A Clean and Sober Ace Frehley Discusses Kiss' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Debacle and More
This year started off innocently enough for Ace Frehley.
Just one week prior to Christmas 2013, the former Kiss lead guitarist learned that he and his comrades in the original Kiss lineup—Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss—were finally being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after 15 years of eligibility (and 15 years of outcry from the Kiss Army).
A cause for celebration, no doubt—and a golden opportunity for the four founding members of the legendary rock band to perform onstage together again for the first time since October 7, 2000, the final North American date of their Farewell Tour.
And then, somehow, it all imploded. In the weeks preceding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on April 10 in Brooklyn, New York, Kiss became the primary focus of every public and private discussion surrounding the event after they announced that there would be no Kiss performance—let alone a Kiss reunion—that night.
To make matters worse, the band members seized every opportunity to lambast one another in the press on a seemingly daily basis, effectively rendering what was supposed to be a triumphant reunion performance loaded with all the blood-spitting, fire-breathing, makeup-running pageantry that fans had been clamoring for all these years into a pitiful non-event.
“I was like, Jesus Christ, after 40 years of support you can’t give the fans 10 minutes?” says a still worked-up Frehley over a cup of black tea at Guitar World headquarters in New York. “The fans wanted it, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame wanted it. But Gene and Paul didn’t. It’s sad. They definitely lost some fans because of this decision.
“I think the reason they didn’t want to get together with the original members was because they’re afraid of history repeating itself. When we did Unplugged in 1995, you saw what happened: because the fans were so excited about me and Peter playing with those guys, they had to scrap their last record [with then-current members Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer] and do a reunion tour [with Frehley and Criss in 1996]. Although at this point I don’t think Peter could do a two-hour show and a full tour. But I still got the chops. I definitely blow [current Kiss guitarist] Tommy Thayer off the stage.”
It’s obvious that Frehley is fired up, and with good reason. With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fiasco behind him, the clean-and-sober Spaceman is able to focus on the things in life that make him happy, like living in San Diego with his pretty, blond 47-year-old fiancé Rachael Gordon, writing books, working with Gibson on various signature guitars and recording new music. Space Invader, his first record since 2009’s top-notch Anomaly, is due out in a few weeks, and Ace couldn’t be more excited.
“I haven’t had a drink in more than seven and a half years, and I feel great now,” says the 63-year-old guitarist. “I’m writing great songs and I’m singing great, and I’m super excited about this new album. It’s gonna be even better than Anomaly. I played some tracks for a couple of guys I was considering using for mixing, and the first thing out of their mouths was, ‘God, your voice sounds like it did on your 1978 solo record.’ Unlike some other people, whose voices aren’t maybe what they used to be. Not to name names, or anything.”
Your love affair with alcohol during Kiss’ heyday—and, well, all through the Eighties and Nineties—is well documented. Do you miss it? Are there days when you want a drink?
No. I haven’t had the urge to drink in a long time. And I don’t miss the hangovers, I don’t miss the smells, the late nights at the bars, or the people. I was hanging out with some pretty shady people in my heavy-drinking-and-coke years. I was in some situations that really could have gone sideways. I was just lucky. And you have to realize that my fans used to emulate my behavior when I was a crazy man—“Ace is a party animal, let’s go get loaded!” Then they’d go crash their car, and I’d feel terrible.
Now it’s turned around. And when someone comes up to me and says that they haven’t had a drink in six months and that they’re doing well because I am, that makes my day. Maybe that’s one reason why God has kept me alive. By all rights I should have died a half dozen times already, so every day above ground I’m thrilled.
Did you think Kiss would ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I knew that [the Hall] had to buckle to popular opinion. It was only a matter of time. We were first eligible 15 years ago, so I knew it would happen eventually. I mean, how can you exclude Kiss, one of the biggest American rock groups in history? Even though we didn’t perform, I’m still thrilled to be in it.
Where were you when you found out that you were being inducted?
I was at home in San Diego and got a call from my manager. Then, about a week later, I got the “congratulatory” call from Paul and Gene. And I could tell that there was some hesitancy on their part about the whole thing. I was asking them if we were gonna play, and Gene avoided the question by saying, “Well, we’re just looking forward to getting the four of us up there together and celebrating…whatever.” It was a noncommittal congratulatory call.
Then, about a week later, I was told that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame absolutely wants the four original members to reunite, and I said, “Great, I’ll do it.” And there was silence from Gene and Paul. And finally it was shot down. The next thing I heard is that Paul and Gene wanted to perform with the current Kiss lineup [with Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer]. And I said, Well, that’s kind of a slap in the face. I mean, they’re not even being inducted. I have to sit through a Kiss cover band when I’m receiving an award? I don’t think so.
I also heard at one point that they wanted me to perform in makeup with Tommy at the same time. I really didn’t want to be onstage with Tommy, but I said I would do it, as long as I got to play the bulk of the songs and that I could wear the Destroyer costume. Then a few days later [it was], “No, we’re not gonna play at all.” It was almost like they were trying to bait me, so that if I said no to anything they would just blame me for there being no performance. I was almost going to boycott the whole thing.
The weeks leading up to the induction ceremony were filled with all sorts of public drama. A lot of negative comments were hurled back and forth in the press between the four original members of Kiss. Why do you think Gene and Paul are always so quick to disparage you publicly?
I don’t know. I think they’re just cranky. For years, when I was fucked up, Gene used to say that I was a drunk and a drug addict and that I was unemployable. Kick a guy when he’s down, right? But they can’t do that anymore, so it’s like they’re scratching their heads trying to come up with new ways to insult me. The most recent thing was that I’m anti-Semitic, that I’m a fucking Nazi. That’s just below the belt. Next I’ll be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. And my fiancé is Jewish! My whole life I’ve worked with Jewish people in all different capacities—my accountants, my attorneys, people on the road. Jesus Christ, I can’t believe the stuff that comes out of their mouths. But the truth is that I don’t want to be negative. I just want to keep everything light and be happy.
Paul has been so goddamn cranky lately. I mean, what’s wrong, Paul, aren’t you happy? I know they must be frustrated because people are always writing about how Ace was the real guy or Ace was the real deal. It’s gotta rub them the wrong way. They would like nothing more than for me to start drinking again, start taking drugs again and end up as a bum on skid row. But that’s not gonna happen.
Anybody who says anything bad about me is foolish, because a lot of people like me. You’re gonna make enemies when you put down Ace Frehley. And that’s because I’m a straight shooter—I tell it like it is. Gene is that way too. He’ll sit across from you in a room and say this or that and tell it like it is. Whether you like it or not, he lays it out, right to your face. Paul will tell you one thing, then walk out the door and stab you in the fucking back. That’s Paul Stanley. And now he’s trying to take credit for the fucking Kiss logo? Unbelievable. I designed the logo—all he did was draw straighter lines.
And you know, I told Paul to wear the star on his eye. Do you know what his makeup was before he put the star on his eye? It was a round circle. He looked like the dog from the Little Rascals [Pete the Pup, a.k.a. Petey]. It told him it looked kinda silly and that he should put one star on his eye. But do I go around taking credit for that? No. I let him say he designed it. Who cares, you know? Let’s not be petty.
You would think that if Gene and Paul had half a brain, they would realize what’s going on and start saying good things about Ace. I mean, keep bad-mouthing me. No one’s gonna show up at your fucking tour this summer.
Let’s talk about your upcoming solo album, Space Invader. It’s been five years since Anomaly. Why the delay?
I don’t know. [laughs] I’m not disciplined, and I can only create when I’m in the zone. I get preoccupied with other things—moving, family stuff, whatever—and then years go by. I had two record labels courting me, and I decided to go with E1 Music because of their reputation in the business and because they offered me more money. And when someone writes you a check, you gotta make the record! [laughs] The truth is, I work better when there’s a deadline. And I usually have to extend the deadline. But the end result is usually quality.
Do you enjoy the whole process of writing and recording?
Yes. I’m actually enjoying writing and recording more than ever, because I’ve become a lot more comfortable with Pro Tools, which means I can edit my own solos now. And that’s just fun. I prefer having an engineer there, but if there’s not one around, I can do my own editing and not have to depend on anyone else. Vocals too. I can do it all myself.
Which is quite different from recording with Kiss in the early Seventies.
With Kiss we used to do a slave reel. We’d mix down on two-inch tape, 24 tracks. [Producer] Eddie Kramer would mix down a stereo track of drums, and he’d give me a whole reel just to do solos. And Eddie was great at editing tape. But the flexibility you get nowadays with Pro Tools is just night and day compared to those days. Digital editing is a dream.
What was the songwriting process like for Space Invader?
You know, all my life I’ve never had a formula for writing songs. Sometimes it starts with a guitar riff, sometimes it’s a lyrical idea or just a melody. Sometimes I wake up with an idea. There’s no rhyme or reason. Sometimes I write on an acoustic, sometimes on a bass. There’s a song on the new album called “Into the Vortex.” It’s a riff song, but I wrote it on a bass guitar. Why? Because I write differently with a bass guitar in my hand than an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. When I feel creative, I just sit down and start playing.
Did you write differently in the early days of Kiss?
Yes. I wasn’t as structured as I am now. Even though I’m not really structured—I’m at least cognizant of what’s going on. [laughs] Back then it was more hit or miss—and when I hit, I hit big. You know, I go back and listen to my 1978 solo record, and it still holds up. My whole body of work that I’ve created over the years has withstood the test of time. I know that I still have the goods. And when this record gets released, everybody’s gonna say, “Well, Ace did it again.”
Were there things about Anomaly that you wanted to change with Space Invader?
I know that everyone is hoping that this album is heavier than the last one, and it is. I’m also doing an instrumental this time, called “Starship,” that isn’t slow. It’s a departure from the “Fractured Mirror” style. It’s more fast paced and has a lot of transitions in it.
You cover the Steve Miller song “The Joker” on the new album. How did that come about?
It was the record company’s idea, to be honest. And I was a little resistant when it first came up. But then I thought back to my 1978 solo record, when Eddie Kramer’s assistant said to me, “Why don’t you try this song?” And it was “New York Groove.” At first I said, “I don't want to do that,” and it turned out to be my biggest hit. So maybe history can repeat itself.
Where was Space Invader recorded?
I did most of the recording at my friend’s studio in Turlock, California, called the Creation Lab. Turlock is in the middle of nowhere—it’s like a farming community—and that’s why I loved it. I have Attention Deficit Disorder, and there are absolutely no distractions when working at this place. You record for eight or 10 or 12 hours, then you go back to the hotel and go to sleep. You wake up and go back to the studio.
There’s nothing else to do there, which means it’s the perfect place for me to record. Plus, I like working with the least amount of people, and this studio is great because it’s quiet and there aren’t all kinds of people walking through. I did most of this record with just me and a drummer, Matt Starr. For a couple of songs I brought in Chris Wyse from the Cult to play bass.
What guitars and amps are you using on the album?
I’m using a big variety of guitars. I have 35 or 40 different guitars hanging on the wall, and I just grab different ones. There’s a seven-string on one song, a Dobro, some 12-string acoustics… Sometimes I get the urge to use the double-neck. I like flexibility. The more variety, to me, the better. As for amps, it’s basically the same stuff I used on Anomaly: Marshalls and Voxes and Fenders.
The “Budokan” Les Paul replica guitar you did with Gibson in 2012 was a huge success. Are you planning another signature model?
I remember when I first did that deal and I went to the Gibson office to sign a bunch of the guitars, I said to [Gibson senior VP] Rick Gembar, “How are they selling?” And he said, “What do you mean, ‘How are they selling?’ They’re already sold. They were already sold before we put them out. Ace, anything you do turns to gold.”
That was a good feeling. I’m trying to figure out what to do next. I keep asking people what they think, and some say to do the three-pickup black Les Paul; some say to do the first one I had, the sunburst Standard. But I don’t have to make that decision today, so I’m not worrying about it. But Gibson does an amazing job with these guitars. I don’t know how they make guitars that look 30 or 40 years old, right down to the screws and scratches and little details.
I’m working on a design for a new amp right now that I think is just going to be too cool. I can’t talk about it yet because I haven’t finished the prototype. I also have a prototype guitar in the works that’s gonna be revolutionary. But that deal’s not done, so I can’t talk about that either. Amp and guitar—both completely different from anything else on the market. I’m always coming up with new ideas. I invented an electric guitar, like, 20 years ago. [laughs] My father was an inventor. It’s in my blood. I also have an idea for a really cool clock. But I can’t even talk about it because it’s so brilliant.
Photo: Jimmy Hubbard