GEAR NERD- BASS WITH GENE SIMMONS (KISS)
Posted on April 15, 2010
When the guys were in the UK recently on a promotion trip in support of the album and the announcement of the tour dates, we took the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with bassist Gene Simmons about his bass playing career, influences and set up...
RR UK: So, Did you start playing the bass first, was that your first instrument?
Gene: No, my first instrument was guitar, self taught and I did it like anybody else in the prehistoric days- we took albums, which went 33 rpm, and we slowed them down. So grrrrrr rrrrr [sound of slowed down record],like that. But then I could pick up the notes and the chords and copy them, and then try to play along with them, but of course when the record sped up to full speed it changed, didn’t it, the tonality went up! Ha! But in either case that’s how I learned how to play guitar, and then of course meeting other guitar players who showed me voicings and Sus4 and so on. And then, I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and thought 'gee, this is a good job, girls scream, you get to dress funny, wear your hair kinda kooky', and that was it it, it’s better than being a plumber. So I wanted to do that and then I noticed when I first went out meeting other guys in other bands, there were a million guitar players but no bass players. So I decided to pick up the bass, because I’d get into a band easier.
RR UK: So when you’re talking about going back and playing over records that you liked, trying to play those, what kind of artists were you trying to mimic back then and learn the parts to?
Gene: Gee there was a lot of stuff, a lot of R n’ B records you know- Otis Redding, Stax Vault, Sam and Dave records, things like that. Turned out to be a guy named Steve Cropper mostly, in the Mar-Keys and the House Band, Booker T and The MGs, was all Steve Cropper. Steve Cropper and Otis Redding actually co-wrote ‘Respect’ and first recorded it, and then it was recorded by Aretha Franklin. And when you hear ‘Soul Man’ [hums tune] that’s all Steve Cropper- before your time [laughs]. And so those were the original guys that I learnt from, and then of course from listening to the British groups, to hear a major A chord from Pete Townsend or somebody like that teaches you the basics of guitar, and learning to play guitar early on was actually a help in writing songs; of course you can be a bass player and write songs but by knowing guitar a little bit you can actually write the parts.
RR UK: So how old were you, say, when you first picked up a guitar?
Gene: I was 14, and I remember immediately write my own songs. [sings] ‘My uncle is a raft, and he al-ways keeps me floating, he is so good to me, he treats me tenderly, it doesn’t matter who you are, My uncle is a raft'. I was just throwing words up and writing everything, and originally it was it sort of Bonzo Doo Dah band. You should look this band up, it’s an English band in the early sixties but eclectic initially. I listened to everything, R’n’B, Beatles and stuff, and then really started to hone in on the early great sixties anglo bands, I’m a big anglophile. One listen to 21st century Schizoid man, by… you don’t know what I mean, right?
RR UK: 21st Century Schizoid man- rings a bell but I couldn’t tell you who it’s by off the top of my head
Gene: Look it up. [We did- King Crimson, Ed.] Just great stuff. So much great stuff. Thunderclap Newman produced and written by Pete Townsend. There were so many... there must have been thousands of British bands, yes The Beatles, yes the ‘Stones, Kinks, Zombies, Hollies, ah Searchers, Fortunes, Tremalos, Sounds Incorporated, a million of them, Jerry and The Pacemakers, and on and on, thousands and thousands of bands, and I devoured all of them. And there’s some new English groups that are really interesting- Keane write good songs, Arctic Monkeys write good pop songs. The problem is they’re not stars. You don’t have a clue what their names are, and you don’t care what they ate for breakfast or who they’re shagging. And a star is what Elvis Presley is, yes you like the songs but you either want to fuck him or you want to find out who or what he’s doing. That’s the sign of a star. And if you’re in Kasabian or anything else, and you can’t tell me who’s in the band, and people on the street don’t know you’re in a band, you’re not a star. A star is bigger than what he does. Even the people who hate you are curious about you as a personality, that’s a star.
RR UK: That's very true. So how old were you when you started playing the bass then?
RR UK: Fifteen, so you’d been playing guitar for about a year. Do you remember the first bass that you bought or was bought for you?
Gene: My mother bought me a Kent bass, which was like a copy of McCartney’s Hofner, like a violin body. A white Kent bass. Cheap, 35 dollars. But it played.
RR UK: And how long were you playing that bass for?
Gene: I played that bass [thinks] for probably three years.
RR UK: So it stood you in good stead then...
Gene: Oh yeah. I played it through The Missing Links, and The Long Island Sounds, these are bands that we had, and Cathedral. And then I got an EB1, which was a bass guitar made from, kind of a Gibson offshoot. And of course that was stolen.
RR UK: So you mentioned some bands there then, so one you’d got your bass you started playing in some bands- tell us a little bit about some of the bands that you were playing in before you had Kiss.
Gene: The bands mostly played high school dances, and it was a way to get chicks; to allow you to.. you know... [laughs] When you’re a teenager you hope that she’ll let you take her down to the laundry room and see what colour her bra is, you know, and all that naughty stuff. And of course if you were in a band you could pretty much do anything that you wanted to, versus a pre med student- they just wouldn’t get any. If you play guitar in a band, that skirt comes right up. It exists today; of course it doesn’t exist with synth bands… do Franz Ferdinand get laid? I don’t think they're that kind of band.
Sami: How many bands would you say that you played in towards, eventually, Kiss?
Gene: About five; it was Long Island Sounds, Missing Links, Cathedral, I’m embarrassed to say Bullfrog Beer, which was a college band although I never drank and never got high, and then Wicked Lester, and then finally Kiss.
RR UK: So were some of those more in line with your early inspirations, or were they rock bands?
Gene: No. The early bands were kind of a mixture of everything, we did Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, to instrumentals by The Ventures, to Sander Sham and the Farrels- very obscure stuff- ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ by Van Morrison... and then we all tried to do Beatles stuff, and in the band I was the singer. Of course I had a much higher voice then...
RR UK: You mentioned that you were self taught, did you ever have any theory lessons? Did you learn how to read music or any of that stuff?
Gene: No. I can’t read a stick of music, I’ve written hundreds of songs, I’ve had them covered by Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder, and Cher, and almost anybody that you care to mention, but I couldn’t tell you if you wrote it down on a sheet of paper, and neither could Lennon and McCartney or Jagger and Richards, or Jimmy Hendrix- they couldn’t read or write music. But they could write songs.
RR UK: So when you think back over all the people who’ve endorsed you over the years, can you remember what guitar and bass companies have endorsed you over the years?
Gene: I haven’t taken the endorsing route too much. I was involved with Ampeg amplifiers for a while, but what I do instead is manufacture and sell my own guitars. I am the guitar company and I am the creator- the Gene Simmons axe is a massive success. They go for 5000 dollars a piece, each one is numbered and signed and so on, but I actually own the trademark. Guitar players call their instruments the axe, I play my axe, but I’m the only one who actually owns the phrase!
RR UK: So what’s your rig onstage, what’s your set up?
Gene: Um, I have my Punisher or Axe basses, which I manufacture and sell, and usually there are four Ampegs, 360 SVTS- they usually stick out anywhere, from 200 to 300 watts RMS- and if we’re playing outdoors a few of them will be connected. And a combination of Cabinets, some of the cabinets have the 8 10 inch speakers, yeah, there would be 8 10 inch speakers in one cabinet, then I have another cabinet with 4 12 inch speakers, and another one with 2 18 inch speakers. So it’s a big, big sound.
RR UK: So how often do you practice, both when you’re on the road and just at home?
Gene: Hardly ever. I mostly pick up a guitar and doodle, and sometimes things come out of it, or on piano, just doodle and see what happens.
RR UK: What tips would you give any kids out there who’re picking up a guitar or bass?
Gene: Steal. Take a lick, check it twice, find out if it’s naughty or nice, turn it upside down, play it backward. You know ‘Sunshine Of Your Love'? If you do it backwards it’s your riff. Play it backwards, tear the middle of it upside down, inside out, and by Frankensteining your way though it, take a piece from here and a piece from there, you create your own. I mean, what is cooking except taking things that everybody’s been using all along and just making your own mixture. ‘I’m a creator...?’- you create nothin! Salt and pepper have always been here, and you take chicken and vegetables, there’s nothing original about it. So when you listen to The Beatles, totally original. No, it’s not. They took Carl Perkins’ kind of songwriting abilities, and stuck in some Chuck Berry and some Little Richard, and they covered everybody’s songs, and Motown and Everly brothers harmonies, and when you see the elements, the DNA that makes it up, you see that this ‘Beatle body’ is made up of bits and pieces of all of American music. But when it comes out as The Beatles, it’s a brand new thing. [In Liverpool accent] Y’know what I mean?
RR UK: [Laughs] Yeah I know what you mean. Final question- what would you say are your top riffs ever, that you’ve heard and have just blown you away?
Gene: Riffs that I’ve written, or other people?
RR UK: Other people.
Gene: Well by some estimates, ‘Smoke On The Water’ is the most often played riff by all guitar players, new guitar players certainly...um...but I’m a major Jeff Beck fan. When he had his ‘Truth’ and ‘Beck-ola’ albums... Top riffs? Jeff Beck, ‘Plynth’. Uh, Mountain- ‘Never In My Life’, ‘Satisfaction’ by the ‘Stones- it’s undeniable, as soon as it starts, the song’s there, it’s undeniable.
Head back to Roadrunner UK on Monday 26th April to check out our exclusive video interview with Paul and Tommy about the album and what you can expect on the upcoming tour.