You probably already have an opinion on Gene Simmons. To some, he is no more than a cash-hungry, egocentric loudmouth in a distinctly average band.
Conversely, to the Kiss faithful Gene is the Demon, the instantly-recognizable face, the fire-breathing, blood-spitting God Of Thunder who wrote the Kiss classics Deuce, I Love It Loud, War Machine and Unholy, all loaded with those heavy, chunky, often Beatles-indebted bass parts.
Whatever your opinion – and you can be sure that he doesn’t care either way – you have to admit that Gene Simmons is a man who thinks big. How else does a child immigrant into America rise to the very top of the music business in the '70s, rewrite the rules of band merchandise, define the scale of the modern stadium-rock show, run record labels, and amass a personal fortune said to be in excess of $300m?
As you probably know, Gene already has his own line of bass guitars, including the Axe and the Punisher. You can buy them at meet-and-greet events as Kiss make their way around the world for one last hurrah with their currently-postponed End of The Road Tour.
Despite this, 2021 sees another new venture, G², a collaboration with Gibson formed with the aim of producing a range of basses and guitars across the Gibson, Epiphone, and Kramer catalogs.
My phone rings late on a Friday night: “Hello. It’s Gene Simmons,” says the unmistakable voice on the other end of the line. He’s calling to talk about the first launch from G², a Thunderbird bass guitar in fetching black and silver or black and blood red.
Gene and his family have escaped the Covid hotspot of California, and he’s calling tonight from the safer environment of Whistler, Canada. He’s on friendly form as we chat. This isn’t the combative Demon of old. Kiss are now on their victory lap, and it’s noticeable that both he and the band’s co-founder Paul Stanley have softened their stances over the last few years.
And why not? They won. Forget the haters – after almost 50 years, they’ve made it to the finish line.
Why embark on this venture now, Gene?
“Why not? Cesar Gueikian, Gibson’s CEO, reached out, I asked if he wanted to push the level of quality up, and improve on what Gibson had done but not forget their legacy, that was my style. I said okay, let’s think about it, if you’re amiable to pushing the limits of what you can do, let’s take a look at the quality of the wood and the pickups and make some minor changes in terms of the presentation, the colors, using different kinds of things to enhance without being overly aggressive about changing the model.“
What’s the first step?
“The first instruments are the Thunderbird basses, which will come in a few different colors. There will be a guitar version and left-handed versions. By the time we’re through, there will be a Flying V, and there’s even going to be a double-neck guitar and bass. That is probably going to be a very big item.
“It’ll be as cool as hell and I’m going to make sure I get the first one. This is a big commitment on both sides, and it’s going to be called G² – G to the power of 2. I have to say I’m pretty creative. I come up with a lot of my own stuff, but it was Cesar who came up with the name.“
Will there be different prices for the Gibson, Epiphone, and Kramer instruments?
“That’s right. I’ve used Epiphone before. When I was a kid, I had an Epiphone bass and a small Silvertone amp, as a matter of fact. I liked them all. The very first guitar I ever had other than a bass was an SG Standard, like the one that Angus Young uses in AC/DC. That’s what I learned to play the guitar on.“
What price point will the Thunderbirds start at?
“The people at Gibson will give you all the specifics. My mind reels and my ears start to bleed when I get into the specifics. I can drive my truck, but when you lift the hood and start talking to me about the engine, I’m like a deer in the headlights. It’s not what I do.
“What I do is to make sure the quality is there, so when somebody buys one of our instruments, they’re proud. The minutiae is left to the devil, because as you know, the devil lives in the minutiae.“
Will the basses come in five-string and fretless versions?
“Yes. We’re doing a lot of different versions, but the mainstay will be the four-string bass. We’re doing left-handed versions too, because they are underserved. People like Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix had to play right-handed versions upside down, so we’re going to do legitimate left-handed versions.“
In the movie Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park, you play a Thunderbird. Is this new model based on one of your old basses?
“No, these are completely new. We’re going to keep modifying it and making it better. A lot of it has to do with the kind of lumber you use and how the strings attach to the bridge. It’s a very finicky kind of thing. You can have the same instrument, exactly the same, but with slightly different lumber, and it can sound completely different.“
Is Kiss currently waiting out the coronavirus before resuming the End Of The Road Tour?
“We are. As soon as we can restart the tour, it will be going to as many as 150 cities around the world after the pandemic. We want to make the last show into an event. With modern technology we will be able to broadcast it around the world, because there are a lot of people that want to see it.“
Personally, I’m looking forward to travelling again. I was in the original home of Kiss, New York, a while back.
“When you came out to New York, did you enjoy yourself?“
I loved it. I did some nerdy stuff. I went to CBGBs, the Iridium Club, and the Punk Exhibition at one of the museums.
“It’s a weird city. San Francisco had that hippy-dippy kinda thing, Seattle had the grunge bands. Los Angeles had those Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills & Nash kind of Californian bands. New York has nothing, it has no personality. Kiss came out of there, Blondie came out of there, Talking Heads came out of there, the New York Dolls came out of there.
“They’re all completely different bands, and Kiss is by far the largest one that came out of New York. New York was always a disco town, all about fashion, models, and Wall Street. New York is closer to Paris, although no great rock band came out of France.“
I think I could live in New York, but I don’t think I could live in Los Angeles. In L.A. I just want to go to the beach.
“And also, California has that yellow light in the sky. [adopts English accent] ‘Mummy, I’m scared. What’s that yellow light in the sky?’ ‘I think it’s called the sun, dear’... Yes, it’s completely different. America is so decidedly different from one coast to the other, but then you’ve got the middle, which is meat and two veg. You’ve got Chicago, and you’ve got Las Vegas. There is no city like that in the world.“
I visited Nashville last year and really liked it.
“Every single bar has live music there, every night of the week. I wish more cities had that. New York used to have that. You know, we played in Dubai this past New Year’s Eve. I played the very first finished G2 Thunderbird bass there.“
Congratulations on breaking the world record for most pyrotechnics at a gig.
“Yeah. People think it’s about beer, no, the Guinness Book Of Records isn’t about beer – they keep track of records. The usual gigs are child’s play compared to the Dubai thing. Usually, there is a ceiling, but here you can go 100 to 300 feet above the stage, and we did.
“No-one really talks about it much, but the enormous heat from the 40 big projectiles we had was just scary, I have to say. I will say one thing. No matter how difficult it is, we are the hardest-working band in show business, but we do have an awful lot of fun. I have more fun than the Pope does!“
- See KISS for more details on the End of The Road Tour.