Interview with Richie Kotzen from THE WINERY DOGS
Interview and Photos by Tom Leu – 16imaging.com
I had the opportunity to speak with Richie Kotzen during The Winery Dog’s final leg of their U.S. tour in support of their second album, Hot Streak. The tour, which began in October 2015, has successfully taken the veteran three-piece all over the world including several stops in Europe, Mexico, South America, and two jaunts through America. Richie offered up some excellent insights into The Winery Dog’s writing and recording processes, touring, and the musical future for both the band and for Richie Kotzen’s solo work. [separator style=”line” /]
Hi Richie, you guys have been on the road for quite a while now. I know the tour has taken you guys all over Europe, Mexico, and South America recently. Are there any Winery Dogs dates past middle of July, and into the second half of the year?
No. We’re wrapping up our cycle. Our last show is in San Antonio, TX. We do have a one-off coming up in October on a cruise, one of those Monsters of Rock cruises, but yeah, we’re at the end of the cycle. It’s been great. We just put out another single that’s been doing well for us, a song called “Captain Love.”
“Captain Love” Cool tune…
That’s cool. Yeah, we had a nice run. We did the United States run first, actually. We did that at the end of last year, so we spent about five weeks here doing that. This here particular run is just kind of picking up some spots we missed.
Have you guys altered the set list from the first run through America, or is it pretty much the same as it was when the band’s second record, Hot Streak, was first released last Fall?
Yeah, we did change a couple of things. Sorry to say, I don’t remember exactly what we changed, but I know there were a couple of songs that we swapped out, because we’re doing way more stuff from the new record, which is cool. It’s nice to have the option to pick from two records now. Being that it’s a new band, and on the first tour, we actually had to put in a couple of covers here and there just to kind of make a good show. But now we’re doing all of our own stuff, which is great.
Yes, I remember that from the first tour. I love both records, by the way. They are different, though. If you can sum it up, how is the first album and the current album different stylistically in your view?
Well, the writing formula is different. I shouldn’t say that it’s different… there was another element to the first record that didn’t happen on this record, so to reveal that… On the first record, at least half of those songs, “I’m No Angel,” “Elevate,” “We Are One,” “Regret,” “Damaged,” there’s like five or six of them, literally came off my hard drive as far as where the development was. They were songs that I had either started writing, or finished writing and had started demoing, or played for the guys acoustically, and we sort of adopted those songs and turned those into Winery Dogs songs.
A handful of them, “I’m No Angel,” and “We Are One,” Mike [Portnoy] actually cut the drums to my demo, and then we replaced all my stuff from the demo. We replaced the bass with Billy’s [Sheehan] bass. We replaced the guitars, updated them, but the vocal, for example, the lead vocal on “Damaged,” 90% of that vocal, with the exception of one or two lines where I changed some lyrics, was right off the demo. Mike literally went in, played to a click, and I used the vocal from the demo.
That’s the biggest difference between the two records. Because on the first record, that was the writing process for half of it, but then the other half was us jamming in a room. We came in, and one of the first things that we did was a song that ended up being called “Criminal.” There was another one called “Six Feet Deeper.” “Time Machine” and a few others came out of us just jamming in a room. Then what we would do is I would take the jam session and write to that, and write lyrics and melodies to that.
On this new record, I did not have any pre-written material. Every single song is new, with the exception of “Fire,” that was something that was floating around. It’s an idea that I was toying with, but it wasn’t called “Fire.” With the exception of that, every other single song was born out of us jamming in my studio, literally just getting in a room and messing around. It was kind of a cool way to work, and I got a little bit of a different result.
It’s a little tricky for me to write that way, because when I write, it’s all about the lyric, and the story-line, and the melody for me, and so when we were writing, a lot of times I’m thinking in my mind where I’m going with this melodically, and one of the members might say, “Well, you know, let’s repeat that section,” and I’m like, “Well, I don’t want to repeat it, because then I got to write words that I don’t need in the song,” and so we have these kind of weird little moments, but out of that, we end up coming up with something really cool.
Not to be too long-winded, but I’ll share this with you because it just came across my mind. One of the coolest things that happened on the record was the song “Hot Streak.” I was setting up, or doing something, and Billy was practicing, and he was playing that lick over and over. I said, “Wow, that’s really cool. That could be a song.” I said, “Mike, put a beat to that. Let me scat vocal over that.” He’s playing the lick. “Put a rest here. Don’t play anything in this section. Now play the lick again, and make that a loop.” They did that for about two minutes. Then I kind of made sense of that vocally.
When we cut the song, I knew it was going to be something interesting. I took it home that night from the studio and I put it into my studio, and I started orchestrating the guitar parts. It was just drums, guitar, and vocal. I orchestrated the whole thing, and came to the studio the next day, and everybody flipped out. They loved it! That song was really written to Billy’s bass line and to Mike’s drums, because Mike was jamming along. He had no idea what I was going to come up with. He was just kind of jamming, and somehow, I got in there in my studio, with my ProTools, and I kind of did some slice-and-dice with the guitar, and chopped a few things up, and came up with something that I think is one of the most interesting things that the Winery Dogs have done.
Based on what you just described on that track, it sounds like the writing process took much more of a collaborative approach this time around.
Yeah. I think this new record definitely… Not that the last one wasn’t, because it was, but I think there’s more of a collaborative thing, a lot more input specifically from Billy’s bass riffs on this record versus the first record. He had a lot more… Even though the song took a very different turn, but the opening riff to “Ghost Town,” the “Hot Streak” riff, a lot of riffs came from Billy this time, which is really cool.
Absolutely. In another interview, you said that between the first two records there was a “commonality, yet an evolution.” I liked that.
Ha! There you go.
Were those earlier songs that ended up on the first Winery Dogs album intended for a Richie Kotzen solo album at some point, before the Winery Dogs came into play?
Absolutely, they would have ended up on one of my records. That’s what I do. I go out, I tour, and do my shows, and when I come home, I usually have a pile of ideas, so I record them. When I have enough that I like, that fit together well, I put a record out. If the Winery Dogs wouldn’t have formed, songs like “Regret,” “Damaged,” “I’m No Angel,” they would have found their way onto another record.
Was the recording process for the second album, Hot Streak, different than the first time around? You mentioned how the writing process evolved. Was the recording process approached pretty much the same way?
The recording process was different in a sense that the first record was recorded entirely at my studio. The second record, we recorded the bass and drums at a public studio, and then everything else came back to my place, and I finished it there. It was kind of cool. I liked it because we got out of my house. Sometimes, that can be kind of stressful. It’s no problem for me to record at my place, but when you’ve got a bunch of people there, in and out, it was nice to get out and get a different vibe. The record has a different sound than the first record too.
Yes, it does. You made a comment recently that I thought was really compelling… You said, “Music is not math,” referring to the creative process. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I’m talking about the creative process. When you look at an instrument, of course, someone can argue that there’s a mathematical component, because you have situations where, when you’re learning an instrument, you have patterns and shapes that fit together, so there is that mathematical component to music. But when I’m talking about the creative process, a lot of times, people set all kinds of rules and boundaries that I find really ridiculous, because for every rule that someone sets when you’re trying to create, you can look at ten examples where those rules completely don’t apply. All that does when you make these rules is it stifles the creative process, and really keeps you from doing something new. It keeps you from doing something that’s truly fresh, that you normally wouldn’t do. If you follow a pattern or a template, then you’re going to get a very specific result that has been gotten many, many, many times before.
I really like more of an open approach to writing. One of the things that I talked about is that I personally don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe that when you’re writing, and you have something that’s really truly inspired, it’ll write itself. It’ll just happen, because that’s how I’ve experienced that. Then when you have a situation where you’re struggling, well, maybe this thing doesn’t need to be written right now. I have evidence of that, where I’ve had songs that I worked on ten years ago that I couldn’t finish for the life of me, and then recently, I go in, I listen to them, and suddenly, I hear it differently, and I finish the song. It’s more of a comment that I was trying to make regarding people’s little rules that they like to put into play. I think that can be very stifling.
Absolutely. It’s refreshing to hear that. I hear a lot of those limitations happening within certain segments of pop music and other genres as well. It often sounds like the same stuff again and again. Your view on this is exciting, which leads me into a preview about the Winery Dog’s third record. What are you guys thinking about? Are there plans in place to start pre-production, recording, ideas on what that’s going to look and sound like, or is it going to be another one of those situations where it’s going to happen organically?
Well, for me, personally, I came into this without any expectations. I really thought that I would get together with some known musicians, and collaborate, and make a cool record, which we did. I really, frankly, thought that that would be the end of it. I figured I’d do one record and do a couple of key market shows. I didn’t even think I would go on the road. I thought we’d go down to Latin America. We’d go to Japan. We’d do maybe ten shows in the United States, a handful in Europe, and call it a day. It was actually the opposite of that. The band kind of took off with the public and we ended up doing a hundred shows.
After that first cycle, I dove into a Richie Kotzen album cycle. Coming out of the Kotzen cycle, I was really prepared to take a long hiatus, personally. I wanted a break. There was still a lot of enthusiasm off of my album cycle and the Winery Dogs. People were really chanting, “When’s the next Winery Dogs record coming?”, so I dove into that headfirst, and we made a great record, and now we’re out again touring.
As far as the third record, I personally need to take some time and kind of regroup. I’ve been writing a lot of music lately. I’m moving in all kinds of directions creatively. After our final show, I’ll be taking a little bit of a vacation, and then I’m going to go into my studio and start recording and simulating some of these ideas. Then I’m going to see where I’m at. Likely, what I see happening is that I see me recording a lot of music this year. I see next year, at some point, me releasing a record and going out and doing a Richie Kotzen album cycle. Then, at that point, once that’s done, I’m going to see where I’m at.
The thing that’s great about the Winery Dogs is that we don’t really have any pressure other than anything that we decide to put on ourselves, and we don’t really do that. We made two really strong records. At some point, if we decide that it’s necessary, and we have some new creative ideas and we’re inspired, we’ll do a third record. But for me, I really need some time to get back to being me, unmolested, so to speak, and see what happens. By all means, I’m sure, at some point in the future, there will be a third Winery Dogs record.
One of my questions was what’s next for Richie Kotzen solo, and you pretty much already addressed that. As a solo artist, you’ve got a mountain of material (20 albums currently) and it all crosses so many genres, which is so impressive. I think one thing that’s really neat about you in particular, is that a lot of people who maybe weren’t aware of the depth, quality, and quantity of your solo stuff, are now becoming aware of it because of the success that the Winery Dogs have experienced over the last few years. And that’s really cool, and well-deserved.
You mentioned being on the road a lot, and that you’re going to take a vacation. When you’re touring that much, and you’ve obviously toured quite a bit for many, many years, how do you keep things fresh and fun when you’re out on the road? How do you avoid burning out, if at all?
Well, that’s a great question, because it’s a balance. Like I said, I’m at the point now where if someone came to me and started talking about booking more shows, I’d probably lose my mind, because I’m ready for a break for now. I’m one of those people that I love to play. I hate traveling, but I love to play, but I really love the creative process more than anything. It gets to a point where when I start accumulating a lot of ideas, I need to get into a position where I can kind of put them down, bring them to fruition, and the only way to really do that is to be inside of a studio. Because of all of the stuff that I’ve been writing lately, I’m kind of at a point now where I’m really looking forward to getting into the studio and recording.
So to answer the question, it really is a balance. By the time I get done recording all this stuff, I’ll be ready to go back out and tour again.
Last question… Is there any truth to this mythical character I’ve heard about called “Late-Night Richie?”
I have never heard that before. What does that mean? I don’t know what that means…
I heard it mentioned in an Eddie Trunk interview with Mike Portnoy. Mike dubbed you “Late-Night Richie.” It has something to do with fun antics that you do late at night on tour…
I don’t know! I don’t know what that could possibly mean. I’ll have to ask Mike about that.
Yes, please do! It’s just something I threw in for fun (chuckling). I appreciate your time Richie. Thank you. You gave me some very good and in-depth information here that was very informative.
Awesome. Great. Thanks!