Back In The Solo Album Groove With Michael Des Barres
Renowned musician/actor recalls early experiences with KISS and working with Gene Simmons and provides his two cents on the direction of Simmons' solo album, details on his current projects and a window into his fascinating five-decade-plus entertainment career.
Interview by Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: Before we get to Gene Simmons' 1978 solo album, I'd like to go back a few years. Your group Silverhead played a gig with KISS and Fleetwood Mac on Jan. 26, 1974, at the Academy of Music in New York. Do you have any recollections of that gig?
Michael Des Barres: Yes, I remember standing in the wings with Johnny Thunders who had provided me with a joint of Angel dust. I saw Peter go up 15 feet and I thought, "Ah, so we're going on after these monsters." And you must remember that Silverhead at that time weighed 150 pounds collectively. So all of us would have gotten into one of Gene's boots. Being on Angel dust and looking around at this incredible theatrical presentation -- I was raised in theater so I immediately loved specifically Gene and Paul for their chutzpah. The Dolls were the band that everyone was digging and [KISS] had the whole idea of creating this incredible comic-book thing and that's all Gene's sensibility, I think, and I'm sure Paul had a great part in it. Clearly Gene is a aficionado of pop culture and that includes that whole world of fantasy. I was so fucking loaded, when I saw him just creeping around that stage I really believed it. I think what he created is so significant and so interesting. As an actor I was trained in mime and we studied kabuki mie, which is a Japanese form of mime and it's very ritualistic. And what Gene gave to rock and roll was this tempo, this threatening pre-historic Japanese Godzilla with a bass guitar. It was phenomenal and I loved them from the minute I saw them. And obviously Thunders was in his own way completely rock and roll in the truest sense of the word. And we were both marveling at how interesting it was. This was very early in their career, Aucoin had them, but it was very early, obviously because they opened for Silverhead, who was a cult band. And Gene said, "Listen, I've got a Silverhead poster on my wall. You're the greatest." As a result of that meeting, he put Detective, my next band on Swan Song, on a tour, for which I was incredibly grateful. And I ended up singing on his solo album.
Michael Des Barres
Courtesy of Michael Des Barres
KF: There's a song called "Ain't None Of Your Business," which was demoed by KISS for their 1976 "Destroyer" album and features Peter Criss on vocals. This song was later cut by your band Detective on your 1977 self-titled release. Can you give us the story of this song from your perspective?
MDB: Well, it was a great song. The whole thing about bands in those days was you wrote your own songs, and fuck everybody else. But that song came along and we loved it. The history of it was it was brought to me by one of our managers at the time, a major coke dealer whose name I cannot repeat. It's such a good song, "Ain't None Of Your Business," and it had such attitude and we played it, and everybody looked at each other and said, "We'd be fucking idiots not to do this." It suited us better than I thought it suited KISS because KISS was more of a pop-rock band and we were a bluesy rock band.
Detective, "Ain't None Of Your Business"
KF: Would you even have been aware that KISS previously cut a demo for that tune?
MDB: No, it was only brought to my attention years later. I did not know the history of the song, but then again I wasn't really aware of any history. I was living so much in the moment (laughs), which is a polite way of describing my lifestyle. For many years I didn't care about things like that. All I did was deal with what was in front of me. There was enough going on with Jimmy and Robert. Those days were so epochal that who cut what as a demo was not in my frame of reference.
KF: In late 1977 Detective opened up some dates for KISS, including a gig at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 14, 1977. Take us back to that gig.
MDB: Sure. Put it this way, I was in Detective: There was nobody in that wonderful venue dressed as any member of Detective. I wore makeup at all times but it was a different band. But if you walked out there and you saw, I think, 19,000 people dressed as the headliner, I mean ... So what I did was, and I continued this through our career when we supported bands, in between songs there would be a couple of people fixing their hair, adding a little bit more mascara to make them really look like Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter. And I would scream out a member of KISS' name. I would go, "Gene Simmons!" And they'd scream. And then the next time, I'd go, "Paul Stanley!" And they'd scream. So from where those boys were in their dressing room, all they could hear is us finishing a song and they'd hear the crowd go insane! It was so funny. When I supported Duran Duran later I did the same thing. I'd yell, "Simon Le Bon!" They'd go mad. And it was hilarious because my band was laughing hysterically at this absurd paradox. We were a pretty good fucking rock and roll band but we were greeted with complete silence because they had come to see their gods. And so I'd mention the gods' names in between songs and it sounded like we were going down as a storm.
KF: (laughs) Michael, KISS had two factions, if you will. There was Gene and Paul, who were very straight-laced and didn't drink or do drugs. And then there was Ace and Peter, who were known to get pretty wild on the road.
MDB: I was much more in the Gene and Paul camp. Even though I was loaded, I was much more into the intelligence and the awareness and the incredible insight they had into what the audience wanted. And I wanted to know about that because any idiot can take drugs and jump into the swimming pool and drive their Rolls-Royce into the ocean. Anybody can do that. But very few people can create a band as lasting and as incredible as KISS. And that is because of Gene and Paul's relationship and their relationship with their fans. That's what interests me. The only kind of hotel story I have is I was with Gene in his hotel suite and I remember he ordered some food. I didn't hear what he ordered. But the room service person came in and there was a trolley filled with desserts. And he ate every fucking dessert on that trolley.
Michael Des Barres
Courtesy of Michael Des Barres
KF: Gene is known to have a sweet tooth.
MDB: Yeah, so that's way more interesting than saying how much coke Ace snorted.
KF: (laughs) Moving into 1978, the four KISS members were each doing solo albums. How did you receive the invitation to sing on Gene's album?
MDB: He called me. He didn't send a invitation dripping in blood (laughs). He picked up a phone, he said, "Hey MDB, you wanna sing on this thing?" I said, "Fucking-A." I mean this guy was really good to me. It's hard to get a great tour like that and it's hard to play the Garden and he did it and he made it happen. I was delighted. I love him. He's a fantastic person.
KF: You would have been at the L.A. sessions, correct?
MDB: I was at the L.A. sessions, yeah. My voice is pretty distinctive and the only story that I remember from that was how in control of the situation he was and how free he let the musicians be. One thing he asked me to do was sing a harmony part with two other chaps. Now, that is not my forte. My forte is screaming. So I said, "No, I can't do that Gene. Just give me a track." (laughs) So he gave me a track and you can hear me wailing away in the background apparently. I mean I hadn't heard it in 30 odd years until somebody posted it the other day on Facebook.
Michael Des Barres and Robert Plant, circa 1977
KF: There's a scream in the intro at about five seconds in.
MDB: That would be me. Rock and roll to me, for singers, is very much about how distinctive their ad-libs are. If you really look at the great singers, you know Rod, Mick and Robert, the most interesting thing about them is how they set up a solo with a scream, how they come back out of a solo into a chorus or a verse, or what they do in between the lines. Rock and roll is all between the notes, as you know, you must be a music aficionado, otherwise you wouldn't be doing this. You know what I'm talking about. So if you want to have me on there, you want to have me making noises that sound authentic (laughs). I didn't particularly sing, I made authentic noises.
KF: The tune also features background vocals from some females, one of which I believe is Katey Sagal of "Married With Children" fame. Do you remember singing with the females?
MDB: Oh no. I don't like singing around the mic with anybody. I stood at the microphone, put the fucking cans on and sang my ass off. I mean Katey Sagal, I'm sure smelled nice, but I didn't give a shit.
KF: (laughs) Did you know the song features a guitar solo by Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick?
MDB: Yeah, Rick is brilliant. Cheap Trick is one of the all-time pop-rock bands.
KF: So "See You In Your Dreams" was essentially a one-off? Was there any talk of you singing on any other tunes?
MDB: It was at the end of the recording process, as far as I remember. If he asked me to do another, I would have, at that point, and still would do anything. If he asked me to come sing on an album, I would do it. I did what I asked to do as best I could.
KF: Gene had a cavalcade of stars on this album. Aside from you, there was Cher, Rick Nielsen, Joe Perry, Donna Summer, and Helen Reddy, among others. What are your thoughts on the direction Gene took with his album?
MDB: What you've got to understand is Iggy Pop is my favorite recording artist. So Donna Summer, Cher, et cetera, mean nothing to me. I don't know them personally although I know Cher a little bit. But all of that I thought was a bit of an odd choice, to be honest. I think he should have sat down with Steve Marriott, Jeff Beck and Cozy Powell and done a rock and roll record. It's interesting man, if you want to go metaphysically deep into this, when you're on your own and you're in a huge band and you make a record, it will obviously go platinum. But for me, it's an opportunity to really express what you're really thinking. Gene has always gone for what he thought was the lowest common denominator, I think. He's so talented as a bass player and a pretty good singer that I think he could have gone another way. And if I had been him, I would have. But they were such a corporation by then, they had to emulate KISS records. But I believe in my heart of hearts, if he wanted to make an individual statement, that's what he should have done. All the other people you listed there, with the exception of Joe Perry, are mainstream show biz people. Rock and roll is not mainstream show biz.
KF: Michael, to be candid, I think some fans would agree with you. In other words, what's the deal with Gene Simmons collaborating with Donna Summer or Helen Reddy?
MDB: I think it was a huge error, and you can quote me. But the caveat is I had such faith in him as a musicologist and [his] great understanding of British blues rock and if he'd done that with participants who were capable of playing that kind of music authentically, I think that record could have exploded. Of course, I've got a platinum album from it so obviously it did well. But at that stage, were numbers really necessary? Was more money needed? Because it was very, very critical how he made that record. I mean I went in there and sang and Gene was in the control room. (pauses) He's very much like Louis B. Mayer or something, you know from the old days of MGM. He's a studio head, he's a catalyst, he's a businessman. And sometimes I think, even though now they are unbelievably popular and have so incredibly penetrated pop culture, that would have been an opportunity to express himself as a musician and singer. That's just my two cents, Tim.
KF: It's an interesting take, Michael. The KISS solo albums caused quite a stir upon their release in 1978. Casablanca Records shipped 5.3 million albums into stores and undertook a multimillion dollar media campaign to promote them. Legend has it that the campaign caused quite a stir with other labels and artists. Michael, as an artist yourself, what were your thoughts on the way the albums were promoted?
MDB: I could give a shit. I didn't think about that stuff. I do now with my current projects, think about marketing. But in those days, marketing was for businessmen. I was into rock and roll (laughs). I didn't think about what other people were doing. And if it was promoted like that, I'd probably run a mile away. I only did it because I love Gene; I didn't do it because I wanted to be on a hit album. I did it because he asked me to. I was never marketed so that's not my thing. But in terms of business changes, in retrospect, when Jim Carrey got $20 million to do "Cable Guy," movie stars felt the same way. It's business. They upped the ante in terms of promotion because their empire, the merchandising, was as important as the lyrics. So it's a whole different world when you're coming from the streets of London. There are no Michael Des Barres dolls that I'm aware of (laughs).
KF: Getting into some other topics. The late musician Mikel Japp, who actually collaborated on songs with Paul Stanley, mentioned to us in an interview a few years back that you helped get him sober. He said, and I quote, "Not to get into that too much but I want to thank Michael Des Barres for well ... being there for me. I have been free of all substances for over 23 years!" What are your recollections of Mikel Japp and helping him?
MDB: You know, I'm really reticent to take credit for anything like that because you can only stop indulging in poison yourself. I loved Mikel and I respected him very much. I was very sad to hear what happened to him. I can just be an example. I've been sober 32 years so it's been quite a journey for me because when I did get sober I was a pariah in rock and roll. I was a leper. "What on earth are you doing? That isn't rock and roll." And of course those people, well the ones who are still alive, have gotten sober. I just happened to be blessed to get it a little quicker when I looked in the mirror and I saw Iggy Pop's grandmother looking back at me. So it was vanity that got me sober. But Mikel Japp, God bless him for saying that. But he did the work and that's what has to be done. As an individual you've got to take responsibility for who you are. And one is inspired perhaps by people around them who can change their consciousness, and I'll take a "thank you" for that. I just don't drink. I don't use coke. I find it toxic. It's kid's stuff. I think Mikel sensed that. He was such a talented dude. He didn't need that. The whole myth about drugs being creative, maybe for a year or two, but then psychosis sets in and you're about as creative as a fucking ashtray.
KF: I know Steven Tyler has expressed a similar sentiment.
MDB: Steven and Joe, of course, are friends that I knew. Then the big phenomenon in the last few years has been rock and roll sobriety, which is "Vicodin is OK." And that's a shame because prescription drugs have played havoc with people's sobriety because they feel it's prescribed. But these doctors are drug dealers. They're no better than the guy on the corner with a bag of crack. In fact, I think they're probably worse. Dr. Conrad Murray is experiencing that and others should too.
KF: Aside from music, you have quite the profile as an actor. In television, you've starred on shows such as "WKRP In Cincinnati," "Roseanne," "St. Elsewhere," "MacGyver," "Seinfeld," and "NCIS." Do you have a particular favorite show from your TV resume?
MDB: In a general sense, I am glad to work. I will say yes to anything in the beginning because one's business assumption of a rock and roll musician is that they're incapable and, like Ozzy, they are going to bite the heads off the casting director. So I had to do every fucking show to make them realize that I knew what I was doing, because I was trained as an actor as a kid. Most people don't know that. I had to prove myself so I said yes to anything. And I think an artist one does that in the beginning. Secondly, the favorite show I've ever done was playing Murdoc in "MacGyver." That was a character I could develop over the years and know what I was going to do. I learned how to use weapons, how to use disguises and various prosthetic makeups. He was an assassin. I think I'm probably most known for that character. It was a joy to go up to cause havoc in Vancouver and play the notorious assassin Murdoc.
KF: You were also on "Melrose Place," which was a bit of a guilty TV pleasure of mine back in the day. Did you get along well with Heather Locklear?
MDB: Yes, Heather is the greatest girl in the world. I adored her and still do. She loves rock and roll music, as evidenced by her legacy. And like all smart, beautiful women, she didn't take her sexuality seriously at all. In fact, she made fun of it, which was charming because it made her not be self-conscious as an actress. That's the worst thing you can be, when you're very aware of your own beauty and your own physical charisma that you rely on that and you don't do the work. There was never a day that that year we worked together on that show where she wasn't prepared, ready, knew everybody's name on the set. and was a true pro. If there's one thing I've come to really value, it's be on time and know your fucking lines. And that applies to every crew member and I am the same. I will learn every crew member's name the first day I'm on the job and I will remember it. I just did "NCIS" with Mark Harmon and that show was a joy. It was in the middle of me doing my "Carnaby Street" album and they wanted to use a couple of songs from that album and I thought that would be a wonderful tie-in. And working with David McCallum -- he was Illya Kuryakin [in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E"] for Christ's sake -- it was a mind-blowing experience. I think shows like that are successful because they're professionals, they know what they're doing, they've got a great rhythm together. It was a pleasure.
KF: You released a new studio album in 2012, "Carnaby Street." The album was recorded and mixed in 10 days. I take it you believe in spontaneity, Michael?
KF: That's quite an anomaly, especially in today's music industry.
MDB: I believe in spontaneity in every area of my life. But I do believe before you go into the studio you know the fucking songs. Let me make an analogy, Detective -- Led Zeppelin gave us a million dollars and we spent it. Because whatever you were given, you spent in those days, in 1977. And I spent three months getting a drum sound, OK? (laughs) And that was in between getting in the jacuzzi. It was absurd. Now, I'm paying for everything myself. No way is anybody going in the fucking jacuzzi when we're here to be laying down tracks. We did some dates in Austin, Mobile, Alabama, Nashville, and L.A. -- we played like crazy old blues musicians
at all these clubs. And everybody went nuts because it's a great album. It's a real rockin', bluesy '60s record. You get into a room -- which is my whole thing -- with five guys, put the headphones on, look at each other, love each other, and rock the fuck out. And that's it. If somebody drops the damn tambourine, I could give a fuck.
Michael Des Barres, "The Key Of Love"
KF: More recently, you released a single, "The Key Of Love," which is an exquisite ballad. I really like this tune.
MDB: Thank you.
KF: It has a Faces vibe going on. How did this song come to be?
MDB: Well, I wrote it for my woman, who I've been with over four years, Britta. She's changed my whole view of many things. I wanted to write a song for her. And it was very early on in our relationship. Listen, there's nothing that makes a woman happier than sitting on the end of the bed while they're tucked up in bed and playing a song that you just wrote for them. It was the sacred, romantic sealing of our relationship when I wrote that song. "I wrote this song in the key of love" is the chorus. And she just flipped out and wept, and I wept. Then I went away to Texas and I cut it with Jesse Dayton who is a well-known, brilliant country artist and a great writer. I actually wrote the song on my own but he produced it and did a great job. We put it out for Valentine's Day. I've been so lucky doing this stuff in the last couple of years. Because I run everything, it's all mine and I do it myself. I have a staff of two and we just kick ass. I did a live acoustic show [recently] in a packed club here [in Los Angeles] and I'm putting that out. I filmed it. I mean, you can do anything now. I'm free. We're free as a bird from the corporate fools who said there was no single. There is no such thing as a single, there's music. Music is free anyway.
KF: The video is really nicely shot as well, Michael.
MDB: Yeah, we shot that in the Pacific Palisades across from the Pacific Ocean. I just wanted to show nature. I take a lot of photographs and I love nature. I wanted to be in a beautiful, romantic situation that did not involve a car, a girl, short skirts and Tawny Kitaen. I just wanted it to be a guy singing about somebody he loves, without seeing the girl. This is a realization he's in love and this is a realization he has on his own. And I wanted to show that wonderful feeling of joy that you don't have to diminish by some sexual connotation. I'm not into that shit. It's too obvious, it's too boring, it's too dumb.
KF: When is the last time you spoke with Gene?
MDB: You know, I played Shannon's husband on a TV series.
KF: Yes, I've seen a picture of you two from the show.
MDB: So basically I married her before he did (laughs). I did a benefit for Jerry Shirley, who is the drummer with Humble Pie. And Steve Marriott was a friend of mine and I consider him the greatest rock and roll singer that ever lived. Jerry asked me to come and sing so I sang "I Don't Need No Doctor" and "C'mon Everybody." And his son Nick Simmons was there and he sang a song. Gene came to that and I saw him there. I was also at the wedding, and I go to birthdays and all that. But we both work a lot. You know what we did do, that was pretty funny, we played Squash a couple of times. He was a demon on the Squash court, an absolute demon. It was hilarious. Not that he wore the gear while we were playing (laughs). He won. I'm good and I'm in pretty good shape and he beat me every time.
KF: That's quite a vision: Gene Simmons playing Squash.
MDB: (laughs) Shannon, I keep in touch with and Gene, every now and then. I just love him. I have such a soft spot for him. There's only a few people in the last 40 years that I've been doing this that have stuck in my head with a picture of an honest, truthful man who was very good to me.
KF: KISS are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year. You saw them in the very beginning and at the height of their popularity. From your perspective, how have Gene and Paul been able to make this work for four decades?
MDB: Well, it's a tribute to Gene and Paul, for one thing. The original band -- the other two, nobody knows who they are, they're replaceable. In 10 years KISS will be playing, but it won't be the guys in KISS. It's almost like writing a play that any great actor could play that role. The KISS phenomena is so perfect that anybody could do it, anybody that's good and talented. It would be like only one actor playing "Hamlet." "Hamlet" is 500 years old and it's played by every great young actor of a generation. And I see KISS as being absolutely as classic as one of the Bard's plays because it's a cultural moment. And no matter who is in KISS, it will be KISS, and young'uns will always dig it. There will be a KISS spaceship in a couple of years.
KF: (laughs) Gene has probably trademarked that already.
MDB: Oh, no question about it (laughs). There's a whole chain of KISS restaurants on Venus. You know he's got that sussed out. But my point being, is it a credit to Gene and Paul? Of course it is. They created it, the other two went along with it. But the reason the band has stayed together is because Gene and Paul stayed together. They didn't fuck up. They didn't break it up, they didn't get angry at each other. They didn't let ego get in the way. Paul is quite happy to let Gene create this merchandising empire. And Paul's a very serious musician. He really is.
KF: We've talked quite a bit about Gene, what are your thoughts about Paul's musical talents?
MDB: Well, listen to Paul sing, who does he really sound like? Steve Marriott. (Mimics high singing) Up there, he's way up there. It's all high, exactly where the British blues kids, like me and Terry Reid -- that's where we'd sing, in that register. That's where he sang. He's very good. He's also got a great very light tenor, hence he did the musicals. Which I thought was a very brave thing to do, to branch out and do something completely different. Whether it was a success for him or not, I don't know. I'm sure he got a lot out of it. But he was brave enough to break the mold and try something new.
KF: Michael, your entertainment career spans more than five decades, between music and acting. And you're still going. What's your secret?
MDB: Love and being open to everything that happens around you. Connecting with the world, engaging with the world, not hiding from the world. Some people become more withdrawn because they're getting older. What I've done is remain curious and enthusiastic. I have a very disciplined life in terms of what I eat and how I work out and it's given me the energy to be able to be of service to others. I care about people, I want them to be happy and I want them to love one another. And I put my money where my mouth is when necessary. I am there for all of my friends and family because the world as it is today has never been more challenged and never been more technologically proficient. But with all the connectivity has come great alienation. Many, many people are isolated and alone and yet we are capable of the greatest connection, with the Internet and with social media, than ever before. But anxiety has risen in these last few years with this incredible phenomenon of social networking. Why is that? I believe it's because people are isolating because they're not looking out after their communities and perhaps they're not loving their families the way that they could. Because we're all capable of everything, on a universal level. I don't want to get too sermonizing here, but to answer your question, this is how I do it. Because I care about other people. It's not about me anymore. I used to do all of this for me. Now I do it for you.
(KissFAQ thanks Michael Des Barres for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)
About Michael Des Barres:
Michael Des Barres has been on the rock and roll scene for more than four decades. A European Marquis, Des Barres was raised in England and now lives in Los Angeles. His enduring love of delta blues and the rock and soul of the mid-'60s beat boom, carries forth from his days as the frontman for such seminal '70s bands as Silverhead and Detective, a band personally signed by Jimmy Page to Led Zeppelin's Swan Song label in 1975. Des Barres was also the touring singer for the Duran Duran spin-off group, the Power Station, which performed at Live Aid in 1985. Meanwhile, Des Barres has been ever-present on screens large and small for more than five decades. From plum roles in the beginning with "To Sir With Love," he has guest-starred in countless TV shows such as "WKRP In Cincinnati," "Melrose Place," "Seinfeld," "Ellen," and as beloved, long-running characters on "Roseanne" and "MacGyver." He continues to delight fans with his recent roles on "NCIS," Bones" and "Nip/Tuck."
Michael Des Barres onstage with Silverhead
Recorded and mixed in only 10 days, Des Barres recent studio album, "Carnaby Street," is pure, unadulterated rock and roll, inspired by his experiences in the late-'60s/early-'70s. Steven Van Zandt of SiriusXM's Underground Garage and the right-hand man of "The Boss" himself has been a very vocal champion of the album. The album is available at Amazon and iTunes. He also has a weekly radio show, "Roots & Branches With Michael Des Barres," which explores the origins of rock and roll, soul, jazz, and hip-hop and their influences on popular music. Des Barres keeps in close touch with his fans via his extremely active Facebook and Twitter accounts.