I was six years old in 1976, when Kiss released Destroyer on the heels of their 1975 breakthrough, Alive! , and officially became the
I was six years old in 1976, when Kiss released Destroyer on the heels of their 1975 breakthrough, Alive!, and officially became the hottest band in the land. The perfect age to become a superfan, but alas, I was prevented from becoming one due to the fact that my parents thought Kiss was crap and they wouldn't let me listen to or own any of their albums. I still managed to sneak over to friends' houses to listen to "Detroit Rock City" and the rest of Destroyer over and over again. And, of course, you had to pick a favorite member -- Gene Simmons was too creepy, and Paul Stanley was too much of a goober, so it came down to Ace Frehley or Peter Criss. For some reason I went with Peter; kinda ironic, since I'm horribly allergic to cats. I may not have enlisted in the Kiss Army, but I'm hardly ashamed to say I'm a Kiss fan to this day.
Anyhow, Peter Criss has had his ups-and-downs with Kiss over the years, leaving the band three times -- in 1980, after Dynasty; in 2001, after a contract dispute following the 1996 Kiss reunion; and in 2004, when Gene and Paul chose not to renew his contract. Still, he's released six albums outside of Kiss -- more than any other member of the band. His latest, One for All, came out last month; he served as singer, drummer, arranger, composer, and producer, and brought in players like Paul Shaffer and Will Lee from David Letterman's band to help him out. As befitting a guy who once got drum lessons from Gene Krupa, grew up on Motown soul, and who wrote the ballad "Beth," one of Kiss's most popular songs ever, it's a strings-laden album steeped in jazz, soul, and R&B flavors; a couple songs are reminiscent of early '70s Bowie, and there's even a cover of "Send in the Clowns." It's definitely better than last year's Paul Stanley solo album, that's for sure. And now that he's got a brand-new recording studio in his house, he's staying productive -- both a more rock 'n roll album, as well as a traditional swing album, are nearly finished, and he hopes to release one or both in 2008.
I had the opportunity to speak with the 61-year-old Criss over the phone the other day -- he was extremely nice, quite friendly, and very talkative. After the jump, part one of the interview.
Hey Peter, how are you?
I'm okay. Runnin' around doing a bunch of errands, and it just wore me down for a second. The weather’s really hot and humid here.
Where are you right now?
I’m on the Jersey shore. This is the dog days of summer. I don’t wanna be out as much as I have to be out, and one of our air conditioners busted a few days ago. Of course it would be the master bedroom, so I’ve been sleeping in the guest rooms all over the house and I still haven’t found a comfortable room, and I gotta rest today because tomorrow I have a bunch of television stuff to do.
It must be exciting going around behind a solo album -- you haven't put one of these out since what, '94?
Yeah, it’s always cool because I find it...I’ve been doing it so long that you wonder sometimes, you know? But when it becomes personal like this album is, it's that good old feeling again because you created something that wasn’t there before, and you’re very proud of it.
Now that One for All is out there and people can buy it, how do you feel about it?
Well, this one more than anything has really rocked my boat. I’ve done a lot of solo albums, more than all the other guys, and it's like, for me there's a lot of work. When I’m with the guys it’s just like, do the drums, go take a vacation and come back and do your parts, you know, and it’s much easier, but over the years now I’ve really worked a lot harder on Peter Criss. I know who he is and what he is, and I’m still the same old kid from Brooklyn, I still love jazz, I love Motown, I love all music. Let's face it -- "Beth" didn’t have a raging Ritchie Blackmore guitar track. The song was written with finesse for an orchestral thing, and I was raised that way, I come from a very musical family. So anyway, this one especially was something that I took two years on and off to do, a major labor of love, and now that it’s out… I look at myself as a quarter of a historical, major band. I am one fourth of the most historical band that will be talked about forever, we did some major stuff. And now I’m getting to a point where playing with the likes of Paul Shaffer and Will Lee and other guys that, as I call them, musicians' musicians, has bounced me up to a degree where I feel like now, finally, I’m playing with these guys and I take it as serious as a heart attack, and it’s meant a lot to me. I did the whole Orson Welles thing -- I wrote it, I sang on it, I arranged it, I drummed on it, I produced it, I put my own money into it...it’s something I’ve never gone this far for, so there was much more stress involved here, and it’s still early because she’s only been out a few weeks now, but I know the business. I’ve been doing it very long, and after a couple more weeks that’ll be the end of it. And it’s kind of that way for all of us in [Kiss]-- each one of us puts a solo project out, it kinda does what it does and then that’s that. That’s obvious because when the four of us are together, we can play Madison Square Garden, and when we’re not, we can't. That’s a stone-cold fact.
Has it been hard to come to terms with that?
No, no, I dig it, because look -- I’ve been to the mountain so many times, I own part of it. I’ve been so blessed by God, the fans all my life have given me … my dream has been my reality for almost 40 years now. No qualms, I’m blessed, I live with that and it’s just become part of my life. But this record, again, because I’m doing it all, is much more of an emotional trip for me. I know some of the [Kiss] fans love the three-chord stuff, they love the heavy, bombastic stuff that’ll put you through the wall, and I like it too. But there’s a side of me, a very tender side...I wear my heart on my sleeve -- the Peter Criss fans know that -- and I put that into this record. I re-did a song my mother loved, I did a Steven Sondheim song, I wrote three songs for my wife, I wrote two songs especially for the fans – “Faces in the Crowd” and “Memories” -- and 9/11, I wrote "One For All" about that...it's about that day of infamy that I will never forget, and it was kinda my own little opinion. I don’t care about Paris Hilton, or whose baby is whose. I care about what's going on in the world, and I’m tuned in to a lot more things, and so in my own way I wanted to start giving back for all of the wonderful things I’ve had. The Peter Criss of today, I’m playing music that suits my soul, I’m in a really good place where I can create again like I did in the beginning. And if people have followed my style of music and followed my career, you know, I have not changed.
That's true -- I don't think the Peter Criss fans will be that surprised by the sound of this album.
I believe that. My fans are all now in their 30's, 40's, and 50's, and they’re not stupid. They’re really smart. I get e-mails from doctors, lawyers, major players in our society, and I’m really taken aback by that because all these people now have kids and grandkids and they've risen through the ranks. Of course I get asked about the guys constantly, you know, what I think of Gene’s show – I don’t watch that shit because I don’t like reality television. I’m a loner, I’m a really private guy, I always have been. They used to say, "When Peter talks, people listen, cause it’s the truth, 'cause that’s how Peter is." I found that to be very true because when I go out among the fans, they really feel that of all the members [of Kiss], I always had this kind of spiritualism, which I do -- I’m a devout Catholic -- and I’ve always had this honor and dignity about myself, and I’ve always respected the fans. They are the real stars, they are the reason for everything for me. And I think they’ll get this album. It’s a lot different than anything I’ve ever done -- there's so much more feeling in this, and so much more of me where that I know I put myself out there as a target. And there's a lot of crap I’m getting, too. You get the idiots, like, "What's this, he thinks he’s Sinatra?!" But then there’s much, much more positive, like, "God, these songs have so much feeling, so much soul, the words are really brilliant, it’s like this wonderful trip of life.” I did that, and I did what I set out to do.
Are you the kind of guy who likes to sit back and contemplate your whole career, or are you always just looking forward to the next thing? Do you still feel like you have the perfect song still on the tip of your brain?
Yes. I wrote "Beth," and I want another one. I do, I wanna write another one of those. She’s been so good to me -- I still get royalty checks. But we all do our own thing. Paul, of course, did a solo album and went out, and there's Gene with his TV thing, and I dunno where Ace is, but I’m a musician still and it's not ...people keep going, you know, "Why don’t you just go play golf and sit on the porch?" and I’m thinkin', You gotta be out of your mind! I’m gonna die playing music. I dunno anything else to do with my life but play drums and sing and write and compose, that’s what God put me here for. I’m not really ready to kick up daisies -- I’ve got my health and I'm feeling good these days. And having people like Paul Shaffer and others I can depend on, I have a nice posse of people around me. I have a great publicist, I opened up my own little company and it's being distributed by Sony. I’m in a nice place, finally, in my career where I’m callin' the shots and there’s nobody over my shoulder screaming that they don’t hear this or that. I’m a man -- I’m not gonna take that from nobody. I treat people the way I wanna be treated.
Yeah, there's all that lore about Kiss that almost every time you brought a song to the band, they were either criticized or completely nixed by Gene and Paul. Has that been exaggerated or overstated?
Absolutely not. It’s always been that way – give Peter one song. And if I wrote more, they wouldn’t take it and they'd give me some line, like, "Oh it’s not for the band." You know, I hate to... I’m writing an autobiography -- I’m not on it yet because I think when you do that your life’s over, it seems. But I look at it as, one member wrote one [Gene Simmons' Kiss and Make-up], and there's only three more guys that really know what went on in the band, and not the people outside of it who wrote a ton of books, which are all bullshit. I don’t know if Paul will write one, he’s also a personable guy. I don’t know about Ace at all, but I will. I started work on it, and it’s still in the corner over there and I will finish it and put my side of life ...it’s not all about Kiss, it’s about everything -- it’s about growing up, being in bands, being in gangs, going through my crazy years, surviving and being in a good place right now. So, you know, I don’t know, you see what each one of us ... I guess my point is you see exactly what each one of us is doing with our lives when we’re not together. When we’re together it’s amazing, it’s magic. For four people who don’t have anything in common, I don’t know how we do that, but I guess it’s called chemistry. But yeah, me and Stan Penridge, who was in the band Chelsea with me before I was in Kiss -- he’s passed on now -- we wrote a ton of songs and we wrote "Beth" together; a jokeable tune that turned out to be a Peoples' Choice winner, which the guys really hated me for. And even with [1998's] Psycho Circus, it was everybody waiting for us to do a great studio album, but it was nonsense -- I brought in songs and again they turned them down. I wound up singing a ballad I didn’t want to, but the songs I brought in, which were [One for All's] "Hope" and a song I’m doing on my rock album, I’m doing them now, so it turned out for the best. But it always seemed like I was getting the lesser of the plate. I get thousands of letters where people feel my voice is pretty kick ass at times.
I agree, I always thought it was cool when you sang lead, like on "Hard Luck Woman."
Well, thank you. But again, the fans are so much wiser now. I cannot believe what they see. Finally I’m like, "Oh my God, I’m not crazy!" It used to be, like, "I feel this stuff and I see this, and the guys don’t, and other people don’t," but now they're getting it because it’s blatantly obvious each member, how and what they feel and what drives them. And I’m just not money driven. I’m not, never have been, never will be. I’m kinda spiritually driven, and it's all about the music for me. I didn’t play drums to become rich, I played drums to become rich at heart with music because I had a gift from God, and anything that came after that is just icing on the cake.
Tomorrow: Part Two of the interview, in which Peter talks about legendary jazz drummer Gene Krupa; his ongoing competition with the other members of Kiss; and writing a song about Ace for the new album.