It could be argued that Ace Frehley was the most influential guitarist of the ’70s. When Kiss hit its 1976-79 commercial peak, there was no rock band more entrenched in the minds of America’s youth. And if you asked random Kiss fans who was their favorite member, the answer was more often than not “Ace.” It’s no wonder some of the most successful artists of the last 10 years—from Garth Brooks to Pearl Jam—have cited Frehley and Kiss as major influences. Frehley teamed up with Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Peter Criss to form Kiss in New York City in 1973. Taking the glitter ball from their NYC glam-rock contemporaries and running with it, the members of Kiss donned outrageous makeup and costumes and assumed comic-book hero personas: Simmons, the demon; Stanley, the lover; Criss, the catman; and Frehley, the otherworldly spaceman. Frehley’s “Space Ace” persona and fiery, melodic guitar solos would become key factors in Kiss’ rise to arena superstardom. It was Frehley who designed Kiss’ iconic logo.
Though Criss wore the feline face paint, it’s Frehley who seems to have had nine lives. After leaving Kiss in 1982, Frehley embarked on a solo career, releasing three albums and compiling a laundry list of troubles that included drug and alcohol addiction, bankruptcy and high-speed car chases with the police. In 1996, Frehley reunited with Kiss for a string of successful tours as well as an album of new material, 1998’s Psycho Circus, before playing his final show with the band in 2002. While Simmons and Stanley continue to tread the boards in a verging-on-tribute-band incarnation of Kiss (drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer wear Criss’ and Frehely’s respective makeup and costumes), the now sober Frehley is set to release Anomaly, his first solo album in two decades.
Frehley recently took a moment to talk with Superchunk/Mountain Goats drummer (and onetime Kiss Army member) Jon Wurster. Frehley will also be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all this week.
MAGNET: Your last solo record, Trouble Walking, came out 20 years ago. Why so long between albums?
Frehley: A lot has happened! [Laughs] The main reason was I ended up doing the Kiss reunion tour, which led to the Psycho Circus record and tour, which led to the Kiss Farewell Tour. Six years later, I needed a break! And the biggest reason was my sobriety. On September 15, the day Anomaly comes out, I’ll be celebrating three years clean and sober. This new record would have never come out if it wasn’t for that.
The record industry is virtually unrecognizable compared to what it was like in 1989. Is that a major factor in deciding to release Anomaly on your own Bronx Born label?
I wanted complete control of how Anomaly was going to be handled and marketed. I’ve handed my music to labels in the past, and it never turned out the way I envisioned it. Anomaly is going to be different.
Several songs on Anomaly, specifically “Change The World,” “A Little Below The Angles” and “It’s A Great Life,” show a more contemplative Ace Frehley than we’ve seen before. How has your songwriting process changed from when you were in your hard-partying 20s?
You know, writing comes to me real easy these days, but it always has been like that for me. I write about my experiences in life. Go back and listen to “Parasite” or “Shock Me.” Some inspirations have been good, some bad, some life-threatening like “Shock Me.” [Laughs]
You’ve been sober for several years now. Was there a specific incident that inspired you to give up the grape?
It’s the old cliché about “tired of being tired.” It was time. I’ve embraced sobriety, and I don’t wanna go back. Life’s too good now.
Yours is a classic story of someone being “saved” by rock ‘n’ roll. As a teenager, you ran with a pretty tough crowd; you’ve said that a lot of your friends from those days are either in jail or dead. You burned the candle at both ends during your Kiss and solo years. Do you ever look back on all you’ve been through and say, “I can’t believe I’m still alive”?
[Laughs] I’ve been lucky. I know I have a guardian angel looking over me.
Living in New York City during the mid-’70s CBGBs/Max’s Kansas City heyday, were you interested in bands like Ramones, Television, the Heartbreakers and the Dead Boys?
It was all part of the “scene” back then … when New York had a scene. It was one big party in those days, and I’d end up at clubs and shows pretty much on a nightly basis. A great time to be alive.
What was it like playing “Deuce” at that first audition with Gene, Paul and Peter in 1973? Was there a feeling of instant magic?
I knew there was a chemistry there. I truly believe that when the four of us were at our peak, in those mid-’70s tours, no one could stop us!
Did you ever curse yourself for coming up with the most difficult of the four makeup designs?
I never thought of it that way. Peter’s makeup in the beginning seemed the toughest; I think he got a makeup artist to do his on the first Kiss album cover. We all got used to putting on the makeup on a daily basis. It became second nature.
Speaking of the makeup, was it strange being in the most famous band in world yet also being able to go pretty much anywhere you wanted without being recognized?
That was part of the beauty about the makeup. I loved the anonymity of the whole thing. But I got news for ya: I sometimes still got recognized without the makeup back then, so go figure!
Your fifth album, Destroyer, is the favorite of many Kiss diehards. It’s so different sonically and thematically from anything the band did before or since. What do you think made that album so special?
Simple: (producer) Bob Ezrin. There’s a lot of stories about me and him not seeing eye to eye, but I got to give him credit. He’s the one who structured that record. The arrangement on “Beth” and the sounds of “Detroit Rock City” and “God Of Thunder,” he really made that record a classic. We had a lot of pressure coming off of the sales of Alive! and Bob really came through.
You were initially reluctant to record “New York Groove,” a Russ Ballard song that would give you a top-20 single, for your first solo album in 1978. Why was that? And what does it feel like to hear the song played over the P.A. at these huge New York City sporting events?
Eddie Kramer talked me into recording that song … and he was right! [Laughs] I was the first musician to play on the grounds of the new Yankee Stadium earlier this year. You’d never guess what song I performed!
You have to sit through one of these in its entirety or you will be killed: Kiss Meets The Phantom or (Music From) The Elder. Which one do you pick, and why?
I just saw the Phantom movie for the first time in years a few weeks ago. I can’t speak for the other guys in the band, but I think it’s a campy, cult classic. I think its great. I just visited Magic Mountain this year, and a lot of memories about filming that movie came flooding back to me. The new coaster rides are awesome.
Did you go into the 1996 Kiss reunion with any trepidation? Was there concern that the same inter-band problems that caused you to leave the first time would resurface?
I have no regrets about the reunion tour. But history sure has a way of repeating itself.
You’ve stated that one of your favorite Kiss songs to play is “Deuce.” What was your least favorite song that was actually in the set most nights?
I wasn’t too crazy about “I Was Made For Loving You.” I thought we were a hard-rock band and we were doing a disco song. But it was a huge hit, so who knows?
You seem to have made peace with all things Kiss. Is that an accurate assessment?
I’m proud of the fact that I was a member of one of the most influential rock groups in history. No regrets.
What does the future hold for Ace Frehley?
Anomaly, the record and the world tour. I can’t wait for everyone to hear this new record. I’m very proud of it.