Interview: Tommy Thayer of KISS “I’m still really enjoying the ride”

By Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

The final KISS tour of Japan will kick off this weekend. KISS lead guitarist Tommy Thayer called Stefan Nilsson at Roppongi Rocks headquarters for a chat ahead of the much-anticipated tour. “We’re geared up and ready to go. Japan is going to be amazing!”

Legendary American band KISS, America’s number one gold record award-winning group of all time, is currently in the middle of a multi-year farewell world tour. Co-founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons are joined by long-time members Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer on this tour that will mark the end of a 48-year journey for the band.

Your involvement with KISS long pre-dates you becoming a permanent member of the band. I guess your first connection with KISS was when Black N’ Blue opened for KISS in 1985. Gene then produced a couple of your albums. How did you land that support slot on the “Asylum” tour? “Haha! That’s a great question. We have to go back in time to 1985. Black N’ Blue had just finished our second record called ‘Without Love’. We did it up in Vancouver, British Columbia with Bruce Fairbairn producing. And funny enough it was Bob Rock, who became an important producer himself, he was actually engineering and mixing the record at the time. We made a great record. I remember, not long after that, our manager Warren Entner had called me and he said ‘Hey, Tommy. I’ve got some great news! Guess what? You are going to be opening for KISS on their ‘Asylum’ tour!’ starting a couple of months from then. I put the phone down and I couldn’t believe it that we were actually going to be opening for KISS on tour because KISS had been one of my favourite bands growing up and had a big influence on me obviously and was really important to me. I almost had to pinch myself, that I wasn’t dreaming, that our band was actually going on tour opening for KISS! That’s how it all started and that’s how I got to know those guys. We started the tour in Little Rock, Arkansas in November 1985. We probably did 24-25 shows in November-December 1985. That’s really where I got to know Gene and Paul and at the time Bruce Kulick was the guitar player and Eric Carr was the drummer.”

“Hot in the Shade” in 1989 was the first KISS album you were involved with. You co-wrote two songs and I understand you also played on the recordings of those songs. You also were involved with three more KISS studio albums – “Revenge”, “Carnival of Souls” and “Psycho Circus” – before you actually joined the band. Did this make it easier to then officially become the band’s lead guitarist? “Yeah! I think it definitely did. By the time I became the official guitar player of KISS in early 2003, I had had all this experience with the band for years before that even happened. So it was a very natural, comfortable thing for me to become a band member when it actually happened. You’re right. After I got to know Paul and Gene and the band on that opening slot on the ‘Asylum’ tour, we asked Gene Simmons to produce our third record which became ‘Nasty Nasty’, which he did, and then he acted in our fourth record also. The relationship just really evolved from there and I got to know Gene a lot better. The thing that was attractive to me was how conscientious he was about producing and how dedicated he was to do a great job. He would fly back and forth on days off from the KISS tour to come and rehearse and do pre-production with us in Los Angeles. This happened a lot, so I was rather impressed with his dedication. After Black N’ Blue ran its course, in the early 90s… Actually, rewind a little bit to the late 80s, when Black N’ Blue ran its course, he asked me to come and write some songs with him for that KISS album that they were preparing for. That became the ‘Hot in the Shade’ record. We ended up co-writing two songs, one was called ‘The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away’ and the other one was called ‘Betrayed’. Then of course, when they did ‘Revenge’ in the early 90s, I was really part of the team at that point. Not in the band, but I was working behind the scenes for the band. Part-time to begin with and then full-time not long after that. I was around. When it came to doing background vocals on the ‘Revenge’ album, they asked me to come in and sing with them because they needed some more singers for the background and they knew I could sing well. So I did. Although, when they did ‘Carnival of Souls’, I was in the studio as well helping out. So, you’re right, I had a lot of experience with them already and it made it a lot easier to actually become a band member when it actually happened. Also, a lot of people ask me ‘Did you have to audition to become the lead guitarist of KISS?’ and that sort of thing. It really wasn’t like that at all. It was more just a natural transition. Paul and Gene pulled me aside one day and said ‘Tommy, you should start growing your hair long again. We’re gonna need you on stage!’”

You’re a good fit for the band – you’ve added something and kept the band alive. “I appreciate that. Well, I think I’ve been part of it, that’s for sure.”

Your first show performing on stage with KISS was in Jamaica in 2002. What do you remember from that gig? “Correct. Early 2002. At that point, I really wasn’t officially in the band though. This was a transitional point where Ace was on his way out and they were having problems. It came to a point where he wasn’t even going to show up for a couple of shows, supposedly. So, they asked me to come in and play. That was my first gig, this private show down in Jamaica. Trelawny, Jamaica, February 2002. It was really just a fill-in, I wasn’t officially in the band then. It was an important thing, an important gig obviously for me because it was the first time I was really on stage playing in KISS. That was a mindboggling experience, to put it lightly.”

The end of touring for KISS will be in July 2021. It’s some 19 months away, but there’s a date set. “Yeah! Haha!!”

How do you feel about the end of the final KISS tour getting nearer? “Well, it’s interesting. We’re about a year into the ‘End of the Road’ world tour now. It’s been a phenomenal experience already. It’s the biggest tour KISS has ever done. The production, the show, the stage… Everything is over the top as you have probably seen or heard. So, we’re not even half-way there yet. I’m still really enjoying the ride and getting used to the fact that this is the last tour. We’ve just been having a ball doing it. But, sure, now that we have announced that final date, it does add a little more context to the whole tour, where people see that, OK, there’s where we know it’s going to end and then this is how much time we have left. Now there’s a little bit of a countdown. And we have an official clock. If you go to kissonline.com, there’s the countdown clock showing how many days and hours until the very last show, which is kind of a fun thing, but it adds a perspective and a context to the whole thing. It feels more real, even though, conceptually we knew that, but now we know specifically when that is going to happen. It adds a little more emotion to it now. It’s something we’re proud of and we’re celebrating getting to the last show. But it is also going to be sad.”

You are still a young man, you’re 59: do you already have plans for what you will do after KISS? “You’re right. I am the young guy in the band. Haha! I’m not even out of my 50s yet, so I feel I’ve still got things to do in my life, particularly in music. When KISS ceases to tour anymore, I can see myself continuing in the music business, maybe even doing projects with KISS. Obviously, not touring like they’re doing now, but maybe being involved in some other way like I have been for 25 years now. There’s a lot of opportunities, a lot of possibilities and I don’t know specifically what they are yet. Time will tell.”

What’s your best memory from your many years with KISS so far? “Well, it’s been a lot of them. You know, I remember standing on stage with my guitar playing ‘Black Diamond’ at Madison Square Garden a few years ago. It suddenly dawned on me how amazing this was, to be there and what a lucky, fortunate person I am. I mean, every kid in the world dreams of being the lead guitarist of KISS. And here I am, the one who’s doing it. It doesn’t get any better than that! I grew up with KISS, air-guitaring KISS albums in my parents’ living room before I barely played guitar. It’s an amazing ride and I have been able to live that dream that every kid dreams of.”

Gene Simmons, Eric Singer, Paul Stanley and Tommy Thayer of KISS with Roppongi Rocks boss Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo in 2015.

Paul Stanley has been ill recently and you were forced to cancel your Australian tour. Has he recovered and is now able to do the Japan tour? “Japan is happening! He’s had some throat infection and some things where he literally couldn’t talk and that’s a problem obviously. I know how sad we all are that we had to cancel the Australian dates. We’ve never done that before. I’ve never experienced that. As you know, Gene and Eric and I still went to Australia a few days ago to do this special promotion that we really wanted to make good on, playing for the sharks. Along the way, I met a lot of fans down there, even in the short period that we were there. I told them how badly we feel and it’s just something we’ll make up for. It’s just so rare that something like that happens. But we’re geared up and ready to go. Japan is going to be amazing! We are really looking forward to it.”

The last time you were here in Japan, you had a Japan-specific hit single (”Yumeno Ukiyoni Saitemina”) where you teamed up with the Japanese band Momoiro Clover Z. They also joined you on stage at Tokyo Dome for the encore. Do you have anything special planned for this time? “Well, the special thing is it’s going to be the last time we play in Tokyo. I think that’s going to be the unique aspect of it. This show, like I said, and I’m sure you’ve heard or seen photos and videos, but the show is phenomenal and the stage is bigger and badder than anything we’ve ever done. I know that everyone always says that, but it truly is. It’s an exceptional show and something we have been very proud of. We’ve put a lot of preparation and rehearsal into making sure this is special. That’s the show that we are going to bring to Tokyo. It’s going to be over the top and something that all our Japanese fans are gonna love!”

Excellent. Thank you for talking to us. We look forward to seeing you on stage here in Japan! “Stefan, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure talking to you today too.”

KISS will tour Japan from 8th-19th December with shows in Sendai, Tokyo, Morioka, Osaka and Nagoya. Full tour details here: https://endoftheroad.udo.jp/

www.kissonline.com/the-end-is-near

www.facebook.com/kiss

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