“I’m 67 and, boy, do I look good!” says legendary KISS bassist and vocalist Gene Simmons when Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson meets him at the recent opening of the KISS Expo in Tokyo’s Harajuku district.
KISS legend Gene Simmons is in a great mood and jokes around with anyone who comes in his way. Japan is a key market for the KISS band and the KISS brand. Simmons loves Japan. “And good-looking chicks!” as he points out while basking in the attention he gets from the Japanese ladies.
“We love Japan, if you don’t know that, learn it!” KISS and Japan have had an ongoing affair since the band’s early days in the 1970s. Most recently the band toured Japan in 2015. That very successful tour was crowned by a sold-out show at the massive Tokyo Dome where the band performed “Yume no Ukiyo ni Saite Mina” (the Japanese version of “Samurai Son”) together with Japanese pop band Momoiro Clover Z. That collaboration, which earned KISS a number one single in the Japanese charts, is a great example of how KISS, and especially Gene Simmons, get the commercial side of the music business.
Gene Simmons is a rock star and a businessman. Probably one of the most successful businessmen in music. He has nailed it when it comes to building the brand and extending it far beyond the band’s music. “We make everything from KISS condoms to KISS caskets. We get you coming and we get you going!” says Simmons while looking very pleased.
The KISS Expo is filled with KISS memorabilia such as stage costumes, instruments, gold records, backstage passes, posters and even the initial band contract between the original members. It’s a combination of paradise and a candy store for KISS fans. “This is a celebration for dreams. Everybody has dreams. You have dreams, I have dreams. KISS is America’s number one gold record award-winning group of all time in all categories. But once upon a time I was a little boy and I had dreams, just like you have dreams. And I would like you all and everybody who comes to the KISS Expo to understand that when you open the doors and come into the KISS Expo, you will be opening the doors to what’s possible with your dreams. So, we all dream. The difference between your dreams and the people that do great things, is that they do something about their dreams. So, go make your dreams come true. Go do it. You can do it. You can achieve great things. This is your opportunity. Let today be the first day of the rest of your life.”
“The offer to come to Japan was for me and the band KISS a great day because we have always loved Japan, ever since our second album in 1974 when we wrote our names in classic Japanese letters, top to bottom, not one side to the other side, as an homage in honour of the culture and the history of Japan. We’ve always been fascinated.”
“Most of the things here came from my personal collection. There are some outfits that have come from some fans. Some of our fans have also loaned us their bass guitars that they got from us. For me it’s very personal, because what you see about a band that came to Tokyo to play Budokan and broke the Beatles’ record, which we thought was unbelievable, is for me a personal journey that I took. For me it was only yesterday where I had a dream and all these 43 years later, I can’t believe it. That’s how fast it was. For people who have grown up and have children now and the children listen to KISS and all that, it takes a long time. For me that time just flew by.”
“The most personal thing in here to me is…ME! Because it is people and imaginations, it’s not things. It’s not a thing that makes the magic. Things don’t make magic, you make the magic. Even if you have Aladdin’s lamp it takes a human being to have a dream and a wish to rub the lamp and then make the dream come true.”
The expo also features a virtual reality tour with footage from Gene Simmons’ own collection at his home.
“That’s my house, you’re inside my house, my personal collection. When you put on the virtual glasses to go see this great KISS collection, that’s in my house. For me it’s personal. This journey is not corporate. This journey and this expo for me is part of my life.”
With a music catalogue stretching back to the debut album “KISS” In 1974, Gene Simmons and KISS have written many iconic songs that have made an impact on several generations of fans. “It’s all the same for me. When you talk about Nick, my son, and somebody else talks about Sophie, my daughter, I love them all. All the songs are my children. This is part of my life, you talk about my family. You know, these are more than songs. People have been born to those songs. There are children named after our songs, ‘Beth’ and ‘Christine’ and it’s almost culture. It’s like Planet KISS. And, yes, I already trademarked that!” Of course he has. The business savviness sets Simmons apart from many other rock stars.
But the music industry has changed a lot since KISS started out. “It’s so sad today for new bands, very sad. They will not have what I had: a record company that believed in you, that put posters in stores, that gave you money to tour. The internet is the enemy! They will not pay you. You will have to live in your mother’s basement and give away your music for free. It’s very sad. The internet started around 1988. Downloading, file sharing. Let’s play a game: from 1958 until 1988 is 30 years. Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix…a thousand bands, classic, forever. In disco we have Madonna, in pop we have Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5. U2, AC/DC, maybe KISS…a thousand bands. From 1988 until today, who is the new Beatles? That’s the sad part. Because when something has no value, when it’s free, and when people steal your music – not our music, it’s too late for me, I’m too rich – but if you’re a new band, my heart goes out to them. Which is why I want to reach out and help new bands. I produced a Japanese band called EZO, which I loved, because I want to help new bands all the time. I discovered a new band called Van Halen, I wanted to give them a chance, because I already have what I want and it gets bigger and bigger. For a new band today, it is almost impossible. Live shows is the only way to do it. Which is why now that the Yellow Monkey have reformed, go see Yellow Monkey live. Support Japanese bands!”
Music is escapism and Simmons compares it to Alice in Wonderland. “We think that music is just music. It’s not! It is not, because a world without music is mankind without a soul. When you’re a little baby and you cry, your mother held you in her arms and she sang to you. If there was no music, even that would not be possible. Music is our souls, it’s the water and the food for our souls. Without it we’re just empty. We have food for the body but without feeding the soul, which is music. When you go and see your favourite band – when you go to see Yoshiki and X or Yellow Monkey, or the great Japanese bands, you forget about the traffic jam, you forget about your girlfriend who’s screaming at you before, you forget about everything. It’s magic time! Magic! Like Alice in Wonderland, you go on a trip and that’s the best thing music does for everybody.”
“Some people think it is just music. It’s not. It’s magic!” Simmons tells me, gives me a fist bump and walks off to have a look around the exhibition. He seems very pleased with the expo. He is a shameless self-promoter. He is his own biggest fan. But he has the talent, drive and success to back it up. He may be 67 years old but he is showing no sign of wanting to slow down. KISS is still in business. The magic business.