Still Shouting Out Loud: A Conversation With KISS Guitarist Tommy Thayer

Whether you like the music or not, there’s a certainty that comes with seeing KISS perform live on a big stage: You will be entertained. The pyro, lasers, video, thousands of lights and moving mechanical stage parts are as spectacular as anything a concert-goer will experience. Ever.  And of course, there’s the band — the Demon, the Starchild, the Spaceman and the Catman, characters that are synonymous with the creation of some of the most hook-laden and oft-played rock and roll of the past 40 years that has been enjoyed by a legion known as the KISS Army.


Bassist Gene Simmons, guitarist/vocalist Paul Stanley, guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer bring the KISS machine to the Iowa State Fair Friday night on its Freedom to Rock Tour. Thayer spoke with Darren Tromblay recently from the road.

The Freedom to Rock tour began on July 4, so you’ve been out awhile now. Tell me about this trek.
We’re doing the secondary markets, which are amazing, actually, because a lot of bands don’t go to Boise, Idaho and Bozeman, Montana. People there love it even more than anywhere else. We love it, too, because it creates a great energy between the band and the audience that we look forward to.

You were in Des Moines a couple of years ago, but it’s going to be a different venue this time, outdoors. Staging-wise what should we expect?
It’s going to be big and bombastic like always. We’re basing the stage on the one we used in Las Vegas (residency). There’s a lot of video, pyro. And even though it will be outside and a little warmer out there (laughs), maybe a little more humid, it will be rocking. We’ll be bringing all the firepower.

Leather, makeup and 100-degree temperatures sound like trouble.
(laughs) We love playing in any condition, but it can be brutal outside in the summer, especially at certain times. The leather, the boots, the makeup, the pyro, all that stuff; combine it and it heats up exponentially, but we can deal with it.

What does the set list look like these days, and how difficult is it to change things up with so many “must play” songs?
I keep pushing for some deep cuts here and there. I think it creates for a better vibe. You can’t just keep going out and doing the same songs all the time. We try to push it to get a few extra gems in there that haven’t been played that much.

What deep cuts are we talking about here?Tommy Thayer
I can’t say (laughs), but I came in as a fan of the band, so I like to mix it, although you’ve got the classic stuff, the “Shout It Loud,” the “Detroit Rock City,” the “Rock and Roll All Night,” that if you don’t play, people will be upset, so it’s a fine balance.

Fair enough. How many years have you been in the band now?
I’ve known Paul and Gene for more than 30 years now because Black ‘N Blue toured with KISS back in the mid-80s, and that’s when I first met them. There was a period of time in the mid- to late-90s when I worked behind the scenes with the band when they were touring. Everything came full circle around 2002 when I was thrown into the band. It was a unique situation. It wasn’t like I auditioned or anything like that. (laughs) I’d been around for a long time, and they knew I had the goods to step up and be on stage and take over the lead guitar spot. I will forever be the Ronnie Wood of KISS, though (laughs) — even though he’s been in the Rolling Stones 40 or 50 years now.

I spoke to Vivian Campbell and he mentioned the same thing of how he’s been with Def Leppard for 23 years and he’s still the “new guy” there.
Yeah, it’s funny how that works.

So why do you think it’s such a big deal with changes happen within KISS? Lineup changes happen all the time in nearly every band, but if it happens in KISS, the Army goes nuts. (laughs)
The band has a great history for 40 years, and for the people who have been around that long, there’s a certain attachment to things. It’s an emotional thing. I understand it. If you become attached to a certain era or version of the band when you were growing up, that’s important to you. I can’t discount that. It’s part of life. People adapt, and some get edgy, but I understand it.

Do you think you’ve been accepted?
In my opinion, I think I have been, but are there are some people who might disagree. (laughs) It’s a free world out there, and people can think and do what they want.

So you don’t have anybody in the front row flying the bird at you because you’re not Ace Frehley?
The first couple of tours, that happened, yeah. And with the Internet, I think people get more bravado under an alias name on a blog rather than getting out and living it and doing it for real. The Internet is a different environment that people do things and say things that they maybe normally wouldn’t in normal life.

There were some recent “episodes” with Paul and Nikki Sixx going at it on social media and Gene weighing in on some things as he does sometimes. What are your reactions? Sit back and zip it? (laughs)
No, I can make whatever comment I want. (laughs) Everybody has a point of view. No one is wrong. I know that sounds like a diplomatic thing to say, but I know Nikki well, he’s a good friend. Paul and Gene, I have a lot of respect for those guys, obviously. There are a lot of ways to look at things. I think it’s all valid. Sometimes it gets a little over the top in general, but it’s all good.

There’s been some talk about what will happen when Gene and Paul decide to call it a day, possibly even the band continuing on with replacement players. What’s your take on that?
I think with a band as iconic as KISS, anything is possible. I don’t know how it would work exactly, and in a way I can’t really picture it right now. But on the other hand, I have a never-say-never attitude regarding KISS because KISS is a band that has always broken the rules and doesn’t do things that are conventional. In a way, though, it’s already happened for half the band, you know what I mean? We’ll see what happens, but it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility.