The first time I saw KISS was around second or third grade, just after my parents had split. I went to a K-12 school out in the sticks and there was a senior named Tony Gilley who wore a purple FFA jacket and had a full mustache and Greg Allman hair. Every afternoon Tony would work on his Monte Carlo in the school auto shop just south of the playground. One day he called me over and pulled a worn copy of Alive II from under the seat. “Check it out, Lil’ Blaine,” he said, classic rock blasting from his windows. “Ever seen anything like this?”
Tony opened the gatefold and held it before me. Superheroes wielding electric guitars and massive black drum sets towering into the night, bombs and blood and fireballs five stories high. It was total sensory overload, like a comic book come to life. Was this real? How could this possibly be real?
Tony closed it back shut and set the record in my hands. “Smudge the vinyl and that’s your ass,” he said, smiling. “But you can look at the pictures ’til recess is done.”
I sat against the shade tree and stared at that gatefold for forty minutes straight. There was one character, with space boots, cosmic bandoliers and silver stars around his eyes, who was pointing directly at me. Find your way, kid, he seemed to be saying. You can do anything you want.
The bell rang. I handed the record back. Nothing in life was ever the same again.
(phone rings…) Hello?
Hey, Jamie, how’s it goin’ today?
Whoa! Pretty good, Ace. You?
Ack! (telephonic cackling)
I just listened to “Spanish Castle Magic” off Origins Vol. 1. How’d you pick what covers to do?
Most of them were by groups that influenced me growing up as a teenager, the guitar players that influenced my playing. I’m really happy with the choice of songs and everyone else seems to think so too.
It’s a great set. Cream, The Kinks, Thin Lizzy – were there any artists before that?
It all started for me with the Beatles and Stones. The whole British Invasion took everybody by storm and that’s what really molded my guitar style. Clapton, Jimmy Page, Townsend, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards.
Ah, man . . . I really can’t remember. I learned E, D and A chords. Back in the 60s, if you could play those three chords, you could play a lot of songs. (laughs)
You grew up Lutheran – your dad taught Sunday School and played church organ – what was that like musically? Was that influential too?
Absolutely. I sang in the church choir and that was my first introduction to any type of musical training, trying to understand melody and harmony. That was before rock and roll. But you know, that’s the story for a lot of artists, church music being their earliest influence and that was certainly it for me.
The big news on Origins is co-producing and performing a track with Paul Stanley. The rumor is that Peter and Gene might join you for Vol. 2. Free’s “Fire and Water” was a great choice for Paul, what sort of cover ideas would you have for your other two former bandmates?
Well, everybody’s heard that I tried contacting Gene first…
The song I had in mind for him was “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain. And Peter, you know, I think he’d be great on a Rod Stewart song. He’s got that raspy voice, right?
Any particular one? Faces or solo cut?
Man, there’s so many great ones . . . maybe “Gasoline Alley”? That whole album was great.
Start to finish. So is the plan to see how Vol. 1 does or is Vol. 2 a sure go?
Right now we’re wait and see. If Vol. 1 is as successful as we hope, there’ll definitely be a second volume down the road. I’m slated to go into the studio at the end of this year to start on another album of all originals.
Are you already writing for that record or pulling stuff from the past?
I’m always writing. Whenever I get inspired I turn on the tape recorder and catch any idea I have. Or I should say digital recorder. A lot of times I just record it into my phone.
You’ve always been big into studio gear – when you were doing this back in the 70s, would you have ever dreamed of the technology we work with today?
Oh, man, I had no idea. I never would have thought digital recording would change this business so much. A lot of people say digital doesn’t sound as good, as warm as analog and they’re right. But the flexibility that it gives me as a producer and songwriter is second to none.
So it’s worth the tradeoff.
Back in the 70s when we used audio tape, whenever we would edit something we’d have to get out the razor blade and splice. Today it’s just the click of a mouse. It’s made my life a lot easier.
Has your writing process changed since then?
Not at all. I have no formula. Sometimes I write from a chord pattern or a riff. Other times I’ll get a melody in my head or a lyric idea and just develop it from there. I never had any formal training so I’m a fly-by-the-seat of my pants kinda guy.
When you were working on your first solo LP, were those songs that you had written to pitch for KISS?
Funny you mention that, I was asked the other day why I didn’t have any songs on Rock and Roll Over. I was holding them back because I knew after that record we were going off to do our solo projects. So yeah, I didn’t introduce those to the band so I would have more material for my solo album.
How about “Rocket Ride” from the studio side of Alive II? Was that meant for your solo LP but something you had to give up to get that record done?
Uh . . . I don’t remember! But yeah, I believe that was something I came up with just for Alive II.
They never acknowledged that my album did the best or had the biggest single. Gene, to this day, insists that his did better. (laughs)
But did you get the sense there were hurt feelings? Surely that had to have been a blow to their egos.
I’m sure it was! But they tried not to show it. They pretty much whitewashed the whole thing. We never even discussed it much.
Your first solo record smoked, you had the only stellar, true KISS cut on Psycho Circus with “Into the Void” and then you blew everybody away with Space Invader. Did the criticism from your bandmates drive you to prove them wrong?
I just do what I do. But yeah, when I feel like I have to prove myself, I’m usually a guy that comes through with flying colors. I’m the kind of guy that, if it’s third down and eight yards to go, ten seconds left — then somehow, someway, I’m gonna make the touchdown.
Well, it helped that we had four lead singers, four guys who came up with ideas, four writers in the band. We had some really good producers that helped the process too. It was a lot of work considering we were always on the road as well. I’m not sure how we did it. I guess we knew we had to do it. We felt compelled.
If you had missed the KISS connection, what other band from that era would you have loved to join and been a good fit for?
I probably would have been a good guitarist for Aerosmith. I always felt if I wouldn’t have made it in KISS, I would have connected with some other group. I felt destined for it.
When I was a kid, this older guy at school showed me the Alive II gatefold and it blew my mind. It’s still mind-blowing. Bring me back to that tour, what it felt like to be on that stage.
Wow . . . yeah, it was pretty nuts. We had the most elaborate stage show of anybody in rock and roll at that time. It was mayhem. I had to really worry about where I might be standing during certain songs because flash pots were going off, the fire cannons were going to go off, big explosions and I was shooting rockets and all kinds of crazy stuff going on. So really, it was a staged concert – in many ways like a Broadway show because we had certain cues and so much pyrotechnics and special effects that we had to be aware of that timing.
Would you have to stay sober before the show just to hit your marks?
I rarely got drunk prior to the concert because I wanted to do the best show I possibly could do. After the show? That was party time. (laughs)
If the band had been more democratic in the late 70s – if you had been sober — how would you have changed things?
Ah, I really don’t know. I hate to say. That’s why I called my book No Regrets. I believe I had to make all my mistakes, have all my car wrecks, arrested by the cops – I needed to go through all that to get where I am today. I believe in fate and predestination. God had a plan for me.
I got a call from my daughter, Monique. She said, “Dad, you gotta stop, you’re going down a bad path.” I looked at myself in the mirror and knew she was right. That was my moment of clarity. I knew I had to make a change and thank God for it. A lot of fans say “Ace, you helped me get sober. I figured if you could do it, I could do it too.” That makes my day.
Did you quit cold turkey or was it a process?
I had been to some AA meetings in the past so it wasn’t new to me. I knew I could get help and I knew I had friends there. So, yeah, I knew I had a support group in place, it was just a matter of utilizing them and reaching out. With the help of a 12-step program and the help of prayer and my family I get through one day at a time. I can’t believe it’ll be ten years this September. Miracles do happen, Jamie.
I can remember preachers coming to our church when I was a kid saying you guys were the devil. But I talked to Peter recently and he spoke of prayers and family and one day at time too.
For some reason, people think I’m Jewish! (laughs) I guess because Paul and Gene are, they think all of KISS is Jewish? I dunno. But me and Peter are both Christians and we’ve practiced that for most of our lives.
When you change your life, you change the people that you hang out with. I don’t hang out with the party crowd anymore. I connect with people who are healthier in mind and spirit. I met a great gal seven years ago and she’s taught me how to enjoy life without drugs and alcohol.
The stories of your partying days are legendary. How do you enjoy downtime now?
We like travelling, hanging out on the beach. And casinos. I still like to gamble. Sometimes it’s just laying in bed, ordering room service and watching movies. I can still have fun. I always have fun.
You’ll be sixty-five next month?
What kind of healthy living does it take to stay active and on the road?
I don’t anything real specific. I just try to focus on a high protein, low fat diet, get some exercise and drink a lot of water. I take some vitamins but I’m not a vitamin nut or anything. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t believe in anything to the extreme. I don’t eat a lot of red meat but I still love a steak once in a while.
I’m sure you get tired of the questions about KISS working together again but every fan wants to see their childhood heroes finish on good terms and end the story well. Seems like you’re in a place to help make that happen.
Nobody knows what the future might bring but yeah, I’m really optimistic.
One last question: I remember seeing a magazine picture of you looking through a telescope in your backyard. For a kid guitar player who also studied the stars, that was pretty cool. Do you still keep up with astronomy?
Not as much as I’d like with all the projects I’ve got going right now, but yeah, I’m still into it a lot.
Me too. I’m eager to see what the successor to the Hubble brings when we get it up there in 2018.
Absolutely! We never realized how big the universe actually is. Now a lot of scientists say there might even be a multiverse – multiple universes, multiple realities. Black holes have been proven to exist. So a lot of things that were theories when I was a kid, even when you were a kid, have now been verified. The Kepler space probe is out there looking for earth-like planets and that’s really interesting to me. It’s a very exciting time.
You’ll be touring Origins through the rest of the year so we’ll look forward to seeing you out on the road. Thanks for your time, Ace.
Thank you for great interview, Jamie. You have a wonderful day.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer ACE FREHLEY pays tribute to early influences on his new project Origins Vol. 1. Following a stellar return to form on 2014’s Space Invader, Frehley collects a crew of Slash, Lita Ford, John 5, Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and former band mate Paul Stanley to cover songs by Steppenwolf, Hendrix and even KISS.
Pick up Origins Vol. 1 here.