Tommy Thayer of KISS: “I never forget how fortunate I am”

Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson sat down with KISS lead guitarist Tommy Thayer in Tokyo for a chat about the end of touring for KISS, his contribution to the band, staying motivated on tour and what’s next.

He has been the lead guitarist in KISS, one of the most iconic and successful rock bands ever, for the past two decades. But Tommy Thayer’s association with the band goes all the way back to 1985 when his original band Black ‘N Blue supported KISS on part of the “Asylum” tour. He then went on to write and record music with the band starting with the “Hot in the Shade” album in 1989 and also worked on the business side of KISS in the 1990s. Thus, he was a known and trusted entity when Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley needed to appoint a new lead guitarist as a replacement for Ace Frehley. As KISS is about to hit 50 years as a band, Tommy Thayer remains a very important part of this legendary American rock band.

“Hey, Stefan. Good to see you again!” says Tommy as we meet in Roppongi in central Tokyo. The mighty KISS is on a short visit to Tokyo for a massive show at Tokyo Dome. The day after the Tokyo gig the band flies off to Mexico City to headline the Hell and Heaven Fest. It is a tight schedule but Tommy takes the time to sit down with Roppongi Rocks for a catch-up.

Welcome back to Japan! “Thank you.”

You’ve been here a few times. “Yeah. We were talking yesterday how many times KISS has actually been to Japan. I was talking to Paul. We were estimating maybe 15 times. Maybe 15 to 20.”

What form will KISS take after the “End of the Road World Tour” ends? “KISS itself will not go away. It shouldn’t and wouldn’t because it is such an iconic, important band and brand. The music and imagery are very timeless, as you know. It’s not gonna stop. Sometimes people get the impression that the touring is ending, that somehow KISS is over. If there is any band that can continue for a long time into the future, it’s KISS. I don’t know specifically what’s gonna happen. But undoubtedly there’s going to be business and different opportunities with KISS moving forward.”

Do you think there could be one-off gigs? “I think that’s possible. I think anything’s possible. Certainly, with technology, going into the future there are all kinds of possibilities as far as virtual type stuff. Even other versions of KISS are possible. Even if that would have to be done a certain way. But it can be done. Anything’s possible. It just has to be done in the right way. There are all kinds of different things. The KISS logo licensing and merchandising. I think that somehow, there has to be some activity to keep the thing going and being relevant and that sort of thing. There’s a lot of possibilities.”

What about your future plans apart from KISS? You now know that touring will wind down. Will we see a Black ‘N Blue reunion? “The touring part is winding down. But remember that I have been involved with KISS going back way before that. I have been working in the organisation for 30-plus years. I have known Gene and Paul both for more than 35 years. Anyway, maybe there’s a role or place for me in their organisation moving forward. I really don’t know any specifics on that. But certainly, if the business continues, as it will, I might be involved with that because I am very well-versed and very knowledgeable. I know KISS inside out! Not Black ‘N Blue. Black ‘N Blue had its time. Those guys still do a few things with the band, Jaime and Patrick. But, not that, I don’t think I am going to be playing in another band, necessarily. It doesn’t really appeal to me. Once you’re doing this, at this level of notoriety, there’s really nowhere to go in a lot of ways. Plus, as I get into my sixties, it’s not really something I want to pursue, touring and playing in a band. I was actually thinking in the 90s, or even before that after Black ‘N Blue, I was really thinking more business. Music business, entertainment business, management, production, even then, so I don’t think that will be it either. But maybe something music-oriented or entertainment-oriented.”

You have some other business interests, such as a vineyard I believe. Is that something you want to spend more time on? Are they real business interests or are they more like hobbies? “That’s more of a hobby. There are other things that I am interested in and involved in besides the vineyard. Actually, I don’t even have a vineyard. That’s something my brother Mike has. He’s the one with vineyards just outside Portland, Oregon. He and his wife Kris have released a Tommy’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc. That’s about the extent… I did buy some vineyard property up there, near his property, his vineyard. That’s more of an investment and also just kind of a hobby as far as having my name on it. Just a fun thing. There’s a little bit of money. It’s not a big money thing, but I have also been working on some animation…developing some animation projects the last few years. There might be something there. But I am keeping kind of an open mind. I’m open to all kinds of ideas. I have never been a long-term planner either. Never been a: ‘Hey, my five-year plan is this or that’. It’s more about what’s going on in the next few months.”

Back in the 1980s when your band Black ‘N Blue opened for KISS, did you ever think that your association with KISS would still be going on 37 years later and that you would become the longest-serving lead guitarist of KISS? “I know. In 1985, we opened for KISS on the ‘Asylum’ tour. We did about 24-25 dates in the US, as you know. I think at the time we were just such huge KISS fans we couldn’t believe we actually got this spot on the KISS tour. That was a dream come true, one of those ‘Pinch me, I can’t believe it’ things. We were so excited. We went out and did those shows and we got the opportunity to meet those guys, obviously. Gene first because he’s more outgoing and chatting us up backstage or at the soundcheck, the first couple of shows. Then I got to know Paul a little bit later because he is a little less approachable at the beginning. Certainly, I have known both of them a long time. And then Eric Carr and Bruce Kulick at the time. I never aspired, honestly, to be in KISS or thought that would even be a possibility. I really didn’t. Even when I started working for them behind the scenes before the Convention tour started and I started on KISStory. This is like ’94…’93-’94. I never aspired to be the guitar player of the band. I was really into pursuing the business side of music, production and management.”

How did the transfer happen? You were in the organisation and the band needed a new lead guitarist. “There’s a lot of things that happened during that period of time. I got involved with those guys working in the KISS organisation probably in ‘93. ’94. That didn’t happen – needing a guitar player – really officially until 2003. That’s eight or nine years at least. I started to work for them and because I am a guitar player and because they knew that I could play guitar, I got involved with doing demos with them, writing songs – this is after Black ‘N Blue. There was a lot of guitar-type stuff I was doing in the meantime. Even when they did the reunion, I was working with Ace and Peter. I was rehearsing with those guys. Ace didn’t show up or something… Gosh! Even recording ‘Psycho Circus’, which was hush-hush, to begin with, I did almost all the guitars on that album as you know. Haha! I am not telling you anything you didn’t know. For the record! So, there were all kinds of things I was doing guitar-wise as part of everything else I was doing at the time. As those tours continued, like the ‘Farewell’ tour of 2000, I actually had an outfit ready in the cases – I’m sure you’ve heard this too, but for the record – and boots and all this sort of things, as an insurance policy really because there was a lot of uncertainty with Ace. I was there and they knew that I could do it because they knew my guitar chops and skills over the years. That’s how it came to be and people say: ‘Oh, did you have to audition?’ and that sort of thing. No, it was just a natural transition over the course of several years really that led to it.”

The first KISS album you appeared on was “Hot in the Shade” in 1989. “I did because I co-wrote two songs, ‘The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away’ and ‘Betrayed’. But it was funny after the record came out, ‘Hot in the Shade’, and I heard those tracks. I can still hear my guitar in there from the demo because that album was really all taking demos… You know, they were great quality demos and really just spiffing them up a little bit and putting them out. Which is fine because back then when you recorded demos, they were like the actual tracks almost anyway. Except some of them had drum machine and then Eric Carr came in and actually played the drums after the fact on some of those tunes. I know that the two tunes I co-wrote with Gene, Gene and I demoed those and they sound almost exactly like they ended up on the album. But with Eric Carr playing the drums and then Bruce came in and did the guitar and I think he did the solos and stuff, but I still heard my guitar in there. So, technically, you’re right, that was the first KISS record that I appeared on guitar-wise.”

Gene Simmons has said in some interviews that you and drummer Eric Singer saved the band. What do you consider your biggest contribution to KISS? “Well, if somebody said that we saved the band, I don’t agree with that. I think that we are fortunate to be in the band and doing all this stuff. In a way we deserve it too because we work really hard and, hey, this is where we ended up. It’s not just by chance either. There are a lot of things that go into that. The biggest contribution really is just being a team player for so long and just contributing. I have been real steady and reliable and professional and all that kind of stuff. But that’s just the way I am. I grew up that way and still am. I can play and I am just the right guy. Just who I am and the way I am is what contributed to making this thing work. The interesting thing about that is a lot of fans and a lot of people don’t really understand how important that is. For something succeeding and continuing on for a long period of time, the biggest pitfall for bands, as you know, is just everybody getting along. In most cases, that doesn’t happen, as you know, and bands break up because it is difficult. You’ve got a lot of egos, especially when bands get big. Everybody wants the attention and if somebody else is getting the attention they feel weird. That’s the biggest stumbling block. But with Eric and I, it’s not an issue because we’re not the kind of people who cause problems or try to take too much of the attention away from the other two guys. It’s a fine line. I’ll be honest. There are egos there. Big egos, but that’s OK. That’s what makes them who they are and we are able to deal with that. A lot of people can’t.”

For a number of tours, you have been wearing stage costumes with classic KISS designs from the 70s and 80s. But for recent tours, you have been wearing newly designed costumes. Were you part of designing and creating that? “The outfits we started wearing in 2012 when ‘Monster’ came, they are more unique. They’re not outfits that were redone so to speak. It kind of started with that. But, really, I think that the outfits that we’re wearing now when we started, in 2019, the ‘End of the Road’ tour… I am really happy with this outfit and more happy than any of the ‘Monster’… It was kind of inspired by that a little bit. Yeah, when we decided to start work on a new look and do new outfits rather than redoing the existing ones from before, we all got involved. I came up with some ideas, Spiro Papadatos – who is a good friend, he has been around the band a lot too, but in the last couple of years – I asked him to come up with some ideas and he came up with some good sketches and some good ideas. Then I would add some of my ideas and certainly Paul and Gene would look at it and they reworked things, coming up with some tweaks. So, everybody worked on it together.”

It turned out very well. It has the essence of the Spaceman but it’s new. “Exactly! Sometimes it is kind of hard to hit the nail on that, but on this one, at least with my outfit, I feel really good about it. I think it is really identifiable. It’s a signature classic KISS outfit. And it will be!”

Being on a multi-year world tour and playing similar shows day in and day out can be tough. How do you stay motivated? “I never really had a problem with that kind of stuff. Or anything in my life. I never lose touch with how lucky I am to be doing this. Somehow people kind of forget that. ‘Wait a minute! We are so fortunate to be doing this for a career and making money’. Still, there are a lot of people in bands that can’t handle it. I’ve never felt that way and I’ve always been inspired to do it, I never forget how fortunate I am. And I think maybe it’s because my career’s been kind of a slow build or slow climb. I am not the guy that the first band got signed and went to a huge platinum status like some of the other bands that came along at the same time that Black ‘N Blue did. Black ‘N Blue really didn’t do as well as Ratt or Great White or, certainly, Mötley Crüe. We did OK but it was more of a slow build with me. Maybe that has something to do with me appreciating things more and being more mature about the way I look at it. You know what I am saying? If you’re young and you have success immediately, that’s harder to deal with, to handle. I wasn’t in KISS until I was, let’s see, 42, 43 years old. I mean, jeez! I think that is part of it too.”

KISS started what it has announced as its final tour ever, the ‘End of the Road World Tour’, in 2019. The tour will continue during 2023. No official end date for the tour has yet been announced.

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