Friday, January 17, 2014

KISS And Tell: Gene Simmons And Paul Stanley Talk Shop

Even if you like the rock band Kiss, and the bratty superhero antics of its founders, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, their appearance at the end of John Varvatos’s show in Milan qualified as a cringe moment. With models standing around them, the rock legends fist-pumped the air — Mr. Simmons stuck his tongue out, of course — and Mr. Varvatos looked pleased to be with his new mates. His clothes this season have a sleek toughness, with scaly metallic finishes and feathered fabrics that made you think of animals. Maybe that’s a link to Kiss. Still, the group’s presence seemed out of context, like someone photo-bombing your wedding pictures. Well, someone with clown makeup and a cherry-red tongue.

Mr. Varvatos usually has a musical artist hook-up. He recently featured Willie Nelson in his advertising; next it will be Kiss. But what was even stranger than seeing the rock stars at the show was encountering them beforehand, during an interview at the Westin hotel. They were dressed, Cash-style, in black; Mr. Simmons had on a vintage pair of cowboy boots. Their hair was relatively normal. Before Mr. Simmons joined the conversation, Mr. Stanley proudly showed off snaps of his outdoor pizza oven in California, where both men live, and some examples of his pie baking.

They just came across as two polite, charming and forthright middle-aged businessmen. And, no, they insisted, they were not selling out.

Mr. Simmons: This started as a mutual admiration society, and nobody had a master marketing plan. If John wasn’t designing clothing, he’d be in a rock band. I mean, he’s here in Milan, but I don’t think he cares what any other designer is doing. He’s being John Varvatos. And we have our own fashion sense, and I think that goes hand in hand with John’s philosophy about fashion.

Mr. Stanley: We have always been considered, by a certain element, as sellouts. Because we don’t play the game. I’ve always believed that rock and roll means not only ignoring your critics but also your peers. The only rule with Kiss is that there are no rules. If we felt comfortable endorsing toothpaste — well, that’s what makes Kiss different than other bands.

[Mr. Simmons pulled up a pant leg and fished out a worn black book buried in his boot. He produced a Kiss Visa card.]

Mr. Stanley: When we first started doing merchandise, we were just scorned by everybody. We did T-shirts and belt buckles. Other bands just looked down their noses at us when we started the Kiss Army Fan Club. Fan clubs weren’t cool — until people saw that they started to bring in sizable revenue. All of sudden other bands began having fan clubs and putting out T shirts.

How much revenue does the band get from merchandise and endorsements?

Mr. Simmons: People are always interested in the figures, and that is sort of beside the point. Let’s just all assume we do well. And we’ve been around for 40 years. We literally have thousands of licensed products, everything from condoms to caskets. I won’t do the joke about that. I’m sure you can figure it out.

Mr. Stanley: If you see the Varvatos campaign, there’s nothing “sellout” about it. I think we’re being very true to who we are. We look like us.

After 40 years of putting on the makeup and wigs, and wearing platforms and heavy stage garments, there must be a physical toll. And performing is hard on the body, besides.

Mr. Stanley: Absolutely. Things that didn’t hurt me 40 years ago hurt me today. From 40 years ago. I’ve had both my rotator cups repaired, my knees. I’ve had a hip replacement. But I’m doing splits and everything on stage. I’m blessed. Every time I go out on stage it is exhilarating.

People ask if it’s a drag to put on the makeup, and I say, “Do you complain about taxes if you win the lottery?” It’s a small price to pay. It’s really our uniform and war paint. It’s part of the ritual more than the routine. I probably train harder and longer now to stay in shape. Your cardio becomes so important.

And your hair, Gene? What do you do —

Mr. Simmons: Well, this is perfect hair. You can’t duplicate this. In hindsight, I bet you the makeup may have been good for us. I don’t use any regimen or anything, and I’m 64. Look how good I look! The makeup must have some kind greasy quality. Stein’s makeup is what we use.

Mr. Stanley: I didn’t think we used Stein’s anymore …

Mr. Simmons: The bucket that I use says Stein’s. It seems to have an oily base, and afterward you’ve got to wash it off with lots of soap and water. So you wind up scrubbing that sort of derma blah blah more than you normally would.

Do you guys smoke?

Mr. Simmons: No. I’ve never been high or drunk except in a dentist’s chair.

You didn’t do drugs?

Mr. Simmons: No. It’s fair to say we’re the hardest-working band in show business. Period. I’ll put you in a pair of seven-inch platform heals and weigh you down with 30 to 50 pounds of armor. The guitar will weigh another 10 to 15 pounds. And you’re surrounded on stage with things that blow up occasionally. You have to fly through the air. You’re on stage for two hours plus. And you will walk off that stage exhausted, whatever your age, and barely be able to catch your breath. And we do it well.

Mr. Stanley: This whole idea of drugs and rock and roll — that’s the whole cartoon idea of rock that’s deadly. What we used to do was have sex with a lot of women.

Yes, I read somewhere, Gene, that you claimed to have slept with 4,600 women.

[Mr. Simmons pointed to his wedding ring and then imitated a key turning at his lips. A couple of years ago he and Shannon Tweed were married after being together more than 30 years ago. They have two children.]

Mr. Simmons: And I was bad, until we got married. I continued with the lifestyle — forever. Here’s what being in a band is like. If you’ve scaled the heights, and you’re blessed to be at the right place at the right time, then you can easily become seduced and delusional about what you’re entitled to. If you have the DNA for the self-abuse thing, you will swim in a pool of heroin and cocaine. It takes all kinds of restraint to survive it, one way or the other.

I was a 14-year-old horny kid all my life. Looked like a man, acted like an irresponsible little kid — forever. And it takes a better person — Shannon, my wife. She stuck with me for 30 years, raised two great kids. And it seems to me that the closer you get to the last breath you’re going to take, the easier it is to grow up.

Where do you get your platform boots made?

Mr. Stanley: A place called Andre #1. He’s been around forever in Hollywood. We have them made with steel reinforcements. They weigh a good 30 pounds.

And where do your regular clothes come from?

Mr. Stanley: I love Brioni. Once you put on Brioni, nothing else quite looks as good.

Mr. Simmons: I have no idea. I’m a fashion retard. I literally walk into my closet and there will be a shirt …

Mr. Stanley: But you have clothes made?

Mr. Simmons: When and what?

Mr. Stanley: I know for a fact that most of your clothes are made for you …

Mr. Simmons: They are?

Mr. Stanley: Shannon just goes shopping?

Mr. Simmons: Yes, pretty much as long as we’ve lived together. I hate shopping. I don’t even like going into a Starbucks. As soon as someone says, “Can I help you?” I start to sweat and I want to leave. I just don’t have the temperament.

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