When embattled Glam Metal veterans Poison announced the addition of guitarist Richie Kotzen to their ranks (following the unceremonious usurping of oft-mercurial axeman C.C. DeVille), many--myself most definitely included--wondered what would come of such a less-than-obvious union. While the resulting studio recording Native Tongue (1993) failed to match the critical and commercial successes achieved by it's multi-Platinum predecessors, the Blues and Funk-tinged wares contained herein effectively represented a period of unparalleled artistic growth. Recently, the fleet-fingered axeman, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, the future of the Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy co-led Super Group The Winery Dogs and the career-spanning collection The Essential Richie Kotzen...
Todd: When The Winery Dogs were initially formed, did you have any idea it would all become this successful?
Richie: “Actually, no. I initially went into this just thinking I would make a cool record with two great players (i.e. ex-David Lee Roth/Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan and ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy). I figured our collective fan bases would be curious and buy the record. I thought we would do a few key market shows and that would be it. I remember getting off the plane from making a connection in South America and learning that the record had debuted in the Top 200 at 27 and there was an iTunes sales chart for Rock bands and we were number two, right under the Rolling Stones. It was pretty exciting. From there, we just continued to get some amazing offers for our live show. ...Our album cycle lasted an entire year and it was such an exciting run.”
Todd: Once everyone was in the same room together, did you discuss what direction the group would be taking?
Richie: “No, we really didn't discuss any kind of direction. It was something that we just allowed to happen naturally. The only thing we did say was 'Let's go in the room and see what happens, and if we come up with something cool, we do. If we don't, we don't'. That was really the attitude and we went in there and threw some ideas around. Some of those first thoughts ended up being songs for our record, so it was relatively easy for us.”
Todd: Did your tenure as guitarist for Mr. Big make you an obvious choice to become part of The Winery Dogs?
Richie: “Actually, believe it or not, no. It was funny. Billy jokes about it, saying 'I should have thought of Richie'. They'd always wanted to do a power trio and had initially connected with (ex-Thin Lizzy/Tygers Of Pan Tang/Whitesnake guitarist) John Sykes, but it just didn't got off the ground. ...Then, (That Metal Show co-host) Eddie Trunk called me and asked me if I would be interested in forming a group with them. We then got together and started writing music. It started from ground zero and it became what it became. It's funny now because Billy will go 'My God! That was an obvious choice. Why didn't we think of him?' ...It's become a joke.”
Todd: Once everyone was in the studio together, was the chemistry immediate or was it something everyone had to work on within the group? Was there a great deal of commonality in regards to everyones musical influences?
Richie: “There's obviously influences that I have that those guys don't have and vice versa. ...We do have a common ground musically with the Classic Rock stuff that we all love, so I think what happens is that you've got the commonality there which is kind of the foundation and then these outside influences that are more individual oriented come into play. One of things that I was saying before about the record is when you listen to it, even though it is a band record, no one's personality gets lost. If you are a fan of Billy's or a fan of mine or Mike's, you still know that it's us as individuals performing on there. A lot of times, when you get multiple strong personalities together, you can really get lost in the mixes, but that really didn't happen at all with this. ...It was an organic thing. We just literally went in there and jammed. The writing process was that we had our ideas that we threw around and we orchestrated those so that we had these instrumental skeletons, and then I basically went back and wrote lyrics and melodies and sang on those demos and then sent them off to the other guys, and any other input from them was taken into consideration. Then there was another group of songs that were previously written that I'd brought into the mix and we made them Winery Dog songs, so it was very easy”
Todd: Was 'lead vocalist' an easy role for you to fulfill? Prior to The Winery Dogs, I didn't know you could sing.
Richie: “You're not the only person that wasn't aware of the fact that I sing which actually leads us to the point of this new record that I'll be releasing (i.e. Cannibals)... I have a wonderful fan base that I have developed over the years that buys my records and allows me to tour in various markets, so those people obviously know what I do and are aware of it, but there's a group of people in the Rock 'n' Roll community that know my name but don't really know what it is that I do. The concept of The Essential Richie Kotzen was, since there are twenty albums out there with my name on it, to make one product that someone could go out and buy and actually learn what it is that I do and what I have been doing for the last fifteen years. So that was the idea behind the record and I was really just inspired by, you know, people like yourself. There were a lot people who were like 'I knew Richie played guitar, but I didn't know he sang' or 'I really didn't know what type of music he does', you know?”
Todd: What was the main motivation behind re-recording material like “Until You Suffer Some (Fire And Ice)”?
Richie: “The re-records was something I wanted to do to add a different element. Now, obviously I said that the record is geared toward people that never heard of me before, but at the same time I wanted to do something special for my existing base so I decided to take some key songs from the past, some that may have been overlooked, others that were recorded many years ago and had a different set of production values. I picked out those songs and just broke them down to guitar and voice and really what that does, it focuses the listener onto the actual song and allows them to take in all the lyrics without being distracted by any era specific production.”
Todd: Assuming there will be a sophomore release from The Winery Dogs, how much solo touring can you do?
Richie: “We are going to do another record. Right now the plan is for me to promote The Essential Richie Kotzen Collection. ...I've got a bunch of dates being put out in Europe, Latin America and the United States, so I'll probably wrap up that cycle sometime around the holidays. Then around the beginning of January, I'm releasing another solo album. So there are going to be some dates around that, but inside all of this, the plan for The Winery dogs is to record a new record so that it can be released next summer. We plan on starting that album cycle upon it's release. We want to be out there in the summer to hit all the festivals and keep that going, so there's a lot coming up for me and I'm looking forward to. ...I was talking about earlier. I leave on September third for Spain. I'm going to do three weeks in Europe, and then I head over to South America. I'll go to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico and then I'm coming back and I'm doing a full month in the United States. I think there might be a show in Japan that we're working on, so it's going to be a good little run.”
Todd: You're obviously a very prolific songwriter (Kotzen has been regularly releasing material since 1989). Are you continuously writing and recording new material or is that all an illusion from an outsiders perspective?
Richie: “I think it is more from an outsider perception. You have to realize that there's a lot of time. I write songs all the time. When songs come into my mind when I'm on the road, I document them. There are all sorts of different ways that songs appear. The reality is that I just write the music over the course of a year. Some years, I write a lot and some years I don't. Sometimes, I have undeveloped ideas, but usually what happens is when I have four or five songs that I really, really like, I'll start considering the idea of releasing a record. It's never until I feel like I have the perfect ten songs that I put a record out, so it's a good thing for me that I don't have the pressure of a deadline. I think that it keeps my work more honest and pure, you know? I haven't put out a solo record since 2011 (i.e. 24 Hours). ...We did The Winery Dog record and it was a collaborative effort, so it wasn't very exhausting, so to speak. So the impression from the outside might appear that I am some kind of robot that's just in the studio twenty-four hours a day, but it's really not like that. I have these huge gaps of time where I won't even think about writing any new songs and then, within four weeks, I'll write five compositions.”
Todd: How difficult was it for you to make the transition from relatively unknown Shrapnel Records shredder to bring a well-known guitarist in established, mainstream Pop and Hair Metal groups such as Poison and Mr. Big?
Richie: “I consciously didn't really do anything. My back story is that I was signed to Shrapnel records when I was eightteen with compositions that were written the year before and by the time the album was finished and released, it was 1989. Basically, within that course form the age of seventeen to nineteen, it was clear to me that I did not have any intention of making any more instrumental records. That was not anything that I wanted to do, so the second record I released was a vocal record where I was singing. By releasing that record, my contract was by a major label and Interscope (Records) moved me to Los Angeles and I started writing songs that would have been on that record. As part of the buy out, I was forced to give Shrapnel another record which was an instrumental record. That was a record that never would have been made. The only reason it was made because it was to get out of the independent record deal. ...Unfortunately, when I was signed to Interscope, I had a Producer lined up (Danny Cortsmar, who had recently died) that was going to do my record. We had everything submitted and I wanted to make this R&B and Soul record that would have had nothing to do with Hard Rock. At the last minute, the label pulled the plug on everything because they were insisting that I make a Hard Rock record and I went crazy. I was a twenty year old kid and I was spending all of my time writing, thinking that I had a great Producer and suddenly it all just stopped. So I demanded to be released from my contract and they did that for me. However, at the same exact time, Poison was calling the label about me because I had already been on the cover of Guitar World magazine and I had some good press. They wanted me to join the band. Initially, I was like 'That's insane. It makes absolutely no sense'. But in talking with my label guys, even though they were dropping me, they said 'You know, you should go do this for a year. I think it will help you figure out who you are as an artist. Then you can come back and we can make you a record then'. So I did it and the real reason I did it was once I met with (Poison frontman) Bret Michaels, I really liked him and I really liked what he had to say. He was very much opening the door for me to write and be a real band member and really contribute. Because of that, to this day I really like that record that we made (Native Tongue, 1993). The single “Stand” really leaned in a style that I loved. We had a gospel choir on there. We ended up getting Sheila E. to play on a song and we had (keyboardist) Billy Powell from Lynard Skynard, so it was this really cool, diverse record that was certainly a departure for Poison. I never felt like I was really in Poison as it relates to what they were famous for because we did something so different. I thought at the time it was very inspired. It was a very interesting move, but when I think back and listen to the record, I really do like what we've made.”
Todd: What are you current solo touring plans? Any idea what territories will you be playing the most shows in?
Richie: “It will be the same way when the Winery Dogs would tour, we go out in a bus, take my band and we play a show. ...South America is a great market for me, especially Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, and recently, I did a show in Mexico City that was amazing. It was a great audience and so we're going back. We've added two more shows there. South America has also been a great market for us to play. Europe has been great for me over the years. There was also a period of time in the mid '90's where I did several shows in Japan. Unfortunately, I haven't done a solo show in Japan since 2006 when I was there with the Rolling Stones, so right now, with all of the excitement around the new records, we are definitely trying to get out there and do something there as well.”
Todd: What equipment are you currently using? Have you been using the same gear for a prolonged period of time? At this juncture in your career, do you have standard configurations that you use in the studio and on tour?
Richie: “Equipment, for me, is just a tool to make my job easier. I use what I use because it makes it easier for me to feel connected to what I'm trying to get across. As far as guitars are concerned, I've been playing the same guitar for a long time. It's my signature model Telecaster that I developed with Fender. That's a guitar that I can play right off the rack. The only thing I did to it is sand the finish off of the neck and add a drop D tuner, which is an after market item. Everything else is the same. That guitar has been my primary instrument for a long time. As far as amps go, I have definitely gone through phases. Back in the middle of 2000, I had my own model with a British company called Cornford that was very much based off of a Marshall Plexi with a higher gain stage, so the idea of the amp was I could get my sound without using any pedals in front of it. Then, shortly after that, I got it in my head that I wanted to go out and use combos, so I was doing a low-wattage combo using the Marshall hand-wired series and then I also started using Fenders. On the Winery Dogs record, most of the guitar tracks were cut through Fender amps, but as you know, amps for me are just tools. There are certain amps that I can't play through to get my sound; they're just designed for a different kind of player. I tend to like guitar amps that are cleaner and actually, a lot of guys that play aggressively or fast probably wouldn't like my set-up because I'm playing Marshall Plexis now and they are pretty unforgiving. You really have to be accurate to get a tone and be able to control the amp. But because I am playing with my fingers, that dynamic range and response is just so essential to me and my style. If I had played for an amp that was severely depressed, it's a nightmare because I can only do one thing. It's like having a conversation and only being able to scream. I actually like these amps that are a little more true to the attack that you're applying on the instrument, so for that, I use a Fender VibraKing or a Marshall SLP HW 1959, and that's the head that I've been using with The Winery Dogs.”
Todd: In hindsight, why did you stop playing with picks? It had to have been a nerve-wracking change for you...
Richie: “The only time that I use a pick on stage with The Winery Dogs is when I do my unplugged acoustic thing and I want the sound of the pick on the acoustics. But years ago I stopped using the guitar pick because I was frustrated on the road with the way I was playing and I figured that I needed to change something radically. That night, I went on stage and did my set without a pick and from there it evolved. I just felt a new connection to the instrument. Now on The Winery Dog recording, for example, I do have some moments where I play with a pick because I just wanted that sound, but by the time I get on stage live, I do the whole show just finger style. It's something that I am trying to evolve and explore. I have my own kind of homespun technique, but there's other techniques that I want to incorporate and learn, just so I can continue to expand my musical vocabularies.”
Todd: How difficult is it for you to accurately re-create the extent of your solo material without using any picks?
Richie: “It's not that it's easy or hard, it's just that it's different. I get a different sound and I have a different connection to the instrument, if you know what I mean. ...On a technical level, obviously, there are things that are removed from your repertoire like alternate picking and speed picking. All those things go away... So now over the years I have learned to bring those styles back into my vocabulary by using my fingers. It was a dangerous move to just do that cold, but that is why it worked because it forced me to think differently and play differently and I felt inspired that night after I did it. I thought 'You know, I'm going to keep this up and see where it goes.' Plus, the most important thing is that now I don't have to carry any guitar picks whenever I tour.”
Todd: At this point, what do you find yourself packing when you tour? I would imagine less is definitely more...
Richie: “I've definitely learned the traveling thing. It's funny because when we went out on our tour, I had a friend of mine come aboard and do lights. ...He's a great light guy, but his experience has really been in a tri-state area on the east coast. On his first world tour, he had so many bags. I was joking with him and I showed him how I traveled and said 'Look at this. I've got a little roller bag that you could put in the airplane as an overhead and a backpack and all of my stuff is here'. So for me, traveling light is the key component. It's less stress. The less things you have to keep track of, the clearer your mind is, so over the years, my obsession is to try and eliminate as much as I can. I travel as light and as comfortably as I can. ...It can helps my mental states.”
The Essential Richie Kotzen (2014)
The Winery Dogs (2013)
24 Hours (2011)
Peace Sign (2009)
Into The Black (2006)
Get Up (2004)
Acoustic Cuts (2003)
Break It All Down (1999)
Bi-Polar Blues (1999)
What Is... (1998)
Something To Say (1997)
Wave Of Emotion (1996)
The Inner Galactic Fusion Experience (1995)
Native Tongue (1993)
Electric Joy (1991)
Fever Dream (1990)
Richie Kotzen (1989)
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