Even as a kid I was able to recognize the unique chemistry of the original line-up and longed for the eventual day when the guys would put aside their differences and reunite. While KISS churned out a new record almost every year in the 80s and early 90s, new music from former members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss was not nearly as frequent. In fact, it wasn't until 1987 that Ace delivered his first post-KISS album, Frehley's Comet. Ace had two more full length albums in the 80s - Second Sighting and Trouble Walkin' - before going on another recording hiatus.
Finally, in 1996, it happened. All four original KISS members got back together, put on the make-up and high heels, and hit the road. I was able to see the band opening night at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. It was a magical night. Over the next few years, I saw the band numerous times on their subsequent reunion tours. The 2000-2001 tour was dubbed 'The Farewell Tour' and it was supposed to be the last ever KISS tour. Turns out, it was just "farewell" to Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. Both were replaced by new members who wore the famous make-up designs and mimicked the guys' stage persona. I haven't seen the band since.
Fast forward to 2009, and Ace Frehley has just released his first new album in 20 years, Anomaly. Ace produced the record himself and released it on his own label, Bronx Born. Ace is embarking on a world tour in support of Anomaly that begins Thursday, November 5 at Whiskey Roadhouse in Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, NE (tickets still available). I recently spoke to Ace about his new album and tour, his sobriety after decades of drinking, his thoughts on the current state of the music industry, and his long term friendship with Anton Fig from the David Letterman Band. (NOTE: Portions of this interview will be played on my radio show, New Day Rising, Sunday Nov. 8. The show airs from 9-11 pm Central time, and streams at 897theriver.com)
Ace Frehley: Hey, my pleasure.
DS: It’s been a long time that I’ve wanted to talk to you, but don’t worry; I won’t pester you with obscure KISS questions. I’ll keep it to the new stuff.
AF: (laughs) No problem.
DS: The new record, ‘Anomaly’, is your first solo record in 20 years. It kicks off with a song called “Foxy & Free” which is probably the heaviest riff I’ve heard you play in all of the years I’ve been listening to your music. Were you trying to make a statement with such a heavy opener?
AF: I don’t know. I had the music for that kicking around for years, and then I put lyrics to it.
DS: So, it’s not like “hey this is my first record in 20 years, and I’m really gonna hit em hard with the first track”?
AF: Yeah, well that, too. (laughs) Obviously, when I finished mixing all of the songs, I was kicking around all types of orders – song order – and that one kept ringing true as an opening track.
DS: Definitely. It’s a great opening track. You’ve been making records now and recording for over 30 years, how has your writing process changed over the years?
AF: My writing process? It hasn’t changed at all. Unlike some people, I don’t have any type of formula that I use. Sometimes I’ll start off with a guitar riff and add lyrics. Sometimes I’ll come up with a lyric idea and add music to it. Sometimes I’ll just be tinking around on my acoustic guitar and play something kind of folky and then throw on an electric guitar track over it and add words. You know, there’s no set formula that I use to write songs or where I get my ideas from. Sometimes I get it from classical songs, jazz, blues, whatever.
DS: Are you the type of guy that can set aside some time to write or do you need the inspiration to hit you first?
AF: I never set aside time to write.
DS: So, when it hits you, you just do it?
AF: Usually I’ll pick up a guitar when I’m not doing anything and immediately something starts happening. And I always carry a little digital recorder around with me.
DS: Always prepared.
AF: Yeah. You gotta be.
DS: Now is making records these days easier or harder after all this time?
AF: It’s easier. It’s a lot easier because of all the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years. I know the process of recording really well know because I’ve worked with some really great producers and the amount of albums I’ve played on and you know…I know what I want and I know how to get it. I don’t have to think too hard about where I need to go. I’m familiar with the process. And now this new album is the first album I did totally digital.
DS: Is that with the pro tools stuff?
AF: Yeah, pretty much I got pro tools down now. I’ve had it for years, but I never really mastered it. But working with Marty Frederiksen and Anthony Focx, I learned so much.
DS: When you record at your home studio, was that the same studio you had back in the day when you left KISS or is this a different studio where you work at now?
AF: You mean when I left KISS in 2001?
DS: No, the old days, like 80, 81.
AF: No, that was a different studio. We recorded 'The Elder' [ed note - this is KISS's 1981 LP, 'Music From The Elder'] there. That was up in Connecticut. My new studio is in Westchester, New York. It’s a big converted house into a studio.
DS: Is this something that only you use, or have other artists used the studio?
AF: I’m the only one that’s recorded there. It’s probably gonna be the east coast base for Bronx Born Records, my new label. Eventually, I’m going to want to produce other bands there that are on my label.
DS: That brings me to my next question. You did put out your new record on your label, Bronx Born. Now why did you decide to go the independent route and do you think the traditional music industry, the way it existed, is over?
AF: It’s definitely over. The internet has changed everything. Not only the music industry, but the way everyone does business. So, there’s no going back, it’s just figuring out the best way to go about it. A lot of the labels have folded over the years. Record stores are closing left and right. I spoke to a lot of different people. I even remember calling Paul Stanley after he put his solo album out, and he said, “Ace, don’t go with a big label. You’re better off doing it yourself.” So, I did some research and hooked up with Rocket Science – a great marketing team. They’ve done a great job promoting the record and coordinating stuff.
DS: So, Bronx Born is not going to be a label for just you? You’re going to work with other artists as well?
AF: Eventually, sure, when I have time. Right now, I’m starting a world tour which will probably go through the rest of this year and 2010. But, time allowing, sure.
DS: A lot has been made about your getting sober for the first time in a long time. I’m wondering how your sobriety has affected your writing and playing. I did notice on a couple of tracks on the new record like “Change the World” and “A Little Below the Angels” there’s more of a serious tone on those tunes.
AF: Yeah. Maybe I’m growing up, maybe I’m just exploring different musical areas. Obviously, “A Little Below the Angels” is autobiographical, and about some of my struggles. You know, I’m able to focus a lot better now, and I think I’m writing and playing better – and singing better. And looking better, you know.
DS: Yeah. I’ve seen some recent pictures. You’re looking great. (laughs)
AF: (laughs) Thanks.
DS: How much of this record was written before the KISS reunion and shelved and how much of it was written since you left KISS again in 2001-02.
AF: Most of it was written after.
DS: Okay, because from what I understand, you were working on some stuff before the reunion. Did that stuff get pushed aside or could you come back to that at a later time?
AF: “Sister” was written prior. “Foxy & Free” some of the music was written before, but you know, pretty much all of the other songs were written after. Except for the remake, “Fox on the Run.”
DS: How did you choose that cover? Because you’ve done a lot of good covers over the years – you and KISS actually. “Do Ya” is the one that comes to mind – from ELO or The Move, I can’t remember which one. How did you choose “Fox on the Run”?
AF: A good friend of mine, Pam, came up with that idea, and we just ran with it. That was actually the last song I recorded. We actually recorded that out in LA. I flew out to LA to mix the album and actually took a day off from mixing to track that in Marty Frederiksen’s studio. That was the only track that he produced on the album.
DS: Now on the rest of it you’re credited as producer. Did you consider working with someone you’ve worked with before – like an Eddie Kramer type – or were you always set on doing it yourself?
AF: You know, I did this record on my own time and over such a long period of time. It was really hard to find a producer that was willing to work crazy hours and on and off, on and off. You know, most producers who sign on to a project want to take it from its beginning to its end. I wasn’t working that way because I didn’t have all of the songs ready when I started tracking. It was a long, tedious process. I really wasn’t able to find a producer that was willing to work in that capacity.
DS: That makes sense. Now, let’s jump to the tour. I understand you’re kicking off the tour this Thursday in Omaha/Council Bluffs.
DS: There were plenty of people who saw the show two years ago when you were there, how is the show different now than two years ago? Do you have the same band that you’re playing with, and what are we going to see in the set that’s different?
AF: It’s the same line up. There’s going to be some new songs, obviously, from 'Anomaly', and probably one or two songs that weren’t performed last time we were there.
DS: Any hints?
AF: No hints. I don’t want to give anything away.
DS: Since you’ve had so many songs over the years, how do you approach picking the songs you’re going to use on the tour?
AF: I try to get feedback from people whose opinion I trust and fans. When I ask fans questions like that I keep getting the same answer, and usually I go with that, you know.
DS: Like “Hard Times” off ‘Dynasty’ or something like that?
DS: Let’s jump to some different topics here. At the time that you got back with KISS, back in the 90s, everyone said how great it was, and that it was just like the old days where everybody is getting along. Was that actually true, and how long was it before it was like the late 70s when everyone was not getting along?
AF: (pauses) I mean, we got along. You know, when you’re a co-founder of a band, and you go back to do one tour and then they want to extend it and you get involved in a situation where you’re not really in control of your destiny. Other people are making decisions for you, and it’s not really the ideal situation, so I had to move on with my career.
DS: Same goes for Peter [Criss], you think?
AF: You’ll have to ask Peter that question. (laughs)
DS: We’ll see if I ever talk to the guy. The track you wrote, “Into the Void” that was on the ‘Psycho Circus’ record, was that something that you wrote specifically for KISS, or did you have that track already in the pocket?
AF: I had a group of songs that I submitted, but they were all rejected. And I actually had to do a re-write on “Into the Void” before they would take it seriously. Even after I re-wrote it, I had to fight tooth and nail just to get it on the record.
DS: That’s so bizarre because that’s easily the best track on the whole album, and it’s the only one that sounds like KISS. That’s me speaking, you don’t have to comment on that if you don’t want to.
DS: What do you think it is about your music and the music of KISS that is so timeless? As you guys get older, the fans get younger. There are all kinds of groups – even newer ones like the Foo Fighters covering your stuff. What do you think it is about the music that is so timeless?
AF: I have no idea. I just make the music and hopefully, people are going to like it, you know. I don’t have a formula, I just do what feels right.
DS: You let other people worry about that stuff.
DS: In all your years of touring, what would you say is your most Spinal Tap moment?
AF: (laughs) I don’t know. There’s been so many. (laughs) When I watch that movie I end up going that’s usually how it is a lot of the time, you know. There’s not one incident that comes to mind immediately.
DS: If you could make a dream band of anyone to play with - live or dead – to back you on this current tour, who would you choose?
AF: John Bonham on drums. Or Keith Moon. On bass…John Entwistle. And, on guitar with me…Hendrix.
DS: That sounds like a pretty solid band.
AF: (laughs) Yeah, I think so!
DS: I’d pay money to see that group! You’ve been friends with Anton Fig from the Letterman band for a really long time, going back to the 70s. He played on your KISS solo record. How did you guys meet, and how have you been able to work so well together?
AF: We connect musically, obviously, and the more we work together, the easier it is to understand each other’s ideas and get them down in the recording process. A lot of times I can just look at Anton and he kind of knows what I’m trying to say. It’s so weird, we almost have mental telepathy. It’s really painless working with Anton. We’ve worked on so many projects over the years that I don’t really have to explain myself. I’ll play a guitar riff and he just, kind of, gets it. It’s as simple as that.
DS: He doesn’t do tours with you because of his commitment to the Letterman show, right?
AF: Yeah, pretty much. Like on the new album, “Genghis Khan” I thought was one of the best drum tracks on the record, and I really didn’t have to explain much to him. I just said, you know, let’s get a heavy groove going – a la John Bonham – and he just nailed it. We just did a couple of takes and pieced it together and that was it.
DS: Now fans aren’t going to have to wait another 20 years for another Ace Frehley record, are they?
AF: No. No. I’d say, a year and a half tops.
DS: That’s cool. So, for this current tour, how long are you going to be out?
AF: I’ll be out for a while. You mean, the Midwest tour?
DS: No, just the whole thing. You’re doing a full world tour in support of ‘Anomaly’?
AF: Yeah. I got dates in the Midwest, then I’m heading over to Europe. I’m coming back and hopefully doing a few more dates in the States on the East Coast before we head to Australia. We’re starting to put something together for Japan, after Australia. And then, do some festivals in Europe hopefully next year. And then a major tour in the States. We’re trying to put that together right now.
DS: The tour is kicking off in Omaha – well, technically Council Bluffs. Any recollections you have of Omaha from your past?
AF: Uhhhh….Lotta cowboys, huh? (laughs) Big cowboys! I remember going to a cowboy bar one night with a bunch of my bodyguards in the early KISS days, and they were big bodyguards. I’ll never forget going to this bar and the bouncers there were a lot bigger than my bodyguards! They were like 6’6” or 6’7”. It was insane. With boots and cowboy hats, they looked like they were seven feet tall.
DS: It’s a little different these days, so you don’t have to worry about that.
DS: Have you been listening to anything lately that you like? What’s in Ace Frehley’s ipod?
AF: Lately, I’ve just been listening to old vinyl and trying to get back to my roots.
DS: Nothing like doing it old school. This will be my last question for you. Do you consider yourself a guitar player first or a songwriter first?
AF: I think of myself as a guitar player, songwriter, producer, yeah. I think of myself as a singer last. To me, singing…I do it because I have to do it. (laughs) You know, because I write the songs and I don’t have a lead singer in the band. Singing, to me, is the least fun of what I do. I love playing guitar and I love performing, and I love coming up with crazy special effects for guitars, and producing. You know, the singing is fine, but sometimes it becomes more of a chore rather than a pleasure.
DS: Were you pushed into singing back when you were with KISS, because you had a lot of songs that you would write and either Gene would sing it, Paul would sing it or Peter. When it came to “Shock Me” that’s when you started singing your own tunes.
AF: I was never pushed into it because we had three lead singers in the band already and everyone was rallying to sing lead. Initially I was probably a little shy about singing because I thought Paul, Gene and Peter all had good voices. Eventually, I got up enough nerve with “Shock Me,” and once I got a taste for it, I wanted more. (laughs)
DS: And then your solo album, pretty much everyone acknowledges that it was the best of the bunch.
AF: Thank you.
DS: Ace, I appreciate you taking the time, and I’ll see you on Thursday.