We chat to Peter Criss - the original, sound-defining drummer of Kiss

Peter Criss is the Catman, the original, sound-defining drummer of Kiss. His swingin’ sensibilities powered their first six studio albums, and nothing more needs to be said.

Record #1, Side A, track 1… Strutter. The first thing you hear is Criss and his now iconic drum fill, as basic and brilliant as they get. “I’m very proud of that intro. It’s often the guitars that get that role, like A Hard Day’s Night. That ‘danggg’. I immediately know what I’m about to hear.
“I got the idea for that fill from Charlie Watts of the Stones, I love Charlie, and I adapted it around the kit. I always found myself creating stuff like that – the pounding drums in Rock & Roll All Nite, the drums in Love Gun, I wanted them to sound like machine guns.”
It’s evident that he has a lot of drum heroes, and he speaks of them all with reverence, from Ginger Baker to Philly Joe Jones. Like many rock drummers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Criss’ introduction to the instrument was through jazz.
As more time goes on, it seems rock drummers only take influence from the rock drummers that preceded them, and the dynamics of jazz-informed playing disappears. “I was raised on Gene Krupa, I was raised on big band jazz, Charlie Parker. I learned jazz first and then rock came later, and I think this was a big influence on the sound of Kiss. Like, I played a cha-cha pattern to Deuce. It’s absurd, but it worked.
“When I was ten, my Dad put the [Benny Goodman] record Sing Sing Sing on and I was addicted. That was it, like a bolt went through my whole soul. ‘That’s who I’m gonna be, that’s what I wanna do in life, I wanna play drums.’ So of course I started wrecking my mother’s pots and pans. But I was so blessed my mother was such a great singer, so naturally I sang first before putting the two together.”
When asked about his favourite Kiss song to sing, he’s initially diplomatic, but then betrays a real love for the phase that ended in 1975’s Dressed To Kill. “Anything from Nothin’ To Lose to Strange Ways. The early Kiss, the more rock’n’roll kinda stuff, that really knocked me out.”
Criss touchingly had a lot to say about childhood friend Jerry Nolan, fellow drummer in the New York Dolls. Having returned from a trip abroad on one of his father’s army postings, Nolan became Criss’ first drum teacher, despite them being the same age.
“He was a madman on drums and he would’ve gone so far. I loved the way Jerry played. He was a leftie, and I was a rightie, so we’d set our kits up side-by-side so we could share the same floor tom together. I couldn’t afford one so he’d let me use his. We used to work out a whole routine together. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Jerry.”
Several years before Kiss’ formation, Criss was drumming in a fairly unknown band named Chelsea, who released one album in 1970. A very un-New York sounding record, it was produced by Lewis Merenstein (famous for his production work on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks) and even featured ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale. Loosely described as psych-folk, it’s a recommended listen and illuminates that Criss had musical ambitions far beyond that which he became famous for.
“I’m extremely proud of Chelsea. Astral Weeks is one of my favourite albums on the planet, it’s absolutely genius. I was impressed we got Lew and John on this record, and it was more the excitement of creating this major work than going off to make money.
“Back then it was more like ‘How am I going to create a great piece of work?’ I was really lucky to work with those guys.”
By Lee Parker

Peter Criss will perform at The Sofitel On Melbourne on Friday May 12 with special guest Mike McLaughlin and backing band Sisters Doll. Criss will also appear at the Kiss Convention at Wick Studios on Saturday May 13 and Sunday May 14.