By Jeb Wright
Sometimes a band needs to change things up: style of music, guitar tone, or just get rid of the band member that is causing too much friction. A change can inspire new music. For KIX, this proved to be the case as their new album, titled Rock Your Face Off, sees Mark Schenker taking over bass duties, replacing former band leader Donnie Purnell.
Mark is not only playing with the band, he is leading the songwriting charge along with long time band producer Taylor Rhodes. Yes, it seems change is good. KIX is now the most cohesive band they have ever been. They feel, as Whiteman describes below, “liberated” now as musicians. It took a while, however, for the new music to arrive, as Rock Your Face Off is the first KIX studio album in 19 years! Fresh attitudes and a fresh new record company (Loud and Proud) have given the band a renewed sense of purpose, along with a great attitude and a batch of new songs that are 100% KIX.
In the interview that follows, lead vocalist Steve Whiteman tells Classic Rock Revisited.com how they reconnected with Tom Lipsky, the man who released their last studio effort nearly two decades ago. Whiteman talks openly about the new batch of tunes, his new bandmate and how he is hesitant to get too excited about success—even though this new album deserves it.
Jeb: I am happy to see KIX back and on an exciting new label, Tom Lipsky’s Loud and Proud.
Steve: We got hooked up with Tom when we were fed up with Atlantic Records. We were not getting the proper attention and we were looking for a smaller label. We went searching and CMC International was what we found. Tom was running that label and we did our last studio album before this one with them.
We had not kept in touch, but our bass player, Mark Schenker, the newest member of KIX, tracked him down when we were considering putting out a new studio album. He had interest, and it was a marriage made in heaven. He was onboard and we were excited to work with him again and it all worked out.
Jeb: Tom is savvy guy. I met him back when he was with CMC. Laura Kaufman was the head of publicity and we were good friends. Tom is leading the way with Loud and Proud, and I am sure when he heard this album he was ready to work with you all.
Steve: Pretty much. We had done a live album on Frontiers and they put out a live CD and DVD. They put the bug in our ear about a new studio album. We were more interested in an American label and Mark hooked up with Tom.
Mark had a relationship with Tom as well, as his local band had always stayed in touch with him. Tom always was on the verge of signing them, but it just never quite happened. For Mark to come to KIX and then work with Tom is just really cool and puts it all together.
Jeb: It’s been nineteen years since KIX had an album. Is the music old or is it new?
Steve: It’s a little bit of both. I was in the process of writing for my other band, Funny Money. I had been writing a bunch of songs for that and they were piling up. Mark has a friend he also writes with and we all had a bunch of material. We got Taylor Rhodes in, and he was essential in bringing material in and co-writing with Mark.
We literally had a pile of music that we threw into a larger pile and when we got Taylor involved we left it up to him to pick out what he thought would be the strongest contenders for a KIX album. We narrowed it down to fourteen or fifteen songs and then we locked ourselves in Mark's studio and we came up with the twelve that are on the album and recorded them. I think we did a pretty good job.
Jeb: You put a lot of faith in your producer.
Steve: Taylor had worked with our old bass player and songwriter Donnie Purnell. He had written songs with Donnie, and he co-produced two of our albums, so he had a real hand in the direction that he knew we should go in. We trusted his judgment and he kept us in the right direction and helped us make a KIX album. A lot of the material I offered up got kicked out because it didn't sound like KIX.
We really had a liberating collaboration on this record. Everybody felt that because of the way things were controlled previously... that was all gone. The old atmosphere was gone. Everyone felt that if they had good ideas then they were going to get used. Everyone contributed on the songs to make them better.
Jeb: You guys came along in the game when record companies were starting that ‘cookie-cutter band’ mentality. If a certain band sold well, then all the new bands had to look and sound like that band. You were not that way. You were not a hair band. You had your own sound.
Steve: We hated the fact that we got lumped in with that hair metal shit; that was definitely not us. We were around way before that crap ever got popular. Unfortunately, with the age of MTV, we all got played together and we got lumped into that shit.
Jeb: You used the word liberating, and that is the perfect word, as all the fighting in KIX before must have made things very difficult. It must have been a great feeling to be free from that.
Steve: It was a great feeling and ‘liberating’ really is a great word to describe it. It took us a while to think that we could actually get together and write and record a KIX album without Donnie being involved. It was a little daunting at first. When we got in the room with Taylor, then we started to come up with ideas, and he came up with ideas, and we started putting this together, and we started making it sound like KIX, and it started to get really good...
Jeb: Was there a light bulb moment where you realized that you could really do this?
Steve: There was one with a song that I brought in called “Dirty Girls.” That song got a huge facelift from everyone else. Everyone contributed and made it better. Mark brought in some songs that he had worked on with Taylor. “Can't Stop the Show” and “Top Down” came in at the end of the record; they were not on the list of songs we were going to record, but when they came in with them we wanted to record them. Everything fell into place, and while it was a lot of work, it really was kind of easy.
Jeb: Did you get involved with the track order, as the order of these songs makes the album very cohesive…?
Steve: It has to be a cohesive album. The track order is like writing a set list for a show. You don't want every song to be in the same key, or be in the same style. You want to mix it up and that is what we did for the running order of this record.
Jeb: Early indications at Amazon are well. This came out well out-of-the-box. Are you excited, or just waiting to see what happens?
Steve: You jump up and down and you go, “Holy shit” but you also remember that when we have released albums in the past that you had a lot of smoke blown up your ass, and it ended up being a let down. I have not allowed myself to get caught up in the hype yet. If this album is still exciting, and if people are still buying it, and we are still on the charts in a month, then I will be excited them. Out of the box, it is flattering, and it is nice, and we appreciate it… but where will it all go? How far will it go? I have no clue.
Jeb: Back in our day, if we wanted to steal music we had to go to a store and actually shoplift it, but now that is not the case…
Steve: Or you could get a tape recorder and wait for an FM radio station to play it and then tape it and hope the deejay would not talk over the end! Today, the whole industry is so different. Everything is downloaded and streamed. You can go to Pandora and listen to KIX radio... you at least get a little bit for that. But you don't even have to buy the record to hear it anymore. People can illegally download it and you can’t really do anything about it.
Jeb: Do you get frustrated with that sort of thing?
Steve: You'd like to think that if you sold a million records, or at this point a couple of million records of our past catalog that there would be enough fans that would go out and buy this new record. I am hearing that bands like Ratt and Tesla are selling under 100,000 and often much lower than that. I am like, “That's all?” I am told that 100,000 is really, really good these days.
The Internet is a double-edged sword: It can get you all the publicity in the world, but it also makes it very easy to have people steal your music. People come to support you at live shows, but they are not buying your records… which means the label is not going to foot the bill for a new record, so that means the new music is dead.
Jeb: With Loud and Proud, they understand all of this.
Steve: They are very smart. The way we have been doing it is going out and hitting festivals. That is way better than getting in a van and going out on the road and staying in Holiday Inns. We like big festivals where you can fly in the day before, and you can play to twenty thousand people, and then you can fly back home. It is a lot of bang for the buck. Pounding the pavement doesn't really interest me as I've done it for the last eighteen years and come home with lint in my pocket.
Jeb: Rocklahoma is a perfect example of how that can work.
Steve: The Rocklahoma thing really launched us. It gave us legs and it made us be resuscitated. It gave us life and made us realize we could come back. When we played there, my hair stood up on my arms when I saw that crowd. I believe we opened with “Hotwire.” There was a monsoon rainstorm and there was a delay and they finally said, “The rain is not going to stop so just go out there.” We played and we were loud and all of those people stayed in the rain and it was amazing.
Jeb: Does KIX have an ‘all for one, one for all’ mentality today?
Steve: Absolutely, more-so than ever. Having Mark in the band is so refreshing and the rest of us have always gotten along great. Today there is no pressure and there are no assholes to deal with. It is fun, and it is profitable and exciting again.
Jeb: There are a lot of good bands from your era that are making quality albums like KIX, like Ratt and Tesla.
Steve: Ratt made a really good record and so did Tesla.
Jeb: For every good one, there are several that are going through the motions or just making a ‘money grab’. How do you keep your spirits up? Hell, your fans are getting old!
Steve: [Laughing] I hear what you’re saying. I suppose we have an inner belief that we have something special and we've always believed that. When we decide to do a show, before we hit the stage there is a lot of mental preparation by all of us. We really do give a shit, and we really want to give the best show possible every night we take the stage. That has never left us and I don't think it ever will. There is a lot of respect for ourselves, and a lot of respect for the fans and our reputation.
I still have that same excitement that I always did. I still get that same sickness in my stomach every time I am getting ready to go out there. As long as you don't lose that... as long as you don't take it for granted... We never really achieved huge success. We are still skinny because we never made any money. We never could afford drugs so we never had to go through rehab. We never made it big enough to go through any of that dumb shit, so we have still retained what we had in our youth.
Jeb: That's poetic. I think the rock of the last 40 years will go down in history as a great genre of music.
Steve: I would even go back further than that as you have to put the Beatles in there. In the '60s there was a lot of great stuff. The bands in the '60s and '70s are what influenced me and that is why I hated getting lumped in with that '80s crap. That wasn't what we were about. We were coming off of a club band that played AC/DC, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper and bands that we grew up adoring. To me, the '60s and '70s are the best of classic rock.
Jeb: The Kinks, The Stones and The Who.
Steve: Then came Deep Purple and bands like the James Gang. There were so many great bands. I still listen to all of that. If I could ever meet Alice Cooper, I would sweat and shake like a little kid because he was such an influence to me. On our first tour ever, we got the pleasure to open for Grand Funk Railroad and I got the pleasure to meet Mark Farner and he was such a nice guy. They were a big influence on me. I've had a lot of great experiences because of KIX.
Jeb: Farner is still out doing it.
Steve: He is still great. Grand Funk Railroad was amazing. They have such great songs. Great music stands the test of time. All of the bands we are talking about are still out there doing it and they are still attracting a lot of fans.
Jeb: You get a lot of AC/DC comparisons. I think you are a Bon Scott fan over Brian Johnson.
Steve: Totally Bon Scott. We were doing Bon Scott in the clubs before anyone even knew who AC/DC were. People would think some of those songs were our originals and we were like, “No, that's not us. It’s AC/DC.” I love the early Bon stuff, and we did it all and we loved it.
Jeb: Let's pump this new record with the time we have left.
Steve: That would be nice [laughter].
Jeb: This album deserves to be heard. Tell me how the writing of the album worked?
Steve: It depended. The songs that I brought in I played just about everything. I would make a complete demo. Mark did the same thing. If there was a lyric that I thought was stupid I was free to change it. Everything was wide open. There was not a set way to do it. No one told me to lock myself in a room and write lyrics. Brian came to me with the idea of “Rock Your Face Off.” I went in and redid a lot of those lyrics to make it more of the idea that he was trying to portray in the meaning of that song. If the lyrics that were there were already good then I would just tweak them. Some songs came in complete and I didn't do a thing.
Jeb: I love the song “Rolling in Honey.”
Steve: That is a good one. Taylor brought that one in. There were three songs that came in late in the game that took the album to a new level. “Rolling in Honey” was one of them. “Top Down” was another one and the third was “Can't Stop the Show.” When we started recording the album they were not around, and luckily those songs came into the picture and really took it to a new level.
Jeb: When you all get so clever and come up with something like “Love Me with Your Top Down,” you have to just laugh.
Steve: Yeah, Mark brought that one in. I think Taylor worked on it with him. When I heard it I was like, “This is the catchiest song I've heard yet.” I knew when I heard it that it was a new song we were going to be playing live. That was one of the first we played live, as a matter of fact.
Jeb: Put “Wheels in Motion” in the set.
Steve: If I can sing that fast, but I don't know if I can do that live or not. There is no breathing in that song. I would probably die if I tried to do that. It will be in my obituary, “He died trying to sing the song 'Wheels in Motion.'”
Jeb: “Dirty Girls” is bad ass.
Steve: That song really got better when the guys jumped on it and added to it. The idea of that song is the Victoria Secret magazine. My wife gets that magazine and I look at it and drool. It is the sexiest magazine ever. The working title for the song was “Sexy Girl.” The guys thought that was too tame, so we changed the title to “Dirty Girl.”
Jeb: You guys didn't have to wait 19 years to make a record.
Steve: Absolutely we could have made one, but we didn't feel the need. We didn't think that is what the fans wanted from us. We felt they wanted to hear the music that they grew up with and that they came to clubs to see us play. We thought they just wanted the nostalgic thing. We really thought that was all that they really wanted. Putting out a new record was not really on the agenda. It really all just fell into place.
Jeb: Any tour-news yet? What is the plan?
Steve: I think it is a little too early to tell. We will go wherever this record will take us. If this starts moving in the UK then we will go there. We've got a lot of press in the UK and they ask why we have not come over there. The reason is that nobody buys our records over there; same with Germany. There is no impact of sales that would say, “Come to Germany and make money.” We would come over and lose money, and I can't do that as I'm too old for that. If the record takes off in certain areas then we will happily go there. We are beyond going out and trying to shove it down people's throats.
Jeb: I hear you saying you are not going to waste time and money.
Steve: I want a bang for the buck. I am no spring chicken. I've been there and I've done that thing where you play in empty rooms and people who half-know who you are, and I would hope that we're beyond that. Let’s keep it for people who actually know the band, are into the band and want to see the band. I am all into that. I do not want to pound the pavement and play for nobody.
Jeb: I know you won't let yourself get excited, but you have to be intrigued.
Steve: I am intrigued, but I refuse to let myself get my hopes up as I've been there too many times and came away empty. It’s almost like getting a new dog and you don't want to get too attached to him because he's going to die one day. There is a helluva analogy!
Jeb: KIX not making it as big as you hoped was not all your fault.
Steve: I don't think Atlantic Records ever really realized what they had with us. I don't think they had a clue. We were lumped in with so many of the other artists. If they threw us up against the wall and it didn't stick then it was time to move on. It was only through our relentless touring after the release of Midnite Dynamite that we went out on our own dime and played all over the country. We would play our big rooms on the East Coast and then bank our money and spend it playing over the rest of the country. It was through our own relentless passion to get more fans and to get more people more in tune to this band that got more people interested. When we had Blow My Fuse... the fact that was a great album helped.
Jeb: Once again, here you are with a great batch of tunes inspiring you to move ahead.
Steve: I just don't know if this will be able to hit the masses. The days of a major label getting your album into every major market are gone. What is needed for that to happen is gone. I don't know how people are going to know about it, other than through guys like you who are keeping it alive. I don't know about FM radio. There is no impact for music like ours on FM radio anymore.
Jeb: Some people might ask you why you keep pushing forward in these uncertain times.
Steve: For those who do want to hear us. There are enough of them that make it worth our while. I don't expect to sell millions, but if we can hit the fans that are still out there and still passionate about this music, then they will keep supporting us and we can stay out there several more years. If we can do that, then it is all worth it.
Jeb: I like your attitude.
Steve: Thank you.
Jeb: I talk to a lot of people and you get a lot of bullshit.
Steve: I don't bullshit. I've been bullshitted too many times. I am the real thing.
Jeb: You guys are probably more cohesive then back in the day.
Steve: We are. Everyone believes in what we're doing and that is what makes it easy. If there was one that was reluctant, then it wouldn't be as fun. We are all mature and we are all older. We've all lived it. We know when it's good, and we know when it's bullshit. When it's good we are there, and when its bullshit we are not.
Jeb: Are you open to a package tour?
Steve: If a tour came along that made sense... it’s got to be lucrative. For me, I can't just quit my day job and go out and promote a record. If there is no money in it, then I can't do it. It sounds great to do that. Extreme and KIX would be a great package. I think it would be a great evening of music. Would it sell enough tickets to support both bands and their families? I don't know. It has to be lucrative, or it is just not worth it in my life… that’s the reality of it. It costs a lot of money to tour, and I just don't know if we could generate enough to support the tour and make money at it.
Jeb: You've done the toughest thing, and that is to make an album that people want to hear. If you take the time to listen to the entire album -which is a trick this day and age- then it sneaks into your mind and makes you want to listen to it again.
Steve: Let's hope a lot of people feel like you do. If that is the case, it will help us to stick around a few more years and possibly put out another one.
Jeb: Last one: I have a friend that swears you named your band after the cereal.
Steve: We had never even heard of the cereal, to tell you the truth. I have to go back a few years to tell you where it all came from. We were originally called The Shooze, that was the band in 1978, and we were playing all of the clubs. We were that for a couple of years and when we got signed, there was a band in Chicago that had the name spelled correctly. Even though ours was with a 'z', they said we could not use it.
We wanted a name with energy and electricity, so we went with The Generators. We actually shot the album cover assuming it was going to be called The Generators, and that is why I am getting electrocuted with the hair coming out of my head. Another band comes out of the woodwork and says nope, can't have that one either. At the time, Donnie was in a band in Pittsburgh called KIX. Out of desperation we ran it through to see if that had been taken and it had not been taken. Luckily it had not been taken, and here we are still doing it.
Jeb: My final word is that I like the music on this album. If I didn't like it, I don't know if I would tell you that, but I would sure as hell be less enthusiastic about it.
Steve: You now what, I can tell when it is authentic and I appreciate you guys giving a shit and helping us out.
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