Like most youngsters of a certain era, Phil Varone discovered KISS and his trajectory was clear: he was going to be a rock star. The Long Island native made good on his promise as the drummer for Saigon Kick, with whom he recorded and toured from 1988 until 1996. From there, Varone — also a producer and songwriter — joined Prunella Scales, and in 2000 he was hired by Skid Row, with whom he toured the world. He left the band in 2004 to pursue acting and standup comedy, although he never lost his passion for music. He has since pursued a different trajectory as an adult entertainment filmmaker and product designer.
Late last year, Saigon Kick — Varone, vocalist Matt Kramer, guitarist Jason Bieler, bassist Tom Defile and guitarist Chris McLernon— announced their reunion. The first gig will take place on March 30 at the Viper Room in Hollywood, California, with more tour dates to be announced. The Viper Room show will be the band members’ first performance together in over 20 years.
A lifetime in the music industry left Phil Varone with the best and worst of a dream come true. He holds absolutely nothing back in this interview, offering his uncensored opinions about the business of music, women on the road, the work does to help troubled teens, and a memorable encounter with Gene Simmons.
So … the band is back together.
Yes, after three years of haggling.
What happened and when? Who made the first call?
I think I might have sent an e-mail about doing some shows. We’ve had a constant stream of managers, agents and clubs contacting us to do shows. That hasn’t stopped. That’s what started the ball rolling initially. Once we started talking to each other, some old stuff came back and we had to really work through it. It’s odd, because it wasn’t a priority. I think that’s why it took so long, because once everyone started arguing, we’d back away from it, let it simmer down and then we’d go at it again. It just took some time. We had to get to know each other again, because it’s been twenty years, and in that time people have different lives, they’ve grown up, it’s a different thing, so it took this process to learn about each other again and to respect each other. But, bottom line, we were contacted for a couple of things and the process was someone would send out a group e-mail and no one would respond because we’re men, pissing contest, you know how it goes. So I decided that when I got the e-mail again I would write everyone a nice letter and say, “Let’s try it or not.” The response was, “Let’s do that.” Everybody’s been on the same page since. We’re respecting each other’s boundaries and space and temperament, and I think that’s all that needed to be done. We all agreed this could be really easy and fun or we could make it hard and it won’t happen. We decided to make it easy and fun.
Have you seen each other during those twenty years apart?
I’ve seen Matt because we stayed friends. The last time I saw Jason, sadly enough, was at my mother’s funeral in 1988, so it’s been a while. We’ve been talking on the phone, but I haven’t seen him. Tom I saw recently. He came to L.A. I saw Chris at a NAMM show a couple of years ago, but we talk all the time as well. Jason was the one guy that we didn’t talk so much. I think for everybody, Jason, Matt and I stayed together because Tom had left the band and then we got Chris, so the original guys being Jason, Matt and myself, we always went at it, so we had to figure that stuff out as well. To me, it was just a maturity process and realizing that we can make music together, have fun, keep it as a hobby and not worry about it, because it’s not our business anymore. When it was our business, it was stressful. Now it’s a hobby, so it should be fun.
What is your perspective, twenty years later, of who you were then and who you are now?
I think that we were kids who didn’t know much and were just excited to have a record deal. We were manipulated and very impressionable and we made awful decisions. We all did. Now we’re grown men who have a lot of experience and have seen the ins and outs of the music business. Not to be unoriginal, but if I knew then what I know now … . That’s where that quote comes from. It’s basically everybody’s story. But if you ask would I do it again, of course I would. It was my dream to get a record deal. I was 20 years old. Who doesn’t want to have that? I find that everybody is experienced and has come into their own. Their images, their lifestyle, whatever it is. It’s a process. You grow into the person that you are. I think that we also respect each other now, so we respect the talent, whereas twenty years ago we were just learning, so we weren’t that great. After twenty years of touring and playing, you get great and you understand each other’s talent and there’s no smothering anybody with, “You have to be this,” or “You have to be that.” We know we have to be great, so there’s no discussion about that. It’s a given now. The maturity level is what changed the most. We understand who we are. We also don’t want to be onstage at 45 years old acting like 20-year-olds. There’s a fine line, and that’s one of the reasons I left the business, because I don’t want to grow old onstage. Unless you’re the Rolling Stones doing the stadiums, or the bigger bands, when you’re a band the size of Saigon Kick, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to play clubs forever and act like I was 20. I felt I could do more with my life in a different profession.
How are your chops?
Oh, I’m awful! I’m terrible! You have to get back into it, and yes, it’s as easy as riding a bike; I haven’t forgotten how to play. But I haven’t played. So I’m going to ache. When I go play with a couple of bands, just to jam, my hands hurt the next day. I’m getting old, let’s face it. The years of abuse catch up on you. I’m just going to play. I’m going to rehearse and have some fun. I’ll never forget the songs. That’s my life. Those parts were written with heart and soul, so I’ll never forget them. Playing them is going to be harder than remembering them, that’s for sure. But like anything else, it’s a matter of practice and getting back into shape so that I can be onstage for 45 minutes playing drums. Again, I’m not going to be up there banging my head and going crazy. In a nutshell, I’m done being a rock star. I just want to be a drummer now. That’s why I said I won’t play in a band again. Because when all the bulls–t clears, all the rock star antics and the drums and the groupies, and all the bulls–t that sells that image, when all that clears, I think I’m a damn good drummer, but you’ll never see that because everyone gets caught up in my nonsense that I did. I’m not apologizing for it because I was living my lifestyle. My dream was to be a rock star, so I did everything I wanted to do and I’m very grateful that I was able to, but now I want to be a drummer, because ultimately, I’m a drummer first. My dream of being a rock star came true, but I just want to be a drummer now, if that makes any sense.
When did you reach that realization?
It’s been a couple of years that I felt that way. I see the side of the fans who are just, “Come on, guys, play, play, play.” But everything has to be right. Everything has to line up. And it has. It feels right now. Saigon Kick is a great band. The playing, the singing has always been critically acclaimed, and if I’m going to enjoy playing and showcasing great songs, Saigon Kick is definitely the band to do it in, without a doubt. Saigon Kick is, to me, one of the greatest bands that never really made it, just because of our decisions and manipulation from people we were around, unfortunately. There are many bands like Saigon Kick that you never hear, or who have one hit and they’re known for that when their songwriting is so much deeper. But we move on. So this is our time to have some fun and to really enjoy the music for once without business, without people around us manipulating. It’s just us, just some guys onstage having some fun. That’s all it is. That’s it. It has to be that way.
Numerous bands from that era have reunited and are touring and recording. For some reason, when they are onstage — and these are men in their 40s, 50s and maybe 60s — for some reason, fans who grew up with them and are in that same demographic cannot process the fact that the 1980s are over and these men are not going to wear spandex pants and long hair and look and sound and move the way they did when they were 25 years old. Why do fans still have these expectations, and really, who wants to see 50-year-old men in tights? I certainly don’t. I want to see them the way they are now.
I think it’s easy. It’s because that music gets an emotion out of people and it brings you back to that time, so you want to be reminded of all that time. That’s why those shows do so well. When we toured with Poison, that was a great rock and roll show. We had a great time. Everybody in the audience was having fun, the bands were great, and people wanted to have fun. Music these days lacks that. It lacks the rock stars and kids dreaming of doing that. The music business has changed. There’s no romance anymore. Everything is social media. Signing your record deal was the coolest thing ever. Now it’s, “Let me get something on You Tube, and if we get a million hits, we just keep on selling.” That’s a cool thing too, but it’s taken a little of the romance out of it. I think the 1980s were the last time that you had that, and it’s gone, so when people go to these shows, they want to relive their whole pasts again and with good reason. I don’t blame them. But unfortunately, the people making the music are twenty years older as well, so it’s impossible to bring it that close, but definitely the music is where we can make it possible, and if they’re not going to be satisfied by a great band playing those great songs, then I don’t know if you can ever satisfy them. At that point, you’ve just got to play and get on with it.
To back up for a moment, when that bulls–t cleared, as you said, when did you reach a point … it’s difficult to believe that any of it gets old. A teenage girl wanting to be with you just because you’re in a band — can you really tell me that it gets old?
Oh yeah, it gets really old. It gets old fast. What I miss most about being in a band is playing live. That’s it. Just playing my drums live and looking out there and seeing how the music moves people. That’s what I miss. I don’t miss getting my c–k s–ked. I can do that anytime. I don’t miss any of that stuff. That’s just basic living. Anybody can get laid. But the grueling tours — we were talking, and I am never getting on a tour bus again. That’s never going to happen. We’re going to do fly dates, nice and simple. Those tours are grueling. It’s something else. People that don’t understand … I’ve had a fantasy to have an office job because I’ve never had one. To me, that’s the coolest thing ever. To go to an office Christmas party would be the coolest thing because I never did it. But anybody who works in an office will tell you that they hate it and they want to go on the road. If you don’t do it, you never know how good or bad it is. Being a rock star is a gig that’s probably top, over actors and over anything. To me, a fighter pilot would be that. They’re the bad-asses of the bad-asses. Rock stars are [nothing] next to them. Anybody in the military, to me, is top notch. F— rock star. I play drums. These people fly in planes and blow things up and protect us. That’s what it’s about to me. Everybody has that thing you put on a pedestal. I put the military on a pedestal. So yes, you get sick of it. Bottom line, you get sick of everything, no matter what it is, and if somebody else doesn’t have it, they’re always going to fantasize about it. But anybody, for one second, think about something they do, and the first time was really fun, but years later you’re sick of it. And years later, thousands of shows later, it’s a routine, it’s a job. How about if everybody in an office building gets to go into the conference room and bang during lunch? The first couple of weeks would be fantastic. Everybody would be in there. But after a month, they’re going to be like, “I’ve got to go [do that] again? I just want to eat a sandwich. I don’t want to go [do that].” It’s not that exciting. For some reason, men think that a woman just came off the conveyor belt every time they look at a woman that’s hot. It’s ridiculous, and that’s how they act. That’s why men want to tour — so they can get laid. That’s ultimately what it is. That’s the first thing out of anybody’s mouth: “Hey man, tell us about the groupies. How many girls did you sleep with? Is it true? Can you get laid?” I’m like, “Yeah, but that’s a given.” You can get laid if you’re a fireman, if you’re a policeman. Firemen get all kinds of trim. You get into the calendar; all hell breaks loose. You can be anything, is my point. You don’t have to be a rock star to get [women]. It’s synonymous with getting laid and partying and a free ticket to do whatever you want. That’s why people like it, and it’s an escape from reality, but when it is your reality, you have to escape from that.
Why is it so easy to get women on camera?
I don’t know. Let me say this right off the bat: I never taped a girl without them knowing. I’m not that guy. There’s no reason to do that. But I don’t know. Girls see a camera and they want to perform. I really don’t know. I remember there was one tour where I would literally ask girls if I could take pictures of their [breasts] on a meet-and-greet line. I have thousands of pictures. I have no idea why they would roll on it, but they did. I’m sure they just got caught up in the moment. I can tell you this: When word got out about the [first movie], I got a lot of e-mails from girls and they were like, “I’m not on that, am I?” Because now we’re talking ten years later, with marriages and kids and professions. I said, “No. Don’t worry about it. I would never release something without an actual signed release.”
Were they tested? Were you tested?
No. It’s all condoms. I don’t have unprotected sex. We could have gotten tested, and I get tested anyway, but I wanted to show real life. Anything I do, I wear condoms. I’m going to be as safe as possible.
When did you begin using protection? We both know that musicians don’t protect themselves.
As long as I can remember. I know that … we all make mistakes on the road. There’s been a few times when you don’t have a condom and you just do it. I’ve been fortunate that I came out of that unscathed, but let’s face it — around the ’90s, when the AIDS thing started really getting … obviously, no one knew what it was in the ’80s or had an idea of it, and all of a sudden it really exploded and that’s when everyone got cautious. I think there was a time when everyone was running scared, like crazy scared, and then this kind of lull happened when people got kind of cocky and they went, “Ah, you know, it’s just bulls–t, they were scaring us with everything.” But I never backed off of that. I don’t care, because you can get other s–t too, so I kept it going. There’s been times I screwed up, of course. Everybody does. You’d be a liar if you said you didn’t. But I’ve been fortunate, and these days it’s straightforward having safe sex. People argue all day long, “Well, you can get this, you can get that,” and yeah, I know that, but I’m also going to live my life, have fun and be as safe as possible. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, too. There are a million things that can happen to you in life, and I think you should be as safe as possible, whether you’re having sex or driving a car.
Do women have to meet certain criteria to [be with] Varone?
No. I just like cool chicks. I don’t discriminate at all. I like really cool people. I go more by their personalities than anything. I know that sounds stupid, but I really am a personality guy. My fetish would be a ginger, total redhead, freckles, little thing with no [breasts]. That would be my perfect girl that I’m still trying to find. But in general I like all girls as long they’re fun and want to have a good time.
What? Musicians love huge silicone [implants]!
I love [breasts], don’t get me wrong, but if I had my choice I’d like a nice set of A cups. I like natural stuff too. I’m not into these gigantic, rock-hard softballs. I don’t find that attractive at all. And I love a good ass. It’s so funny, too, because when I’m with girls they think I’m going to be this maniac, but I’m pretty mellow. Girls are very surprised that I don’t make them swing from a chandelier.
Well, that is the stereotype of the rock musician.
I think stereotypes are number one. I’ve had girls say, “I’ve never had one of you before.” “One of me”? Like I’m a species? So it works for and against me. They want the bad boy, and sometimes they think I’m going to go ape-s–t: “You’ve got to go easy with me.” I’m like, “I’m really not that crazy.” In fact, most of the groupie sex is kind of boring because … the exciting part is that it’s new and spur of the moment, but it doesn’t last long. I’m probably the worst lay in the world on the road because your head’s not really into it. It definitely falls on that stereotype, and when girls say, “You’re completely different than what I thought, and in a good way,” that’s good.
Sex on the road can be boring because you’re not really into it? Those girls are giving you the time of your life! They’re beautiful and will do anything for a man in a band, you’re serviced in every possible way and it’s boring?
It can be. It’s like, it’s part of the road. It just happens. I’ve heard strippers say that when they get home they don’t want to be touched or bothered because they deal with it all day, so on the rock star side, we have girls that go ape-s–t on us all the time and it’s almost the reverse. A lot of times you just go through the motions and you find yourself kind of bored. Not all the time, but sometimes. When I was doing drugs, I’d always choose the drugs over the girls. That’s what I meant by not having your head in it. You kind of go with it. There were other times when I absolutely loved it. I was in the mood to do it. It’s just a matter of what kind of mood you got me in and how excited I was to do it, or whether I felt like I had to do it for the story.
Did you ever turn it down?
Oh yeah, sure. A lot of times I would get calls from certain other band members and, “Hey man, do you have a girl for so-and-so?” I’d go, “Yeah, please take this one. She’s annoying me,” and I’d send her to the other band.
What makes a girl annoying?
I think they try too hard. You don’t have to try. Just come up and be cool. We used to call them the Big Tit Questionnaire. It was, “Where’d you come from, where are you going, did you like the show, are the people nice, so what are you doing …” I’m like, “Listen, I understand asking questions, but just chill and have fun.” You don’t have to give me an interview. Just be cool and don’t try so hard, because we’re really not expecting much. We’re all just trying to have fun. Then there’s girls with these tremendous egos because they slept with every band that came through and they think they can control you. I always love the girl who would come up on the tour bus and be like, “Oh, this is my first time on the bus,” but she knows where that hidden refrigerator is. “Oh, so you know where that hidden ice chest is?” “Oh no, I just …” I’m like, “Yeah, whatever.” I like people who are real and not trying too hard. Just have a good time and we’ll have a good time and chalk it up to a great time and move on.
Why do women love musicians so much? Ted Nugent once told me, “Guys, me included, that girls think are good looking — the music has everyone fooled! Some of these musicians are the ugliest motherf–kers in the world! If we didn’t have guitars, we wouldn’t have a prayer! Not a prayer!”
I agree. I totally agree. Because let me stress this: I have zero game. If I’m in a club just being a guy, I couldn’t get laid with a thousand dollars strapped to my d–k. I end up without the band behind me, I have zip, and that’s what Nugent’s saying. You don’t need to have game when you have a guitar strapped on or you just finished playing a hit. They just come to you and say, “I want this.” But if I were a normal guy in a bar, I’d never get laid. That’s the difference.
I have to say, Ted Nugent is something else. I auditioned to play drums for him and it was down to me and Mick Brown from Dokken. Dokken’s bass player was playing bass for Ted, which was the deciding factor, which I totally agree with. You don’t break up a rhythm section, especially when you’re a three-piece band, and Ted — this is nothing but class — Ted called me himself. In the music industry, people will definitely make management call people, but Ted called me himself and gave me the news that he was taking Wild Mick and why. I thought it was a classy, classy move and I have nothing but respect for Ted Nugent. He gave me the great talk and said, “It’s not about your drumming. It’s about the rhythm section and I think you’ll understand that,” and I said, “Absolutely.” Was I bummed? F–k yeah. I love Ted Nugent and his tunes and I wanted to play. But I thought it was really classy that he would call me directly and it made me feel good as a drummer, because so many times when you’re told no, the first thing in your brain is, Why, why, do I suck? What happened? He made me aware that I didn’t and why he made the decision, and I would have made the same decision.
Do groupies get a bad rap?
Groupies get an awful rap. Groupie means a person who follows a band. I’m a huge Motley Crue fan, so I must be a Motley Crue groupie, because when I was a kid I would go see them play, and technically, that’s the real meaning. I think groupies get a bad rap. I think the name is too strong. I think that girls who come back and want to have fun and have sex with the guys are totally cool. If I could go have sex with a girl band, I would. I’ll take that groupie moniker any day if I can bang a hot, famous chick. People look down on groupies and call them whores and sluts, and I don’t think that at all. I think they’re girls that are enjoying themselves, they’re having a good time and they’re taking the opportunity to do bucket list stuff. If they’re not harming anyone, then fine. I’m not going to judge them at all. I think they’re great. That’s what I fell in love with; that was the romance of the music business when you were a kid. Sex, drugs and rock and roll, and the fact that a kid like me that wasn’t popular in high school, that always wanted to bang the prom queen, couldn’t until he got a record deal. I find that great, and I think it’s a great thing that we’re able to do that and have fun. As long as no one’s getting hurt and no one’s doing anything weird or illegal to each other, I think it’s a good thing.
There is a statement in one of your press releases that reads, “Phil last fall responded to ex-Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach’s claim that Varone’s decision to pose nude for the cover of the December 2010 issue of Playgirl magazine is ‘further proof that the name ‘Skid Row’ has completely lost all credibility, cool, accuracy and is now devoid of all meaning in every way.’” Really? This from a man who once went onstage in a T-shirt that said “AIDS kills fags dead”?
Ugh, yeah. You know, I don’t judge people and I don’t get into wars in the press with other people. If Bas wants to feel that way, that’s his opinion whether I agree with it or not, but I always find it interesting when people make certain statements like that without having their own house in order. It’s almost like politicians. The same a–hole that wanted Weiner to resign — that Republican was having an affair with the wife of someone who worked for him, and he paid off the family so it wouldn’t be a scandal. So it’s like, if you have eighty skeletons in your closet, don’t comment on other people’s skeletons. That’s just across the board.
My time in Skid Row was amazing and I had probably the most fun I ever had in my career. I don’t see me being nude in Playgirl hurting Skid Row’s name any more than “AIDS kills fags dead,” or throwing a bottle and cutting someone’s face off, or just being an ignorant a–hole in general. I think people need to stay out of everyone’s business, but don’t you think that most stuff is fueled by jealousy and envy? Jealousy is one thing, but envy is another. Both mean the same, but envy is way worse. I think that most people’s comments are fueled by that, but really, who cares? I wish nothing but the best for Bas, for Skid Row, for anybody. I have no ill will. I don’t really care. When Page 6 calls me to make a comment, I say, “Comment about what? I’m in Playgirl, who cares? I don’t care what Sebastian thinks about me in Playgirl.” People that are insignificant to your life shouldn’t bother you, so I don’t make it a point to let those people bother me. I really don’t. If somebody says something false or it’s some kind of defamation, sure, I’ll definitely defend myself, but calling me a dummy? Go ahead. If calling me a dummy makes you feel better, then that’s fine. All it’s doing is getting me more press and making people look stupid. I always come out fine because I won’t argue. There’s nothing to argue about. If I have a problem with someone, I can talk to them off the press. I don’t need to call you a dummy in the press. I’ll call you up personally and call you a f–king a–hole, and if we need to battle, we’ll battle. That’s the way I am. Anybody can hide behind a keyboard and be this anonymous a–hole or say what they want, but the bottom line is, if you have an issue, just call me. What’s the problem? Or just keep your mouth shut for once in your life, that’s all. Who cares?
You also have a wildly popular standup comedy gig, the Sex Stand Up Rock & Roll Show. How did you know you were funny?
I’m blessed that I was part of a very open family. My father’s hysterical, my uncles were very funny, I come from that background, and I was very fortunate that my parents allowed me to listen to Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce and all these wonderful comics when I was 12 years old. I always wanted to do standup comedy. One of my good friends, Craig Gass, who is on the Howard Stern Show, he did Gene Simmons all the time and Al Pacino’s baby. I met him when I was on the road and we started telling stories, just basic stuff. I would have this guy in stitches. We hit it off because he does Gene Simmons and I do Gene Simmons and we did this battle of Gene Simmons voices, and Paul Stanley, and we had a really fun time. He said, ‘You should do standup comedy. You have great delivery, you have all this stuff.”
Here’s my analogy of doing standup comedy. It’s like auditioning for American Idol. When your friend says, “My god, you sound great singing that song,” and you audition and you’re awful, that’s how I kind of felt. You might think I’m funny, but getting onstage and making somebody laugh with my material is a lot different. He’s my buddy, he knows me, we have fun together by making each other laugh, but getting in front of people who don’t know who you are, and trying to stand there and deliver comedy — it’s really brutal. But I wanted to do it, experience it and be humbled, which I was! It’s very scary, and I’ll tell you, it will definitely kill your ego in seconds being heckled and told you suck. Going through that helped me so much in my public speaking and when I do lectures or interviews or just in general. Humility is something we all need, especially when you’ve been riding on this massive ego for 20-plus years, getting everything you wanted, and all of a sudden the one thing I do want is a laugh and I didn’t get it. It was exactly what I needed.
Where have you lectured?
I did some lectures in colleges, talking about drug addictions, what I went through when I did my documentary, Waking Up Dead. I talked about having a cocaine problem, what the music business did to me and how I changed my life. I’m not a preacher. I still drink and I have fun, but I told my story and exactly what had happened to me. I told musicians about the music business and how unromantic it is, although we have it in our brain. And, of course, I host the show. I like getting up there — anytime there’s a camera or microphone on, I like to get on it — so it killed my fear of getting in front of people. I spent so many years behind a drum set, behind a wall of guys that covered me. Even though I was onstage in front of 20,000 people, I was kind of protected. Once you get onstage by yourself, it’s you versus the microphone versus the audience. It can be really lonely if you’re bombing or it can be the most exhilarating thing in the world. That’s what keeps us going. It’s that excitement that gets you back onstage.
The industry has changed so much. You played in arenas, had record deals, traveled in a bus. The options for making a living were different. What do you see when you look at the industry today?
I think the music industry is awful. It’s always been. I think that the romance is way over and let me explain what I mean. I grew up in a really great time in the ’70s and ’80s. I was a metalhead. I graduated high school in 1985, and I was a huge Motley Crue fan and that genre of music. As music changed, I got into Jane’s Addiction and stuff like that.
I was in love with the idea of getting a record deal, being famous, getting girls and all this money and everything like that, because back then you got these eight-album deals and all this dumb s–t that meant nothing, but at 20 years old it meant a lot. It was fun because we also were given two or three chances, where in this day and age, the airwaves are monopolized. Clear Channel owns everything, even though it’s not supposed to be that way according to the laws, but it is. The playlists are locked and there’s forty artists basically that sell records. Everybody else is pretty much on their own.
I also believe that the days of good bands are few and far between. There are a handful of bands, but with technology comes being sh–ty, and the fact that Pro Tools can make anybody sound good is a disservice to the fans that buy records and go see the bands live and they suck. Saigon Kick — we were together twenty-four hours a day for two years, writing and playing hundreds of shows, before we got a record deal, and we were able to go in the studio and actually record. These days, bands are together for a month or two and then they’re recording all of a sudden, they’re put out on the road, it sounds like s–t and so be it. It takes time. If I were 20 years old in Saigon Kick, I would still probably try now because that’s my dream. But I’m in my 40s and I know that the music business is the worst business in the world, so no, I wouldn’t do it with what I know now. But if I were a kid, I would probably want to pursue it and be a rock star, of course, because that’s just in your blood.
I read an interview with Jon Bon Jovi where he’s talking about how iTunes destroyed record sales and stuff like that. I do agree with him to an extent, because back in the old days there was nothing like getting an album. I remember taking Shout At The Devil, opening it up, reading the liner notes, listening to it and looking at the pictures. That’s the romance that I’m talking about. But we’re in a society now where the buying public is 14 to 18 for most of the bigger artists, and the other side of it is older people who want to buy songs. iTunes is great because it allows you to do that; however, it does have its downfalls because you lose the romance of the records. But I don’t feel like looking at liner notes anymore. When I was 20, it was cool because I wanted to do it. Now we’re disconnected. Our minds are on other things. So iTunes is just a product of the environment. If people weren’t using it and didn’t think it was great, it wouldn’t exist, so it’s obviously doing something right. I totally understand where Jon Bon Jovi is coming from, though, because I agree with him in that sense; that’s my time too. I loved that time and that affair I had with music, and I think that’s over with now. Just like everything else in life these days, everybody doesn’t have time for it and it’s just disconnected.
Is the era of the rock star over?
Yes, absolutely. There’s not a rock star in sight. Not a new one. I couldn’t even name a new rock star. I think the rock stars are Jay Z and Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Those are the rock stars. As far as rock stars as we know it? None. There’s still the old ones, of course. Steven Tyler and those guys are legends. They’ll never go away. But the day of the rock star, unfortunately, is way over in general. I don’t think there’ll ever be another time of that unless something drastically changes.
As someone who had his own version of The Heroin Diaries long before that book was published, and as someone who has rebuilt his career, when you see bands living like it’s the 1980s, what do you want to say to them?
Oh god! My take is this. I totally understand where they’re coming from. They’re living a dream and you can’t deny a kid their dream. You can only educate them and let them make a decision. You’re never going to change the fact that they’re a new band on the road and they get to bang chicks and do drugs and no one gives a s–t and they’re going to die. That’s just inevitable. Nikki Sixx made it through, but John Bonham, Keith Moon, Bon Scott and Steve Clarke didn’t, and it goes on and on and on. So you’re always going to weigh the good and the bad, but you’re also living in the moment. Telling a 20-year-old not to bang that chick or do that line of cocaine or whatever is not going to work. You have to let these people learn the hard way, and sometimes the hard way is really hard and it’s really bad, but I think that people are a little smarter as far as the bands are concerned. I think they’ve seen a lot that’s gone on around them and they’ve seen people die off that shouldn’t have died off. Maybe it’s in the back of their minds a little more because you have someone like Nikki Sixx talking about it, and he’s such a respected guy that he might turn someone and make them think for one second. It’s a big asset to have a guy like Nikki and these other rock stars talking about sobriety, because they’re very respected, but for the most part … . I have a daughter. You think I’m going to tell her not to do anything in college? I’m sitting there at Parents Day and watching my daughter and it’s like, OK, I can only guide her and tell her my experiences. She’s going to have to make the decision on her own and know that I’m here to help her if, God forbid, anything were to happen.
How many children do you have?
I also have a [teenage] son. My daughter is in college at FSU. My son lives in Texas with my ex. It’s a matter of going back and forth. I talk to my daughter almost every day. My son has some issues because I was away so much and I wasn’t a hands-on dad. It’s one of the things I have to deal with that the music business kind of took from me and so did my stint in drugs. That’s something I deal with every day. That’s the personal side of stuff. That’s the one thing in life … I wasn’t there for them the way I should have been, but you know, “coulda shoulda woulda,” as they say now. You can just make it better from this day forward and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Are your bandmates intrigued by your new career?
Matt, the singer, is one of my best friends. He thinks it’s great. I’m not crossing them together. I’m not going to sell DVDs or my toy line at the shows. It has nothing to do with playing in a band. We all have our separate careers, and let’s just equate it as guys getting together on the weekends and having some fun. We’re not bringing anything else into it. It’s all about Saigon Kick, and that’s the way it should be. That’s the fair way to do it, because if there is someone in the band who doesn’t care for my profession — and I’m not saying there is, because we haven’t discussed it — if there is, I wouldn’t want to offend him or his family, because I’m going into a working situation with them, so I have to be aware of everybody’s feelings. They know that I’m in the business, but selling my products at the shows is a different thing. I’m keeping all that separate. I don’t need to do that and put it in people’s faces. This is my career, I chose it, I don’t apologize for it and I’m certainly not embarrassed about it, but I do respect other people and their families and the way they might feel about certain things.
You may want to separate it, but how can you when people who come to the shows already know and may want to address it?
If it sells tickets for the band, great. But other than that, there won’t be anything like that around the band. There will always be people who saw me in a movie, and the other guys have different careers and I’m sure they’re going to bring in the same amount of fans. I just don’t want to mix the two. My adult side is my business. The band is my pleasure. I’m not going to mix the two, in a very black-and-white statement. I just want to play drums. We’re going to have cool merch, which is band stuff, and that’s fun. If someone brings a [product] and wants me to sign it, that’s different, but I’m not going to have a merch display and casting calls.
Do you feel confident that old habits won’t return?
Yes, because it’s a different mindset and I’m doing different things now. When I was a rock star, that’s all I did, but who the hell wants to go out and see a rock star drinking milk? They don’t want to see that. They want to see somebody wrecking things and being a rock star. But I’m not a rock star anymore and that’s what’s cool about this. That was another career. I’m just trying to entertain right now. I don’t take the rock star moniker. It’s not my profession anymore. I used to play one onstage. Now I just want to play the drums. The band is a hobby. It’s going to be fun. None of us want to think about it too much. We just want to keep it simple and easy and make the right decisions for the first time
Are you still working with Clear View?
I do their Christmas, yes. I do as much as I can. I try to stay connected as best as possible. I do everything I can charity-wise when I have the time. Of course I continue as much as I can. It’s a rehabilitation center for boys between the ages of 13 and 17 and it’s kind of like their last chance before they’re sent out on the streets again. They come from jail, they come from drug rehab, and they’ve been orphaned, so it’s giving them the education and the chance to get back into society and be good and give them a little hope. They’re great boys. They just want to be acknowledged. You wonder why people do crimes and stuff like that — it’s because they don’t know better and they are trying to get the attention that they never did. They just need a little bit of respect, so we give them respect and we try to give them a chance to really do good in the world. When it’s all said and done, they’re human beings and they’re going to make choices and decisions. Some of them do go back to jail, but for the most part, going through treatment gives them the opportunity to get on the right path. We do charity stuff, a poker tournament every year, and at Christmas we get sponsors involved and do a big party for them. We’ve been doing it at the Improv the last couple of years. They’ve been gracious enough to give me the place for free, and the kids love it because they get onstage and tell stories and tell jokes. It’s like their getaway. I do anything I can to raise money for them so they can run the charity. It’s a nonprofit, and just like anything else in this day and age, people aren’t donating like they used to. So I try and do as much as I can to get people aware of it and get some donations over there.
Why is that important to you?
I think it’s very important to be grounded and give back. The bottom line is that in this world, and a very hostile world, we just need to know that people are there that care about you, that we have each other’s back, and we don’t, so I like to do that. If I can help in a way, I will do that, and that’s the way it should be. You’re a human being. You should help other humans. People think I’m nuts, but maybe that’s why I get so aggravated with politics, because I just can’t believe people do what they do to other people. So in a world like that, that’s never going to change, I can do my part. That’s why I don’t publicize it. I don’t tell people what I’m doing, because it’s my personal stuff. It has nothing to do with a photo op or anything like that. I mention Clear View because they need donations. What I do outside of that is my personal business and I don’t need to be on the news showing up on the holidays in certain places just to get my picture taken. I do that in real life, that’s the whole point of it. It’s personal. It’s not business, it’s not anything, it’s my personal feelings and it will always be that way.
You’ve been very candid about how losing your mother affected you. Really, only the motherless can understand that.
It’s tough, man. I’m still learning to live with the pain and it’s been years. But, you know, it’s life. When people ask me why I do [movies] and why I do Playgirl, it’s because my mom, out of nowhere, got a brain aneurysm and died pumping gas. That’s why. I’m not going to go out early and not enjoy life. If you disagree with that, so be it. I’m not hurting anyone, my kids are well aware of what I do, I’m not embarrassed by it, and unlike most parents, we talk to our kids and we let them understand life and realistic stuff. I think if parents were connected to their kids that much, kids wouldn’t be so lost in the world and shooting up schools and doing the s–t that they do. People who truly know me know what kind of person I am. As crazy as I am, I’m very private and I like to do a lot of stuff. I like to help people and that’s where I enjoy life as well. That’s my program of life. I learned a lot the hard way. I believe in karma, and I believe my karma has bitten me in the ass many times. These days, I’m just trying to have fun and do the right thing.
I can’t let you go without hearing you “do Gene.”
One of the things we used to do with Gene is we’d tell him how he talks and he’d say [Simmons voice], “I don’t talk that way.” “Yes, you do.” “No, I don’t. I don’t talk that way.” “Yes, you do.” It would go back and forth, back and forth with Gene. We would just sit there and do that. He would always have cake at catering and explain why he’s having it, at the same time saying how bad it was for him. That’s how we got into these conversations with him. I guess just being around him for so long, everybody — even regular people — would start talking like him.
One time on the KISS tour, it was the last night of the tour and their production guy had a headset on. I went up to him and I go, “Dude, it’s the last night of the tour. How about you give us some lights tonight?” And he goes, “If you can get on the headset and convince the light guy that you’re Gene and he say OK, I’ll give you the full stage, the full lights.” So I got on there and I told the light guy that I was Gene. I said [Simmons voice], “Listen, this is the last night of the tour. We’ve got Skid Row here. Give ’em all of the lights.” Immediately, everything changed — the whole setup. They redirected all the lights and we got the whole light show. It was that fast.
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Gene, but he and I got along really great on that tour. We were kind of in competition for girls and he was kind of obsessed with my hair, which was weird. When I first met him, he told me I looked like Trent Reznor with Tommy Lee’s arms. We hit it off, so he’d come in the dressing room and he’d be in the paint and it was weird because I’d kind of go to my childhood. I was a huge KISS fan, so all of a sudden I’m 7 years old again, looking at KISS posters. We’d talk about recipes — he’s Gene Simmons at this point, he’s the demon, and he’s talking about these great dishes that his mom makes. [Simmons voice] “And you’ve got to bake it for this amount, and then you put this in …” and I’m like, What the f–k is going on right now? You get to this point of being this little kid talking to the biggest band in the world again, but you’re talking about some Jewish dish that his mom made for him. It was a great time. That’s the good side of the music business, when you’re able to really enjoy those moments. It’s something you can’t explain to other people, because it’s your thing and those were just special times.
Find Phil Varone here: http://www.philvarone.com
Learn more about Clear View Treatment Center here: http://clearviewtreatmentcenter.org
Keep up with Saigon Kick at www.saigonkick.com and www.facebook.com/saigonkickofficial.