Peter Criss Recalls His KISS Reunion

peter criss

Like it or not, the stadium gig has become its own art form. At its worst, it can be a frustrating exercise – trying to identify ant-sized musicians with binoculars on a stage a mile away, while straining to decipher music filtered through so many layers of smoky atmosphere that it hardly even matches the sound of your car radio. But then there are the few bands that can truly turn the stadium experience into a spectacle, a mind-blowing adventure, even for the people in the nosebleed seats.

None has done it better than KISS. Since the ’70s, these four New Yorkers have boosted the sheer scale of the stadium gig to its grandest potential, raising the bar for all other rock bands to follow. By combining theatrics with hard rock, they throw almost everything into the pot, juxtaposing state-of-the-art lighting, pyrotechnics, smoking guitars, risers, and extravagant set designs with the now-legendary costumes and makeup, blood-spewing and fire-breathing. When KISS hits the stage it was as if Clive Barker choreographed the Fourth of July.

But amidst all the sequins and eye-black, there were four guys underneath the masks who understood what they were doing musically. Often this gets lost in all the talk about the band’s shows, but in a recent conversation with original KISS drummer Peter Criss, we find ourselves talking not about the shade of eyeliner or the groupies, but about a love for big band swing.

“Gene Krupa is my main idol,” the 53-year-old Criss ebulliently professes, with childlike reverence, “This is the man. My dad would always be playing Gene Krupa records. I remember my buddy, Gerry Nolan (New York Dolls), we grew up together as kids, went to high school, went through everything together. We’d go stand outside clubs and watch Gene, and I was just in awe.”

Then there was the night when a very young Criss got to meet his idol. “One night I got to go into this club, got some phony ID, dressed up – we looked a little older with suits and ties and Beatle haircuts – and I got to meet the man. And you know, he took some time out to show me this and that, how you do the drum boogie, ’Sing, Sing, Sing’ and all that stuff. I wish he would have lived longer to see me play and make it, because the guy really was a sweet man and he did take time out to explain stuff to me.”

Criss first got his start as a drummer in perhaps the most typical way. “My mom said I went right for the pots and pans under the sink and drove her up the wall,” he laughs. “I wanted to play drums, I think, from the day I was born.” Weaned on stickball in a rough neighborhood, poor but getting by, Criss found solace in music, which was abundantly prevalent in his childhood. “What really got me going was that my mom had a radio going 24 hours a day. She loved music, and she had a great voice. She’d sing a lot, loved Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday.”

Adolescence embraced Criss with his first real drums, and some pretty ingenious engineering. “My first drum was a snare drum, an old Slingerland Radio King. It was old, the snares didn’t work on the bottom. I had to put it on a box. Got a set of brushes, started messing with those things. Got a little basement doo wop band that let me sit behind them with brushes.”

The drummer of KISS was using brushes with a doo wop band? Wait, it gets better. “I used two garbage-can covers for cymbals. My dad helped me out. He put a stick in the middle with a big nail and put it in a bucket of cement. And we put little nails through one of the covers for rivets, so I had a sizzle. So I had a garbage can, I had a little wooden box, and we put glitter stars along the box – the guys called themselves The Stars. There I was, this 13-year-old kid sitting back there with brushes with these guys with Elvis Presley hairdos, playing a beat for them. Amazing.”

Toiling as a delivery boy at a butcher shop, Criss saved $200 and bought himself his first real kit – a set of white Slingerland Radio Kings with a 26" bass drum. He carried them home, set them up in his parents’ bedroom, and began practicing. Yet things didn’t come easy. “I didn’t know where to go, I got frustrated,” Criss confesses. “I didn’t have any independence going yet. I was really furious. I’d put the radio on, and I was louder than the radio. It was a battle there, but I just kept it up and eventually I worked to get some more money and managed to get a floor tom. The original kit just had a big old 15" [mounted] tom. It was huge. I looked so tiny behind them.”

Fortunately, Criss grew up fast. His first professional break came at the tender age of 18, when Criss, sporting another fake ID, got to sit in with Joey Greco and his seven-piece band. His fate was sealed as Greco offered the drummer a six-night-a-week gig on the spot, and despite protests from his mother, he quit high school with one year left to finish and took the gig. It was the ’60s, and while the gig was an eye-opener, even more important was the opportunity to immerse himself in the bohemian Greenwich Village and the emerging hurricane of the New York music scene.

“Greenwich Village at that time was the place to be,” Criss says, “The Lovin’ Spoonful was playing, Jimi Hendrix. So I just got into the cliques and started making the rounds, group to group to group, playing with a couple of guys here, a couple others there. I had bands of my own going: The Sounds of Soul, The Barracudas, we were really out there. Every Sunday everybody was jamming in the park. People let you sit in, it was really an incredible time for music. I remember sitting in with the Lovin’ Spoonful once. I was freaked out.”

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By networking like mad, Criss landed his first recording session with a band called Chelsea in 1969, who did a record for Decca that featured John Cale on electric viola. Criss admits that the record “just bombed.” After the band broke up in 1971, Criss placed an advertisement in Rolling Stone that would change his life forever, which read: “Drummer willing to do anything to make it.” Succinct and ballsy, it drew the attention of two notable local rockers who were looking for exactly that brand of audacity – guitarist Paul Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons.

Criss chuckles, “So Gene called me, and he was like, ’Are you thin? Good looking? Do you have long hair? Are you willing to wear a dress?’ I was thinking, ’What is this, a transvestite band? I ain’t going into this.’ And he’s going on and on, would you do this, would you do that? I thought this guy was a really cocky son of a bitch. I’m a tough Brooklyn kid. I had to meet this guy just for the hell of it.

“Sure enough I went down to meet them in front of the Electric Lady Studios, which I thought was a big deal. Hendrix was playing there and all. And I remember walking down the street, and I was all decked out, had all my hair teased up, velvet pants on, that whole ’70s look, and there’s these two guys standing in front of Electric Lady. They looked like bums. I passed them up and went into the studio and asked somebody, ’Are Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley around?’ And this guy said, ’Yeah, they’re outside.’ I looked out the window and went, ’These guys asked me how I dress?’ These guys looked like bums!”

Bums or not, Criss still wanted to meet them. “So I went back down and said, ’I’m Peter Criss, nice to meet you.’ They said, ’Wow, we saw you go by, but we thought you were recording here!’ And we go into the studio, and it was so magical. We walked in the room and there’s Raymond Johnson, my old engineer from the Chelsea album, who was producing Wicked Lester – their band at the time, which they broke up. They got rid of their drummer and guitar player, they wanted to start fresh. They blew their whole record deal, but they didn’t care. I really admired their guts.

“So I walked in and Ron gave me a big hug. Gene said, ’You know this guy?’ Ron said, ’If you don’t hire this guy you’re out of your mind. He’s one of the hottest drummers around here. Trust me, you’ve got to get this guy.’ And Gene goes, ’Wow, unbelievable. Let’s play.’”

Play they did. And after 27 years, countless gold and platinum albums, sold-out arenas and one of the most successful reunion tours (1996—97) in history, KISS has certainly enjoyed the fruits of their labor. But it hasn’t all been glamour, wealth, fame and girls for the original foursome. The bloom began to leave the rose in 1980, after Criss quit the band amidst internal band strife and a very important personal development.

“I had a child,” Criss says with great reverence, “I’m divorced now, but at the time I had my daughter Jenny Lee. To me it was the greatest thing in this world. I had always wanted a girl. We had a beautiful house in Connecticut, and I wanted to raise my kid. I thought that the first ten years of a child’s life are the most important. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. My dad was always working and never around, my mom was in the kitchen. I just wanted to raise Jenny, I wanted to travel, I wanted us to do everything. So I put the sticks aside, just traveled and took her all over the world and loved her.”

Criss moved to Los Angeles in 1984, and soon found himself toying with the drums again. None too soon he began wanting to play with people, only this time the fish weren’t biting. It turned out his staggering celebrity with one of the biggest rock groups in the world was not a blessing, but in fact a hindrance. “By 1989, I was still messing around and still trying to get a break going,” he says. “I would call people and they would say, ’You’re too big! You’re bigger than the band, you can’t play with us.’ It was ridiculous! I just wanted a gig. The L.A. scene was hard, and who I was wasn’t helping me. It was a curse.”

Then there was that fateful evening in 1996 that brought it all back to the beginning. MTV had created a critically acclaimed hit show, Unplugged, that featured bands like Nirvana, L.L. Cool J, Live and Aerosmith playing their hits in an intimate semiacoustic performance. Finally KISS was given the opportunity in front of a nationally televised audience to display their long-overlooked musicianship, without the makeup or firebombs, and with a little help from a couple of old friends.

For years KISS had toured with Bruce Kulick on lead guitar and Eric Singer on drums, and they played the lion’s share of tunes during the Unplugged performance, but for classics like “Nothin’ to Lose” and “Rock and Roll All Nite,” Ace Frehley and Criss sat in. It was pure joy for KISS fans. “It felt good,” Criss sighs, “The MTV Unplugged thing, that was just a special night. I’ll never forget it. And when I saw everybody stand and give us an ovation, and the four of us together again, it was magic. I remember some days I’d be driving to rehearsal and going, ’Wow I’m going to play with the guys again.’”

That magic continued through the record-demolishing reunion world tour with the original lineup, makeup and all. One problem for the guys – none of them were spring chickens anymore, and of course they were expected to one-up themselves from the mind-boggling shows for which they were notorious. With that in mind, Criss undertook a marine-drill regimen to get in shape.

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“I went to a personal trainer, a blackbelt, and I’d have to get up at six o’clock in the morning. I hated this,” Criss laments. “I’d see this guy around seven thirty for about three hours. He was always, ’Give me 20 more pushups, 50 more sit-ups!’ I hated this man. My body ached so bad, if it wasn’t for Advil I couldn’t get out of bed. That’s how bad it was.”

But he wasn’t done. “After he’d finish up with me, I’d go to another place with just me and another drummer, lock the doors, and pound the drums for two more hours – just drums on drums – and then go to band rehearsal for six hours. Seven days a week. It was cruelty, but it put me in the best condition I’ve ever been in my whole life. All of us, we went to serious training and we rehearsed really hard. Nobody left that rehearsal until it was done. And the crew worked as desperately hard as we did.”

peter criss

The Catman Kit

Drums: DW
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 6" Edge Snare
3. 8" x 5" Tom
4. 8" x 6" Tom
5. 8" x 7" Tom
6. 8" x 8" Tom
7. 15" x 13" Tom
8. 10" x 8" Tom
9. 12" x 9" Tom
10. 16" x 14" Floor Tom
11. 13" x 10" Tom
12. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
13. 14" x 11" Tom

Cymbals: A. Zildjian
A. 10" Splash (inverted)
B. 22" China Boy High
C. 18" Crash
D. 6" Zil Bell
E. 19" Crash
F. 14" Quickbeat Hi-Hats
G. 12" Splash
H. 22" Ride
I. 9-1/2" Zil Bell
J. 8" Splash (inverted)
K. 12" Splash (inverted)
L. 22" China Boy Low

Peter Criss also uses Drum Workshop hardware, Ahead sticks and gloves, ddrum electronics, LP percussion and Remo heads.

Despite the strict regimen, for the first time in his career, Criss had to face every drummer’s nightmare in the middle of the reunion tour – carpal tunnel syndrome. “When I developed carpal tunnel syndrome I saw a doctor in Chicago who works with the Bulls,” Criss says. “I’ve been wearing these special braces they’ve made for my hands. They’ve got this weird clay, I feel like a child, I’ve got to play with this clay every day and do these special stretches. I should have done this when I was a younger drummer. You’ve got to start when you’re young, because when you get older you feel it. It might not have gotten this far if I would have stretched, if I would have practiced on the pad before the shows. I used to see guys do that and think they were crazy. But I’ve realized that it’s something that drummers need to do.”

And the most harrowing night for Criss came during the reunion tour, when his drum tech had to sit in for him. “The pain was so bad that I just couldn’t play,” Criss sighs. “The place was packed, it was in Columbus, Georgia. There was something like 20,000 people, and it was too late to say adios or they would have destroyed the place. I had to make a really hard decision, it was the first time in my whole career I canceled because of something wrong with me. Once, years ago, I played with a broken hand and a cast and would put the stick into the cast and tape it and play. But I can’t afford to do that anymore.

“So my tech, Ed Kannon, sat in,” Criss says, “The band called him in and said, ’We’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is you’re going to play tonight, and the bad news is that Peter can’t.’ And he had to say yes or no. This guy’s been behind me for five years. So he sat in and he said it was the heaviest two hours of his life. He said he didn’t know how I did it, by the middle of the show he was already burned out.” Burned out or not, the show went on, and Criss was able to finish the tour with a strict warm up regimen and perhaps a more careful eye on the set list.

During the 1996—97 tour, KISS hammered through its backlog of hits, much to the delight of the hundreds of thousands of die-hard fans who attended the shows. Now, with the release of the band’s reunion album, Psycho Circus, the KISS army can look for the first collection of brand new material from the original lineup since 1980. “I’ve always thought that we hadn’t done our best album yet,” Criss says. “Now that we are really focused, and – I hate to say it, but – older guys, it’s time to do a really great album. We’re even all playing much better than we played as kids, and things have changed – studios have changed, drums changed, everything has gotten better and easier for us.”

With all the puzzle pieces back in place, Criss and the “hottest band in the world” are determined to once again give the best to the people who want the best. “We’re back,” he says. “This is scary. It was heavy at first, but I started getting comfortable with the idea that a lot of people were working for us. I’m very appreciative of it. I really thank God for giving me a second chance for this.”

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Eric Singer: A Kiss Survivor

Long before he became a member of KISS, the band’s third drummer, Eric Singer, was a tried-and-true fan. “When KISS first came out I was 15 years old,” he says. “It’s just ironic, I bought their records and was influenced by them growing up.” Years later, he was on tour with Alice Cooper when he was called to record some tracks with KISS. At the time, the band’s second drummer Eric Carr was still recovering after open-heart surgery to remove a cancerous tumor.

In the end, Singer recorded the entire Revenge album, and jumped at the band’s offer to replace Carr after his untimely death late in ’91. Singer realized that he had some pretty big shoes to fill. “When I went and played with KISS, I would get live board tapes as well as the studio versions of songs that both the drummers played, and I’d listen to what each guy did, how they interpreted the songs,” Singer says. “And I also listened to how the band evolved through the different periods and would try to figure out the main theme or groove that was going on. If I heard something cool, I’d cop that.”

Singer played with the band for five years, during which time he recorded four KISS albums and even appeared on the infamous MTV Unplugged show that reunited original drummer Peter Criss with his former bandmates. “I’d met Peter a couple of times through the years,” Singer says. “We rehearsed together for about a week in New York before the MTV Unplugged show. Everyone was real professional, very cool with each other.”

Of course, it was that same television special that ultimately led to the enormously successful 1996—97 KISS reunion tour, and Singer’s departure from the band. Still, he holds no grudges. “Right from the get-go, they said, ’Hey, we’re going to do this tour. We’re going to see how it goes.’ They kept us on a retainer for a year, then later on, after a couple of months they realized things were going well and they called a meeting. They didn’t mince words, they just said, ’This is what we’re doing, we’re letting you know so you guys can get on with your lives.’”

In the meantime, Singer had kept himself busy working on a self-produced instructional video, All-Access Pass, which he describes as a learning experience: “It taught me that I could actually set out to do something on my own completely from start to finish.” But when he began looking for a new gig, he found himself struggling to swim upstream. “I’ll be honest with you, the music scene has been very, very tough for a lot of people, myself included.”

Recently, though, Singer’s career has been on an upswing. He played on Gilby Clarke’s 1996 album The Hangover, is currently back on the road with Alice Cooper and plans to tour this fall with Brian May. “The main thing for me is always just to keep playing and keep busy because I’m happiest when I’m playing drums, no matter what.” –Andy Doerschuk

eric carr

Eric Carr The Fallen Hero

The September/October ’91 issue of DRUM! ran an interview with Eric Carr, KISS’s second drummer, which would sadly prove to be his final interview with a drumming magazine. The previous April, Carr had begun to feel as if he was coming down with a cold, and visited his doctor. After a series of tests the 41-year-old rocker was hit with startling news: He had a malignant tumor in the right atrium of his heart, which would require surgical removal.

The operation was completed on April 9, 1991. “I was up and walking around a day and a half after the surgery,” Carr said. “A day after that I had a party in my room. We had some wine, I had about 15 people in my room, and we had a great old time. I felt good – just a little sore from my incision.”

Unfortunately, though, Carr’s doctors then discovered that the cancer had spread from his heart to his lungs. Even worse, it was deemed inoperable. “The surgery was scary enough, but I dealt with it on my own, and I handled it, and I knew I’d pull through,” he said. “But in retrospect, the surgery was like a day at the beach compared to the stuff in my lungs. Because with the surgery, you go in and you cut the thing out. But you can’t just go in and get the stuff in my lungs – sometimes they can do that, but in my case they couldn’t. I have to depend on the chemotherapy, and hope that it’s going to do the job. So there’s no cut-and-dried answer. There’s nothing quick. And I hate things dragging out.”

Carr was admitted to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute in New York on June 9, 1991, to begin four days of chemotherapy, and at the time, he felt very upbeat about his prognosis. “I jammed a couple weeks ago with a couple of friends,” he said. “We played for a couple hours, and they said I didn’t sound any different than I would have normally sounded on the first day of rehearsal after not playing for five months. Which meant that I sucked, but I didn’t suck any worse than normal. So that was encouraging. That just meant that I was rusty.”

While awaiting a final word on the state of his health, Carr took part in the video shoot for KISS’s song “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” even though his long-term involvement with the band was still up in the air. “I think we’re going to play it by ear,” he said. “And if it gets to a point where I can’t play, and my health goes down – which I don’t think is going to happen – and they don’t think that I can perform the way I need to perform, they’ll have to look for somebody else.”

Carr passed away on November 24, 1991.