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14 Mar 2015

"I have always been an Elton fan. First and foremost, he made it cool to be a piano player" Chattin' With Kim Bullard: The Interview

A gentleman. When Jack Rabbit had the chance to meet Elton's current keyboard player, this words came to mind. So respectful, so passionate for what he is doing. It seems if they had knowing each other for a long time, and left a great experience on his side. Elton always had good keyboard players: remember the fantastic Guy Babylon, remember James Newton-Howard. Big names on the screen. Kim Bullard is on the level. He has a wide experience: playing live, in the studio, producing, composing, everything: Poco, Crosby Stills and Nash, Art Garfunkel, Elton John. Kim owns a home studio on a very nice piece of property, placed in the same old barn that once housed the talking horse Mr. Ed on TV. Anecdotes with the band? Davey recently explained on his question and answer website: that "Kim eats more than any human I (he) have ever witnessed" while he added he caught him once carrying a plate of food onstage. A source of energy. So loved by the rest of band member, counting Elton, although, while laughing, he takes some ice cubes from his glass to throw away at Kim on some concerts. So Eltonites, be ready to receive an outstanding artist, one of a kind, a very glamorous man. The doors of AllSongsList are all wide open to receive the greatest Kim Bullard.

Welcome Kim Bullard, so proud you are here sharing your free time with eltonites. So much a joy to be here departing a while. So, with your permission, let's start with the first question. Jack rabbit, begin please.

So, at what age you decide you wanted to be a musician, Kim? And what were your early musical influences?

hmmm, let me see… I went shopping with my mom at the local department stores when I was 5 years old,  sat down at the organ section of the store (yes, there used to be an “organ section” at department stores) and started to figure out songs on a little electronic organ.  My mother saw that, bought me that organ, which I still have. Then about a year later, they bought a piano and started me with lessons. So, you could say that my mom decided I was a musician long before I did.  I went on to play viola in the orchestra at school, and then started playing organ in soul bands in Atlanta when I was around 13, and was working steadily in bands by 15.  My parents still wanted me to do music as a hobby, but do something else professionally.  A shift in my thinking happened when I first moved to LA.  I went to my drummer’s house and met his father,  who was a professional “side man" musician. Back in Georgia I had met rock stars like Keith Emerson, Greg Allman,  Mark Farner, and knew a lot of dudes in the local bands, but I had never met a working, professional  “side man.”  Looking back, that one meeting had a big influence on me..... it allowed me to visualize that I could work in recording studios; not BE the star, but work with big artists, and still have a balanced life somehow. Until that moment, I did not know that scenario even existed.  Once you visualize something, you can make it happen, and I think that meeting helped put me on a path that I have followed since. 

Regarding early influences, my early musical influences stemmed from what I was exposed to living in the South… southern soul and gospel music.  I have some relatives in the ministry in the deep south, and the sound of a Hammond organ and a Baldwin piano rocking out to Baptist hymns in a hot, sweaty, country church feels like home to me.   I like playing at church. I actually have a few churches in LA that I sneak in to when they are empty and play. Other than that, the first bands I played in did covers of James Brown, Otis Redding, and Motown stuff, then later bands I was in played Yes, ELP, Grand Funk, Deep Purple, Bloodrock, Spirit, Jethro Tull, Led Zepplin, Hendrix… all that kind of stuff.  A big influence on me was Keith Emerson. He was the coolest.  I was lucky enough to have him give me an impromptu piano lesson after their concert when I was about 15 (lets just say they had bad security after the show), and something clicked after meeting him; I felt it in my core… I felt like I was supposed to do this.  Fast forward 30 years, ELP was on the bill on a festival tour through Europe that we did with Art Garfunkel, so I got to thank Keith; but I never got a second piano lesson from him. 

You began playing with bands at an early age but the best decision for you was, maybe, go to L.A. Why this decision?

It was not a decision, per se, it just kind of happened.  I lived in Atlanta, where I grew up, and I was in a band there as a teenager. Frank Zappa was playing in town, and his keyboard equipment broke.  The local promoter knew I had decent gear, so they called, and I rented them my gear.  Zappa’s manager, Herb Cohen, came to pick it up while my band was finishing a rehearsal.  They liked what they heard, wanted to hear more songs, so we played a few more. They thought our singer was a star (which he was), and decided to sign him and bring him to Los Angeles. The singer negotiated to bring me along with him.  Bless him.  I think that was actually the first time I ever flew in a plane. This was late 1972.  So that is how I ended up in California. There is a great deal more to that story, but that is the short answer.  I am glad it happened... my life would be completely different if not for that one event; Zappa's broken Leslie speaker. 

You became touring keyboardist for Crosby Stills and Nash band from 1977 onward, and joined Poco’s band when they were once again a quintet, back in 1978. Also you collaborated with Yes; Peter, Paul and Mary; Tori Amos; Weird Al Yankovic; Art Garfunkel; Julieta Venegas, to name a few. What about all those experiences?

wow.. that is too broad of a question. I could write a book on each one of those experiences..I don't know how to narrow that question down......except to say that, yes, I have had the chance to make music with some amazing people. Every experience was a gift, and I learned a lot from all of them. 

You were also involved in the producing of such successful soundtracks, like “10 Things I Hate About You”, “Wedding Planner” or “Karate Kid III”, and you have credits on Disney’s “Tarzan” and “Country Bears”. What are the essential elements you need to make a great soundtrack record? Is there any difference between recording a soundtrack album than an original one?

Hey, you left out one my proudest moments... producing "Freedom Isn't Free"  for “Team America, World Police.”  We did that live, in one take, in my studio in Tarzana !!

I love doing songs and music for movies, because the song has a specific purpose it is supposed to do.  It has a job.  The confinement of assignment makes decisions much easier.

But your question was, how is it different… Technically speaking, for a soundtrack, we deliver separate sub mixes (stems) so the film mixing engineer can place music into the movie mix better, especially if there is competing dialog and background effects.  We use various forms of limiting and mastering when delivering a stereo mix for a CD, but music for film seems to work better with a wider dynamic range, so we use limiting differently, more sparingly.  

Maybe you know I have here in AllSongsList a Comittee of Experts. That’s a list of ten eltonites from 10 countries which I asked things related to Elton, just to create a current opinion from fans theyself. I invited for this interview one of them, Wim Greven, from Holland, and he wants to ask you some questions, Kim, do you mind? Wim, you’re ready? Go on, then:

How it feels to step into the Elton John band after such the great loss of Guy Babylon? Was it a difficult decision for you?

The decision itself was not hard.  When asked to play music with such a great band, and with an icon like Elton, the answer is always going to be ‘yes’……after that,  you figure out how to make it all work. 

I wanted to make the transition as smooth as possible, so I did a lot of homework on my own, trying to limit the amount of rehearsal  the band would have to do. I figured that was a way for me to serve the situation.  Davey really stepped up as band leader during that very rough time and handled everything in a super cool way; he set me up for success, and I am very grateful to him for that.  

Guy Babylon was a fine musician, a lovely guy with a wonderful family, and he meant a lot to everyone.  His loss put this touring family into shock… people were grieving. I was aware that different people have different grieving processes, and I was aware that my presence would  trigger some sadness for some people. There was nothing I could do about that except be compassionate towards everyone, knowing that if they were not particularly outgoing towards me, that they were probably having a difficult time with the situation, not with me personally. All I focused on was how to be of service to Elton, the crew, the band, everybody, so I kept suiting up and showing up and tried to be professional. 

The other side of that, the good thing about having Guy precede me, was that he took the keyboard parts to Elton’s songs to a very high level.  He did this job for a long time.  I got to use that experience, and add my own touches as I went along.  If I shine at all up there,  it is because he lit the way. 

How did you manage to learn the songs of Elton in such a short period of time? 

Endless repetition.   I set up a duplicate of Elton’s touring keyboard rig and played along to a show that Bob Birch gave to me.  Bob was an enormous help, too; he followed up with me all the time to make sure I had everything I needed. 

Also, I had Tony Smith, the keyboard tech, helping me out.  As you might expect, Elton has the best touring crew in the business, and Tony has been there for a long time.  He constantly does work on the keyboards,  updating things, programming sounds, etc. He was a calming, positive influence as I was trying to assimilate into the organization. He makes my job easy.

And how did the band members responded to you after the first performance? 

They were extremely generous.  I was horrified, because, having never rehearsed with the full production of the Red Piano show,  I missed some technical cues.  It was just one or two small things, but my expectation was that I should do it perfectly, so I thought the world was going to end.  But the guys in the band, and Elton, were all totally cool…. I got the cues right by the next show, but, man, there was a lot to stuff to remember on that first show.  Also, having Elton John right in front of you for the first time, playing songs you grew up with,  is kind of an out-of-body experience.  It was very disorienting; I did not know what planet I was on. 

Is it a big difference to play in a band like Crosby, Stills Nash & Young or do it with Art Garfunkel, in comparing with Elton’s band?

Those three acts are very different musically, but I think the most different thing about those experiences for me, personally, is the time period they happened in.  Whatever you do in your 20’s is going to seem a lot different than if you were doing the same thing in your 40’s, and the first time you do something is always more exciting than the 100th time.  Regarding the time period, music meant something different to people in the 60’s and 70’s; it was more socially relevant.  In the 70’s when I toured with Crosby Stills and Nash, there was still an afterglow of the idealism from the 60’s permeating everything around that camp, which stemmed from the music itself, which was anti-establishment, activist, hippie music, with direct lineage to 1969 San Francisco, summer of love, Laurel Canyon, all of that. Graham and David still had houses in San Fransisco.   Think about the lyrics to “Wooden Ships”,  “Ohio,” or “For What Its Worth.” That music was attached to a huge generational and political sea change that happened from 1969 through 1972, which gave music, and that band in particular, a cultural relevance that not a lot of music has had since.  It was a different time.  And of course, I was  young then, so it all had a huge impact on me.   Joni Mitchell would come around, as did Judy Collins… James Taylor or Art Garfunkel would drop in to visit David and Graham, Ted Kennedy would come hang with Steven… we actually did a stadium tour with the Grateful Dead at one point.  That’s a lot of hippies!! Everyone’s stories were captivating for me.  Crosby was tight with Janis Joplin when she was alive, so she and Jimi Hendrix were talked about as if they were still alive…. it was all heady stuff for a 22 year old kid from Georgia.  My life through that time period was like watching a really cool movie, but  also being in the movie.  Also, while there was love between the three guys, there was also a great deal of volatility, and there was more decadent, crazy stuff going on than I had ever seen, so it all had a big impact on me. 

I started touring in the mid 70’s with Veronique Sanson in France.  Playing music, rock and roll touring, was a counterculture enterprise then.  The rebellious nature in the music was reflected in the touring business itself.  I remember lots of suitcases filled with cash…  concert promotors were more like wildcatters.  There was the settlement that happened after the show in the back room…  you never know if the promoter would try to get out of his commitments, maybe draw a gun.  People in rock and roll were more like pirates; touring reflected the spirit of the music of the time; it was a subculture, like a drug deal, in a way.. it was not Wall Street and accountants.   In France, with Vero,  gypsies would rent us tents to do concerts in, and then grab Vero by the throat at knifepoint to try to settle some difference they had with the promoter. I remember our promotor smashing a bottle of wine and holding the broken glass to someone’s face to settle a score. Needless to say, that stuff doesn’t happen with Elton…. well, at least I haven’t seen it!!

Back to your question, about the differences, musically one difference is that with CSN, they intentionally under-rehearsed.  We hit the road playing big arenas, and  I literally had never played about a third of the songs with them before.  They just figured I knew them. They liked the idea that the show was on the edge a bit, that anything might happen; they never wanted to be on auto-pilot, they kind of liked the rush of keeping things fresh…. its probably why they did not tour very much. 

But what all of the acts you mention have in common is they have fantastic set lists. As far quality and the enduring nature of songs, Bridge over Troubled Water, Sounds of Silence, Mrs. Robinson, are right up there with Elton John songs as some of the best songs ever written. These are songs that will be around long after all of us are gone.  So that was the same... I got to play some of the best songs ever written by working with all the people I have worked with. 

But really, you can't compare anybody with Elton John.  He is mega. What is different is how much energy Elton has, and frankly, how loud it is.  It is a full blown rock show. With Art, the stage volume is VERY low. On a loudness scale of 1-10, with Art, we danced in and explored the nuances between 1 and 2 every night. It was all about extreme sensitivity and subtlety.  We had fantastic pool of musicians on that gig including drummers like Steve Gadd and Tommy Igoe, so playing really soft worked, and it gave room for Art to use his incredible voice the way it should be used.  Those shows sounded fantastic.  With Elton, we START where most bands finish, on 10,  and then go up from there. He comes out on fire and you just have to hang on for the ride. Elton is a monster. 

I have to add something here; Everyone knows that he does a great deal of philanthropic work that he is public about, the AIDS foundation, etc, but what I have seen in the  time I have been involved with him, is that he does good things for people all the time, quietly, without fanfare, as well. I have seen that he cares deeply for the people around him, and that he is generous with his time and resources in ways that no one will ever read about.  This is when you see someone’s true character. So yes, I am lucky to get to play  music with Elton, and I would certainly be here just for the music.  But I am truly blessed because in addition to being a great songwriter, performer, and all of that, he is a good man.

Sorry, I’m talking a lot… and getting a little off track.

What is the next question?

Is it true that you also played with Helen Reddy? She's one of my favourite artists too. Such a beautiful recognizable voice, hasn’t she?

Yes she does, a fantastic voice, but your detective work is off there, Wim.  I never worked with Helen Reddy..  I did do some intense work with Bette Midler for a bit, and I worked with Cher, Oliva Newton John, Rita Coolidge, and some other pop female artists kind of like Helen Reddy, but never Helen Reddy. 

Thank you Wim. 

Kim: have you been an Elton fan before? Remember the first time you heard Elton’s music and what moves you to buy his music, in that case?

I have always been an Elton fan. First and foremost, he made it cool to be a piano player.  He gave us all hope!  But what moved me about Elton, as a fan, is that there is a certain “cry” in his voice, in his soul, that connected with me, and of course with millions of other people..  No matter what he sings, you believe what he is saying.  He touches people.  And there was just this energy about where he was coming from; he had such commitment to what he was doing, that it forced you to pay attention.  I loved his phrasing. People might not categorize Elton as a “soul” singer, per se,  because he is a white British dude, but he is a very soulful singer.  The way he phrases, comes off notes, is like the great soul singers… like Ray Charles. There are certain moments on stage where I imagine he IS Ray Charles, which is really fun for me, because that means I get to imagine that I’m Billy Preston!!  

I was a big fan of the band, too, the whole package of the early Elton stuff...  Elton, Nigel, Dee, and Davey hit some high plateaus of creative synergy together. I loved the fact that the guys who played live were the same guys who recorded with Elton. The whole unit, the whole thing, had a great personality  to it that was not lost on us fans.

Asking to Katy Rose about your collaboration with her, producing her debut album, she said: “I've worked with so many musicians and producers all across the spectrum, and I still always chose him for the job when I need something to sound perfect". How’s working with her? She’s a great and talented artist too. Also said: “Being his daughter has definitely moulded me into the artist I am today”. Could you quote on her, Kim?

I can’t begin to explain the intricacies of that relationship, and I wouldn’t want to try.  Getting the opportunity to work with her has given me an unparalleled life experience, one that most fathers don't get to experience, one that makes writing and creating with other people seem a bit pale, because the experience with her has so many layers to it.  

But besides the fact that I have known her since her first breath, on a  professional level, I simply enjoy working with her.  She works fast, she’s a great lyricist, and has that ‘thing’ in her voice, too… a quality in her voice that reaches people.  My daughter Madelyn has many unique talents, too... she is brilliant at everything she does, and is one of the best people I know.  I am humbled and very blessed to get to share my life with both of them…and their Mom.  

I am always excited to work with Katy, because I respect real artists, and that is what she is; always has been.  She is working on an  EP right now, that should be coming out soon.  I hope you get to check it out. You can ‘like’ her and follow her on  and also get info on  Also, I think she has just started putting up videos on . 

Could you explain something about your future projects with Elton’s band, Kim?

We are doing some recording projects with Elton right now, as a matter of fact.  It is all going really well… we were in the studio for a few weeks recently,  had a great time, and came up with some great music. I don’t know what will ultimately happen, or when new material will come out, but Elton is a very creative guy, likes to keep moving forward, so I’m sure something will be announced soon.

Apart from music, which are your interests? What you like to do with your off time?

It might not sound true, but in all seriousness, I don’t have off time. I am always busy..  I try to hang on to my health, I do yoga whenever I can.. for fun I look at old footage of great B3 players like Jimmy Smith on Youtube, and I try to spend time with my friends and family. 

Oh, finally, could you tell me your five favourite Elton's songs in running order, for my AllSongsList, where I tried to find the best of Elton’s songs ever?

I need You to Turn to
Where to now St peter
Tiny Dancer
Madman Across the Water

Thanks so much Kim. A truly great experience.

It was a pleasure talking with you, Miguel. Elton has the best fans. I look forward to seeing you at a show soon.

Sure. And yes Elton has best fans because he is the greatest and has the best band he could wish. Thanks again Kim Bullard, hope you enjoyed the Week Of... We are so expected to see your work and your credits on the new album. God Bless You!!!

Oh, before you go, we have some guests here, they would love to share something with you:

"Kim is a great guy and excellent musician/producer. I give him my best" (Jimmy Z, musician, has appeared and acted in the movies “Georgia,” “The Doors,” “Wild at Heart,” and “The Shrink Is In”, as well as concert films with Rod Stewart, Tom Petty, the Eurythmics, Jaguares, and Etta James)

Kim Bullard Photographed by Brian Powers, courtesy of Kim Bullard
Katy Rose picture with Kim Bullard courtesy of Katy Rose

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