Ace Frehley interview: Space Oddity
He was the odd man out in Kiss, but Ace Frehley came into his own on his solo records. Twenty years since his last release, the original Space Ace returns to earth with Anomaly.
Ace Frehley strides purposefully into a sushi bar in North Hollywood, his bearing every inch the rock star. Dark glasses hide the strange downward cast of his eyes—an inheritance from his Dutch mother—and he sports a black beard that gives him the look of an inscrutable warlord, conferring a gravity and a self-assurance that he never had before, not even in 1977, when Kiss were named the most popular band in America by no less an authority than the Gallup Poll. “That gave me a sense of false confidence,” Frehley says of the honor. “For a while I believed that we were better than we were.”
At the time of our meeting, Frehley is just weeks from releasing Anomaly, his first solo album in more than 20 years, which will be issued in September on his own Bronx Born Records label. The new songs ripple with authority and radiate a sense of danger that recalls the wanton spirit and fire-breathing heat of his early years with Kiss. The track “Genghis Khan” is a Kashmiri nightmare wrought in guitar exotica, while the instrumental “Fractured Quantum” picks up the frenetic thread Frehley began on his self-titled 1978 solo debut and continued with on his subsequent records. Then there’s his indulgent cover of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run,” which recalls some of a rock band’s racier exploits. “Oh, I got my share,” Frehley says, when queried about Kiss’ body count.
As much as his fans have been waiting for Anomaly, they want to know why it took Frehley 20 years to follow up on his previous release, 1989’s Trouble Walkin’. “I’m still shocked when people say, ‘You haven’t done a studio record in 20 years,’ ” he says. “I try to make excuses for it, but the truth is I just wasn’t with it.”
Frehley is referring to his past drug and alcohol use, which hindered both his creativity and his musical ambitions. Those impediments vanished three years ago when he got sober. He says, “All my creative powers were unleashed. I wasn’t sedated anymore.” Undoubtedly, his problems had been exacerbated by his dismissal from the group he cofounded and whose success he helped create: after performing with Kiss in February 2002, at the close of the Winter Olympics closing ceremonies, Frehley was unceremoniously replaced by former Black ’n Blue guitarist Tommy Thayer. Seven years after Frehley was fired, the subject still rankles him.
For many Kiss fans, his departure was a major letdown. Ace Frehley humanized the monsters of rock, whether with his maniacal laugh or his failure to put on airs. “I’m just a down-to-earth guy,” the man once known as “Space Ace” says without a touch of irony. But that lack of pretense is part of his appeal. Bill Aucoin, Kiss’ former manager, says, “Ace was always the one who would tell it like it is.” Apparently, that quality endeared him to many. The preponderance of Kiss fans that use the Facebook application “What Kiss Member Are You?” chose Ace as their favorite of the foursome, as did 79 percent of the respondents to a 2007 poll at DemocraticUnderground.com. As one fan wrote, “He was the George Harrison of Kiss.”
Frehley appreciates those sentiments but finds them ironic. “If I’m so popular,” he asks rhetorically, “why did they replace me with Tommy Thayer?”
As the sushi arrives, Ace settles in for what turns out to be an in-depth and candid discussion about getting clean, cutting his new album and putting Kiss behind him for good.
GUITAR WORLD It’s been 20 years since your last solo album. How did you know it was time to record a new one?
ACE FREHLEY I almost felt like I didn’t have a choice. I realized it’d been way too long since the last album. It still took me over two years to finish the record. I had done a bunch of songs in 2007 and had them mixed. The mixes were okay, but I wasn’t going to settle for that. I had some of the songs remixed three different times but it still wasn’t right. It really only came together in April.
But probably the most significant factor is that I got sober three years ago. My whole life I had been telling myself that I need this stuff to create, only to find out that I’m more creative without it. There’s that sick little voice in your head that tells you that you need alcohol to socialize, to do this or that, and none of it is true. It’s just your insecurities that make you think and feel that way.
GW When you were drinking a lot, did you still pick up the guitar?
FREHLEY No, but then I never practiced every day anyway. I don’t like to practice; I like spontaneity. When I don’t play guitar for a week and I pick it up again, I play better.
GW What kept you from creating besides being fucked up?
FREHLEY It was more than drugs that kept me from creating. Because of the drugs, I had created situations and problems that prevented me from doing anything. So things weren’t going right with business and things weren’t going right with family. That hinders your creativity big time. If you keep throwing a monkey wrench into the machine again and again, eventually the machine doesn’t work right no matter what you do. Everything becomes problematic.
GW Did you always know you were going to do your own albums? Were there songs that you were writing that didn’t work for Kiss?
FREHLEY Yeah, a lot of my songs would get turned down. There was always that competition between us. I knew I was destined to do a solo album, but when I did that first album in 1978, I had no idea it was going to be that well received. [Frehley and his Kiss bandmates each released a solo album simultaneously in 1978. Frehley’s sold best and had the only hit, “New York Groove.”]
GW Do you think your talents were undervalued by Paul [Stanley] and Gene [Simmons]?
FREHLEY They would make decisions without consulting me, and it got really frustrating. Paul and Gene never wanted to give me the credit that was due. In a lot of instances they tried to bury the fact that I made certain contributions. For that matter, I can’t remember Paul or Gene ever saying, “Wow, that was a great solo.” I know that, for a while, they weren’t saying good things about me, and that’s okay—what goes around comes around.
GW But their criticisms are always about you being fucked up.
FREHLEY Yeah, but I usually did my job.
GW Well, you were in a band with some of rock’s hardest taskmasters. You were always closest to Peter [Criss], but you shared a room with Gene. How did that happen?
FREHLEY I was closest to Peter, but Paul and Peter were close too. Nobody wanted to room with Gene, so I got stuck. I got the short straw.
GW Kiss fans always have their favorite member of the group. Even today, most of the people who use the Facebook application “What Kiss Member Are You?” choose you.
FREHLEY I don’t think Paul and Gene ever understood that. If they did, why would they have replaced me with Tommy Thayer? Sure, it was profitable for them in the beginning, but that was because nobody knew it was Tommy Thayer [because he was wearing Frehley’s “Spaceman” makeup and costume onstage]. And Paul and Gene were burying that fact.
GW Do you think it’s worse for Tommy to have to be you, or for you to see Tommy be you? He didn’t even get his own persona.
FREHLEY Well, he didn’t get his own makeup because of the merchandising machine that Gene has in place with Sony Signatures. To create a new face just for him would be a big problem. So it all comes down to dollars and cents rather than doing what’s right.
GW Why did you call this new album Anomaly?
FREHLEY I was originally going to call it Pax Eternal, which means “peace eternal,” but I started getting negative feedback about the name. I was sitting in the hotel room with my assistant, Frank Munoz, and we were kicking around ideas while surfing the internet. I said we should look for one-word names. All of a sudden I just said, “Anomaly,” and he goes, “Yeah.”
GW So what’s the anomaly?
FREHLEY I’m an anomaly. I’ve always felt a little different and apart from the crowd. Everybody’s gonna read something deeper into it, and maybe there is. But, you know, maybe there’s not.
GW Was there anything you were aiming for with this record?
FREHLEY I actually listened a lot to my first solo album, which everybody cites as their favorite Ace Frehley record. I was dissecting what was special about that record. It had a lot of different elements, and I kind of tried to do the same thing with this album.
GW In the years you weren’t making albums, did you think you’d lost what you had?
FREHLEY I did lose it for a while. If I hadn’t made the decision to clean up my act, who knows what would have happened? I don’t even know if I’d be alive right now.
In 2003, I had a really bad detox. I fell down a flight of stairs. I screwed up my shoulder and neck and couldn’t play guitar for a while. And I thought God had just taken it all away from me. All these crazy things ran through my head. I’ve always been great with computers, and after I fell I forgot how to use all of my programs. I had to learn how to do everything all over again.
GW How did you relearn?
FREHLEY I did it the same way I did it the first time—I taught myself. I never took a guitar lesson, I never took a computer lesson. But learning the second time was a lot easier because my mind was clear. Now I’ve relearned everything that I knew, and more—and I learned it better than before. I’m thinking clearer, and I’m writing songs that are as good as or better than anything I’ve written before.
GW You’ve had other major mishaps over the years. Back in 1976, you were electrocuted during a show [in Lakeland, Florida].
FREHLEY I almost died. It was a pretty traumatic experience. I had burns on my fingers; I was knocked out. I woke up behind the amplifiers and said, “I can’t play.” Then the fans started chanting my name, and I finished the show, but I had no feeling in my hands. I don’t know how I continued to perform that night. I guess it was all adrenaline. For a few days afterward I was very nervous, because I had read that a guy in some band got electrocuted and died two days later. So I was wondering if I was going to die.
GW I think the most harrowing thing you ever did was get in an accident in your DeLorean, driving 110 mph against traffic on the Bronx River Parkway.
FREHLEY You know the lyrics of my song “Beneath the Angels”? The second verse goes, “I’ve been told I got nine lives and maybe even 10.” That explains it. I don’t dwell on the old stuff. I know I’m exactly where I should be right now, and I’m okay with it. I really don’t even want to hold grudges about the past; I let it roll off my back for my own personal sanity. If you hold onto negativity it’s just going to eat away at you. You’ve got to let all that stuff go. If you do that, somehow everything comes full circle.
GW You’d been writing songs for years without releasing anything. What were the songs that made you feel inspired to make this album?
FREHLEY It was probably “Pain in the Neck” and “Genghis Khan.” Those two were written within a week of each other, and I started writing those in 2004. There’s also a song on there called “Sister” that I recorded 15 years ago or more.
GW Is the song “Too Many Faces” about Kiss?
FREHLEY Yeah, I guess subconsciously I may have been thinking that. But it wasn’t a blatant statement about them; it’s just about how people change their faces and how faces look back at you. There’s a line about how I felt I had lost my identity. And that’s how I felt with Kiss after a long period of wearing makeup. I didn’t know who the hell I was anymore.
GW Did you ever feel lost in your character?
GW Although in the beginning you were that character.
FREHLEY Right. And that character is still a big part of me, because I created it. It’s just that at the height of our popularity we always had to be seen in that makeup, and so to be that character 24/7 got overbearing.
GW Anomaly has some of the best playing of your career. What do you attribute that to?
FREHLEY I don’t know. It’s like I said before, I don’t practice every day. And I hate doing things over and over. With Paul and Gene, we’d be doing, say, the Destroyer record and they were doing, like, 25, 30 takes. If I don’t get it in two or three takes I’ll take a break, because even if you get it right, it’s lost all spontaneity. It’s usually my first or second take that we keep, and if there’s a couple of wrong notes we just punch it in.
GW Were you a guitar savant at a young age?
FREHLEY No. I was good; I wasn’t great. I still don’t think I’m a great player. There are guys that play circles around me. But it’s a combination of my songwriting, my voice, my attitude, my persona... It’s the package. I know great guitar players that don’t have any image or personality. And you need it all.
GW What has changed most about your playing over the years?
FREHLEY I think I’m being driven by the fact that for a while I was pushed down, and so I feel like I have to prove to everybody that I’m back. After I left Kiss in 2001, they told everyone I couldn’t tour anymore, that I was fucked up. I felt like that wasn’t going to be my epitaph. So I decided to get strong and get sober and show everybody what I really can do and what I could have done if I had been more together. It’s weird that my time is coming this late in life. But better late than never.
GW Looking back, how do you think people viewed Kiss?
FREHLEY I think a lot of musicians, serious musicians, wrote us off as clowns. I understand it, you know? The other day I was listening to Alive IV and even Alive II, and I really wasn’t happy with the mix.
GW What do you know now about life that you didn’t know when you started with Kiss?
FREHLEY Well, I’m a lot smarter about business matters. I was pretty out of the loop back then. After you get screwed four or five times, you start reading the fine print. I have a much better overview of the business—I look at it as a producer, as a songwriter and as a performing artist. And it’s nice to be able to do that.
GW Could you be who you are now without having been in Kiss?
FREHLEY Well, I knew I was destined to be a rock star. I just knew it. If I hadn’t been in Kiss I would have been someplace else. I remember when I was 15 or 16, I would go see the Who, Cream and Hendrix. They were all great, but I said, “I know I can do that. I’m gonna do that.”
GW Are you still in touch with Paul, Gene or Peter?
FREHLEY I haven’t spoken with Paul and Peter over the last couple of years. I haven’t spoken to Gene since I left the band.
GW Do you still feel a loyalty to them, to Kiss as an entity?
FREHLEY I don’t know if “loyalty” is the right word. I feel a connection. The four of us did have a chemistry that was unique to us, but I think it might be gone at this point, or impossible to recapture.
GW If the circumstances were right, could you do something with the same lineup again?
FREHLEY I think that time has probably passed. It came and went. But that’s okay. I did the reunion tour; I feel I was there for them when they needed me.
GW Paul recently said that Kiss could continue on without any of the original members. Do you agree with him?
FREHLEY That’s not my idea of what Kiss is. Maybe that’s his idea. You know, they say things like that just to cover their asses, so that they can carry on and still say it’s Kiss. That’s all that is: smoke.