Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Interview: Gene Simmons

By Anna Carugati / www.worldscreen.com

NEW YORK: The co-founder of KISS is a lot more than a world-renowned rock star. This exclusive interview provides a look at the reasons for Gene Simmons’ popularity for more than 30 years, the appeal of his TV shows, his business acumen and an unexpected personal connection to World Screen’s group editorial director.

If you were a teen or young adult during the ’70s you need no introduction to Gene Simmons, bass player and co-founder of the rock band KISS. If you don’t know who he is, let me give you some background. KISS is a hard rock band and its members are known for their face paint, flamboyant costumes, platform boots, and elaborate live performances, which include fire breathing, blood spitting, smoking guitars, shooting rockets and pyrotechnics. In their costumes, each original member took on comic-book style character: Simmons was The Demon, Paul Stanley was Starchild, Ace Frehley was Spaceman or Space Ace and Peter Criss was Catman.

I was in high school and college in the ’70s and while KISS was not my favorite band, I certainly knew their songs. “Rock and Roll All Nite” saturated the radio airwaves. KISS came into my life in a big way, believe it or not, through my father, Eraldo Carugati, even though his tolerance for modern music ended pretty much with Frank Sinatra. Anything beyond that to him was garbage. But he was a well-known artist and illustrator and was commissioned to paint the covers of the first four solo albums the KISS members released along with their accompanying posters. I watched Dad paint those covers and posters—the stark black backgrounds and each KISS member’s hair backlit in a different color. One evening Dad was tired. I was an art student at the time and he asked me if I would finish painting the blue hair on Ace Frehley. I did.

I also remember that after delivering the finished covers and posters, my Dad was not too pleased when Simmons asked for some additions to his cover image, he wanted blood dripping from his mouth.

Those album covers went on to become iconic images, representative of a specific time in American rock music and pop culture. They became very important additions to my dad’s portfolio and they added a touch of class to KISS.

Gene Simmons has had the extraordinary business acumen to keep the KISS brand going strong for nearly 40 years, with fiercely loyal fans young and old. Besides continuing to perform with KISS and writing several books, Simmons has created and/or starred in a number of movies and television series, including Gene Simmons Family Jewels, which airs on A&E and follows the daily life of Simmons, his 25-year partner Shannon Tweed, and ex-Playboy Playmate, their daughter Sophie and son Nick.

When I learned that AETN International was bringing Simmons to MIPCOM, and I was offered the opportunity to interview him, I was intrigued. What follows is more of a conversation than an interview. As I suspected, Simmons is far more than a rock star or TV personality, he is a savvy entrepreneur with a wicked sense of humor.

WS: Gene Simmons Family Jewels has surpassed 100 episodes—not many series reach 100 episodes. To what do you attribute the longevity and the appeal of this series? In some series you can put in all the right elements, but at some point it’s just alchemy, something just clicks. What do you think just clicked about yours?
SIMMONS: I think you just answered the question. Alchemy isn’t just a big word like gymnasium. Ultimately all programming and everything to do with the human experience comes down to human beings, either they are interesting or they are not. And the more interesting somebody is, the deeper you can go. If you are one-faceted, it’s like a comedian who only knows one joke. The ones who really last a long time know lots of jokes and lots of stories and they themselves become the messenger.
So the reason we have lasted so long is that I am stunningly good looking, and besides that we are bizarre. We are a functioning family and most of the people I meet are dysfunctional. And in a world of drugs and alcohol and whatever, I’ve never been high or drunk in my life. But if you study a book by its cover, the preconceived notion might be that I’m a crack whore and all the rest of that. By the way, let people think whatever they want to think. But it’s a very, very conservative household. Neither of the kids can engage in anything gray, because they aren’t allowed to.

There was an interesting little story I read about child behavior. It had to do with a two-year-old brat. To lots of parents, two-year-olds are the bane of their existence because they are coming into their own and they are testing the walls. So this little brat will cry when the temperature is not the right temperature, when you change the television channel, and so on and so forth. Neither Sophie nor Nick ever went through that and the story goes, parents who cannot control their two-year-olds should be reminded that when that two-year-old crawls close to the dog’s bowl when it’s eating, that very first time it reaches into that dog bowl will be the last time it will ever reach into the dog bowl. So my question is, if a dog knows how to train a two-year-old, how come grownups can’t? And the first time that two-year-old sticks its hand in fire, will be the last time it sticks its hand in the fire. That very first time he will be burned exactly the same as the second time and the tenth time—in other words, consistency of message. The problem with parents is, they love their children, and because of that they feel sorry and they feel guilty and the truth is the best kind of parent is the tough love parent.

WS: Or they think it’s a popularity contest and they want to be their child’s best friend.
SIMMONS: I’m not interested in being anybody’s friend. Love your mother; fear your father. A long time ago there used to be a phrase that actually meant something: “Wait until your father gets home.”

WS: And when this father comes home?
SIMMONS: Oh, you don’t want to fool around.

WS: And yet on the show you come across as extremely—may I say it? Like there is a teddy bear underneath the tough exterior.
SIMMONS: Because it’s allowed. The king of all beasts, the lion, goes out and kills and tears the throat out of anything and when it comes home it allows the little cubs to jump all over it and bite its tail. When the king of beasts stands up something is going to die.

WS: Because the show is about your family and the cameras are around a lot, how do you balance what the cameras are going to see and what remains private?
SIMMONS: You have to know how to correctly say, “Get out,” because if I allow them, they’ll come in and shoot me pooping. And that is too beautiful a sight to allow television cameras to record!

WS: And where do the ideas for the episodes come from?
SIMMONS: It just sort of happens—here we are in Cannes and I’ve never been married, I’m not familiar with the phrase myself, I’ve heard it though.

WS: Marriage?

WS: It’s a tricky business! I’ve tried twice.
SIMMONS: You said business.

WS: Sometimes it works as a business!
SIMMONS: All the time. So here we are in Cannes, I came here to do [a session] with Bob DeBitetto [the president and general manager of A&E and BIO]. On the way out Shannon said, “Quickly, quickly let’s take a photo, stick your head in [it was a life-sized cardboard cutout of a two human figures] and take the photo.” I’m seeing it from the back so I don’t know what it is. So I stick my head in and when I get to the front I see it’s a man and a woman being married, with a sign that says Just Married. When people see that on the show they are going to think it’s a set up.

WS: It wasn’t a set up?
SIMMONS: Nobody told us do this or do that, it just happened.

WS: So the cameras capture what actually happens.
SIMMONS: Most of the time.

WS: And during the episode when your dog Snippy ran away from home my heart went out to you and to the rest of your family.
SIMMONS: Snippy didn’t run away she went looking for a boyfriend.As you know women will go to the ends of the earth for the right one. Am I right? He was a BIG dog. [Laughter]

WS: Good for her!
SIMMONS: She wouldn’t go for a little French poodle, that’s for sure! She would chew that one up and spit it out!

WS: I came of age in the ’70s and KISS and your music is still as relevant today as it was when I was in high school and college.
SIMMONS: It’s gone beyond music; it’s 3,000 licensed products.

WS: That’s where I was going. How have you kept this brand alive and popular?
SIMMONS: You are never alone. You are only as good as the team you’re on. And you’ll be dragged down to failure or you will rise to the greatness that a team brings. Paul Stanley has been my partner for 37 years, but mostly I’m the asshole that keeps torturing people to do the big deals. It just won’t come to you; you have to go after it. There is a great guy named Doc McGhee who got us the relationship with Dr. Pepper, as a result Dr. Pepper is sponsoring the tour. We’ve done a lot of things that no other band has ever done before but [other bands] have always been lying to themselves when they say, “We don’t do licensing and merchandising like KISS.” That’s funny, every band sells T-shirts. They just can't do what we do so they are jealous. There are no U2 comic books; there's no Radiohead toothbrush. We have everything, as you know, from KISS condoms to KISS caskets. You know the phrase, "We'll get you coming; we'll get you going."

WS: It's unusual to find a creative person who has entrepreneurial skills as well.
SIMMONS: But the alternative is flipping burgers.

[Simmons shows me a Chase banking card with images of the KISS members on it.]

WS: Get out of here!
SIMMONS: There are hundreds of thousands of these and the structure is always what's important. Every time you swipe it we get paid and we escalate the purchase price. My mother wants another house. What did she ever do to you that she shouldn't have that house? Help my mother!

WS: Your mother was a big influence on you, wasn't she?
SIMMONS: She's the best teacher I ever had. And if all of us listen closer to what our mothers say, because what any mother will say is profoundly accurate and is wisdom that you won't learn in school. You've heard this before, “Eat your vegetables.” That is actually wisdom, then you watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta—he should change that name. “Gupta.” “God Bless you.” “No, I didn't burp.” So Dr. Gupta gets on TV and starts talking and it finally [comes down to] eat your vegetables every day. That's what my mother says. I have to go through CNN and scientific studies to find out that my mother has been right all along.

Another thing your mother says, “Don't hang out with losers.” You go through self-help people, inspirational people and you hear, “Don't hang out with losers,” that's funny that's what my mother says! “Don't drink! Don't get high!” And yet, people go through rehab, they get divorced, they lose all their money. Finally in the end, they say, “You know, I shouldn’t use drugs and booze.” That's what your mother said!

WS: I have something to share with you.
SIMMONS: Fully clothed?

WS: Fully clothed. Remember when you released your first solo albums. [I show him reproductions of the four albums that were released in 1978.] My dad painted those covers and the posters that went with them and if you don't beleive me I'll show you my last name. [I show him my business card.] And I'm thrilled to meet you.
SIMMONS: It is Carugati! I made that deal [for the album covers]. Fantastic! You know, I have the original paintings. What a fantastic history! I remember I sent my painting back saying I want blood.

WS: I remember. I was an art student at the time I did Ace Frehley’s blue hair.
SIMMONS: Fantastic! That is a great story. Now you know we have KISS online.com you should write a little story about your dad because the fans are voracious.

WS: These album covers became iconic.
SIMMONS: There are thousands and thousands of licensed merchandise products that have used that used those images.

WS: What other TV show projects do you have in the works, you've done movies—you've done a lot.
SIMMONS: I created a cartoon show called My Dad the Rock Star and that was on Nickelodeon. I created another show called Mr. Romance. That was on Oxygen. I had another show called Gene Simmons Rock School that Channel 4 in England did with me and RDF. It was on VH1 around the world and we did two seasons of that. But mostly I was never really thinking seriously about television or movies, although I've done a few movies but there are three to five other projects that are being developed and at this point are fairly serious. I’m talking to E1 about a KISS kids' show.

WS: Is there anything you haven't done that you'd really like to do?
SIMMONS: Well about four months ago, we launched an entity called CoolSpringsLife.com—I’m one of the founding members—which has been able to corner $7 billion to loan to high net worth individuals a minimum of $20 million. We can loan them the money at international banking rates less than 1 percent. So the difference between what the fees are for loaning the money and what they can get in the marketplace, is theirs to keep. People are lining up. We are processing out our first billion dollars in loans in four months.

In Western culture there is a warped idea of the rich—the self-made entrepreneurs. Without them there is no civilization. They are the ones who create jobs, and create industries and I’ve always had the philosophy be nice to rich people—a poor person never gave me a job. Don't tax the rich too heavily. Make them stay in your town. Give them tax incentives. I'm going to give you a nightmare scenario, OK? You want to be a businesswoman and you want to make shoes. So first you have you have enough money to find a place, so either you buy a building or you pay rent. Then you have to buy materials to make the shoes. Then you have to hire designers. Then you have to buy the machines to make the shoes. You need the trucks and planes to distribute them. You have to have this; you have to have that. You have to have insurance; you have to pay salaries. You have to have fire insurance, and every time, you are the target. You need salesmen and advertising and after the first shoe goes out the door for let's say $50, by the time it gets to the store it's going to be $500. Out of that $50 per shoe, you are lucky to get that, you have to pay rent, you have pregnancy leave for women, you have to pay retirement. If there is any money left, you get to keep that. Everybody else gets paid first. Why would you want to be a businessperson? Why is there any business at all? Be nice to businesspeople, without them there is chaos and anarchy. Don't listen to socialists or communists; they don’t understand how capitalism works, without capitalism there would be no world.