Paul Daniel “Ace” Frehley first learned to play guitar at age 13.
Though he was involved with street gangs for a time, Frehley eventually leaned toward music as his favorite pursuit, which proved to be a wise decision. Playing in bands as a teen, he would insist to his friends that he would one day become famous.
Later, Frehley would do better than that—as lead guitarist for Kiss, for a time the world’s biggest band, he became legendary.
The Spaceman from the planet Jendell, clad in silver platform boots, shooting rockets and smoke from his guitar, Ace Frehley was every bit the mythical superhero onstage, along with the other Kiss alter-egos: Starchild, Demon and Catman.
According to Kiss lore, Frehley hooked up with Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, and Peter Criss when he responded to Stanley’s newspaper ad requesting a guitarist with “flash and balls,” and he provided the band with plenty of both during his tenure. While Kiss’ over-the-top image sometimes crossed the line into ridiculousness and crass commercialism, Frehley was always considered the group’s rock and roll heart.
His fiery playing on the band’s landmark Alive! record inspired a generation of guitarists, but Frehley soon became as famous for his booze and drug consumption as he was for his riffs and flaming solos. Frehley’s party-hard reputation became the stuff of legend, as did stories of high-speed police chases, wrecked Porsches, and trashed hotel rooms. The Space Ace embraced the rock and roll lifestyle and all its excesses, and Frehley readily admits he’s lucky to still be alive.
But these days, life in the fast lane is no longer Frehley’s speed.
Now clean and sober, the Bronx native prefers a more laid-back existence, and has swapped his New York groove for the golden California sun, where he’s resided for the past few years with his fiancée, Rachael Gordon, a singer/songwriter who helped pen lyrics on Frehley’s last album.
One thing Frehley has always maintained is his celebrated sense of humor. Most importantly, there’s the laugh—a hearty, Stooges-like cackle that is a Frehley signature, and sure to stick in the mind of anyone he encounters.
Fortunately for me, the jovial Frehley got in a few trademark chuckles during our recent conversation. When I phoned Ace at his home, he was busy fiddling with art designs for new tour shirts. He’s a very absorbed man at the moment—in addition to a busy concert schedule following the release of 2014’s confident solo effort, Space Invader, Frehley is currently prepping an all-covers album featuring some of his favorite rock songs. During our chat, Frehley discussed his sobriety, Kiss bandmates, encounter with Jimi Hendrix, and more.
Do you usually design the tour shirts yourself?
Sometimes I do. I used to do it more, but I don’t have always have the time now. But I was fooling around with some artwork I have. I’m in the middle of working on a new album, and gearing up for the next tour. And I’ve also been going over a lot of old tapes that I found, that were in storage for about 25 or 30 years.
Oh, cool. You mean old demos? Is it Kiss stuff, or demos you did on your own?
I found old Kiss stuff, but I also found stuff that was pre-Kiss, so it’s exciting.
Wow. That must have brought back a lot of memories.
Yeah. Now I’ve got to catalog everything.
Did you hear any old riffs that blew you away, that you think you might want to use in the near future?
There’s definitely several song ideas that I might use in the next studio record of original music.
You recently recorded a Thin Lizzy cover song with Slash. When can fans hear this album of covers you’re working on?
The record company wants to release the covers album in the spring. The experience of working with Slash was really terrific.
Was that your first time working with him?
We’ve jammed together onstage on three or four different occasions, and we’ve been friends for years. But it was the first time I was in the studio with him.
Did you reach out to other artists to help you on this covers album? Are you willing to discuss the song selections?
I don’t really want to get into that at this point. But it’ll be songs and artists that influenced me during the course of my career.
You’ve been touring extensively since you put out the Space Invader record. How do you feel about going on the road these days?
I’m having a great time. I think it’s definitely the best live band I’ve ever assembled.
Your playing and singing both sound great recently.
Thank you. It’s funny, I do the opposite of what everybody else does. I never practice, I never took voice lessons, I never took guitar lessons. (Laughs) I don’t sing unless I’m onstage; I don’t practice scales or anything like that. I just get up there and do it.
It must be nice to just go up onstage and play, rather than spend a couple of hours dealing with makeup, like before and after a Kiss show.
It’s a lot different than when I used to be with Kiss. The preparation that we went through with the makeup and the hair and the costumes, it took a long time. It was about the same amount of time that we spent onstage! (Laughs)
You had a huge honor last year, as you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Kiss.Many artists seem indifferent about getting inducted into the Rock Hall—they’ll say it means more to the fans than to them. What did it mean to you, personally?
I thought it was a milestone in my career. I was really honored to be there. My only regret is that we didn’t perform.
That was what the fans all wanted.
Me and Peter wanted to do it, but Paul and Gene declined.
So, you made it known that you wanted to, but Paul and Gene wanted no part of it?
Absolutely. That was exactly how it went down. They wanted to perform with the current lineup, and me and Peter said we’d boycott the ceremony if that was the case. I think it really had to do with how they wanted the band to be perceived. I think if they had performed with me and Peter, it would have confused the current fans, especially the newer fans that they have.
Why do you think that Gene and Paul have insisted on bashing you in the press so much over the years? It seems unnecessary.
I don’t know. It really doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m kind of numb to it. I’ll read something and I just laugh it off, and let it roll of my back. I think the more they put me down, the sillier it makes them look at this juncture.
Definitely. I know they’ve always been critical of your alcohol and drug use while in the band, but that was a long time ago. And more recently they’re coming out with crazy comments, like saying you’re a Nazi, and stuff like that.
They can’t call me a drunk and a drug addict anymore, so now they’re attacking my character, which is really a sad commentary on where they’re at. And how can I be a Nazi if I’m engaged to a Jewish gal? It makes absolutely no sense. I think they’re grasping at straws at this point.
Speaking of alcohol and drugs, you’re working on several years of sobriety at this point—so, congratulations.
Yeah, thanks. September 15th will be nine years without a drink.
That’s fantastic, and quite a milestone. Yet the wild party animal was such a big part of your persona, and the legend of the Space Ace. Back then, did you sometimes feel pressure to live up to that image?
Well, it almost seems like another lifetime for me at this point. Even when I was at the tail end of using drugs and alcohol, I was trying to quit. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was such a big part of me. Rachael, my fiancée, has taught me how to have fun again, without the use of alcohol and drugs. I’m having more fun today than I’ve had in a long time. It’s pretty obvious my head is clear. My last two records did really well—I’m writing most of the songs, singing, playing, producing. It gives me the strength to stay on the straight and narrow.
You think it’s helped you creatively, and made your songwriting more focused?
Absolutely. But it’s funny, when you’re using drugs and alcohol, your brain tells you that you’re more creative on that shit. It’s just the disease of alcoholism that’s lying to you. I have a lot of musician friends who have gotten sober, and the first year is the toughest, but once you get that under your belt, each consecutive year gets easier and easier.
Are you still living in San Diego now?
Yeah. I’m looking out at the harbor right now. We live in a penthouse on the 14th floor. You really can’t beat the weather out here.
Do you still have family out here on the East Coast, or any ties to New York City?
Well, my mom and dad passed away. My sister moved to Michigan, but my brother still does live in the Bronx with his wife and kids.
Do you have fond memories of growing up in the Bronx?
A lot of fond memories. And I’ve been writing down stories that I’ve been remembering, because I’m writing my second book.
Is there any timeline for the release of that?
No. I’m not putting any pressure on myself. I hate deadlines. (Laughs) Like the first book, it’ll have stories from my childhood, stories from the road during Kiss and after Kiss. I’ve got so many stories, I could write five books.
If I had met Paul Frehley from the Bronx during the late ’60s, what type of person would I have encountered?
Well, I was always ahead of everybody. I was the first kid on my block to get bell bottoms. I was the first to start wearing superhero t-shirts. I was the first guy on my block to have a shag haircut like Keith Richards. A lot of people copied me and looked up to me. I always felt that image was really important in a band. In one of my early bands, I insisted that the bass player, who had short hair, wear a wig onstage because everyone else in the band had long hair. (Laughs)
You definitely had your own style onstage.
My style evolved over the years, watching guys like Hendrix and Clapton, and Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend.
Speaking of Hendrix, you had an interesting experience serving as his roadie for a day. Could you talk about that?
It was the New York Pop Festival in 1970 on Randall’s Island. I snuck backstage, and for a while I got away with it. Finally, someone came up to me, and asked, “Who are you?” So I told them the truth and said that I snuck in. And they asked, “Can you do anything, like set up drums or guitars, or change guitar strings?” And I said, “Yeah.” It was a whole different ballgame back then. There were no laminates, and backstage security wasn’t as tight as it is now. It was a more relaxed vibe—peace and love, and all that. Half of the people were on acid. (Laughs)
And they let you help set up gear?
I set up Mitch Mitchell’s drums. It was a trip, man. The whole thing was so surreal. Hendrix gave me a brief nod.
And he was probably your idol, so that must have been a thrill.
I used to walk around high school with Hendrix’s first album under my arm. If someone told me when I was 16 that when I was 18 years old, I’d be a roadie for Hendrix, let alone meet him, I’d tell them they were out of their mind. It’s funny the way that life turns out.
With all of your career accomplishments, is there anything you’d still like to do that you haven’t yet tackled?
I’d like to score some films. And I’d like to produce some younger bands and share some of the knowledge I’ve compiled over the years, working with some of the greatest producers and engineers. Maybe do another film role—a cameo, not a lead role. I’m not that good of an actor (Laughs). The last time I did a film, I played a heroin dealer. It’s a film called Remedy. It’s hard to find. Chuck Zito’s in it; Christian Maelen. I can’t find it on Amazon or Netflix, but maybe one day it’ll be available. You can find it if you Google it.
For the time being, you’re going to continue touring for a bit?
We’re playing a cruise in January. Just this past week, I got offered some dates in South America. I perform when it makes sense. We did Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania recently. We also did Europe, with all sold-out shows. The road’s been good to me. The band’s been getting along great, and playing great, so it’s a fun experience. Towards the end with Kiss, I wasn’t getting along with the guys, and that really makes it hard when there’s friction. This tour was the first time I played New Zealand and first time I’ve played Tasmania. It’s been a great tour. Onwards and upwards, right?
That’s right, Ace. That’s what it’s all about. I have one more question for you, then I’ll let you get going—if all of the original Kiss members were trapped on a desert island, who would be the last to survive?
Probably me! (Laughs)
Good answer. But why?
I grew up in the streets. I have street smarts. And those guys never really did have that common sense of hanging out in the streets, because they’re not from there. And they’re still like that today. That would be my edge and my advantage.
I think that’s one of the reasons you appeal to fans, because they see you as a down-to-earth-guy, and someone they can relate to.
I’m the kind who tells it like it is. There’s no reason to put on any facade. I am who I am. My life is an open book. It’s like I learned when getting sober—you’re only as sick as your secrets. So, let it all hang out.
Ace Frehley performs at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on Sept. 25 and at Havana in New Hope, PA on Sept. 26.For more info, go to acefrehley.com.