“I shit gold,” says Gene Simmons with a smile. “That’s your headline, SPIN magazine.”
The KISS singer-bassist can’t help himself, forever basking in the good fortune he’s enjoyed ever since his band first stormed into pop culture in the 1970s, with flamboyant rock riffs, radio hits and pyrotechnics. Then and now, Simmons was the Demon on stage right, “Dr. Love” in dragon boots and kabuki makeup, breathing fire and flapping a lengthy tongue at fans from behind the mic. There were multiple platinum albums across the 1970s and 1980s, comebacks in the ‘90s and after, and now a final run before KISS retires from live performing, the End of the Road Tour, set to end in 2023.
It’s been a decade since the band released a new studio album, 2012’s Monster, but for Simmons and his musical life-partner, singer-guitarist Paul Stanley, business remains brisk both inside and outside of KISS. They continue to play stadiums and arenas around the world, and together are part-owners of more than 20 Rock & Brews restaurants and casinos across the U.S. During the lengthy coronavirus lockdowns, Simmons took up painting for the first time, and now his canvases sell for many thousands out of a Las Vegas gallery. Companies and admirers keep throwing money at this insatiable God of Thunder, whose personal logo is a simple money bag he drew himself. “I shit gold,” Simmons repeats. “It’s like I win the lottery all the time and I don’t even play the lottery. ‘Hey Gene, here’s money.’ What did I do? ‘Nothing, just take it.’”
Wearing dark glasses and a black western shirt, he’s come to the Los Angeles guitar showroom of Gibson on Sunset Blvd. to talk about another business venture: the just-released Gene Simmons G2 Thunderbird bass, a shiny black beast with a skull and crossbones icon resting on a stand next to him. But he’s in a talkative mood, as always, and weighs in on KISS’s final act, his future after the band, and the future of rock, Russia and Ukraine, Donald Trump and the Beatles, and the tragedies of COVID-19.
SPIN: Is next year be the last time that KISS will be on the road?
Gene Simmons: Rightfully so, proudly so, gratefully so. If you have the self-respect, integrity, pride in what you do, you want to go out on top. And by the way, at 72, my hand doesn’t shake. I’m healthier than you are. Your life is about choices. I chose, because of my mother, never to get high except in a dentist’s chair. Never been drunk. At a toast, I’ll take a sip, [sticks tongue out] smells like paint remover to me. You’re never going to be cool drunk, never. The chick you’re trying to pick up, you will throw up on the new shoes she just bought. And if you drink enough, your schmekel won’t work.
Will KISS be doing one more round in North America before it’s over?
Yep, in places we didn’t go. Small towns are just as important. We played some places like Grand Falls in Newfoundland [Canada], where 50,000 people showed up when the population of the town was only half that. They come from the hills and I love those because they’re so appreciative. Luckiest guy in the world.
In the past, you’ve mentioned wanting to take KISS to Israel, where you were born, for the first time.
We’re talking, but we want to bring the whole show. Somebody said, “Leonard Cohen played there in the stadium.” Fantastic, I’m a huge fan. “Why can’t you go?” You think we’re Leonard Cohen? He could show up with no guitars, nothing, hire everybody locally, and do, [sings] “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river…” Then he gets on a plane and has a kosher sandwich.
So it’s a logistical thing?
It’s a big word saying you better have a 747, and that won’t fill up all this stuff. It’s going to cost a million bucks just to move it there one way. So we’ll need about 2 million or more per show, which means a corporate partner, Coca-Cola or somebody. And China too, we’ve never been there — Far East, Asia, Africa.
So on this last year on the road, you might be adding places like China and beyond?
Sure. We do it as much for the fans like us. You want to go out there, if you like what you’re doing: Hey, look what I did! Just like a kid.
What have been KISS’s experiences playing in Russia and Ukraine?
We played Kyiv outdoors. We played the stadium in Moscow. Wonderful people. They do not reflect politics or the government. It ain’t Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany was a country of Nazis, from Hitler youth all the way up to grandmothers.
Russian people are wonderful people. The politics – they’ve never had democracy as we know it in their entire history. And the corruption from top to bottom, every cop on the corner, every military guy, it’s all about “How much money can I make?” Not what’s good for people. You can’t say what you want to say. You’ll wind up in a Gulag and or maybe in a can of dog food. The Russian people are wonderful, everyone I’ve met. Fantastic, great, funny. And when the wrong guy comes into power, it changes the soul of the country.
I know the previous [U.S.] president. I knew him before he entered politics. Look what that gentleman did to this country and the polarization – got all the cockroaches to rise to the top. Once upon a time, you were embarrassed to be publicly racist and out there with conspiracy theories. Now it’s all out in the open because he allowed it.
You’re referring to Donald Trump? You were on his show The Apprentice.
We knew each other before that, in clubs and all that. You have a different responsibility when you’re just a citizen or an entrepreneur. You don’t make policy. It doesn’t affect life and death. When you get into a position of power, it does affect lives. I don’t think he’s a Republican or a Democrat. He’s out for himself, any way you can get there. And in the last election, over 70 million people bought it hook, line and sinker.
The current president [Biden], I like the ethics and morality – not a charismatic guy, unfortunately. The first word I keep hearing from people, even friends is, “feeble.” I don’t think he should run next time. So then who’s around? There are no stars and invariably people vote for stars, not even what they believe in. The cult of personality. Americans are star obsessed: “Kylie’s got a new lip gloss? Fuck!”
The End of the Road Tour was interrupted by COVID-19. How did that affect the band?
The pandemic has sadly affected all of us on earth, a million dead in America, even though there are QAnon and other deniers. But of course, it’s sad when it happens to other people and stupid when you’re a minister saying there’s no such thing as COVID and then you die from COVID, which is what happened. Close to 10 million worldwide deaths attributed or close to, whether you had previous illnesses or not. They didn’t die because they caught a cold, okay? It’s affected everybody, tragically.
I know that KISS had some serious experiences with COVID.
I did catch COVID, but I was vaccinated, so I had zero side effects, literally. No running noses. I didn’t grow a second head. No temperature. Of course the doctor stuck his thumb up my ass, but I said, “Next time you do that, take me to dinner first, okay?” I’ve had two shots and a booster, and I’m going to get another booster just because.
It is true however that we had a wonderful member of the family, Fran [Stueber], who was our guitar tech – who may or may not have filled out the right forms and had the right paperwork because everybody [on the Kiss crew] had to be vaccinated multiple times and proof that you did it. He got a little sick. He was asked to stay at a hotel. We stopped doing concerts and he refused to go a few blocks over to the hospital. And within four days he passed away, alone in the hotel room. We went to the memorial and it breaks your heart because you have three kids and a wonderful wife and everybody’s crying their hearts out. And I wanted to jump up and scream: “Why? It’s preventable!”
A seatbelt’s not going to prevent a car accident, but it may prevent you from having to peel your face off of the glass in front of you when you go crashing into it. And the vaccine, we’re told by the CDC, is not going to prevent you from getting COVID, but you may not have to have a tube going through your body and die the way a million Americans have died.
What are you going to do after KISS?
Well, we have Rock & Brews, which is becoming more successful – and quite a few other businesses, which has no relation to sticking my tongue out. And at some point, after the band stops touring, I may go out with the Gene Simmons Band. Did about 50 shows. It’s a lot of fun, a totally different experience. It’s like being in the Ramones or U2 or something. You put on sneakers and a T-shirt, and that’s all the work. So your heart doesn’t have to go, Boom, boom, boom, boom, like it’s going to thump out of your chest, like at KISS shows.
If you are a blues artist, you can do that until you’re in your mid-’80s, the way B.B. King did at 88. Are you kidding me? Me walking around on stage with dragon boots and all that, even past 75, I can’t imagine it. The physical wear and tear, your heart just is not going to be able to take it. I defy these guys half my age to get into my outfit, see how long you’ll last on stage.
What happens to rock music after KISS, and eventually other classic rock acts like Paul McCartney, stop playing?
Rock is dead. The kids are listening to EDM and sort of Tame Impala stuff, which I quite like actually. Ghost is interesting. There’s some good stuff out there, but they’re not going to get the chance that we did. They didn’t have a record company who put up posters around, gave you advances that you never had to return, so you could full-time dedicate yourself to that thing. How do you do that if you’re giving your music away for 1/100th of one penny for a download? How do you pay the rent? How do you buy gas? So there’s that vicious cycle of we’re a new band, we don’t make any money, nobody knows who we are. Let’s give our music away for free and hope that we build up enough fans so we can go out and play clubs to make enough money to drive to the next city.
The model is broken. How many supermarkets and stores, retail and airlines would there be if you could just walk in, put a penny down and walk out with stuff? How long do you think they’d stay in business? And what makes you think being in a band or doing music is anything other than a business? I don’t mean that to simplify or negate it. Everything needs fuel. We need air and water and musicians and writers and painters need money.
How did you end up on the bass?
When I was a kid, I was affected by the Beatles – like a religious event, like a singularity. I wasn’t a musician. I was just a kid. Turn on TV and the Beatles came out: [sings] “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” I’m going, What is that? What accent is that? And they look like girls and they’re small human beings with silly haircuts. And then my mother came in and she said, “What are those guys? They look funny.” And at that exact moment, I thought they were as cool as cool could be because my mom, who I love dearly, thought they were silly. And therein lies the greatness of this thing called rock & roll, which is: It’s our music.
It changed my mindset, who I am, what I was, what I could be and I literally reinvented myself. I was born Chaim Witz. I became Gene Klein. And a few years after that decided I’m going to be Gene Simmons. There was before the Beatles and after the Beatles. I taught myself how to play, and the first instrument was an SG Standard Gibson guitar, second-hand. My mother bought it for about 50 bucks. My 14-year-old fingers bled because I couldn’t make the strings go down. And then I switched to bass because Paul McCartney played a Hofner bass and my mother bought me a Japanese knockoff.
You’ve had multiple signature basses, including some that look like an ax.
When we first started KISS, I wasn’t happy with what was commercially available. So I had a craftsman build me a bass to my specifications – smaller body, fully exposed neck. I used that until I broke it on stage. I started using Gibson Grabbers and Rippers, and they showed up on Alive! and Alive II – the second platinum record of all time. I needed another bass, so I veered towards Gibsons because I liked the sound, and over the years went off and built my own basses – because like Disney, I like to own everything. Designed it, built it, trademark it – the Gene Simmons Punisher and the Gene Simmons Axe.
Two or three years ago, Gibson and I connected and decided to do a joint venture – the G2: Gene and Gibson, or Gibson and Gene. And the first time I used this was on New Year’s Eve, Dubai, 2020. You have to ignore everything I say and just plug it in and see how it makes you feel and see how you like the sound and do you look good doing it? Because that’s an important thing. You don’t want an ugly thing hanging around your neck unless it’s a lonely night.