A Conversation with Bruce Kulick of Union

September 16, 1998

by Roger Lotring

Who knows what can happen over the course of a year? Just ask Bruce Kulick. A little over a year ago, the former Kiss guitarist was immersed in the creative process, writing songs with vocalist John Corabi of Mötley Crüe notoriety. At the time of the 1997 New England Kiss Expo, the two musicians were only days away from signing with Mayhem Records to release the debut album from their then-unnamed band.

Fast-forward a year and Kulick and Corabi are on the long, hard road to bring their music to the people. Rounded out by bassist Jamie Hunting and drummer Brent Fitz, the band Union released a debut disc built upon a musical framework similar to that of the blues-based English rock bands from which Bruce first drew inspiration. But having the advantage of notoriety and an impressive album doesn’t necessarily equate to immediate success. For Kulick and the rest of Union, just making it to the stage each night is a monumental victory. Rather than miss the opportunity to acquaint audiences with their music, Union opted to work around budgetary concerns and record company challenges, employing limited personnel and a do-it-yourself work ethic that translates into the hardship of the road.

In terms of scheduling, one particular week in September proved to be a logistical nightmare for the band. Following a late performance in Staten Island, New York, that ended sometime after 4:00 a.m., the band followed the sunrise and drove themselves to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, for the 1998 New England Kiss Expo. Visibly exhausted, the band took to a minimal stage amidst technical glitches to deliver nothing less than an exciting, powerful, and most importantly, fun set. Finding the amusement in several electrical outages in the midst of songs, they resorted to finishing the set without lighting.

After the New England Kiss Expo performance, Union backtracked to Atlantic City in New Jersey before returning to Rhode Island three days later. Then, it was back across Connecticut for a show in Danbury, followed by a date in Springfield, Massachusetts. At one point during the traveling back and forth across southern New England, the band van broke down in the midst of afternoon commuter traffic from New York back into Connecticut. With an overnight drive to Canada ahead of them following the Springfield show, the band, without the luxury of accommodations in which to shower before their set, were forced to rely on the hospitality of the friends of the wife of an overzealous Prime Choice editor.

It was after the band finished loading in their equipment at the Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that Bruce sat down in a quiet corner of the bar to catch up with Prime Choice. Always polite, friendly, and fun to talk to, Bruce was genuinely enthusiastic when it came to discussing Union and the accomplishment of their debut disc. Similarly, he talked about the strength of Union in live performance situations, especially within the context of challenging touring conditions. In light of the exhaustive nature of trying to manage a tour singlehandedly, it quickly became apparent that Bruce Kulick isn’t playing the game for any other reason than an honest love of music and a determined belief in the validity and potential of Union...

The last time I got to talk to you was at the New England Kiss Expo last year. I think it was a couple of days before you actually signed with Mayhem. Lo and behold, five months later, there was an album out. Did you think it would happen so fast?

Well, I was hoping. I mean, actually, when you’re doing it, you would think it would happen even faster. But I was pleased with the timing. We got everything done and got the record out. And I was very proud of the album. I didn’t feel like I had to make any major sacrifice, by any means, so, it was cool.

What exactly did you want to accomplish with the album, and did you?

I just wanted to do an honest record of the kind of music that I enjoyed and that was our vision, without having to do something because of some business reason or whatever. I mean, artistically, it’s very pure in that way, and lyrically, too—not a lot of party songs. It’s more about what we just went through, y’know? Even though there’s optimism on the record, it’s just more about being a record for the band stating the fact that this is who we are. I may be proud of my past, but this is where I am now.

It’s interesting that you say that about the lyrics because I know that a lot of what’s going on with John is reflected in the lyrics. How much of what you went through is on there?

As much as I occasionally helped out, it was less my story than John working with Curt Cuomo on their view of life. I don’t want to take any credit where it’s not due.

Well, no. A song like “Robin’s Song,” y’know, knowing the story behind it, that’s pretty personal. So I wondered, what’s on here that Bruce is trying to tell us?

Well, both John and I went through some relationship changes, so we could all relate to that anyway.

Personally, my favorite tune on the album is “Love (I Don’t Need It Anymore).” [Musically], it’s a really good song, but lyrically, everybody, I think, can relate to that.

Right. Yeah, there’s always a time when you realize, “Hey, I don’t need this crap anymore.” Lots of times it’s about some relationship.

How was it different working with these three musicians, as opposed to the last three?

Well, obviously, with Kiss, it’s Gene and Paul’s band and you gotta turn them on to what kind of music they want to create at the time. Obviously, I don’t have as much of a say in Kiss about their decisions, the business of the band. Here, there’s a lot of stuff that is on my shoulders. Plus, there’s gonna be times that I’ll be more insistent that I want it to go more my way than somebody else’s, but that’s less about ego and more about—I needed this band to express my likes and all of that. I wanted to just get it out there and do it right. There’s pressure always in whatever you’re doing, just always as looking at, “Alright, what do we do next?” If you’re already on top, what do you do? We got nowhere to go but up; it’s a brand new thing. So I just did the best I could, and I’m real proud of it. I didn’t look at it in terms of sales or anything like that. I was always looking at it like I just really made the record I wanted to make.

When I first got the record, before I even listened to it, I looked as a starting point at Carnival Of Souls and the Mötley Crüe record that John did. I was completely surprised that it didn’t seem like there was any of either of those two things at all—at least not so obviously.

Right. I mean, there’s a couple of riff ideas on the Union record that were looked at for [Carnival Of Souls] but didn’t happen. But we made it our own anyway. But we weren’t trying to do a Kiss or Mötley album, y’know?

No, no, I didn’t mean to imply that. It’s just, you put on either of those two albums, and then put the Union record on right after—

Oh, no, I agree; they’re all in different directions, although I think there are some common threads with big riffs and certain things. But Union definitely, I mean, I think we created our own sound that’s independent of those two albums.

With all the stuff that’s coming out these days, it was nice to hear just a nice, basic blues rock kind of disc.

Yeah. Well, I don’t wanna force John out of his element, and I’m very comfortable in that element. I’m a little more bendable, but I think it’s important that John shines.

One of the things that was pretty cool, seeing you guys at the New England Kiss Expo the other day, is I had set a really high expectation for what you guys were going to sound like live. I’m not bullshitting you, you guys really surpassed it.

Oh, great. Thanks.

I was really surprised. I mean, especially John. I didn’t realize that John was such a good singer.

Yeah, he’s a great singer, and a strong guitarist, too. It helps out [and] it fills out the sound real nicely. Some people say, “Oh, you sound even better live than the record.” That’s cool, I like that.

[The following morning], I pulled out the Union record and listened to it. Tracks that I necessarily didn’t care for in the beginning, after hearing them live, it was like, “Well, y’know what, looking at ‘em from that point of view, that’s kind of cool.”

That’s good.

When you guys played the other night, you did a couple of covers—Cheap Trick, Stones. You did a couple of things off of Carnival Of Souls.

Sure. And the Mötley song, right? Did we do that one there?

No, you did the Scream song. I had heard that you guys had little friendly disagreements about what covers you were going to play.

No, not really. I mean, some people say, “Well, you’re going to cover songs, why don’t you do more Kiss songs and more Mötley songs?” But I love the Cheap Trick song, not only ‘cause they mention Kiss in it, it’s just a cool song. And then when it came to a Stones song, that’s just a great—y’know, we’ve been playing some places that they’ve heard of John and I, they’re aware of the bands we came from, but they don’t know the Union album, okay? And they might not even know the Kiss songs we do, or even the Scream song. So it’s always good to cover all the bases there, especially as a new band, when you have bands like Van Halen who made it on a cover song originally. Because of things like that, I think a couple of really well-known covers that we can pull off well are important.

I think it’s kind of cool, though, because it also establishes who you are in identity. If you guys are doing the Stones stuff, that’s “Alright, cool. I grew up with this too. You guys are coming from the same place that I am.”

Yeah, exactly. Y’know, sometimes when we jam and have fun, I mean, we can do tons of covers but I just wanna... as long as we have enough songs to fool around with the set, ‘cause it can get kind of sterile if you always have the same thing.

Well, the Cheap Trick song is really nice, ‘cause when I was a kid growing up, Kiss, Cheap Trick and Queen were my favorite bands.

Yeah, there you go.

We just saw ‘em the other night; they were just down in Connecticut on Labor Day weekend.

Yeah, they’re consistently excellent. I saw them not long ago myself.

Pearl Jam is [playing] half-an-hour north tonight, Elton John’s an hour to the west. And, I was driving up here listening to the rock station out of Providence [and] they’re world premiering Psycho Circus tonight. How does that make you feel? You’re in the midst of everything going on.

Well, y’know, there’s a million things to compete for your entertainment, between prime time TV with the new season, and sports and everything. You gotta hope for the best. I know we give a hundred percent when we go out there and play, and I’m kind of excited, actually, anything to do with the Kiss album. ‘Cause there’s always—especially when you’re in major markets like where we are now—a lot of entertainment around. But I don’t want to compare or look that way. I just wanna do my job and play well, and make friends and make an effort to always give it up. I’m the first one out off the stage to greet the fans and sign the stuff. That’s what it’s about, not about Elton John playing up the road or Kiss on the radio. It’s all good. I love Elton John, and I’m on the Kiss thing with a co-write.

Just for the record, did you play on Psycho Circus?

[Smiles] I played on demos, and I guess they re-invented it.

It’s funny, because, obviously, with a forum like the internet, you just see all kinds of crazy rumors. Somebody sent me an e-mail that you played bass on the whole album.

No, I get credited for a lot of things that are quite remarkable. I’m just proud that I was a part of it in a way. Most important, besides working with Paul [Stanley] is to get a co-write. That actually means if it sells a million copies, I can actually see some change, as opposed to, “Alright, you paid me to do your demos and, okay, that’s it. I can’t see another dime.” So I’m excited about it.

We were just talking about really being down there and meeting the fans and stuff like that. Beginning with when Mayhem first started pushing the album with the Union Work force, it seemed like there was a real down to the street [promotion]; they weren’t going to worry about traditional media or press. You were just going to take it right to the people. I noticed that the other night at the Kiss Expo. You guys came in—you guys were exhausted.

Yeah, that was a tough schedule, but we do it.

Yeah, but if I were in your shoes, I would have been like, “Just leave me alone. Get away with the same stupid question.” But you were really cool and polite to everybody, and that’s kind of refreshing to see.

Well, thanks. I mean, there’s times I can be a little shorter when I’m really... I can’t do it all, and as it is, I’m out here working pretty damn hard. But without the fans, once again, I wouldn’t have been able to have a band like Union and carry on. And I hope they appreciate it, like what you’re saying. ‘Cause most rock and roll people who have some notoriety are assholes; I know that. I think I used to be around quite a few through the years. [Smiles]

But also, I think a lot of it must be how you’re perceived, too. I’ve seen people that just expect when the guy gets off the tour bus, that that fan is the number one priority.

Oh, yeah, of course.

As far as recording and releasing stuff, what do you think is going to happen now with Mayhem?

Well, y’know, I take all that day by day. For this tour right now, we’ve had a lot of people helping us out. I don’t know what, exactly, the future is; I don’t think they know the future of their label. The future of the band, that’s something I can control. But if we’re not with them in the future or we are, I just hope they’re in a position to help us. We’ve got to take care of ourselves, I realize that. Kiss always did, too, as much as Mercury did what they could. But you can’t just complain about the label and whatever. The band’s really got to take control and make this happen. I think we’ve realized that. Mayhem has been really supportive of us, which is great, but we got to a point where they can only give so much, y’know what I mean? Or, how much money do the really have?

After liking the album when I first heard it, and again, my new appreciation after hearing a lot of it live, I’m really excited and curious to see what’s going to happen with the next record and what you guys are cooking up.

Me too. I mean, we haven’t really put any thought into that. This kind of schedule’s so hectic, y’know? As long as were making a difference every day, that’s all good. But I don’t think it would be radically different. It’s not like suddenly we’re going to do an all-acoustic album or an all-jazz record. I think it’ll still be meat n’ potatoes rock and roll, and we’ll pick the best material we can that fits the band. But I was just thinking about a case where after you’ve put in all this road time, you can’t help but get tighter, as people and musicians.

Yeah, exactly. The band’s tight. It’s all good players, so I was always confident with us. We rehearse very little, I’ll tell you that.

You’re kidding! Really?

We only rehearsed one day before this tour.

You’re kidding!

The first couple of gigs were kind of rehearsal, y’know?

That’s pretty wild. You guys seem to pick up each other’s body language and cues pretty well.

Yeah, definitely.

One of the things that was pretty neat to see the other day [at the Kiss Expo] is that the band’s sense of humor shows through. The power kept blowing out, but you guys just rolled with it. I’ve seen bands where stuff like that happens, and they just start temper tantrums. That kind of turns me off, but you guys were just rolling with it.

Yeah, we had fun with it.

I was laughing my ass off.

Well, we know a lot of people there, and it would be silly. We know that they don’t do it on purpose. There’s been times that, unfortunately, we haven’t been given a monitor system we deserve where we may not be playing as polite. But that was kind of funny, though.

I was thinking that night, looking around at all the Kiss stuff, how’s that make you feel to walk through and your picture’s hanging up on the wall?

It’s weird. But I see it more as what’s up on the wall is—I mean, it’s me, but it’s more like a product representation of me, y’know, packaged for the release of music for people to buy and get entertained by. So, it’s you, but it’s like a different part of you, so I don’t see it that way. It’s flattering though; it is.

What’s really wild is to see the astronomical prices that they’ve got on this stuff, and people are willing to pay it. Not meaning to be insulting, but does that every freak you out to walk by, like, “Jesus Christ, I wouldn’t pay X amount of dollars for a picture of me!”

Yeah. Well, look, I collect me, which, fortunately, I’m able to swap things for it. [Laughs] But it’s just part of that market. It’s what the market will bear. If someone has something rare or unique, just like—even with our merchandise, when I was selling the Japanese CD of our album. That’s hard to find, so we get a bigger price for that. It’s all what the market will handle, y’know?

Now that you’re working with a band that’s 99.9% music oriented, is it a little different, and does it free you up a bit, not having to worry about merchandising and image, and you can just concentrate on music?

Well, I do think about those things. The whole band has a say about what we should sell, and what the t-shirts should look like, and the logo. So, I was involved in a lot of that, although the band’s not like Kiss that functions on a lot of that. Even if we were hugely successful, I couldn’t imagine the kind of products that Kiss puts their name on. But that’s always been kind of cliche with Kiss.

I mean, you’re never going to see a Union lunchbox.

No, I don’t care to do that. But, yeah, I guess anything pales in comparison to what that was all about. But let’s be honest, it comes up for Kiss because they broke as cartoon characters, as well as rock stars. It’s a lot easier to package that that way. It’s kind of unique, ‘cause they’re very different from most bands, so I guess you can put it on anything from golf balls to beer. Do I think it’s right? Not necessarily, but they’re into it.

Well, it works.

Yeah. It’s all up to what the market wants to pay for it.

As far as tonight, you guys are playing a little bit longer than the Kiss Expo?

It might be the same, I don’t know. We always play between seventy and ninety minutes, generally. It all depends on the crowd and how into it they are. We used to do a two hour show. I think it got a little overbearing. That’s when we stuck in the acoustic stuff, too, which is a little too much work right now. We only have one guy traveling with us to make this thing work, financially, and it’s a little too much to deal with. But we always know we can do that at another point.

As far as what you’re going to be playing off the record, I know it’s tough to pick one as being your favorite, but is there one song that you find really enjoyable or you look forward to every night?

I think “Love (I Don’t Need It Anymore)” is a great song. I like the singles that Mayhem picked. “Old Man Wise” is great, we open the show with it. “October Morning Wind” is real cool, but I do feel that it’s kind of a pity that “Love” never got a chance to be a single as well. But, y’know, you’re lucky even to get a second single kind of choice by a label.

Oh, yeah, but at first listen to the record, that was the obvious song. I wonder why it’s not.

‘Cause labels never do what’s obvious. You’d think they were smarter.

It’s funny, because I write in every review of a new Van Halen album, why does Warner Bros. or whoever picks the single always pick the song that’s least indicative of the album?

Yeah, exactly.

It’s like, if I went by just the single, I wouldn’t buy the album.

Right. It’s a good point. Sometimes it works, and a lot of times it doesn’t. That’s the nature of the beast.

You’ve got this great catalog of music, as far as John’s concerned. From a fan’s standpoint, which of his previous work do you particularly enjoy?

I think the Scream album is really cool. And I had to love that Mötley record, although it was very different for Mötley Crüe, but it’s a very strong album.

Is John like, “I don’t care, you pick.”

Y’know, I don’t think he was that fond to do a lot of Mötley stuff anyway—there’s a lot of screaming. And some of that stuff is so layered. I mean, they spent millions in the studio, as you know. That album cost ‘em tons of money. We do “Power,” which comes out cool—”Power To The Music.” I like the Scream song as well, but we’re really about trying to promote the new band.