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Back In The Solo Album Groove With Eddie Kramer

Legendary producer/engineer recalls a "big family gathering" at the Colgate Mansion and revisits how Ace Frehley stacked the deck and trumped his bandmates with a brilliant solo album and why it embodies the true essence of rock and roll.

Interview by Tim McPhate

KissFAQ: Eddie, when Ace knew that the KISS members were going to do solo albums, I'm betting that you were the first call that he made. What do you recollect about the initial decision to work with Ace on his solo album?
Eddie Kramer: My recollection is that Ace and I were always pretty close because he loved what I did in terms of sounds. And I think recording Ace was going to be a wonderful challenge and very exciting because we just seemed to enjoy each other's company and I enjoyed getting him cool sounds. And this was a time when Ace was flying high, and I mean that figuratively speaking, in terms of his popularity. I always admired him as a guitar player. I thought he was much underrated, and I've said that before in the press. I think what we decided to do was to get into the studio and try and cut an album that really kicked ass!! And he had some great songs -- thank goodness we were able to get that one song (laughs), which put his album way above any of the other guys.

KF: "New York Groove," which was written by Russ Ballard.
EK: Russ Ballard, right.

KF: "New York Groove" had been recorded by a British group called Hello, and it was a hit circa 1975. As far as a general timeline, the recording sessions took place in June/July 1978 and the album was released in September.
EK: Right, we rented the Colgate Mansion in Sharon, Connecticut, and used the Fedco mobile recording truck. Have you seen those pictures?

KF: I think I've seen one or two on Ace's website, and I know you've said you have a bunch of pictures from the sessions.
EK: Yeah, I do. They're great. So the decision was made, I think between Ace and myself, figuring out who the musicians were going to be. We knew that we wanted Anton and he was the key to getting the cool drum sound and feel, I mean he was just remarkable on this record. He just hit so bloody hard and did such fabulous stuff and Ace and he had worked together, if I'm not mistaken, on something prior. Maybe they jammed together.

KF: Well, I have to be honest, Eddie, there are a lot of rumors that swirl around some KISS albums to this day. There's a longstanding rumor that Anton possibly played on a couple of the studio tracks on side four of "Alive II," but I don't that it has ever been confirmed if he played or not.
EK: I think that is correct. I seem to remember that he did actually play on something that was recorded in a theater in New Jersey.

KF: Interesting. The studio tracks on "Alive II" were recorded at Capital Theater in Passaic, New Jersey.
EK: Yeah, I think there was a track that he did because shall we say that Peter Criss was unavailable that day (laughs). But I think that there was a history there of respect for Anton's ability. Obviously, he went on to David Letterman and all that. [He'd] seen him play in clubs and I know that there was a point where Ace and Anton got together and they really dug each other, so that was cool. And so the decision was made to get Anton.

KF: I believe Ace played bass on a majority of the tracks. And then Will Lee, who also went on to play in the Letterman band, was brought in for a few tracks.
EK: Yes, I've always been a huge admirer of Will Lee's bass playing. And he still rocks my world in terms of feel and technique. Now the mansion I'd known about through a friend of mine, but the guy who owned the mansion was (laughs) a little difficult to deal with. He owned a recording studio somewhere else in Connecticut, but he also owned this bloody great big Colgate Mansion. I called him up and said, "Hey, I want to bring a truck up and cut some tracks here." After some protracted negotiations ... (laughs), we managed to get in there. But the place was odd and definitely a bit haunted. However, it was so cool, with this massive staircase and huge paneled rooms, which gave us the ability to separate Ace's mountain of amps and the bass. After looking at my options, I decided to put the drums at the top of the staircase. They just sounded ridiculous!

KF: The album has such a great drum sound.
EK: Oh yeah, I've got pictures of Anton's kit at the top of the staircase. It just sounded ridiculous. The front living room was where we put all of Ace's amps.

KF: What was the overall recording atmosphere like?
EK: Cutting the tracks was hilarious. I mean we laughed our asses off so much. The place was pretty much haunted, as I said before. Everybody had a bedroom up there. We lived there in the mansion. And it was pretty primitive, but we all gathered together in the kitchen to have either take-out food or we cooked outside or we cooked in the kitchen ... it was like a big family gathering. You know -- a bunch of guys drinking beer and recording (laughs). But the good thing was that the work was very consistent and Ace was really focused. People think he was out of it and all that kind of stuff but he wasn't. We had our fun after we had finished working. But when we were recording everybody was straight and cool because we all wanted to make sure we got the stuff down on tape right. But it was just such a joy. It was a big laugh; it was a laugh because Ace was always so funny. But more than that, he was very serious about his recordings. And he just played with such intensity. I have to say that this was an impressive record. Ace was so inventive and we came up with such cool sounds. That was the thing, it was such an inspiration. I think part of it came from the fact that I had recorded Led Zeppelin at Mick Jagger's house in England and that was part of the "Houses Of The Holy" and "Physical Graffiti" albums. I wanted that same kind of vibe, and [Ace's album] was very reminiscent of Zeppelin in that sense. We wanted to get that huge, fucking great big drum sound. And we did.

KF: Eddie, Ace has mentioned that Paul and Gene were "partially responsible for him doing a great album." Do you recall Ace having a competitive streak in him during the recording of the album? In other words, did he want to prove something to Paul and Gene?
EK: Oh, there's no question in my mind that the competition between Ace, Gene, Paul, and Peter was going to be huge. And certainly, they denigrated the possibilities that he would come up with a good album. And they all thought that they were going to have the top album. In fact, what happened was Ace trumped them all with a brilliant album. Most of it has to do with the fact that he played great and he sang great. Albeit though in the studio, which we'll talk about in a minute when we go to Plaza Sound for the overdubs. There were moments of anxiety in terms of trying to cut the vocals. But the idea of competition among the members of the band was a strong one. And Ace probably felt, "I'll show these bastards." I'm sure that was in his mind. And I have to say that I was so impressed with what he came up with, and the intricacy and the cleverness of some of the guitar parts. It was tremendous. Like I said, he's a much underrated guitar player. And I admired his tenacity to complete the album.

KF: And Ace's album was very much a true solo album given he played a majority of the instruments on the album, drums aside. He played the guitars, 12-string guitar, double-neck guitar, bass, and synthesizer. Is it safe to say this album contains Ace's finest recorded moments?
EK: There's no question this is probably the best album he made. The follow-up albums when he did his solo project with Frehley's Comet I thought were very good too. But I don't know if anything quite reaches the height of inventiveness that [the 1978] album had. Plus it had a bloody great big single, which is still being played today at Yankee Stadium.

KF: Yes, indeed. Let's get into the vocals, Eddie. Ace has commented that you may have been surprised by how his vocals turned out, in hindsight. Given Ace only had two recorded vocals under his belt at this point. Was this an area of concern going into the project?
EK: Correct. And you know the fact of the matter is he was not known as a great singer. But once again, when one is pressed one comes up with the goods. And that's what he did. Now there was a specific technique that we learned worked very well for him. In Plaza Sound we would put him on the floor, on a nice rug, with a cushion behind his head. And he had a bottle of beer in one hand and he had a Shure 58 in the other hand, and he would lie down because he felt very insecure about standing up and singing. So we would start him completely down on the ground, with the "attachments" (laughs) and then we would do a verse or two, or a chorus or something. And then he started to feel better and he would be sitting up. And then gradually, as his confidence in his ability to be able to sing was regained, he was vertical by the time we got the vocal completed. And that was the process. I am not sure if we used that for every song but certainly I do remember it being used quite extensively (laughs).

KF: That's a great mental picture (laughs).
EK: Yeah, but that's the thing, we goofed off a lot. But in between the goofing off, we were very serious. And I think it's important that one must realize that rock and roll, for me, has always been this combination of crazy moments, silly moments and seriousness. You can't be serious all the time. You know, it's only rock and roll as somebody has once said. And the more fun you can make it in the studio, the better the music is I think.

KF: On that note, Ace has said that there weren't any of the "negative vibes" that sometimes came with recording a KISS record. I'm not exactly sure what Ace was alluding to, but perhaps it speaks to the fact that he didn't feel confined on his solo album.
EK: That's exactly the point. He's a very creative soul. You've seen his drawings. The public persona was (speaks like Ace), "Hey, Curly..." It's really a front, because underneath that is a very intelligent human being and a sensitive guy who really understood his music well and played it well. So this was the opportunity to do a solo album. The doors were kicked open and Ace was in and doing his thing. And he was great, man.

KF: Well, it's hard to find an album where Ace played better guitar. His guitar solos, especially, are sterling throughout. Can you give us a snapshot of how you worked with Ace on his guitar parts? Did you bat ideas back and forth?
EK: Oh yeah, all the time. The way I always work with guitar players, first of all, we have a sound. You've got to start with a sound first. "Okay, I'm going to do a rhythm part." "Fine, what are we looking for? Is it a Marshall? Is it a Fender? Is it a vintage amplifier? What the hell is it? What does the song need as a sound?" Once we have that nailed, then we pick the guitar. "Is it a Les Paul? Is it a Fender Strat? A Telecaster? What is it?" And once we define that, then we figure it out ... [but] Ace was pretty quick. This sounds like a long-winded thing but essentially we go through the amps and say, "Okay, this song needs this for the rhythm. And the secondary rhythm needs to be a 12-string. And the third guitar needs to be something else." And then I'll suggest, "Well, how about if we play it backwards? Or how about we put the mic over here?" You know, it's a very fertile ground for improvisation. And lots of things sort of happen organically, whereby I would say, "Listen I heard something you just did there. Let's expand upon that idea." Or getting different ringing tones, like in that instrumental ...

KF: "Fractured Mirror."
EK: "Fractured Mirror" is just full of crazy stuff that we did that just adds to the tonal color.

KF: Ace has said he used his Gibson double-neck and he put the Marshall stack on 10 and stood close enough to the amp so it wouldn't feedback, and he played the rhythm figure on the opposite neck, while the other neck's pickups were on. And the other neck was tuned to the open key of the song, which yielded this very clear and almost bell-like color.
EK: That is absolutely correct.

KF: That's such a cool composition, and it's a great atmospheric close to the album. Eddie, there are nine songs on the album. Do you recall Ace having more material to choose from?
EK: You know, there may [have been]. We'd have to go into the vaults and ask them to look and see what's on those tapes (laughs). I don't know who owns them, whether Ace owns them or the KISS guys own them. Who knows?

KF: Well, I believe there is an outtake from this album titled "All For Nothing." There are several instrumental takes that exist in fan circles, so it would seem Ace was working on vocals. Do you recall this track?
EK: Oh, yeah, yeah. We did do that.

KF: It's an instrumental, so it seems like it was in the works.
EK: Correct. It was definitely a song that was not finished.

KF: As you're aware, deluxe editions of rock albums have seemed to crop up more in the past few years. If the opportunity arose to oversee an "enhanced" or remixed edition of Ace's 1978 solo album would you be open to it?
EK: Well, I mean remix the album, what is that going to achieve? The album is what it is. I mean, what would a remix do for anybody? It would just be a different interpretation. I am involved with two major companies with cutting-edge technology, and I think Ace's album would definitely benefit from the expansion and aural excitement of this newfound technology.

KF: Bob Ezrin oversaw a remixed version of "Destroyer" in 2012. He commented on how the technology of the time was limiting and how there were certain things that had irked him about the album sonically. He was able to revisit the album, with today's technology, and expand on the album's sonics.
EK: I think Ace's album stands up extremely well by today's standards. Of course, I could mix it differently with this new cutting-edge technology.

KF: Very interesting, Eddie. And I was envisioning this would be a package deal, not just a remix. You know, if there was material in the vaults from the '78 solo sessions, demos and what not.
EK: That's a whole different ballgame. Then it's worthwhile. Like what I do with the Hendrix estate. We just released an album called "People, Hell & Angels," you're probably aware of it?

KF: Yes, indeed. I own the album.
EK: That was a year's worth of very intense work to restore that and put that all together because that is the last of the studio albums. And that was remixed with the single purpose of trying to improve the sound that was there, which we can do now. And it makes sense because the stuff hadn't been heard before. And you can make the same comment about any tracks that are in the vault that Ace has. I would love to remix them, of course.

KF: I definitely think fans would enjoy a deluxe edition of Ace's solo album. If we go past the 1978 solo albums, KISS ended up working with Vini Poncia, who produced Peter Criss' solo album, on their next two albums, "Dynasty" and "Unmasked," and then they charted into different territory. Given your track record with the group and the fact that Ace's album was a winner, I think some have questioned why you didn't come back onboard to produce KISS?
EK: Well, you know (laughs), what can I say? I feel that my work with KISS stands the test of time. I think the albums I did with them are some of their better works. I think most fans and critics would probably agree, yes?

KF: Absolutely, Eddie. When you think of KISS and Eddie Kramer, the one word that comes to mind is: classic.
EK: But you know, Gene and Paul do their thing and they do it well. And that's ... that's them. I can't comment either way about how they do their records. I just know that what I did was certainly the core of what the fans love. But the KISS guys do their thing and they do it extremely well and they've been extremely successful, so you can't really knock that. I'm just very happy that the guys are still together -- maybe not with the original team -- but that's life. The KISS saga goes on and they're still filling stadiums, which is incredible.

KF: Eddie, do you remember the last time you spoke with Ace?
EK: Oh, it was a few years ago. I think he moved to California and he was going to get re-married or something. And then I lost track with him.

KF: KISS have recorded two studio albums in the last three years, with both being produced by Paul Stanley. There is a contingent of fans who would love it if KISS and Eddie Kramer took one last go around in the studio. If the phone rang and it was Gene and Paul asking you to come aboard for a new KISS album, would you be open to it?
EK: Obviously I would. We have a long history. If, if they were open to it and they were really serious about it, I would be very seriously inclined to go in the studio with them again. I would love it. Nothing would please me more because I know I can make them sound like they were in the beginning with that raw sound that's in your face.

KF: Well, Eddie a lot of fans think that you should have produced the first three albums, but that's another discussion, huh?
EK: That's another discussion for another day.

(KissFAQ thanks Eddie Kramer for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)



About Eddie Kramer:
By any standard, Eddie Kramer is regarded as a music industry icon. Born in South Africa, Kramer studied classical piano at the prestigious South African College of Music. At a young age his interest switched from classical to jazz. He moved to England at 19, where he recorded local jazz groups in a home-based studio and installed hi-fi equipment as a hobby. He started his career at Advision Sound Studios in 1962. He joined Pye Studios in 1963 where he recorded a variety of artists, including Sammy Davis Jr., Petula Clark, the Kinks, and the Searchers. Over the course of his five-decade production and engineering career, Kramer has been behind the boards for the biggest names in music: The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Peter Frampton, Carly Simon, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, David Bowie, the Beatles, and Bad Company, just to name a few. But he is perhaps best known for three long-term associations in which he not only helped create some of the most important music of the rock era, but also set standards for rock production that set him aside as a true innovator. His work with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and KISS produced music that continues to influence rock musicians and producers today.

Kramer is an integral figure in KISStory. He produced the group's 1973 demo tape recorded at Electric Lady Studios and went on to helm classic albums such as "Alive!" (1975), "Rock And Roll Over" (1976), "Love Gun" (1977), and "Alive II" (1977). Kramer was the producer/engineer for Ace Frehley's 1978 solo album, the lone set to spawn a hit single in "New York Groove." Kramer would subsequently team with Frehley on solo recordings such as "Frehley's Comet" (1987) and "Trouble Walkin'" (1989). Kramer reconvened with KISS in 1993 for "Alive III."

In 2003 Kramer received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the AES convention. In 2009 Kramer and Waves released the Eddie Kramer Collection of audio software plug-ins, five application-specific plug-ins targeting guitar, drums, vocals, bass and special effects. In 2012 Kramer celebrated his 50th year in the music business. In conjunction with the Hendrix Estate, Kramer oversaw the 2013 release of "People, Hell & Angels," a collection of 12 previously unreleased studio recordings from guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. Also this year, Kramer launched F-Pedals, a brand new line of mind-blowing guitar pedals that are incredibly compact and fantastic sounding. Learn more about the legendary Eddie Kramer at his official website [http://www.eddie-kramer.com/Eddie_Kramer/Welcome.html].