In November 2014, KISS played a nine-show residency at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. Being KISS, they pulled out all the goddamn stops: Eye-singeing lights, catwalks, Gene Simmons flying through the air in a crotch harness—and pyro everywhere, all the fucking time. Still being KISS, they hired a film crew to capture all the action for KISS Rocks Vegas, a DVD/Blu-Ray/double CD/hardcover photo book now available for your conspicuous consumption. It’s a dazzling and occasionally bloated affirmation of the fact that, after 43 years, KISS still put on a better show than most rockers a third their age.
“The beauty of doing a residency is that we could create a show that didn’t have to be built with mobility in mind,” KISS vocalist and guitarist Paul Stanley tells us over the horn from Springfield, Illinois, where the band is currently on their “Freedom To Rock” tour. “In essence, we could create very close to a stadium show in a very small venue—not unlike when you see one of those bottles with a ship in it. How did it get in there? Piece by piece. You can’t take it out, but it’s really something to behold.”
In the interest of science, we asked Stanley about his experiences in Sin City over the years.
Noisey: Did you guys live in Vegas during the residency, or were you flying home after every show?
Paul Stanley: Both. For quite a bit, we were there. When there were double days down or whatever, I’d go home. I try to spend as much time home as possible. My family doesn’t really get to vote, so I have to vote for them. But their vote is always, “Dad should be home.” So I do my best to live up to that.
What else did you do while you were there? Did you go to Cirque du Soleil or anything like that?
I’ve seen so many of the shows in Vegas, so I pretty much laid low. Our show is very, very demanding and I think that the band and I have a lot to live up to. People come to the show with huge expectations. If they haven’t seen us, they’ve heard the legend, and it’s really up to us not only to live up to it but to surpass it. It’s interesting that on the tour we’re on right now, the reviews and the response from the fans is that this is the best the band’s been. So it’s very important for us to hit that stage and not live on the past but to justify who we are today. So on a down day, I like to take it easy. But Vegas has changed so dramatically from what it once was, whether it was the $1.99 all-you-can-eat buffet or seeing some washed-up comedian. It’s a tremendously vibrant place with a lot of great entertainment and great food, so I love being there.
Can you walk down the Strip incognito?
Sure, as long as I’m not dressed to do a show!
Are you a gambling man?
You know, I maintain that if those casinos were giving away money, they’d be in shacks. You only have to look at the hotel skyline to know who’s winning. [Laughs]
So you’ve never been tempted?
Oh, I would gamble. But my idea of gambling is to set aside a certain amount of money to be entertained, and that money is money that I expect to lose. If I’m lucky enough to recoup it, I put that in my pocket and gamble with what I’ve won. And if I lose that, well, that was the price of admission. People who walk away from Vegas celebrating what they’ve won have forgotten how much they’ve lost.
What’s your game of choice?
Let’s see… what would be my first choice? It’s been so long since I’ve actually done it. Blackjack, I guess.
Do you remember the first time KISS played Vegas?
I do. I believe it was ’74. And let me tell you, Vegas was a different place back then. The hookers didn’t wear Mouseketeer ears. It was a country unto itself and a law unto itself. I remember we played a hotel that will remain nameless, and at that point, we did two shows in a night. At the end of the second show, our then-tour manager went to collect the money. He went into the office and the guy counted us out some money. Our tour manager said, “Well, that wasn’t the deal.” And the guy said, “Take the money and get out.”
Welcome to Vegas…
Yeah. [Laughs] But I have to tell you, at that point Vegas was not only a gambling emporium—it seemed to attract a lot of people who were running from something. I met some very interesting women, and it was a colorful place with a lot of people who were trying to get lost. [Laughs] But it was terrific as long as you were on the right side.
Have you ever done anything in Vegas that needs to stay in Vegas?
It’s there and probably has cobwebs on it by now. [Laughs] But KISS Rocks Vegas is something that couldn’t stay in Vegas. We very much wanted to document this great show and immerse the listener or viewer in the experience. Anytime we do something that’s a live representation of the band, we try to make sure that you’re not viewing it from the outside. We want you to be in it. That’s what made KISS Alive such a great album and makes KISS Rocks Vegas so great. You’re not sitting on your sofa watching it. So that’s one thing we did in Vegas that we certainly made public. But I have other things I did in Vegas that are better left unsaid.
You mentioned KISS Alive, which is one of the top-selling KISS albums ever. There’s also been a lot of folklore about how many overdubs were done to enhance the recording. So how live is KISS Rocks Vegas?
KISS Rocks Vegas is live. I’ll be the first person to tell you that KISS Alive is an amped-up recreation of what people experienced. It needed to be enhanced to make the experience palpable. If you try to record a bomb going off, what happens is that the microphone shuts down, and what was once a bomb turns into a firecracker. So what did we do? We replaced the bombs with recordings of cannons. When we were recording what was onstage, you lose the audience. And again, what we wanted to do was immerse you in the audience, so we surrounded you with [recordings of] the audience.
The reason that album did so great is that it really captures the KISS experience. That’s not something that can be done without helping it, enhancing it, embellishing it. There always seems to be some sort of stigma against that, but who wants to hear a guitar drop? Who wants to hear a string break? Who wants to hear a wrong chord? That’s not what it’s about. At a show, people listen with their eyes. To give them something when they’re home, you have to make up for whatever imperfections there are. Reality can be harsh sometimes, and to hear a wrong chord for eternity every time you play a record would get pretty annoying.
No one wants that.
Yeah. So KISS Rocks Vegas is, for the most part, totally live. It was mixed with the best equipment and made as bombastic as and analogous [to] what we do live. I think you run into trouble when you hear something that’s suspicious. But we’re not trying to put out perfection. We’re trying to put out a representation that’s accurate of us. I don’t think anybody is going to listen to either Alive or KISS Rocks Vegas and go, “Those vocals are perfect.” But that’s not what it’s about. I don’t want to replace passion with perfection.
There’s a photo in the Rocks Vegas booklet of a sign in an elevator that says, “Please keep elevator use to a minimum while KISS is onstage.” What’s the story there?
I saw the sign, but I’m not quite sure why it was there. Maybe we were so ground shaking that you might get stuck in the elevator while we were playing. Maybe if you got stuck nobody would hear you. I really don’t know. It’s one of those KISS phenomenons.
You’re in great shape. If you didn’t have to go onstage night after night, would you be tempted to let yourself go a little bit?
I do let myself go a little bit. I’m not addicted to working out. It’s not something that’s a compulsion. It feels good to be healthy and be in shape. It affects your mind, and your alertness. Endorphins are arguably the strongest drug in the world, so to pump your body full of endorphins and feel fit, it’s really not an obsession. I do that for the same reason I don’t smoke: I wanna be healthy. And it has its benefits. Look, I have a five year old, a seven-year old and a nine-year old in addition to my 22-year old, and they don’t wanna go out with me and have someone go, “Oh, you brought grandpa with you.”
You guys have been back in full makeup and costumes for quite some time now. As I was watching the Rocks Vegas DVD, I couldn’t help but think how sweltering hot it must be to wear all that gear every night. Do you ever wish KISS was back in the no-makeup phase, if only to make the show less strenuous?
There’s glory in what we do. Every time we hit that stage is a victory lap, and anyone who wins the lottery shouldn’t complain about taxes. I’m thrilled to be up there. What we embody and what we look like is something that movies are made about. This is a story that wouldn’t seem possible unless it actually happened. Here’s a band that was doomed from the start—that was written off and scoffed at by critics who are either no longer alive or no longer critics. And we continue, four decades in. The show is phenomenal, and I’m proud to be up there. Wearing that uniform is a big flip of the bird to all of the people who in the beginning said it would never work. But it did because we believed in it. If it was purely a matter of makeup and costumes, there’d be a lot of other bands around doing it—but at this point those bands aren’t much more than a question in Trivial Pursuit. Quite honestly, any band with money can have a KISS show—and many do. But they’ll never be KISS.
J. Bennett has been a KISS fan since age nine. He would like to think that says more about KISS than it does about him, but suspects it’s probably the other way around.