Earlier this year, the music world welcomed the incarnation of a new power trio with The Winery Dogs, a talent-studded rock band bursting with the collective skills of singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy. The group’s self-titled debut dropped over the summer to immediate critical acclaim; not long after, the band hit the road to share their work with fans scattered around the world. After months of touring, The Winery Dogs are taking a break for the holidays before gearing up for another round in March 2014. At home in Los Angeles, enjoying some well-earned time off, Kotzen spoke with Blues Rock Review over the phone to discuss how rock’s latest super group came to be.
How did The Winery Dogs first come together?
The band was put together by the New York-based deejay Eddie Trunk, and Eddie has a TV show on VH1 called That Metal Show. Eddie has been a friend of mine for many years, and the story goes: Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy had been working together in various projects, and they wanted to do an original band together – something in the format of a power trio. They needed a guitar player who could sing and write songs, and so Eddie Trunk suggested they call me. One day the phone rang, and it was Mike Portnoy; he told me he was a fan of my solo work and he was interested in doing this project with Billy Sheehan and wanted to know if I would be up for it. We got together at my house in L.A. – I have a room here where there’s instruments set up – and we started playing together, and it was a lot of fun; we had a bunch of ideas that later evolved into songs. That’s how it all got started.
Was it during that first jam session that you knew you had stumbled upon something special?
Yeah, it really was very fast. We got together and started throwing ideas around, and that’s how musicians work: one guy will start playing something, and then the other guys start playing along, and someone else will say, “Oh, try this,” and from there it hopefully evolves into something musical, and it did for us. It was very cool and easy. We ended up continuing in that path. I think we had maybe seven or eight songs that were written that way when we started making music together, and then I later finished the songs by writing the vocals, melodies, and lyrics. The rest of the record was made up of material I had written prior to coming into the band, and I remember playing them a lot of ideas and songs, and we sat down and decided which would be the best to use for The Winery Dogs. I think if you look at the whole process of the record, it probably was a three-month process from beginning to end, if you added all the time together from when we first met to when we actually mixed the record and called it finished.
That’s pretty impressive – three months is fast for bands nowadays.
Yeah, it was pretty good; it was effortless and easy, and that’s really the way it should be when you’re working together. You don’t want to have to be in the studio laboring over things. If it’s not fun and creative, there’s no reason to do it.
How did the band get its name?
That’s the name I lobbied pretty hard for. We had a long list of names, and I remember I never really liked any of them. One day I was out with a friend of mine, and I remember saying, “We’re having a hard time naming the band.” He said something to the effect of “the winery dogs,” and I said, “What’s that? That sounds cool.” He said, “Well, winery dogs were used to guard vineyards to keep pests away and keep them from eating all the grapes.” I said, “That’s kind of interesting. I’d love to use that for a band name: The Winery Dogs.” For me, it just sounds like one of the bands from the late 1960s or early 1970s, which is where our inspiration for this record was pulling from. So I threw it at the guys, and Mike was a little resistant on it; Billy liked it right away. After a hard sell to Mike, we ended up agreeing on it. Now it’s the name of the band, and I can’t imagine it being called anything else.
In addition to your solo career, you have been involved with a number of bands, including big-name groups like Poison and Mr. Big. Are there any elements from previous projects such as these that resurface in your current work with The Winery Dogs?
Musically, probably nothing. To be really honest, neither of those bands have much to do with where I’m coming from as a musician. What made me play as a young kid was music by artists like Jimi Hendrix and Cream, and even a lot of the soul artists like Stevie Wonder and Sly and the Family Stone. Those bands don’t really mean much to me as far as musical experience, other than the fact that it was a good opportunity to get known, write with people and explore that avenue. On this record with The Winery Dogs, what’s interesting for me is that it’s the first time I’m in a band from ground zero. I’m not coming in to something that’s already been established – it’s something that’s brand new.
I’ve also been a solo artist my whole life. From 1989 until now, if you look at my discography I’ve averaged about a record a year, so I’m very settled in with what I do. For me to break out of that world of putting out my own records, it needs to be something interesting and special. That’s why when we got together with The Winery Dogs what excited me was the idea of doing what I naturally do – which is sing, play guitar and write – but actually taking some of the weight off my shoulders and working with some other people in the same style of music I’ve always done. There are a lot of parallels between what this record is and what my last couple of records have been, but you can also hear the identities of Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy shining through, which adds something very unique and special to the record.
Of all the records you’ve created over the years, does one in particular stand out in its impact on you as a musician?
One of the most significant records for me is a record called Into the Black. It was the first time I made a record and released it without a record company involved. A lot of times an artist will have certain ideas and perceptions of what they want to do with their music, and it can get sidetracked very easily by outside input from people that aren’t necessarily in the studio with them. When I did Into the Black, I had written a bunch of songs, and I went in casually and recorded my songs over the course of one summer. By the end of it, I had 10 songs, and I thought, “This is the most honest record I have ever made.” I didn’t have anyone in my ear saying, “Don’t do that,” or “Do this,” or “Try that” – it really was a pure, honest effort. So I decided to release it on my own. In the end, the opening track, “You Can’t Save Me,” has become my most downloaded song out of all the songs I’ve ever released. The thing that I find interesting is, that’s the point where I made a record and thought, “I’m going to lock myself away and isolate myself from any outside input creatively and see what I come up with.” I’m not saying I need to do that every time, because I don’t want to do that every time – I like working with other people as well – but it was interesting that I got a great result by locking myself away and trusting my instincts.
Many critics have praised you over the years for the sweeping guitar elements you incorporate into your playing. How did you come into that style?
I came up at a time when there was a certain group of guitar players who were really pushing the technical aspect of things and trying to play things on the instrument that hadn’t really been played before. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a lot of amazing rock guitar players who were trying different things and trying to take what guys like Eddie Van Halen had introduced to another level. So you had guys like Jason Becker, Paul Gilbert and Greg Howe – they’re all signed to Shrapnel Records. For me, as a teenager I became focused on that and wanted to be a part of that group of guys. By the time I was 18, I was signed to Shrapnel Records as well. Back then, we all had our unique things that made us a little different. One of the things I developed was what they call the legato technique, and also what you pointed out with the sweeping, and so that kind of became my thing for a period of time. Eventually, I started changing: my tastes changed, and as I became more comfortable being a lead singer my guitar style completely changed. Now I don’t even use a guitar pick – most of the time I’m playing with my fingers. There’s no sweep picking at all in my repertoire anymore. It’s interesting to look at an over 20-year span to see the evolution and how people can change and grow. I think that’s important. I certainly wouldn’t want to look at where I am now and look back 20 years and say, “I’m pretty much doing the exact same thing I did when I was 18.” I think that would be a sense of failure with the way I look at things – I like the idea of growth, change and moving forward to explore new things, and that’s what I think I’ve been able to do over the course of time: evolve as a musician.
As a songwriter, where do you find inspiration?
Sometimes there’s nothing – there’s no inspiration. In those instances, I just don’t write. Other times it’s easy to write. It’s hard to pinpoint where that comes from. I have a theory, and I really think it comes from a balance in life: the time I actually spend as a musician, writing and recording, but then you have to spend a certain amount of time away from that, living and experiencing things that are completely unrelated to music. That gives you your depth as a person. If you’re locked in a room with a guitar 24 hours a day, you could probably become a great technician on the instrument – your fingers and muscles will develop and you’ll be able to do some amazing things – but without going outside and living and experiencing life, it’s going to be very difficult to write something outside of your perception of what happens in that room. After a little while, you’re going to run out of things to talk about. For me, it’s getting away from music and living and doing things, and then suddenly you have an idea. Believe it or not, oftentimes ideas come at night, right when you’re about to fall asleep. Your mind’s relaxed, you’re not really thinking of anything. At that point, ideas tend to show up. I’ve actually woken myself up to document ideas that later became songs that ended up on records. There are other times where I’ve been in a restaurant, and I’m sitting there and suddenly I hear a melody and I literally would run outside and pull out my recorder on my phone and throw the idea down, and later work a song out of it. Other times, you might have a lyric idea: somebody might say something and you go, “Oh, that sounds like a song title,” and it’ll hit you. Writing is like a muscle, as well: you have to try things, you have to trust your instincts, and the minute you start judging yourself you freeze your creativity.
One of the tracks we highlighted in our review of The Winery Dogs was the album’s first single, “Elevate.” Can you tell me a bit about the writing process behind the track?
That song was very interesting in the way it came to be. The song itself is made up of two different songs. That opening riff and the verse where I sing those opening lines and the power chord; those two sections and the middle bridge section – that riff I solo over and the riff I sing over that leads back to the chorus – all those sections lived in a different song that I wrote and demoed. I had played them that song, and the chorus that I had with it was incomplete. However, I remember they liked all the elements of the song, with the exception of the chorus. Then I played a bunch of other things, and the chorus that’s in “Elevate” now was in a different song. I remember Mike said, “Wow, I really like that chorus. We should use it for something.” A couple days later, Mike said, “I have a great idea. Let’s take that “Elevate” chorus and put it with that other riff, verse and bridge we liked.” We did that, and that’s how “Elevate” came to be: it was pulled from two different songs and put together. I remember initially the lyric I was singing was “Elevate, you take me higher,” and I remember Mike said, “No, you’ve got to say ‘me’: ‘Elevate me take me higher.’” Little comments like that, from an outside perspective, can change the entire song. That’s something I never would have thought to do: I never would have joined those two songs together. That’s the cool thing about working in a band.
Given the “power trio” nature of The Winery Dogs, what is the balance within the group? Do you work as a democracy, or is there an appointed leader?
You know, it’s interesting how it works – different people take on different roles. For me – because I am the lead singer and the guitar player and the primary songwriter – in the process of making the record, a lot of the final result I feel had a lot to do with me, just because I was left to my own devices. When we cut the record, we spent two weeks on drums, and then the guys literally disappeared and went on the road with another project, and I pretty much made the record. I played the guitar and wrote the lyrics and did the singing and all that, and when they came back we put the finishing touches on. So I think when it comes to the writing aspect, at least on this particular record, I kind of carried most of the load there. When it comes into some of the other things, like dealing with merchandise, picking out logos, web content, that sort of thing, Mike Portnoy loves to get involved in that, and he’s also very involved in the making of the set lists. Billy has been at it for so long and has so much experience and wisdom, and so when things get heated or out of control, he steps in to act as the voice of reason, so to speak. So we have a nice balance. It’s a good thing that there are three of us. What’s great is that we can be in a situation where we don’t have to make a decision unless we all agree to do it. It should be easy to do that. If we don’t all feel good about a choice, then we shouldn’t force the other guy into it. I think that’s why it works so well. Plus, we’ve all been around: we’ve been at it long enough to know when to assert ourselves and when not to.
Do you have any anecdotes from your recent recording process with the band that you’d like to share?
The thing that really stands out to me is the fact that everything was really simple and easy in making this record, and finding a band name was just so difficult for us. I’ll never forget: the record was done, it was mixed, and we were on a soundstage somewhere recording an EPK. We were talking about the band, how we met, how it started, and we didn’t have a band name. It was amazing – it was really up to the last second, and we couldn’t address the band because we didn’t have a name. Here we are, the record’s finished, the press is lined up, we’re doing the electronic press kit interview, and there’s no name. I think it was the end of that day – our manager was finally like, “All right guys, you’ve got to give in. What’s the name of the band?” And then we settled on The Winery Dogs. To me, that’s just the funniest thing, because usually you’re arguing over lyrics, or drumbeats, or some kind of musical argument, and instead there we were, fighting over what to call ourselves.
What does the future hold for The Winery Dogs?
At this point, we’ve spent quite a few months on the road. We started in Japan, went to South America, Europe, and did a bunch of shows in the United States. Now we’re taking a little break for the holidays. Our plan is to go back out in March: we’ve already got some shows announced in New York and Chicago, and we’re doing this cruise that sounds interesting – I’ve actually never been on a cruise before, but we’re going to play on a big boat. So that should be interesting – I hope I don’t get seasick. Other than that, we’re just going to keep playing music. Once we’ve played all the places that want us, we’ve got to decide if we want to make another record. And that’s the normal cycle: you make a record, you spend a lot of time writing, and then you want to get out and play it in front of people. That part’s been great – people have been very enthusiastic, coming to the shows, singing along with the lyrics. Hopefully that continues!
Has the band encountered its favorite tour stop yet?
There are definitely standouts. Brazil has been great for us, Argentina was great, we had a great show in Madrid, and New York was amazing. But every show is different in the sense that something different happens in the music. A lot of what we do in the solo section is improvised, so you never know what’s going to happen. That’s the unique thing – we’re not the kind of band that plays the same thing every night. We don’t do that. We have so many things we can do with the instrumentation and how we play that it keeps it exciting and fresh.
Do you have a favorite musical memory from any time in your career or personal life that comes to mind?
I did something pretty cool in 2006: I was the opening act for The Rolling Stones on the Japan leg of their A Bigger Bang tour. I did five or six stadium shows with them, and according to what I was told they’d never had an opening act in Japan before, so I was the only guy to actually do that. That was pretty cool – as a matter of fact, I remember when I got the opportunity, I didn’t tell anyone until after I was in Japan and had played the first show because I didn’t want to jinx myself. I kept it quiet, and after I did the first show, I knew, “Okay, this happened; now I can talk about it.”
Interview by Meghan Roos
Photo: Markus Cuff