Richie Kotzen: Soulman

Written by Rod DeGeorge

Photos by Derek Brad

As a young guitar player, I was very fortunate to live in an area where you could see a world-class talent at the local clubs. One weekend I would get to see a young Richie Kotzen tearin’ it up on stage, and the next weekend sees Greg Howe just killing it. Keep in mind, this was before both of them broke Internationally. Needless to say, they, and their bands set the bar extremely high for the rest of us. 

Being a long time fan of Richie’s talent, it is great to see his career still flourishing and growing. Plus, it was a real pleasure to get to reconnect and talk to him, revisiting the beginnings of his career, discussing what keeps him inspired to continually create, and what’s in store for both his solo career and the Winery Dogs.

Guitar Connoisseur: Hello Richie, thanks for joining us, how are you doing today?

Richie Kotzen: Hey buddy I’m doing well, how are you?

GC: Great Thanks! Let’s jump right in and go back to how this all started for you. Although you were just a teenager when you released your first album on Shrapnel, you were already a pretty seasoned performer by that time. Can you talk about your first professional band and how you balanced that with school and everything that goes along with being a teenager?

RK: Yeah, I can talk about that. Well, you know, the first professional band, in the sense that we were doing gigs and making money, would be Arthurs Museum, and that was a cover band that started when I was 15. So, how that related to high school; I was fortunate enough to engage in a work/study program that kept me in school until 12.30 in the afternoon, and at that point, you were supposed to then go on to your job. But, what I was doing was at 12:30 in the afternoon, I will go home and go to bed. The reality was that I was sleeping from 1:30 until whenever I had to leave for the gig, and then I will be up all night, do a gig and then go to school. And so that’s what I was doing for many years. However, I still got good grades and I was a good student, you know. I was on the honor roll etc. 

But, I had a lot of experience playing in clubs and being around musicians that were older than me that I could learn from as a young kid. And so, you know, it was a great time in my life. Also, back then, being in a cover band on the East Coast, was exciting, it was a lot of fun. But somewhere along the line, towards the end, I realized that I did not see a future there. I knew that I had to stop playing cover songs because it was a dead-end if you’re a creative person. So, I started writing and we made an attempt to make an original record, we did an EP (Arthur’s Museum Gallery Closed). Although we did not get any offers, we had interest, and then they wanted to hear more music. But, it wasn’t possible for whatever reason for us to send them more studio-quality music. And things just kind of fell apart with the band, and I shifted my focus in trying to get a record deal with Shrapnel Records. Because at the time, my voice as a singer was not very strong at the age of 17. And so, I was focusing on what I thought I could accomplish, which was trying to get a deal on Shrapnel records, which I eventually did and that was my real break internationally.

GC: From an outsider, and a fan of your playing & writing, hearing about you joining Poison seemed like a great career opportunity, however, many wondered if you would be given the freedom to be yourself musically. It seems that it turned out quite differently though. Can you tell us how that affected your career, and how you felt artistically in Poison?

RK: Artistically, I felt fantastic, you know, the thing that was really …, there’ a whole long story about that period of my life, which a lot of people don’t know and I’ve told it many times, but I’ll give you a short version. Before that even happened, the Poison thing, I was signed to Interscope Records and I was one of the first people that they signed. They signed me, they signed Mark Wahlberg, they had another artist called Gerardo, and they also had Primus. So, I was one of their first artists, they bought my Shrapnel contract. And after a year living in L.A., writing and changing my direction, which is more of what I’m doing now, more of a kind of Soul/R&B/Rock thing, they decided they didn’t want me to make that kind of record. That’s after we had agreed on a budget, we had a great record producer, Danny Kortchmar was going to do the record, etc. At the last second, they pulled the plug on me and I demanded to be dropped from my contract. During that time, Bret Michaels just so happened to have been calling the record label about me, because he had seen me on the cover of Guitar World magazine. And so my record executive told me this and my first reaction was, “Are you out of your mind?”. I mean, I don’t want to be involved in playing in a hard rock band, I want to do this thing that I’m doing and so forth. And he said, “Well, I know what you want to do, and I still believe in you, I just don’t think you’re ready to make your record right now. I think that you should at least go meet Bret and talk to him”. 

So, I drove out Calabasas and I sat down with him. And the minute I sat down with Bret, we really hit it off. You know, he’s from Pennsylvania as well and we had a lot of the same musical influences believe it or not. And suddenly, you know, I was talking to someone that… it was like I knew him my whole of my life, which this was our first meeting. And he told me you know, the thing is with the band is, we’ve sold over twenty million records and we had the highest-grossing tour last year in the United States, but you know, we’re ready to go in a different direction musically. And what I like about you, beyond your guitar playing, is you’re writing. And you know, we want a writer in the band. Someone who is going to help us, you know, carve out the next chapter of the band. So, long story short, I got in the band and we made what I think was a great record, and I think it was a really strong record. So, all that was positive.

What became negative was, somewhere along the line, MTV and the other gatekeepers decided that any band that was successful in the ’80s, was not allowed to be successful in the ’90s. So, our record came out, it ended up being a platinum album, which, out of all the 80’s bands, we are the only guys that got out of there with a platinum record. We had a Top Ten hit with the song I wrote called, ‘Stand’. But, by the time we released our second single, everything had changed, and MTV didn’t even want to play the video for the second single. They’d only play it at night. And so, everything kind of got dark and all through the 90’s you know, anybody that had any kind of history in any of those kinds of bands, it was like, it was really difficult, just really difficult. And then finally, you know, with the Internet and things changing, and the artists now having more control, I was able to rebuild my career in the early two thousand and now here I am.

GC: When Mother Heads Family Reunion was released, it seemed like it had everything it needed to launch you into superstardom. The title track/single was a killer tune with great performances and a high energy video. However, with the changing music industry, it didn’t quite give you that kind of exposure. Looking back though, it may have been a blessing in disguise as so many “big” artists from that era seem tied down to performing only their hits from their “heyday”, without a lot of interest in new material from the fans. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case for you. Your fans seem hungry for new material. Can you talk about your perspective regarding the progression of your career and how you feel about where you are now?

RK: Well, it’s interesting that you bring up that record from 94, I’ll never forget it. I had signed a lucrative contract with Geffen, and at the same time, I had signed a publishing deal with Warner Brothers. At that moment, everyone was convinced that this was going to be a huge project. They say all kinds of crazy things to you, you know? Oh “We’re talking box sets, it’s going to be a twenty-year thing” and so on. Unfortunately, by the time I finished my album, the man that signed me to Geffen had left the company. He was a big part of the Aerosmith comeback, so, when they left the company, they took him along with them to Sony. So, by the time my record was done, I had nobody at the record company behind me, because my person was gone, and he was a very powerful person in the business. So, I’ll never forget, I was sitting in the president of Warner Brother’s (Publishing) office, and there was a song on my record called A Woman and a Man, and he plays the song and he stopped it; and he said to me and my manager, “This is a number one record”, meaning that song. He said, “I hope Geffen doesn’t Fuck this up”. He had a lot of money on the line as well with me. Sure enough, by the time the record came out my A&R guy was gone and Geffen sat me down and said, “Look, we’re sorry, but the label is going into a different direction, and so we’re not going to promote your record. We’re going to print 15,000 copies and fulfill your financial obligation, and let you out of your contract”. And that was the end of it, and so that was unfortunate because I put a lot of heart and soul into that. 

And then from there, it was a hard time, throughout the rest of the ’90s; trying to get another major label deal. At one point, RCA was going to buy the record and something went south there. Fortunately, I had amassed a lot of money from the couple of deals that I had done, so that I wasn’t in any kind of financial trouble. But it was just a frustrating time as far as trying to get my music heard. So, I ended up making these records, like the record What is, I had another record called Something to Say. I have another called Break it all Down. These are all records that I put out in the ’90s, and I just made these records in my garage. I bought a bunch of high-end recording equipment and made these records in my garage, just because I had to. Because I am a creative person and I like to put music out. 

So it wasn’t until 2000 where, you know, the Internet kind of got me into a position where I could reach my fan base without a label. And then once that happened, then my career started to rebuild, and I was able to distribute my records. Agents were contacting me to come to Europe and tour; to go to South America to tour, and so I spend a lot of time in Europe. For many years I was doing these rough van tours where we would, you know, my band and I, and a couple of crew guys would get in the van and we would drive all over the place. I mean all over Europe. And I would sometimes spend six weeks at a time, living in a van, driving around, shitty hotels, but building my career back up. And so that’s really why I’m at where I am now, from paying those dues. 

If you look at it, it’s a weird rollercoaster ride. I kind of started in a weird way, at the top of the food chain by joining Poison. I mean, I went from doing a couple of indie records to suddenly headlining arenas, and then still kind of in the mix, making big record deals; and then suddenly ‘bang’, somebody pulls the plug and I had to start over in my early thirty’s, you know? I had to rebuild my career. 

But somehow, and thanks to technology, and being, you know, inspired enough to keep writing, I’m really happy with the way things turned out. I’m really happy that I can make whatever kind of music I feel and then get out there and tour on it.

GC: That’s awesome. It seems like you are in a perfect place right now, having total artistic freedom, the means to get it out there, and a fanbase that is hungry for new material as opposed to just wanting to hear songs from a “heyday”.

RK: I guess that’s the beauty of me never really having had a hit. I mean, I feel like I’ve never had a commercial hit. It’s kind of a funny thing, really if you think about it. The closest thing I had to a hit would be the song ‘Stand’ that I wrote when I was in Poison. But you know, among my fan base and people that know my music, I’m sure they would think that I have many hits. That is if you define a “hit” as a favorite song. But in a way, it’s a blessing. it’s like people that don’t know me, feel like they’re discovering a brand new artist, and the people that do know me, know that right around the corner, there’s a brand new set of songs that are going to be released at any given time. I’m actually in the studio right now. This time, I’m in the studio with my band. We’ve got three songs recorded already, where Dylan’s playing bass, Mike is playing drums, the first time we’ve ever done this. I’m still writing all the material, but having them play on the record with me is creating this whole other kind of inspiration that I think when people hear early next year when we release it. I think they’re going to be surprised.

GC: That’s great! That touches on a point that I would like to discuss a bit later, regarding how prolific you are as an artist. But before we get into that, can you tell us how you came to join Mr. Big and a little about that experience?

RK: Well, you know, it’s an interesting time that that came about. Around that time, I was already in a band with Stanley Clark and Lenny White call Veritu, and we made a record that I think was very creative and interesting. We were touring and doing all the jazz festivals, and Mr. Big had approached me about joining the band. Initially, I said, no. And I said no for two reasons. The first reason that I said no was, I didn’t think it was going to be physically possible to do that and the Stanley Clarke gig. The second reason was because of the horrible time I had in the ’90s trying to shake the 80’s metal connection that I made with the band Poison. Not creatively or musically, but just the stigma of being in a band that was huge in the ’80s, even though it was the 90’s when I was in that band (laughs), that was a rough thing. So, in my mind, I love Mr. Big’s first record, but like it or not, they are a part of that era of Rock n’ Roll. I just didn’t want to re-associate or reacquaint myself with that, after having taken so much heat from being in one of the biggest bands of the ’80s. I was already in Poison, which was huge, you know, I don’t think it makes sense. So, they were very persistent with me, and they ended up coming to my house. I’ll never forget it, it was like a mafia meeting. They came to my house one night and sat in my kitchen. It was Billy Sheehan and Pat Torpey. They sat there and they said “Look, I understand your point about the 80’s Metal thing, but you have to understand something about this band; we are really not”, and at the time, they weren’t. “We are not active anywhere outside of Japan and Southeast Asia”. 

Things were so bad for the rock bands back then, many bands couldn’t do anything. Mr. Big was huge in Japan. It sounds silly, like Spinal Tap, but it’s true. And they still are, they’re massive in Japan. And they explained to me, “Look, we are talking about a month in the studio, then we’re talking about another three weeks touring Japan, and then it’s over. And then you go home and then you’re back to doing whatever it is that you’re doing here”. So I ended up doing it, and it was an interesting situation you know, each person as an individual; I have a lot of respect for, and a lot of love for, however, each person together in a room as a band, was not the most pleasant experience that I’ve ever had. I did two studio records and then shortly after that, the band announced what they called a farewell tour, and that was the end of the era of Mr. Big. 

Then, many years later, you know, they decided to reform with Paul Gilbert. There’s nothing… I mean, I think we made some cool records. They had a cool vibe, you know, there were a couple of cool songs, and I brought in a song called Static, that was kind of cool, and Eric had written some really interesting things, but when you come down to it, there’s nothing like the magic of the original line-up. And when I think of Mr. Big, I think of that first record Lean into it and it was so badass and so cool. So I, as a fan of Rock n Roll, I think it’s great that Paul’s back in the band. I think they still have that cool thing that makes them unique, you know? There’s a pop song sensibility with the crazy kind of shredding. I don’t think there’s any other; there’s not another band out there that does it better.

GC: Being fortunate enough to see you regularly in clubs before you broke internationally, the great guitar playing was a given. However, your voice and a great sense of melody, especially your infectious choruses, was something we didn’t discover until you started releasing more of the vocal material. Is that something that just came naturally, or was there a methodical study in voice & composition, etc.?

RK: The reality is, well, it’s interesting… from the outside, I guess no-one would ever get it, but the actual DNA is that I was always a song guy. As a little kid, I was running around singing Stevie Wonder songs and, you know, Sly and the Family Stone. All the music that I grew up listening to, growing up outside of Philly, you know, a lot of the Soul stuff, the Spinners, the O’Jays, Hall & Oats. So, I was always singing those songs as a little kid. And I was in a band with great singers. My first real professional band, Danny Thompson, Brian Varhelyi, all who you know. Fantastic singers, Alisa Anderson. Three fantastic singers. So I was surrounded by great singers and we were playing, even though they were covers, we’re playing great songs. So back on the East Coast, you know being outside of Philly, I was exposed to great soul music. So that’s in my DNA. That’s just really in my DNA. It just so happened, as a teenager, I became obsessed with the guitar for a couple of years, and I excelled quickly. But once I make that first record, when it came time to do the second record before the first record was even out, I knew, and I told my label, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be an instrument guy. I don’t get enough out of it. I came up with nine or ten songs that we can release, but in the end, I grew up in a band with, you know, a singer; and so I want to do that. You know, I was into to artists like Prince, David Bowie, and these great artists, so that’s really, ultimately what I was working towards.

So on my second record, and I was still a teenager when I did that, obviously I went straight to singing. The third record was instrumental. Not because I wanted to do that, but because Interscope bought my contract and I had to deliver another record to Shrapnel to get out. They said Ok, but we can’t have you give us another vocal record, because that will compete with the record you’re going to put out on Interscope, so give us instrumental record. Do whatever you want and you can go away. So that’s how the Electric Joy record came to be. 

GC: Now, with the Electric Joy record, your tone changed quite a bit, leaning towards a more bluesy/rock sound and incorporating more single-coil tones. What brought about that change?

RK: Well, you know what happened was, when I did the second album, you know, you can kind of hear it coming, with songs like Off the Rails, Things Remembered, I mean, you can see, I was kind of finding my footing. So, then the third record was just a continuation of that. It just didn’t have the vocals. But shortly after making the second record, I kind of realized that the tones that I wanted to get, I wasn’t going to get them with the guitar I was using. So I went to the store and I bought a Telecaster and I bought a Fender Strat; so on that record, you can hear a lot of that, the Tele and the Strat are on there.

GC: You have such a large catalog of material that spans so many styles, ranging from R&B & Funk to Rock, Blues, Fusion, and all with great Pop sensibilities. Can you talk about some more of your influences and how they come together in your writing process? 

RK: Whatever my music sounds like is, and I think this goes for almost anybody, it’s a direct result of your influences, your surroundings and your environment that carves out the personality of the person. You know, if you’re from Philly, then you have a certain kind of attitude. If you’re from L.A, and you grow up in Malabo, you have a different kind of perspective. So all these things, you know, it’s kind of commonality with everybody. It’s your surroundings and your influences. So say, if I grew up in the south of Spain and I was a musician, I’d probably be playing Flamenco music. So, it’s just the result of that. So, whatever I’m doing is kind of coming from; well, there’s a truth to it that I think people respond to, and I think that’s why I even have a career. Because I think that there’s no… me trying to do something, or trying to sound like this, or trying to do that kind of thing. Thankfully I’ve arrived at a place, and I think I did it very early in my career, where I kind of found myself and I trust my instincts when I’m working and writing, and doing this. And so, I think that’s really why and how I’m connecting with the people I am connecting with.

GC: Salting Earth is such a great record, covering a wide variety of styles, not just throughout the CD, but within the opening song itself, End of Earth. Can you first, tell us about the meaning behind the phrase, ‘Salting Earth’, and if that meaning inspired the chants and mystical sound of the intro to End of Earth?

RK: For the longest time I did not have the Title, and, so I was kind of frustrated like “Man, what am I going to call the record?”. Then I started reading my lyrics and there was a line in that song (End of Earth) where I said, ‘and I’m salting a bit of earth’, and I said: “Oh man, that’s pretty cool, that could be the name of the record”. Because in the song, it just means like I’m leaving something behind, you know, “salting a bit of earth”, kind leaving a little bit of something, and moving on. And so, I thought “That’s kind of a clever, I like that”. So, that’s really where the title of the album came from. You know tilting an album is always the hardest thing for me to do. I write songs and I don’t… I’m not writing a full concept, you know? It’s not like I’m sitting down and saying, “All right, I’m going to write about the aliens that come and here’s the hero, etc”. I love guys who do that, it’s really Fuckin’ cool. And maybe I will do it one of these days, but it’s not what this record was. So, coming up with the name was tricky, so, that’s really where it came from. 

GC: Now, I’ve heard different meanings of the phrase, “Salting Earth”, some have to do with putting a curse on the land, or even some more mystical or superstitious rituals. Did any of that play a role in the droning/chant-like intro?

RK: No, in my innocent little mind, I thought it was a phrase that I invented (laughing). I thought that it was, you know, a lyric that I wrote. I never heard that expression in my life until I sat down and wrote the lyrics and sang that line. And so, I knew what I meant when I said it you know, “salting a bit of earth”. I knew what I meant by that. So that’s where it came from. And then, of course, you know, before I released it, I googled the term and I saw all these other things. I think they’re some kind of industrial thing that is a reference to that. There were all these you know, references. Many of them had nothing to do with the title and then there are ones that say you know, Yes, Salt of the Earth, he’s a good guy; No, No, No, that’s not what I’m talking about here, you know (laughing). All that’s good though. If I didn’t live in my world, I guess I wouldn’t be able to write any songs, so there we go (laughing).

GC: On many of your songs, you are the only performer, handling the guitars, bass, piano/organ, drums and doing all the vocals. Do you feel this gives you more freedom as far as getting your musical vision out there or is it more a matter of convenience? For example, you have an idea and you need to get it down before it fades?

RK: Well, I think it’s both of those things, I think you know, having the idea and being inspired in the moment, and being able to go into a room and bring that to life, and have it exist beyond what your imagination is, I think that’s important. So, I think that stems from me growing up in an area of Pennsylvania that was fairly isolated. I mean, I wasn’t completely isolated, but you know, you had to drive to get anywhere. It wasn’t like I lived in the city. And so, you know, I had ideas, and I had to learn how to do things myself. I had to learn how to record my songs, demo them, and do all those things. So that’s really where it came from. So, it sort of evolved over the years, but you know, like I said, on this new record that I’m recording right now, I’ve got my live band and they’re playing on the record. I’m still writing the parts, you know. I’m writing the bass lines and so on, but by having those guys play them, you can’t help but get someone else’s feel and interpretation. And it’s interesting, it’s changing the sound a little bit and it’s kind of changing it in a way where I’m getting excited and getting inspired to want to share this with people. So, that’s going to be fun too, because so many people are used to buying a Richie Kotzen record, knowing that Kotzen is playing drums, playing bass, playing keyboard, is singing and who knows what else. But this time, this record I’m making is going to be much, much more of a band type thing. It’s going to sound like a band, and it’s going to sound like a band that has been playing together for seven years because we’ve been touring together for over seven years. 

GC: Again, there are so many great songs on Salting Earth, song after song sounds like a hit. Can you tell us what songs stand out to you and has that changed now that you’ve toured behind it, having your band add their stamp to it?

RK: Oh yeah, and I’ll tell you what, they’re all better. Really, since we’ve been touring now, it’s been, you know… these songs have existed now for at least a year or more now, the ones that we’re playing live that is, and they’re better. I mean look at the song Meds, I love the live version. I released a live version a few months ago from the tour. It took on a whole new life. Because at rehearsal one day, I was just jamming on the piano, and I said, “You know what? I don’t want to play guitar on this song. I want the song to be a piano thing”. And it’s so much cooler playing it on the electric piano, so that became a huge thing. One of my favorite parts of our tour this year was doing Meds on the keyboard and having that jam, and there’s a live video; there’s a fan video that somebody edited for me. You really see I don’t know if you saw that at all?

GC: Yeah, it’s great!

RK: Yeah, It just took on a whole other thing, you know? That’s what I love about going in and making a record, doing everything myself, and in the back of my mind, knowing I’m going to do a tour and then be able to release it live. And by the way, here’s something else. We have many shows that we’ve recorded the multi-track audios. So, in addition to this new studio record, I’m working on, I really want, at some point, to dive into that and put out a live record of this last run, because I think we did some really cool things and we were really lucky to get it recorded. 

GC: That would be awesome! I know from your live DVD from the Cannibals tour, you guys are pretty tight, but there is still plenty of room to stretch out. For a fan of live music, it’s great to hear how the songs evolve and take on a new life.

RK: Yeah, you know, that’s another thing, like this song Help Me from many years ago. And then there’s an old song called Fear from the ‘Into the Black’ record. They’ve become like; it’s almost like, you can’t imagine my band doing a live show without Help Me being in the show, you know that kind of thing. 

So earlier in the interview, you talked about ‘hits’. Although I never had what you would qualify as a commercial hit, there are certain songs that I think people that come to the show, that know the show, are interested in hearing, because they’re different every night. I mean some nights on Help Me on this tour, we would have a long jam, some nights a short jam. Some nights, I just let Dylan do the solo. Other nights I’ll jump behind the electric piano and do some riffing. So, I love all that, I love that kind of flexibility. That’s why I love my band. Those guys allow that space for that to even exist.

GC: I was surprised to hear that you are already recording a new CD. With everything you’ve put out in the past couple years between the Winery Dogs and your solo career, and just finishing up the tour for Salting Earth. It must be a hectic schedule for you.

RK: But it’s not, you know? It’s really easy because I have so much free time. I came home and I started working on my house. I did the landscaping and digging, putting in the landscape lighting and tying in electrical. I got a little tired of that and I went over to the hard drive and I remembered that we started… we recorded three songs on one of the breaks over the summer. And so, I went back and listened to them and I started overdubbing to them, then I went back to my archives and found another 10 or 15 songs that I had started recording alone. So you know, I’m realizing, hey between now and the next time I got to go out, which really, I’m going to do a one-off in India in December, but besides that, I’m not going to be touring it again until February. So between now and February, it’s completely reasonable for me to finish things up and release something at some point next year. 

GC: That would be great! Now, can you tell us a little about your signature guitar and amp and how your preferences have evolved over the years?

RK: Well, it’s kind of evolved into something very simple, you know? I don’t like a lot of bells and whistles. So the new amp is really simple. There’s a master volume, a gain control, and a tone knob. And because it’s so simple and we had space, we put in a tremolo circuit and a reverb. it’s just a great amp. The gain stage, it’s real tube gain where you don’t even need, if you don’t want, you don’t even need a pedal. It screams. I have the fly rig pedal that I use, and so, you know, I’m using the fly rig with it for various tones and delays and textures. Also, on top of that, we’re releasing a brand new fly rig, which is going to be something. We are adding a tuner to it, we are adding a fuzz option and we are adding a compression option. Then we have another option, which I can’t wait to get my hands on, which turns the delay into a rotating Leslie effect, with the speed control. So, it’s great. 

GC: That sounds awesome! Now, with your Fly Rig (Tech 21 RK5), you can basically have the venue supply just about any amp, and you just run through your Fly Rig and you always have the sounds that you want, is that correct?

RK: Absolutely, and the other thing you can do with that, that I just started doing, I just learned to do, you can record direct. And the direct sound, I mean, it sounds amazing! I did some things with the direct thing, if you don’t want to use the amp, you don’t need to. I never tried it before and the guy who built it kept telling me, “You gotta try it”, and I was like “Holy Shit! It sounds amazing!”. I mean, somebody that doesn’t have the space; I still record with an amp, because I have the luxury, I have the mics, I have a room and everything, but if you’re in a small space, or your on tour, like me; I’m on tour and want to record something and get a great guitar tone, I got the Fly Rig. It’s like mic-ing up a Fuckin’ Marshall Stack. 

GC: We’ve touched on this earlier, regarding how much you have released in the last few years between the Winery Dogs and your Solo material, but can you talk about how you recharge or keep inspired so you can continue to be so prolific and keep the quality at such a high level?

RK: You know it’s interesting, and I talk about it all the time. The key to it is balance. You have to have the balance of doing music, and for me, I got to getaway. I got to not do music. So. like I said, when I came off this tour, I went into a mode for a couple of months. I was literally doing construction. I was outside every day. I was taking the railroad ties up the side of the mountain, I was cutting them to put a stairway in to get up to the pool. I was doing manual labor. After a while, I got tired of it and then I went back to music and I got inspired again. So you know, I have that balance. The way I make music you know, one day I write a song and I might finish it in the moment, sometimes I don’t. So what happens is, I have all these pieces of music, some are done, some aren’t. Sometimes a song doesn’t make sense to release and it sits on a hard drive for many years. Like on the Salting Earth record, the song Make it Easy. That was originally recorded in 2004. I never finished it, I never put the lyrics on. The guitar solo was done, everything was done; I just never finished the lyrics. And so, somehow when I was doing the Salting Earth record, I listened to what I had, and I said, “Man I wish I had something more up-tempo” and I just didn’t. And then I found that song and thought “Wait a minute. I could do some overdubs here, finish the lyrics, but the vocal on, and this might fit” and so I did. So, that happens. You know the illusion is that I’m sitting here writing brand new material all the time, but you know, I’ve got archives and archives of music. Some finished, some not finished, you know, some in different formations. So, when I feel inspired, I can go in and look and say Ok, now is the time to finish this. I wasn’t ready for this song ten years ago, but I’m ready for it now, let’s do it, you know?

GC: On that tune, Make it Easy, the production is a little denser than some of the other ones, with the keys working off the guitar in the verses and then the big harmony vocals in the chorus. Is that just something that the song dictates for you? Can you talk about how you make some of your production choices, whether it be a stripped-down approach like your song Grammy, or a more involved approach like make it easy?

RK: You know, what you said, is exactly how it works. The song dictates. So, with your production, you know, you realize what the song needs. You hear it, I mean, at least I do. I can hear it. Often I hear where I want the song to go, I hear a finished version in my mind, I can hear what I want the thing to be. So, having years in the studio and knowing, you know, what different things to do; what a compressor does or what a certain mic pre sounds like, you’re able to make these choices and bring this stuff to life. You’re always working for the song. 

GC: Great. It comes through to the listener. Even on songs such as Thunder, where you chose to sing an octave on the opening line of the chorus, it creates a certain feel which is much different than just singing a common harmony like a third or something, and it creates a whole different vibe.

RK: Yeah, and it doesn’t have to be that complex. Yeah, I think they’re just octaves on that song, but I’m not thinking, Oh, I’m going to do a third here or whatever. That’s not how it works, just get in there and sing something, at least for me anyway.

GC: Can you tell us what is next for you? What does 2018/19 hold for Richie Kotzen and/or the Winery Dogs?

RK: I can only really speak for what I’m doing. So, I mean, I’ve got dates booked, you know? I’ve got the US tour, at the beginning of April we’re kicking off another run, going back to some the same places, but the idea of this one gets into some new places that I haven’t hit in a long time. And so, I’m looking forward to that. That will be about a month or more worth of dates, starting in April. So hopefully, the idea is that this new record will be ready to be launched to coincide with that tour. Or, at least I’ll have the first single out by the time we play the first show. So, that’s that. February before that though, we’re going to take another trip back to Australia, this will be our second trip there. We’re going to play a Blues festival, which I’m very excited about. We will be on the bill with Buddy Guy which is very exciting. Now, while we’re headed over there, we are going to stop in China and do a few shows. And we are going to fly back and then, another big run for Europe. There is probably almost two months’ worth of shows that I’ll be over there for. I’ll be doing all the summer festivals and some secondary markets that we didn’t hit on this run. So that should be a lot of fun, looking forward to it. 

GC: As far as the Winery Dogs, is that just finding openings in all your schedules?

RK: I think so, you know. I think when the Winery Dogs’ first record happened, it was a perfect timing type thing, you know? The timing was just perfect. I was ready to take a break from; I always say this all the time. I said to myself back then, I need to take a break from Richie Kotzen. And I did, I said that and that’s what I meant. You know I wanted to take some of the responsibility off of what I was doing. So when the Winery Dogs formed it was a perfect time. And that first record I think, there’s something special about that, and I think a lot of people think that as well. And based on what happened, and the response we got, we just went straight in and made another record. I mean frankly going into the first record, I wasn’t thinking, you know, I’m forming a band that is going to make 25 albums. I just figured let’s take one step at a time and that’s what we’ll do, and we did something really interesting that let us into the second record, the Hot Streak record.

But you know for me after having spent two very tight album cycles in a band environment, I was missing, you know, what I had been doing for the previous twenty-five years (laughing). It was me that said I need to go back to doing what it was that I was doing before we arrived here. And so, that’s what I’m doing and I know that they are very excited, as far as what I can tell from the press that I am reading, they’re very, very excited about the new band they have formed, Sons of Apollo. I’m very close to, obviously Mike & Billy, but I’m also close to Jeff Solo. He played me the album and I think it’s something to be proud of, very different direction with, you know, what we did in the Winery Dogs. But I think they did something very interesting and I think it’s going to do well. So as far as the Winery Dogs go, I would love to do a third album. I think now that we’ve spent a lot of time apart and you know done all these other things, I think we could probably do something creative. The question is I just don’t know realistically when. It’s not going to happen next year, and so that means that we wouldn’t be able to even look at it until 2019, which means you probably wouldn’t even hear anything until the end of 2019, beginning of the following year. So I think it still two years away. 

GC: Well, I’m sure you have plenty of stuff to keep your fans satisfied. It’s great, from a fan’s perspective, to have new material coming out from you regularly. Especially when a lot of the bands back in the day, would take much longer between releases.

RK: I think that’s another thing. You know what? I’m going to say this. I think people are spoiled a little bit when it comes to the way the modern times are. You know like you just said, in the old days, you know, it would take a longer time, but then again in the very old days, things moved much faster. You know, they’d sometimes put one more than one record in a year. I don’t know, I guess it’s is the way it is. You know with the Winery Dogs, and the fact that all of us had our careers defined before the band formed, I think that’s part of it. You know it’s like yes, we made a cool record, but you can’t expect Billy Sheehan not to play with Mr. Big anymore. Or Mike Portnoy, who is probably the most prolific progressive rock drummer in the world, you can’t expect him to suddenly stop playing progressive rock and just be in a blues-rock band. That’s the reality, so it’s nothing for anyone to be worried about. Those records are still out there, the first two records exist and you can listen to the songs from now to the end of time.   

GC: Great! Well, thank you very much, Richie. It has been a pleasure to talk and reconnect with you and we all look forward to the upcoming year with your touring and new releases.

RK: Awesome! Thanks for the interview and I hope to see you next time I’m playing back there.

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