Few bands can split a room like KISS. Many fans are so blindly devoted that they probably wouldn’t hesitate to buy an album of the band farting for 30 minutes. Detractors... well, they likely think the group’s records already sound like 30 minutes of farting. But there’s one thing uniting these two factions: KISS’s original—and best—lead guitarist, Ace Frehley.
Over the past year I’ve interviewed everyone from Mountain Goats drummer Jon Wurster to black metal legend Abbath Doom Occulta of Immortal, and they all agree that Ace Frehley is the baddest of them all. Hell, even Frehley knows it: “Just about everyone who came after me was influenced in some way by KISS,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing. I never realized I’d have that much impact on people.”
And it’s still true, even if Frehley hasn’t donned his famous Spaceman makeup since 2002. During that time, he’s rebuilt his solo career, kicked drugs and alcohol (he just celebrated 10 years of sobriety), and relocated from the East Coast to sunny Southern California. Frehley’s kept busy, too—in the past few years he’s released a studio record, 2014’s Space Invader, and an album of covers, 2016’s Origins, Vol. 1.
Frehley and his fiancée Rachael Gordon recently settled on an acre just outside of San Diego with a new home studio ready to roll. “I’m just putting the final touches on it,” he says. “I actually might even do some tracking before I hit the road. I’ve been writing—little by little it’ll come together.”
These days, the Space Ace’s downtime isn’t occupied by the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll of the ’70s, when New York was a playground for glam, punk, disco, and, later, hip-hop. And while punk was the antithesis to the bawdy stadium rock behemoth KISS would become by 1976, Frehley says he still caught Ramones and Blondie shows at CBGB.
It doesn’t take long for him to launch into a story about KISS’s kindred spirits, the New York Dolls. “I was good friends with [bassist] Arthur Kane,” Frehley says, his Bronx accent sneaking through. “We became drinking buddies. When we toured together Arthur would be in my room, or I’d be in Arthur’s room, and we’d break out a six-pack of Colt 45.”
While Frehley and original KISS drummer Peter Criss were crashing and burning, the more business-minded Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were steering the ship. Eventually it caught up, and Frehley and Criss parted ways with the band in the early ’80s, staying apart until KISS reunited in 1996. Those same tensions would soon surface again, and the original lineup split for good in the early ’00s.
Of course, that doesn’t keep diehard KISS fans from salivating at the thought of one more go. The closest they’ve come was in 2014, when the band’s four original members appeared onstage together at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. KISS didn’t play, instead accepting the honor, posing for photos, and moving on. But last year Frehley recorded a cover of Free’s “Fire and Water” for Origins, Vol. 1 with Stanley on vocals. While it’s renewed the lines of communication, Frehley doesn’t know what the future holds with his former bandmates.
“I don’t rule out anything—my career has been so crazy. But the ball is in Paul and Gene’s court,” he says. “Gene contacted me recently and told me he wanted to come to one of my shows in the Los Angeles area. So that was nice. I’m gonna be fine if I don’t do a reunion, but I really think if I did rejoin the band, KISS would go out with a bang.”
That said, there’s an authenticity to Frehley’s loose-and-sweaty club shows that’s missing from KISS’s recent scripted, circus-like performances. It’s ultimately what makes Ace Ace, and why he’s respected outside of the KISS world. Although fans may never be content, these days Frehley’s just happy to have his health and creativity.
“You know, in my mind I’ve lived 10 lifetimes,” he says. “I should’ve died 10 times—overdosing, car accidents, all that crazy shit. So as far as I’m concerned, every day I get up and walk around is gravy.”