ACE FREHLEY LOOKS BACK IN PRIDE
Space Ace Hits the Road with New Album of Rock Classics and Talks Guitar Worship, Rock Star Team-ups, Imposters and a KISS Reunion?
Far from the noise of the rock star life; the clamoring fans, the roaring crowds, the constant bickering with ex-band mates in the press, a recently minted Rock & Roll Hall of Famer lounges on a couch in his suite high above Manhattan. He sips tea while blithely glancing at a muted TV across the room. This is Ace Frehley at 64; the fret-blistering Space Ace of KISS; the dominant and iconic harlequin outfit of 1970s fame, dressed rather casually in a blue tee shirt and jeans. An ace-of-spades locket, a reminder of his persona, dangles from a silver chain around his neck. He bends an ear to hear my questions and squints to remember the details of his answers, mildly clearing his throat, as if to conjure the wild mystery of his past. This is a genuine rock rebel in repose, a man at peace, but still very much rocking. Big time.
His latest album, Origins Vol. 1, sounding fat, bold and heavy, is due out this week, and he is very proud of it; the songs he’s chosen, beloved covers from classic rock acts, and his guest stars, not the least of which is former brother-in KISSdom, Paul Stanley. He is proud of having conjured it in his private studio in San Diego, where he now calls home, and his engineering and editing of many of the solos and vocal tracks on it.
Mostly, he is proud of his legacy in the pantheon of rock; the lineage of which is profoundly presented on Origins. Perhaps the most influential guitarist of his generation, whose unique shoot-from-the-hip style is often imitated but never duplicated, now pays homage to his heroes; Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, and many more. And although it is difficult for him to wrap his mind around his impact in the wake of such musical giants, what does find its way through resonates. KISS was indeed a major rock spectacle. Its anthemic songs, burlesque imagery, and groundbreaking theatrical concerts turned the whole culture upside down. He was there; designed its logo and was the first to don its make-up – showing up at the annual New York Dolls New Year’s Eve bash in 1972 with silver hair and that striking Spaceman face-paint.
We spoke for nearly an hour about his music, his legacy and his love of the guitar, which took this fellow Bronx boy from a dead-end subsistence to the top of the world.
This is Paul Daniel “Ace” Frehley at 64, unplugged; honest, reflective and charmingly defiant.
jc: I’m going to start with something I’m sure you’re bored with talking about, but I have to ask you; why a covers record now?
AF: Well, actually it was the record company’s idea. To be honest with you initially I wasn’t that excited about the project, because I had just come off the high of the success of Space Invader, which is all originals except for a cover of “The Joker”. It was almost like, “Okay, I’m going to go through the motions and get this out of the way and then jump into the studio for my next real studio album.” But I gotta tell ya, man, once I started the process and started remembering the groups that influenced me, narrowing down which songs I thought were going to be best for the record, and then started the recording process; I really started getting more excited about it.
Then once I got Slash on “Emerald,” he was the first guest star that recorded, and Paul (Stanley) agreed to do it. I was trying to get a hold of Gene (Simmons) and for some reason Gene didn’t get back to me. But when Paul agreed to do it, I already had Slash in the can and I knew I could count on Lita Ford, because I already spoke to her about it last year, and John 5. I also spoke to Mike McCready a year or two ago and he said he was up for doing a track on my new record. So, all the ducks were in a row.
The last two weeks of the record I went up to L.A. I got John 5 and Lita Ford on the record the same day and that weekend Paul recorded the vocal for “Fire and Water”, while I was doing overdubs, and then he emailed the vocal back to us. I put a guitar solo on and we just mixed it. That was it. The whole process for “Fire and Water” was about four days from beginning to end.
How long did it take you to make the record?
Well, I started tracking last spring, but I went on tour last year to Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, and then came back and finished the record. Maybe the whole process took six months, leaving out the time I was on the road.
I understand you recorded some the tracks in your home studio in San Diego?
My place isn’t big enough for drums. We have a two-story townhouse, and I have a really great room with preamps and mikes and stuff. I can do everything there but drums. There’s a studio in San Diego called Signature Sound and that’s where I did a lot of the basic tracks with drums. I tracked the drums and then I flew my engineer in from New York (Alex Salzman), who I like working with since Anomaly, and we did a lot of the overdubs, and then I went up to L.A. to do the remainder of the overdubs. A lot of the solos I engineered, like “Fire and Water”, the intro solo and a lot of the guitars on “Bring It On Home.” What else did I do? I did the solo for “Till The End Of The Day” in my studio alone. I’ve really gotten good at Pro Tools, where I can actually engineer myself. The only drawback is when you are engineering some of the creativity goes out the window, because you’ve got to stay focused on what you’re doing instead of just thinking about creating. I prefer working with an engineer, but when I don’t have one around I can do it myself.
The record sounds very heavy and fat. Is that something you guys were going for or you just stumbled on?
No, that’s what I was going for. Warren Huart, the guy who also mixed Space Invader, he’s got all that stuff; SSL-board, and he uses old preamps. On some of my vocals he’s actually using real tape delay.
So, you did a lot of analog recording then?
Well, a lot of it was recorded digitally, but in the mixing and overdubbing process, we used a lot of analog equipment to achieve more of a vintage sound.
One thing I’ve read about you over the years, specifically your first solo album when you were still in KISS in the 70s, which I love – it’s the only one I bought – is that you use many different guitars and various amps and effects. Did you do the same thing for this since you were covering different kinds of music from a variety of artists?
I use a lot of Les Pauls, but I like doubling Les Pauls with Fenders. I’ve got about a half a dozen Telecasters and a half a dozen Strats that I use, but in conjunction with different amps. I have a couple old Vox amps, a couple old Fender amps, and some old Marshalls. Last year I picked up a 50-watt Marshall I got in a pawnshop outside of Palm Springs. I picked up the head for $900 bucks. (laughs) I stole it! It was from the 70s, so, you know, it’s the combination of all that stuff. Vintage microphones. Vintage preamps. Everything tube. That’s how I achieved that fat sound. But layering Les Pauls and Fenders are really one of my trademarks that I’ve been using since the 70s.
When I saw that Mike McCready was joining you, because I know he’s is a big KISS fan, I was reminded of your solo on “She”, which is very reminiscent of Robbie Krieger’s solo on The Doors’ “Five to One,” and then McCready took that solo and used it in Pearl Jam’s “Alive”. It’s a great lineage. You guys ever talk about that?
Yeah, we’ve spoken about that. I met Mike several years ago, because my daughter was a big Pearl Jam fan when she was a kid. They took care of us at one of the concerts. Then I found out he was sober. I got sober. So we had that common bond. I ended up jamming with them at Madison Square Garden one night. We did…
“Black Diamond.” I jammed with them at Atlantic City at the Borgata Casino. I have a good rapport with him and Eddie (Vedder). I’ve wanted to get him on one of my records for a long time and finally it transpired.
I love the way the different vocalists change the style of each track, but you’re the constant throughout the whole record. With Paul, how difficult or how easy was that when you guys first got together? Tell me the whole process there.
We actually were never in the same room together. (laughs) Like I said, once me and Paul decided on which song to do, I was up in L.A .doing overdubs with John 5 and Lita and that same weekend Paul recorded the vocals at a different studio. We just emailed him the tracks. He did the vocals, engineered it, and emailed them back to us, and boom. Technology has changed the recording process so much.
In the 70s, we had to carry around these bulky, two-inch thick reels of tape that only held two or three songs depending upon the length of the song. Big tape machines. Every time you wanted to do an edit was with a razor blade. Now with digital editing, it’s a dream. I mean, the sequence of solos that me and Slash did on “Emerald,” we had a dozen passes or more of solos and I pretty much put that together piece by piece; picked the best ones from each performance.
I’m sure these are influential songs, but did you realize while recording them where your influences came from?
I didn’t connect the dots in that way. It’s just that I thought back to all the groups that influenced me. I really wanted to do a Who song on the record, I just couldn’t get that together.
Which one would you have done?
I couldn’t decide. That was the problem! (laughs) Actually, towards the very end, prior to deciding on “Fire and Water,” Paul was kicking around the idea with me to do “My Generation.” I just wanted to do a song that was a little more obscure, like in the same way with the Hendrix song. I did “Spanish Castle Magic” instead of “Purple Haze” or “Manic Depression” or something off the first album, which everybody is more familiar with. So I kind of went down that road when it came to choice of certain songs, but I’m really happy with the end result. It always amazes me, because some of these songs, it was just so easy to do. It was effortless to me. I’m just amazed after the mixing process how strong they sounded, ‘cause I don’t really pay that much attention to detail when I’m recording. I just go for feel. But I work with some of the best musicians in the world, so that must be the secret. (laughs)
It sounds like you gave some real love to the songs, a respect to the origins of them. I’ll take “White Room” for an example. You achieved that signature wah-wah sound; that great (Eric) Clapton wah-wah sound throughout the song and then into the solo. Did you make a concerted effort to pay sonic homage to each song?
I had two wah-wahs in one of my boxes and me and my engineer plugged in both of them and they were way too noisy. They were old. The potentiometers were all dirty and it was making a lot of noise, so we ran out to Guitar Center and bought a brand new wah-wah, (laughs) a Vox wah-wah. I only did two or three passes of the solos, and out of those three passes, my engineer pieced together one solo. Everything kind of came together really… I’m still sitting here listening to… I still listen to the album almost every day. I keep hearing things that I didn’t hear from a prior listen.
I improvised all the solos on the record. I didn’t play the other people’s solos, note for note. I stayed pretty true to most of the arrangement. I ended up extending “Emerald” by redoing the second half of the second verse when I came out of the solo, which isn’t in the original arrangement. I actually like my arrangement better. (laughs) It kind of brings the whole song to an end nicely.
I had a lot of fun with the record. Sometimes when you have too many chefs in the kitchen it spoils the stew. I work very streamlined. In most cases, I’m recording with just me and one other person and an engineer. More than three people in a studio is a lot for me. I don’t like it that way. That’s how I did my very first, 1978 solo album with “New York Groove” and that form has always worked for me.
The thing I found researching my book (Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon – Backbeat Books, Oct. 2015) was that speaking to Bob Ezrin and a lot of people that worked on Destroyer, and reading your memoir, you’re used to coming in, hearing the track, playing your solo, and bingo! In fact, you used to say you used to figure out solos, get to the studio, and everyone would be saying, “Nah, it’s not really…” and then you’d wing it and that take would be better. It would seem that nothing has changed over all these years.
It’s been a long time since I sat down prior to doing a solo and tried to figure it out before I hit the record button. I just empty out my head. It’s a lot easier to do four or five passes and then pick the best parts. Like I said, with digital editing you can pick the front of one pass, the middle of another, and the tail end of a third and piece them together seamlessly, so you really can’t hear the edit.
But you have to learn that to play it live.
Well, I memorize all my solos once I play live, because a lot of them are pieced together. (laughs) For instance, I’ll tell you what happened with the solo in “Fire and Water.” I did about fifteen passes after I got the lead vocal from Paul. He did a tremendous vocal. I thought it was amazing, one of his best vocal performances, and I wanted to do a really outstanding solo. So I did about fifteen passes of solos and I started trying to piece them together and it just didn’t sound right. So I took a break. I went downstairs and had a snack, went back up in the studio, and I just did one last take from beginning to end and that’s the solo! And that’s a long solo.
Also, the stuff that me and John 5 did at the end of “Spanish Castle Magic” is pretty amazing. John did an amazing solo in the second half of “Parasite.” I doubled the length of the solo. I played the original solo like it is on the first record and John came up with a great solo for the second half.
Why did you choose “Parasite” and “Cold Gin?”
The record company thought I should do a couple of KISS songs and I figure, “Why not redo the songs that I’ve written but didn’t sing?”
Ahhh. That’s what I thought.
Gene sang on those. At the time, I didn’t consider myself a lead singer and was really insecure about my lead vocals. I said, “Gene you got to sing this.” And of course Peter sang a couple songs I had written over the years and in the beginning. But once “Shock Me” happened it was like the cat was out of the bag. I’ve been singing them in concert for years. I figure it’s about time I get them on the record.
Could you possibly pick a favorite song that you’ve written over the years? One you love to play live?
I don’t know. My favorite KISS song is definitely “Deuce.” It was the first KISS song I ever heard. It was before KISS was even KISS. When I went in to audition for the band they played “Deuce” for me and then I ended up playing a solo to it off the top of my head. Pretty much, I think those guys after that one song thought I was the guy. At least that’s what I’ve read in retrospect.
What about something you’ve written?
Something that I’ve written? I don’t know. So many songs to choose from. One of my favorite solos is the one in “Strange Ways.” I normally do my solos in the control room with the amp in another room, but “Strange Ways” was one of the few solos I stood in front of the stack. I stood in front of the Marshall stack with a tight set of headphones and that’s how I got that natural feedback. There is an intensity on that. The stack was on ten! (laughs) I almost couldn’t hear the track with headphones on, but it’s a pretty radical solo.
I have to say, now that I’m sitting across from you, the “100,000 Years” solo is one of the most melodic that you’ve written and you always seem to nail that, every time, even in the reunion tours. Have you played it since KISS? I love it. It’s so beautifully melodic.
Thank you so much. I forget about that song. I haven’t played that song in a long time. Maybe we should try doing that live. Maybe my drummer, Scoty should sing it. He sings “Love Gun” and “Detroit Rock City”.
Who’s in your touring band?
Scot Coogan on the drums. He plays on nine tracks on this record and the other three tracks are played by Matt Starr, who did the drumming on Space Invader. Chris Wyse on bass. I’m playing bass on about four tracks. Richie Scarlet is on rhythm guitar for the tour.
The obvious question is will there going be a Volume II?
Yeah, it was actually my idea to call it Volume I. (laughs) I just thought it was a great marketing ploy and everyone’s going, “Is there going to be a Volume II? I go, “Maybe.” I have a feeling this is going to be a very successful record, because I think it has mass appeal. You don’t have to be an Ace Frehley fan to get off on some of the songs on this record. If the record does as well as I think it will, I definitely think there is going to be a Volume II, but not before I do another studio record.
All originals, yeah, and then maybe after that, maybe Volume II. That would make sense.
I recently read that you would consider playing with KISS again.
I’ve always said that. I’ve always said, “Never say never. Leave the door open.” It’s really their call. I think it could be great. It would be a nice way for KISS to go out with a bang. You know, right now it’s really only half of KISS.
And everybody knows it. But like I said, the ball is in Paul and Gene’s court, but I would be open to the idea if it was presented to me in the right way. Sure.
I’ve been promoting my book now since October, and I’ve done a ton of podcasts and interviews and radio, and you’ve been the one member of the band that everybody gravitates to, perhaps because of your rebellious nature and the fact that you didn’t always buy into some of the more materialist KISS stuff; that you’ve been your own man. Do you realize how much people really love you?
I don’t. The other thing that people always say to me, “Do you realize the impact you’ve had on so many guitar players? The influence you’ve had?” It’s just not something I think about. I’m really flattered when people say that to me. But, yeah, I’m kind of like the cool guy. (laughs) Let’s be honest. That’s what everybody said.
But it was never about the money for me either. I always wanted to be respected by my peers and I didn’t want to give up my integrity as a musician in lieu of a show or merchandise or anything. To me it was always the music first, the show second. Invariably with KISS, a lot of times the reviews would talk more about the show than the music. It was frustrating at times, but I think at this juncture I’m respected by my peers. I don’t know if Paul and Gene really are all the time.
What are your feelings about two other guys wearing the makeup? I know they can legally do it, but to fans know that’s not Ace Frehley out there.
Prior to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction a lot of people thought it was me, believe it or not! (laughs)
No shit. I don’t believe that.
People that aren’t hardcore fans and people that don’t really pay attention to the inner workings of KISS, a lot of them weren’t even aware of it. They’ve always downplayed Tommy (Thayer). But I think with all the controversy that surrounded the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that they decided not to play with me and Peter, a lot of people got hip to the fact that, “Hey that’s not Ace in the makeup!” I’m telling you, a lot of people didn’t know. I used to get phone calls when KISS played in certain areas and somebody would say, “Hey can you get me tickets? I want to go see you play.” I go, “That’s not me. What are you talking about?” I’m telling you. (laughs) The people that weren’t hardcore fans, casual fans, some of them didn’t know. They thought it might be Ace.
Well, does it bug you?
I still get checks. (laughs) Unlike Peter, I still do get checks.
Well, that’s good.
They pay me for the use of the makeup and I get checks for merchandise, but it bothers me. You know what bothers me more; the fact that the fans are upset about it. It’s gotten really silly over the last year or so when Paul or Gene make these ridiculous statements like, “Well, you know, once we can’t perform any more, even we’re going to be replaced.” They’re trying to legitimatize the fact that there are two fake guys in the band by making a statement like that. But let’s face it, those guys making that statement is like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards saying, “Yeah, once we’re gone The Stones are gonna continue with two guys that look like us.” Give me a break. They will try anything to pull the wool over some people’s eyes.
But like you said, the true fans know.
There is only one real Space Ace.
Whataya gonna do?
“Whataya gonna do?” That’s classic Bronx.