Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Stop Smiling Interview with Ace Frehley

The Stop Smiling Interview with Ace Frehley

Ace Frehley is as iconic a fixture of the 1970s as Star Wars and Studio 54. With his towering silver moon boots, smoking guitar, and metallic greasepaint, the original lead guitarist of KISS has global, if not galactic image recognition. The Space Man helped launch KISS into the stratosphere of popularity with his walls of bar-chords and guitar solos that eschewed all-that Malmsteenian noodling and, instead, went for a more memorable, less-is-so-much-fucking-more, pentatonic-scale magic.

Ace Frehley was always the true musician in KISS, and the fans knew it. He also had, quite arguably, the coolest stage presence of any rock guitarist — ever. And while his cohorts in costumes, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, wanted to rock and roll all nite and sell merchandise every day, for Frehley, the bedrock of KISS was always the music, rather than the t-shirts, condoms, and yes, even the KISS coffins.

KISS began on the streets of New York in the early 1970s, amidst the same punk and glam scene that launched the Ramones and the New York Dolls. Frehley never lost site of his rock and roll roots. He left the self-appointed “Hottest Band in the World” in 1982, rejoined the group again for a hugely successful reunion tour in 1996, and departed once more, this time, apparently, for good, in 2002. Frehley’s ongoing battles with drugs and alcohol over the years are the stuff of rock and roll cliché. His vices also caused seismic rifts between him and his KISS band mates — a fact for which he shows genuine remorse. Now clean for three years, Ace Frehley returns with his first solo album in nearly two decades, released on the anniversary of his sobriety. Anomaly, put out on his own Bronx Born Records, shows a more mature side to the Ace of Space. The ever-present Les Paul guitars still serve as the launch pad, but some of the lyrics on tunes like “A Little Below the Angels” find the guitar player more reflective, still looking to grow as an artist. The thirteen tracks on Anomaly are vintage Ace Frehley — an armada of electric guitars roaring from Marshall stacks. Stop Smiling sat down with the Space Man in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, to catch up on his current rocket ride.

Stop Smiling: It’s been twenty years since your last solo disk, Trouble Walkin’. In that time, you finally kicked drugs and booze. How much did sobering up contribute to finally completing Anomaly?

Ace Frehley: It helped me get focused and actually made me a lot more creative and more productive. It’s hard to finish a record with a hangover [Laughs]. Life’s good to me now.

SS: You’ve been sober for three years. In fact, Anomaly was released on the anniversary of your last drink. Have you gone through periods of sobriety before?

AF: A couple years, actually. I relapsed in Las Vegas. I hooked up with a bunch of gals at the VH-1 Rock Honors and one thing led to another [Laughs]. But after that, you know, I got professional help. Meetings always help. It keeps you firmly planted.

SS: Is there still the temptation?

AF: Not like it used to be. The first year is the toughest. The tour I did last year, it’s the first tour from beginning to end that I’ve ever done sober and I was nervous about it. But I stayed close to friends of mine and I got through it. So now when I think about the new tour coming up, it’s not so much of an issue with me any more. But I still have to be vigilant, you know?

SS: What are the touring plans behind Anomaly?

AF: We’re putting it together right now. It’s changing every day. But we’re definitely doing some shows in September and October and November, I guess. I don’t know how long it’s gonna go — we’ve just been putting it together in the last couple of weeks.

SS: The landscape of the music industry is completely different today than when you were in KISS, and even when you put out your last record in 1989. What do you make of the current state of the music business?

AF: I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years. I learned how to use and really understand Pro Tools. I’m amazed at how much digital downloading has changed the business. I didn’t realize how many people aren’t buying CDs anymore. Records were gone a long time ago, but there’s still a dedicated few who buy vinyl. So I’m pressing some records too.

SS: What are your opinions on illegal downloading?

AF: The way to combat that is to do an interesting package, something that people want to buy, not just for the music. You know, dedicated fans are going to want the real product. I haven’t done that much research on the people who do illegal downloads, but it’s no different than stealing something off a shelf in a store.

SS: It appears like you are really bringing a DIY ethic to the release of Anomaly. It’s released on your own label, Bronx Born. What else are you taking on?

AF: The web site was put together by me and my assistant and a couple of other people. I have a team of people doing Facebook and Twitter. Obviously I can’t sit around all day and Tweet and read every message. But you know, I check on that stuff from time to time when I get a free minute. It’s interesting because you are getting a daily read out of exactly is going on with fans, blow by blow, and not only do I read what kids are writing to me, but also the comments on YouTube are real interesting and very insightful.

SS: You made a YouTube commercial for your new disk. There’s a nice homage to your teleportation powers in the camp classic, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. How’d that commercial come about?

AF: That was my assistant Frank’s idea. He scripted the whole thing. I was doing an instructional DVD out in California and basically we said, we’ll do the DVD, but you have to shoot an HD commercial and they went for it. We just shot that whole thing in one night.

SS: Your daughter is now 28. Does she do all the social networking stuff?

AF: I’m pretty sure she has a MySpace. She’s working now. She’s staying busy. She’s down in Florida now.

SS: Are you still married?

AF: Yeah.

SS: Here’s a true KISS geek question. As a kid growing up, I noticed your wedding band matched your Destroyer moon boots. Was that intentional?

AF: I never even thought of that. Wow. When we got those rings, I don’t think the moon boots had been hatched yet. Maybe it was the other way around, I don’t know.

SS: You’re getting a considerable amount of press coverage with the release of your new CD. Why do you think there’s so much interest?

AF: It’s been pretty intense. I guess you don’t come out with a record for twenty years people want to talk to you.

SS: Let’s talk about your KISS days for a moment. Do you keep in touch with your former bandmates?

AF: I talk to them occasionally. You know, we’re old friends. We’ve been through too much together. People paint this picture like there’s the good and the bad, but everybody’s just trying to make a living. They take pot-shots at me once in awhile, but I guess that goes along with the territory.

SS: You’re speaking of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, I presume. Why do you think they take pot-shots?

AF: I don’t know. Maybe they’re worried [Laughs].

SS: The original members of KISS reunited in 1996 after 17 years. Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss and yourself. What are memories of the reunion tour?

AF: It started off great. It was really strange because we wearing our old costumes, and it wasn’t that different from tours from the past. I remember a couple of times doing shows feeling like I’d really gone back in time. It was bizarre. But as the tour progressed, things got weird, people started saying the same old things, pushing people’s buttons, and it wasn’t fun any more. It was like the early 80s all over again.

SS: What, specifically, were people saying?

AF: I don’t want to get into specifics. People started doing a lot of the same things that they were doing around my first departure [in 1982]. Making decisions without me. Originally it was put together in the spirit of we were all gonna kind of do this together, and the next thing I know, I’m feeling like a hired gun and I don’t have any say in anything. And that’s not fun. The four of us invented KISS and brought it to the world. It just wasn’t fun any more.

SS: After 17 years you were reunited. Was it all business or did you ever have moments were you hung out with the other guys in the band just as friends?

AF: It wasn’t like the old days. Pretty much everyone went their own way.

SS: You and Peter didn’t share your old bond?

AF: Not like we used to. I wasn’t really allowed to drink on that tour. It was a business. It was a machine. After we got into the day-to-day business of it, it made me remember why I quit the group in the first place [Laughs].

SS: On one of the Kissology DVDs that came out a few years ago, they talk about a Southern California concert that you almost pulled a no show. What happened?

AF: That was crazy. I was in New York and I had to fly in for the show and I’d missed a flight and I was having some family problems and my daughter ended up flying out with me. I think we had missed the second flight even. We were gonna land about an hour before the show. I know Tommy [Thayer, KISS’s road manager at the time and current KISS guitarist] was already in make-up. They had a chopper waiting for me when I landed that took me to Irvine Meadows. I put the make-up on in a half-hour and did the show. [Laughs]. I feel bad because I gave a lot of people some tense moments. And that wasn’t the only time. I feel bad about it, but I wasn’t all there.

SS: If you could go back in time, is there one show you did with KISS that you would want to relive?

AF: Probably Madison Square Garden. Maybe the time we did three nights there. Now that you mention though, there was a place outside of Washington D.C., a big place, I’m trying to think of the name of it, that was a real good show too.

SS: Why?

AF: There were a lot of special nights back then, in the 70s. But then I woke up one day and it was a business.

When did that happen, do you think? When did KISS go from being this glitter-punk New York street band to a business?

AF: It wasn’t one day, it’s just the way things started getting more about merchandising and became more about marketing than the music. I got involved in rock and roll because I loved it. And it was fun. And for a time, I said, “I’m the luckiest fuckin’ guy in the world. I’m doin’ something I love to do and I’m getting paid a lot of money for it.” And I was gettin’ to see the whole world and it was great. And then all of a sudden when you start reading contracts and fine print and you realize that people are deceiving you about this and that and your lawyer tells you it’s a lot more money than you thought, and it starts not being fun any more. You think that every one is doing it in the spirit that you think they are doing it, and then you find out there are ulterior motives.

SS: Who are you speaking about?

AF: I don’t want to mention names. It was people who were handling us. We had to sue our record company. We had to sue our business managers. And then the IRS takes a crack at you. It wasn’t fun any more and it’s all because of being mismanagement and people trying to take this and that they shouldn’t be taking.

SS: Getting back to the fun times —

AF: Yeah [Laughs].

SS: You are known for your “smoking guitar” effect on stage. Were there any special effects that you had planned while you were the Space Man in KISS that never came to fruition?

AF: The only effect that I had ready to go, I think it was ’79 or ’80, I had a fiber-optic run through my guitar neck and I was going to blow up stuff with a laser beam and right around that time Blue Oyster Cult had blinded somebody in the audience and all of a sudden there was legislation about using lasers. We had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in lasers and we ended up scraping the whole idea because of all the regulations. So that ended up turning from a laser beam coming out of my guitar to rockets.

SS: Did you ever have any Spinal Tap moments when firing those rockets from your guitar? Were there any mishaps?

AF: The original rocket guitar was a little chancy. One day I almost hit Gene with a rocket. So we had a band meeting after that and we actually worked out something pretty cool. They put a mercury switch in the neck so it couldn’t fire horizontally. It had to be at least at a thirty-degree angle or more. If the guitar was level, it wouldn’t fire.

SS: What did your parents think the first time they came out to see KISS with the make-up and the platform shoes and the costumes and the bombs going off?

AF: They were very accepting. I remember when they saw the first album cover, I don’t think they understood it, but I think once they saw us perform live they kind of got it. It was exciting for them to see me up there and seeing a sold out house with the crowd going crazy. I don’t think it was too important to them to see how we looked, but I think it was important for them to see that I was successful.

SS: Your parents are both gone now?

AF: My Dad died around the turn of the century and my Mom died in 2003.

SS: You said your parents were able to witness your success in the 1970s. You had a lot of money back then, a lot of cars, a lot of guitars. You built a state-of-the-art recording studio on your property. How many guitars did you own at the peak of your collection?

AF: At one point I had about 150. Today I have, maybe 70.

SS: What’s the prize possession in that lot?

AF: Some of my Les Pauls. A couple of quite old acoustics. A couple of Strats and Teles.

SS: You’ve been insanely loyal to Les Paul guitars. It’s now your image. You used to play other styles of guitars — Explorers, Stratocasters. Why do play Les Pauls exclusively?

AF: It’s just an all-around great guitar. You plug a Les Paul into a Marshall and you turn it up — it’s a no-brainer. Some of the other guitars you have to work a little more. And when you are in a group like KISS when you are worried about special effects and your make-up and your hair and your costume, you really want something that’s a workhorse. And that’s what a Les Paul is. It pretty much doesn’t fail you.

SS: And what happened to your recording studio, Ace-in-the-Hole?

AF: I sold the house and the studio with it, but I built a new recording studio.

SS: Even though you are recording on Pro Tools on a computer? You have an analog studio?

AF: I have both. I resisted Pro Tools for years. I bought a Pro Tools rig years ago, but I never hooked it up. In 2007 I got teacher to sit with me and because I’m computer savvy it wasn’t that hard to grab.

SS: You’ve worked on this album for a long time. What’s the oldest composition of Anomaly?

AF: A song called “Sister.”

SS: And you played that live on solo tours back in the 90s.

AF: Yeah.

SS: What’s the most recently penned song on the new record?

AF: “A Little Below the Angels.” I rewrote that song three times. The song is kind of about my recovery and my struggles in my life. Originally there were drums from beginning to end. It had electric guitars and at the very end I felt that it was not capturing what I had intended. Initially I wrote it on an acoustic so I just went with that.

SS: There’s a maturity and depth to some of the lyrics on this new album that we haven’t really seen on an Ace Frehley album, or in your work with KISS for that matter. There are references to your faith, for example. How religious or spiritual are you?

AF: I was brought up a Lutheran. My Dad taught Sunday school and I used to go to Church every Sunday. But just like everybody else, once you hit puberty you stop showing up for Sunday school [Laughs]. But I still have a faith in God and it’s got me through some tough times.

SS: Another introspective track on Anomaly is “Too Many Faces.” What’s the inspiration behind that song?

AF: You know, it might have something to do with the KISS make-up, but it’s not all about that. It’s also about how people show one face and they have another one behind that. My whole life I’ve seen different sides of people and I think it’s not just about make-up, but about how people change their faces. They show one face but they are really something else.

SS: Metaphor.

AF: I get that all the time. People read stuff into my lyrics that I didn’t even see, but maybe I wrote it subconsciously.

SS: KISS came of age during the dawn of the New York glitter and punk scene. What are your memories of being a part of that?

AF: We toured with the New York Dolls and the Runaways. I have real fond memories of that. It was great. There were so many different bands, but the Dolls and Kiss were really the only bands to emerge and really take it to the next level, and us even more than the Dolls, obviously. I was real good friends with Arthur Kane, the bass player. We used to be drinking buddies way back when. He was one of the sweetest, most soft-spoken guys. A sweetheart of a guy. That whole scene was such a special time.