Tongue Firmly in Cheek: An Interview with Ace Frehley

Several years sober, KISS' Ace Frehley comes fresh off some time at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to release his first solo album in over five years -- and definitely knows how to write a sexy song better than Robin Thicke.
Ace Frehley
Space Invader
eOne Music

Say what you want about KISS, they’re one of the few bands that can still garner press without releasing a new studio album. Earlier this year, KISS grabbed the majority of the headlines surrounding the Rock and Hall of Fame induction ceremony thanks to a well-publicized debate over who would be playing (the band ended up not performing because the band insisted on playing with their current lineup, and not with founding guitarist and drummer Ace Frehley and Peter Criss).

Over the past summer, Gene Simmons achieved a sort of media trifecta in offensiveness, defending both the one percent and Donald Sterling — and finally advising depressed people to “kill themselves” in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide. Coincidentally, AMC is also airing a reality show about Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and their Los Angeles arena football team.

Not all founding members have been in the spotlight because of off-color comments. Ace Frehley just released his latest solo album Space Invader. It’s his first solo album in five years. His previous album, Anomaly, was his first solo album in almost 20 years.

Space Invader is throwback to the guitar-worshiping hard rock albums of the ’80s with tons of air-guitar worthy riffs and the ever-present instrumental track (think Vinnie Vincent, Steve Vai, and obviously Frehley’s Comet). Last week, Frehley sat in with the Roots on The Tonight Show to promote the new album and to play his 1978 hit “New York Groove”. Earlier, Frehley spoke with PopMatters from his home in San Diego and talked about Space Invader, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and at least one song on the new album that one-ups Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” in the come-on department.

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How was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony?

It was a great night — I had a lot of fun. Everyone was on their best behavior. I didn’t really sense any negative vibes. There were tons of celebrities … I was really surprised to see [Steven] Spielberg there. I used to be real nervous about public speaking, but ever since I got sober … it seems like it’s something I’m enjoying now and I have fun with, and I think that was reflective in my speech.

How did it feel to finally achieve that type of recognition from both critics and peers?

It felt great. It was a long time coming. We could have been inducted about 15 years ago — we were eligible [the band formed in 1973, their debut album was released in 1974]. It really took a long time, and a lot of people petitioned the Hall of Fame to induct us. I knew it was only a matter of time. How long can you overlook a group as big as KISS? But it was a lot of fun … great honor. I have good memories about that evening.

Looking back, what was your favorite album to record with KISS?

They were all fun. As the albums progressed, I contributed a lot more. In the early records, I wasn’t even singing lead. As the group progressed and our popularity progressed, I started singing lead … writing more songs. I think on Dynasty or Unmasked … I was singing more songs than Gene Simmons [laughs]. But probably the most fun record for me while I was in KISS was my solo record in 1978 with the big hit “New York Groove”.

What was the genesis of the smoking guitar?

That started early on when we were on tour in Canada. I stuck a smoke bomb in the back chamber of the Les Paul and lit it with a cigarette lighter.

It just evolved. The reaction from the fans was amazing, but after three or four shows doing it that way, it ended up screwing up my volume and tone controls, so we had to figure out a better way to do it. Eventually, I got together with an engineer and we built a box into the guitar with a battery pack — and it went off without a hitch every night.

You’ve been sober for eight years.

Life’s great. I can focus more. I’m healthier. I remember what I did the night before. It’s great.

Were the lyrics to “Change” (on Space Invader) inspired by your sobriety?

Somewhat. Rachael [Gordon — Frehley’s fiancé] wrote the lyrics for that song for the most part. I kind of wrote the lyrics for the chorus. There is kind of that message, “pick yourself up and change”. But I wasn’t trying to blatant about it. Anybody can identify with the lyrics in that song. Whether you just want to change your life and make it better … get out of the slump you’re in. I think it’s a positive message.

In previous interviews, you said you were uneasy with your vocals. You said getting sober made you a better public speaker. Did it also help build your confidence vocally?

I never considered myself a lead vocalist in the early days of KISS. Here you got three lead vocalists — Peter, Paul, and Gene. I was perfectly happy just singing backgrounds. Eventually, they kind of pushed me into the direction of doing a lead vocal. Finally, with the song “Shock Me”, I got up my nerve. Once I had one under my belt, I wanted more [laughs].

Space Invader was recorded at a few locations. Overall, how long did it take to record the new album.

It took about ten months. A lot of the songs were finished at the very last minute. The title track, I wrote two weeks before we finished mixing. At the point when I went into start mixing, that was just an instrumental. I just went back to the hotel room while Warren Huart was mixing a different track and I wrote the lyrics and melody for that. I did the same thing with “Past the Milky Way”, which is a love song … a space love song. [laughs]

In interviews leading up to Space Invader‘s release, you said you went back to your 1978 solo album for inspiration.

I listened to that ’78 solo album several times during the recording process. I wanted to try to recapture some of that. Fans always cite that as one of my best records.

“Starship” sounds great. Was that one of the earlier or later songs you recorded?

The fast rhythm part … I had written that in 2004. There’s been different variations of that song. Toward the end of the project, I realized it would probably be a greater instrumental. Originally I had some vocal ideas for it, but I kind of held off for awhile to see which song was going to turn out to be the instrumental. And “Starship” won the prize.

So while you were making Space Invader, you knew you wanted to have an instrumental track on the album?

All my songs, I record just instrumentally, then I start overdubbing vocals and guitars and stuff. Toward the end of the record, I had three instrumentals. Two turned out to be “Space Invader” and “Past the Milky Way”. “Starship” ended up being the instrumental. I felt it lent itself to that.

Your press bio states you had the most successful solo album in the KISS cannon. There’s obviously a bit of competition between the members. During the recording of this album, was there a competitive motivation to beat whatever the current lineup of KISS was doing?

I don’t feel I need to prove myself or my work over the years, but I always strive to do my best work. When they [KISS] say negative things about me in the press, it kind of does fuel me [laughs] — and drives me to even do better. I think this is one of the best records I have ever done.

“Toys” has a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor about materialism. How did that song materialize?

I wrote the lyrics to that in one day. I just thought about things I like to do. Fun things. That came pretty quick for me. It is kind of tongue-in-cheek, but that’s my humor. [laughs] I’m kind of known for that over the years.

For the song “What Every Girl Wants” — when I was listening to the lyrics, I couldn’t help but think about the Robin Thicke “Blurred Lines” controversy with his line “I know you want it.” [The chorus to “What Every Girl Wants” is “I’ll give you what every girl wants / I know you want it”.] Did that cross your mind while you were recording that song?

I didn’t think of [Thicke] — it just came from my own personal experience. Probably being a sex addict most of my life. [laughs] Initially, the record company thought I should change the title to “Time Waits for No One”. I said no, that’s an Ace Frehley title right there — “What Every Girl Wants”. I try not to hold back. It’s a tongue-in-cheek title. It leaves stuff up to the imagination.

“I’ll give you much more than a walk in the park” (another line in the chorus) — but I don’t say exactly what. But that’s what rock and roll is, let’s face it. It’s been like that since Little Richard.

What’s the tour going to be like?

We’re playing shows in the fall. I’d like to go to Europe, Australia, and Japan next year. It all depends on how the record takes off, which I think it’s already taken off before it’s even out. The future’s looking bright. I’m real excited about the buzz of the record. I’m really dying to hear what the fans say about it. The reviews have been pretty much all positive, but unless the fans love it, reviews don’t mean anything.