Bruce Kulick is the keeper of the flame for what is these days, an often overlooked period of KISStory. The guitarist who provided the blistering leads on some of their biggest singles including ‘Heaven’s on Fire’, ‘Crazy, Crazy Nights’ and ‘God Gave Rock and Roll to You II’, Bruce spent over a decade with the rock and roll icons. Exiting the band when the original line-up reconvened and reverted to their made-up larger than life image in 1996, Bruce has quite the story to tell, which he has done with a series of Youtube retrospective videos; the most recent being his 35th Anniversary ‘Crazy Nights’ celebration. Talking his tenure with KISS, and his video series, we caught up with Bruce for an in-depth interview about the non-make-up years. Hot in the shade; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Bruce, congratulations on your recent KISS ‘Crazy Nights’ YouTube retrospective; how did that come about?
Since the pandemic I really dove really deep into my Kisstory, and at first when everything shut down, I thought I would just kick back, read books, relax, and then I realised how much fun it would be to interact with the fans. I started doing something called ‘Isolated Riffs’, so I would play a little bit form a KISS song. The reaction was tremendous. I could put up a shitty video in my living room, and I didn’t even have a light to really film myself properly, and the next thing I know it’s getting a huge amount of attention, and people are begging me; “do this one! Do that one!”
So that’s how it started?
At that point, especially being at home a year, away from my usual touring with Grand Funk [Railroad] or doing a KISS Kruise or other events like conventions and things, I started to learn. I have a neighbour who’s in production for shows and video work, and the next thing I know I’m learning how to film better in my home and how to record better, and how to use iMovie, and how to use Garage Band. If you go to my YouTube Channel, you can see this evolution of how I learned. I used to do a ‘KISS Guitar of the Month’, and there’d be me just standing in a room where I hoped I’d had enough light, and that was it! And then once I learned iMovie, and I learned how to video, and I learned how to do everything that could be involved with presenting something; the production became better.
So all of this has led to where we are now.
The video you’re referring to, I took it to even another level because I obviously really admire other people’s talented work, and there was a guy that I knew in the KISS world – Andrew Sgambati is his name - who as working on a movie about the ‘Hot in the Shade’ tour, and started to promote it so much that he got a warning from KISS, immediately, like; “no, you’re not doing that”. Do they have the right to do that? Maybe. I don’t know, I didn’t create it, I wasn’t putting it out, but when I saw how good he did with that, I said; “Andrew, we need to work together on this”.
So you developed a working relationship with Andrew.
My most recent one before collaborating with Andrew was ‘Revenge’ [30 year retrospective], but it’s mostly images and then I’d play along with it a little bit. It did very well, but Andrew, knowing that we had the ‘Crazy, Crazy Nights’ [behind the scenes] video filming, and then there’s other things, at Japan, Budokan, it’s out there, and then just to be able to spin the story with all the fun ways, he was able to find a clip of ‘Runaway’ [1984 movie] to describe Gene [Simmons]’s distractions! So, in other words, the collaboration with him being really strong with how to present a video more video-documentary style, and then me being the story teller and having access to certain things, I think we were able to come out with a professional [piece], almost to the equivalent to what the BBC would do if they were only limited to twelve minutes.
I’m sure you could have produced a much longer documentary on the album.
We could have easily done an hour, and included every song and every story and so on, but there wasn’t time for that, and it wasn’t necessary. So, I’m very proud of it, and it’s doing very well on views. Of course KISS doesn’t bother to share it because they drive the narrative of the make-up years and that’s their prerogative. We know the fans who love the non-make-up years, and I’ve gotten a lot of support from fans and friends.
You’re the sole flag bearer for the non-make-up years, especially since the sad passing of drummer Eric Carr in 1991.
Right. You know, sometimes I think it is my story, so I love sharing it. When you’re in that moment, you don’t realise that 25, 30, 35 years and more in the future, people will be hungry for it, which is great! So I take a real joy and pride in sharing what it was like to be in the band and create this fantastic music, produce videos, tour the world; there’s so much to share in a very positive way. And then the occasional; yeah, Gene was freaking out about [‘Crazy Nights’ producer] Ron Nevison; that’s not a bad story, I’m not about slamming anybody, calling people out; It’s all about celebrating the music, but obviously when there’s something that I know affecting the band – the death of Eric Carr, that came up a lot in the ‘Revenge’ 30 year anniversary – I share that.
You’ve always been quite candid.
It is my story to tell, and I had to be really clear when I collaborated with Andrew that, this is not your video, this is my video. It has to be my story, otherwise any fan could do a documentary on something. What’s interesting is, I went back to my old blogs where I celebrated 25 years of ‘Crazy Nights’; I wrote something about every song, I talked about the videos, I talked about the clothing, and I was able to draw upon what was my story then.
You must be pleased with how it turned out.
Andy did a pretty good job considering how heavy the angle of KISS with the make-up era really is. They didn’t talk about my era, and generally, when it’s KISS-driven or from KISS, of course it’s the biggest successes, and they’re currently still in make-up and celebrating make-up KISS. So my era does kind of get left behind, although I except it and I understand it, but I know that there’s a thirst by the fans for it. I know that for a lot of fans that was their first record – ‘Asylum’ , or ‘Crazy Nights’  – that was the first time they heard the band ever, so it gives me a great opportunity to share my story with people who really want to hear it. I’m very proud of it. Back then, I was just doing my job, but now I feel it’s my job to tell people what it was like to do it, and nobody else could do that, but me, or even Mark St. John, for the short period he was in the band before he passed away. Vinnie [Vincent] was before me and even though he’s still around and did a few things recently enough, he’s a different part.
What’s it like seeing the fully made-up KISS, with the Demon and the Star Child playing songs like ‘Crazy Nights’?
Yeah, they realise that they can’t ignore a big hit, just like on ‘Alive III’ , which was recorded during the ‘Revenge’ tour; we didn’t do ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ in the set, but we knew that it needed to be there because it’s such a huge hit, so we did it at sound check. So, KISS is obviously recognising ‘Crazy Nights’ being an important song in certain areas of the world. It’s the same thing with them doing ‘Shandi’ in Australia.
What’s it like seeing someone else play your solos?
The funniest thing about ‘Crazy Nights’ is to see how Tommy [Thayer]’s going to do the solo as I use the whammy bar and all that stuff. I’ve toured and done it without the whammy, but I can do my finger tapping. Tommy and I are friends, but we’ve got slightly different styles. He’s obviously very, very good at the vintage KISS and Ace and doing that, and my era, he was never one of those guys [mimes finger tapping solo]. I was required to be one of these whammy, wild guys. So, even in ‘Tears Are Falling’, it’s always different for him. But, I do recognise that on occasion, they will cover songs from my era, and it’s pretty cool.
During that era, were you tasked with creating really flash solos for these songs?
Yeah, it was very clear to me when I joined the band. First of all, my very first thing with KISS ghost guitar work on ‘Animalize’ . I played on ‘Lonely is the Hunter’ and a tiny bit on another song because Mark St. John [predecessor guitarist], it was either maybe he got ill, or he didn’t like what he was playing, and instead of them going to my brother [Bob Kulick] or somebody else, they asked me. Now, it was very clear; Paul said; “do you have a guitar with a Floyd Rose [tremolo system]?”, so I’d just got a guitar put together with a Floyd Rose – that was early, that was in the middle of ‘84!
So anyway, of course, even before I was officially in the band I was aware that when they sent Mark St. John home and they invited me to be in the band, that they needed me to have one foot in the vintage world of KISS, and to have one foot forward in what rock guitar and lead playing was becoming. So I was ready for that call, and I do feel that I was able to incorporate enough flash, that style, with still the meat and potatoes of the Jimmy Page and the Eric Clapton love of guitar that I have. I think it was a great balance for KISS, and I think that’s why it worked so well.
The ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ solo is beautifully built and phrased; how long did it take you to construct that?
Thank you. That was a really long time ago, but I will tell you, I know working with Ron was good. He was very clear about the lead guitar being front and centre, especially when I was taking over for the solo, but I knew in a song like ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ it should be very melodic and yeah, there should be an element of flash too. I think I approach all my lead guitar work that way anyway. I prefer when I can have a blend of melody and flash. I think that was my approach on all of the KISS stuff, it really was.
Do you find those solos challenging to play these days?
There are some songs from ‘Crazy Nights’, the solos I’ve been practicing because the Kiss Kruises are coming up, and I’m certainly looking at those songs going; “okay, I think I’d better interpret that solo because I don’t think I can play that solo!” I’m 68; if I was an athlete you know I wouldn’t be doing, like 100mph fastballs any more as a pitcher, and I wouldn’t be hitting any home runs probably. Yet as musicians, here we are expecting to play stuff from we were in our prime! So, I try to balance that I can still play my guitar really well but I also know I can’t expect myself to perform exactly the same on the instrument because of my age.
Although there’s only five years between them, ‘Revenge’, is so different to ‘Crazy Nights’; was that a very deliberate attempt to darken the band’s sound and image?
Well, music was evolving, and it always does. Every ten years I see a shift in what the next generation of kids want. ‘Revenge’ had [producer] Bob Ezrin, and it also had a lot more maturity in a sense, and it was darker. You’ve got to remember that Nirvana was out by then, and things were getting darker and hair metal wasn’t the same, so we answered that with a tough record. ‘Carnival of Souls’  took it even beyond that, as you probably know, and that’s coming up 25 years soon. So, it was appropriate for the time, but at the time you don’t plan that, you don’t know it; it’s just the way music evolves. Every band has an evolution.
I’m glad you mentioned ‘Carnival of Souls’ as it’s vastly different; was it a step too far into that grunge territory?
Toby Wright, who co-produced that record, he had both his feet in that world, working with Alice in Chains, and he had big success with that. Even though he knew KISS because he helped engineer some other work previously, he did take it very far that way, and Gene and Paul [Stanley]’s attention by the time the record was being mixed was the reunion tour. Eric Singer [drums] and myself speak many times about when we look at ‘Carnival of Souls’; a lot of the rough mixes after we recorded sounded closer to ‘Revenge’, because Toby took it one more step when he mixed it.
How did you feel about that?
Well, I certainly was able to make ‘I Walk Alone’ [the final track on the album on which Bruce sang lead vocals] what I envisioned for it. That one, I did! But it is true that a lot of that record was a big, big step into what you would call ‘grunge’ then. I still stand by the performances and the music. Sadly it was bootlegged, and all those versions that were out there were terrible, going cassette to cassette, and I remember this on guy that I used to work with, he thought that I leaked it! Why would I do that?! I had nine co-writes! What would be in it for me to have people bootleg my music?! They’d be ripping me off! I wanted to kill him when he said it to me.
But the point is, that record is really odd because of when it was being created, because of the style, but also more because of what the KISS band business was going through at the time. The fact that they were going to keep paying Eric and I for a year to be sure that the reunion tour was real, and Ace [Frehley, original guitarist] and Peter [Criss, original drummer] could do it. All their attention was on that, and business-wise, they did a pretty smart move, because if they made four million a year working with us being the other band, they made forty million that year headlining stadiums and playing in make-up. Everybody had to go see them.
The reunion tour sprang from the KISS Unplugged MTV special recorded in August 1995; how did it feel playing alongside the original band at the conclusion of that show?
The whole time that I was in KISS, there was always this; “when’s the reunion?” It was just something. It wasn’t a big, big shock when I realised; “oh, okay, it’s actually happening”. Eric and I weren’t aware that the reunion tour was going to come out of MTV that night. They were negotiating, and wisely so because the offer was there. The truth is, Eric and I weren’t aware that it was so linked to the MTV Unplugged thing, but that was the catalyst because once MTV scored having Ace and Peter there, then everybody knew that if they could do that, why don’t they go put the make-up on and go tour? “We offer you millions of dollars; sign here”, so that’s what they did.
How was it for you on the night of the show?
That night, I wasn’t really that awkward about it because I wasn’t really clear that that was my last gig, but I was clear that there was romantic love for the original four, and let’s be honest, I wouldn’t have my opportunity if they didn’t establish KISS as a huge band. I’m still so proud of what Eric and I did with Gene and Paul that night; that set we did was magical.
Are you disappointed you never had the chance to wear the make-up, and that they went with Tommy Thayer when Ace left the band again in 2002?
That’s a great question a lot of fans ask, and they’re a little confused about it, like, why wasn’t it me? When I knew that Ace was causing problems for them, I heard the rumblings from people I knew that were close to the band, and I was always wondering like, would they really ask me to become the Spaceman, but basically negating everything from my era because; I would then have to shoot rockets from my guitar; I would never play a whammy-bar solo in that outfit; I would then be playing Ace, maybe more note-for-note, something I never had to do. And I really think they made the right choice, knowing what they were trying to do, which was just trying to sell the characters and the make-up version of the band. By going with Tommy, it was no harm, no foul, there’s no connection to any era that wasn’t when they were doing the make-up. I was sad that I wouldn’t be in KISS, and somebody else would now be in KISS instead of the original guy.
They did however bring back Eric Singer behind the kit when Peter Criss left again.
I think with Eric Singer it was much more natural behind the kit. They did tell him; “no double bass drums, play it a little more meat and potatoes”, and then Eric sings real well, which helps out, because Peter sang. So, it was the right choice for them, but outside of me missing being in KISS, because that was something very much appropriate for the non-make-up years, me becoming the Spaceman I think would have been very awkward for me, and I think it would have almost stained my era.
With the band currently on their End of the Road tour, would you like to get up and play with them one last time?
Well, officially, I don’t think anyone’s really been [asked] because I don’t think they know when it is [the final show], really. Who knows when they’re going to stop? You know, I’ve jammed with them on the Kiss Kruises, and it goes over really, really well. We did an electric set on Kiss Kruise X  when I played ‘Tears Are Falling’ and ‘Hide Your Heart’, it was a lot of fun. Will it happen? It’s not in my control. Would I be happy to do it? Of course, why wouldn’t I want to celebrate their last show with them? But it’s really up to them to ask me and make the plan.
Finally, you mentioned your KISS Guitar of the Month videos; do you still have all your guitars from your time with the band?
Very good question. I really regret letting go of certain instruments through the years, though I always had a reason. I’m very, very in tune with my instruments; I know how they feel to me, how they sound to me, and that connection is strong. During the actual KISS years, not knowing how things are thirty years in the future, like, there was this Ironbird that I used on ‘Asylum’. A lot of people go; “what is that?!” It’s a weird shape B.C. Rich. They built it, they gave it to me, and the neck went weird. Sometimes you can fix that, sometimes not, and I think I probably offered it to a road crew guy for $500 at the time. A gold Charvel; that wanted a paint finish, it never looks the same again; “I’ll get rid of it”. I could go on and on about instruments that now I’m going like; “what the hell was I thinking?!”
You do still have some of the more iconic guitars though.
The ones that really connected with me, absolutely. The two [Gibson] Explorers; the white, and the black one with the mirrored pickguard; the [Custom ESP] banana guitar. What I considered the next best, like the banana guitar, the white one that I used on ‘Hot in the Shade’  that I put a pickguard on and it appeared during the ‘Revenge’ tour, I have that. I have Frankenstein Junior that I used during that tour. I have a crazy [Gibson] Modrene that I used a little bit during the ‘Revenge’ thing. I have the B.C. Rich Radioactive [as seen in the KISS ‘Crazy, Crazy Nights’ video], even though I technically gave that to Eric Carr, and then he passes away and he leaves his instrument in his will to some girl, and she just immediately sells it and some fan buys it and years later I buy it. Every one of them has little stories.
What about the clothing, and gold records?
I have a few other items, but most of the clothes were owned by KISS, so when they did their huge auction in 2000, everything we up for sale. Now the gold records, outside of duplicates, I never let go of them. I have a beautiful display, and Gene has a much bigger one, but in Las Vegas where I live, there’s a KISS museum thing, and the records are there on the wall. But I’m very proud of all my stuff. I’m part of Facebook page called Kiss Live Auctions, and I do offer things from my personal collection sometimes, and then again, I occasionally buy things too. So, I am a collector of me, but I’m not going to hoard everything.
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