Backing the band
Off a forgettable stretch of highway peppered with petrol stations and fast-food chains, on the second floor of a squat, tan-coloured office building in suburban New Jersey, are the offices of Joseph Young Associates.
The decor inside is not particularly showy. New Zealand-born Angus Vail, business manager, has the corner office.
It's a good space with a mediocre view, lined with knick-knacks, posters of Sid Vicious and Captain Marvel and other assorted curios. If you ignore the plaques on the hallway walls, it would be easy to think that whatever Vail is doing here, it couldn't be particularly thrilling.
Except that Joseph Young Associates is a name chosen as a wry nod to the great ape of the movie Mighty Joe Young. It was chosen after the original name of the firm, the Kiss Management Co, attracted too many prying calls and random visitors.
The plaques in the hallways are gold and silver records, and Vail, 49, is the business manager for Kiss, overseeing the multimillion-dollar industry that spins off from its music and its members.
Kiss, the rock band with hits such as I Was Made for Loving You and Rock and Roll All Nite, has sold 100 million albums worldwide.
Gene Simmons, known for breathing fire on stage, has even insured his tongue. His net worth is estimated at $300m and he has claimed to have slept with more than 4800 women.
In Vail's 24 years in the music industry, 15 with Kiss, he has amassed a bank of stories from his experiences trying to make sure that rock stars make smart financial decisions. An affable fast talker, he sits at a large desk with two screens on the go in front of him.
A multilevel, revolving circular shelf sits to his right, lined with folders. These detail years of lawsuits, tour contacts and merchandise deals.
Vail's role with Kiss is to lend a steady hand, overseeing the contracts, negotiations, budgets and minor details that emerge from an empire of concerts, albums, songs, merchandise, DVDs, reality TV shows, magazines, gaming consoles and even speaking tours.
There's a large framed poster on the far wall, adorned with all 192 ticket stubs from the band's 1996 reunion tour. "What's funny is that Auckland was one of three cities on that trip where we lost money," Vail says.
He can rattle off all manner of Kiss facts. Without pause, he can break down the logistics of replacing the traditional Kiss logo used on stage when they play in Germany, to avoid any Nazi allusions. He does a good Simmons impersonation, applied with enough tongue-in-cheek to suggest a fondness of his employer.
"Gene met my mother backstage once and he walked over and said [Vail stops, adopting a stern face, looking down and taking on a clipped, rumbling baritone]: `You must be Angus's mother.'
"My mother asked him how he knew that and he replied, `Well, look around you – you're the only one here not wearing black."'
Hawke's Bay born and reared, Vail studied law and commerce at Victoria University. At first, it seemed that music was in his blood but not his career path. He took a year off his degrees in 1982 and bought a rail pass around Britain, taking in the punk bands of the era: the Jam, the Buzzcocks, the Specials and Stiff Little Fingers. But after graduating, he worked initially for the BNZ in London and Sydney.
"I tried to do the merchant banking thing. It didn't fit, but I tried."
As he grew tired of the dealing room, Vail started shopping his CV. It ended up on the desk of a manager for INXS, who brought him in for an interview.
"They didn't seem as if they wanted to do a lot of interviews, so I met with the band and seemed OK and that was that."
With little fanfare, he found himself in 1988, at 26, the business manager of a band whose last record had sold more than 6 million copies in the United States.
Managing INXS turned into an exhausting experience. There were six in the band, and an "insane" manager, Vail says. Three of the band members were brothers and Michael Hutchence was based in London and hated returning to Australia.
Vail began to work for the band just as they were blowing up in the US, and learned first hand the frustration of trying to get creative types to take business seriously.
"They'd say, We love each other. We're brothers. We're not going to screw each other over, but if the fine print of where the money goes is not agreed upon, it can just explode."
The five years Vail spent with INXS taught him a lot, but he was pleased to leave. By 1993, the band was spread through Australia, the south of France and England. It was making less money. One member was hiding in Europe under the mistaken illusion of a tax haven.
"The politics were incredible and the communication was a nightmare."
Vail and INXS made some occasionally interesting investments, which kept them comfortable as income fell away. Looking to take advantage of tax breaks for investments in local movies, the band put money into Crocodile Dundee, convinced that it was destined to fail. "Paul Hogan was a failed comedian and the plot seemed ridiculous, but they're still getting cheques from it today," Vail says, smiling.
He met his American wife while working in Sydney and accepted a new position in New York with the parent company that looked after INXS. The company quickly imploded and he was unemployed soon after he arrived.
Misfortune had a way of working out handsomely in this case. Vail answered a job advertisement in the newspaper for an unnamed band seeking a business manager. There was a lot of secrecy surrounding which band it was.
"The guy who placed the ad said, I'll give you a clue: they wear makeup and big boots. So I knew immediately. Strangely, he told me that not a lot of people were working it out from that."
Vail was interviewed for the job via video conference by Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley and recalls their early attempt to intimidate him.
"Gene sat low in his chair, and pulled his cap down over his eyes, and zoomed in so he was just looking at my eyes. I could see myself and also see what they saw on their screen, and my eyes were just shifting back and forth between the two. It looked horrible. I was so nervous."
Kiss had been in existence for over two decades when Vail began to work for them in 1995. They had reached lofty peaks in the 1970s, with their theatrical mix of hair-metal, implied sexual overtures and unforgettable makeup. But the highs had fallen away slowly over the course of the 1980s, and the band had returned to earth.
But Vail joined the group on the cusp of a huge comeback. It started with an idea posited by Simmons to stage Kiss Conventions, in the vein of the much-lampooned Star Trek model.
"At first I thought he was crazy," Vail says.
The conventions were a hit. Conan O'Brien featured them on his late-night show, somewhat sardonically, but it started a snowball that led to a live Kiss performance on his show. And it lit the fuse for a marathon tour in 1996 and 1997.
"I'm always astounded how much people love Kiss. I'll be talking with a middle-aged man from Kansas who'll be reluctant to give me what I need and I'll mention that I'm working with Kiss and it will be like I'm talking to a 16-year old girl."
On the first reunion tour, Vail fell victim to a memorable prank. Watching Kiss play from the side of the stage at Madison Square Garden, he was directed to stand in a supposedly safe spot to watch the show side of stage. However, he had been stationed, unaware, in the middle of the show's pyrotechnic display. The curtain dropped and he was stuck in the middle of several fiery explosions, to the delight of the stagehands and band.
In 2012, Vail says, his job is easier because Kiss is now a well-oiled machine. They've been through every good and every bad thing that can happen to a band, and been sued countless times.
"Those guys have been deposed so many times they're like assistant district attorneys in the courtroom."
At the time of the interview, Kiss was on the cusp of last week's announcement of a cross-country tour with fellow rock giant Motley Crue for the coming North American summer. It was a result of more than a year of casual conversations, fostered by several links between the bands with current Kiss personnel formerly working with Motley Crue and vice versa. The decisions have been made, and the booking agent has set the dates, and now it turns to Vail to set all of the physical wheels in motion.
"We've done this 10 times before, in the time I've been here, so there may be some minor changes, but it's all pretty familiar," Vail says.
More than two decades into his career, Vail is well versed on the demands of the music industry. He has spent a lot of time around musicians, but says he hasn't been privy to as much debauchery as some might imagine.
"When I was sent as part of work training to help out on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour, you'd see a bit of cocaine flying around, but the performers are professionals. Bands like Pearl Jam would leave everything on the stage every night and be exhausted. They didn't have that much time for drugs."
Working with INXS and Kiss has shown Vail the importance of having an honest network of people around a star. Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, the central figures in Kiss, are grounded by this sort of input and support. By contrast, INXS wasn't always.
"Michael Hutchence was essentially friendless. He'd be buying $500 T-shirts, but he was basically alone."
Vail also takes on other bands and has worked with Shihad and Stereogram in their attempts to crack the US scene.
This was a bittersweet experience for him. "If Shihad had made it big over here, that would have been the greatest joy of my career." But they were ill advised to change their name and the record label spent money exorbitantly, with too little thought of where it would be recouped.
Shihad's trials in the US are a smaller part of what Vail identifies as a misunderstanding of what is required to gain a hold in the market. He sees little point in New Zealand Government-funded musical showcases, such as those staged at the CMJ Music Festival in New York, and South by Southwest in Austin. Any efforts to support bands to come to the US need to be targeted and specific, he says, seed-funding bands to make repeat trips to build a fan base.
"Those showcases are good for little else but drinking on the Government."
Vail lives with his wife, a physical therapist with the American Ballet Theatre, in nearby Jersey City. He's branched out recently, fronting a food show about New York cuisine for a friend from a European cable network, which aired recently on the Food TV network in New Zealand.
He keeps a close eye on any Kiwi goings-on in the city's music scene. He has grown a little bored with rock and roll, he says, but was inspired by fellow Kiwi Simon O'Neill's recent operatic take on Wagner. Self-deprecatingly, Vail says he knows how lucky he was to start working at a blockbuster level of the music industry and stay there.
"I was looking at the touring budget of a New Zealand band for the US, and I asked the manager: How are you going to survive for two months on the road in an old van with absolutely no money?"
Vail grins broadly. "I've been pretty spoilt."