By Brian Ives
It’s almost surprising to hear Ace Frehley speak. Even after years of watching his interviews, you still kind of expect that the former KISS guitarist, “Space Ace,” would sound a bit more… spacey. Like someone from a SyFy channel drama. It turns out that he sounds more like one of The Sopranos, occasionally punctuating sentences with “Badda-bing badda-boom!” But he’s a fun guy to talk to, at ease with discussing anything from his legacy to his sobriety.
One of the most influential guitarists of ’70s hard rock, he’s also the guy who designed KISS’s logo, one of the most distinct in rock and roll and, for that matter, popular culture. But he seems as proud of his solo career as he is of anything that he did during his KISS eras (1973-1982, and 1996-2002). And he acts as if he still has something to prove.
When he came to the Radio.com offices, he was full-on in promotional mode, talking about his new album Space Invader (buy it here), and still jazzed from performing the night before on The Tonight Show with the Roots (they jammed on his 1978 hit “New York Groove”). “That was a real treat,” he said, noting that he’s been friends with Roots guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas for years.
During our conversation, he discussed his knack for choosing great covers — including “New York Groove” — his new album, his fiancée, his sobriety and his recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Radio.com: It was cool to watch you play “Back in the New York Groove” on TV with the Roots. When you first covered it did you know you had a hit on your hands?
Ace Frehley: You know, I wasn’t really too hot on the idea of doing “New York Groove,” that idea came from [producer] Eddie Kramer. Who knew it was gonna be my biggest hit? On my new album, Space Invader , the record label came up with the idea for me to do [the Steve Miller Band’s] “The Joker.” I didn’t think it was heavy enough, compared to the rest of the songs on the record. But I did the best I could, I layered a lot of guitars on it, I added a ripping solo. I’m real happy with the end result.
You’ve done a lot of great covers, and they end up sounding like Ace songs: besides “New York Groove” and “The Joker,” I’m thinking about the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Man” and the Move’s “Do Ya.” How do you know when a song will be a good fit for you?
I don’t know man! The guy who co-wrote “Past the Milky Way,” the love ballad on this album, he’s the guy who came up with the idea for me to do “2000 Man” (which he recorded for the 1981 KISS album Dynasty). He was an engineer working at North Lake Studios in Westchester [New York], where I did a lot of demos back in the KISS days. It’s amazing how people sometimes have this sixth sense about what would be a great song for me to do. And I just go along with the party! As for “The Joker,” it’s not really something that I think I would write, but the opening line [“Some people call me the space cowboy”]… I am the “space cowboy!”
KISS and the Steve Miller Band were both huge in the ’70s. Do you know him?
I don’t remember ever bumping into Steve over the years, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen! My memory could have been better.
Well, you sing “The Joker” pretty credibly. Can you tell me a joke?
Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? ‘Cause it was f–kin’ dead! I used to rattle off jokes, fifty in a row, one after the other. I used to get them from my bartenders. But now that I’ve been sober, almost eight years… my memory isn’t what it used to be. There was one point in my life that I wanted to be a stand-up comedian, and that still could happen.
Really? How would you feel about getting on stage with a mic, but no guitar?
I could pull that off. Years ago, I used to be so afraid of public speaking, and now I enjoy it!
I know that you’ve spent time in AA, which probably involved you speaking to groups. Did that help you to get over your fear of public speaking?
I think that definitely helped, telling your story to people who need encouragement. That was definitely a contributing factor. But I’m also more secure with who I am, and I feel better about myself. I’m a lot less insecure than I was, and believe me, a lot of rock stars are insecure. Some people think that the drugs and alcohol make you more secure, but in reality, they make you more insecure.
Everyone knows your guitar influences – Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend…
…and Eric Clapton!
Right; but who would your comedy influences be?
Well, we just lost a great one: Robin Williams. I knew Robin, we partied together a few times. That was a huge, huge blow. He was brilliant. My heart goes out to his wife and family.