Character is Power, a long road ultimately leading to redemption and a new lease on life.
Billie Pulera is, if anything, a survivor. He’s been a musician all of his life, following in the footsteps of his brother, who was a drummer in bands before him growing up. Pulera is a former addict, who has endured many tragic events that most of us wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies, and he’s come out that much stronger on the other side.
Part of what has kept him sane and alive in this crazy, mixed up world is his passion for the music he and his band mates in Electric Revolution create and bring to their fans across the Midwest. Theirs is a musical style that mixes old school classic rock with a touch of the modern, full of aggressive guitar riffs and heavy funk and soul-inspired grooves that all melts together to form what is their unique style today. Most music today, especially popular rock and pop is full of vapid, incipient lyrics that actually contribute to the dumbing-down of today’s music – music that’s created for the lowest common denominator.
But that’s not the case with the music coming out of this power trio-turned-quartet from the upper Midwest’s Kenosha, Wisconsin, the home of companies like Jockey Brand underwear and Snap-On Tools, and actors Don Ameche and Mark (The Incredible Hulk) Ruffalo. Electric Revolution’s music is complex and interesting, and the lyrics are intelligent, deep, and meaningful. They create the kind of music that comes from the hearts and souls of real people living real lives, full of happiness, heartbreak, and regrets, outside the hustle and bustle of the big cities.
I recently sat down for a chat with Billie Pulera to find out about what his origins were in music, what drives his passion for the band and their music, how he got to where he is now in his life with the band, and where they’re going next. So sit down, grab a drink and get comfortable. It’s going to be an interesting ride.
Brian McKinny: You and I are both drummers who sing, but we’ve never really talked about it, so tell me how you got started out as a drummer.
Billie Pulera: Well, when I was a kid, my brother was always in bands in the late Sixties, and they used to practice in our basement. My brother had a drum set, and of course I’d sit down there, and listen to and watch them, and I fell in love with the music and the life. And one day he quit, and his drums were just sitting there in the basement, in a corner. When I was in fourth grade, this friend of mine I met in school happened to play guitar, and we liked the same bands. My brother had turned me onto Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple, and all that kind of heavy blues rock – the Zeppelin stuff. So I said to my buddy, “Hey, come over and bring your guitar. I’ve got some drums set up in my basement, so let’s jam.” I didn’t even have any cymbal stands – I had to hang ropes from the ceiling to suspend the cymbals over the kit! That’s when I just started jamming with my friend, and having a turntable next to me, and I’d put on Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, or Zeppelin, and we’d just jam along, and that’s how I taught myself to play.
I play differently than most drummers. I’m right-handed, but I play drums with an open-handed technique, using my left hand to play the hi-hats, and my right for snare beats, but I play on a right-handed kit. By the time I was seventeen, my dad bought me a really killer drum set, a beautiful Slingerland double bass kit with three concert toms, so that’s when things really got serious with my playing, and I’ve been playing ever since.
McKinny: Who were your musical influences when you started playing music and what was it about them that reached out to you?
Pulera: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Deep Purple – even when KISS came about I became a big KISS freak, in the Seventies, you know? The Euro stuff in the Eighties – Scorpions, UFO – I was a huge UFO fan; Accept, bands like that. But then, I like the bluesier stuff, too; Pat Travers, who we’re booked to play a show with in August, which is going to be awesome. Also, Y&T! When their first album came out in ’76 I believe, I was a big fan of that, and back then they were called Yesterday & Today. Leonard Haze and that crazy foot of his on the first album, remember that? It was just unbelievable! It was like meeting Jesus for me when we played with them back in March!
McKinny: You grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin. What was the music scene in the Kenosha area like when you were starting out, and how has it changed between then and now?
Pulera: Well, Kenosha is right in the very southeast corner of the north side of the state line, right on Lake Michigan, just about an hour or so north of Chicago, and about 45 minutes south of Milwaukee. The music scene in Kenosha during the seventies and eighties, and into the mid-nineties was pretty happening. There was a lot of good talent, a lot of good venues, and a lot of really gifted players in town. There still are, but over time people move, get married and have kids, or literally die off. Now, it’s turned into – the venues – there really isn’t a good venue to play here for local, independent bands to take advantage of anymore. There are a lot of corner bars – Kenosha was in the Guinness Book of World Records because of American Motors was here and in Racine, where they made the Pacer, the Gremlin, and the Ambassador – all those ugly cars they made back in the seventies. So my dad, being a factory worker, bought a house right down the street from the plant and walked to work every day.
So all these Italians moved from the same spot in Calabria, and ended up in Kenosha to work in the factories, and we all lived in that little neighborhood, which was awesome to grow up in. But the scene now is overrun by open mic nights and blues jams. So there’s no decent venue to play unless you go out to the interstate, which is out west – it’s out on I-94, a place called Brat Stop. It’s a huge place, where Cheap Trick used to play all the time back in the day. And then there’s a place called the Route 20 Outhouse, which is in Racine, just north of Kenosha. Those are the only decent venues; but in the city (Kenosha), it’s all just open mics and blues jams. There aren’t any paying gigs locally – it’s always just “play for the door charge” kind of stuff. The days of the rock venue just aren’t happening here anymore, and that’s pretty sad.
McKinny: Tell me the story about how Electric Revolution came into being – who founded the band, and what was the original concept for the music?
Pulera: Electric Revolution was started the summer of 2013. I had stopped playing for somewhere around six or seven years, something like that. And finally, I did this Johnny Thunder tribute thing with this local punk guy and Steve Crucianelli, who’s my bassist now. They asked me to play, so I dusted off my drums and did this thing, and I fell in love with my drums again. And then from there, I tried to get my old band back together, which was Br6ther — which was all Steve’s family. I was the only one in the band that wasn’t family. There were six people in the band, and if that band had stayed together we would have been huge.
So I tried getting that going again, but trying to get five brothers and myself in the same room again, and it was just impossible. I tried to get a meeting together, and it didn’t happen. At that point, I was just like, “Fuck it; I’m going to start something of my own, man.” So I contacted Josey G, he is a guitar guy from Racine that I’ve known since he was a little kid. His mother and father used to take him to all of our (Br6ther) shows, and he was the kid who was always in the corner at the music store.
We used to go to this music store every Saturday, and he was this kid that was around eleven years old, and his dad was totally into everything he did, very supportive guy. His father bought him a Marshall stack and a Les Paul when he was that young, and this little kid could do all the Van Halen stuff – Eruption, and all the Uli Roth leads and Michael Schenker stuff, so this kid could really shred and we thought he was pretty awesome. So he kept playing, and I kept in contact with him through Facebook. I had thought about it for a while, and I decided I was going to put together a power trio. Steve was on board, so we contacted Josey G and just took it from there.
We started out trying to toss around some covers at first, thinking that we’d do some covers, maybe redo them a little bit, but after a while, Steve was like, “Fuck these covers, man. Let’s just write some stuff, you know? We can write better songs than this.” So we started writing. And by the beginning of February of 2014, we had our first six-song EP out, released it, and did our first gig as a band with Gilby Clarke of Guns N’ Roses at the Metal Grill in Milwaukee. It was a pretty good first gig, that’s for sure. And then I took on singing duties because there was nobody around that could sing in that bluesy style that we wanted, we wanted to go back to that soulful, bluesy, Grand Funk/Deep Purple kind of thing. With most of the rock music that’s going around today, I feel like it’s lost complete touch with the blues, which is a large part of what gives rock and roll its heart and soul; it’s where rock and roll comes from, and it’s just a bunch of screaming and stuff now, and I can’t handle some of that new shit. I guess it’s my age, or whatever the case may be.
But I figured, “I’ll take on the singing duties.” I never was a lead singer, so I taught myself how to play and sing at the same time, and we put the EP out and people really seemed to dig it. So a year goes by, and we go back into the studio again, and we’re ready for our first full album release after the EP. I laid down most of all the tracks, had all the lyrics written and everything. I did most of the singing, and around that time, everyone was like, “You know what, man? You need to get a lead singer. It’s just too much for you.” And you know I really couldn’t play how I want to play, either… You know what I mean — with the abandon that I do when I don’t have to sing at the same time. It really kept me confined, unable to open up and play how I’m really capable of playing I’d have to stick mainly to the groove and not do too many intricate fills. To be able to sing and play is akin to rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time – you know all about that, you do that. It’s tough enough having all four limbs of your body doing different things at the same time, and then to throw singing on top of that, and having to keep your vocal pitch and phrasing in time with the lyrics and the melody — it’s not exactly a walk in the park.
So I thought, there’s only one guy that I know of that’s a badass singer, sings the same style, has a killer voice, and has better range than me, looks good on stage, and he’s also a guy who I used to be in a band with back in the late eighties/early nineties with – we were in a band called Nick Fury back then, and we had gotten a gig backing up this local band called Bad Boy, which were signed to Mercury Records at the time, I believe. So we booked the gig and didn’t even have a name for the band. So I had a stack of comic books in my basement, and I saw the character in one of the comics, and I just spouted off to the other guys, “Hey, let’s call the band Nick Fury.” So they liked the name, that’s what we called the band, and that’s when we got Dave Lawson as our singer.
At first, he was singing a bunch of covers with us – Y&T, Iron Maiden, UFO, Scorpions – all the shit back then that we were into. After Nick Fury, we even had a project called Crucial Nelly – a play on Steve’s last name, Crucianelli – and we went out to Los Angeles and did a showcase at The Whiskey with that band for a bunch of A&R people, but it just didn’t happen. It was a bit of a bummer, because Dave is a recovering alcoholic, and the day of the showcase he fell off the wagon and sort of ruined it for us.
So, now here it is, 2016, and Dave’s clean, has his shit together, and is a very successful guy. So when I was thinking about someone who could sing in Electric Revolution, I called him up, and said, “Hey man, do you want to try singing with us?” Because he wasn’t singing – he did some cover stuff for a little while, but he was mainly concentrating on his business and stuff. But when I turned him onto the music we were making, as soon as he heard it he said, “I’m in, brother. I’m on board for sure!” So we brought him into the studio, and he basically copied everything I had already tracked out. He said, “I’m not changing that shit one bit; it’s great the way it is.” He just redid my vocals, put his touch on it; of course, I let him do what he wanted to do, but it was basically just re-cutting all the vocals with him singing, and that’s what is on the album. And now he’s our lead singer and everything’s groovy!
McKinny: Yeah, Dave’s singing style, and even his vocal sound is very similar to yours. When I was listening to the new album again earlier today, I was reminded of that fact.
Pulera: Yeah, we get that a lot. He’s got that whisky, 6 am voice. He’s got kind of like a gravelly thing going, sort of like a Rod Stewart in a way, but with more power behind it, which is really cool. He has one hell of a register, and a crazy range. I think him doing all those Iron Maiden and Judas Priest tunes back in the old days when we were doing covers really helped him build up the strength and range of his voice. It took a lot of gut, a lot of vocal fortitude to sing those songs back then, and he’s still got it today, if not even more so, because he has even better control of his voice now. We’re writing some new stuff right now that’s really cool, and it’s going to showcase his vocal abilities very forcefully.
McKinny: A modern band that Electric Revolution reminds me of in some ways is Winery Dogs, especially with the guitar leads, melodies, and rhythm tracks. You have very much a layered, intricate sound for what was once a power trio, which is quite an accomplishment from a performance and recording standpoint.
Pulera: It’s funny you said that, because I’ve heard that from people quite a bit, too. That’s a definite compliment, man! I guess it’s because of our aggressive style that still manages to maintain the bluesy soul influences in the music as well, especially in the vocals and rhythm section.
McKinny: Yes, we need to talk about your guitar player, Josey, here. Because he’s not just a scale-shredding, “how many notes per bar can I cram in here” kind of player, although he does have some lightning riffs on the new album.
Pulera: Dude, let me tell you! Josey is so bad ass, I don’t care! I’ll put him up against anybody that’s out there, brother! He’s such a versatile guitar player; he does everything. His roots are in the same kinds of shit that we were into back when we were growing up and learning to be musicians. He’s younger than the rest of us in the band, too. He’s the kid who grew up watching us play in the bands we were in before, back in the old days. Like I said, his folks used to bring him out to our shows when he was just barely a teenager, and now he’s shredding on stage with us. He’s really a bad ass motherf$%er, who can play with the best of them, and I really mean that. I couldn’t be more serious about it. He’s an amazing finger picker who can play any country or bluegrass stuff you like. He’s got feel and soul, too. He doesn’t just riff all the time; he plays for the song, no more, no less. Exactly what the song needs is what he produces, and we’re lucky and happy to have him in the band with us. He just brings so much to the table, even some amazing jazz and killer blues feel in his licks, and it makes us that much better as a band to have him with us.
McKinny: Well, let me ask you this, because this kind of gets back to an earlier question: Since adding Dave as the band’s full-time vocalist, which allowed you to go back to putting all your attention and efforts into playing drums, has the addition of a fourth member to the band changed the dynamic of the band’s music or of the band itself, as far as how you write music, record, perform live on stage, or conduct your interpersonal relationships?
Pulera: Well, the dynamic has changed in certain ways. It gives me the chance to open up and play, like we discussed before. But now we have some really solid harmonies and backing vocals as well, and we really didn’t have that before – it was just me singing. But now they’re even stronger with Dave’s addition to the band, because we can now do real harmonies, and it adds a dimension to the vocals we didn’t have before, because Steve and Jo don’t sing… Plus, Dave plays guitar as well, so we’re going to add that into the mix on some stuff, too. So yeah, musically it has changed things, but the core is there, and the changes have been for the better.
McKinny: What has it meant to you, personally, to have put this band together and to have set it upon the course that it has taken now? How has the band affected your life?
Pulera: It consumes my life, it keeps me going, and it drives me. I went through some times when I didn’t have music, and that was a pretty dark period in my life. I had health issues, and mental issues to go along with it, and to be able t use music as a way to move forward has been a real plus for me. It’s kind of like my baby. I do all the interviews, all the social media stuff; I promote the band and book the shows. The guys just need to show up for practice and gigs, and I’m happy to take care of everything else. I write the lyrics, too, so yeah… I’d never done all that before – I was always just “the drummer.” But now, this is kind of huge for me, and that’s what I keep pushing it, because I think we’ve got a really good thing going here, that’s for sure.
McKinny: You mentioned that you’re the lyric writer in the band. Does anyone else in the band write?
Pulera: Steve does. He’s got some stuff that he brought to the table. There’s a song on the new album called “You are here” which is his song. That’s the only song on this album, but yeah, he writes, too. He’s written songs for the band before, so I’d say it’s like an 80/20 thing. The cool thing about this is that Lawson is super cool with it. He’s like, “That’s great! You guys do it, write whatever you want, and I’ll sing it.” He doesn’t want any part in writing lyrics or whatever, because his opinion is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Still, it would be cool to get someone to do the groundwork of marketing and publicizing our album and our shows so that I could just concentrate on the music portion of the gig. I’m still looking for someone who can fill that role to free me up for other things.
What I’m really looking to find is a way to open the door to get us out on tour with some of these established classic rock bands to provide us with the opportunity to gain wider audience exposure, and to get our music out there to the kinds of music fans who already appreciate that genre of music, but with a modern twist. Like what we’re doing now with the Y&T thing, the upcoming Pat Travers gig, Wishbone Ash – if we can do shows opening for these kinds of bands, because that’s our genre, too – I mean the bands we’ve been opening shows up with have really liked us, because we’re like them; we hit it hard, you know, with lots of energy and stage presence. I’d really love to be able to get slots on Pat Travers or something like that where we could do four or five shows with them in the region, opening shows. But these buy on tours, or pay to play schemes just aren’t financially feasible. I’d love to just do our own thing, put on a festival and call it “Electric Fest” and just go with it. Who knows what could happen! Aside from that, I know if we could just get ourselves a good booking agent, we could open up more of those doors for the band to play in front of the right kinds of larger audiences.
McKinny: Tell me about your new album, “Character is Power.” What was it like to come up with the material, the concept for the album, and then the recording of it?
Pulera: Well, the songs that we had already written, we were playing live, the majority of them before taking it into the studio to record them. The song, “Character is Power” is really the perfect title track because it explains the whole album; it’s what the album is based on, with the whole positive message thing. The message in each song – a lot of it is about my own kind of rebirth, you know? It’s my life’s story set to music. It has substance, depth, and meaning behind each song, stories behind each one – every song on the album has a story, actually. I could go through each song on the album and tell you what it’s about.
For instance, the song, “Killing Me” is about what I think my kid was going through before he committed suicide. You’ve got a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and one’s saying “Do it” while the other’s saying “Don’t do it,” and being under the influence of drugs while dealing with that shit. That’s what that song is about; making the decision within a tortured mind, consumed by fucking drugs and having it all become so heavy that you want to kill yourself. But then again, the song, “Forgiveness” is about my son, also. It’s a song about very August 15th is the anniversary of his death, and the flowers in my backyard remind me of that time, and there’s always been that question, “Will God forgive?” Because in the Christian religion, if you commit suicide, it’s a mortal sin so you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven. So it raises the question, “Am I going to be able to see my son in heaven when I die?” That’s what that song is about. It’s about God forgiving my son for doing what he did. So every song is about something. I had a lot of heavy shit to write about on this first album.
The song “Character is Power” is a song that was written in about fifteen minutes – it’s just a funk groove that I sort of ripped off from Marvin Gay’s “Inner City Blues,” with the falsetto of one guy singing higher, and the other singing the low parts. So we used that technique in the verses, just that whole seventies inner city soul and blues kind of groove.
We write our songs usually off of grooves, Steve and I. We’ll jam, and then we’ll record it, and Jo will add the guitar parts, and then it all comes together. But mainly it’s all drum and bass grooves that we start out with. Steve and I have been playing together since day one. He’s always been my bass player; when I was fifteen years old, I met Steve, and we’ve been playing together ever since. I mean, he knows when it comes to any kind of fill or matching a bass run with a fill – he knows what I’m going to do and the same goes for me about him. It’s like clockwork. He’s very percussive, too, in the way he plays that bass. It’s almost like a different drum, and it sounds that way when we play.
We recorded the album at Belle City Studios in Racine. Racine used to be called Belle City. They used to make church bells there, so that’s what Racine was referred to, “Belle City.” The engineer/co-producer is Chris Wisco. He doesn’t use his real last name – it’s Yugoslavian, and very hard for most people here in the US to pronounce, so he just goes by the name “Wisco,” short for Wisconsin.
He’s done a lot of great stuff with national acts, and he gets a great sound out of his studio. He’s a good friend, too, so what was cool about that whole thing is he let us make payments on the studio time, so the recording sessions wouldn’t end up being this whole huge up-front cost for us, so that’s how we just nailed it and got it done. I’ll put this album up against the production values and quality of the recording of any national act’s album out there. Chris did a fine job for us, and we’re grateful for his help on this project. The album really sounds amazing!
McKinny: You guys just recorded a new video for the “Here we go” single. Where did you shoot the video? It looked like an old vaudeville style theater that would be awesome if it were restored.
Pulera: It’s the most beautiful place that “could be,” let’s put it that way. It’s called The Kenosha Theater, and this guy, Jeff Baas – he’s the guy who did the video, and he owns it. You would not believe this place when you go inside of it. It’s like Dracula’s castle, man! It’s old Spanish plaster work and architecture, and it’s just unbelievable. He’s in the process to get funded to restore the place. It’s one of the grandiose old theaters of yesterday, and believe me, it’s huge! But right now, it’s a diamond in the rough. If you were to walk into it now, it looks like… Say, if you were in Dresden in 1944 and it got firebombed by the Allies and you just discovered the place now… That’s the impression you get at first – what it looks like inside. But they put a new roof on it and took all of the old, decrepit plaster work off the ceiling and walls. It has a real, serious potential to be an amazing new venue for all kinds of stuff – live theater, movies, and live music, once the money for the restoration has been raised and the work completed. It’s the biggest place between Milwaukee and Chicago.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the riverside in Milwaukee, but it’s like that. It could be gorgeous, man. All the original architecture is still there, and you see bits of it in the video on each side of the stage, all that plaster work and those little opera boxes – like where Lincoln got killed in the Ford’s Theater in DC. It’s just so cool. The Three Stooges played there, Abbott and Costello played there as well during the vaudeville days. So there’s lots of history to the place, and they’ve done all they can to keep the place from falling into further disrepair, but the city won’t lift a finger to help. They’ll put money into other bullshit, but this beautiful place with so much potential is just sitting there, and it could bring so much revenue here.
I mean, if they could finish the restoration, they could book some really good acts to come through here – it’s such a nice venue, someone like Cher could book shows here, you know? That’s the kind of place it could be. Think of the revitalization this kind of place could bring to downtown Kenosha! But this town is so screwy when it comes to things like this. In the seventies, when malls started happening in the suburbs, downtown Kenosha was thriving. It was a beautiful place to live. Everybody hung out down here; the businesses were going crazy with good revenues. But when malls became the popular places to hang out, they blocked off the streets and made it into a kind of walking mall. But as soon as they did that, everything went downhill. Many of the downtown building ended up being abandoned, left for dead. Recently though, they’ve started revitalizing the lake front, so things are starting to slowly come back around; they opened the streets back up again, and there are some businesses down there that are happening, but then again there are still these empty spots – some buildings that have yet to find their place in the community and good businesses to take them over. I just hope that the Kenosha Theater will be a big part of that revitalization of the downtown area that I love so much and really miss.
McKinny: So what’s next for the band?
Pulera: I see a great follow up to Character is Power, an even better album. The stuff we’re writing now is really coming together nicely. I’d like to get hold of a real old school, John Lord kind of Hammond B-3 player to play with us that looks the part and just rocks the B-3. I think that would really add the finally dimension to our sound that we’ve been looking for. It would be a good addition to the band, and aside from that, we’re just going to keep flowing along, see what happens, and try to score a good agent who can book us some good gigs, and then do another video. I’d really like to do a video like those old Deep Purple videos where they’re playing in the studio, and then they cut in live shots of the band playing with all this psychedelic imagery on the screen behind them – I’m into all that nostalgic imagery for videos. But the goal right now is to keep scoring good gigs, keep writing and get back to recording. Who knows what the future holds, but we’re all really looking forward to finding out where this particular road leads.