The faintest of greetings kicks off this particular MusicRadar catch-up with Gene Simmons. Then silence. “Hello? I was given the phone upside down, but I’m okay,” deadpans the voice at the other end of the line. “I looked at it and realised. How are you?”
The KISS founder is in Toronto courting press over his latest release - The Vault - which he confirms as “the largest boxset in history: just under three feet tall, weighing 38 pounds and featuring 150 songs, spanning 50 years - that’s half a century - over 10 discs.”
Not only that, fans will be able to invest in various packages spanning from listening sessions at studios to The Vault being delivered to your door by The Demon himself, the latter experience costing no less than $50,000. In many ways, it’s the ultimate celebration of the man’s career to date…
“I will skip to the real story here,” reasons Simmons.
“I’m doing this because I can afford it and because the fans have given me the life I never dreamed I’d have. It’s like you win the lottery, you can’t believe it, and you keep on winning it time and time again.
“Okay, there’s hard work. But there are a lot of people that work hard every day - people that build skyscrapers and highways. It’s time to give back, which is why I will spend a small fortune on planes and hotels. And instead of sending The Vault by UPS or FedEx, I will hand-deliver each of them direct to the fans, face-to-face. It’s not going to be cheap…”
But it will be fun?
“I intend to enjoy myself with the people,” comes the reply. “Imagine throwing a party and you’re the only one there - it would be pretty hollow. It doesn’t mean much without those you care about, the people who gave me this life: the fans. I am reasonably sure no-one else will ever do something like this; it’s back-breaking work.
“There are only going to be 2,000 vaults available throughout the world - it’s not for the masses. I’m sharing a lifetime of memories before the curtain finally drops!”
The idea behind The Vault came around 10 years ago, he continues to reveal. With so many musicians, including one Bob Dylan, involved in various recordings over such an elongated timeframe, it was a project of the biggest undertaking - starting with finding the tapes. Then there was the matter of restoring them…
“It took a while to get cleared by the lawyers, but even before that, we had to bake the tape. You know what baking the tape means? What happens is we all used to record on 16 or 24-track tape and over time as you store it, moisture and other stuff gets in and causes oxidation…
“So you have to bake it like a cake in an oven - not too hot or too cold; you have to get it just right so you can play it through at least once and make a digital copy. It’s a very fragile process. All of that took a long time, plus editing, remixing, it took forever. But I’m proud to say the largest boxset of all time is finally coming out.”
Being one of the more business-savvy musicians in popular culture, someone that once admitted he “lives to make more money”, has made Simmons a character infamous beyond the noise.
Now estimated to be worth over $300 million, he’s harnessed both position and acumen to venture further afield - from owning record labels and movie companies, cameos in Family Guy, SpongeBob Squarepants and Ugly Betty to starring in his own reality TV shows.
Though when it comes to misconceptions, the entrepreneur confesses little time gets wasted on mulling over the thoughts of others…
“Quite honestly, it doesn’t matter to me,” when quizzed on the barrage of headlines that often bear his name. “I don’t want to say I don’t care, but it just all winds up being the same.
“I’ve been so fortunate - I’m 68 years old, and feel great. We have a lot of other businesses there’s not enough time to talk about, from film companies to family office… What people think of me is sorta beside the point.
“If you’re running a race, just look straight forward and do the best you can. People at the peanut gallery will always have something to say. You think when a footballer is running down the field and someone makes a wiseass crack, they should stop and argue? Or be the best at what they do and score that winning goal?”
As for life beyond the next year or so flying around, hand-delivering memorabilia to fans, there’s not too much in the pipeline. The bassist/singer has kept himself busy playing shows with the solo band and isn’t in the slightest bit of a hurry for KISS to follow up 2012’s Monster.
“Creating new music so people can download and file-share it for free does not appeal to me in the least,” he groans.
“The system is broken and artists are getting screwed. My heart breaks because the new talent out there will never get the chance that we had. They’re giving away songs for a hundredth of a penny, if anything, and people will share it and share it, paying nothing.
“It doesn’t affect me - I make a living, but the next great artist or band will never get a chance. They will have to work during the daytime, doing music as a hobby - that’s unfortunate. The only answer is legislation; laws have to be passed to protect what we work for…
“As for the solo band, I never planned for it to be like this, but it’s taken off. We’ve been doing Mexico, South America and Japan, as well as shows across North America. Who knows, we might come to Europe - it all depends on schedule.
“I may be the only person I know who gets to eat his cake and swallow, too. It’s different to KISS, but I like ’em both and the main thing is I have fun!”
Here, the snake-tongued rock legend picks his favourite moments through the years of this career-defining release…
1. Recording that first song
“My Uncle Is A Raft is a song from 1956 that I remember recording in the basement of a schoolmate’s house, a guy called Larry Martinelli. There was three of us round there and all I could do afterwards was listen in wonderment and keep asking to play it back.
“That song never existed prior to that moment… which felt amazing! This first one holds a big part of my heart, the realisation that you can create something from thin air that never existed before.”
2. Learning from Bob Dylan
“Writing with Bob Dylan around 1989 would have to be up there, too, which resulted in Waiting For The Morning Light and two other songs - Na Na Na Na Na and Everybody Knew Somebody. Those all came from my time sitting down with Bob.
“We’ve also included a long track of Bob and I actually writing the parts - you can hear us talking and figuring it out; that’s all in there. He’d strum ideas on guitar and I would strum back, we’d talk about lyrics, I’d start humming things and we’d figure out what we liked.”
3. Hiring the Van Halen brothers
“There were three songs I did with the Van Halen brothers, Alex and Eddie, and Christine Sixteen actually became a hit song for KISS.
“I was returning back from Japan in 1978 and on the way back we stopped in LA, so I called the brothers asking them to come to the studio and do some demos with me. We were in there until one in the morning. Whatever came out is on the boxset!
“I was there to help [Van Halen, the band] - but you can’t take anything away from those guys. It was their talent, their songs and their stage presence that made them. They did it all themselves and I just happened to be there and jump on the train before it started rolling, that’s all.”
4. Jamming with Joe Perry
“Mongoloid Man is a recording from 1978 with Joe Perry on guitar.
“I was out with Aerosmith, we were having dinner in Los Angeles and had to excuse myself at one point. Joe asked, ‘Hey man, where are you going?’ and I explained I had to go finish this song I had been working on. He said he’d love to come along, so I invited him down and he jammed away on this track.”
5. Writing with KISS bandmates (past and current)
“There are two songs [original guitarist] Ace Frehley and I wrote together: one is called In Your Face and the other is Weapons - both with him actually singing lead. Ace wrote the lyrics, too, and the tracks were mine.
“Paul Stanley and I worked together on You’re All That I Want, You’re All That I Need - another song that would be recorded by KISS, but this is the original, made around ’77. There’s also stuff with [current members] Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer.”
6. Experimenting without borders
“When I start writing, whatever is inside of me comes out and it might not always be two guitars, bass and drums.
“The Beatles were [experimental] like that - Let It Be was not based around guitar because McCartney wrote it on keyboards. The guitars, bass and drums is the formula for KISS, in which we have more of a narrow field of rock instrumentation.
“Eskimo Sun is a song I wrote and recorded in 1969, a very early song for me, that I made on a two-track, doing all the harmonies myself. It’s crazy to think that was in the last century! It was heavily Beatles-inspired. They did so many styles, which is why they’re probably my biggest influence as far as songwriting goes.”
The Vault is available to order now (opens in new tab).