The Story of How Bruce Kulick Joined Kiss: Exclusive Interview
Bruce Kulick became the newest guitarist in Kiss in December 1984, beginning an exciting 12-year ride with the group. He says he started off with some specific marching orders from Paul Stanley, words Kulick really took to heart.
“Paul told me that he wanted me to play competitively with everybody that's out there now,” Kulick tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “Alright, it's 1984, well that means Van Halen has been famous for four or five years right? I don't need to mention all the other bands that started to get out there with guitar players that are a lot more flashy than what a typical ‘70s guitar player would be. He wanted me to be able to do it all, and I know he had the right guy. I got what he meant. If the song meant do the finger tapping, do the whammy bar, go! Do it! If it meant just lay back and hold that one note, do that.
"So I really think it worked and it was a healthy 12 years for me and [there was] respect for me from those guys because I did have a lot of versatility as a player," Kulick adds, "and I could adjust to both -- respecting the past and working with the band to be wherever that next step was where they were going. Because you know every band has that evolution, and I feel like I was the right guitarist for that.”
Kulick had also taken notes on the guitarists who came before him. He factored that into his approach, as well. “I had respect for Mark St. John, even though I knew where he came from, what his musical vocabulary was and the players that he loved and listened to -- and I was very shocked they chose him," Kulick says. "Because he was into Alan Holdsworth, a brilliant guitar player. He was into John McLaughlin. He was into these more very fusion-jazz shredders, that I was like, ‘That's not Kiss!’
"You know, just like you know that Steve Vai could certainly play anything any Kiss guitar player ever played. The guy is like an alien on the guitar. Would he work in Kiss? Of course not. It’s not needed. That kind of ability isn't really the right match. Was he right for David Lee Roth? Yeah. He can add a twist -- since who did David Lee Roth just play with not that long ago? Eddie Van Halen. So everything that a Vai can do, would it work in Kiss? No way. Gene [Simmons] likes to tell that [story] when Eddie was disgruntled with the band and he was unhappy with David and he goes, 'I wanna be in your band!' [Laughs.] You know what I mean? Come on. Yeah, he could kick ass on Kiss songs.
"You know, he was absolutely my hero for the flashy side of what I needed to bring to Kiss when they were looking for that, because Eddie, his vibrato and his approach to melodic guitar playing, it's completely taken on a high-octane level from Eric Clapton," Kulick says. "You hear it in his vibrato and his choice of notes. He forged a very unique kind of hot rod, super-charged, California, Pasadena, rock and roll style of guitar playing. But if he had never heard Eric Clapton, I don't even know what Eddie would sound like, you know what I mean? But because in the same way that I could relate to Eddie, I could hear the Jimmy Page, I could hear that he listened to [Jimi] Hendrix, I could hear it in his choices.
"Because, you know, there's only so many notes in a scale, and how many notes a guitar player can play," Kulick says. "But the guitar's a very unique instrument with so much nuance on how you bend the string, how you pull down, how you pick it. If you want to play behind the nut like Jimmy Page, if you want to whammy bar it -- whatever. I knew what Ace [Frehley] was about, even though I think he was an extremely unique player -- which is why I'm kind of relieved that I didn't have to really mimic him. He had a certain kind of approach that I could kind of do my way but I didn't have to imitate it exactly.”
Bruce Kulick ultimately played on five studio albums during his time with Kiss, but we wanted to focus in on the beginnings of his personal "Kisstory." Here’s Part 1 of a two-segment interview ...
Watch Bruce Kulick Perform 'Tears Are Falling' with Kiss
This year marks the 30th anniversary of you joining Kiss. That probably brings back quite a few memories when you think about it.
Yeah. I've been more and more in the past couple of years kind of archiving things, because I'm really blown away by how important my era was in Kiss. I don't have to remind you of the importance of Kiss in the world of rock and roll, but the point is there's that era that doesn't always get expanded upon -- because of the band having this time 'of makeup' of course, and now back in makeup even though there's a whole controversy regarding that from certain fans, etc. etc.
But for a lot of fans, their first experience with Kiss wasn't necessarily the original "makeup" years, it was the non-makeup years. I joined in late 1984, you know, I wasn't in the first video, ‘Heaven's On Fire’ but all of the sudden I'm the guitar player in the band, not with a big announcement or anything, and I always knew the importance but I didn't realize it would last the twelve years. I'm always the kind of person that tries to do his best, and now when I'm looking back, I just realize what an amazing run, what an impact that we made on the fans and the rock world, and I'm quite proud of it.
So, it's fun looking through the cassettes. I've probably only done about 20 percent of what I need to do, you know digitizing cassettes [including] my original four-track recordings and my first scrapbook that I just scanned. I literally came home from Europe with a lot of press clippings. September 30th [in Brighton, England] was the first gig in '84 and [the tour] was about six weeks. It ended in Paris [on November 5] and I wound up taking the Concord home, which was pretty nice.
My regular flight got screwed up. "Would you like to take the Concord?" British Airways said. I said, "sure" -- and three hours later I was in New York. It was crazy. I was living in New York then. But I actually scanned all of that. So I found all the press from the original gigs. Of course, I was involved in all the photos and Kerrang! and all the magazines there were well aware that I was, at least, filling in for the new guitar player, Mark St. John. The U.S. press was always so behind -- magazines like Circus and Creem and all that, would take a couple of months from when they write [to when it would be published], unlike today with instant news from social media and everything. So, it's really been fascinating looking back at that and obviously, the first six weeks I realized that I was fitting in with those guys, I still didn't know that the gig would be mine.
Originally, it was only supposed to be two weeks and then they'd bring Mark St. John over from America and then pop him in. I always liked to say that I had the home-team advantage, because I got used to working with those guys and I felt very comfortable on stage with them. And I know I played the right style of rock guitar and lead guitar playing to fit Kiss.
So, by the time we started the U.S. tour, which started in Bethlehem, Penn., on November 15th, they did bring out Mark and let him do the first half of the show and then they let him do the second half of the show. I'm still, kind of, I don't want to say "suiting up" is the same as what Kiss does now, but what we wore on stage is not what I went to the cafe in the afternoon for lunch, if you know what I mean. But I was all set to go just in case, and then they let him do a whole show and then they sent him home.
Watch Bruce Kulick in 'Kiss: Animalize Live Uncensored'
Ironically, right now in December, a couple of big things happened, even though it wasn't my first gigs with the band. We filmed [the ‘Kiss: Animalize Live Uncensored’ video] on the 8th of December, which was very well-received and shown on MTV. You know, for me, to be in Cobo Hall, sold out, and being filmed, certainly I wasn't featured a lot because I was still the new guy that nobody knew anything about.
I actually officially signed the contract like the day before. I sometimes now, looking back at it, I kind of recognize that I'm pretty sure they were kind of dating it and making sure they had it all right, especially before they were going to film a concert. There's no doubt that Kiss has been around long enough and after the contract disputes with Vinnie Vincent who, of course, never signed his contract, they weren't going to do anything that could be an awkward position business-wise for them. But you know, it was pretty clear that I wanted to be in the band, so there wasn't like a huge bone of contention about a contract with these guys. It's kind of funny. I pulled it out, looking at it, thinking [about how] I'm looking at a legal document from 30 years ago. It's all legalese, anyway, [and] your head would spin trying to figure it out.
But it's remarkable that it's 30 years now. It just blows my mind, and I'm really impressed with the amount of fans ... that period of Kiss with Eric Carr initially and then of course Eric Singer made such an impact on so many fans around the world -- and that's one thing that I feel very blessed about. You know, America's a big country, we know that, but it's so amazing for me to have these enthusiastic fans. And I've made many friends from places like Brazil and Argentina, Japan, South America and, of course, Europe. You know, I started there.
It's just such an internationally powerful brand -- Kiss, what the band represents. Between the music and the style of rock and roll, I've certainly made my mark in an important decade of their history, which was the other reason why the Hall of Fame was such a crazy experience earlier this year. But I like that I got thrown into the debate. I mean, I know Gene and Paul weren't only trying to present the very successful current version with Tommy [Thayer] and Eric as the “Spaceman” and the “Catman.” Forgetting how many years that the band sold tons of records and the fact that there was another member, Eric Carr -- who didn't wear someone else's make-up -- that was involved in a huge amount of record sales and concert revenue. That, of course, the Hall of Fame chose to ignore, but that's a whole other issue.
You get what I'm saying. I'm really happy that, especially this year, it seems like it's more about the 40 years of Kiss and less about, "alright, here you go, it's the four makeup members,” and nothing else matters, you know what I mean? I know it's not their most important thing to pull songs from my era, which I don't mind. It makes them more special to me, actually. But I do notice that they keep picking a few. They did ‘Tears Are Falling’ at the Vegas residency, and I’ve heard ‘Hide Your Heart’ being performed. They're recognizing that there's a real affection for many songs from my era. I don't think they’d have the guts to get too deep into ‘Revenge’ necessarily, although it would be very easy if I was playing guitar. But I'm not the “Spaceman.” Tommy does an amazing job at what they want.
My era, I think, stays intact and has made its mark and now you have vinyl releases this year and the compilation CD with songs from every era and every album. So, it's been a really amazing year of celebrating Kiss, actually -- and to think it was 30 years ago blows my mind.
Watch Bruce Kulick Perform 'Hide Your Heart' With Kiss
The subject of '70s Kiss vs. '80s Kiss is a popular subject of debate. As a music fan, you can take a lot of s-- for being a fan of ‘80s Kiss. It just seems like that era of the group gets a fair amount of criticism. From your perspective, why do you think that is? Because from my side of things, it's all Kiss music.
Yeah, you know, I always related that to something very personal to me, which was the fact that I was always a big Beatles fan, from the first time I saw them on Ed Sullivan. It made a big impact on me and we know how many people it had an impact on, obviously. Our current culture is as knowledgeable about the Beatles as it was when there was Beatlemania, which is unbelievable.
But I remember as they evolved and changed, and got more studio-oriented and a little more psychedelic and a little more adventurous, I thought that that was unbelievable. To the point where I didn't always want to listen to the early stuff. I had this, well, if it's going to be the ‘Blue Album’ or the ‘Red Album’ -- which was the greatest hits from the earlier time and then the later time -- I kind of just shied away from the earlier one. I didn't want to hear the first three records, which broke them and established them. I remember having that kind of attitude about it. And, of course, now I'll listen to anything Beatles. I don't care if it's the first album or a demo from before they were even signed. I just have so much respect and admiration and love for the band.
But the reason why I'm using the analogy is just there are fans that were, of course, seeing Kiss in makeup when ‘Alive’ came out and took off. They were something that you could call your own that was really out of nowhere. It was like something from another planet that just landed, between the comic-book hero look and them all being very identifiable. By then they had really fine-tuned who they were. And they always wrote great songs -- so I'm not trying to say that ‘80s songs were better than the original songs, and there wouldn't even be an ‘80s Kiss if it wasn’t for that earlier Kiss with the makeup. I'm aware of that too. But I do think that some ways in the Kiss world it's like, well when did you become a fan? When did you jump in?
Because if you jumped in, in a big way with ‘Alive’ or ‘Alive II’ or ‘Destroyer’ or something, maybe by the time they went to ‘Creatures of the Night’ -- which is actually pre-me, my era -- you might go like "What? This is too heavy. What is this? What are these big drums? 'I Love it Loud' What?" I don't know what your reaction would be. Obviously a lot of the fans went really apeshit over ‘I Was Made for Loving You,’ even though it is actually a great song, and a brilliant move in the sense of wanting to try to bridge a gap between rock and roll and what was then pop music, which was disco.
I played with disco artists in the ‘70s. Some of my first traveling gigs were, as much as I admit that they had disco hits. That was actually top 40 [and] that was pop music, you know? So basically, I have to admit that I feel that when you jumped in might affect how you feel about all of this, and I think that there's as many supporters. I do feel that the makeup era represented even more, in the sense of a suit of armor, you know, between the trademark of the faces and the way they presented their outfits.
I guess you can make an analogy to [how] the Beatles had those suits Brian Epstein wanted them in and their hair was very similar. And then later on they did what they wanted -- facial hair, no facial hair, crazy clothes, not crazy clothes. But not many bands had quite the get-up that Kiss was known for in the beginning. Now, by the time I joined the band, the clothing was all very, very flamboyant and insanely colorful. Not so much ‘Animalize’ but by ‘Asylum’ there's some outfits that I'd like to forget, if you get what I mean. Although since I wasn't trying to be the noisiest bird in the flock, it didn't hurt me as much.
But that whole era was also tied to what was going on in music and MTV. Bands like Bon Jovi, Poison, Whitesnake, whatever was going on. I'm part of a whole another era which is also the "hair" thing, where Kiss came out of their own unique thing in the ‘70s. So I totally understand if someone's not a fan of that era, but I still very much hear all of the loud voices from my era, and I know what it means to them. They still share it with me.
Watch Bruce Kulick Perform 'King of the Mountain' With Kiss
When you look at the whole picture, certainly they experimented with stuff like ‘Dynasty’ or ‘The Elder’ but I think overall, across the board, their mission statement for the group was pretty consistent for what they were after through the years.
That’s true. No matter how many times you may have thought like "Well, who’s steering the ship and who’s driving the car now in Kiss," if you really think about it, even when they made some big left turns, they were clearly in control and didn't completely jump the shark. Okay? There was a reason for ‘The Elder’ and there was a reason for ‘Carnival of Souls’ you know what I'm saying? It may not make sense to a fan, especially if all you wanted to hear was whatever that album was that you loved.
I see it even with my three solo records. I love them all like kids, but I also know that some fans are still going to talk about, for whatever reason, the one that I think is maybe the weakest. You see what I mean? And that’s their favorite. Music's so subjective, so that's why I'll never take it personally if they go, "Oh I never listened to anything once the make-up came off." I get it. Okay, fine. That's fine. I'm still very aware of all the fans that absolutely followed us and supported it.
Obviously, a lot of stuff has come out in recent years like Paul's book, with him talking about how checked out Gene was in that period. It seems like a really interesting time to join the group. Did you detect any of that as you were coming into it?
You know, Gene, I knew from my brother working with him that the guy was insanely ambitious -- business, business, women, famous women, business, business, business. There's no such thing as a day off. I knew that. So, by the time I got involved, I was totally not surprised that he had his eyes set on something even bigger than Kiss. Especially with Kiss coming off of its high point at the time. Even though Paul still had the enthusiasm to keep competitive, Gene realized, “Wait a minute, I'm such a good demon. I'm such a good marketer, I'm such a good idea guy, I gotta go to Hollywood.”
All of the sudden he's in California and I don't think it was an accident that he was with Cher and Diana Ross either, if you get what I mean -- even though I’m sure he had legitimate relationships. Because Gene naturally is very, very personable with the women, you know, besides of course, his wife Shannon. He will hang with whoever that person is -- and I'm sure Cher and Diana Ross were fascinating. I was just kind of talking about this with my wife yesterday.
But there he goes trying to be a movie star. What would be the next step? It isn't easy for a musician to jump into films, just like we know it isn't easy for a film guy to become a rock star or a pop star. But I didn't think twice about the fact that Gene had his eyes set on that and maybe couldn't focus equally on both. But there was still Paul, and Kiss was bigger than just what Gene's ambitions were. So, I never felt like he was trying to ignore the band. I just know he has to throw a million things against the wall anyway. But Hollywood's a tricky one.
Watch Bruce Kulick Perform 'No, No, No' With Kiss
He got involved in a few movies that were questionable, and some were kind of legitimate [projects] that I enjoyed. But I never really felt like, "Oh my God, the band's completely going to fall apart." I do notice that [with] Gene and Paul talking about that era of Kiss, it's very easy for Paul. And I would say from Paul's experience, very rightfully so, that he’ll be like, "Well, Gene kind of checked out, he had his eyes on something else, and so I had to take care of business." But Gene was still at the studio and gave songs, but it was easier for Paul then to say, "I'm the producer. Because I'm the one that’s going to give every day, instead of him going off to film something."
I think they're more in sync now with how they want to spread themselves around. Anything and everything that means something, like a restaurant business, or a football team. And they're both jumping in, which I think is really healthy for them. That's a very new development. They were never like that. You notice that Paul didn't really want to be on ‘Family Jewels’; that was Gene's thing. Paul would never have a reality show quite like that. Even though I could see him -- oh man, I bet he'd love to host a cooking show or a painting show or something like that. But he wouldn't want, "Now, come into my house and listen to this drama." You know what I mean?
With what Gene did with his family, and it was actually his family that were so likable that made him tolerable to the people that usually are like not really into Gene, as an artist or a human being. So he had the last laugh with that, with his very entertaining family that really do all love each other. So, they had a great show. I was on it a few times. It was fun.
So yeah, Gene wasn't as focused just on Kiss, but I actually think they kind of skew it a little bit too much towards [the notion that] he wasn't there. No, not being there was more the way they described what was going on sometimes with Ace -- which I had no personal experience about, but you'll read a lot about that too, right? They love talking about that.
Early on, you were welcomed into the writing and collaborative process, and I wondered if you were surprised by that.
No, I mean, I was well aware about Kiss, especially from my brother doing some guitar work with them. I socially knew Paul a little bit. We hung out a couple times, via my brother of course, although he didn't really know me yet. That was before he asked me to help out on ‘Animalize.’ I knew that Vinnie [Vincent] was very important to ‘Lick it Up.’ It was one of his strong suits that he was able to write well with them. I knew that they wrote by themselves, and I knew they used to use some co-writers.
So they did give me opportunity. It was a big plus for me. It was not as easy as most people might think. Even though I'm a guitar-riff guy, I can be very creative and come up with ideas. But sometimes how you present them is going to make it happen, more than even the idea you had. And then I had to be careful; it was like a landmine. If I knew that this song is great for Paul, well then, don't play it for Gene -- just present it to Paul. And it's also possible that, let's say, if Paul didn't really bite and didn't think there anything was there, and then I played it for Gene and then Gene liked it, well it may come up for review where Paul might go, "Uhhhhh,” because he heard it already.
I know that's kind of hard to totally wrap your head around, but there were politics that were hard to define, and it was always very nerve-wracking to figure out. "Well, what's going to turn this guy on? What kind of riff would he like?" But that's pretty common. You know, let's say you had a gig working for Ozzy [Osbourne], you know you’ve just gotta turn on Ozzy right? There's now two principal singers, [where] they're both presidents of the band. I had to kind of figure that out. That was a chore for me and I think I did pretty well with it, but it wasn't easy. I'm not going to say that was easy.