaggering. It's given Kiss some new material to chew on for their ongoing road show, which just ended a successful tour across North America with Mötley Crüe.
"We're best off prowling the stage," Stanley tells Rolling Stone, during an interview about the new album, the current state of Kiss and the music that first inspired him. The makeup hasn't changed much since the Seventies, and neither has the attitude: "It's the embodiment of everything I am and have nurtured and created. I look in the mirror and go, 'Hey, there's Paul Stanley – he's so fuckin' cool!'"
You took the producer's role beginning with the last record, Sonic Boom. What did that mean for Kiss?
Democracy in the studio is overrated. What you wind up getting is compromise on everybody's part, which means that nobody has their way, and that means nobody wins, including the fans. I thought it was really important, and in my mind it was a deal-breaker – if I wasn't going to produce the albums, we weren't going to do albums at this point. Somebody had to set parameters and boundaries and voice expectations. To make sure everybody was committed, some things had to be spelled out.
It didn't change anything. I think we had more fun. All the cards were on the table and everybody knew what the game plan was. We're more productive. I never thought being the producer was being the dictator. It means being the director and being the coach. It's a way of keeping everybody focused on the goal, and also having final say. Everybody can be in the same car, but somebody has to drive.
You must have thought something was missing from Kiss albums.
It's important to make sure [Kiss] is everyone's primary focus. One way of doing that was to say "no outside writers." We recorded everything facing each other in a room. There's no substitute for collaboration within a band. We all like each other and enjoy each other's company and respect what each other is capable of doing.
I didn't get the producer role by default. I read some comment from Gene that he doesn't have the patience anymore, so he was happy to have me do it. The truth of the matter is, there wouldn't have been any albums if it had been any other way.
It isn't as if Kiss never wrote any hits on your own. How did you get into the habit of having outsiders contribute?
There were times where we weren't quite as focused. It's great to have talented people come in and ignite a spark and perhaps point you in a direction you might not normally go. That's great in its time. Look, Desmond [Child] and Diane [Warren], off the top of my head, are incredible talents and good friends of mine. But at this point, it was more important for us to dig deep and define who we are as an entity.
What was your plan for Monster?
I wanted to make an album that really harkened back to why I got into this in the first place. I was lucky enough as a kid to spend most of my weekends at the Fillmore East. On a great night, that was like a Holy Roller evangelical church. When rock & roll is done with that fervor, it's close to gospel. That's what I wanted to go for with this album – passion as opposed to perfection. James Brown wasn't perfect. Motown, the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, early Elvis – I wanted to maintain the essence of it, getting a first, second or, if you really had to push it, a third take and record on analog tape and capture the intensity of what you're doing, and not compromise it.
Was there a particular night at the Fillmore East that changed your life?
It's so incredible to think of how many amazing bands were featured there on a weekend. Tickets were $3, $4, $5, so it was a safe bet to go on any weekend, because there were three acts. I remember Traffic, Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer. Derek and the Dominos, or the Who with Buddy Guy opening, or Jimi Hendrix with Sly and the Family Stone opening. The bills were just crazy. They were eclectic, and it made it so much more fun. The diversity of it was like going to a buffet. There was no monotony. You could see Led Zeppelin with Woody Herman's Orchestra opening. That's cool!
You recorded Monster on analog tape?
And as much vintage gear as possible. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. I have nothing against technology. When technology trumps emotion and feel, when somebody will tell you something is good by looking at a computer screen rather than seeing if they're sweatin' or tapping their foot, I'm out of there. We recorded analog and we sat around with our amps next to us. It was great. It's always exciting when you're doing something without any input from outside sources. Nobody heard the album until it was done. I wasn't interested in what anybody else thought. There were three other guys in the room whose opinions I valued, and that was it.
The last Foo Fighters album was recorded on analog, too. Are you expecting others to do the same?
Yeah, when it becomes clear that people have strayed from what the essence of what we're doing. As a matter of fact, I was talking to Dave Grohl this morning when we dropped our kids off at school. He's doing a documentary [about the studio Sound City], on the great history of it. The music and the people it inspired were recorded on tape. They didn't have pedal boards where you push a button on the right and it gives you cappuccino. Gear that looks like Star Trek isn't what any of our heroes played on. If you can't get a great sound with your guitar plugged into an amp, you need a new guitar or a new amp.
The album starts off with a snarl with "Hell or Hallelujah."
Our albums usually start with a song that's almost a battle cry. It sums up what the album's going to be like. "Hell or Hallelujah" immediately became the frontrunner. It's timeless. It doesn't matter how rich, how old, what your lot in life is – you have to stand up for yourself and stake your ground. That shouldn't change. I'm still a rebel, but being a rebel doesn't mean that you have to fight anything. You just live your own way.
"Eat Your Heart Out" opens with a bit of a cappella, and has that recognizably Kiss vocal harmony.
It's just classic harmony. Even as a little kid, when everybody was playing cowboys and Indians, I was in the house either watching Alan Freed or Dick Clark. Somebody else wanted to be Hopalong Cassidy, I wanted to be in Dion and the Belmonts. You go back to doo-wop and that worked its way into the Everly Brothers, and the Everly Brothers gave us the Beatles. Those triad harmonies are elementary, and also pretty classic.
Has the writing process for Kiss changed over the years?
On the last two albums, we wrote together, and that really hadn't happened with the same spirit or the same surrender of ego for a long time. Plus, Tommy [Thayer] is in the mix, and he should not be underestimated. There's a great riff on "Wall of Sound" that's Tommy's. Tommy had a lot of input. This is the embodiment of everything Kiss wanted to be or intended to be. We're well aware of what we've done in the past, and we celebrate it every night. We're also living in the present and looking to the future.
Kiss has been pretty active on the road for years, but only recently have you been back in the mode of recording new music. What changed?
The stability of the band. We've been together long enough that it seemed a shame not to take advantage of what we were doing as a live band and transferring that to the studio. The band's just great at this point. Psycho Circus, which was the last album [in 1998, with the reunited original band] prior to Sonic Boom, was such a debacle and such a nightmare – in essence you had two guys in the studio trying to make a Kiss album while talking to two other guys' lawyers. And those lawyers didn't play well. After that album, I was torn between never going into the studio again and having to go in the studio again.
Fans had waited a long time for that album to begin with.
It was started with the best of intentions, but just like the reunion tour – it was done with high hopes and the glimmer that perhaps we could pick up where we left off and soldier forward. Unfortunately, the same problems, the same dysfunctions, and the same tolls took some of those guys back down.
Do you have contact now with original members Peter Criss or Ace Frehley?
No. It's not out of animosity. It just has no point in my life today. Safe to say, the band wouldn't be here without those guys having been in it. The band also wouldn't be here today if those guys were still in it. I respect and love what we created together, but that was a long time ago.
Some of your fans are openly upset that Kiss hasn't been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Does it bother you?
Or indicted into the Hall of Fame. No, because I think it's so transparent. You have the East Coast music Mafia – they are clearly more motivated by each other than reality. Filling their criteria is leaving them at this point some pretty slim pickings. Would we accept? Of course, because it matters to our fans. So I would be gracious. But honestly, it means nothing to me. My life is far beyond anything I could have anticipated and will continue to be so without a new doorstop.
You just put out a $4,000 Kiss book. When people talk about Kiss licensing, they often point to Kiss Kondoms and the Kiss Kasket. Do you have a favorite item of unusual Kiss merchandise?
Clearly, some of the things we do are not to be taken too seriously, except by the people who hate us. For that alone, it's worthwhile doing. The fact that our merchandise sells so incredibly well is not because we're marketing geniuses. We listen to our fans. Why not give them what they want? We're Kiss. We set the boundaries. Our fans understand that, and the people that don't like us want to tell us the definition of rock & roll, and I'll tell you I'm living it.