KISS And Tell: Inside The Vault, writing with Bob Dylan … and more
By Gary Graff
Gene Simmons is, of course, best known as the co-founder and co-frontman of KISS — and, to some, a reality TV star, thanks to programs such as Rock School and Gene Simmons Family Jewels. But the outspoken raconteur who hasn’t met a marketing scheme he won’t at least entertain has also had a prolific musical career outside of KISS, too, which includes being an early proponent of Van Halen and co-writing songs with Bob Dylan. That part of Simmons’ life is documented in The Vault, a massive 11-CD collection containing 167 tracks he worked on between 1966-2016. Weighing in at 40 pounds and packaged in a vault-sized box that also includes a Gene Simmons action figure, a coin, a deluxe book and more, it’s as deluxe and limited edition as they come — so much so that Simmons is hand-delivering the sets to each person. The Vault is its own long, strange trip that will keep you rocking and rolling for many nights to come. Simmons took a minute to open The Vault door and give us a peek inside…
FBPO: The Vault is pretty impressive, and it’s a lot of fun that you’re hand-delivering them to the people who take the plunge.
Simmons: Well, this is the Godzilla of all box sets. Because of the enormity of it, I didn’t know how, how do I get this to fans? It’s going to get damaged, shipping — I mean, it’s 40 pounds. Then I thought, “You know, I’ve had a really good life, and the only reason I have this life is because of fans — not because of critics, or people in the peanut gallery, but those loyal fans who have been with us for 44 years. There’s only a few thousand of these that are being made available around the world, so why not deliver it personally, from my hand into theirs — I’ll have to use both hands because it is physically and literally the largest box set of all time. It’s over three feet tall, weighs 40 pounds, it’s got metal hardware, metal wheels. There’s probably more unreleased tracks on this Gene Simmons Vault box set that have never been released than there is on probably the last 10 or 11 (KISS) studio albums.
FBPO: Will you eventually release any of this material in a non-box set form?
Simmons: No. When you buy a Rolls Royce, you buy it, you can’t just walk up and say, “Can I buy the tire?” I don’t want that. When a hardcover book that’s a classic comes out, I just want it in hardcover, the real thing.
FBPO: So what does all this material say about you, musically?
Simmons: I never felt the need to tug on anybody’s shirtsleeves and convince them I could play guitar, drums, keyboards, bass and engineer my own stuff. Some of the tracks it was all me, kind of McCartney-esque — I’m not McCartney, trust me, I’m not saying that — but playing all the instruments, producing, engineering, arranging, playing all those solos, the guitar parts, the keyboards and the drums, too. It’s not an instance of trying to show off, it’s more like, “I’m having such a good time.” As you know, as more people come into the process, your vision, your thing gets diluted. When your mom’s cooking something on the stove, try coming over and adding a little salt and see what happens — It doesn’t work out too well, does it? So that’s what happens with a song; you create a song, you see it in your mind, you feel it, and then other people get involved. They pick up other instruments, they start playing your stuff and it starts to change. So when I did all these other demos it was a real thrill, all that material, to actually see it come alive in the way I envisioned it. If you’re a painter, you’ve got a vision of a thing and then all of a sudden there’s another paint brush and someone else starts coloring in, you’re gonna want to take a bat and take their head off — “Hey, this is my painting! So that’s the thrill of doing a lot of the stuff myself.
FGPO: The Vault has your sessions with Bob Dylan on it. What were those like?
Simmons: I’m a very linear person, and I’m delusionally fearless. What that means in pragmatic terms is the worst thing someone can say is “no,” right? You ask a girl to the school dance, she can say yes, or she can say no, or words to that effect. So I picked up the phone, and I’ve always wanted to write with Bob Dylan, you know, I’m on crack — it’s like, “Why the fuck would he want to write with me?” Well, maybe he does! It doesn’t matter what the chances are. Everybody buys lottery tickets, but what are their chances of winning? Not much, but so what? There is a chance you can win, and I’m like that. Throw caution to the wind, and dive into the deep end of the pool. So I called his manager, a good guy, “Hi, Can I speak with Bob?” “What do you wanna talk to him about?” “I, uh, I want to write a song with Bob.” “Uh, yeah.” and all of the sudden, within two days, an unmarked van shows up at my house, and Bob gets out with an acoustic guitar and tells his driver “I’ll see you at the end of the day,” and we start strumming! It was just like that. And he was asking ME, and this is in the box set, “So, how do you write songs?” “Well, you know, I come up with stuff, and Paul writes stuff.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah — and then the other guys play it?” “Well, I usually tell them what parts to play.” He goes, “You do?” And I couldn’t believe I was having this discussion. Yeah, we were talking about how we write songs, and it’s still a life highlight, if you see what I mean.
FBPO: It’s wild that he’d sign off on you finally releasing these.
Simmons: Oh yeah. I had to get everyone’s ok. Vinnie Vincent, who was in and out of the band a few times, we hadn’t spoken in 20 years. He and I wrote a tune called “I Want To Live,” which is actually a really a good tune, could have been on a KISS record. But he was on the outs. That’s back when he started suing the band, many times, and never won. And then he went through his own hurdles, hopefully he’s come out of it now, and I had to get everybody’s OK, Paul and everybody — “Can I use your stuff, Ace? Can I use your stuff on the box set?” Everybody signed off on it, Joe Perry, everybody.
FBPO: You’ve got demos with Van Halen playing on them, and you had signed and was producing the band at one point during the mid/late 70s. How did that relationship happen?
Simmons: The short story is, Bebe Buell, Liv Tyler’s mom, was my date, and we went out to a club to check out some bands. We went to a club called the Starwood and there were three bands — George Lynch’s band, I think they were called The Boyzz, another band and the opening band was a group called Van Halen. They’d just changed their name from Mammoth. And I was upstairs with a guy named Rodney Bingenheimer, you know, who they called the King of the Sunset Strip or whatever, and people were coming over, “Hey, man, hey man, hey man” and all of the sudden I’m hearing something on stage and I’m going, “What is that?!” — you know, all that Eddie stuff on guitar. And I ignored everybody and went over to the railing and went, “What IS that?!” and there they were, doing all that early stuff, “Running With the Devil” and everything. So I immediately cornered them backstage when they got offstage, never got to see the other bands, and I convinced them not to sign with a yogurt manufacturer who wanted to give them money to be their manager, literally. And, I said, “I’ll fly you to New York, I’ll put you in Electric Lady studios, I’ll sign you to my production company, and I’ll produce your demo.” And I did — flew them to New York bought David (Lee Roth) some high heels, stacked heels, leather pants, and all that stuff, and put him in Electric Lady, and we recorded 15 tracks. There are tracks on there that have still never been released, that are really good. And some of those arrangements that you hear on the first and second record are my arrangements.
FBPO: So why didn’t it come to fruition?
Simmons: I couldn’t convince the rest of the guys in KISS and our manager, Bill Aucoin, to bring them on, take them under our wing so to speak, and take them out on tour. They didn’t get it. So I tore up the contract and I told the Van Halen guys “You’re free. I don’t want to force you guys to be here. KISS is going out on the Love Gun Tour, you’re free to do whatever you want to do, and at the end of the tour, if I have time, I’ll work on getting you a deal.” Well, within in a month they got a deal at Warner Brothers, and boom.
FBPO: But they still liked you enough to back you on these songs.
Simmons: Why not? KISS went to Japan, and when we got back to L.A. I’d written three new songs and late at night I decided to go and demo them. So I call up Edward and say, “Hey, can you guys help me?” “Sure!” So literally at 1 a.m. Alex and Edward come down and we cut the tracks. It went fast, and surprisingly, it felt seamless. It just fit with those guys. In fact, Eddie’s solo on “Christine Sixteen” — one take, by the way — was so good I forced Ace to copy it note for note. Ace hated that.
FBPO: What are KISS’ plans for the near future?
Simmons: We are only doing some stadiums in Spain in July. And we may do one pickup show somewhere. There’s a big tour being planned (for 2019) and everyone wants to do it the right way. But other than that the rest of the year, for 12 months, is going around delivering the box set, and the Gene Simmons Band is doing shows around, so you can get your box set and come to see the show.
FBPO: It looks like you’re having a good time with the solo band.
Simmons: It is so much fun. We don’t have road crew, there’s no trucks, there’s no road manager, nothing. We Chuck Berry it along the way; Pick up your guitar and that’s it. Everything is local; you just plug in and play, put some stairs in the front and invite folks to get up on stage and have a ball. And we do obscure stuff. We do “Long Tall Sally.” I’m going to do some Beatles tunes because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. We do them justice. It’s just all sorts of wacky stuff that we can’t do with KISS.
FBPO: We don’t have to worry about this replacing KISS in your life, do we?
Simmons: Not at all. I’m thankful for KISS — you bet I am. So I can have my cake and eat it too. I can be in KISS and wear more makeup and high heels than your mommy, and I can be in the Gene Simmons Band, and it’s a hoot, it’s a party.
FBPO: What do you make of all your colleagues making their farewell announcements this year?
Simmons: Don’t kid yourself. I know Elton; He’s going to get off stage, everybody has to, but Elton’s going to be doing 300 shows. He’s going to be out there for the next five years. Neil Diamond, God bless him, Neil Diamond’s finally quitting. People talk about bands that are big and stuff, they have no idea. Diamond’s been doing three or four nights at arenas for 50 years. So if you don’t want to be on stage one day longer, you know, it’s valid. You got the goods. I have seen some bands later in life and, you know, it’s embarrassing. You don’t want to see anyone on stage that’s embarrassing. Because the pull of being on stage…Once you’ve been to the top of Mt. Olympus, if you will, it’s pretty heady stuff because when you walk down the street and into a 7-Eleven, it’s not the same thing as being up on stage with KISS.
FBPO: I take it you have not reached this point with KISS at all.
Simmons: No, no. We’re in great shape, and with Tommy (Thayer) and Eric (Singer), it’s a new lease on life. It’s always positive; we start shows on time, Paul’s better than ever. I mean, it’s great.
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