Tommy Thayer of KISS talks fandom, first shows, and rock n' roll

Tommy Thayer (right) and the rest of KISS

Like most KISS fans, I remember the exact moment they came into my consciousness. That moment is all too vivid. My second-grade classmate, Jim Brown, and I were sitting together with a girl in our class at one of those fake Formica tables listening to storybook records.

Jim waited long enough for the teacher to leave us at the table when he pulled out his own bag of the good stuff, his KISS records. Yanking "Peter and the Wolf" from the turntable, he dropped the needle on the first one. It had a cover with a close-up photo of this demon face, staring at me with black and white make-up and red eyes. It was the Gene Simmons solo record. I couldn't stop staring at the picture of him with blood trickling through his teeth. Watching the label in shock as it spun around, I had never heard anything like that before. I looked across the table at the girl who was sitting with us. She looked terrified. I was hooked.

Right up there with all the great Minnesota traditions—agriculture, politics, and straight-up excess—the band who was once accused of being satanic some 30-plus years ago, KISS, will be headlining the Grandstand at the Minnesota State Fair as part of their "Hottest Show on Earth" tour this Saturday.From his hotel room in Uncasville, Connecticut, Tommy Thayer talked to me about one of our favorite bands, KISS.

Starting out as a fan himself since the late '70s, he's been lucky enough to actually be a part of a long lineage of guitar players in the band. Tommy got an extra notch in his spacebelt last year after finally writing and recording with KISS on last year's fairly excellent Sonic Boom, their first release since he joined and the band's first in more than a decade.

"First time I ever saw KISS was in Circus magazine, and I saw Gene Simmons with his tongue and I thought it looked amazing," Thayer recalls, beaming with joy and pride. "In 1974 I asked my parents if they'd get me a record for Christmas. What KISS represented and what they looked like, they were the coolest thing going; theatrical, loud, rock and roll, flamboyant with things blowing up, great songs and great music."

As any fan would dream of, Tommy now flies around the world with the band and music he loves, adding his own chops and style as the character "Spaceman," a role that entailed no easy moonboots to fill since Tommy replaced original guitarist Ace Frehley almost a decade ago.

"I've always been a fan of his and this has been an honor for me," Thayer says. "My first KISS show was in early 1976 in Portland at the Memorial Coliseum. There was a Southern rock group called Point Blanke opening, this was on the Alive tour and at that point it was the highlight of my life."

KISS have always maintained an infectious spirit and high energy from their fans that seems to get stronger as time goes on. Those that are still into it at this point are crazier than ever. "The great thing with KISS these days is not only do you have the KISS faithful for years and years, but parents now bringing their kids," Thayer says. "It's a very all-American kind of feeling and people love it, and KISS fits perfectly into that, of course. It's really almost a religious experience for some people, and it gets kind of crazy."

Twin brothers Paul and Mark Bringardner were only six years old in 1979 when their father took them to their first KISS concert at the Mecca Arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an experience that set them on the path of musical obsession to this day. The two brothers continue to live and breathe rock and roll the way Gene breathes fire. From the smallest local bands that they love and support to the big arena and outdoor concerts, it's not unlikely to see Paul and Mark in the front row banging their heads or sneaking up onstage after a performance to grab the band's set list. The two have an inspiring enthusiasm about music and make it a part of their life as much as possible—and, as for many, KISS was their gateway drug.

Travelling far and wide to see their favorite legendary performers, the self-proclaimed "Rock Twins" let me into "the vault" of their massive record collection and let me fondle their KISS memorabilia. Along with autographed records by Black Flag, Black Sabbath, and country singer Ferlin Husky, the two proudly show off their signed KISS "Dynasty" tour book and the very same t-shirt (that they'd eventually grow into) from their first show way back when.

As we sit listening to a rare German pressing of the Killers LP, almost in unison the two tell the story of the night their lives were changed forever. "My Dad took us with his friend Jim Finn, who played keyboards in the Castaways," says Mark.

Standing on their shoulders near the front row, Paul remembers bumming out a little. "I remember my Dad pointing out the hook and wire on Ace's guitar that made it fly, sort of ruining the magic."

Eventually moving to the Twin Cities for college, the two have grown up together in the front row, backstage, and in and around the Minneapolis music scene. They work part-time jobs in between concerts most days, teaching, serving, or working as an overnight DJ on LOVE105, where you can hear Paul's sexy voice on Sunday nights. When it comes to the music scene, there's often a lot of too-cool-for-the-room-ness that keeps people from totally going nuts at a rock show. These thoughts never cross the Bringardners' minds. "It's called geeking out, because we known way more than we should about all this stuff," they say.

The Rock Twins, Tommy Thayer, and the rest of KISS will be looking more than cool this SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, when the "Hottest Tour on Earth" blows up the MINNESOTA STATE FAIR BANDSTAND; 651.642.2262

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