Paul Stanley: Boom Times
Originally published in Guitar World, Holiday 2009
Paul Stanley talks about Kiss’ success as a live act and how he and Gene Simmons once again found their old chemistry and made Sonic Boom pure dynamite.
On a recent autumn afternoon, Paul Stanley was relaxing at his L.A. home prior to hitting the road for another leg of Kiss’ Alive 35 tour. He took the occasion to talk with Guitar World about the long and winding road that has brought him and the band from Alive! to Sonic Boom, Kiss’ latest album.
GUITAR WORLD Is it significant that Kiss were propelled to the top of the charts in 1975 by a live album?
PAUL STANLEY Definitely. I think we’ve always been a live animal. What we found back then was that our first three studio albums weren’t selling particularly well, yet we were quickly becoming a band that was selling out live venues everywhere. There was no correlation between our ticket sales and our album sales. It became clear that what was needed was an audio souvenir of the Kiss experience. But I don’t think we could ever have predicted that Alive! would become as big or as important as it did. As soon as it came out, they couldn’t keep it in the stores, because it was the album that everybody who loved the band had been waiting for.
GW Why did you decide to release Sonic Boom as a package with a live DVD and a bonus album of rerecorded Kiss hits [titled Kiss Klassics]?
STANLEY With all the classic Kiss albums, you always got more than just an album. We put in tattoos or posters, or love guns [Love Gun came with a cardboard “love gun” (assembly required)]. Working with Wal-Mart as the exclusive distributor of Sonic Boom put us in a position where we could do more than just put out an album. Wal-Mart made it possible for us to include the disc of 15 classic tracks and the DVD of performances from one of our stadium shows in Buenos Aires.
GW The songs on Sonic Boom seem custom made for big stadiums. “Stand,” in particular is quite anthemic. It’s even got the “Hey Jude,” crowd sing-along ending!
STANLEY At our best, that’s what we do when we write. Actually, I think my style of songwriting comes more from the [late Fifties/early Sixties] days of pop than from heavy metal. I think a song needs a verse, a prechorus and a chorus. These are things that a five-minute guitar solo is never going to take the place of.
GW Your stuff is always pretty classically structured: a good bridge and, as you say, three good verses and a killer chorus.
STANLEY Yes. I like to think that a song comes full circle. It leaves you satisfied at the end because it takes you back to where you started, only at a higher level of emotion. Dynamics and the way you build a song’s arrangement are important, but you have to build on a foundation.
GW In the early days, you and Gene shared writing credit on some of the band’s best-known songs, including “Rock and Roll All Nite” and “Strutter.”
STANLEY Yeah. It’s interesting. Gene and I often put both our names on them. And there are other songs that we didn’t put both our names on, but where we also had a big hand in each other’s writing. And on Sonic Boom we wrote together. I was very adamant that we write together. I think there was a little hesitation about it at first, but it was effortless. At first Gene said, “Well, we write differently now, and our styles have changed.” I said, “No. It’s essential to the chemistry of the band to have us write together.” Both our names are on a lot of the new songs.
GW How did you and Gene come to drift apart in the early days?
STANLEY We always had somewhat different approaches to songwriting, but that was what made those early songs special. I think at some point we both decided that we wanted things our way. We were big kids with big egos. We just decided to go off on our own and do it exactly the way we wanted. We didn’t want to compromise, didn’t want anybody else’s input. And those are the songs that came later in Kiss.
But the two people who wrote those original songs were still capable of writing with that same chemistry. The chemistry didn’t go away. We just had to push away a couple of roadblocks. It would have been insane not to take advantage of that chemistry.
GW You’re lucky. Not everybody can get back to that place. Sometimes great songwriting teams reunite after many years and it’s just not happening anymore.
STANLEY I think part of the reason, again, is that you have to be selfless. Writing a great song has to be a bigger priority for you than getting your own way. Once the ego is out of the way, the potential is unlimited. I think there was a great sense of group unity and purpose on this album. It wasn’t about promoting any one person in the band; it was about waving the flag of a great band.
GW Do you actually remember writing “Rock and Roll All Nite”?
STANLEY I do, absolutely. We had had a meeting with the [Casablanca] record company president at the time, Neil Bogart, who said we needed an anthem. The whole idea of a rock anthem was strange to us, because it wasn’t common back then. We asked him what he meant. He pointed to Sly and the Family Stone and said that their song “I Want to Take You Higher” is an anthem in the sense that it’s a song the fans can rally behind, one that speaks to the common experience between the band and the audience.
So I kind of went, “Got it!” I went back to my hotel room, picked up the guitar, played an A chord and sang, “I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day.” It came really easily. I then knocked on Gene’s door and said, “What do you think of this?” He thought it was great and said, “I have a song that isn’t finished.” It was called “Drive Me Wild.” So we put his verses for his song “Drive Me Wild” with the line “rock and roll all night and party every day,” and that was the song. I remember it as clear as yesterday.
After that, “partying” became a commonly used term in the English language. I just thought it summed up the idea of having a great time. It got all kinds of other connotations with time, but the essence of what we were, and certainly the life we were living on tour, was rock and rolling all night and partying every day.
GW I think Kiss can take credit for turning the noun “party” into a verb.
STANLEY Yes. We wanted “to party,” as opposed to going to a party.
GW But Gene always says, “Oh man, I never did drugs.”
STANLEY And that’s true. To us, “to party” meant to have a great time. I can remember clearly people would say “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” And I would say to them, “You keep the drugs, just give me the sex and rock and roll. Whatever I’m gonna do tonight, I want to remember tomorrow.”
GW In Kiss, you wrote so many of the songs, and you were the lead singer. Does it bother you that to the average person on the street Kiss is “that guy with the tongue”?
STANLEY That’s the kind of question that only somebody who knows music would ask. But I think it’s fair to say that Gene’s persona and his look are what has come to be known as the epitome of the Kiss image. If the band had to be summed up in one face, it would certainly be his. Look, we all have different aspirations in life, and Gene’s is to be in a spotlight all the time. Anyone who isn’t deeply aware of the band as a musical force would naturally assume that Gene is the central part of the music, whether it’s as the front man or lead singer. He’s certainly got the biggest mouth.
GW We’ll give him that.
STANLEY But with time, hopefully everybody becomes comfortable with their role and thankful for what it is—and not too concerned with what it isn’t. Everyone around us certainly knows that this album wouldn’t have happened without my asserting to some extent how we should have done it. Gene and I are different people, but we’re both very much essential to the mix.
GW Gene can be quite confrontational. Is he that way with you?
STANLEY No, no. He knows when not to rattle his saber. You know, Gene is very much about getting a rise out of people and saying things that will elicit a reaction. But our relationship isn’t about that. We have known each other for 40 years. Our bond is much deeper and much more genuine than that kind of thing. But yeah, he’s certainly a piece of work.
GW Being that he is, as you said, into getting a rise out of people, is he the first one who said, “Hey guys, what if we put on makeup?”
STANLEY Look, he would take credit for inventing water.
GW That’s not what I’m asking.
STANLEY Yeah. I would hope that he would be generous enough to acknowledge that the synergy and chemistry in the band resulted in much of what we did in the beginning. I think as an only child Gene was probably much more used to saying “I” and “me” instead of “we.”
GW We’ve talked in the past about how, in the early days, Kiss’ presentation was more transgender glam/New York Dolls before you went with the cartoon superhero look.
STANLEY In the beginning, before we ever had a record deal, we initially were more glam, and we used lots of colors in our stage outfits. Once we saw the New York Dolls, whose waists were as big as our wrists, we realized that we looked more like linebackers in drag. Quickly, Gene and I looked at one another and said, “The colors have got to go. How about we go to black and silver?” That’s when we really formed clear identities for each one of us. It wasn’t meant to be kabuki, but it was much more graphic than glam.
GW So what was it like to go back and rerecord a bunch of the old Kiss songs?
STANLEY It was actually a lot of fun to revisit those songs. Because over the years of playing them, while we certainly presented them with their core identity and sound, we weren’t playing them the way they were initially recorded. So to go back and re-cut those songs was almost like going back to school or looking at your old snapshots and recreating the poses.
GW It sounds like you studied the original recordings very carefully.
STANLEY Totally. We really went back and matched the tempos, keys…everything. It’s interesting, because a lot of those songs were slower than we remembered, because the live versions of them tend to be much more high energy. So to listen to them and cut them again was a real challenge at times. We captured the sounds of the guitars and everything, but vocals are something where you really want to match the inflection, cadence and tone of the original. Over the years, though, you start to sing differently. Tonally, your approach to a melody may be different. So getting it back to that was really interesting. There were times when I’d have to listen to a vocal line by line in order to nail it.
GW It was that obsessive?
STANLEY Oh yeah. We wanted the re-cut versions to be virtually interchangeable with the originals.
GW What are some of your personal favorite songs among the Kiss catalog?
STANLEY Oh, “Love Gun.” I think that’s a great song to this day. “Detroit Rock City,” “I Want You.” I’m a big fan of “God of Thunder,” because I always like the idea that Gene’s signature song was written by me.
GW And now you’re back on the road, celebrating the 35th anniversary of Alive!
STANLEY Yes. The show is built around the songs on Alive! And then there’s a big chunk of other classics thrown in. And here we have Sonic Boom coming out, so some of those songs will find their way into the show. So it’s very much a celebration of everything we’ve done, but focusing particularly on the 35th anniversary of Alive!
GW Are you still seeing the old fans? People who have been with Kiss since day one?
STANLEY There are some of them still there, sure. But Kiss has become multigenerational. Some of the original fans are bringing their kids, almost as a rite of passage, so their kids can experience what they did. And we see teenagers, too. I think Kiss connects with that part of everybody that wants freedom and to live as they choose. It’s a night for everybody. You know, if you can’t look like Kiss, at least you can feel like Kiss.
GW And plenty of people try to look like Kiss.
STANLEY You know, that’s a great compliment. Because it’s not easy.
GW I think that by fictionalizing the band, by becoming characters, you’ve kind of sidestepped the problem that so many bands face: the problem of growing old.
STANLEY I think the band has become iconic in that the identities of our four characters transcend the music. We’re certainly a band first and foremost, and that’s what’s important to me. Yet, just on a purely visual level, you can bring a photo of Kiss anywhere in the world, show it to someone and they’ll tell you it’s Kiss, whether or not they’re familiar with the music. We seem to have diversified in so many ways. But still, to me, the core of it is about the music. And that’s what Sonic Boom gets back to—the music.