Richie Kotzen released his first solo album, Richie Kotzen, on Shrapnel Records 26 years ago. Since then he has released more than 20 solo albums, recorded with Poison, Mr. Big, Stanley Clarke and most recently (with Billy Sheehan on bass and Mike Portnoy on drums), The Winery Dogs. Their second album, 2015’s Hot Streak, (following 2013’s The Winery Dogs) is a phenomenal example of what a ‘supergroup’ should be. Richie was kind enough to give Korea Guitar some time just before he hit the stage in Buffalo (July 5).
Thanks so much for doing this.
How’s the tour going?
It’s good. We’re almost finished for the year, pretty much. We’ve got tonight, and then we’ve got three more shows and then we’re done. We actually do have a one-off in October, The Monsters Of Rock Cruise, but as far as touring goes, we’re wrapping it up this week. But it’s been great. It’s been a really great run. We’ve been all over the place. It’s been a lot of fun.
Yeah, I noticed that you have been literally everywhere on this tour. You must be exhausted.
Yeah, I am, believe me (laughs) I’ve definitely gotten to that point where I’m ready to take a little hiatus, regroup and look at what’s next. I’ve written a lot of songs lately, so I’m looking forward to getting in the studio and recording some of the stuff that I’ve written.
Solo stuff or Winery Dogs stuff?
Solo stuff. Yeah, it’s stuff that I’ve been writing for a while. You know, I’m always writing. I always come up with ideas. I document them, but I haven’t really had a chance to really finish anything because of all the touring I’ve done. So now that The Winery Dogs is ending the tour cycle, I’ll be able to go in and look at all this stuff and figure out what’s good, what’s worth recording, what is not worth recording and so on. And then, eventually, if I get enough things that I like recorded, I’ll put out another solo record and go back out and tour on that. That’s the likely plan of events, but you never know. I try not to think too far ahead of myself.
Awesome. Looking forward to it. I want to go back to the very beginning to your first album with Shrapnel Records, Richie Kotzen. It was produced by Jason Becker. What do you remember about that time?
Well, being pretty green, you know. I had done an EP with my band that I had back in Philadelphia, but this was the first time I was doing a full-on record. I didn’t really know much about the process. Mike Varney was going to produce the record, but he was busy and couldn’t be at the studio every day, so it was Mike Varney and Jason Becker who co-produced it. Jason was really with me every day to make sure that things got done. A lot of things I didn’t really know anything about, he kind of educated me. He had already made two records prior, so he had already been through the Shrapnel machine. He was a lot of help for me to get through that.
But right around the time that I got signed to Shrapnel, I knew that I didn’t want to be making instrumental records, but that was my break at the time and those songs were songs that I had written when I was 16-17 years old, so by the time I actually got signed and got out there to record it, my tastes had changed a lot. I knew that on the second record (Fever Dream), I wanted to do something with vocals. Originally on the second record, I was gonna have an outside guy sing the music that I wrote but then, in talking with the label, they convinced me that I should sing. I had done singing live before but for some reason I never thought to sing my own music. That was my first attempt on that second record and from there, I just kind of evolved. It’s weird. In a lot of ways, I feel like my second record is really my first real record, because, the first record was so far removed from who I really was at the time. But that’s just the way it goes. You write music, it sits around, and eventually you record. Now it’s different. Now, when I write something, I record it right away. Technology is different.
How did singing affect your approach to guitar playing?
Well, it changed everything back then because when you’re doing two things, you can’t step on yourself, you know? When you’re in a band and sometimes the guy’s trying to sing and you’ve got the guitar player or the bass player playing over top of the singer, it doesn’t sound so good. When you’re doing both, you can’t really do that. If you’re singing, you’re going to do something to compliment what you’re doing as a vocalist, on the guitar. And obviously, if you’re doing a guitar solo, unless you’re singing what you’re playing at the same time or harmonizing, you’re just playing the guitar.
It changes your playing, I think, in a much more musical sense. I think I became more aware of myself because the instrument is you when you’re a singer. You are the instrument, so you have things like phrasing. All sorts of things change. But now, it’s not even an issue because it’s just what I do. I do both and that’s who I am. And that happened very early on after that second record, when I was about 19, I realized OK I have to do it this way. If I’m gonna do music, I have to be singing, writing songs and obviously playing. I look at it all as one thing, I don’t separate the two.
That’s very cool. Now, I don’t want to talk about Poison too much aside from what you learned from the experience of playing with a band that had reached massive success.
Well, you know, it was interesting cuz I had come from a situation where we were making records for a $20,000 budget and that was hardly enough money back then to really make the record. We had to rush and do everything very fast because money and time were all connected. But, when I joined Poison, the budget for that record was two and a half million dollars. (laughs) It was a whole other world.
At first, I had the mentality of let’s just get in record and move on but they were taking days to get guitar tones. To me, it was like, why are you guys messing around so much. I’m the guitar player and I don’t even notice anything. You’re making it sound worse. Stop! Let’s play.
Cuz to me, obviously you want to get a good sound, but it’s all about what you’re playing. You can get the best sound in the world, but if you’re not playing a great part on a great song, it’s meaningless. My approach was more about the music. I remember getting in there. Everything was slowed down, really slowed down. We’d have days where maybe we’d get a snare drum sound. Like WHAT? (laughs) Are you kidding me? But that’s how they recorded back then. So, that was kind of an interesting thing.
And then, as far as those guys directly, they were all about putting a show on, you know? That was a big part of their appeal, was seeing them live, cuz they were interesting and great showmen. So, that’s stuff that I’m aware from them.
But also, they were really pop writers. Poison was classified as a glam rock band, but if you really think about their songs, and the approach to how they wrote them, they were writing pop songs. They had numerous top ten hits back then. When I joined the band, they had already sold almost 20 million records, so they were established and known for a very specific thing.
The record I did, they were looking to go in a different direction. They wanted someone that had their own voice and who also was a writer. I brought in a bunch of songs, at least 4 or 5 of the songs on that record were my songs and the rest of them were songs that I co-wrote with the guys.
It was fun for me, but I knew all along that it was a temporary situation.
Well, yes, because before I joined Poison I was signed to Interscope. They picked up my contract. I had made three solo records and then Interscope picked me up and I spent a year in LA writing and recording songs. Then we had a falling out because of a disagreement in what kind of record I wanted to make. I wanted to do a very specific kind of record. I knew who I was artistically and I knew what I wanted to do. And they (Interscope) were really headstrong and wanted me to be this kind of hard rock guy with his guitar and I just didn’t really have any sort of inspiration or desire to do the kind of music that they thought I should be doing. I wanted to do the music that I was writing.
So, we had a falling out, and right at that time I was approached by Poison. But after I left Poison, I went back and at one point I was going to resign with Interscope but I ended up signing with Geffen and I did my fourth solo record in 1994.
Wow! I was looking at your solo record discography. There are about 20 of them.
Yeah, there are a lot of records there and I don’t know how to count them because some of them are under a different name. I have one thing called Wilson Hawk (2009’s The Road) which was still really me. I just wanted to do something and just take my name off it. When you do music, people kind of pigeon hole you, so I just wanted to do something where people would listen to it with fresh ears and then later ask who it was and have to discover that it was me.
Then there was a band that I did, it was a collaboration thing called Forty Deuce (2005 Nothing To Lose) and then I did some records with my friend Greg Howe. There are all kinds of records out there and I don’t necessarily know how to classify them as solo records or not, but there’s definitely, at least 20.
That’s incredible. And there aren’t many guitar players who can go from playing with Poison to playing with Stanley Clarke, like you did with Vertu (1999). What was the mindset and how do you prepare for something that different from what you normally do?
You really don’t. There’s no preparation. Really, what happened was, Allen Holdsworth was playing with Stanley and he was going to be in that band. He (Holdsworth) left because they wanted to have an acoustic element, with Stanley playing upright bass and me playing acoustic guitar. So he didn’t want to be involved with that aspect of things, he just wanted to play electric, at least this is what they told me.
So Holdsworth left and the manager of Stanley at the time was someone that used to manage me. He played Stanley a record that I did and Stanley liked it. He wanted me to come to the audition so I went down and I auditioned for them. I played for about 2 hours and they ended up liking the way I sounded so they asked me to join the band.
But really, there’s no preparation because I did something just by instinctively how I play that resonated with them and it’s what they were looking for for that particular project. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m the perfect guy to play in every situation but in that particular scenario, whatever it was that I did in that audition was what they were looking for.
It’s a fantastic record.
Yeah, it was a really fun record to make. Once I got into it, I really learned a lot. They are obviously serious jazz musicians. Although I love listening to jazz music, I’m not a jazz musician. That doesn’t mean I can’t play things that could be conceived as jazz but my roots are not in jazz. I’m a fan of john Coltrane and Myles Davis. I grew up listening to Rock and Soul/R and B music.
But it was fun. I learned a lot from them. It was really great.
And then in 2006, you opened for the Stones in Japan.
How do you get that gig and did Mick or Keef give you any life lessons?
(laughs) No. You know, what happened there was, I had a record that I had done on a Japanese label and they were also concert promoters. They were talking about how to market the record that I had done. I knew that they had signed The Rolling Stones, so I said, “Well, to me, a great way to promote would be to get me the opening slot on The Stones tour.” Somehow, these guys were the ones in the business, but they didn’t think of it. They were like, “Oh wow, yeah, that’s a great idea.” So, basically they sent The Stones people to my website and gave them information on me and they said yes, that I could open.
And the only interaction I had was, I took my father over there, and I remember my dad running into Charlie Watts a few times and having a few conversations. Ronnie Wood watched my set the last night we played and he came up to me. I was standing there with Mick and Keith and he (Ronnie) came up and looked at them and said, “Did you hear this guy sing? His voice sounds like a cross between Rod Stewart and Bernard Fowler. Now Bernard Fowler is the background singer for The Stones. He’s amazing and has been with them for 20 years. But Ronnie gave me a really great compliment in front of the rest of the band. Of course, they couldn’t all really give a shit. They were like, (in British accent) “Let’s take the picture and move on.” We took a picture and that was the end of it. I didn’t really have much interaction, but it was fun. It was something that is very cool to say that I did. It definitely didn’t translate into anything beyond just doing those six shows. You think that when you do something like that that suddenly your life changes and it doesn’t. But I’m a huge fan of them so there was no downside. It was all great and exciting.
What a great compliment from Ronnie Wood.
Yeah, honestly for me, that was the best part. That’s the part that meant something to me.
For sure. When did you decide to stop using a pick. I’ve been watching some videos on Youtube. I don’t get it. So, what was your thinking there and how do you do that?
Well, I’ve always used my fingers in combination with a guitar pick. There were times when I would play things without a pick. But I never really tried to go out and do an entire show without a guitar pick. How that evolved was I was on tour somewhere in Brazil and I was really having a hard time. I was not playing well at all. At least in my mind everything was sterile and the same over and over. So, I thought, “What can I do? If I eliminate the guitar pick and force myself to play without the pick, a huge portion of what I do is going to be unavailable to me, like alternate picking, sweep picking and a couple other things.”
So, I got onstage and did the show without the pick and I remember I was with a former manager and he was really excited. “Man, you sounded so amazing and you sounded great and you seemed inspired.” Well, I actually was pretty inspired because a lot of things changed. I lost a lot of the technical aspect of what I could do, so I was forced to slow down and change my approach.
Then, over time, I started figuring out how I can bring some of those techniques back into the fold. I figured out, by practicing that I can mimic the sweep picking thing like this and alternate picking, I learned how do trills. It’s like anything else you know? You practice things but there are also certain things that come naturally. When I was learning the guitar, certain aspects I had to work hard for, but other things came really easily, like the left hand legato stuff came really, really easy for me. It was one of those things that I never even had to practice. It was just like BANG, that’s easy for me to do. And for things that are more difficult, you have to, like anything else, you have to work at it. You don’t just wake up one day and you’re a great golfer. You have to take time and learn how to hold your club and all that stuff.
You have to always put the work in but there is some is some kind of magic for certain things that come naturally and I think it can really help carve out someone’s sound and someone’s style and personality.
Yeah, I still don’t get, but it sounds great.
You recently played in Korea with The Winery Dogs (April 23, 2016). How was Korea and how was the crowd and were you able to get out and see Seoul at all?
Well, that trip I didn’t see much cuz everything was very quick. We were in Japan and did a bunch of shows in a row and we were moving very fast, so I didn’t really hang out in Seoul. I do remember the show and the audience was really on fire. They were as energetic as any audience I’ve ever played for. It was a surprise because you know I play a lot in Japan. Well, not so much anymore, but in the past I have played a lot there. The audiences in Japan are so calm and they love the music. They really are calm about expressing emotion. The Korean audience was just wild. They were jumping around. They were loud (laughs). One of the great audiences that every musician dreams about. We had a great time there.
What’s your typical pre-show routine? What do you do to get ready before you play a show?
I wish I had some kind of great answer but lately I’ve been doing nothing. I get dressed. I wear whatever it is I’m going to wear onstage. I make sure my guitar is in tune. I have somebody to do that for me. I’ll play a few runs and I’ll sing a line or two to make sure my voice feels right. If something doesn’t feel right, that’s really the biggest thing I focus on. If something doesn’t feel right with my voice, then I’ll have to figure that out which often times means running some very specific warm up exercises. But knock on wood, on these last couple of shows, I haven’t had to do anything. I just literally get dressed and put my guitar around my neck and walk out and do the show. I think what’s happened is, we’ve been touring so much, and I’ve been doing so many shows that my voice is just conditioned and ready to go most of the time. I’m thankful for that because years ago, when I didn’t do as much live performing, I really did have to warm up the voice for at least 45 minutes just to get it going. But now, because I’ve got so many miles on it , and also because I think I’ve just gotten so much better and more confident and comfortable , there’s not much that I have to do before I go on to play.
The Winery Dogs are excellent with social media. How important is Facebook or Twitter these days. Do you use it much?
We all do it at different levels. I know that Billy and Mike are really aggressive with social media. I noticed with Billy, as time went on, he seems to be posting more and more and it’s great because it gives an insight into what’s going on. I post a lot too. I use an Instagram app that goes out to my Twitter and Facebook. I like it. I think it’s a great way to stay connected to the people that are buying the music. What I also like is that I can make a record or a song at any time and release it to my fan base whenever I want. I think that’s just amazing. No longer do I have to be dependent upon a record label to tell me what I can and can’t do. That’s like my worst nightmare, you know? There’s no fun in that. There’s no art in that. If you’re an artist and making music, you want to be able to share it with everybody, when you want to share it. That’s the great thing about it all.
You guys do a great job. Really impressive. Oh, tonight you’re playing Billy Sheehan’s hometown, in Buffalo. Anything special planned for the gig? Maybe pull out an old Talas song?
Yeah, I know he has a lot of family here. We played this room before. The show is sold out which is great. It’s always exciting whenever you play in your hometown. It’s exciting for him and it’s exciting for Mike and I because you can feel that energy.
Awesome, should be a great show. Just a couple more questions before I let you get ready. Do you still practice?
That’s a good question. I practice when I need to. When there’s something that I’m hearing that I want to do, that I can’t do, then I’ll sit and practice that until I can do it. So I do, but I don’t practice the stereotypical way of practicing. People picture you practicing and running a scale 500 times to a metronome and speeding it up. I don’t do that. I did do that years ago but now if I’m practicing, I’m typically practicing something that’s very specific, like a part or something that I hear in my head. I had a song that came out a few years ago called Cannibals, and that guitar solo, I heard certain lines in there and I went to play it and I couldn’t do it. So I sat there and learned what I was hearing in my head. I played it over and over and over again until I could execute it. That’s usually how my practicing goes these days.
So it’s mostly just song writing these days instead of learning new things.
Yeah, it is but in that I come up with things that are difficult for me to do and that I have to learn how to do and that opens up other doors. But, yeah, it does stem more from the writing process.
Last question, what does the future hold for The Winery Dogs? Are you going to do more albums at some point?
I would imagine at some point. I mean right now, I don’t see a reason to do anything because I think that we did two really great records in a very short time. My feeling of music and writing is, if you write under a deadline or you force write, you’re going to really compromise the art form as opposed to if you write when you feel inspired and when you have an idea. That what I always try to do. And by doing that, you’re going to write stuff that’s more honest and more worth listening to. There’s a realness to that . To just go write for the sake of writing, you can get yourself in trouble.
Thankfully, with The Winery Dogs, on the first record, when the band formed, I had a large catalog of songs that were written and we were able to pick 5 or 6 of those out to use for The Winery Dogs and then fill in the blanks and write some stuff from scratch together.
On the second record, we were able to jam together and luckily I was able to turn those things into songs. But now, at this point, I feel like I have so many other ideas. I would like to take some time off from the whole band thing and really just immerse myself with some of these new ideas and then see where that leads.
As I said at the beginning, if I turn around and record 50 songs and I’ve got 10 of them that I really love, then maybe it’s time to put out a record. Or if I write, and I don’t have anything I like, then that happens. I don’t want to look too far into the future, but I’m just going to take a hiatus from all the live stuff and finish writing and recording these new things that I’ve got floating around.
Excellent. We’re all looking forward to it. Thanks so much for this. I really appreciate your time right before a show. Best of luck with the rest of the tour and hopefully we’ll see you sometime soon in Korea.
Awesome. Thank you.