Sometimes there’s a price to be paid for returning to your roots. From playing 15,000-seat arenas to 150-capacity clubs, Michael Kulas has seen his audience become “more selective” since he returned from a five-year stint playing with Britpop heroes James in the U.K. and around the world. There is, however, an important difference — he’s now in charge of his own music.
Sipping on a vodka ‘n’ cranberry at the Rivoli, Kulas recalls the trauma of his first ever gig, a high school performance in Lakefield (near Peterborough) that featured aspiring vocalist Sebastian Bach. “At the end of the night, he stole my girlfriend. He was the singer, and I was the rhythm guitarist — not even the lead. It taught me a very, very valuable lesson at a very young age: the flashy people at the front, they’re the ones who always get the women. And if they don’t have the women, they’ll steal the women!”
Kulas is out to solve that problem: after playing rhythm guitar and singing backup for Tim Booth’s recently disbanded crew, the Oakville native is back home with his own CD, Another Small Machine, on which he sings — and plays — lead. Of course, Toronto isn’t exactly skid row, but many have wondered why he would brave our notoriously fickle club scene rather than playing to the converted in Britain.
“If there’s nothing really happening,” he affirms, “you should try to get something happening. Create an environment. If everybody feels a bit down and continually going on about, ‘Well, there’s nothing going on here, the music scene’s shit,’ to me, that’s an open licence to actually start going fucking mental here.
“If nothing’s going on, no one should give a shit if a bunch of musicians get a collective together, start banging out some cool songs, start playing some great shows — all of a sudden, that makes it exciting again. Looking at this –” he points to the snowdrifts outside “– I just see it as another example of an environment that is open to being indulged in.”
Much of Kulas’ new CD, Another Small Machine, he recorded himself in a less hospitable environment in Scotland’s Ayrshire. “We’re talking about a place with no phone, no television, no central heating, one propane stove — it’s a 90-year-old cottage with a great view of the sea,” he says. “It’s eight miles from the nearest town, and there’s only one bus that will get you in there per day.
“You have to be able to stand your own company. All you’ve got to do, really, is sit and drink a lot of wine and see what comes out. And that can be inspiring. There are days when you just think, ‘What am I doing here?’ The rain is lashing down outside, and the waves are splashing around, and the only way to get warm is by doing something — making music, turning stuff up really loud — it’s all you’ve really got.”
Thankfully, Another Small Machine isn’t as stark an album as its setting would suggest — it’s got some undeniably catchy, anthemic pop tunes. And while they’re not as sonically filled out as James’ seven-piece jams, Kulas includes the occasional eerie synth pad in a nod to James producer (and fellow backing vocalist) Brian Eno. Not only did the godfather of ambient help develop Kulas’ production skills, he also ensured the star power he mingled with would be greater even than what he encountered in rock ‘n’ roll high school.
Kulas recalls a day a few years back when Eno sent the band off to the pub for the afternoon; when they returned, Eno got Kulas, Tim Booth and Sinéad O’Connor to join arms with him under dim lights and sing a quartet.
“Of course, I’d just had about seven pints,” Kulas recounts, “and we’re all squished up. We start singing, and I’ve got my hands behind my back, and I’m squeezing them so tightly because I’m so nervous thinking about the fact that I’m surrounded by Sinéad O’Connor and Brian Eno on the other side of me, and I’m just some hick from fucking Ontario! I’m like, ‘What are you actually doing here? Bugger off back to Lakefield!'”
He may be leading his own band now, and proving to be an engaging performer to boot, but you can’t take the self-deprecation from the rhythm guitarist — or the Canadian.
“It was a really wonderful moment,” Kulas admits. “It only helped to give me more confidence about so many other things from that point on. I’ll always remember thinking, ‘You are so out of your league!'”