Interview Date: 10/14/2009
Run Date: 12/09/2009
From about 1975 to 1979, “the hottest band in the world” truly was Kiss. Derided by critics for being too simplistic, Kiss nonetheless racked up a string of gold and platinum albums and sold-out tours as the Kiss Army grew into an epic cultural force. The band's image became a spectacle that's hard to imagine happening again – there were Kiss dolls, trading cards, lunch boxes, comic books, jigsaw puzzles, even a made-for-TV feature film that cast the band as superheroes, the camp classic “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” With his literally-smoking guitar that shot laser beams, lead guitarist “Space” Ace Frehley wasn't just a rock star: he was a larger-than-life visitor from outer space.
Tensions were growing behind the scenes, though. Frehley wanted Kiss to focus on the music and maintain their rock 'n' roll edge. But bassist Gene Simmons and rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley seemed more concerned about bending the band's sound in a more commercial direction and lining up every marketing concept under the sun. Drummer Peter Criss was the first to depart in 1980, and Frehley followed in 1982. Many fans felt that Kiss was never the same. Frehley's impact on rock history was recognized at a new level in the late '80s and early '90s when a who's who of guitarists from up and coming hard rock bands cited the Space Ace as the one who inspired them to pick up the guitar. Frehley and Criss rejoined Kiss for a memorable reunion tour in 1996, but by 2002, they were both back out of the band.
Now as Kiss releases their first new album since 1998 and continues to tour with replacements wearing the makeup and costumes of Frehley and Criss, the real Space Ace returns with his first solo album in 20 years, the aptly-titled Anomaly, an album full of the rock riffage and self-deprecating wit that made Ace a star over 30 years ago. Bullz-Eye's Greg M. Schwartz, a rock soldier in the Kiss Army since childhood in the '70s, caught up with the Space Ace to ask him about the new album, differences with his former bandmates, his favorite science fiction flicks, and his thoughts on UFOs.
Bullz-Eye: The new album has a fresh modern sound, yet is steeped in your signature classic rock riffage. What was your production mindset in fusing old with new?
Ace Frehley: Well, the plan from the start was to use my 1978 solo album as the inspiration for Anomaly. Most of my fans cite that '78 record as their favorite Ace record, so I tried to get back the musical attitude I had back then....I think I achieved that.
BE: Tunes like “Change the World” and “A Little Below the Angels” express a musical maturity that seems unlikely to appear in a song from Gene or Paul. Does this hint at why you parted ways with Kiss again in 2002, or what else was going on?
AF: Let's be honest, if I were still in Kiss, there's no way a song like "Change the World" or "Angels" or "Genghis Khan" would have seen the light of day. I fought tooth and nail to get one song on Psycho Circus [in 1998] – you think anything would have changed 10 years later? I know fans still have this fantasy of the four original members of Kiss being a band forever, and that's a nice thought, but it isn't reality. I'm a solo artist with my own album, and Gene and Paul have decided to continue their version of Kiss. More power to them.
BE: Big songs like “Genghis Khan” and “Space Bear” demonstrate a heavy power trio jamming influence, ala Cream and Hendrix. Did that aspect of your playing get stifled in Kiss to some degree as the band came to emphasize showmanship over musicianship?
AF: Like I said, songs like those would have never of appeared on a new Kiss record if I was still in the band. The real winners here are the fans! Not only have they got 12 new songs from me, but a new Kiss record this year...
BE: Your voice on Anomaly sounds like it could still be 1978, whereas someone like Bob Dylan doesn't sound nearly as strong as he did 30 years ago. How have you managed to maintain that vitality, despite well-publicized substance issues?
AF: I've been lucky, I guess. I think the way I sing has a lot to do with it. But I've heard from fans that my voice has gotten stronger on this record, too.
BE: Your playing is really a bridge between the classic rock of the '70s and the metal of the '80s, in turn leading to the alternative-grunge movement of the '90s, which makes you one of the most influential guitarists ever. Did it surprise you at all when so many younger guitarists started saying you were the one that inspired them to pick up the guitar?
AF: I always say that if I knew I was going to be such an influential guitar player, I would've practiced more! You know, I never took a guitar lesson in my life, I'm self taught. Maybe since I play from my gut rather than my head, that's where that classic Ace tone comes from. Who knows?
BE: When Eddie Kramer spoke at Guitar Center in Hollywood a few years ago, he indicated that you weren't the easiest person to work with in the late '70s due to your hard-partying lifestyle. Yet Rock and Roll Over, Love Gun and your first solo album [all produced by Kramer] are three of the best-sounding rock records ever recorded, so you must have established some chemistry. What was it like getting to work with the guy who engineered Hendrix and Led Zeppelin?
AF: I learned a lot about recording from Eddie Kramer and Bob Ezrin [producer of Kiss' Destroyer), techniques that I used recently on Anomaly. Thinking back, I could've been more reliable in those days, but the distractions of money and fame took over. Those records that Kramer did have stood the test of time, they still sound powerful. Frank Muñoz, the associate producer on Anomaly, has said that he thinks Love Gun is the best-sounding (sonically) Kiss record ever.
BE: The Kiss phenomenon grew to the point where you were almost like superheroes as much as rock stars, which drew a lot of kids to the shows. You've commented in the past about how all the marketing demands to a younger audience started to detract from the band and the music. If you could go back with the wisdom you have now, would you do anything different?
AF: Of course, but it wasn't my call then. I always wanted Kiss to stay heavy and dangerous, and all of a sudden we're selling dolls and pinball machines and recording disco songs. I was a fan of Kiss just like everybody else, but once it wasn't about the music anymore, I stopped caring.
BE: Do you think it's misleading for Paul and Gene to market Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer as you and Peter Criss?
AF: Hey, it's their band now. What bothers me is that the diehard fans are upset. I read the comments on YouTube and Blabbermouth. It's funny, I was on a plane from LA to New York recently and the guy sitting next to me said, "Hey you were great on ‘American Idol’ the other night!" I said "Thank you,” and laughed! There's only one SpaceMan!
BE: You're obviously a science fiction fan. What were some of your favorite films and/or books that influenced you in that direction back in the day, and have you ever had a UFO sighting?
AF: I'm a big fan of “Invaders from Mars” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Ray Bradbury wrote some groundbreaking stories.... And as far as UFOs, I see them all the time in upstate New York where my place is. I live in a wooded area and objects that can't possibly move in anyway a man-made craft can, have flown over me. Put it this way: if it wasn't a UFO, then our government is testing some type of aircraft(s) that is being kept from us. I wouldn't put it past them, but why in upstate New York? I believe we are visited by extraterrestrials all the time, no doubt.
BE: Your electronic press kit has footage of your band playing “Shock Me” with female backup singers, a horn section and two drummers. When and where was this show, and is there any chance we'll see a live album or DVD, or maybe a performance or two with a similar lineup on the upcoming tour?AF: That was a one-off charity show in Boston I played at on my birthday this past April. It was a gig with Alice Cooper for an organization called Right Turn that deals with substance abuse and musicians. That's a great version of "Shock Me." Even better was the version of "New York Groove" we did that night. You can watch most of that show on my website, AceFrehley.com, in the video section.
And with that, the Space Ace vibrated back into the 4th dimension, but look for him on tour soon.