By Brian Ives
It’s almost surprising to hear Ace Frehley speak. Even after years of watching his interviews, you still kind of expect that the former KISS guitarist, “Space Ace,” would sound a bit more… spacey. Like someone from a SyFy channel drama. It turns out that he sounds more like one of The Sopranos, occasionally punctuating sentences with “Badda-bing badda-boom!” But he’s a fun guy to talk to, at ease with discussing anything from his legacy to his sobriety.
One of the most influential guitarists of ’70s hard rock, he’s also the guy who designed KISS’s logo, one of the most distinct in rock and roll and, for that matter, popular culture. But he seems as proud of his solo career as he is of anything that he did during his KISS eras (1973-1982, and 1996-2002). And he acts as if he still has something to prove.
When he came to the Radio.com offices, he was full-on in promotional mode, talking about his new album Space Invader (buy it here), and still jazzed from performing the night before on The Tonight Show with the Roots (they jammed on his 1978 hit “New York Groove”). “That was a real treat,” he said, noting that he’s been friends with Roots guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas for years.
During our conversation, he discussed his knack for choosing great covers — including “New York Groove” — his new album, his fiancée, his sobriety and his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Radio.com: It was cool to watch you play “Back in the New York Groove” on TV with the Roots. When you first covered it did you know you had a hit on your hands?
Ace Frehley: You know, I wasn’t really too hot on the idea of doing “New York Groove,” that idea came from [producer] Eddie Kramer. Who knew it was gonna be my biggest hit? On my new album, Space Invader , the record label came up with the idea for me to do [the Steve Miller Band’s] “The Joker.” I didn’t think it was heavy enough, compared to the rest of the songs on the record. But I did the best I could, I layered a lot of guitars on it, I added a ripping solo. I’m real happy with the end result.
You’ve done a lot of great covers, and they end up sounding like Ace songs: besides “New York Groove” and “The Joker,” I’m thinking about the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man” and the Move’s “Do Ya.” How do you know when a song will be a good fit for you?
I don’t know man! The guy who co-wrote “Past the Milky Way,” the love ballad on this album, he’s the guy who came up with the idea for me to do “2000 Man” (which he recorded for the 1981 KISS album Dynasty). He was an engineer working at North Lake Studios in Westchester [New York], where I did a lot of demos back in the KISS days. It’s amazing how people sometimes have this sixth sense about what would be a great song for me to do. And I just go along with the party! As for “The Joker,” it’s not really something that I think I would write, but the opening line [“Some people call me the space cowboy”]… I am the “space cowboy!”
KISS and the Steve Miller Band were both huge in the ’70s. Do you know him?
I don’t remember ever bumping into Steve over the years, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen! My memory could have been better.
Well, you sing “The Joker” pretty credibly. Can you tell me a joke?
Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? ‘Cause it was f–kin’ dead! I used to rattle off jokes, fifty in a row, one after the other. I used to get them from my bartenders. But now that I’ve been sober, almost eight years… my memory isn’t what it used to be. There was one point in my life that I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and that still could happen.
Really? How would you feel about getting on stage with a mic, but no guitar?
I could pull that off. Years ago, I used to be so afraid of public speaking, and now I enjoy it!
I know that you’ve spent time in AA, which probably involved you speaking to groups. Did that help you to get over your fear of public speaking?
I think that definitely helped, telling your story to people who need encouragement. That was definitely a contributing factor. But I’m also more secure with who I am, and I feel better about myself. I’m a lot less insecure than I was, and believe me, a lot of rock stars are insecure. Some people think that the drugs and alcohol make you more secure, but in reality, they make you more insecure.
Everyone knows your guitar influences – Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend…
…and Eric Clapton!
Right; but who would your comedy influences be?
Well, we just lost a great one: Robin Williams. I knew Robin, we partied together a few times. That was a huge, huge blow. He was brilliant. My heart goes out to his wife and family.
His death must have been a bit harrowing to you: I’m guessing you empathized.
Everybody goes through depression. The roller coaster ride of the entertainment business just magnifies it sometimes. I talk about this in my book, No Regrets, I was once thinking about suicide. I never followed through with it, but the pressures of this business can get to you. But some people don’t make it through that [one] bad night. But you don’t have to suffer through that: there’s medicine you can take, and people should be cognizant of that.
You made kind of a funny reference to addiction in your acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. You said, “We still need to educate this country about sobriety. Some people think that it has to do with willpower… Try using willpower when you have diarrhea!”
My sponsor used to say that to me! It really is a good analogy, or parallel, for people who don’t really understand that it is a disease. If you have cancer, you can’t cure it with willpower! People don’t realize that alcoholism is a disease, and people are born with it.
Obviously a lot of people have been influenced by your guitar playing; but do you feel like you’ve set an example with your sobriety?
I do a lot of book signings. And, invariably, what happens to me as of late is, kids will come up to me and I’ll give them the autograph and they’ll say, “Ace, I’m six months sober. It’s because of you, buddy. [I] saw that you could do it, you gave the encouragement to follow through with it.” That just makes my week! It’s pretty heavy, and it happens all the time. But years ago, I used to get these characters, “Hey, Ace, I wrecked my car [just like you]!”
Back to your album: I like the song “Gimme a Feelin’,” especially the lyric “You got what it takes to jangle my brain.” How does one jangle someone’s brain?
My fiancee came up with that line! Rachel Gordon. She actually co-wrote two songs on the album. She’s a great lyricist, and it was great to collaborate with her.
I guess that’s easier, being a solo artist. If you were in a band, it might be a bit touchier to say, “Hey, here’s my song. My wife wrote the lyrics!”
Well, I waited five years to tackle that! But I read her poetry and said, “You should put music to these things.”
Before the KISS reunion in 1996, you and Peter Criss co-headlined a tour, and I know he joined you onstage at a show last year. Would you co-headline a tour with him again? What was the vibe like between you guys at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?
I don’t know if Pete has a band at this juncture. But anything’s possible. I’m the kind of guy who says, “Never say never.” People say, “Would you join KISS again?” Under the right conditions, if they wrote a big enough check, sure! Why not? Give the fans a thrill. But right now, the fans are upset with Paul and Gene, because they have two guys dressed up in my makeup and Peter’s makeup, the stuff we created. The fans are rooting for me, and that’s great. That night, everybody was on their best behavior. I just regret that we didn’t perform! I was up for it, Peter was up for it, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame requested it, but Gene and Paul shot it down. After 40 years they couldn’t give the fans fifteen minutes! What is wrong with you guys?
The big rumor was, you were going to perform AC/DC‘s “Highway to Hell” with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band for the finale. Did you guys rehearse?
Earlier that afternoon, Tom Morello [who was touring as a member of the E Street Band] sent me a link to a YouTube video of their cover, and he said, “This is the arrangement that we’re gonna do at the end of the night.” They were gonna give me the first 16 bars for the solo. I was really looking forward to it. But as you very well know, the show went way overtime and they had to cut it.
When you’re at an event like that – where people are drinking – is that difficult for you?
You know, the first year [sobriety] was real tough, and every year it gets easier. I don’t even get urges anymore. It’s the furthest thing from my mind. But it took me a long time to get to this place. I still go to meetings. I avoid people who get high, because I don’t want to be around it . And that’s how I live my life today, and I’m much happier for it. So that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is being around drunk people, because that brings back bad memories. I can’t tolerate that. And when I get around drunk people, I say to myself, “Here’s my karma!” I used to be drunk all the time around Paul and Gene and they’d get pissed off. And now it’s coming back to me!
During his speech, Peter Criss said, “To forgive is to live.” Do you feel that way?
People ask me about all the negative stuff that Gene and Paul say about me… I let it roll off my back. Because anything you hold on to is gonna make you sick. That’s how you get cancer. You have to go on with your life. Resentments are really a bitch. I learned that in sobriety. But some people just can’t learn how to do that and it ends up eating them alive.
You designed the KISS logo. Now there’s a football team [the L.A. KISS] that uses it as the team logo. How do you feel about that?
I hope I get some checks soon!
Do you still get checks for the logo?
I still get checks for merchandise. I assume if the football team’s merchandise has the logo and my makeup, I’ll still get a check.
You surprised a lot of people in the Rolling Stone cover story, where you said that the rights to your makeup were reverting back to you, and KISS would have to renegotiate with you for the rights to use it.
That’s what my lawyer tells me. I’m not a businessman. My lawyer says to me that I’ve licensed it to them, and eventually there’s gonna be a day of reckoning.
Could that lead to you rejoining again?
I’m not gonna approach them, they’re gonna have to approach me. But the press makes it [seem] like we hate each other; that’s a crock. I called Gene while I was mixing the last record, we chatted for about a half hour. We talked about when we used to drive through the south in a station wagon with our road manager Sean Delaney. It’s like we never missed a beat! I’ve known those guys for 40 years. It’s really not as bad as you think, folks! But those guys used to badmouth me all the time, calling me a drunk and a drug addict; they can’t do that anymore. The last thing I heard was that Paul’s calling me a racist now. I mean, get off it! He’s trying to sell a book! It’s really a sad attempt to discredit me. The world loves me: the one and only “Space Ace.”
I hadn’t heard that. On what basis is he saying that you’re a racist?
You’d have to ask him. He made a comment that I was anti-Semitic. Doesn’t he know that my fiancé is Jewish? Is he out of his mind?
Funny enough, some people accused Gene and Paul of racism, based on their comments about disco and hip-hop being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
You know the biggest problem today, is that everyone is just too PC. Remember shows like Maude and All in the Family? Those were funny shows. They said stuff in those shows that you’d never hear on television today. Everybody’s so uptight these days. People are getting fired because they made a racial slur. I mean, come on. Everybody uses racial slurs from time to time to a limited degree, but that doesn’t make you a racist, just because you use a word now and then. Everybody has a slip here and there.
Other than all that, how did you feel about the Rolling Stone story?
I thought the silliest thing that Gene said… he talks as if he’s living in this ivory tower. [mimics Simmons’ voice] “I sit there and wonder what Ace and Peter are doing.” Guess what? I’ve got a new album, knucklehead! Did you hear what he said about Robin Williams? He said depressed people should just kill themselves.
To be fair, he said that the day before the news of Robin Williams’ death came out; he was making a general statement, not talking about Robin Williams.
Oh; well, how ignorant is that statement? Is he losing his mind? Some people don’t understand that alcoholism is a disease, and I can understand that. But anybody with half a brain understands that depression is a disease! But it is treatable, that’s the good news.
Another topic: last year, a house that you owned in upstage New York burned down. Did you lose anything?
I was really lucky that, prior to that fire, I had moved everything to San Diego. I was really lucky. It was just the loss of a building that was insured, so things are cool.
I’ve heard that you’re already thinking about your next album.
I’ll just touch on it: the next album’s going to be covers and remakes. A remake is remake of something I’ve already recorded. I had to explain this to somebody. Probably the end of next year or early the following year.
Do you know what KISS songs do you want to remake?
Yeah, but I’m not gonna give anything away.