Where the money is: Kiss frontman Paul Stanley outlines his formula for success

Kiss have been giving fans what they came for for 35 years. It's the reason Stanley started the band in January 1973.

"I have been asking for quite a while to put together a show in Dubai," says Paul Stanley, the lead singer of Kiss. "It's a fascinating region. I plan on playing there in the not too distant future." It's hard to imagine that Kiss will not make it to the United Arab Emirates. They've played everywhere else in their storied career. Right now, they are in the middle of their biggest superstar schlep around the world. The Kiss 35 tour, to support Sonic Boom, their first original album for 11 years, started in March 2008 and will play 101 venues before it closes on December 15, having taken in Bulgaria, Greece, Latvia, Russia, Luxembourg, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela for the first time in the band's career. According to Stanley, 57, who's never afraid of a little self-promotion, it's all going swimmingly.
"It's Kiss business as usual," he says. "It couldn't be much better. Bigger, better, more is how I would describe this tour. We've got 20 songs in the set list right now and I consider every one of them a classic." Famed for pyrotechnics and theatrical make-up, Kiss are pulling out all the stops. There are flash bombs and fire, says Stanley, and during the show's climax, he flies out over the arena to sing. The drums rotate, too.
"We believe in a show," he says. "We're proud of it. If you go see a socially conscious band in ripped jeans sitting on a stool, you're getting gypped." Well known during their peak for signing nearly every licensing deal they saw, Kiss were among the first rock bands to pioneer the $1,000 (Dh3,670) VIP ticket. Are they offering the same deal on this tour? "Oh gosh yes," says Stanley, "and they're all sold out."
On an average night, Stanley says, he greets 50 to 100 fans, each paying $1,000, backstage for 45 minutes before the show. "We tend to meet them in groups so they don't get too overwhelmed," he says. "But you ask them when they leave what they think of it and I tell you they are all smiling. Everyone gets what they came for." Kiss have been giving fans what they came for for 35 years. It's the reason Stanley started the band in January 1973.
"We wanted to be the band we never saw," he says. "Every band we went to see - and we saw a lot - were lacking something. We wanted to be the ultimate band for the fans." Starting life as Wicked Lester in the naff suburbs of New York at the height of glitter rock, Kiss were driven, lower-middle-class Jewish boys hooked on Alice Cooper, The New York Dolls, comic books and PT Barnum. Their flamboyant stage shows, outlandish costumes and garish make-up soon got them noticed. Each member took on the comic-book identity of a superhero: the guitarist Ace Frehley was Spaceman, the drummer Peter Criss Catman, the bass player Gene Simmons, who struggled with his weight throughout the band's career, was the Demon and Stanley was Starchild.
They were larger than life. During performances, Simmons liked to breathe fire and spit blood on the audience (actually yoghurt with added food colouring). It was all perfect fodder for adolescent boys who congregated in US car parks before a show, dressed as their favourite band member. Playing blues-metal as glitter-ghoul kabuki, Kiss built themselves into the world's greatest rock 'n' roll brand.
But from the start they knew their musical limitations. Stanley, a Beatles fan, once described Kiss, as "not good enough to lick their [the Beatles'] boots" and Kiss's dinosaur-tongued bassist, Simmons, made no bones about running the band like a corporation. In their 1970s heyday, such hits as Rock & Roll All Nite and Detroit Rock City rejoiced in their status as perfectly uncomplicated teen anthems bursting with fantasy-world bravado. But a few years after their musical breakthrough with 1975's live album Alive!, the band started to lose momentum.
Once the hits started to fizzle out, Kiss grasped at straws. As the critic Erik Himmelsbach noted, Kiss never saw a musical trend they did not try to co-opt: power-ballads, disco, grunge, pop metal and even rock opera - if there was a buck to be made, Kiss would give it a spin. Kiss were also the first band to market their brand to the limit, with action figures, board games, pinball machines, comics, coffins (the famous Kiss Kasket), and never-ending farewell tours. In the 1980s, they dumped their make-up and then, in the 1990s put it back on for some serious nostalgia-mongering. Along the way they lost two members - Criss and Frehley - replaced with a cast of ever-changing sidemen.
Kiss's opportunism and dogged work ethic has paid off. The band have been awarded 24 gold albums and sold more than 19 million albums in the US and more than 80 million worldwide. As recently as 1996, their reunion tour, the Kiss Alive/Worldwide/Lost Cities/Reunion Tour was America's top-grossing act. So, after years of denying they'd ever set foot in a studio again, why go back into the studio one more time?
Stanley says their last album, 1998's Psycho Circus, should not be their last. It was marred by Criss and Frehley's complaints about their involvement in Kiss. "There was no band!" says Stanley today. "How can you make an album with people who can't come to the studio, with people who send their lawyers to make demands about 'participation'? Having songs on a Kiss album is not a birthright, it's something you earn."
Their most recent replacements, Eric Singer on drums and the guitarist Tommy Thayer, have been with the band for seven years and Stanley says it is their commitment that has sent him back into the studio. "In 20 years, the band has never been better, more focused or got a better reception. I thought it was time to go into the studio and take a step forward, to plot a course for the future," he says.
But this time, says Stanley, he had rules. He insisted on producing Sonic Boom himself and would not allow any outside writer to pen songs for the band. That would be like someone else taking control of the brand, he says. He also refused to use digital recording techniques. "The greatest albums were not made on a computer," he says. "The Beatles, James Brown, Led Zeppellin, those albums are about passion, not perfection. Most of our songs were done in one or two takes."
Sonic Boom marks a return to Kiss's 1970s glory years, says Stanley, and for once, critics have agreed with him. Entertainment Weekly noted "Kiss haven't gotten any subtler in the 11 years since their last studio album," but admitted to liking the track Hot and Cold. "I'm always curious with what people have to say," says Stanley, "but I have survived healthily on many bad reviews. Most of the critics who hated us are working in gas stations now, while we've done quite well. Who needs to be told what is good? Nobody. There you go."
With their usual canny marketing, Kiss arranged for Sonic Boom to be sold exclusively through the discount department store giant Walmart. The reason? Money. "The record industry, in terms of a delivery system, is obsolete, it's a shambles," says Stanley. "By going to Walmart we were able to add an extra CD [which features rerecorded versions of their biggest hits] and a DVD of us live in Argentina at no extra cost."
Sonic Boom reached Number 2 on the Billboard chart when it was released early last month. Stanley is pleased with the album's reception but success has not tempered his attitude to his former bandmates. He says he never misses them but does admit to being shocked to hear the news this month that Criss had breast cancer last year, though he is now cancer-free. "It's horrific when anyone gets cancer," says Stanley, "but especially when its someone close, someone who is part of this family. My prayers are with anyone suffering that disease."
When he is not being a rock 'n' roller, Stanley enjoys painting. But, ever the pitchman, he can't allow himself to indulge in art for art's sake. He currently arranges one exhibition a month and sells high-resolution scans of his work for knock-down prices, because he says "whether you are living in a villa or a van, art would be a good thing for you". He says he has made "multiple seven figures" from his art, which can be found at at Paulstanley.com.
With two hip replacement procedures and one divorce behind him, Stanley is not what you'd call the reflective type. But does he ever wonder why Kiss have endured while so many of their peers have fallen by the wayside? "Becoming successful is nowhere near as hard as sustaining success," he says. "The vast majority of rock 'n' rollers are boobs. They are clueless how they got there and clueless how to stay there.
"You don't survive unless you work hard."