Interview With BK3 Producer Jeremy Rubolino

It's one thing to play music; it's another thing entirely to be a musician. Jeremy Rubolino is a musician in every sense of the word: he plays, creates, produces, arranges, listens and - most importantly - feels every note. That passion is what makes him a perfect partner for Bruce Kulick. Together they recorded BK3, and together they work as a team, writing for and producing other artists in an artistic relationship that Rubolino describes as almost indescribable: combining musical thoughts and ideas with a synergistic, natural vibe.

Despite a remarkable story and a wealth of experience in the studio, Jeremy Rubolino prefers to stay out of the spotlight and let the attention fall upon the artists and projects to which he applies his talents. He seldom, if ever, gives interviews - partly out of privacy and partly because he is in such demand that his schedule leaves little time for anything other than music. That said, he was enthusiastic about discussing BK3, a project he's proud of, and Bruce Kulick, a guitarist that he is proud to know and work with.

Let's start with some background, beginning with when you discovered music.

JR: That's simple. I don't remember when music was not the most important part of my day. The story goes that I sat down at the piano at 18 months and started playing scales. I don't remember it, but I did start performing publicly at age 4 and it's been my whole life ever since. My introduction to music was very romantic. My mother made me listen to the Amadeus soundtrack, Peter and the Wolf and Bach. I remember those records playing constantly as a 3- and 4-year-old. I became very aware of rock and roll at age 5. I wanted long hair and a purple Flying V. I always wanted to be a rock star. Bach was my first love, and what makes my job exciting as a producer and doing string arrangements is that I get to play both roles. I cross the line every day of classical music and rock and roll. At 4, I was convinced that I was going to be Elvis. It was a very interesting upbringing, playing Bach and Mozart by day and listening to loud guitars on the radio.

What led you to production?

To this day, before I listen to a record, I find out who was involved. I always created music, and when I decided that Mozart and Bach were wrong and I tried to change their music, my piano teacher yelled at me. I played music upside down and backward; I was arranging as far back as I can remember. I was pretty precocious and I guess that stuck with me.

My parents exposed me to what they liked. My brother and I knew the songs of the 1950s, Benny Goodman, everything. My dad liked Jethro Tull; Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" was such an important song to me, Toto, the Grass Roots. We'd listen and absorb. I don't remember being aware of '80s music until I was 7 and listened to Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. Until then, it was very much a history lesson. It was a quality of music that no longer exists. I listened to the vocal harmonies and understood them. Those are the things I draw from to produce - the things I love, what works and doesn't to my ear.

I got into production completely by accident. Bret Michaels was the first record I was a producer on. A friend of mine, Cliff Calabro (who, years later, I brought to BK3 for backing vocals), brought me in on that record. I met Cliff at Guitar Center as a kid and basically followed him around. We were doing another record together and he taught me Pro Tools in 1998. He did Bret's album in 2002. I came over and they were writing. I got to co-write and co-produce the record. It was very organic that way, and I got to start with someone like Bret, who brought experience to the equation.

How did you begin working with Michael Kamen?

I met him at Thanksgiving dinner when I was 12. He was best friends with Bob Ezrin, who is my cousin. Michael asked to hear me play, and I played Bach, who was his favorite composer. We became friends. He would have me over when he was in Los Angeles. We talked about music, and he invited me to the scoring sessions for The Three Musketeers, the Disney film. It was my first scoring session. I always knew I wanted to work in a recording studio, making music. I loved orchestral and classical music, and when I went to my first scoring session it was an epiphany for me. On the other side of the glass was an orchestra. This man was conducting music he had written for a movie, and they were playing it back to him. I knew why I was here, and it consumed me.

Michael was taken by my love for what was going on. I would go to sessions, and around the time I graduated from high school he was doing Lethal Weapon 4. He sent me a fax saying, "Come carry the papers and pencils around for me this summer." So I was there every day for everything on that film - the writing, recording, when Eric Clapton, David Sanborn and Marcus Miller were there. It was the most amazing thing one could hope to see. It was the beginning of my working relationship with my friend Michael Kamen.

You started doing this at 18. What kept you on the path and kept you straight? At that age, it's so easy to take the wrong road.

I have never done drugs. It goes back to the fact that it's all I know; it's the greatest love affair. My dad is an old-school workaholic. I was raised to work hard. My mom took me to and from work at the music store after school and on weekends. My mother is the key to everything I have accomplished. She schlepped me around the San Fernando Valley. It was about work and progress. Forward motion was most important to me, to be able to do what I love. I was always meeting people, but I was never star-struck. Working with Michael Kamen, I knew who Clapton was, but I was there to do a job. I've always been a very good worker, and it was about work and a recording session.

What is your definition of a producer?

I take a great amount of pride, and put a lot of effort into, finding what out somebody is after, where they excel, and capturing that in any light by any means. I have always been able to feel music; I would listen to Bach and break into tears. My job is just to play the mediator because the artist can rarely ever be open-minded. With few exceptions, they cannot produce themselves. Some musicians just want a guy who twiddles knobs. That's not me. I analyze, maximize and work at it until it raises the hair on my arms.

Bruce was easy to produce because he could do anything. He is as good a player as any of his idols or legendary players. I helped Bruce collect the pieces and do what he is capable of. The goal on BK3 - I was aware of his work and solos, and anything familiar was immediately deleted. I would tell him, "Get out of your safety zone and think differently." Sometimes I took the guitar from him and said, "Start here." He really is that great. I'm proud of what we did.

The greatest thing about BK3 taking as long as it did is that we've become friends. Bruce has no business being a rock star because he is not your textbook arrogant, talentless fuck. He has the soul of a human being and the hands of a legend, and to work with that -anybody in my position hopes to work with talent like this. Every song happened differently. Some were ideas for solos, and he would make them sound incredible because of his raw talent. It was amazing.

How did you meet Bruce?

Bob Ezrin took me to see KISS at the Troubadour in 1992. I was 12, and it was the loudest thing I ever experienced in my life. I was in the VIP area. I followed Bob to a dressing room and Gene was there. We spent an hour and a half together, the band came in and I met Bruce. He was living in the Valley and we would run into each other. I worked in guitar stores, and Bruce had rehearsed in Cliff Calabro's basement in the 1970s. Small world. Bruce was in a band with Cliff's cousin. Cliff and I worked in the music store and Bruce would come in and we'd talk.

Then I worked at Guitar Center and Bruce came in. When he was making Transformer, I ran into him and wanted to make a record, but he told me he already had someone. I thought I was being blown off, but he called later on and said, "You should meet my brother [Bob Kulick]; he could use a guy like you." So I went in and recorded/engineered the Motorhead sessions for Bob that won a Grammy, and we began making tribute records together, but we did not get along and he fired me. I was 24, tenacious and hungry, and Bob and I weren't right for each other. So one day I was thrown out.

I'm very intense and creative, and my personality can be eccentric at times. That kind of approach and personality are not required to make tribute records, as I was always trying to reinvent the wheel. But Bruce is like my brother, and Bob is like family to me.

Describe the working relationship with Bruce. In addition to BK3, you co-produce other artists. How does that partnership work?

I worked with Bruce a lot. He'd play on tribute sessions, and I hired him to play on a record I was doing. I was producing, and he came in and was amazing to work with. He's a great guy, great to be around, and I got a call saying, "I wrote a song that might be nice for your artist." It was our first time working together on a personal level. The song, "Something To Be Said," was for Thomas Nicholas' Without Warning album. It was written in a couple of hours. Thomas wrote lyrics, and we did quite a bit of writing for that record. Brian Virtue was engineering the album and he also engineered and mixed BK3.

We wrote a handful of songs for Thomas' record and it became, "Here's a song for my next record," again and again, and a demo, then producing. It happened magically. I was unaware, and it transformed into a wonderful working relationship. It wasn't easy at first. Bruce would come over to my home studio, he wanted to hear where our tunes were going, and I would have ideas, so he'd indulge me once in a while. I was opinionated and outspoken ... and 25. Who trusts a 25-year-old who thinks he knows everything? He'd work six to eight hours straight and record demos, but I wasn't doing much and I wasn't getting paid. It was very strange and that's how it started.

When did you begin work on the album? How long did it take to complete?

He says he wrote "I'll Survive" in 2003, and I only know it because I read it. Those years are a blur. We recorded drums in December 2006. In 2004-2005 we started writing and hashing out tunes for Thomas. We were in a constant flow and it took a year to get to know each other. We were making demos, changing things. I'd say it was 50 days combined in the studio over four years.

How did you maintain the continuity of the album when there were so many breaks for tours, gigs and other projects?

He's always busy. BK3 took so long because of his crazy schedule. We enjoyed what we did so much that we would stop for a month or a week, and we did three or four album projects with other artists. Bruce and I are so different at what we do that the combination is very harmonious. I have a classical background and a nutso personality, and he has the hands of a legend and lifetimes of the experience, and we balance each other out. We're like one super entity in the studio, not two people, because we don't have differences of opinion. We know each other and what the other is thinking. We step back, let each other go there and do what each other does best.

I always knew what I wanted to achieve. I had a list for BK3 that he doesn't even know about. I knew where I was going, but we were so familiar with the material, living with these songs, so coming in after one or two months, it was very easy to get back on the train. I benefited from knowing him as a player and I never lost sight of that familiarity. I wanted to make the record that I wanted to hear and that I thought KISS fans would appreciate.

Making decisions about solos, I asked myself, "Is this the best of Bruce, a new and improved Bruce?" The worst thing you can do is repeat what you've done. There's always familiarity, but I remember hearing Revenge and it was the best playing he's ever done. That record had teeth, a life, it was almost surgically perfect. I wanted Bruce's solo album to have that kind of feel.

Can you build a track that you feel really captured Bruce as a guitarist?

From a solo standpoint, every one was given specific attention and purpose. The most interesting solo to me, the first solo to rip the back of my head off, was "I'm The Animal." We were at my house, taking a dinner break, and for whatever reason I had a Les Paul plugged in. We sat down - no amps, all on a Pod - and he played. It was completely an accident. He got a huge burst of energy and brilliance and he played 90 percent of what ended up on the record. He wasn't even trying for a solo.

If anything, 90 percent of it was first take and 10 percent was second take. He literally dismantled the guitar. We looked at each other and said, "I have no idea what just happened." There was no way to re-record that. When you listen to that solo, it has such reckless abandon. Bruce gets this anxious energy sometimes. It wasn't focused, we weren't going for anything, that's what happened and that's how it ended up on the record.

Who lined up the guest artists?

I think it stemmed from my idea, although Bruce always weighed in and made most of the calls. I knew what I wanted to achieve. I know how to get Bruce to step out of the box and out of his comfort zone and do everything he can to show fans he put his best foot forward. That was my goal. Do things you've never done, because it's time. He earned the praise and reviews. When the first reviews were pouring in, he was excited. My reaction was, "Well, Bruce, this is what I was hoping for when we made the record. I did my job. They're telling me what I hoped they would say. This is the best playing you've ever done."

What makes him challenging to work with?

He is challenging and rewarding as a musician and human being. The fact that he can do anything. Where and how to push him is the challenge. The reward is that he has experience on many records and solos, and he can take anything and make it sound like a hit record. There's a trust and bond between us, and we bring the best out of each other. It always comes out great because, at the end of the day, there's nothing he can't do. I can't say that about most people.

Bruce is not just the guitar player from KISS. It's very rare to work with a musician who is at that level. They're not easily accessible, or it usually costs a lot of money to get them in a room. Sometimes he's not aware of that, and that's what makes him special and why people like him and his playing. He's never lost sight that he's a nice Jewish guy from New York. Everything about Bruce is real, and everything he does is from the core of what he's about. To be in the room when he was bringing out the best of the best made my job easy, for sure.

Elianne Halbersberg is a freelance writer for Mix, Premier Guitar, Gibson.com, Planet ILL.com and Ink 19.com, and has been published in numerous other magazines and websites.