Last fall, Blues Rock Review spoke with guitarist Richie Kotzen to learn about the rising power trio the Winery Dogs that he, alongside drummer Mike Portnoy and bassist Billy Sheehan, launched in the summer of 2013. Nine months later, Kotzen is as busy as ever with two solo albums on the way and a Winery Dogs reunion tentatively planned for 2015. Three weeks before the slotted September 2 release of The Essential Richie Kotzen, a collection chock-full of career highlights in addition to two exclusive new tracks, Blues Rock Review checked in with Kotzen to ask about the selection process for the record and discover what more the singer and guitarist has planned for the coming months.
What inspired you to pull this collection together?
It was actually suggested to me by the label. Apparently there are a lot of people that know my name but are not terribly familiar with what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. There are so many solo records out there, we decided to make one package that includes highlights, or the most significant compositions of my career. CD 1 basically has 10 original masters taken from other records plus two brand new songs. For the second CD, I went back and did some re-records of some songs that were significant to me personally. Then of course there’s the DVD, which has some of the music videos I’ve done over the years. So if someone’s curious to know, “Who is Richie Kotzen? What’s he all about?” This is a good starting point for someone to go out and get this collection.
When we spoke last November, you mentioned your album Into the Black was the solo record you were most proud of. Three of the tracks on this collection are from Into the Black, as well as two of the songs included on the DVD. How does the inclusion of these tracks compare with works chosen from other solo projects?
Those are songs that we continue to play live. “Doin’ What the Devil Says to Do,” “You Can’t Save Me,” and “Fear,” those are all songs that we play live, and on the DVD I think there are two other songs from that record: “The Shadow” and “My Angel.” I did say that record was significant. There are so many songs I could have selected, so it does get tricky because they’re all kind of like kids, you know? They’re your creations. It’s kind of hard to decide what should go on the record, but I try to be consistent with the songs I felt were still relevant, even if they were old. There are songs on there from the mid-‘90s. For example, the song “What Is,” or the song “High” I think might have been from that era, or maybe a little bit after that. But those are songs as well that I think we need to play live, and of course there are those two new ones, “Walk with Me” and “War Paint.” They’re both new tracks that probably would have ended up on a new solo record, but at the time I didn’t have a full record ready to go, so it was perfect timing to add them to the Essential collection.
Can you tell me a bit about the new tracks?
Sure – both the songs were actually written while I was on the road last year with the Winery Dogs. I was in Europe, and they were written around the same time. I originally recorded demos of the songs, and then I went back later and reworked those demos into masters. One of the things I was focused on with the song “War Paint” was to really give it a live feel so that it felt like it was a live recording. The way I went to achieve that was keeping the overdubs to a minimum. Oftentimes when you make a record, you find yourself adding background vocals and extra guitar parts and maybe keyboards, which is all normal in the record-making process, but for that song I really wanted to keep it raw and keep it to three distinct instruments and one voice, and by doing that I think it really achieved my desire of having it feel like it was a live recording.
“Walk with Me” was a little bit different. There’s more going on production-wise in that song, and one of the things I used was an instrument I had never played before, an old instrument from the early ‘20s called a theremin. It’s an oscillator-based instrument that you play with your hands by moving closer or further away from the instrument. You control the pitch with one hand and the other hand controls the volume. For some reason when I wrote the song, I heard it like that in my head, with the theremin playing the lead role, rather than using a guitar solo. So I went online on Amazon and bought a theremin. Initially, it was very difficult to play – I had no idea what I was doing. But I spent a few weeks, and eventually I was able to eke out a melody, which you hear on the recording. I think it adds another dimension to the track.
Another interesting trivia note is with the rhythm guitar. I remember doing several versions with different amplifiers, and I was not getting the sound I wanted until finally I pulled out my old practice amp, which is a tiny little amp called a Pignose. It has a little four-inch speaker in it and it runs on batteries. That is the actual guitar that you hear us play through that little amp. It’s funny because people always want to know what kind of gear you’re using, and they picture some elaborate set-up, but for that song it was a very simple, almost toy type of amplifier that got me the sound I was looking for.
It’s amazing how sometimes the simplest gear can produce the perfect sound – or an instrument that isn’t widely used, like a theremin. It shows you’re constantly evolving as a musician, looking for new techniques to incorporate into your music.
You never want to do the same thing over and over again because it just becomes uninteresting. Something for me that is very helpful is finding a sense of balance between long periods of time either writing or recording and taking some time away from music to do other things – just experiencing normal life activities. Then, when you come back to music, you have a new and inspired perspective. That’s important to me. So I definitely don’t want to continually record the same songs over and over with different lyrics and different production, which is essentially the same thing. I like the idea of evolving, and bringing in different instrumentation can help you do that.
You mentioned you did a bit of writing while on tour with the Winery Dogs. Does writing on your own in that environment influence the material you create, as opposed to writing at home or on tour with your band?
I don’t think it really matters. When you’re on the road, you’re out there playing music that’s already been written and recorded, so it becomes routine, so to speak. When you have time alone, ideas come all the time. Sometimes I’ll be sitting in a restaurant and something will happen – I’ll hear a melody or an idea for a song. There’s a new song that I just wrote called “Cannibals,” it’s going to be on my next solo record that I’m planning on releasing early next year. I remember I was siting in a restaurant, and suddenly I had this idea. I ran outside and started singing in the street into my phone. I probably looked like a lunatic, but that happens all the time.
Actually, another thing just happened last night while I was sleeping. I woke up and I had some idea of a melody in my head, and at four in the morning I stumbled through the house and grabbed my phone and sang my idea into the recorder. That happens a lot. I think years and years of being a musician and writing made me learn that when you have an idea and you feel inspired, you need to document it. You don’t have to write the song right then and there, but at least document it so you have something to come back to and work from.
You mentioned your new solo record is expected out next year. How many songs have you recorded for it so far?
That’s finished – actually, I just mastered the record, it’s done and ready to go. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while. It’s 10 songs, and again I feel like I’ve reached another level on this record; there are things on it that I’ve never done before. One of my favorite songs on the record – and I know I’m talking about music no one has heard yet – but there’s a song on the record called “You” that was actually written by my daughter. She wrote the piano part for it years ago, and she was playing it over and over, and finally I told her that we needed to record it, to document it. So we recorded it, and years later I found it on the hard drive, and I decided to finish the song, so I wrote lyrics for it. It’s a pretty cool song. It’s just piano and voice, and we’re actually going to shoot a music video for it this weekend, so I’m pretty excited about that.
Where are you going to film the music video?
We found an old house from the 1920s that we’re going to go in and set up, and we’ll shoot it there. We have to place the piano, obviously, and we’re just kind of working to tweak it right now. I’m actually doing two videos back-to-back. We’re doing that video on Saturday, and on Sunday we’re going to do a video for the song “War Paint.”
You’re certainly keeping busy! I heard you also recently hosted a summer camp with the Winery Dogs for aspiring musicians. What was that experience like for you?
It was pretty rewarding. It’s interesting, because people go there expecting to learn stuff from us, but sometimes the reversal happens, and you meet people and become enlightened in the pursuit of the perspective of your audience. The things that you do might be instant for you, and people are curious. One of the things I really enjoyed that we did at camp was spending some one-on-one time with the guitar players there. One by one the guys would come up, and it allowed them to ask me questions about how I do what I do and also maybe help them with certain areas of their playing if they had problems. That part was very rewarding.
We also invited other musicians to work with the campers. My friend Dave Wood, who’s an amazing guitar player, did a wonderful seminar, and he then got up and played with Mike Bennett and Dylan Wilson, who also did great seminars. They played a jazz set one night. Mike and Dylan are my rhythm section when I do my solo stuff, but that night they got up with Dave and did this amazing jazz set; there were some incredible improvisations. The camp was really well rounded: it had, obviously, the Winery Dogs, and we were doing our thing, and the jazz band added another element, and I also performed my solo set with my guys. All the way around it was an enjoyable week, and it was in a beautiful setting. So it was very active, there was a lot going on, but it was also a relaxing experience.
Did any new talent stand out to you?
There were a couple people who were really good. There were some really young drummers up there who were really good and some younger guitar players that were great, and then obviously some guys that were more hobbyists type guys, but a lot of the people who still do music as a hobby take it very seriously. The talent pool was very deep.
What are the Winery Dogs up to next?
Our plan is to keep forging ahead. I’m busy now with my solo stuff, Mike is going back out on the road with one of his progressive projects, and I believe Billy is doing another Mr. Big album and tour. We’re all keeping alive all the things we’ve always done, but the plan is to reconvene at some point next year. In a perfect world, we will be releasing a new Winery Dogs record by next summer and gearing up to do another tour.
Interview by Meghan Roos