Way back when I started doing The Quaz, I thought Bruce Kulick—former KISS guitarist and one of the true greats of the medium—would make an excellent interview. Yet, for some reason, I waited and waited and waited and waited. Kulick, after all, is a busy man. Not only is he the lead guitarist for Grand Funk Railroad, but he regularly works on (and releases) his own material. There always seems to be this project or that event or this gig.
And yet, when I finally reached out, Bruce was gracious and, ultimately, fantastic. Best known for his dynamic 12-year run with KISS, Kulick also toured with Meat Loaf, formed a band with (gasp!) pre-cheese Michael Bolton and rolls with Grand Funk.
Here, he talks about life with KISS, what makes a great guitarist, how it felt to lose Eric Carr (his KISS bandmate) and why he’d gladly strap on a dress and join Celine Dion’s Las Vegas show.
Bruce, I hear you calling. Welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Bruce, I’m gonna start with a weird question, but one I’ve always wondered about. When I see boy bands performing, I always think, “There’s no way in hell the members actually like this music.” I mean, I suppose maybe—maybe—Jordan Knight liked “Please Don’t Go Girl” when he and the New Kids on the Block were 16. But, at age 40, I have to think he feels like vomiting.
You’re an insanely gifted guitarist with a remarkable skill set. When you were with KISS, were you ever—ever—like, “Dear God, if I have to play the solo from Plaster Caster again I’m going to rip my head off? What I mean is, did you even like KISS’ music? Were you hot and cold on it? Mixed? Thrilled? Or, ultimately, is a gig a gig?
BRUCE KULICK: Obviously, bands that perform hits … at every show it can be uninspiring to perform. But keep in mind that being on stage for people requires you to be connected to the crowd (at least that is something I believe in), and no matter how many times I played “Rock N Roll All Night” with KISS, for example, or “We’re An American Band” with Grand Funk, the crowd wants to hear it.
So the adrenaline—and the crowd—keeps it fresh and fun. At least for me. I kind of believe that playing guitar on stage beats some other factory job, you know …
J.P.: Much has been written about your career, almost nothing of your background. Bruce, I know you were born in 1953, somewhere in Brooklyn. But, well, that’s pretty much it. So, Bruce, how did you develop your love for music? Where did that come from? Did you have a musical family? How about an “ah-ha, I’m really good!” moment?
B.K.: It’s funny that recently I have been hearing from one of my grade-school classmates That is crazy! Brooklyn was a wonderful place to grow up. I moved to Queens when I was 10, and I met many good musicians there as I got older. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan did it for me. My brother was always fooling around on the guitar with help from some of the folk artists around, and, man, did the Fab Four change the world as we know it. I am still an avid fan—I collect many Beatle items. The British Invasion of music that followed the Beatles kept me very happy and busy.
I do have family members with talent. Cousins, uncles and my mom sang, and my dad played trumpet—so something in the genes for sure was happening. The “ah-ha moment” was when I was about 16 in Queens, and I could play some Beatle songs well, and the girls were coming around hanging outside my parents’ place. My friends encouraged me to play on, and I did!
J.P.: From 1979-80 you were the guitarist in Blackjack, with a lead singer named Michael Bolton. This strikes me as really, really … odd, because I picture Bolton with the long flowing hair and the covers. Were you guys good? And is Michael Bolton, at heart, a rock and roll guy?
B.K.: We were molded after a Bad Company kind of band—strong singer playing blues rock music. Michael became famous when he switched up and became your mother’s favorite singer—but he rocks at heart and I learned a lot working with him in Blackjack. I made many contacts that would help me later in my career. I still keep in touch with Michael sometimes.
J.P.: What’s the difference between a good guitarist and a great guitarist? Like, schmucks like myself attend concerts, listen to, oh, Eddie Van Halen play a solo and say, “He’s friggin’ awesome!” But, really, I’m just guessing. I mean, are John Oates and Tommy Shaw awesome? Is Bruce Kulick awesome? Was Ace awesome? I just don’t know, because it all sounds good to me. So, Bruce, what’s good vs. great? How can one tell?
B.K.: It is really relative. If Eddie Van Halen were in KISS, he wouldn’t fit. Ace would mess up Van Halen. You know, it’s not important who is good vs. who is great. It’s about moving people with your talent and performance. So what Ace might lack technically means nothing in context with KISS. He wouldn’t do what the right things for my era of KISS were, but I have to kind of capture his essence in KISS and interpret the solos. So there’s nothing to stress about and no reason to compare greatness—simply put, guitars are fun to play. And being the best is overrated.
J.P.: You were with KISS when you were in your 30s and the band was still awfully big. You’re currently the lead guitarist in Grand Funk Railroad, and you’re almost 60. I’m wondering, as a musician ages do expectations change? Do the things that give you satisfaction and fulfillment change? Is a state fair now as good as an area was then? And, while we’re on it, does skill change? Are guitarists like baseball players, where certain things get harder and harder to do over time?
B.K.: Unlike athletes, I feel that musicians are very fortunate. And although I am aware of some famous singers dropping the keys of the songs, so they can no longer reach the same notes, the music of McCartney, The Stones, The Who and many others are still kicking some serious ass.
I hope to rock till I drop, and these heritage artists that keep going make me smile. So come see me in my 80s!
J.P.: I’m excited to ask you something that’s long irked me: When KISS released the “Psycho Circus” album with the reunited band, I was—admittedly—excited. There’s just something about nostalgia and reunions that people dig. Well, as you know, I later find out that Ace and Peter barely played on the thing—that you did much guitar, etc … etc. This strikes me, in a way, as a bait and switch—telling fans one thing when it’s not reality. Am I wrong? And does it even matter?
B.K.: Well, honestly, although I wasn’t in the band, I was aware of some politics with that album. Gene and Paul didn’t really feel it was in their best interest to have Ace and Peter on all the performances. I was even brought in to play some bass! (Because Paul likes me playing bass and didn’t want Gene to stomp over his song. So forget reality. Remember when you heard that Paul took the solo on Taxman? A George song! Get it? [Jeff’s note: Honestly, not really].
J.P.: In 1977 you first tasted the big spotlight by touring with Meat Loaf on the “Bat Out of Hell” tour. I’m riveted by this. Was it fun? Weird? Did you dig the music? What do you recall from the experience, Bruce?
B.K.: I did think that album had great songs and themes. The concept of him and everything Meatloaf and Steinman created was very over the top, but different. I was happy to have that gig with my brother, but it was grueling. Great to learn how to go from being booed off stage to selling out arenas in two short years! So much travel and so many shows. Meat was a mess after that long tour. But hey, I was on SNL back in the Belushi-Radner days! How cool is that …
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Absolute lowest?
B.K.: The greatest would be jamming for the Rock N Roll Fantasy Camp with Jack Bruce from Cream—two Cream songs, and we were improvising. I watched that video that night from my camera and cried. I jammed with one of my heroes and he dug me! Awesome!
Lowest, I guess, was the KISS reunion tour, but I took it as a challenge for me to get out there and create music.
J.P.: You’ve released three solo albums, and your work has been widely praised. And yet, it’s never been enormously commercially successful. I’m wondering—do you give a shit? What I mean is, are you releasing albums to make money? To draw new fans? Or, perhaps, for love of the music? What’s the motivation?
B.K.: I am very pleased at what I have done. The music moves my fans, and surprises the skeptics. The music business for someone like myself is not only about numbers. Find out what a solo disc from Mick Jagger sold. Or even Joe Perry. But they come from something way huge. For me, I have profited from the discs, but it’s always been about sharing my talent with my fans.
J.P.: You were with KISS when Eric Carr died of cancer. I’ve been around teams when they’ve lost players, but never a band losing a member. What was that like? How did you cope? And what can you tell us about Eric beyond the standard “He was a hekuva guy …” clichés?
B.K.: It was like losing a family member. I was the closest in the group with him. It was surreal and horrible. But I had no way to save him. That was his fate. Eric loved the fans, and he was the kindest to them. He used to write back the fan letters. He would even call them and thank them. Yet, he was emotionally tortured by KISS as well and didn’t always understand the politics of being in a huge band. He will always be missed.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BRUCE KULICK:
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I thought about how blessed my life has been playing guitar.
• Hall & Oates—Rock & Roll Hall of Fame worthy, or no?: Yes! Amazing songs and performances.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Faith No More, The Godfather II, Eric B and Rakim, microwaved popcorn, Valentine’s Day, Nashville, Roberto Alomar, Emeril Lagasse, Randy (Macho Man) Savage, canned peas, camping trips: Valentine’s Day, Godfather II, Faith No More, Nashville, Emeril Lagasse, Randy Savage, Roberto Alomar, popcorn, Eric B and Rakim, canned peas, camping trips. Camping trips really stink.
• You and Tommy Thayer in 10 rounds of boxing. Who wins, and by what?: His head is huge. He might beat me, but I think I have a wild side. So maybe I win on points.
• The one KISS song you never, ever, ever need to hear/play again is …: Love Gun.
• Number of times in your life you’ve applied KISS makeup to your face (if ever): Never. I wore an Ace rubber mask for two minutes once and my friends nearly peed their pants.
• Why do so many musicians smoke cigarettes?: They think it’s Keith Richards cool. I hate them.
• Celine Dion calls—offers you $3 million annually to be the lead guitarist in her Vegas show. However, you have to work 360 days per year and dress in a pink evening gown. You in?: Could it be a purple one? If so, I’m in.