ACE FREHLEY: “As Long As I’m In The Right Key, I’m In The Right Place” [Q&A + Watch & Listen]

Ace Frehley respects his musical roots, but it was his own creative freedom that made him a rock and roll force to be reckoned with.

In between spending weekends with his lifelong friend Lita Ford, printing blueprints for his new North Jersey recording studio, releasing his second covers album, and planning his third, the incomparable Ace Frehley found the time to talk to The Aquarian. (Thank you, Ace!) It’s crazy, but a stacked schedule like that is nothing for the critically acclaimed guitarist who has been touring the world, living his dream, and working with the most legendary of musicians for the past four and a half decades. 

Ace Frehley went from being the only person in his family who couldn’t read sheet music to touring in one of the biggest rock bands of all time. He went from being told to apply to art school to designing artwork for chart-topping albums. The guitarist is constantly proving people wrong and doing what he loves… Even now, at 69 years-old, as the guitarist has a new album out that is one of his best to date.

The record, Origins, Vol. 2, follows up the chart-topping Origins, Vol. 1, both featuring Ace taking some of his favorite songs, tracks that influenced his love of music growing up, and putting his own spin on it with the help of some of his friends. From Robin Zander and Bruce Kulick to The Beatles’ “I’m Down” and Mountain’s “Never In My Life,” not a song is untouched by the magical talents of rock legends. It’s a record made to be played loud, reflected upon, and sung along to – like much of Space Ace’s history defining discography. 

This new record, which is, unsurprisingly fantastic, is actually the second in the Origins collection, which is based on collaborating with other musical friends of yours to cover other people’s songs. Did you always expect to follow up Origins, Vol. 1 with Origins, Vol. 2?

It was originally a brainstorm with the record company and I was a little resistant to the idea of doing covers out of, but once I got started, I had a lot of fun with it. Origins Vol. 1 was very successful, so the whole idea behind the arch series is, for me, to perform songs by groups that influenced me as a teenager as I was growing up in the Bronx and learning how to play guitar. That’s how I picked the songs and it became Led Zeppelin and the Stones and so on and so forth. Origins Vol. 2 was a lot easier for me to pull off because I already had the formula down. All I did was have fun picking songs, and pretty much the criteria behind it was, can I sing it? Because if I can sing it, I can play it.

I think you picked a really good group of songs both times around as they span, not only different bands, but different eras, all with a connection to you personally. Did Origins Vol. 2 come about before the pandemic or was it done throughout the sudden time of quarantine?

The album was finished before Christmas of last year. 

Oh, wow. That’s some time.

[Laughs] Yeah, they’ve been withholding the release until the 18th of September because of the pandemic. The only thing that I actually did around the holidays was I had my girlfriend redo the vocals on “Lola.” She did the background vocals, because my old girlfriend in California did the original background vocals, but I replaced them with my new girlfriend, because she’s got a great voice and it worked out terrific. I think “Lola” is a single.

“Lola” was, I want to say, my second favorite track on this album. I really loved “Manic Depression.” I think you did both such justice, but still clearly had fun making your own rendition. 

It’s unfortunate, you know, when The Kinks came out with “Lola,” because of the subject matter – it’s about a transvestite – it could have probably gone higher on the charts if it wasn’t for the lyrical content. But today, in 2020, nobody cares if you’re in the closet, out of the closet, or next to the closet. What two consenting adults do behind closed doors is their business. I think the world has matured when it comes to sexual preferences and it’s input in music.

That’s true. I mean, you could just turn on the radio, virtually any station can talk about it and sing about it in some contexts . It’s a lot more freeing I think.

Oh, yeah. I think the subject matter is very relevant for today’s generation, as well.

For sure. Kind of speaking on modern day music and the approach to music in 2020, what are your thoughts on the streaming era of music? Because Origins Vol. 2, while out now on physical, is also drawing a lot of great traction online, thanks to Spotify and platforms of the like. What do you think of the streaming era, having released a lot of strictly physical music?

Well, you know, the Internet has changed everything. When I was in Kiss in the seventies, we recorded everything on two inch analog tape and sometimes we linked to 20 foot track machines together. There was no Internet, there was no digital recording. You know, now you could do an album on the laptop with ProTools, so the Internet has just changed everything drastically. For example, like having guests like Robin Zander of Cheap Trick on my album, it was really simple, because all I did was email him and MP3. I was on the West coast and he was in Florida. I sent them the MP3, be through the vocal on “30 Days in the Hole,” emailed it back to me, we dropped it into the multi-track on the computer, and boom – we had a song. He killed that song, too. I’m a huge Humble Pie fan and, of course, I couldn’t reproduce a Steve Marriott vocal, but Robin was very proficient at it.

Wow, that whole, fantastic track through just emails.

Yeah! I did the same thing with Mike McCready when he played the half of the solo on “Cold Gin” on Origins, Vol. 1. Paul Stanley emailed me the vocal from “Fire and Water.” You know, it’s like today, you can record an app with somebody in London, somebody in California, somebody in New York, and somebody in Tokyo. [Laughs] You don’t have to be in the same room – it’s amazing. You know, you just need to email the parts in and as long as they have a good engineer who puts all the pieces together, you got a song.

It’s insane because it comes together so cohesively. Some may think that it would sound maybe choppy or inconsistent to pull pieces from different people with different equipment in all different places, but it comes out so fantastic.

If you’re working with people that you’ve worked with in the past and with professional studio musicians – and I’ve done a lot of recording in the studio – it’s not that difficult. You know, the first taste I got of working with somebody online was when we did Psycho Circus and we were mixing it, and the guy that mixed Psycho Circus, we actually in a room at the Capitol building, you know, that round building in Los Angeles that’s so well known. We were in a room, but the guy who was mixing was in New York or Canada, and we were just talking to a speaker, you know, making comments about the mixes. I was talking to him about “Into the Void,” a song that I had written, and that was the first taste I got of working on the Internet remotely, but now it’s commonplace in the industry.

Now more than ever, probably. You’ve worked with everyone, from people that you’re friends with to people that you are in a relationship with to people you yourself admire. Are there any other iconic people that you haven’t worked with yet in any way that you’re still hoping to cross paths with?

I would like to get Peter Criss on one of my future records. I gave Peter a call, as I wanted him to play on one of the songs on Origins. Unfortunately, he had injured his shoulder and wasn’t able to do it, but hopefully he’ll consider playing on my next studio record Origins Vol. 3, which we now have slated for two years from today or somewhere around that time. [Laughs] What do I put out? An album every year? Every 15 months? I don’t know.

For whenever it comes out, that track would be so exciting and immensely fun for you both to do, as well as for fans to listen to.

Oh, yeah. With Spaceman, I got together with Gene and he drove down from Los Angeles – I was living in Rancho, Santa Fe at the time. We wrote two songs in about three hours at the time and it was effortless, you know, because me and Gene have worked together for so many years on and off. I was a co-founder of Kiss and then I did the reunion tour. With me and Gene, I can’t even imagine how many concerts we’ve done together. I even went to Australia with him and them in 2018 and we performed together there and to a huge audience. It was a very successful tour.

That’s amazing. You guys have such a good rapport as musicians and as people just from moments like those alone. On that same note, you’ve been in a generation shaping band, you’ve been an extremely successful solo artist, and now you’re doing all these covers. Is there one part of your career that you think suits you best? Or is it timing?

I think being in the right place at the right time. I honestly believe in fate. When I was 16 years old, I used to tell people, “I’m going to be a rock star!” And everybody said to me, “You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind,” because here I am, this poor kid growing up in the Bronx in a one bedroom apartment, but next thing you know, I’m in one of the biggest groups in the world by the time I’m 23 years old. [Laughs] Go figure! Somehow, some way, I had a vision that it was going to happen. And if it hadn’t been with Kiss, it would’ve been with another group. Yeah, I just do what I do and live one day at a time. When I record, I like to record spontaneously, you know, people say, “Ace, how do you write guitar solos?” I go, “I empty my mind and just play.” As long as I’m in the right key, I’m in the right place. [Laughs]

Of course, you’re a very inspired musician to be able to do all of these different things for many years and constantly change your approach and do it well. You know, though, it’s been noted that you can’t really read music regardless of your talent. Do you think that gives you a leg up as a guitarist and a creative, or is it just how you’re living your life day by day?

Well, I think most musicians in rock groups probably don’t read music. I’m sure there’s several who do, but I was trained. I’ve never taken guitar lessons. I grew up in a family where everybody could music. I was the youngest of three children going up in the Bronx, my brother and sister and mother and father all played piano and there was music in the house all time. I sang in the church choir. My dad taught Sunday school. Everybody thinks I’m this wild and crazy guy, but my young beginnings were very normal and sedate to say the least… but once I hit puberty, things changed. [Laughs]

That happens. [Laughs] That is pretty much the definition of puberty.

Yeah, once I was sexually active and started drinking beer, things changed dramatically.

Photo by Jay Gilbert

Also just the fact that you were  touring the world at a young age and doing what you love for a living. That’s obviously going to change your life a little bit.

That, yes, very much. You know, it was funny because I was at a crossroad in my life, because I’m a really good graphic artist. I designed the cover for an Anomaly. I designed the Kiss long ago. I’ve always been told by all my art teachers that I should have gone to music and art school in New York or art and design. I was picked as one of the top 100 artists out of all the students in the high schools in New York City – and you’re talking about thousands and thousands of kids. They hang up my artwork and my paintings in the Museum of Modern Art. But I went for a job my father had set up with a friend of his who had an art studio…  They did layouts for magazines and stuff. I went there for an interview and I saw all these people sitting in cubicles, you know, doing great artwork, fashion art and stuff like that. I said, “You know, do I want to do this for the rest of my life? Or do I want to travel around the world, play rock and roll in front of thousands of people, meet beautiful women and party? You know, it wasn’t a hard choice. [Laughs]

You get to still incorporate art into what you do, though, which is lovely. Like you said, with album artwork and logos and things of that nature.

It’s nice these days. I produce my own records. I write my own music. I’m in control of my own destiny and fate. I like it that way. You know, working with Paul and Gene was great, too, but more so live than in studio. In the studio they were more control freaks and I realized when I did my ‘78 solo album and I had the hit “New York Groove” that I was more creative away from them than with them. So that was kind of the writing on the wall for me when I knew I would eventually be leaving Kiss – the first time, in 1981. Then I started Frehley’s Comet, eventually.

Well, it completely worked out for you, because you’re still working hard to release music that you are proud of. You kept your fans from Kiss, you gained new fans, and you’re doing what you love in the most inspired way possible. That is extremely commendable to me.

Thank you. It is commendable, and it’s given me the freedom to just do whatever. For instance, when I was recording Spaceman, halfway through the recording process, I was watching YouTube and I saw that Eddie Money video, “I Want to Go Back,” where he ends up going back to his old high school. I listened to the lyrics of the music and I just fell in love with that song. I said to my girlfriend at the time, “I got to re-record that song.” And I think it’s one of the best songs on Spaceman.

It’s really, really good. You could tell how much you enjoyed making it through the connection you felt with it.

It was nice because the original version is driven by the saxophone, because Eddie Money plays sax, so he does the sax solo, but I made it my own by doing a guitar solo and having it driven by heavier guitars. I remember I was sitting with my road manager, Pat, and we started asking fans when I was signing autographs. I said, “What’s your favorite song on Spaceman?” And, honestly, 75 percent of the fans said, “‘I Want to Go Back’ by Eddie Money.”

You know, I can totally believe that because you could tell how much it resonated with you and fans want that. They want to listen to a song that the artist is proud of making. And that’s what you did.

Yeah, I am proud. It’s a song I identified with, because it made me think back when I went to high school and all the crazy stuff I was doing and all the bands that I was in. It’s a very well written song and the lyrical content is just great. It really hit home.