As lead guitarist of Mr. Mister, Steve Farris blended jazz and new wave, and sprinkled some heavy metal over the top en route to chart-topping success. Of course, he’s also known for other exploits, notably his association with Kiss’s Creatures of the Night (1982), which features Farris' heavier-than-heavy solo on the title track.
At the time, he was a young Midwest native who leaned into jazz as opposed to rock – but none of that mattered, as he was immediately comfortable in the studio with Kiss. “I nailed the solo in one take,” he tells Guitar World. “And Paul and Gene loved Creatures of the Night; they were flipping out.”
Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons dug Farris’ licks so much that they intended to induct him into Kiss. But it was not to be: “We did it on a Friday and they said, ‘Let’s get together on Monday and we’ll talk more.’ So I’m thinking, ‘Man, I might have just gotten the gig with Kiss!’
“But when I got back down there to play again, they asked, ‘Can you sing?’ I can’t. That ended up being a stumbling block, as they felt like if they were replacing Ace Frehley they needed someone who could sing. So I didn’t get the gig; but I’ll always have the memory of playing Honky Tonk Women with Kiss at the second audition!”
From there, Farris formed Mr. Mister and dominated the charts on the backside of Welcome to the Real World (1985), which featured two monster hits in Broken Wings and Kyrie. Afterward, he went on to enjoy a fruitful session career before putting a period on his professional exploits by touring Europe with Whitesnake.
These days, he’s heavily involved in wetland restoration, but he still plays guitar in his free time at home. That doesn’t mean he’s left music behind forever – he regrouped with Mr. Mister for a low-key family party in the spring of 2023.
Asked if there’s a grander plan for Mr. Mister, Farris shrugs: “We all buried the hatchet a long time ago, so I’d do it. Other than that, I can’t think of anything to put me on the road again.”
What inspired you to pick up the guitar?
“It’s a cliché story… I was six years old and in first grade, and I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. My older sister knew who they were, and we were at my grandma’s house and very excited to watch.
“I had no idea The Beatles would become so big, but I remember thinking, ‘Wow, all these girls are screaming, and there’s so much energy.’ It was magical, and the music was great. It was immediately something I knew I wanted to be a part of.”
What were the first solos and riffs you learned?
“Solos came later and riffs came first. I had a cheap little Kay guitar that was my mother’s, and probably cost $5! This thing had strings like the size of telephone cables and about an inch off the fretboard, so I had trouble playing them.
“I started lessons a few years after I saw The Beatles, so in fourth grade, that's where I learned my first songs. It would have been whatever was on the radio. One tune I recall was called Stick Shift by The Duals, and I also learned the beginning of Secret Agent Man by Johnny Rivers.”
I understand you were in a group called Dog Breath. Was that your first band?
“I had a few bands prior. The first came when I was in seventh grade, and I hooked up with other kids who also played instruments. We’d get together after school and practice; basically, that’s where I learned to put together chords properly. Later I was in another band called Sticky Pete, and we had a singer who was a total hippy. We did a lot of Grand Funk Railroad, Joe Cocker and Hendrix stuff.
“But after that I was in Dog Breath. The other guys were older than me, but we got big enough where we played auditoriums and stuff like that. Before me they were a three-piece and playing real gigs, but wanted to add a lead guitar player.
“So I joined, and we played many shows throughout Eastern Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. We changed the name to Fancy Jack, won a battle of the bands, and toured some more, but eventually broke up.”
From there, you diverged into jazz guitar, right?
“I grew up listening to jazz to a degree, because my dad was a drummer and he was into that stuff. I got into all sorts of jazz, and after I graduated from high school a semester early, I didn’t have much to do. I’d always hated school, which was stupid – but now I needed something to do.
“I took jazz lessons from Curtis Robinson, which scared me because my teacher told me, ‘Go home. You need to practice your major scales,’ which I’d never done. I had always been a blues and rock guy, but now my teacher slams his hat down, yelling, ‘What’s that? It’s wrong!’”
By the time you got to the Berklee College of Music, you wanted to be a jazz guitarist?
“Yes, I did. By then, I was ripping through double-octave scales and felt ready. During my first summer back home from Berklee, I even got lessons from Joe Pass after I went out to L.A. for a bit. I was 19 by this time, had a big afro, and here I was in Northridge, California, knocking on Joe Pass’s door for lessons.”
What did Joe teach you?
“Oh, a lot, man. But I’ll always remember when I first got there. His wife answered the door and said, ‘Joe is back in the garden.’ So, I get back there, and Joe comes over in Bermuda shorts and says, ‘Okay, show me what you know.’ And I’m thinking, ‘This is Joe Pass. I fucking know nothing.’
“He showed me how to stay calm, play good rhythms, and use soloing techniques. Joe’s soloing was mind-boggling; it’s hard to believe it’s just a single player when you hear it. But the best part about the lesson with Joe was that he only charged me $25. Best $25 I ever spent!”
You got into session work thereafter. How did that lead to Kiss calling you while they were recording Creatures of the Night?
“In addition to the session work, I joined a Top 40 cover band and played around Michigan, South Dakota and the Midwest. I did that five or six nights a week and eventually went out to L.A. because that’s where all the work was.
“I was playing in a band called the Mambo Jets when a friend said, ‘Kiss is holding auditions because Ace Frehley left the band.’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m sitting around eating cold Campbell’s soup every night. It’s worth a shot.’
“I had no money, and my Volkswagen Rabbit wouldn’t even run without me popping the clutch and push-starting it. Part of me was like, ‘Why the fuck would I try and audition for Kiss?’ But I got the number to call, put together an audition tape, and dropped it off at the office to a girl who looked bored and unimpressed.”
But they called you back, right?
“Two weeks later, I got a phone saying, ‘This is Paul Stanley from Kiss. Gene and I liked your tape. Can you come to the Record Plant?’ I had to think about it briefly before I said, ‘Yes,’ as getting to The Record Plant in time would not be easy.
“But anyway, I got there in the middle of the night and I went into Studio D, and there were these two guys with long black hair, Paul and Gene. I’d never seen them without makeup before, but I surmised it was them.
“I walked over and said, ‘Hey, nice to meet you.’ They said, ‘Oh, we’re still with this other guy. Can you hang out in the hallway?’ So I did. I thought, ‘This is one of those times when things come together. I need to not worry, walk softly, carry a big stick, shut up and play.’
You played the solo on the title track. How did that go down?
“I didn't say much; I just went in and fucking played. But before that, I was introduced to the guitar player they were already with, Bob Kulick. I met him for a minute and he was a nice guy.
“But he left, and I entered a room with a big Marshall amp and cables on the floor to plug in. I had a Fender Strat with me, and I was told they’d count me into the bridge for a song they were doing, which was Creatures of the Night.
“I’m standing there; they counted me in and I ripped through the first solo that came to mind. I finished, they stopped the tape, and Paul went to me, ‘Dude… will you wear high heels?’ I said, ‘I can fucking try.’ And that take is what you hear on the record. No second take – that was it. From top to bottom, I blew it away. I didn’t join because I couldn’t sing, but it was still a blast.”
From there, you formed Mr. Mister. What was your vision?
“I had played with Eddie Money for a bit, which led to Mr. Mister. We came before many glam bands in the ‘80s and we were always more focused on new wave types of sounds.
“I wanted the sounds to be very musical and different. The first album, I Wear the Face, was not a hit, but our A&R guy believed in us, so we had a bigger budget for Welcome to the Real World – which had two big hits in Broken Wings and Kyrie.
“We wrote everything from scratch and did it the way we wanted to, different from how we thought we were supposed to do it. As far as guitars and the music go, that record was more honest, which came from the change in mentality.”
Despite the success, Mr. Mister was still an outlier in that era. Did you feel comfortable within the shred scene?
“I just did as I did. My versatility gave me a lot of depth. I only became successful playing jazz after, but I knew jazz. There were things I’d do that I’d lean into while injecting it into another genre. And it’s funny because Mr. Mister wasn’t known as a heavy band – but man, we had some heavy moments if you go back and listen.
“I played colorful, interesting solos that take you on a ride and keep the surprises coming. As far as the shredding, I was impressed with those chops, but it was much faster than I had ever gotten into. I was never truly enamored with it as a genre, even if I was friendly with guys like Eddie Van Halen and Warren DeMartini. Those motherfuckers could play guitar! But eventually, I walked away from Mr. Mister because I wanted something more and to do something different.”
You toured with Whitesnake. Did David Coverdale ask you to stay on?
“Yeah, I did some big tours overseas with David in ’97. I was recommended to him by my friend Marco Mendoza; David called me after hearing my tape and asked me to go on the road. So I met up with him and we went out drinking, then I went on the road with him.
“I could have stayed on and never turned down any gig with Whitesnake. We came off the road, and Whitesnake was going to be done. Of course, David has had multiple versions of the band since.”
Many people consider you a "former guitarist" but you’re still playing, right?
“I still play at home, but not professionally. I like being reclusive – that’s a good term for me! I got big into hunting and wildlife, which led me into other business ventures. I now have a hunting lodge, and I’m also restoring wetlands.
“I’ve even been hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service to design and restore wetlands for them. It’s another type of passion, and it’s gratifying. I love music but no longer rely on it to make the world happen for me.”
Would you consider a Mr. Mister reunion if it was offered?
“Music is so challenging, so I’d never rely on it again. If you’re a star, that’s one thing – but for side guys and session people, it’s so hard. I’m thankful and fortunate for what I did.
“In May, Richard [Page] called me and said, ‘We’d like you to come out with the four of us and play? Why don't we relearn some songs and give it a try?’ So we did; we played a bunch of songs with our wives and families. Nothing big. We had a party and it was great. We put it on Facebook, and it had almost 100,000 hits the first night! I was thinking, ‘Oh, I bet we'll end up getting a phone call to do some gigs.’ if we were offered that, I’d do it. That’d be fun.”