How Bob Kulick’s Secret Kiss Past Helped Build a Bright Future: Exclusive Interview
Four decades after proving he could keep a big secret for his friends in Kiss, Bob Kulick is riding a new wave of popularity thanks to his first-ever solo album, four co-writing credits on Gene Simmons’ Vault Experience box set, and a show-stealing turn alongside his brother Bruce Kulick at last year’s Kiss Kruise.
The sibling duo helped both 2018’s upcoming Kruise and this May's Indy Kiss fan expo sell out in record time by announcing they would again be sharing the stage at the two events. Kulick is keeping busy with his producing career, while also overseeing a reissue campaign focused on his '80s and ’90s bands.
Kulick, who auditioned for the lead guitar spot in Kiss in 1973 literally just before Ace Frehley got his turn (and ultimately the job), stayed friends with the group and got the call when Frehley was unable or unwilling to record new material for the studio side of the band’s 1977 Alive II album. Kulick's stellar performance led to him working on three more Kiss albums, including Paul Stanley's 1978 solo album, 1980's Unmasked and 1982's Killers.
But other than Stanley's album, Kulick's involvement was kept hidden from the public by the band, who wanted to maintain the illusion that Frehley was still a full-time contributing member of the group.
How did he manage to keep his mouth shut? "It was simple. I equated it in my own way to the Beatles and Eric Clapton. The Beatles recorded ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps' and wound up with Clapton actually playing the solo. It was un-credited, and everybody originally thought that was George Harrison – ‘Wow, Harrison’s chops really are something these days' – when the reality was that it wasn’t him.
"In this circumstance, being friends with Gene and Paul, it was important to me that when they said ‘this has to be between us and us only,' that I’m going to keep my word. It’s all about integrity, and that’s how I’m able to keep going," Kulick said. "I make great music; I don’t settle. I never went for the easy way: 'Oh, just take the money.' I never did that; it’s just not me. I never recorded an artist and took their money if I thought they were below the bar line, like ‘this is going to be embarrassing.” It wouldn’t help them, it wouldn’t help me."
Listen to Kiss Perform 'Larger Than Life'
Of course, he strongly suspected that making the most of the Alive II opportunity would pay off in the future. "The most important thing," Kulick added, "was they would now have recordings of what they sounded like with me, and I would finally have recordings of what I sounded like with them."
At some point years down the road – Kulick can't remember exactly when – Simmons let the cat out of the bag, revealing the guitarist's secret contributions to Kiss' studio work over the years. "I remember when Gene went out there, and said, ‘It’s actually Bob Kulick on those songs,' I thought it was really something great that he actually owned up to it," Kulick said. "I have people come up to me all the time saying, 'excuse me, I’m a guitar player and I just wanted to tell you the reason I learned to play guitar was because of your solo on "Larger Than Life."' You can just imagine what kind of response and responsibility that engenders in me."
Performing as lead guitarist on Stanley's 1989 solo tour – five years after successfully recommending that his younger brother Bruce join Kiss full-time – further raised Kulick's profile among Kiss fans: "That played a huge role, there was finally 'oh, there he is, the bald guy with the mustache!' 'You all know the Kulick brothers; this is the one with the mustache,' that was how Paul would introduce me on stage."
Watch Bob Kulick Perform With Paul Stanley
Sometime after that – and while still serving as an in-demand studio musician, assembling his own bands and spearheading a popular series of all-star tribute albums to some of rock's biggest bands – Kulick began appearing at Kiss conventions. "That wasn’t until way later," he remembered. "It’s blossomed from what was a boutique idea. It’s a convention now; its an expo. It’s taken all these twists and turns – which of course is an outgrowth of [Kiss'] popularity, just like the cruise. There’s no question that this is an amazing thing, to have an audience that’s now able to come and meet you. They go home with a photo with you and that’s huge, because it makes it personal. I think there is something inherently good in that part. It attaches the fan to the artist."
Kulick recently had the chance to help Simmons get closer with his fans as well, appearing at the Las Vegas event where "the Demon" personally handed over copies of his massive new career-spanning box set to fans: "He takes the time to try to meet the people and have a meaningful connection."
As for how those Vault tracks came about? "It was from back in the day, getting together, writing and doing demos," Kulick remembered. "He'd say, 'You got something to play me that we might start up on?' He wanted whoever he was writing with to bring him an idea, something he would not have thought of himself. That would then spur his reaction. He got his lyric book out immediately, and say 'play that again.’ He, like Desmond Child and a few other prolific writers I know, have notebooks full of lyrics."
So, Simmons played the Bernie Taupin role? "Yes, but then he was Elton John as well, because he also set it to a melody. I remember we were working on this one song, 'Now That You’re Gone.' It was more of an ELO / Beatles song than it was a Kiss song. He wrote other stuff, not just stuff that was for Kiss. That showed me something about his talent. A couple of the other songs – 'Seeing is Believing,' 'Too Young' – they were more headed for Kiss territory from the start. 'Naked City' was obviously going to be on a Kiss album. People don't give him or the band enough credit, thinking that they’re just a band who plays this style of music and nothing else. The reality is that these guys do know other styles of music. Paul and Gene are huge fans of other styles of music."
"Naked City" appeared on Unmasked, Kiss' most pop-influenced album. If Kulick had his way, it would have sounded very different. "'Naked City' hit [Simmons] immediately," Kulick added. "'I hear this; I have this. Hang on,' he said. I conceived it as something way heavier than what it wound up being – but you have to understand, if somebody else is doing your song, they’re going to do what they want with it."
Listen to Bob Kulick Perform 'Player'
Kulick recently made the somewhat surprising decision to release his first-ever solo album – last fall's Skeletons in the Closet – five decades after starting his music career. "It was something I had thought about, but then cowered away from," Kulick said. "I thought, if I’m going to do a solo record it should be an instrumental one because I’m a guitar player. But then I realized, ‘Well, that’s not really you or what you’re about; you’re more into songs.' So, how do you do that? You need singers, songs and the whole thing. One of the last things that I did in my studio in L.A. [before moving to Las Vegas] was came up with these four songs. I contacted my old Balance bandmate Doug Katsaros. We’d been working together with Dee Snider and a whole bunch of different projects. I sent him the first song, he said 'I’d love to write a melody and lyrics to this,' and he did. I said, 'Wow, this is really good. So, before long, we had concocted these four songs. Now we had something to shop, something to fool with."
It was Kulick's girlfriend Julie Bergonz (also the photographer for Skeletons in the Closet and the pictures in this article) who finally convinced him to get more serious about the project. "Julie said, 'You know what? You need to do a solo record. You’ve spent all this time and all this effort working with other people, as a support player, a co-writer, a producer but I don’t see a piece of product with your name on it,'" Kulick remembered. "All of these bands I started or helped put together were basically my projects – Skull and Murderer’s Row. Of course, there were other people involved, and they were really important, but those were sort of bands. But she was right: It didn’t have my name on it and, in the end, my arguments fell on deaf ears, with her pointing out that I had a huge amount of musician friends who might want to participate – and did, when they were asked, all of the 23 guests on my solo record."
Kulick is now in the midst of combing through his own vaults, collecting material for expanded versions of albums from earlier bands, including Skull, Murderer's Row and Blackthorne. "I’ve been working with Jimmy Waldo, Graham Bonnet and Dave Eisley. We’ve been putting together some of the outtakes and rough mixes and demos of some of the songs that we did for some of those records," Kulick said. "Cherry Red, the English label, is going to be releasing some of these projects over the next six or nine months. These songs haven’t been heard in this configuration. After all these years, to see that this stuff is finally actually going to come out, makes me realize the old saying ‘everything old is new again,’ is really true."
Watch Bruce and Bob Kulick Perform on the Kiss Kruise
Meanwhile, Kulick is keeping busy with production work, most recently with a young guitar prodigy named Jacob Reese Thorton. "We’re just remixing a few of his songs now. He’s 15 years old, but his talent is not a 15-year-old's talent. He’s way beyond his years," Kulick said. "So, we were able to help put this together and I’m really proud of it. It’s really really good." Kulick is also keeping his eye out for new projects: "If someone feels that they have good material, and is looking for a real circumstance, I can be reached on social media. I’m always looking for new talent."
He's also excited about performing with his brother again at the Indy Expo and Fall 2018 Kiss Kruise – once again shining a light on their respective eras in Kiss, this time with a guest spot from none other than Ace Frehley.
"It’s been very gratifying that the fans do seem genuinely excited about it," Kulick said. "What Bruce and I have, has not been overexposed. It's great to be able to give the audience what they want in terms of this material, especially with Brent Fitz and Todd Kerns – two amazing, amazing musicians. Todd is just an incredible singer. It’s a really great lineup, and I think it’s going to be a real treat for people. [Last year], people were crying in the crowd, saying ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they’re doing this song!'"