Richie Kotzen Interview

One of rock’s most prolific writers, multi-instrumentalist and gifted guitarist Richie Kotzen enters his fourth decade as a musician by teaming up with Iron Maiden’s Adrian Smith. Under the moniker Smith/Kotzen, the tandem are set to release their debut, self-titled effort just in time for the music world to awaken from its pandemic induced slumber. Blues Rock Review caught up with Richie and discussed the artistic process, a return to hard rock, and of course, Smith/Kotzen.

Let’s start talking Smith/Kotzen. Obviously, the album’s origins go way back in terms of meeting with Adrian Smith. The recording took place in February of 2020. Did the pandemic create problems with finishing the album? How much of the gap from recording to release is due to health restrictions, and how much of it is due to your personal choice?

Well, the reality is the pandemic never played a part in anything related to the album beyond a touring schedule. The album was completed before we knew anything about COVID. Originally the plan was to release the album in March of 2021 and tour in April. And the reason why it was that late after the conclusion of recording was because I had four continents of shows booked and (Iron) Maiden had a bunch of shows booked. So we had to find a window where we could release the record and then get out and tour again. We picked March. That plan, that stayed. What we lost in the pandemic was the chance to do touring dates, so the record itself was recorded, written, and completed without ever having to get involved in any kind of lockdown issue or COVID issue. It was right after we finished that we found out about what was going on. 

I actually have a text message that is so strange. I looked at my phone yesterday and Adrian has just now come back to the States for a little bit, and I wanted to call him on the phone number of his American phone. I pulled up the number and found texts from him from a year ago, to the day, March 14th. We were texting about what was going to happen. “Should I go back to England?” He and I were talking about, “Oh I don’t know what’s gonna happen, maybe you should go back to the UK, blah blah blah.” So odd. The oddest timing but thankfully we were able to get this thing done without getting caught up in any kind of COVID restrictions.

On the album you can hear the interchange vocally and musically. When you were writing with Adrian (Smith) was this more of a “here’s a riff, here’s an idea” exchange? Did you pass ideas back and forth, add to them, and finish each other’s thoughts, or were the two of you sitting down, knocking out a couple songs out and then playing them?

I guess a little of both. What would happen is, we’d get together and one of us would say, “Hey I got this idea.” It could be a riff, a vocal melody, or title or something. Adrian came in with that riff to “Taking My Chances,” and we kind of worked in the music and then I said, “I got an idea for a chorus.” It kind of was a back and forth, like a little bit of a friendly tennis volley so to speak. You know, get it going back and forth until it’s done. It was definitely a full collaboration. There were definitely not any circumstances where someone came in with a song, a verse, or even a chorus and said, “Hey, I got this song. It’s almost done. Let’s see if we can do something.” I don’t really remember that happening. To me it sounds more like what you first described where a guy would have an idea and then the other guy would take it somewhere else. A back and forth type of vibe, you know, until you ended up with a song. In this kind of music, once you have a verse and a chorus, you’re really close to the finish line. It’s a matter of how you finish it off. But once you have a verse and a chorus, at least in this kind of music, you’re almost home free.

Smith/Kotzen

I’d like to talk a bit about drumming. You handled a lot of the drumming duties, in fact most of them, but not all. What was lacking on a couple tracks that you went to outside collaborators, and which tracks are those? How did you and Adrian decide who it was you were going to work with?

We started with me just kind of hopping on the drums and getting it done. Sometimes I would just put something down, so we had something to work off of. That would mean maybe I’d play a groove for a while and loop it. We could build a track on that, and then I’d go back and do a proper drum track once we felt like it was ready, and the song-form was established, and we had all our parts sorted out. When we got to “Solar Fire,” I had gotten on a kit, and got a loop for us to build against. At some point, we’re working on it and he (Smith) said, “You know it might be interesting to have Nicko (McBrain) come in and play on it.” I thought, “Wow that’s awesome!” So that’s what we did, and I think Nicko just brought that song to life, you know, took it to a different place and made it a little more exciting. So that’s where it started. Then there were like a couple of songs left, maybe two or three songs left. There were three on the record that were left and I said, “Well, I’ve been playing with Tal Bergman.” That’s the drummer that I met when I was 26, and we had played together on and off over the years, and again when I opened for the Rolling Stones in 2006. So I had him come in. Tal and I had just done a show in Miami right before I went down to Turks (and Caicos) to do the record, so I had him do a couple of songs. But it started with Adrian suggesting that Nicko play on a track.

You’ve mentioned that one of your first formative experiences was actually seeing Iron Maiden when Adrian was part of the lineup. When you’re working with him, someone who you grew up watching play, are there still times when you see him as inspiration or even a hero? Are there times when you still defer to him when you guys work together, or do you feel like you’re the same generation at this point?

Well, that’s a really good question. I mean, there is an element of wow. You know, I look at the album cover and I see Adrian’s name and my name up there. Picture me, this 13-year-old kid at a concert watching him. 

Even before the record was done, when they (Iron Maiden) played a show in Los Angeles, I went to that concert but I went with Adrian in his personal vehicle. My wife and I went over to their house and we got in the car together. We just drove over there like we were going to dinner, but we were going to the soccer stadium to watch him perform. It was so surreal and pretty neat. Awesome thing. Yeah, it really is. It really is incredible but at the same time I’m a grown man so I can’t act like a total lunatic fan, but every now and then I look at that album cover and I see his name there. I mean, I got a collage here in my office, in my studio. And there’s this picture of me as a kid, 12 or 13, playing what would now be a vintage SG. And I’ve got an Iron Maiden shirt on. So it’s just pretty damn cool. It’s pretty cool.

Do the two of you have similar writing and working styles? Do you and Adrian have similar artistic styles, or do you guys tend to approach things from different angles?

I have a very specific way that I work when it relates to recording music and writing too. But really, my writing approach is not very different from any other songwriter. You know I’ll hear a melody, I’ll sing it into my phone, or like if I hear a riff, I’ll play it into the phone until I can get to a studio. We all do stuff like that. Where the thinking is a little different is in the recording process, and that’s because I’ve got so many years where I’ve been the only guy involved in the recording process. I’m the engineer, the producer, the drummer, the bass player, whatever. I’m doing all of those things. So I have a system that has evolved over the last 30 years, or however long it’s been.

Basically one of the key components is that once I’m in a studio, and 90% of the time it’s the studio at my house, everything remains set up. So once the drums are set up and you have a tone that works, those microphones never come down until the record is 100% finished. The reason for that is, I might start working on a song and then a week later realize, “Okay, it’s almost perfect but the drum fill going into the third chorus doesn’t work. I gotta fix that.” So then I go in and fix things and change things. When you’re with a band and there are multiple people, it’s all happening at the same time. When you’re one person you can say, “Oh, try it again, change this, change that to a different process.” You have that kind of flexibility. So that process is a little different. We kind of adopted a little bit of that because it was just the two of us. I feel like we kind of adapted my approach to the recording, but as far as the writing, I think Adrian and I both have a similar way of writing. We’ll have an idea, document it on our phones, or a recorder app, or whatever it is. And once we can get in a real studio, we can work it up at that point.

I’d like to talk a little bit about the lyrics. If we take a look at “Glory Road” and “Some People,” those are songs where I think listeners can see that you and Adrian have some of the same experiences in these areas. It could be either one of you, or both of you. But there are some other lyrics that seem to be very personal. On those tracks, is it back and forth, or are some personal enough that you guys split lyric writing duties?

No, you know, we don’t really talk too much about who’s gonna do what. It kind of happens naturally, almost like whoever writes it sings it. Maybe not always, but there was that element. Basically we’d have a verse idea and have some words. A good example would be “Scars.” He (Smith) had the lyrics and the verse, and then when the pre chorus came, I actually freestyled that first pre-chorus. It’s very riffy what I’m doing with my voice, almost more of like what a soul singer would do, but I freestyled that after hearing what Adrian said in his verse. So his vocal was the verse, and then I did the pre-chorus. Then the chorus came, I had the concept of “open my arms.” 

“Open your arms,

I’ve been scarred,

I hope you’ve helped me man”

That just came to me for whatever reason. The thing about lyrics is this, you don’t always know where this is coming from. I don’t come up with a lyric like that, and picture a situation that happened. It’s not that literal. You hear things, and the words somehow come out. Usually once you have a line like that, like a top line or whatever they call it, once you have that, the other stuff usually falls into place. Now you’re in storytelling mode, you know, you kind of just follow through. But, in that instant that’s how that came about. A lot of songs, it really was like, if you hear the melody, well, you might as well just sing it yourself. We didn’t really get into any kind of hard thought about who’s gonna sing what. There were a couple songs, where it was the other way around, where maybe one of us had a melody or we said, “Hey you know, why don’t you sing that. I think your voice would sound better than mine.” That might have happened a couple of times as well. 

You came out of February of 2020 with eleven songs, but only nine made the cut for the album. What made you decide to cut two? Who decided and what criteria was used?

Here’s something that’s very interesting. One of those songs, at one point we were going to open the album with it. Alright, so what had happened was we had recorded everything and wanted to make a classic rock record in the sense of the sequencing, and the length. To me, this record reminds me of one of those records I would have had when I was a kid. And back then, because of vinyl and the nature of how it works, you didn’t have 15-song records. It usually was eight or nine. Ten was a lot. So we kind of knew we wanted to have a certain number of songs on the record. The other songs became bonus tracks. Eventually people will hear the songs.

One of the songs we were talking about opening the album. The other song that isn’t on there is one that I was kind of lobbying at one point, to be on the record, but we just didn’t know what to take off. It’s not an easy choice to make. It’s certainly not. It’s certainly not a situation of, “It didn’t make the cut, it wasn’t good enough.” It’s just like it didn’t fit this puzzle. And that’s really what it is. We have all these pieces, we have to put this puzzle together in a way that makes sense. The song that we were thinking of opening the record is a really interesting track. And then when you hear that other track, it’s going to be like another gear, like a next level. You’re gonna think, “Oh wow, I thought I had these guys figured out. Now they’re onto some other stuff!” That’s also part of why we kind of held on to that, because it is such an interesting different piece of music. It was not an easy choice to make, but I think I think we did the right thing.

You guys released a music video for “Taking My Chances.” It’s a full production high quality, and much like the album it is in the classic rock, hard rock vein. This genre doesn’t have that many music videos anymore. Some other music genres do. Why do you think this is? Are you thinking of releasing any other music videos for any of these other tracks?

We haven’t talked about any other videos. Like you said, it’s interesting how the medium is this different with rock versus everything else. We watched the Grammy Awards last night, my wife and I, and they didn’t, even if they did, we didn’t see it, but I don’t think they even show who wins in the Best Rock Album category. They didn’t show it when I was watching. I think the issue here is the video topic is very interesting, because it’s for the bigger pop acts, the hip hop acts, the mainstream stuff. The videos now are very expensive productions and if you look at some of these videos, I mean they’re incredible. They look like movies. And obviously it costs a lot of money to do that. That music is generating that kind of revenue where it makes sense to do a video for however much that costs. I’m assuming it’s a lot of money. It all ties together. You kind of need that visual to go, push the record and have a hit with it. Whereas rock, I think the people that still love rock, and they’re out there, we’re still making these records, they’re not so caught up on video or image. If anything, I think since a lot of this music is just guitar driven, they’d like to see the guys playing the parts, figuring out what the instruments are doing. It comes back to a simpler kind of approach to video, but the real thing is that there just isn’t the same kind of revenue there. If someone sells, if one of these big acts sells a million records and we’re trying to sell 50,000, and that’s considered a success in today’s time for a rock record(…) You see where I’m going with this. 

Yeah, I do.

It’s like throwing good money after bad. It doesn’t make sense. But I think we did well with the videos that we made, and I think they show us in a good light. It’s basically something to move attention to the music so people can see, “Here’s the song. It’s these two guys. Here’s what they do. Here’s who’s playing what.” That sort of thing.

Obviously, you like the songs on this album, otherwise they wouldn’t be on the album. But are there any songs or any moments on the album that you’re especially proud of, or a section that came together very well?

Well, you know I think ”Scars” was the second thing we did. I remember thinking to myself, “Okay I think we’re really onto something special here this is interesting, it’s very different.” And so, that’s something I’m really proud of. The first three tracks that we came out with, I think are really special. And then there are other moments on the record. One of the songs, “I Wanna Stay,” is one of them.  I remember when we were in Turks. I needed to write a lyric for that chorus and that melody was just floating around in my head. I’d wake up with it in my head. I’d go to sleep with it in my head. Even after I worked on a different song all day. And it kind of made me crazy and then when I said, “This is making me crazy,” I actually incorporated that lyric into the song. So, for some reason that still kind of sticks out for me. It’s something very special and interesting, but like I said earlier, what I really loved the most, to me, this record really reminds me of one of those classic albums that I would have had when I was a kid learning guitar, wanting to become a musician, wanting to get on stage and do shows. It brings back that whole thing. Playing this record and pulling out one of my Ozzy records and putting it on and pulling out a (Iron) Maiden record. I mean it would be right there with my stack of classic rock records that I had when I was a kid. 

That’s awesome. Last quick question and then I’m going to let you go Richie. What is next for Smith/Kotzen, and what is next for you in particular in the short to medium term?

Well, you know, I would like to get to a point where we can perform for people, get out there and play some of this stuff live, off of the Smith/Kotzen record. Before the pandemic hit, I had four continents worth of shows booked with my band. I’d made a record called 50 for 50 and I was planning on touring it, and that all came down. So at some point, when it’s safe to do it, I’d like to get out there and play again. But in the foreseeable future, I think we’d like to get out there and do some live shows with the Smith/Kotzen record for sure. And then down the road, you never know. Obviously I’ll probably make another solo record like I always do. I would imagine that Adrian and I do something again together. I think we could do a second record fairly easily now that we know how well we work together. So that’s something and we’ll see.

Willie Witten

Willie Witten spends entirely too much time lost in music. Guitars, amplifiers, and random instruments litter his house, yet he continues to build more equipment in his workshop. When not playing guitar, or meditating under headphones, you might catch him at a concert. A walking encyclopedia of music for sure, but the man is obsessed.

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