KissFAQ: Phil, let's start with a little basic background. What led to your interest in music and when did you start playing?
Phil Ashley: I studied classical music as a child and when I was about 12-years-old, I started playing in rock bands. So, I started pretty young! I always wanted to be a musician and I didn't have a particular style of music that interested me, I would just jump into different styles. I loved classical, I loved rock, I loved pop; and then, by the time I was 16 or 17, I was playing jazz. So, that gives you kind of an idea, I was all over the place but I always just loved music.
That's a very broad spectrum from an early age, especially to not be pigeonholed into any one genre. What would you call your first professional gig?
I left college to go on tour with Rupert Holmes. He was the "Pina Colada" guy.
I remember that song!
I played keyboards for him, so that was like my first work with "national" recording acts. I always look at that gig as the beginning of my whole kind of approach. Right before that I had been a college student and I had a 20 piece big band in New York that was put together for me by New York studio musicians. We would play all around town, and I was basically just would write everything. Even though it was with professionals and everything, I always look at that as just more of an experience. I went from that straight into Rupert's band.
Did you decide early on that you had a preference for session work, and the variety it engenders of working with different acts and styles, rather than being in a single band type situation?
It took me a while. I was with a band called the Uptown Horn Band, who were a horn section and they played a lot of acts so they had a deal on EMI. I joined the band right before we went to England to record the album. I recorded the album, but as a result of some corporate stuff, a bunch of acts got dropped, and they were one of them. I looked at it and just said, "This isn't really my kind of thing." Doing sessions, I love the variety. I like walking in every day and not knowing what I'm going to be doing. It became more of it really fitting for me to be more of a studio musician, rather than let's say in one band and I'm playing the same sort of stuff, over and over again. It's like when I started studying and at 10 or 11 my teacher said I had to make a decision between performance and composition. I chose composition. I like difference.
Right, so there wasn't anything that really forced you out of an interest in band situations?
No, it's a personality thing. It's not really about which I think is best; it's just the nature of my personality.
It certainly seems to have served you well! By the mid-1980s, you're doing a lot of session work with a diverse group of artists: Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Aerosmith, Prince, and Billy Idol... You recorded with Lou Gramm, who's doing his first solo album, "Ready or Not." How did your interaction with Lou come about?
It's funny because I was playing with my big band at the Ritz and the drummer in the band was Lou Gramm's brother, Benny. So, during a sound check he said, "Let's go visit my brother, he's doing an album over at Electric Lady Studios." The album they were recording was 'Foreigner 4' [Ed. Released in 1981]. So we went over there, and I had not been in a recording studio like that before, ever. I was kind of stunned, but Lou was very friendly and was showing us around the studio. So, when it came time for him to do his solo record, I was highly recommended.
That's amazing, that your first look in a studio was such a legendary one! Projects were coming at you fast and furious at this time?
Actually, timing-wise it was very interesting, because I finished Lou's solo record and I was doing video for "Ready or Not," and that's when I was flying out to Los Angeles to work with KISS. It was like the same time.
Oh right, that's much closer together than I'd thought.
Yeah, Lou's album was a little before "Crazy Nights." Lou's a great singer and I really was happy to be on that record.
That's a really fun album as well. You got to play some of his early solo dates that he did in the U.S. in support of it as well didn't you?
Yes, that's correct, but I had to leave Lou's band because by then I was also recording with Mick Jagger. I was doing his second album, while I was doing "Crazy Nights." So, when Mick asked me to go on tour with him and Jeff Beck, Lou was very gracious and let me. I got someone else to fill in for me with Lou, Gary Corbett. He was the person I also recommended to KISS for their tour. He's a good guy, but I was just too busy and so all over the place. It was amazing that I had any time to sleep.
Do you recall where you were recording with Mick for the "Primitive Cool" album? Were your sessions for that in Barbados or at Wisseloord in Holland?
I started in Barbados because they had someone else start the record, but then Mick remembered me so I went down to Barbados and recorded with him. And then, actually, right after I finished the keyboards for "Crazy Nights" in Los Angeles, I ran back New York to finish up the album with Mick.
And you also did the "Throw Away" video with Jeff Beck which looks like it was fun to be a part of?
Yeah. Then I ended up doing two tours with him. Actually, that day I went out there to do the video I visited KISS, because they had just started doing their rehearsals for the "Crazy Nights" tour, and Gary had just started working with them. So, yeah, all of this stuff was happening at the same time!
That's what I find so amazing. You're having to juggle and pick and choose between you know, Lou Gramm, Mick Jagger, KISS, which it must have been absolutely amazing to have all of those on your plate at one time. And around the same time you're also working on remixes for Aerosmith with John Luongo?
When I was in town I would work with John, he kept me pretty employed. But I was also working with Debby Harry as well, so I was just flying from one studio to another. It was great and it actually was really enjoyable. I had an office in Electric Lady Studios, so a lot of the acts started coming down to the studio to work with me there. It was easier, so yeah, it was great and a lot of fun. Couldn't ask for more, right?
Absolutely not! One question I've got is about the remixes that had become popular again in the second half of the 1980s, stuff like Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" and "Rag Doll." You were doing those with John. Was there any talk about doing any for any of the singles off "Crazy Nights"?
I don't think so; I introduced Paul and John later on. He did the remixes for "Let's Put the X in Sex." That was the first time I believe that John and Paul actually did something. But, for "Crazy Nights," no I don't remember that.
Okay, some fans may be relieved that there's no 12 minute "Extended Crazier" version of "Crazy Crazy Nights" sitting in the vaults waiting to be unleashed on them?!
There could be, but I wouldn't know anything about it!
How did you meet Paul Stanley for the first time? I guess by 1986 you're working with him doing demos at Electric Lady, some of which eventually get recorded for the "Crazy Nights" album.
It's a funny story. I was sort of the staff synthesizer player or consultant over at Electric Lady Studios. They were doing the "Asylum" album, the album before "Crazy Nights." Paul wanted to try keyboards on "Tears are Falling," so the studio manger, Mary, recommended me to him. I went into the studio and we started working on the tune, and he recognized me. But Paul and I definitely could not figure out where we knew each other from, but there was definitely something, we knew each other! But we couldn't figure it out. After about 20 minutes or 25 minutes he figured it out: We actually grew up a few blocks away from each other and knew each other as teenagers and had played together. Also, we had both changed our names. I didn't really know anything about KISS, so I didn't realize that, you know. I knew him as Stan, so he had gone on to do those things with KISS.
He didn't realize that I had also changed my name and had gone on to do all of these other musical things. So that's where I reacquainted myself with Paul. It was a real mindblower for both of us, two guys from Queens. So when he wanted to work on songs for "Crazy Nights," he spoke to me about it and asked if I would get involved on the demo side. So I did all the demos with him and Electric Lady. We would program the drummer machine, I played the keyboards, Paul played the guitar, and then we'd go in the studio, we'd do vocals and so forth. Those demos were what were used as the templates for the songs on the album, when it was recorded out in Los Angeles.
One of the unused songs, or maybe it wasn't even considered for "Crazy Nights," was "Time Traveler," which was released on their box set in 2001. There was some other material, such as "Best Man for You," "Don't Let Go," and "When Two Hearts Collide" which often gets groups in the '87-89 period. I think those are the big demos that circulate, some of which certainly date to this time? What do you recall of those?
We did a lot of songs that didn't go on the record. Two of those titles I remember, but again titles may have changed too. I do remember we did stuff that did not come out and that's always part of every record, but the first and last ones you mention I believe I remember those.
"When Two Hearts Collide" and "Time Traveler"?
Do you recall working on "Hide Your Heart" at this stage? I think Paul first did that in 1987 and it got left off the album, possibly due to being offered out to other artists, and was then used the following year on "Hot In The Shade."
Absolutely. That was recorded in Los Angeles for the album after "Crazy Nights." I remember singing some of the chorus with them besides the keyboards. That was my one vocal debut with those guys!
Were any of the other KISS guys around, when Paul's doing these demos? What about Bruce Kulick, for instance?
Bruce came in to do some solos. Eric also came in to do some vocals and that was about it because it was New York where we were doing the demos. Since they were just going to be rough sketches, they were never supposed to be full band recordings. They were really to help Paul figure out the songs since he was going the slightly more pop direction. He really wanted a very close handle on the arrangements and that's what we were concentrating on, basing drums and voicings and so forth. They were well-done demos, but the idea was always that they would be rerecorded with the band. I think Bruce did some guitar solos, but I don't think that we finished them all.
They wouldn't have needed them at that stage since the arrangements and backbones of the songs were the most important thing.
No. Paul's a really hard worker and the idea was to maximize these tunes, make them the best they could be.
Was he talking about any of these songs being offered to other artists at this time? At the time it was invariably reported in the trade magazines that he was writing for Cher and looking for other artists to place material with. I think he did a song, "Jump the Gun," that went with Jeff Paris. Paul Dean picked up one of his songs from the period, "Sword and Stone." Was he talking with you about what this material's for? Is he saying hey, I think this is a good song for Cher or so and so, or is this all, as far as you're concerned, for the next KISS album?
No, everything was pretty much for KISS, except "When Two Hearts Collide." I believe he did that one for Cher because I remember recording that and he kind of wrote it for her. But everything else was really just write, write, write, write and what does it sound like, and trying different things. So, it was always, as far as I knew, just for KISS.
Were you helping Paul with any of the arrangements, making suggestions, or, "Hey, Paul, try this," because you come from a different perspective? He's very much from a guitar oriented band, but in 1987 is looking for crossover with a slightly different sort of sound. There was a suggestion that gets blown out of proportion that he was writing on keyboards -- he even called himself a "kamikaze keyboardist" who kind of just jumps in and hopes to be in the right place at the end of the song. That's why you're there I expect.
Well again, Paul wasn't really a keyboard player, so he would hear things and understand the top note of voicings and things like that. For me that's a really easy translation. I also play guitar so this is what I do with people -- I try to pull sounds out from that and what they're trying attain. I maximize what they're doing. He had very definite ideas and the idea was to flesh them out. So my background being, playing on so many different kinds of pop records and things like that, obviously I would help him with those kinds of things. It was a lot of fun and we had a gas. We used to work in my office and then run to his car and listen.
How easy or difficult of a process was it with Paul, because he's very particular. He has a very definite vision in his head of how a song is going to sound, even if he can't fully express it himself musically. If he's describing what he's hearing in his head to you, and you're translating on the keyboard into sound, how did that process go? Was it tough or did you kind of click and easily present what he wanted?
Total click, we had similar musical references. Paul and I as teenagers had similar sources, in the sense that we both loved Led Zeppelin and Cream and that kind of music. He may have gone much more into the performance side, and I had gone much more to the other side, but we had a basic understanding of where we were going with this stuff. For me it was a breeze working with Paul. I mean I worked with Paul for a number of years on things that weren't KISS -- we even did one of the tours in the... I forget when. He wanted to do a classical piece for the opening of the KISS show and he came to me. I did all the instruments using synth and samplers, and we had a gas. That was a real stretch I'm sure! It was an interesting experience for him and it was a great experience for me so he and I gelled when it came to working together. He did his homework, he did his work. That's what I'm used to dealing with, people like that.
When you're recording at Electric Lady, are you in the proper studio, or is the side room just a quick and dirty place to lay down simply multi-tracks. He was known in the '70s for sometimes doing the full 2" 16-track treatment in a full studio for his demos. Was he still doing that when he worked with you?
Oh no, well we started in my office because we do a lot of the programming in there. The drums are programmed, the bass is programmed, and then once we needed to get to get it on tape, we would go in the full studio. Dave Wittman, who engineered a lot of records for KISS, was the engineer for most of this.
Did you have any equipment did you have in your office for tracking and recording?
No, it really wasn't for tracking or recording. I had banks of synthesizers, so the idea was that I could program stuff in my office but we would always hit tape. This was the 1980s and digital recording was still in its infancy in terms of computer recording.
What sort of tape's being used in the studio to capture these demos?
Probably 24-track if I remember correctly. Yeah, we're using the full studio, and Electric Lady was a state of the art studio at that time. We were using the facility as if we were recording final records, whatever you want to call it.
When it comes time for KISS to record the full album, was it always planned that you would be participating in those sessions? Or did you get a call later on saying, "Hey Phil, can you come out to California and do the sessions with Ron Nevison?"
Paul was very adamant from the beginning that he wanted me on the record. Ron even came to New York while we were doing the demos and he was thrilled that we were doing so much preproduction work. He said, "You know, you guys are doing my job for me!" I went out there, and I ended up working with Ron on another album after that. It was always going to be, I think, at least from my perspective. It was just a matter of having to figure out the schedule. That was always the hard part.
It sounds that in 1987-88 you had a very crowded schedule?
It was so crowded that I remember that when I was doing the video with Lou, and the director wanted another take, I was like, "Shit, I'm going to miss my flight to Los Angeles to start with KISS in the morning!" I remember that. So, yeah, it was just crazy. While I was doing the "Crazy Nights" sessions, Mick was calling me and we were discussing what we were going to do once I got back to New York! That was my life and it was great! I loved it and KISS were part of it.
Do you remember which studio you did the keyboards at in California? Was it at Can Am Studios or were you out at Rumbo?
Were other band members around when you were doing it or did, were you just coming in and doing the sweetening with Paul and Ron, or were there listening back sessions with Gene and the other guys?
Yeah. Gene was there the whole time. Bruce was there a lot and I think Eric was there. I just don't remember off hand, but I remember Gene for certain because we went bowling. In fact, I'm pretty sure Eric was there when we went bowling too! Anyhow, once I started working with KISS, I actually started working with Gene on a couple of the records he was producing for his label. I don't remember what are those were bands called.
When I spoke with Gary Corbett he made a comment about Gene that he simply did not like keyboards. Was there any of that sort of undertone that you got from him, that he wasn't totally thrilled to be doing an album that was a little bit more pop oriented with a strong keyboard essence underlying the music?
Absolutely. That was his opinion and a totally valid opinion. And yes, he expressed it very clearly. You know, I looked at it as well, and it was simple: "You guys make the decision." That's really not my. My role is to maximize what I bring to the table, whether you like it or not. So that was for them to iron out. Gene was always good about it. He used to do the ice skating thing too. It's fun, but everyone has their opinion.
Gary also said that when he did his sound check with the keyboards Gene would start fake ice skating around the stage to let him know exactly how he felt.
Yeah, he did that in the studio. Gene is a character and you know that's part of who he is. He's not the first one and he's not the last one; and we all have opinions and he expresses it particularly that way. I've done so much work with Gene over the years that, you know, what can I say, it's just part of him. When they were producing Crown of Thorns, Paul and Gene, I did the keyboards on that; and they needed keyboards on that band. The focus of that band was guitar-based but definitely had to also have keyboards. So, Gene knew it.
In hindsight, how happy were you with your work? Obviously, you probably didn't have any time to sit back and listen to it and critically analyze it after you finished, with going out on tour with Mick and everything else that you were doing in the studio. But, were you happy with the production when you did finally hear the finished product, how Ron had done, and how your contributions sounded?
Very much so. I was actually surprised how loud the keyboards were in the mix. It's a hard rock band! When I worked with Ron we had really done all of the parts in preproduction, and he was happy. He said to me, "Look, what do you think? Do you have any ideas that have we have not looked yet?" And I said, "Sure!" He just basically said, "Okay, go for it," and that was a very good experience for me because I love working with producers that give you that kind of openness. So, for the keyboard recordings, he really gave me a free rein. There are parts on there that were not part of the preproduction work, but I had a gas doing that stuff with Ron. So, for me it was a very positive experience and I'm looking for different things than let's say other people may look for. I'm just looking that the whole product is good. If I do great keyboards and the drums sound like shit, it's not going to work. So, I was just happy with everything. I liked Ron's production so I was a fan of his, his stuff with Heart.
And then of course, two of the three singles released in support of the album, "Reason to Live" and "Turn On the Night," were very keyboard-oriented. When it comes to KISS touring, to support the album, were you pretty much lined up to be the touring keyboardist?
We never discussed it.
So, you knew Gary Corbett from around Electric Lady or the New York City scene and recommended him to Paul?
Yeah, because when I made the move from Lou to Mick's band, I had Gary take over with Lou. Gary was great because he came to the rehearsals, he understood the program, and he slid right into the Lou Gramm gig, no sweat. And that really showed me that he could do this, so when it came time for the KISS one, to me it was a no brainer, and I knew Gary would love the gig. So it worked out well for everybody. Gary was very professional and that's what I know they needed. They needed somebody that they didn't have to think about, that would just do the gig, learn the parts, and so forth. So, Gary was the perfect guy.
Was he the only person you recommended? Or did you give them a list?
No, I said try Gary first. We'll get back to it, but I just said I think he's the right guy. He had already proved it to me, you understand?
Absolutely. I was listening to some of the Lou Gramm stuff on that European tour with Gary, some live shows from Germany, and they sounded good. Let's move to, "Smashes, Thrashes and Hits," the 15th anniversary KISS compilation released the following year. They're back in New York, well I guess at least Paul is, and you work with him on the two new songs. Is that correct, or did you just do the remixed versions with John later?
Now are we talking, "Let's Put the 'X' In Sex?"
Yes, and "(You Make Me) Rock Hard."
I don't really remember "Rock Hard," but then again I could have worked on it. I remember "Let's Put the X in Sex," because I went to Paul's apartment and that's where we started programming it and he was working with Desmond Child.
I met Desmond back during "Asylum." So we started in his apartment and then we moved over to Right Track to record it with KISS. So I did the horns, yeah, I did quite a bit on that particular single. I guess that was it. I get a little confused, because then there was another record, the one with the pyramid I think.
Yeah, "Hot in Shade" with "Hide Your Heart" and "Forever."
Right. For that one, I flew out to California to do in a studio out there. Yeah, so that was a different time. So as far as "Let's Put The 'X' In Sex," yes, I did a lot of work on that.
I think they're out at the Fortress Studio in Hollywood, when they were working on "Hot in the Shade" and Cherokee Studios too.
That's the studio, I remember that well.
Oh good, I always like to know where these things happen. So, you've worked with a tremendous amount of acts, where does KISS kind of fall in your wheelhouse of musical experiences? It's always tough to ask someone to rate, you know, an iconic band that's been around for 45 years!
You know what; the only reason why KISS is slightly different for me is that the relationship I had with Paul. He's the only person that I knew as a teenager that I ended up working with so much later on, and that was always a different bond. There was a certain friendship there, like when he first got married, I was one of his groomsmen. I did a string arrangement for the wedding that they walked out of the thing for. I think it was "Forever," so for me KISS was really this relationship with Paul. Paul would also come to my shows. When I was with Joe Satriani in the 1990s, he would come to see me play with Joe. So, it's a little different. I always look at the different artists I work with only as that I'm there to maximize what they do.
With KISS and Paul, I really felt I was able to accomplish that. So, that's the sign of success for me as far as where I stack all these things. I don't really say, "Oh, this is going to be a hit, or this not going to be a hit." I just do the best I can and when you work with lots of artists you don't really like to compare them. They're all unique, so I learn different things from different people. Lou was so different than Mick. Mick was so different than Tina Turner. Cher was totally different, Michael Bolton totally different, Satriani totally different. So everyone's different. The exciting thing is bringing something to those different things. The work I did with Joe Satriani is very different from the work I did with Cher.
So, that's how I look at Paul. It wasn't that I didn't know anything about KISS, and when they did "Asylum" I had played a little bit of the keyboards on that song, but he asked me to come out to help him with the show. I had programmed Eric's syn drums for his solo, and then I eventually did some opening music, but they flew me out and were doing rehearsal, Paul came up to me and said, "You've never seen us, right?" I said, "No!" So he kind of introduced me to KISS, so it's a little different. There was a little more of a friendship.
One of the things it's interesting to ask people who knew Paul pre-KISS -- especially people who grew up with him, before he was basically anyone of note -- is, was there anything about him, in his youth, that you would have said, "I'm not surprised he actually made it as a musician." There's many kids who artistic and talented and play around with music when they're young and then either don't pursue or make it. Were you surprised or not surprised that Paul became the success that he has been for so many decades?
That's a hard question and I'm not good at that. The only thing I do remember of Paul is he had a vision. We used to talk, I remember at the bus stop, and he was much more image conscious than I was. I thought it was really interesting, it was very like a vision he had and this was way before KISS, so I saw that he had a vision in terms of an understanding the sort of symbolism of music and so forth. He and I were both very into the London fashion at that time, all that kind of stuff, but as far as knowing that he would make it, I could make a huge box of all the people you think are going to make it and they don't.
I mean growing up in the era, in Queens, it's like everybody was in a band. And very few got past 30. So there's a couple of my friends that are studio musicians, but Paul was the only one that really became let's say an icon or a star. But did I see it? No, because I'm not good at that kind of vision.
Were you actually in the same band as him or just playing in bands around the same scene?
No, what happened was we had a mutual friend and this guy said, "You've got to meet my friend Stan!" So I said, "Okay," and walked over to his house with this friend and went to his bedroom to hang out. He had his guitar under his bed I remember, he pulled it out and we started jamming and it was fun. I was playing guitar in those days and while we didn't continue, in terms of playing together, we always talked music. We were always running into each other, whether it was parties or at the bus stop -- because he went to school in the city -- and I was always going into the city. So we'd always see each other and stop and talk about music. This was our thing, but we weren't in the same bands because I was doing more of the Allman Brothers type stuff and he was doing a bit more of the hard rock stuff. We were kind of like in different worlds but at the same token, always discussing music. We were definitely two music addicts. There was no two ways about it!
That is just one of those absolutely fascinating pieces of minutia that you don't necessarily expect to find out when you speak with someone. We're talking about "Crazy Nights" in 1987, to find out something about 1970, or whenever it was, is just absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing that.
It was one of the jokes with us because he lived only two blocks away. When I moved to Long Island, I moved to the same town as his parents. At one point I actually lived across the street from them. So it was just like so crazy all these connections.
The KissFAQ thanks Phil for participating in the Danger Zone, celebrating the 30th anniversary of KISS' "Crazy Nights" album. Philip Ashley can be found online at https://www.philashley.net.
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