There’s no question that now is not the brightest time commercially for Brit-pop. Back at the end of 2001, English heroes James, wanting to go out on top, laid their career to rest. They’ve threatened to return one day in some form, but they’ll be without vocalist Tim Booth or, for that matter, Michael Kulas. After five years with James, the Canadian singer and guitarist has decided to devote his time to conquering North America, and the world, with his own material. He’s starting by promoting his second solo album, titled — ironically — Another Small Machine.
Recently, Kulas took some time out to sit down at the Rivoli in Toronto and discuss the death of James and the rebirth of his solo career, which was put on hold after his 1995 debut, Mosquito (named by Chart, at the time, as one of the “top 20 independent albums of the year”).
“I started thinking about my role within James,” Kulas recounts. “Within the big structure of it, you are another part of the whole. You’re instrumental only as far as your role demands. And also on another level, when you release an album into the great big world of music, it’s just another small machine in the larger machine that is pop culture… It was a record that I felt was really necessary to make, because it had been five years since I’d really done anything. I’d been within the James circle of music, and I felt like [this album] was one area where I was going to be able to at least get something out, or express something of my own, when everything I’d been doing was part of their machine.”
Of course, there are worse machines to be part of. In their last U.K. tour, the band was still pulling in large, enthusiastic crowds and supporting their last album, Pleased To Meet Me. While fairly patchy, the disc contains some great, epic tunes with production by Brian Eno. Commercially, however, James had been on something of a downhill slope.
“I came into the band just as Whiplash  was being released,” recalls Kulas, “and that record was received fairly well overall and had a few hits in Britain, but a lot of people had such an expectation of James, after Laid , that somehow the album should be of that [same] nature, or of that sound, or maybe set that kind of tone. Anything the band was doing might have been met with some kind of criticism just because everybody looked so highly upon Laid as a piece of work, which I think is really unfair.
“For instance, Millionaires  is an absolutely fabulous record, and it got some of the best write-ups of any James album ever, especially in Britain, and in typical James fashion, that was the one record that was pulled off the shelf by Universal back here. It was only on import… so there’s a real injustice there. Conversely, Pleased To Meet You just came out last year and it was picked up by MCA. It’s a very strong record in a lot of respects, but maybe wasn’t as fully realized as a record like Millionaires for various reasons — time constraints or budgets or what not.”
Record companies have rarely been accused of being driven by a concern for quality. But even though Pleased To Meet You may have been less impressive than Millionaires it was still received with something less than general enthusiasm.
“I think it’s a really strong record,” reflects Kulas, “and when you see that happen, you really don’t know what to think. Is it the industry? Is it the buying public? Is it the music that’s making people react the way they do? Tim [Booth] is exactly right. He was saying, ‘I think we made an amazing record.’ And when you think you’ve made a real contribution and it’s met with so little fanfare, it makes you question what it’s all about. I think in a lot of ways his decision to leave was based on that: At least we’ll leave on a high in a sense, before it moves into some level of chaos where you just don’t care about the music you’re making any more, where you’re just doing it for contractual obligations. At least making that last record, everybody was passionate about it, no matter what the fucking critics said, and that’s something I think James has always done: make music for music’s sake, and not to fulfill some fucking obligation.”
Kulas’ experience with James evidently left him with a lot of good memories, and — just as important — a fanbase within the fanbase. On the James fansite, oneofthethree.co.uk, for instance, you can find a concert review written by a fan who arrived early just to be able to stand in front of him. “Yeah, you see!” Kulas laughs. “That’s right! They did get the best spot! …A lot of people in the aftershow would come up and thank me for the records that they had: ‘Thanks for the great music. When are you making the next album?’ and ‘We’ve been following you since you joined the band.’ I’ve always thought that was really heartening, so I’ve been interested in keeping in touch with these people, and you definitely get that at some of these shows: A pocket of people who are screaming in front of you and that’s just lovely.”
While there may be fewer people screaming in front of him in Toronto, you can chalk it up to the staid nature of audiences here rather than the quality of his music, Another Small Machine is made up of memorable tunes that take up serious real estate in your cranium. And while they’re inspired to some degree by Brit-pop and they’re more intelligent than run-of-the-mill alterno-rock, it’s easy to imagine Michael Kulas’ last name occupying the same charts once scaled by James’ one and only moniker.
And beware to any executives who tell him otherwise:
“There’s a way to be getting out and playing, making something happen in your own right. [Whereas] actually going to the record companies and asking them, ‘What do you think?'” He shakes his head. “I know what I think. I know I’ve got a frigging great record here.”
Kulas and his band play a live recording performance at Clinton’s in Toronto on Saturday, April 27.