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Interview: Tommy Thayer on Sonic Boom and Being KISS

Interview: Tommy Thayer on Sonic Boom and Being KISS


Tommy's combo during the recording of Sonic Boom

Tommy Thayer's Signature H&K

In 2008, Tommy Thayer partnered with Hughes & Kettner for the launch of his line of Tommy Thayer Signature Edition guitar amplifiers. As mentioned by Thayer and Sonic Boom co-producer/engineer Greg Collins in their interviews with Premier Guitar, the Duotone was used for recording the album and performing live.

What makes the Duotone particularly special is that Thayer donates 100 percent of the royalties earned from sales of the amp directly to the Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Thayer is on the Board of Trustees at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. He works to bring new musical instruments into school band programs in his home state and has made speaking appearances at middle and high schools. He also hosts the annual Pacific University Legends Golf Classic, bringing together musicians, celebrities and PGA pros to raise funds for Pacific University’s Athletics Program in Oregon.

Thayer credits his parents for instilling his philanthropic interests. “I get a lot of that from them,” he says. “My dad taught me that it is very important to help people and that it should not be all about yourself; that helping others is a quality you should always have.”
You’ve been involved with KISS for 20 years.

I began songwriting with them after Gene produced Black ’N Blue. I recorded demos with them. Then Black ’N Blue ran its course and I needed a job. I worked for KISS’ organization and helped out on projects; it’s now 15 or 20 years ago. It evolved quickly, with more responsibility and spearheading projects, conventions, the reunion tour, DVDs, editing. As Ace and Peter bowed out again, I was heir apparent because I knew how to do it.

When did you begin to feel like a band member?

There was always a strong familiarity between us, knowing each other very well, even when I worked in their office. I got in the band in 2002-2003. One of the main elements to making things work in a band is being comfortable with each other. Gene and Paul have been around a long time, and one of their main criteria is that everyone be comfortable and compatible personality-wise. People think that being in a band is all about how you play, and certainly that is a big part, but personalities are important too. It took me a year or two to feel confident and a part of the band, and that’s understandable. KISS has a long history, and you can’t just come in feeling like you’re a big part of this. Having had a lot of input with the new album, I definitely feel very much like a solid member.

When fans attend KISS concerts, they want to hear the songs played a certain way. How do you stay true to form without feeling like you’re playing in a cover band?

First of all, I don’t want to do it any other way. People sometimes suggest, “You should put more of your personality into the old songs.” No. I want to play them the way they were written and recorded originally, because when I see a new guitarist in a band, I want to see him nailing it the way it’s supposed to be. I hate going to concerts where the new guitarist is playing a new interpretation of the songs. That doesn’t work for me. The other side of that is that sometimes I take flak for copying Ace. No, I’m playing KISS songs and making them sound the way they should. Ace was a part of the 1970s sound, and I don’t want to do them another way. Capturing the KISS sound is a big part of the new record, and if people say I’m an Ace clone, fine, all I’m doing is capturing the classic sound of KISS. Tommy Thayer is there, too, but it’s not 75 or 80 percent Tommy Thayer. That’s a different direction, although my style is very similar to Ace’s style, and he was one of my influences.

Are the members of KISS underrated as musicians and songwriters?

I think that has always been true with KISS. They took a lot of flak in the old days: “Oh, they can’t play.” To me, they were the band with great nights and off nights, so that can make them seem less consistent. The band today is fiery and in your face. We go out every night and lay it down, and the point of view that someone may have taken before doesn’t apply anymore. Eric is one of the greatest rock drummers out there, I don’t do so bad, Gene and Paul have been at it for a long time, and we’re all very cohesive and strong when we’re together. We’re coming from the same place in how we approach the songs, and that can be very lethal onstage, especially with a big P.A.!

Does being the guy who replaced the guy [Frehley] who replaced the guy [Kulick] who replaced the guy [St. John] who replaced the guy [Vincent] who replaced the original guy [Frehley] cost you rep points? Can you be Tommy Thayer, guitarist, and not just Tommy Thayer, replacement guitarist in KISS? Or is being Tommy Thayer, replacement guitarist in KISS, the gig and that’s enough?

It’s more about that, because at this point does it really matter? Look at the Stones. There have been a lot of configurations in that band, and they’re still around. I don’t try to compete with that concept. I’m the guitarist in KISS 2009, the band is kicking ass, and so I’m not worried about what came before me. This is where I am now, and I’m standing proud with a great new record, enough said. It is what it is. I’m the guy onstage, I’m doing it very well, and that’s all I need to know.

Is there a guitar album in your future?

Honestly, I don’t aspire to do a solo or guitar album. It doesn’t seem like something I want to try to approach. It would never be as good or as important as KISS and I have no desire to do it. It doesn’t appeal to me. Remember, I like two guitars!

What is the difference between playing guitar and being a guitarist?

There’s a big difference. Playing guitar, to me, is more a technical, rudimentary thing—picking up a stringed instrument, making chords and playing solo lines. A guitarist, especially in a band like KISS, opens up a whole other world of attitude and point of view and approach that’s unique. When someone listens to the new record and says, “Tommy did real well and he’s on the mark,” or when fans say that, part of me thinks, I am on the mark. Not that it’s about what people say, because I feel it inside and the guys tell me I’m doing it right, and that’s reassuring. To do this and do it well is not as simple as some people think. Combine it with the personalities involved, and living KISS day to day—it’s not a simple thing. Making it work so smoothly is part of being the guitarist in KISS. And I can assure you that being the guitarist in KISS is completely different from being the guitarist in any other band.

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