Thursday, June 25, 2015

FEATURE: The King from Queens: Bruce Kulick on KISS, KKB and Beyond

Left to right: Bruce Kulick, Mike Katz and Guy Bois, circa 1974 (courtesy of Leighton Media)

The creature's alive!”

These were the excited words spoken to me by former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick over the phone in early June, just as his Got To Get Back CD/download with KKB finally hit the finish line. A true labor of love for the 61-year-old industry veteran, Got To Get Back is a special album containing songs recorded in 1974 by Kulick, bassist/singer Mike Katz and drummer Guy Bois. Based in the Jackson Heights area of Queens, the then-unnamed trio lasted long enough to write a handful of original songs and record them live in a NYC studio. Now, these songs have been packaged in an impressive release that chronicles the magic these three musicians shared during a unique time in their lives.

For Kulick, holding Got To Get Back in his hands symbolizes the realization of a project that took several months to complete.

[Putting out a record] always takes a lot of work,” he explains. “I have to pace myself in between everything else I do. It's not my full-time job, and it's not a band that's active and touring, but every product needs to have its own careful coordinating.”

While best known for his 12-year stint in the incomparable KISS, Kulick's decades-long career has included work with Meat Loaf, Andrea True, Blackjack (with Michael Bolton), Billy Squier, The Good Rats, Union (with former Motley Crue/The Scream singer/guitarist John Corabi), The Eric Singer Project (E.S.P.) and Grand Funk Railroad. As listening to Got To Get Back makes abundantly clear, Kulick's extraordinary talents were in full force even before his 21st birthday. (A review of Got To Get Back immediately follows this feature.)

Despite the power of the music, the three piece's studio recordings sat on a cassette in Kulick's closest for years until he came across a TEAC tape deck at a local garage sale in 2008. Thrilled to hear the material again, he christened the band “KKB” (after the first letters of their last names) and issued the tracks as a limited edition CD entitled KKB 1974, which quickly sold out of its 1,000-copy run.

Five years later, another chapter in the KKB story unexpectedly took shape when Katz found the original tapes for six of KKB 1974's eight tracks. The discovery kickstarted an entirely new undertaking for Kulick.

I always felt a little frustrated that [Mike] didn't know where the [original] tapes were and that he didn't really have much else from his past like the way I've archived my career,” he shares. “But he actually found the tapes finally – the actual individual tracks. Before I made any decision about doing anything with it, I wanted to hear that, so I asked him to transfer them. He lives in New York, so he found a studio to run them off. The quality was better, and it was professionally transferred. When I got those digital files and listened to individual tracks of those songs that you knew from the 2008 release, I realized that they all individually sounded better. They were probably [at] the right tempo, whereas the tape I had might have been a copy that was slightly different or maybe a little slower or something. But having that ability to manipulate those [tracks] and professionally mix it was what I was attracted to.”

In addition to giving the songs a proper shine, Kulick saw the new project as an opportunity to connect with Katz and Bois to create and record a brand-new song. This desire led to “Got To Get Back,” an incredible number that effortlessly fit in with the vibe of the original KKB studio sessions.

I wasn't interested in moving forward on it unless Mike and I could come up with a legitimate new song that still felt like us,” Kulick says. “That's a tall order, because how do you time-capsule yourself 40 years? But the song kind of does feel in an odd way like something that we could have done years ago.”

The recording of “Got To Get Back” saw each member of KKB record his part in a local studio where he lived – Bois in Paris, Katz in New York City and Kulick in Los Angeles. The trio succeeded in making the track so reminiscent of the past that it has fooled more than a few people - including Fred Coury of Cinderella, who helped Kulick out with guide drum programming for the track before it was sent to Bois.

[Fred] was convinced it was a 40-year-old song; he got completely confused,” Kulick says. “That only gave me more ambition.”

On top of this all-new composition, Kulick brought in longtime collaborator Jeremy Rubolino to score an added string quartet for the ballad “Someday,” while Katz added a vocal part to the track “My Baby” that was not used on the original version. Mixing and mastering duties were handled by engineer Brian Virtue, whose lengthy resume includes work with Jane's Addiction, Audioslave, Deftones and Shadow Project.

Limited to 500 copies, the Got To Get Back package includes a numbered CD, a two-sided photo card (including a brief history of the band), a KKB guitar pick and a download card. The hard copy release, which is available in both signed or unsigned editions, contains an exclusive bonus “hidden” track of a 74-second rehearsal.

I swear to you, it sounds like Queens Of The Stone Age, maybe 25 years before that band existed!” Kulick says.

The album (minus the rehearsal track) is also available at all major digital outlets – a source of great excitement for Katz and Bois.

They're both really thrilled to think that something from that many years ago [is something that] the whole world can now explore with just a couple of key strokes on your smartphone,” offers their guitarist. “That's one of the advantages to the way music is [now] shared and enjoyed.”

Not surprisingly, the three members of KKB were heavily inspired by Cream during their short time together – a point driven home by Got To Get Back's dedication to the memory of Jack Bruce. However, Kulick insists that their fondness for the British supergroup was only one aspect of KKB's musical world.

As much as we were doing the trio the way Cream was a trio, Mike was delving into some other kinds of music,” he offers. “I'm not even sure what his other influences were, but some of KKB is very Progressive at times, and there are intricate time signatures that could lean towards King Crimson or Yes or something like that. But wherever it came from, everybody [in KKB] loved music.”

With Got To Get Back finally available for the world to experience, Kulick is hopeful that his audience will enjoy listening to KKB as much as he enjoyed giving the band's tunes a new life.

It was something that Mike, Guy and I were doing that was wholly unique for the time,” he says. “I guess that's why I never get tired of listening to it, and why I've been so aggressive about getting it out there.”

In addition to sharing the music of KKB with fans, the six-stringer currently maintains an active touring schedule with Grand Funk Railroad, the Rock legends he joined in 2000. Celebrating his 15th year as a member of the band – and thus his longest-ever stint with an artist – the guitarist believes that Grand Funk's ongoing success comes down to inter-band comfort, mutual respect and the ability to make any show they perform a memorable and magical event.

Our last gig was at a really great casino in Atlantic City, the Tropicana,” he says. “The showroom was incredible – great sound, great lights; it was a beautiful place. We can take a gig that's really going to be easy for us, or we can take that outdoor city festival where there's bugs everywhere and it's 90 degrees with 100-percent humidity and still put on a killer show. That's a real testament to just the way we're all dedicated to being the best we can.”

This dedication has resulted in the group – Kulick, original drummer Don Brewer, original bassist Mel Schacher, former 38 Special/Jack Mack and the Heart Attack singer Max Carl and former Bob Seger/Robert Palmer keyboardist Tim Cashion – maintaining the same lineup for the last decade and a half.

Don's really the leader, and rightfully so,” Kulick says of the band structure. “He definitely gets what Grand Funk is about, and I think everybody plays their role. Like most bands that are successful for a long period of time, everybody gets what's expected of them and knows how to deliver.”

Being a team player also served Kulick well way back in 1984, when he replaced Mark St. John to become the fourth lead guitarist in KISS. The following year, he made his official recorded debut as a member of the band on the Asylum album. With that record hitting its 30th anniversary this September, Kulick looks back at the Asylum experience with fondness.

First of all, I got to record at Electric Lady [Studios], which is a real dream because of Jimi Hendrix being such a favorite of mine,” he says, “[He's] still actually my favorite guitarist, and then Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. To be in the studio that [Hendrix] built was really mind-blowing. It's down in Greenwich Village, which was still kind of happening in the '80s.”

Of course, Kulick wasn't a complete stranger to the KISS camp before becoming a member. His brother, Bob – a renowned session player whose credits include everyone from Lou Reed to W.A.S.P. – had a long history with the band dating back to 1973, when he first auditioned for the spot taken by original KISS guitarist Ace Frehley. Later, he played on Paul Stanley's 1978 solo album, co-wrote the song “Naked City” for KISS' 1980 Unmasked album and contributed guitar session work to the KISS releases Alive II (1977) and Killers (1982). Despite this longstanding family connection, Kulick didn't gain true insight into the inner workings of KISS until he landed the job and started working alongside Stanley and Gene Simmons, who both co-produced Asylum.

It was kind of funny; I didn't really know how they worked together as a band,” he recalls. “I had a little bit of a taste of working with Paul in the studio, because I did some of the ghost guitar work on [1984's] Animalize. I never actually worked in the studio with Gene [before Asylum]. I saw them one time [in the studio] when they were doing Creatures of the Night, because my brother and I visited. My job as the lead guitarist was, look, I knew they were the principal creators of KISS. Not to take anything away from Ace and [original drummer] Peter [Criss], but you know that Gene and Paul were always really the driving forces in the band. They really had a vision for a Rock band that could be huge, and they succeeded. I was just going to basically do my job... I was just that guy who could interpret what they wanted and then be able to create and lay it down there. I didn't go in really with any expectation except for doing the best job I could.”

As Kulick soon learned, doing the job well meant balancing the creative directions and demands of two different personalities.

Gene would work any day – no matter [if it was] a holiday or weekend – and Paul would want the weekend off,” he says. “I remember one time, I think I worked 22, 25 days in a row in the studio, being passed back and forth between the two of them! It truly was exciting for me.

Paul was a little more methodical about how he wanted to work,” he continues. “Like [on] 'Tears Are Falling', I love the solo that I came up with [for] it. Some of it was definitely [from] some ideas from my music vocabulary, but some of it was very clearly his melodic approach to what a lead guitar could do.”

Asylum's arrival on record store shelves coincided with the height of Glam Metal Mania in the United States. Although KISS' fashion sense circa 1985 was indicative of the era, the band's gradual transition from Clown White makeup to Aqua Net Pink hairspray was still a shock to many of the band's original fans. The band's willingness to embrace then-current trends was reflected by the record's cover – a hyper-Glam design created by longtime KISS art director Dennis Woloch that is said to have been inspired by the imagery used for The Motels' Shock album.

I was concerned about the cover, even though I didn't have a problem with it,” Kulick admits. “That era had a lot of neon colors in it, but for a Kiss album, it was a little odd. At least this time, everybody knew who was playing on a Kiss album, whereas I toured with them [for Animalize] and nobody was sure who they were seeing. At least I got my foot in the door of, 'Now the real lead guitar player in the band is Bruce Kulick.'”

Three decades after Asylum's release, the album remains a favorite among members of the Kiss Army.

I can't tell you how many Asylum records I've signed,” Kulick says. “Of course, songs like 'Tears Are Falling', 'Who Wants To Be Lonely' and 'King Of The Mountain' are really, really cool tracks from that album that I'm real proud to have been a part of.”

As pleased as he is to discuss and celebrate the past, Kulick is firmly committed to building a bright present and future for his music and career. Last year, he made his three solo albums – 2001's Audio Dog, 2003's Transformer and 2010's BK3 – available digitally for the first time. Two months ago, he released a vinyl edition of BK3 to his enthusiastic fanbase.

It took forever to create vinyl; the plants are all backed up,” he shares. “That is one medium of music product that people are supporting better, but don't be fooled – it's not like numbers that are going to make anybody rich. But the point is, that's the only medium that's increased. It's nothing like what it was, but vinyl has a certain cachet about it that people are attracted to.”

Looking ahead, Kulick is in the planning stages for his fourth solo album and is considering using “a proper Kickstarter kind of thing” to get the project rolling.

I do want to pre-sell it so I know what I can afford to spend on it,” he explains. “If I can raise x, I know [how] that kind of budget would work to make sure I can record it and then provide everybody with a quality product. If I make as much as three times x, maybe I'd get even biggest guests and maybe a better studio. I don't know how it's going to go, but I can't ask anybody for money until I've written at least three quarters of the record, if not all of the record.”

Of course, fans who can't wait for something new have plenty to check out and enjoy on Got To Get Back, a document of how one of music history's most incredible journeys began.

From the artwork to the intention of what I'm trying to celebrate here, I'm really proud of it,” Kulick says. “The fact that I was doing something like that at 20 blows my mind.”

ALBUM REVIEW - KKB: Got To Get Back 

Listening to Got To Get Back by KKB, it's nearly impossible to believe that this was the first time former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick had ever worked with fellow musicians in composing original material. At only 20, he was already demonstrating the skills that would eventually elevate him to a spot in one of the most successful bands in music history. Boasting the kind of top-tier technical prowess that critics often said was lacking in the original KISS at the time, these KKB sessions from 1974 showcase a bulletproof trio often reminiscent of classic Cream, Decca-era Thin Lizzy and Mark I Deep Purple – with an added touch of Rush felt in some truly impressive spots (especially the 3:20 mark in the explosive “You've Got A Hold On Me”). Kulick's ability to crank out a powerful solo – always the secret weapon of late '80s-era KISS – is on impressive display throughout the disc.

Although Kulick is the most recognizable name on this release, bassist/singer Mike Katz and drummer Guy Bois are deserving of equal attention and praise. Together, the create a groove not unlike Paranoid/Master of Reality-period Black Sabbath. The members of KKB were serious musicians who created a set of songs that easily measured up to some of the most celebrated names of the Classic Rock era. Overall, Got To Get Back delivers a Prog-powered punch without falling victim to the unnecessary bombast that often plagued that genre. The same can be said for the brand-new title track, which finds the trio delivering an amazingly retro vibe with undeniable vigor.

Infinitely more than a just a novelty item for members of the KISS Army, Got To Get Back is a solid release that easily succeeds on its own merits and proves that even four decades apart can't diminish the strength of three special musicians who were meant to play together. My suggestion would be to purchase the physical CD edition of the release – beautifully packaged and individually numbered with a photo card, guitar pick and download card.


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