Renowned studio musician discusses his bass double-duty on Peter Criss and Gene Simmons' solo albums.
Interview by Tim McPhate
KissFAQ: Neil, going back to 1978, how did the opportunity to play on not one, but two of the KISS solo albums?
Neil Jason: Well, there were a lot of sessions going on back then. And one musician talks to another musician, et cetera, et cetera. A lot of the guys that were playing on Peter's record like Allan Schwartzberg and Elliott Randall were already really good friends of mine, so were the producers involved in all this stuff. I got called into Peter's sessions and I did [those] with Sean [Delaney] and that led to the sessions with Gene.
Courtesy of Neil Jason
KF: There were a couple of bass players on Peter's album. According to the lyric sheet, you played on the tracks "Easy Thing," "Rock Me, Baby" and "I Can't Stop The Rain."
NJ: Yeah, that sounds about right.
KF: And Sean was overseeing these sessions?
NJ: Absolutely. Well, actually, now I can't remember who was in the booth producing, maybe it was Jack Ponti?
KF: I don't believe so. Vini Poncia is credited as the album's co-producer with Peter.
NJ: Oh OK. [I think] Vini was in the booth. And I think, I can't remember some of the sessions, but a lot of these tunes were written and arranged by Sean for Peter to do.
KF: Yes, two of the above tracks were Sean's.
NJ: Therefore, inside the studio, Sean took us through everything but Vini and the engineer were, as far as I remember, in the booth taking care of business and keeping us going forward. But Sean was like producing the band on a lot of the stuff. And it was basically like demos that Sean was looking to help Peter [with] and get this thing done. I don't remember how many tracks over how many days, but I definitely remember "I Can't Stop The Rain" ... it was very cool. They were great sessions [at] Electric Lady.
KF: So you were part of the New York sessions only?
NJ: Yeah, it was a groove. It was a great time.
KF: Do you recall Peter being around?
NJ: Yeah, I recall Peter being there a number of times. I think I remember a session where Peter wasn't there and Sean sang the vocal while we did the tracks so we could get them done. I remember another one with Peter from beginning to end. They were just getting tracks ready and done for Peter who I guess was busy on other stuff at the same time.
KF: You all are obviously highly seasoned musicians. Generally, how many takes would it have taken to get a final?
NJ: It wasn't like a long and drawn-out affair. We'd rehearse it for a little while and then we'd do a couple takes. It was pretty straight ahead -- they knew what they wanted. It wasn't like they were going into territory where it was like, "Holy cow, how do we play in 7/8 time over some jazz thing?" It was stuff they were in love with and were familiar with so it was us kind of catching up to them sometimes. So it moved very quickly.
KF: As it turns out, Peter's album proved to be quite a departure from KISS' typical sound. There were some old-time rock and roll, R&B and soul influences sprinkled throughout. I'm curious if you recall any discussion that this material might be a little left-of-center for KISS' audience.
NJ: Well, obviously there's quite a few ways for us to look at it as sidemen and as musicians. But if your entire career is defined by the band and you want to do a "solo record" -- which means you step away from the band -- then maybe you do something that you wanted to do. Now if you didn't want to do anything else, like, "Well, I kind of just want to do that," then he would have done that. And as far as the production decisions, I think a lot of the tunes were chosen for Peter's voice and they sounded great and I didn't see it as a departure from KISS. It was Peter Criss, who is part of KISS. So some of the tunes are right there and some of them aren't. But that's how Peter sings. If you liked "Beth," then you'd like this.
KF: Well said, Neil. There are certainly songs on the lighter side, a la "Beth," like "Easy Thing" and "I Can't Stop The Rain." I don't know, I just think the fans were expecting something different from Peter.
NJ: Well, I'm assuming that the fans that love them dearly and listen to every note wanted four KISS albums at the same time because that would just about be enough at the same time for them. But, they got, I don't know, two KISS albums -- actually, they got four KISS albums. There are four personalities that make KISS and that's why those four guys have a sound. It's like if George Harrison does a record, it didn't necessarily sound like the Beatles. If Ringo did a record, it didn't sound like the Beatles. You know what I mean?
NJ: But together, that was the Beatles.
KF: As a fan, I've read quite a bit about these albums over the years. The late Stan Penridge, who was Peter's confidant and writing partner, described the New York sessions at Electric Ladyland as chaotic and mentioned Vini deserved some credit for salvaging the takes. Do you know what Stan was referring to?
NJ: Um (pauses), not really. I do remember working hard. I do remember us concentrating. Chaotic? As much as dealing with what they had to deal with schedule-wise -- people not showing up, people running back and forth, people having things to do. I kind of remember not thinking about that or dealing with that very much. So I can't swear that it happened. It might have happened with other tracks they were recording. Like I said, I think "I Can't Stop The Rain" was a night where Peter couldn't make it. We didn't know why he didn't make it, et cetera, et cetera. But Vini made sure the stuff got recorded. And Sean ran the studio and had it perfect, in the right key, sang it for us, the whole thing, had it down for Peter so that he could overdub on it. He showed up the next day as I remember. Yeah, chaotic? It is a recording session. You're not going to a spa. So sometimes it gets chaotic, yeah.
KF: Switching to Gene's album, sessions took place in L.A. at Cherokee Studios, Blue Rock Studio in New York, and at a couple of locations in England.
NJ: Right, I think I'm on the whole record.
KF: Yes, I believe so.
NJ: I don't remember if there were just meetings in New York or there were actual sessions in New York. I pretty much almost remember every single track getting done in England and that New York and L.A. were for overdubs. I'm almost positive.
KF: Did you find it odd to play bass on Gene Simmons' album since he was a bass player himself?
NJ: Well, first off, I actually was honored and thrilled that a bass player of his stature [asked me to play] -- because in his band, this guy rules. He plays the right stuff, sings the right stuff. If [you] see them in concert, what they do is pretty amazing. Try putting on the gear and doing songs like that and playing for three hours and making people have a party -- this is not easy. He played great on all the things he ever played on. So for him to want another bass player, because he wanted to concentrate on the songs and on singing and production and guitar playing, I appreciated that. I thought it was unbelievable. So I got an amazing chance to work with him. And on some tunes, yeah I tried to play like I was Gene Simmons. And on the other tunes I did stuff that Gene would not think to do, but it matched his song. It was cool. It was a lot of fun.
KF: Did Gene give any suggestions for bass parts?
NJ: Oh, absolutely. All the time. And again, Sean and I think Gene together had already done a handful of [demos of] the songs, as far as I remember, that were pretty convincing, even if it was piano and voice, that told you exactly what you needed to play. And of course, when we did it, Gene and Sean and Mike Stone behind the board all had great suggestions. I mean, come on, we were playing rock and roll.
KF: Gene's album was highly eclectic. There were straight-ahead rock numbers like "Radioactive," Beatlesque forays such as "See You Tonite" and songs featuring choirs and orchestras such as "Always Near You/Nowhere To Hide." Were you around for any of the orchestral recording?
NJ: I'm trying to remember where that happened. I was around for one of the sessions, yeah. And maybe Frangipane arranged it or something. It was very well done.
KF: Yes, it was Ron Frangipane who did the arrangements, including the haunting introduction to the album.
NJ: Yeah, it's fantastic. He did amazing stuff.
KF: It's such an left-field way to kick off the album. You have this swirling arrangement, Janis Ian singing in Latin and I believe Sean's voice is going through a harmonizer.
NJ: I met Janis -- you got to remember, this thing is a snapshot of the times. And it's part of Gene's history. Again, you hear like half of the songs on the record -- they're pretty close to pure KISS: it's Gene singing and it's his tune and we're rocking. And some of the tunes are departures -- but not really, it's part of Gene's history. That's what the record's supposed to be. If he did more solo records, he would change with the times because his history would change. It's like KISS, you know, doing what they do together. So I really didn't see any of [the songs] as, "Wow, that's like the wrong thing to do." I think it was a very cool record.
KF: Gene secured a cavalcade of stars. Aside from Janis Ian, there was Donna Summer, Cher, Joe Perry, Bob Seger, Helen Reddy, Rick Nielsen ...
NJ: It was fantastic. Cher came out to the Manor in England and stayed with us and the band and Gene for -- I don't know -- we were there for a couple of months. Cher was there for a while with the family and she was fantastic. Some of the sessions were very intense, we'd stay there all night. I remember Allan Schwartzberg, the drummer, I'm pretty sure it happened on this session, [on] one of the tunes like "Radioactive," where Sean and Gene and Mike Stone wanted to get a really big drum sound. They sent the drums out into like the garage or something. Allan's drums were set up and we could only see him on the video camera. They got this amazing drum sound [with] natural echo. It was ridiculous. So the next morning we go down to record and if I remember correctly Allan goes around the drums one time. It was pretty early and he breaks like two or three skins and goes right through the bass drum because it got so cold in there overnight, but the heads, they were ready to pop! So they had to stack up heaters in the room and redo all the heads. But it turned out sounding really amazing. It was part of a hysterical morning in recording history.
KF: Neil, legend has it that Gene tried to secure the Beatles to guest on the album. Do you recall talk about the Beatles appearing on the album?
NJ: Actually, I don't recall. I don't doubt that it happened. But I don't recall any conversation about it.
KF: He ended up securing Mitch Weismann and Joe Pecorino from Beatlemania to add Beatles-esque harmonies to some of the tunes.
KF: Sean and Gene are credited as co-producers. From your vantage point, was Gene as invested from a production standpoint as Sean?
NJ: Well, you got to figure the artist would be as invested as the producer. But I mean, Sean was a very intense producer. And Gene is a very intense artist and Mike Stone was a very intense engineer and he had a fairly intense all-star rhythm section. When we got down to business, it was good. We actually kind of sequestered ourselves and worked hard and came up with some nice stuff.
KF: One rumor that I've heard is that Gene took to referring to the musicians by the name of their instruments during sessions. Does this ring a bell?
NJ: No, doesn't ring a bell to me. Even in a number of interviews that Gene has done, he was more than kind enough to me and a number of other guys on his solo record, which I thought was very kind. No, he remembered exactly who we were and he was a sweetheart. And if he called me, "Hey bass," it was probably an endearing funny moment. But no, I do remember my name being used (laughs).
KF: And of course he ended his album with a major left-turn with his cover of "When You Wish Upon A Star."
NJ: Yeah, loved it.
KF: Given your unique perspective, I'm wondering if you recall a dynamic of tacit competition during the tracking of these albums. In other words, did you get the sense that Gene and Peter wanted to "outdo" their bandmates?
NJ: No, you know what, I never actually heard that. And anybody making a CD wants to show everybody what they're made of. Just being in a band would make you want to show everybody, and everybody in the band, what you're made of. But it doesn't really change the objective of making your own album. So, no I never heard anything about it. But I wouldn't doubt it. You're in competition with everybody, including everybody in your band. It's not like you're just against them. It's a really big chart. You're against everybody (laughs).
KF: Regarding your compensation, would this have been a union gig for you?
NJ: Actually, I don't remember.
KF: But you did get fairly compensated?
NJ: Yes, of course.
KF: You obviously met Gene and Peter. Ever come across the other two KISS members, Ace and Paul?
NJ: No, I don't remember meeting Ace and Paul at Peter's session at Electric Lady. But I thought I remembered meeting Paul, but I think we were playing at that time. So I would say I never met Paul or Ace and I wish I had. They had fantastic records too. I thought that everybody had a really good album.
KF: Going back to the albums' release in September 1978, what do you recall regarding the publicity for the project?
NJ: I think back then it was a pretty good, not a stunt, but a pretty monumental thing. I don't think anybody with an actual band that was still together maybe had ever done that yet?
KF: That's correct.
NJ: That everybody released one at the same time, as the band was still together, I would think as far as marketing goes that there's so many plusses to that it's like, "Hey, they have the time to do that because that is some kind of serious stuff." It's not like, "OK, the four of us will go make records." That's four times as much KISS. They could have made one record with the four of them, or they could have made four KISS records. I mean, that's a lot of work. So somebody enjoyed the idea. And let's face it, I mean they'd been recording together for a long time. Sometimes, it's like, "You know what, I really want to play with those other kids down the block, just for like 10 minutes, and I'll be right back."
KF: This April marked the 10th anniversary of the passing of Sean Delaney? Can you give us a snapshot of what it was like to work with Sean?
NJ: Sean was meticulously artistic, sometimes unrelentless. But otherwise he was a great influence. And he had a vision and the guys trusted his vision. And it was great to have somebody who had that much focus all the time.
Neil Jason's bass solo with the Brecker Brothers band live in Norway in 1980
KF: Final question, Neil. What are you up to these days, musically?
NJ: I still write and arrange for a lot of different things. But right now I'm working with Brigitte Zarie. We're about to release her new CD and we're going to master it and have that out real soon.
KF: Thanks for your time, Neil.
NJ: Thanks, Tim.
(KissFAQ thanks Neil Jason for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)
About Neil Jason:
Born and raised in New York City, Neil Jason is a professional bassist, producer and composer. He played bass throughout Gene Simmons' 1978 solo album and on select tracks on Peter Criss' album. His resume includes work with artists such as John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Billy Joel, Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry, Hall & Oates, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Charlie Watts, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Janis Ian, Harry Chapin, Debbie Harry, Joe Jackson, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Gladys Night, the Brecker Brothers, Bob James, David Sanborn, Celine Dion, John McLaughlin, Michael Franks, Cyndi Lauper, Dire Straits, Eddie Van Halen and Luciano Pavorotti, among others. Jason was a member of the "Saturday Night Live" house band from 1983-1985 and has made more than 100 appearances with Paul Shaffer's band on "The Late Show With David Letterman." Jason currently plays bass with jazz artist Brigitte Zarie and produced her forthcoming studio album, which is set for release in 2013. Learn more about Zarie at her official website.