Kiss and makeup: It's not just a group, it's a state of mind

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - "Welcome to Kiss World," Paul Stanley says, standing in his suite at the Plaza Hotel.

It's a surreal world whose primary inhabitants - the four members of Kiss - wear makeup, play driving hard-rock music and put on bombastic live shows in front of fervent fans who know every note of every song.

It's also a carefully constructed world, where each move is designed to advance one primary goal: augmenting the already impressive mythology of Kiss.

Stanley towers above everyone else in the hotel suite - 6-inch platform boots will do that - and he's bedecked in full Kiss regalia: white greasepaint, bright red lipstick, black star painted around his right eye and a skin-tight stage costume that reveals the singer and guitarist's hairy chest.

He and the other members of Kiss are in New York to promote a new album, Kiss Symphony: Alive IV, an accompanying DVD scheduled for release in September and the band's summer tour with Aerosmith, which stops Saturday night at Nissan Pavilion.

In another sense, though, Stanley and his band mates are in town for a little routine maintenance of the legend they have created.

Argue all you want about the merits of Kiss' music, the band has built a vast commercial empire based in part on the music, yes, but more on the idea of Kiss.

"We're superheroes in a band," Stanley says during one of a series of TV interviews the group conducts. That's exactly the image Kiss wants to project, and what's more, that's exactly how fans see the band.

Very little of Kiss' success has happened by accident. Stanley and Gene Simmons (with help at various times from Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, who is not part of this tour, and others) have worked assiduously to build a rock band that looks, acts and sounds the part. And even though the Kiss legend has been secure for years, the band still works hard to maintain the mystique.

"Kiss is a totality," Stanley says later in a follow-up conversation. "It's not just music. It's a mindset. It is an attitude and a way of approaching life beyond music."

In full makeup and stage costumes, Simmons, Stanley, Criss and guitarist Tommy Thayer caravan to a Best Buy in Manhattan for a lengthy in-store appearance with a division's worth of foot soldiers in the Kiss army. As bizarre and tiring as the day seems to an outsider, it's nothing unusual for the band.

"This is part of being in Kiss," Stanley says while striding through the opulent splendor of the Plaza on his way from one interview to the next.

The media sessions, with camera crews from VH1, E!, Reuters, an Australian TV network and others, feature many of the same questions: How did you come to work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on the new live album? How did the tour with Aerosmith happen?

Although the musicians give largely the same answers, they deliver them as though they are hearing the questions for the first time. Despite occasional impertinence, none of them betrays the slightest sign of impatience or boredom with the questioning, or even with technical difficulties that beset the Australian camera crew. Stanley says later that showing irritation at hearing the same questions again and again isn't fair to the interviewers or to the people reading or watching the interview.

"People thank us for being so patient and cooperative," he says during a brief break. "But I tell them, 'I'm not doing this for you; I'm doing this for me.'"

After doing so much press over the years, the musicians need the barest of prompts to unleash torrents of hyperbolic sound bites that interviewers love.

"When we started 30 years ago, what we were doing was shocking. Now it's just damn good," Stanley tells a TV interviewer.

In other chats, Stanley calls the tour with Aerosmith "an alliance of rock," describes the new live album, which features the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, as a meeting of "black tie and black leather" and tells a VH1 crew member who asks about the maneuverability of the singer's clunky footwear, "I could still part your hair with my boot."

"As I've said before, you can't always look like Kiss, but you can feel like Kiss," he says. "We are the underdog who won. We are the disenfranchised who took over. We are the people who wouldn't accept our place or the status quo, and we said, 'No, we're going to do it our way, and we're not only going to survive, we're going to thrive.'"

When it's suggested that the band's schedule that day seemed grueling, Stanley sounds almost offended on behalf of the fans.

"Grueling is digging ditches. Grueling is laying brick all day, for a lot less money than I make. So it would be the height of disrespect to call what I do grueling," he says.

What is perhaps most fascinating about watching Kiss at close quarters is the realization that the band not only talks a good game, but the musicians also believe in what they're saying about themselves, the music and, most especially, the fans. It's deeply seductive, and by the end of the day, you find yourself agreeing that maybe Kiss is the greatest band in the world.

"Maybe it's cheesy, but it's the best cheese around," Stanley says.

Then he grins. "I'm going to remember that line."

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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