A few weeks ago, Paul Stanley texted Gene Simmons a link to a long-forgotten soul song called “The 81” after his obstinate Kiss bandmate questioned its existence.
“He said, ‘There’s no song called that.’ I said, ‘Yeah, there is!’ I sent him the song and he said, ‘It sounds just like Martha and the Vandellas,’” Stanley tells Rolling Stone, going on to relay the history of “The 81,” the band that cut it, Candy and the Kisses, and why Simmons’ comparison to Martha Reeves was an accurate one. “It was about a dance. From what I understand, they were patterning Martha and the Vandellas’ song ‘In My Lonely Room.’”
Stanley is an encyclopedia of soul music knowledge, and he’s made it his mission to preserve and celebrate classic tunes by the Temptations, the Delfonics, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on his new album Now and Then, the studio debut by his airtight live band Soul Station. The 11-member group formed in 2015 as strictly a performing act, but their camaraderie compelled Stanley to assemble the players for a recording session. The result, out Friday, is five Soul Station originals and eight covers of Motown, Philly sound, and Memphis soul staples like “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Let’s Stay Together.”
Stanley says Now and Then, like the songs he heard on the radio while growing up in Queens, was born out of joy and optimism. “The first time I heard the Five Stairsteps do ‘O-o-h Child,’ there was this innocence about it and this hope that things would get better: ‘We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun.’ It’s so eloquent in its simplicity and honesty,” he says.
We talked to Stanley about Soul Station, how Motown worked its way into Kiss songs, and if Kiss will resume its farewell End of the Road tour.
Soul Station played their first gig at the Roxy in L.A. in 2015, but didn’t go into the studio until fairly recently. Why was now the right time to record with the band?
Unlike some other bands, we didn’t start in the studio and then decide to become a live band. We were a live band and then it just seemed ridiculous to not go into the studio. The band was just not only stellar, but, not to be corny, we really love being together. It’s exciting. It’s joyous. And I think that comes across in the music. We’re all ethnicities, all nationalities, our musical histories are different. But we were initially brought together by this passion for this music and paying reverence to it and doing it with respect — bringing back something that’s been relegated to samples in rap tunes, which is all well and good, but people need to hear these songs.
How did you go about choosing which songs to cover?
I wanted songs that when we played them live, brought people together, gave people a sense of togetherness, either a familiarity that would connect them to their past or a special time or to the person that they’re with now or were with then. I wanted to stay away from the shouters, if you will, and that’s not to minimize their voices. You know, [the Temptations’] Dennis Edwards is great and Wilson Pickett and Edwin Starr and the list goes on and on, but I wanted songs that brought people closer together when we were doing the shows. I loved the lush quality and the orchestral arrangements and songs that deal with relationships. I’ve never been big on masculinity being based on flexing your muscles — I think masculinity comes from being able to show vulnerability and that’s what some of these songs do so well. It’s somebody not being ashamed to say that they miss somebody or they wish they had done things differently.
You wrote and arranged new material for the album. Did you sit down and think, “I’m going to try to write a Motown song”?
Oh, gosh, no. I’m going to write for Soul Station. We needed something to bridge this music and bring it into the present. I want the band to be rooted in the past, but not to live there solely. This wasn’t paint by numbers and mimicry. This wasn’t an impersonation. It wasn’t the Rich Little of Motown.
You saw Otis Redding in concert. What do you remember about the experience?
It was Central Park. I was probably 15 or 16. It was a game changer. There was an epiphany. Otis was bigger than life, but his command and what he was doing was undeniable. … I saw Solomon Burke too, when he was Brother Solomon Burke. Music really shaped my life, whether it was hearing Beethoven as a child or Verdi and Puccini, or going down to the Gaslight in the Village to see Dave Van Ronk, or seeing the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page. It’s all the same. It has to do with how something affects you emotionally. When I heard “Nessun Dorma” the first time, I got chills. I had no idea what the lyrics meant, but great music has a great effect.
Kiss’ drummer Eric Singer plays with you in Soul Station. Why did you think he’d be a good fit for this project?
I never thought of anybody else because I know how great a drummer Eric is. His musical vocabulary is so vast. He is a schooled musician who really understands not only the math of drumming, but the feel. It’s always funny how people get labeled — as a hard-rock drummer or whatever. A hard-rock drummer in this band would have been a disaster. But Eric’s roots, he’s played in big bands with his dad and he’s so much more than just a rock drummer.
Did your love of soul music ever works its way into Kiss’ music back in the day?
When you create music, you’re using a recipe. You may be winging it, but the music is based on all its ingredients. Those ingredients may not be in equal proportions and some may be surprising, but that’s what helps with the uniqueness. When we wrote “Shout It Out Loud,” we were very clear: [Sings] “Well, the night’s begun and you want some fun/Do you think you’re gonna find it — think you’re gonna find it!” It’s the Four Tops.
The call and response, you mean?
Absolutely. We knew it as we were doing it: “Oh, cool. This is Four Tops.” There’s a song on the Unmasked album called “What Makes the World Go Round.” It’s basically a Spinners song, but done in a different way.
Kiss played its first concert in a year — under strict Covid guidelines — on New Year’s Eve in Dubai. What did that teach you about performing live for fans in a pandemic?
That was a unique situation where the protocols and all the safety conditions were all met and adhered to very, very vigilantly. That’s not practical or possible elsewhere. That was a stage that was built there. That wasn’t a traveling stage. It took 500 people to put it together. And everybody was literally daily Covid-tested. So it was a hoot and a lot of fun and got us the chance to flex our muscles and really reinforce and reinstate what this band is.
That being said, the prospects of going out to play in the foreseeable future are dim at best. And that’s not just for us. That’s for any band. The health concerns, the lack of promoters being able to get insurance. Who’s going to give insurance to a promoter to get, you know, 10, 20, 100,000 people shoulder to shoulder? And enough cities, states or countries are not going to allow that anyway. So we seem to be traveling towards the light in the tunnel, but we’ve got a long way to go yet. I’m hopeful that on a smaller scale it’ll be possible for Soul Station to go out. You have to see this band live to really get it.
Do you and Gene see Kiss’s End of the Road tour resuming?
Totally. We were 120 shows into it and having a ball [when the pandemic began]. I mean, most of the time when you lose somebody or the situation changes, you find yourself saying, “Gee, if I had only known,” whereas here, you have a situation where we’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t continue [as a touring band]. It’s not feasible. If we were wearing jeans and T-shirts, we could do this into our eighties or nineties, but we’re carrying around 40 and 50 pounds of gear for a couple of hours. There’s an age factor, which makes it more real for people who may have doubted the idea of the “end of the road.”
But that in mind, it gives us a night with people where we really get to share what we built together. … So the End of the Road, I don’t see it as bittersweet. I see it as sweet. And will there be tears? Sure. But oh, my God, look what we’ve been given. And from what the fans say, look what we gave them. It’s unlike other bands.
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