One of the frontmen for KISS IT, San Antonio’s full-on, makeup and all, KISS tribute band, the man who’ll identify himself only as Tall Stanley, bought his first rock album by mistake. He was 11, looking through the records at the Joske’s department store where his older sister worked. At the time, the only LPs he owned were children’s stories: Peter and the Wolf, Jack and the Beanstalk, Batman. When he came across KISS’s Destroyer, with its cover depicting the band in costume either jumping away from an exploding city or leaping gleefully at sunset — it’s hard to say which — he grabbed it, expecting an action-packed adventure tale.
“I didn’t know they were a band,” Tall recalls, “I thought they were superheroes. … When I got the record home and listened to it, it starts out with that newscast at the beginning, so I still thought it was a story. But then ‘Detroit Rock City’ started, and I said, ‘What is this?’ It was the first rock song I ever heard.”
Each of the members of KISS IT — who insist on giving only their stage names, because as drummer Peter Stixx puts it, “magicians never reveal how a trick’s done” — have a similar first-time story: the first song he heard, the exact time and place. Stixx recalls hearing Alive! at a friend’s house during a tornado warning: “Peter Criss’s drum solo from ‘100,000 Years’ comes on, and I’d never heard anything like it, this bristling tone, such a complex mix of sounds. … After that I was banging on pots and pans, Tupperware bowls, anything I could find.”
Georgia Gene switched from guitar to bass after listening to Gene Simmons’s work on “Sweet Pain.” Destroyer hooked guitarist Space Ace, too, and he convinced his grandmother to buy him a guitar. But after she took him to see KISS play the Joe Freeman Coliseum in 1977 (a show Tall also attended, though the two didn’t meet for several more years), Space was inspired to blow up his guitar with firecrackers.
“I wanted to be like Ace Frehley,” he says. “My grandmother was quite pissed off about that.”
Georgia Gene said he first had the idea to form a KISS cover band in Dalton, Georgia, but he “couldn’t get nothing going. … There were fans I knew, but none of them wanted to imitate KISS.”
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Stixx remarks sympathetically.
When Gene moved to San Antonio, he tried again. He placed an add on Craigslist, calling dibs on Simmons, of course, to recruit Criss, Frehley, and Stanley stand-ins. Stixx responded within a half-hour. Space Ace and Tall, who attempted to convince his other band to dress as KISS last Halloween and ended up the only one in makeup, joined soon after. They played 16 songs, from memory, during their first practice.
“Some of them were better than others,” Tall admits.
But they kept practicing, comparing their performances to their collective library of KISS concert footage. The KISS Army is a demanding audience.
“The name KISS draws a crowd,” Georgia says, “but if we weren’t good we wouldn’t hold them.”
“Fanatics know every lick, every movement, every mannerism,” Stixx adds.
To keep it simple, KISS IT concentrates on songs from the mid-70s Alive!/Destroyer era. They might work in a few “little tastes of Alive II,” Stixx says, but only the truly dedicated fans will pick up on them — the kind of fans who’ll point out tattoos that are drawn slightly out of place. It’s for those diehards that the band spends five hours setting up before each show, applying makeup, squeezing into custom-made costumes, and setting up the lights, smoke machine, and (depending on the venue’s policy) fire-breathing implements required to provide an authentic KISS experience.
“You can’t just start a KISS tribute band with a piece of leather and a few studs,” Georgia Gene says.
Not hardly. When Georgia estimates the setup (not including KISS-specific instruments, which everyone in the band already had) cost “three grand,” Stixx counters “more like five.”
The band crowds around a computer to pore over footage of a recent performance, discussing adjustments to the lighting cues that precede Georgia spitting up a mouthful of fake blood. During Stixx’s drum solo that follows, the camera captures a male fan on the front row. He looks about high-school age, maybe a little older, and he air-drums along using a real drumstick. The fan asked Stixx to sign it after the show, addressed to his brother, who’d recently died.
Destroyer rehearsal begins with “Detroit Rock City,” that bompa-bompa-bompa-bompa-BAH-BAH guitar riff, and though he warns that the band is still “kinda raw,” Tall has Paul Stanley’s vocal mannerisms down. He’s been practicing for most of his life.
“When I was a kid, my parents busted me one time looking in the mirror, imitating the way he talks,” Tall admits.
Much is made of the KISS business model, as though the popularity of the band’s music is secondary to the success of the band’s branding strategy, and Stixx does put KISS IT “up against any KISS tribute product on the market today,” but the visceral appeal of the song itself can’t be denied. It’s easy to see how it could change an 11-year-old’s worldview, causing him to ever after confound rock stars with superheroes.
But the directness of the music coupled with the band’s comic-book persona, the costumes, makeup, etc. seemed to have the exact opposite effect on rock writers. Not that KISS IT gives a shit.
“The critics just didn’t understand them when they first came out,” Georgia Gene says. Stixx contends KISS songs are “rooted in higher music forms like jazz and the blues” and that their style comes from NYC glam-rock predecessors like the New York Dolls and even the Velvet Underground. He also rates Simmons/Stanley as a songwriting team on the same level as Lennon/McCartney.
“Some of the songs are simple in comparison to something like Yes,” Tall allows, but Stixx makes a disgusted face.
“I don’t want to listen to that,” Stixx says. “It’s too much work. With KISS you can just enjoy the song, it’s not about the complexity of the chord structure.”
It is about the live presentation, of course, and KISS IT aren’t just rehearsing the song — they’re practicing choreographed movements, trying out adlibs for between-song banter. It’s not a dress rehearsal, but Space Ace is wearing his silver platform boots, getting used to walking around in heels.
“When the music starts, we’re no longer four individuals,” Georgia Gene says. “We become KISS onstage.”
Unlike his bandmates, Georgia Gene plays only in KISS IT, but none of them talk about the tribute band like it’s a joke. Stixx describes playing Criss’s material as “the pinnacle of drumming performance,” and Tall Stanley says KISS is the only band he’d want to cover exclusively. Space Ace agrees.
“I’d be stupid if I passed this up,” Space says. “Ace Frehley’s the reason I play guitar.”
For Georgia Gene, KISS IT is the culmination of something that started 34 years ago, when he first heard his sister listening to Destroyer and asked “Who the hell is that?”
“If I can get up there onstage and have you believe you’re watching Gene Simmons,” Georgia Gene says, “that’s all I ask for, man. I can’t ask for more than that.” •
KISS IT will be downtown in the Alamo and River Walk area signing autographs and taking pictures Thursday afternoon to promote their gig that night at Sam’s Burger Joint. They shouldn’t be too hard to spot.