Hitting the big time can be a bummer.That’s what Michael Kulas is discovering. Five years ago the Peterborough native’s well-received debut, Mosquito, had just dropped and was climbing the indie charts.
Then Kulas fell in with a gang of young Brits better known as college-rock faves James. He signed on as one of the boys in the band and bid farewell to his home and native land.
After half a decade of beer-fogged success, Kulas is back on this side of the pond with a lovely new solo record and a stiff upper lip. In a country notorious for eating its own artists, he’s finding it tough to come home again.
“You’d think that, in some sense, a Canadian joining James would’ve been pretty big news,” he chuckles. “But it’s been like reappearing after an absence and finding that nobody knew you’d been gone.”
When James frontman Tim Booth announced he was leaving during their December tour, most folks — including Kulas — assumed the band was folding. Now nobody knows what’s up. Kulas is happy about his decision to leave, but won’t say much more. Evidently, being in a seven-piece band teaches you diplomacy.
Still, Kulas is having a hard time letting go of his other life. In person, he’s more hunky English gentleman than scruffy Canuck indie dude. He has a mongrel British accent and sips red wine and Perrier during our late-afternoon interview. And though you’d assume he’d be set on plugging his new solo work, the conversation keeps turning to his phenomenal experiences as a member of James.
You believe him when, during stories about singin’ with Sinead and shooting the shit with Brian Eno, he effuses about his amazing luck.
“Unfortunately,” he laughs, “a lot of my experience working with James is hazy. Too many pints of lager. It’s sometimes very hard to recollect the fine nuances of my time with them.”
Still, he says, he’s brought that experience to his new disc, Another Small Machine. Written mostly in a “small hut in Scotland, 10 feet from the sea,” the album bears few traces of the generic mid-90s Canadian alterna-rock sound of Kulas’s earlier work. He dubs it “transatlantic.” It’s reflective and elegiac, with some echoes of James’s jangly guitar rock, but the sound leans more toward stripped-down Coldplay.
The disc was in the can before Kulas parted ways with his former band, so it seems quite prescient.
“It was written in that headspace of feeling quite small, quite alone,” he offers, “not knowing what was going to come next in my own life, my own career.”
Who knows what’s next for Kulas? He thinks the local scene is ready for a much-needed transfusion — and after being away for five years, Kulas qualifies as new blood.
“There’s a big difference from three years ago, when there was this connection being made between local musicians and new styles of writing songs with different grooves, techno beats, breakbeats, new technology. It was so exciting. Now it just seems like the city needs a kick in the ass”