Michael Kulas is one of Canada’s least-known musical artists on the international stage.
Not that he has been trying to stay quiet – Kulas has been playing guitar for the last five years with the British supergroup James and has only recently decided to bring his talents back home. “It’s been very interesting seeing people’s reactions here when they find out I play with James,” Kulas said recently.
“Because the band itself is sort of on the fringe, not in the mainstream. When I was playing here before James I was never a household name, either, I was always sort of on the fringe too, so the two things went together well.”
James never really broke through in North America, though the seven-piece band had several major hits in Europe since its inception in 1983. As a measure of its success, the band’s 1998 Best Of. . . album entered U.K. sales charts at No. 1 and stayed in the Top 10 for eight weeks.
“A lot of times people have that reaction of hearing of James from somewhere, the name is in their vocabulary they just can’t quite peg what song it is they remember the band by,” says Kulas, an amiable, soft-spoken guy, who has clearly picked up just a hint of English accent in his time away.
“A lot of the lack of North American exposure has to do with us not playing here a lot. I’ve been with the band five years and in that time we’ve played one show in Toronto.”
One the reasons that Kulas is back home in Toronto is the decision by James frontman Tim Booth late last year to leave the band and move on to acting and screenwriting.
“We’ve just finished another sold out arena tour, and his feeling was that he wants to leave it now on a high while the band is still seen in really good light,” says Kulas, 32.
The remaining six members of James are considering staying together, though no final decision has yet been made, Kulas says. In the meantime, he’s shopping his independently produced solo album Another Small Machine to record labels in Canada and Britain.
Kulas was absorbed into James in 1997, though the Peterborough, Ont.-born guitarist’s relationship with some of its members started earlier. He first met James member Saul Davies, who produced Mosquito in 1994. Two years later he played on Booth’s solo album, Booth & The Bad Angel (a collaboration with Twin Peaks composer Angelo Badalamenti).
He was then signed on as a tour guitarist with the band – a week later he was playing with them on Late Night with David Letterman.
Having established himself with a well-known European outfit, it’s somewhat surprising that Kulas has returned to his native land. He admits he did learn “a lot of really valuable lessons” touring and writing with James and Kulas can really name drop after hanging out in such elite company, though he does so with some reluctance.
“Brian Eno, Noel and Liam (the Gallagher brothers of Oasis), yeah, I’ve met a few of the big guys,” he says. “It’s a different world on tour in the U.K. It’s pretty bloody amazing when you think about it.”
Even with the James name behind him and the valuable experience of arena tours and festivals in Europe, Kulas felt he had to come home.
“Everyone says that to me, why are you bothering? It just feels like something I have to do,” he says.
“Even though I’ve been away and all over the world, it’s still a very important place to me. I’m a Torontonian and my family and very good friends are all here. It’s been five years since I’ve done a show in Canada and released my last record (the independently recorded Mosquito). It’s something that I have to do, I have to come home.”
Kulas will return to his home near Glasgow this spring and summer to finish up several projects. But once that’s done he’ll be back to plug his solo recording and to play on much smaller Canadian stages.
“I don’t know if (having been in James) makes it easier or harder as a solo artist,” he says.
“For me it’s still the same kind of thing its always been – you have to get out and perform you have to get your music out there. You have to do a lot of hard work.”
Some facts about Michael Kulas:
Born: Peterborough, Ont., 1969
Albums with James: Whiplash (Fontana) 1997, Best Of . . . (Fontana)1998, Millionaires (Mercury1999, Pleased to Meet You (Mercury) 2001
Solo albums: Mosquito (Independent) 1996, Another Small Machine (Independent) 2001
On the Web: www.kulasonline.co.uk, www.jamestheband.com, www.oneofthethree.co.uk