Q&A: Ace Frehley

The New York drawl is unmistakable. So too is that famous cackling laughter – and it comes often. “I’m feeling great,” says Ace Frehley. He has every reason to be. It’s been a good year for the guitarist. In April, he and the other founding members of Kiss – Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Peter Criss – were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. In September, Frehley’s new album, Space Invader, hit the Top 10 in the US. And, after decades of rock’n’roll excess, the ‘Space Ace’, now 63, recently celebrated his eighth year of sobriety. But, as his new album proves, Frehley hasn’t mellowed with age. And he has some strong words for his old bandmates.

Space Invader is the best album you’ve made since you left Kiss for the first time, in the early eighties.

It’s definitely one of the best records I’ve ever done. I put my heart and soul in it.

The album includes a cover of Steve Miller’s hit The Joker. Is that a joke in itself?

Well, I did it a lot heavier than Steve Miller’s version. I picked it because of the opening line: ‘Some people call me the space cowboy…’ It just added to the theme of the album.

Is it a concept album?

It kind of turned into that. I had the title for the album and an idea for the album cover – me coming out of a flying saucer, very tongue-in-cheek. So I started writing songs that were more theme-oriented, like Starship and Past The Milky Way.

The last time you were involved in a concept album was in 1981, when Kiss made Music From ‘The Elder’. And that album didn’t turn out too good.

Tell me about it. If The Elder had never happened I might not have quit the band. It’s not a bad record, it was just the wrong record at the time. I was saying all along: “We gotta do a balls-to-the-wall heavy metal album. That’s what the fans want.” But nobody listened to what I said. And the rest is Kisstory, right?

You walked out of the band then, and again twenty years later.

I’ve never been fired from Kiss. I quit in eighty-two and I quit in 2002. Paul and Gene may try to rewrite history and say I was let go because I had a drug or alcohol problem, but the reality is I always delivered in concert and in the studio.

When you quit in 2002, Tommy Thayer joined as your replacement – and wore your signature make-up design. Why did you let that happen?

They didn’t want me to leave. Gene called me and said: “Ace, we want you to play this Australian tour, but if you’re not going to do it I think we’ll get Tommy to replace you.” I never even answered the call. I decided I had to leave again at that point, because I’d picked up alcohol and drugs again and I was getting into trouble. It took me a while to get my head screwed on straight. But in 2006 I got sober, and I’ve been sober eight years. Eight years and three days [laughs].

What finally made you get sober?

Getting older. My body couldn’t bounce back as much from all the drugs and alcohol. I realised that this time I had to quit for good. And since I’ve been sober, so many blessings have come to me. I met my fiancée. I moved to California to get away from the cold winters in New York. And my creativity has been spot-on. It’s been a nice ride.

If you had cleaned up earlier would you still be in Kiss today?

Who knows? Shoulda, woulda, coulda…

When Kiss were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the organisers of the event wanted the four of you to perform at the ceremony, but Paul and Gene refused.

They wanted to play with Tommy and [current Kiss drummer] Eric Singer, and possibly include me and Peter. I thought that was a slap in the face. Tommy and Eric were not being inducted, you know? The ceremony was supposed to be about the four original members. Me and Peter threatened to boycott the ceremony if they performed with Tommy and Eric, so Paul and Gene said: “Well we’re not gonna perform at all.” Me and Peter just had to go along with that.

Kiss fans would have loved to see the original band reunited one more time.

After forty years, Paul and Gene couldn’t give the fans fifteen minutes. It was a real sad commentary on what those guys have become. I think they didn’t want to perform with me and Peter because they didn’t want to take any focus off the current line-up that was planning a tour this summer.

You’ve been highly critical of Tommy Thayer recently, after he announced the launch of a new custom Les Paul guitar named ‘Spaceman’.

Actually, I’m friends with Tommy and Eric Singer. They’re not bad guys. They’re hired guns, trying to make a living. I just think Tommy overstepped his bounds with that guitar. I’m the original Spaceman. I created that character, and he’s trying to capitalise on it. Tommy Thayer is a just a copycat guitar player. He should know his place.

Didn’t you and Peter sell your image rights to Paul and Gene?

My attorney told me I’m licensing the image to them.

So while Tommy Thayer is in Kiss, wearing your make-up, you’re getting paid for it?

Yeah, I get royalties. But I’m a little unclear exactly what the terms of the agreement are. It’s complicated. There are so many Kiss contracts over the years.

But if you’re taking royalties, how can you complain about Tommy Thayer doing your ‘Spaceman’ shtick?

I’m not really complaining about it. I’ve moved on with my life. I think the fans are more upset about it than me. I’m constantly bombarded by fans saying: “Ace, you should be back in the band. We’re not happy with the line-up, it’s half of a Kiss cover band.” I could easily step back in and put on the make-up and do the job, but I don’t think Paul and Gene want to share the money. They’re all about the money. They don’t want to give me twenty per cent when they can pay a salaried employee.

But for many Kiss fans the band just isn’t the same without you – the way you play guitar, your personality. Hard-core Kiss fans love you as much as they do Paul and Gene, maybe more so. Are you aware of that?

I get the sense that might be true. And, you know, I can’t change who I am. I’ve always tried to take everything with a grain of salt. I remember so many times during the seventies when I was in Kiss, I’d tell Paul and Gene: “Will you guys lighten up? We’re just dressing up like fucking rock’n’roll clowns and having fun!”

More recently, however, your fans in the UK have been let down when you were scheduled to appear at the Hard Rock Hell festival in 2011 and 2012, and cancelled both times.

Well, I cancelled the 2011 show after I fractured my wrist. It was a real unfortunate situation.

But with your past reputation, can you understand why people might think, after those cancellations, that you’re still the same old fucked-up Ace Frehley?

I understand where you’re coming from. But I think this album shows that I’m completely in control. I wrote almost all of the songs, played all the guitar work and sang all the lead vocals. That’s a big accomplishment for somebody who’s sixty-three years old, and there’s no way I’d have pulled that off if I was drinking. For anybody to imply that I’m still getting loaded, it doesn’t hold water.

Do you feel better being sober?

Oh man, I just got a clean bill of health a couple of months ago from my doctor. He said: “Ace, you’re healthier now than you were ten years ago.”

What would it take to get you back in Kiss? If Paul and Gene changed their mind, and asked nicely, would you do it?

If they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, it’s definitely something I would entertain. I don’t really have any problem working with Paul and Gene, and I don’t think they should have any problem with me these days. Their biggest gripe over all the years was: “Ace was fucked up.” Well, that’s not the case any more.

Are you still on speaking terms with them?

Sure. I gave Gene a call when I was mixing the new record in LA and he wouldn’t let me off the phone. We were reminiscing about driving around in a station wagon in the seventies…

Do you think Gene misses having you around?

I’m sure he does. Gene doesn’t have that many friends. He surrounds himself with business people. And, to be honest with you, I don’t even think him and Paul are that close these days.

After all these years and all that’s happened, you still feel close to Gene?

Yeah. Me and Gene have always been closer than me and Paul. And I have to remember that Gene saved my life twice, when Kiss was on tour in the late seventies. Once when I fell asleep in a bathtub and the water was coming up to my mouth, and another time when I was swimming in a pool, and Gene jumped in and saved me when everybody else thought I was fooling around. I pretty much drowned that day.

If you rejoined Kiss you could hang out with Gene and also top up your retirement fund.

I don’t need the money. I would do it for the fans. It’s a shame that Kiss is doing a fortieth anniversary tour and me and Peter have absolutely nothing to do with it. How can you celebrate a group like Kiss and not pay homage to two of the founding members?

So what, really, is the possibility of a final Kiss reunion with all four original members?

Paul and Gene said there will never be a reunion, but who knows? I’m not sitting around at home waiting for a phone call. If a reunion happens down the road, so be it. If it doesn’t, I’m fine. One way or the other, life is good.

Paul Elliott

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”