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May 2014
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Interview: Tommy Thayer on Sonic Boom and Being KISS

Interview: Tommy Thayer on Sonic Boom and Being KISS

Tommy (right) and Gene. Photo: Jasen Petersen

What do you remember about 1974, if you were around? Inane sitcoms on network television. Gasoline shortage. Recession. The resignation of a corrupt U.S. president. But if music was, and still is, your heart and soul, perhaps what stands out most in your memory is the way your life was changed by a KISS album—their first, self-titled: loud, heavy on the guitars and melodic rock, recorded on tape.

Thirty-five years later, some things haven’t changed. Inane network television. Gasoline shortage. Recession. A KISS album—their 19th original studio project and first new album in 11 years, Sonic Boom: loud, heavy on the guitars and melodic rock, recorded on tape.

Thirty-five years is an impressive stretch for any relationship, particularly one that began this way: “He was wearing overalls and he had a beard,” Paul Stanley recalls of his first meeting with Gene Simmons. “I didn’t like him. Steve [Coronel, friend and co-writer] said, ‘Gene, Paul writes songs also.’ Gene said, ‘Oh yeah? Play one.’ I did. He looked at me and went ‘Eh.’ … I wasn’t crazy about ever seeing him again …”

So much for first impressions. On their second meeting, Stanley and Simmons locked into a groove that has outlasted most marriages. Together, they have survived the best and worst of times: venom from the media, personnel changes, a fragmented and imploding music industry. Through it all, the recording and relentless touring continued, and KISS fans, the loyal millions, never wavered.

KISS today is Stanley, Simmons, drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer. It’s a powerful, well-run machine, and that’s no accident. Being part of a band that operates on pure adrenalin, focus and determination, that cares not a whit about outside opinions, and whose members are beholden to its rock and roll history is not a “job” from which one clocks out when the platform boots are put away every night. According to Tommy Thayer, being in KISS—being KISS—is a musical and personal commitment. It’s about partnership, respect, hard work and a lot of loud guitars.

Thayer spoke to Premier Guitar about the making of Sonic Boom, KISS 2009, and what it means to have the ultimate gig as lead guitarist in a band that knows no middle ground.

When did plans begin to record a new album?

Paul spearheaded this project and he decided to do a studio recording again. During my years with Gene and Paul they’ve been very ambivalent about it because they were put out with the whole thing. Psycho Circus [1998] was not a great experience, and the results weren’t satisfying to anybody, really. It left a bad taste, to a certain extent, and over the last few years the state of the recording industry has been funky. Where KISS is in their career, to do something is challenging and risky because you’d better hope it comes out the right way, otherwise it can be more of a liability than a positive thing. Fortunately, Sonic Boom turned out well. Paul is smart; he made a band album and he took control. We did it on tape, recording together, no outside writers, none of the silly things bands do to try to please and play politics. We have a KISS record and we’re not bound by anybody else. So we wrote, recorded and finished it, and nobody heard anything until it was done. It’s KISS in the purest sense, it worked out very well, and when it was finished we all said, “We made a damn good record.”

[Read producer Greg Collins’ interview about the recording process]

How long had it been since you recorded on tape?

At least 10 years. I thought it was obsolete! We recorded at Conway Recording Studios, in Hollywood, with Greg Collins. The setup is great. We had Eric’s drums in a booth, Paul, Gene and I were together, we had the amps in iso and we cranked it out. We rehearsed the songs at Mates and at SIR in Hollywood. When we first got together, Gene, Paul and I, in different combinations, the point was to write and not over-think. In 20 minutes we’d get a cool idea together, the basic structure, take it to rehearsal, make sure the arrangement was good, practice it four or five times and take it to the studio. We didn’t record the album all at once. We did it in sections. We were touring here and there, and then we did the first three songs. We went to South America, and on days off we were in our hotel rooms with guitars and mini-Marshalls, putting songs together and recording on our laptops. We’d come home and do the same thing: rehearse, record three songs. We did vocal and guitar overdubs at Greg’s private studio, The Nook, in Studio City. The whole thing, from start to finish, took a total of six weeks, which is a relatively short period by today’s standards. My vocal on “When Lightning Strikes” took 20 minutes.

Which computers and software did you use on the road?

We all have Macs and Mac Pros and GarageBand. It’s the easy way to record. No one in this band is super technical. Gene, in particular, is low tech. You send him an e-mail with an attachment and he e-mails you back and says, “I don’t do attachments.” He does it to the band, to Doc McGhee, no matter who you are! Or if the e-mail is too long, “I don’t scroll.” That’s where he is. He hasn’t figured out how to do attachments; he doesn’t know how! The fact that we can all turn GarageBand on—I figured that out!

How did working with tape change your approach to recording, if it did at all?

One of the main things we did differently from other groups is that we recorded very organically, together as a band. Today, 99.9 percent of people record a drum track and build from there, adding guitars and vocals, step by step. We recorded all the basic tracks together as a four-piece, occasionally fixing bass notes and doing vocals and guitar solos, the way it was done in the 1970s and before. It’s a different approach, and I know that from experience.

Was it worth it?

Oh, absolutely! Part of doing it this way is what gives it that real, spontaneous sound. If you make a record too perfect, if you do it step by step, it ends up sounding good, but the feel can be generic. This way, the flow has a real feel.

Walk us through your gear: the room, guitars, amps, how you created that organic sound.

It was pretty simple. I used Les Pauls and my Gibson Wine Red Deluxe. It’s not a guitar I use on the road. I got it in the mid-’80s and it’s a good sounding Les Paul for the studio and at home. I borrowed Paul’s Gibson 61 SG Reissue and used that more than the Les Paul for rhythm and solos because it has a nice mid-range. I used an old Marshall, my H&K Tommy Thayer Duotone and Statesman combo amp, and an orange practice amp of Greg’s for the raspy edge on my solos. My strings are Ernie Ball Hybrids, 9-46 gauge. The only pedal I used in the studio to give my solos a nicer boost was an Ibanez Tube Screamer. It’s an original from the 1970s or ’80s that I borrowed from Doug Aldridge of Whitesnake 24 years ago and never gave back. Every time I see him, he asks for it and I say, “I’ll give it right back!” Doug gave me a really nice lead guitar sound on this album!

What is your role as lead guitarist in a two-guitar band, and how does it change from studio to stage?

They turn me up and turn Paul down, and that works! Two-guitar bands are my favorite because of the interplay, especially in KISS. When we’re writing, we try to have that counterpart and interplay between the guitars and voicings so that we’re not doing exactly the same thing. That’s a big part in the way the songs were written. The other thing that makes the sound of our two guitars distinctive is that we use different approaches and settings to set the two off, and the more we do that, the better we are. The familiarity we have, the years of playing together, including Gene, have solidified that sense of rhythm and feel. We’re all locked in together. It gives us a lot of power and we’re all good at that. It just works.

What are you using onstage?

My live set-up is very straightforward: four Hughes & Kettner Tommy Thayer Signature Edition Duotone amplifiers, plus four Hughes & Kettner 4x12 speaker cabinets. I use four Gibson Custom Shop '59 and '60 reissue Les Pauls in sunburst, black and silver sparkle, one Custom Les Paul with rocket/gerb firing system [pyrotechnics], and a Gibson Custom Shop Explorer in Silver Sparkle. I use no effects onstage besides an octave divider and an MXR digital delay used in my guitar solo.

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