Q’s With Gene Simmons: The KISS Co-Founder Talks Deals, Dubai and Dolls

Gene Simmons
Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns
– Gene Simmons

When Pollstar last spoke with KISS co-founder Gene Simmons, the band was in the midst of its “End Of The Road” final world tour. That, of course, has since been waylaid by the COVID pandemic. 

But Gene and the boys still pulled off a massive, livestreamed New Year’s Eve concert in Dubai at Royal Beach at Atlantis, aptly called “KISS 2020 Goodbye,” and setting “Guinness Book of World Records” citations for the most flame-throwers in a show (73) and tallest flame (180 feet). While a final number hasn’t yet been confirmed by the Guinness recordkeepers, it’s believed the livestream set a record for gross sales. 

In typical KISS fashion, no corners were cut – the livestream was preceded by an hour-long documentary and more than 50 cameras were employed to cover a 250-foot stage, three huge video screens and the band in 360-degree glory. With the beach as a backdrop, the stage faced the hotel instead of a massive audience but that didn’t seem to put any kind of damper on the festivities.

In another twist, Simmons debuted a new Gibson Thunderbird bass – the first design released by G2 (pronounced G-squared), a new joint venture he’s formed with Gibson and its charismatic chief merchant officer, Cesar Gueikian. The venture news gave Pollstar another reason to reach out for an always memorable conversation about music, artists and business. 
POLLSTAR: You debuted that Thunderbird at the “KISS 2020 Goodbye” show in Dubai.  

Simmons: We wanted to call it the Thunder Bass, but that’s already taken. There’s also going to be a guitar version. They have different nuances and tonalities. For us, it’s a take no prisoners approach – the guitars are turned up to 11. There’s not a lot of subtlety in the songs, they just have to move you. They have to move your groin area as well as fill up your ears with the good stuff. And that’s something the guys understand – take no prisoners. Conversation over, there’s no comeback, boom, you’re done as soon as you hear that instrument. 
Everything about that show was so supersized. What was it like up there? World record pyro, 250-foot stage, and you’re in Dubai. 
One thing that hardly anybody mentions or even thought of is the astonishing heat on stage because we had, literally, 100-foot fireballs, and there must have been 30 of them all around us, plus pyro on top that went up hundreds of feet in the air. I hope birds weren’t flying overhead because they would have been shish kebab.
We had firepower rivaling some of the Third World countries out there. I think we are honest about that, which is: more is better. Size does count and that’s what we’re here for. The first thing you think of is, ‘Wow, that’s big, that’s good.’ The first word out of your mouth should be “Wow.” And the last words of that sentence should be big. 
Dubai was the beginning of our coming back out after the pandemic. The 150-city world tour will continue. It was 110 cities before we had to stop.
It’s our last go around. You don’t want to be up on stage when you’re 80 and you have to grab your teeth from your glass of water before you get up on stage. You want to quit on top. If you’re a surfer, why not go out on a tsunami? You want to go out big, go out with a bang. 
You received funding from Dubai for COVID mitigation. What did you do with it?

We had doctors with us at all time. They also intervened. If somebody got too close to us, they were with us at all times. We got tested every single day. We had our own floor at the hotel. We only kept together. We never left our rooms or our one room where we ate together. And Emirates Airlines was so fantastic. We had our own apartments in there where you can shut the door, nobody comes in. And the folks, the stewards and stewardesses, were like in hazmat suits and the masks. 
So you’re adding more cities for the final leg. Will they be at full scale? 

We’re going out there when it’s safe for the fans, after vaccines. Whatever it is that’s safe for the fans, because they’re going to congregate together. And I have a conscience. I want to be safe and I want the fans to be safe.
And by and large, yes, you want the big audiences. We don’t want to go out there and do the big show for two people. But there are exceptions, like when we play Antarctica. There won’t be many people there. 
You’re known for your business and marketing acumen but G2, the joint venture you recently announced with Gibson, is a bit different. 

It’s a better business model because I have an inferred fiduciary duty to the company and what I provide is sweat equity, which is to say, instead of just putting in cash or anything, I’ve got to go out there and beat the bushes.
But at the same time, I do continue to manufacture and sell my two other instruments, the Gene Simmons axe and the Punisher, which the fans buy direct. But the association with Gibson is actually like coming back home because in the ’70s and ’80s, another contract used the Punisher and the Ripper. 

But you’ve also made your own instruments, correct?

And then I decided to make my own instruments. I found out where various companies make them – Korea and Japan or wherever – and decided to start making my own.
How did you come to make the deal with Gibson?

Gibson’s new CMO, Cesar, is very forward-thinking and wants to take Gibson into the 20th century. He could have reached out to me and said, you know, we’d be honored and other sorts of flattering things.
But the devil’s in the details when somebody wants you to dance with them. The first question you have to ask is, “Can you dance?”   
I don’t want to do all the heavy lifting. You want a partner who is going to be in there and committed to doing something special and of quality.
 At the end of the day, the first one who gets bitchslapped if somebody is not happy is me. So I’ve got to be careful who, what and where I get involved. 
I have to say the relationship has been outstanding. 

Tell us what the G2 venture is.

The G2 venture is going to encompass a wide range of instruments: the Flying V Thunderbird and a few other classic Gibson models that are being upgraded with better sounding, better pickups and slightly different designs.
There’s going to be left-handed versions, because lefthanders are people who are often overlooked. I got enough flak from everybody else not to have to deal with this, so we’re going to do all kinds of versions for all kinds of people.
And the very first one that was made is the one I played when KISS played in Dubai. That was seen by a few hundred million people around the world. 
I have to say, you know, the “Guinness Book of World Records” was there. I don’t mean the beer drinking folks. I mean the records. The bass line sounded like thunder, which makes sense because it’s a Thunderbird. 
You mentioned that this is a “sweat equity” deal. Does that mean that you do not make a capital or other financial investment but will be backing G2 in other ways?

That’s exactly right. 
Tell us how Gueikian convinced you to join his team. 

First of all, he’s a very well-read guy. He speaks a few languages, and so do I, by the way.
And his commitment to Gibson isn’t just on the business side. He understands the culture of it so well. 
When the corporate brand understands the culture, because nothing is just what it is, it becomes a part of your life.
So when an instrument, a guitar, is so cool that you just can’t bear it anymore, you put it on your wall, it is art. He is not only a music fan but a musician and a guitar collector. 
He told me that his first obsession was a Gibson Les Paul, and he was a kid and couldn’t afford one. So it seemed like this is a dream kind of guy to have at the top of the company, a good, good guy.
We speak the same language, which is, “Let’s really make the fans happy.” That should be our main, self-mandated purpose. We’ll sell lots of stuff, that’s not the question. The question is, will they be proud to show it off? When you love something, first thing you do is to show it off. 
What convinced you to form a joint venture?

I bet on the horse. Whether the horse is pulling the goods to market or whether it’s got a  jockey on top of it, bet on the horse. And I’m betting on Cesar.
We connected as people first. The thing that was most seductive about Gibson was actually Cesar. 
Gibson has made, and continues to make, quality instruments. But if you want to up your game, because champions always up their game, you can’t just rest on your past.So it was Cesar himself. We started talking about instruments, what they do and how amazing it was that electronics were connected to guitars from acoustic instruments. We talked about the history of it, and my history with Gibson just as a fan.
And then he sort of brought it up very conversationally, “Let’s do something really special together,” and I said, “OK, now you’re talking my language. What do you have in mind?” The conversation veered towards,”Let’s not change the Gibson brand, but let’s up our game.” You know, better fittings, better pickups, better sound, maybe change the design slightly. 

Let’s change gears a bit. With the recent passing of Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls, it seems you were contemporaries of a sort, both coming out of NYC in the ’70s. I was wondering if you had a comment about them or Sylvain. Maybe you can tell me something about where you both came from.
New York. I wasn’t born there, but neither was Sylvain. I was born in Israel. Sylvain was born in Egypt.
The thing about New York, though, was how different all the bands were. You know, the English invasion, the bands pretty much out of that same vibe. Rap bands have the same vibe. New York produced KISS, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Dolls and the Ramones. None of them were similar to the other bands.
And the only band that ever wound up playing stadiums in the world is KISS. None of the other bands ever made it to that level.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have, you know, their cool quotient. As soon as you saw the Dolls on stage, you went, “Wow, this is cool.” But it was never cool for me to hear them in, you know, a 15,000- or 20,000-person arena or stadium. It just wouldn’t work that way. There were always much better in a smaller place with people. 
You know, as loudly carousing and doing all stuff they did, they were a party band. We played together – we actually opened up for the Dolls.
Oh wow, I didn’t know that.

That didn’t last long. We got kicked off the tour because, you know, as soon as our first song comes on, even before the first chord, bombs went off. After that, they got a personality crisis where they knew that that’s not enough. Following us, you better have more stuff.
But Syl was always the unsung guy in the band. Unfortunately, Johnny Thunders got a lot of attention because of his lifestyle, the heroin and all that stuff, but he looked really cool on stage, so they always held the fort down.
Sylvain played good, solid guitar. I have to say, I thought he was a better guitar player than Johnny Thunders. But Johnny Thunders looked cooler.
The unfortunate thing is, how many of the Dolls died? I think they have only one left, they’ve lost people more than once just from drugs. Drugs, drugs, drugs. Their first drummer, drugs; second one, drugs, I know Johnny Thunders died from drugs.
Sylvain had cancer.

Yes. Cancer, sadly.

Regardless of what style of music there was or where people played or what they wore, that particular period in the ’70s in New York was a creative time.

It was a creative time. But New York never understood rock. England understood rock.
The Dolls could have been from Ohio, which is about more down and dirty rock bands. But other than the Dolls, that didn’t advance like that in New York; there was more disco.
The Dolls were the only band like that, that came out of New York and Blondie is the only band like that, that came out of New York.  New York never had an identity.

But it had a little bit of everything.

Yeah, a little bit of everything, but the biggest was and continues to be KISS, right?