Famed producer Toby Wright guests on the Decibel Geek podcast for a 2 part Albums Unleashed special covering KISS' controversial 1997 release Carnival of Souls.
Recommended by producer Bob Ezrin, Wright remembers his initial meeting with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, which took place at A&M Studios: “They kinda put it in my ear why I was there. They wanted to follow a little hip trend going on at the time called Grunge music. The bottom line was, like all artists, they wanted to sell records. Y’know, they want to be on top of the pile. Gene has a big competitive personality so he’s all about being on the top of the pile and whatever it takes to get there.”
Then-guitarist Bruce Kulick was a large creative force during the making of the album. Wright shares his memories of Kulick’s importance as well as a directive from him during pre-production meetings about how to get the most out of Simmons and Stanley for this very different album for KISS. “Bruce and I got really close during that whole record because he played most of the record. Without Bruce, this record wouldn’t exist, ever. During those initial “nobody’s around” conversations, I got inspiration from Bruce and instructions from Bruce that were like “You are gonna have to push the fuck out of these guys (Simmons & Stanley). Don’t be afraid.”
Other advice came from Ezrin who had worked with KISS on their previous album Revenge, “Bob’s told me some stories about Gene. He’s like “Watch out. One fucking smell of weakness and he’ll be all over you.” I’ll always remember that comment. So, I was like “Okay. I’m never gonna show any fear whatsoever that I’m in a room with one of my heroes. He’ll never know that.” He’ll take advantage; big time. He’ll smell fear in your eyes, it’s over for you as far as having any kind of control over a situation; especially in a producer situation where I’m in the studio co-producing with he and Paul (Stanley) and it’s the three of us “making decisions.” Who has the last say? Depends on what the issue is. If it’s something sonically, it’s usually me. If it’s something musical, it’s usually them. It just depends on how the conversation was going and who was the bolder lion that day (laughs).”
Wright was tapped to produce Carnival of Souls, in part, due to his previous work with Alice in Chains. In this 2 part special, Wright details how he pushed the members of the band to attempt harmony vocal takes that mirrored the Seattle quartet’s and how it, ultimately, would fall short in comparison, “It’s just an effect that I use, harmony vocals. I hear all the harmonies in my head like Layne (Staley) did. I do that on a lot of records I produce..Layne and JJerry (Cantrell), they had something special with it because they used notes that people don’t use, typically speaking. Layne and Jerry, theey just did it. That was a part of their art just like Van Gogh picking up a fucking paintbrush. That was their sound. With Gene and Paul, that’s stuff that’s songwriter-forced. There’s more movement in what Layne and Jerry would’ve done instead of these guys (Simmons & Stanley).
While loved by a core group of KISS fans, the album overall was not embraced by the KISS Army stylistically. Wright remembers, “To be brought into a situation where I’m trying to make someone sound unlike themselves is difficult. I would have rather had this KISS album be entirely them and just do what you do; because that’s what you do. I think a larger number of their fans would have embraced it instead of fighting about “that sucks” or “that’s good.”
While in production, the band were very excited about the prospects of this change in sound and, according Wright, putting a lot of eggs into the Grunge basket, “I was already slated to produce the next one ..It was in my contractt. If this one had shipped platinum, I was to produce the next KISS album.”
As many now know, everything came to a halt one day in the studio when Simmons and Stanley called a meeting with Wright and the rest of the band to make an announcement that would have a major impact on the album as well as two of the band members, “We were about done with the record. Gene got the call. Somebody offered him 100 million to put back on the makeup with all the original members. And that announcement in that room; holy shit.We all knew right as the words came out off his mouth that we were done.“\Paul didn’t really look aroundd much. Gene, he was Paul Revere. He was the messenger that should’ve gotten shot (laughs).”
Carnival of Souls would soon thereafter leak on the internet and become a widely distributed bootleg album, with KISS fans snatching it up online as well as at KISS conventions. Rumors swirled that a member of the band may have been responsible for leaking the album. In this 2 part discussion Wright reflects, “I do remember getting questioned, big time. Who knows who did it? I have great ideas on who did it. If it was a band member, I’d just say it was for his personal gain and I’m sure he made a lot of fucking money.”
The album would finally get a proper release in October of 1997 when it was issued by Mercury Records with very little fanfare. Wright remembers the experience being very bittersweet, “I was thinking that I’m working on another multiplatinum album, and it should’ve been, and then all of a sudden they shelve it. 2 years later, now they’re releasing it and didn’t put any marketing push behind it and it’s like “Why did you bother?””
Parts 1 and 2 of Albums Unleashed Carnival of Souls with Toby Wright can be heard using the links below:
Part 1: http://traffic.libsyn.com/dbgeekshow/Albums_Unleashed_Carnival_of_Souls_1.mp3
Part 2: http://traffic.libsyn.com/dbgeekshow/Albums_Unleashed_Carnival_of_Souls_P.mp3