Latest release: Salt the EarthWebsite: www.richiekotzen.com
Richie Kotzen is trying to enjoy a night out when we finally manage to reach him.
“I did not expect to be doing interviews tonight,” he explains apologetically as he walks to his car in order to talk with us. “I’m out with friends having dinner and drinks!”
Amiably, however, the Winery Dogs guitarist puts aside his martini so we can discuss his prodigious career and upcoming Australian tour with his solo band promoting his 21st album.
What’s the main difference between a Richie Kotzen solo show and you being on stage with the Winery Dogs?
It’s hard to make a comparison. In any situation I’m in, I’m always me. I’m Richie being Richie. Everybody’s talking about [Salt the Earth] being my 21st solo record… when you come to my show, you’re getting 100% Richie Kotzen. You’re seeing what I am as an artist, and the band I’m bringing with me, we’ve been playing together for seven years. Obviously we’re friends and we know each other very well, but when you’ve been playing together for that long, you get to a level where you’re able to read each others’ minds. So this is going to be a very interesting show. It’s a power trio. You’ve got me doing the shredding thing that everyone knows me for, but we’ve also got a moment in the set where we go acoustic and the bass player comes out with an upright bass; also, I’m bringing an electric piano with me and there are moments where I put the guitar down, get on the piano, go back and forth. So I think this the perfect time for me to come to Australia because this is the most diverse show that I’ve ever done.
You are known by your fans for being a very diverse artist, but there are probably a greater number of people who really only know you as a hard rock guitarist.
That’s legitimate. I can’t argue with that. I made my first record in 1989, it was an instrumental guitar record that back then was called ‘over-the-top guitar playing’, lots of guitar licks and not a lot of emotional shift, but back then we were teenagers – a lot of us were teenagers making all these crazy guitar records. You evolve. What’s happened to me… over the years I’ve looked at my career and my records as an open diary. I look at that first record that I made and then get to three records after that, when I get to the Mother Head’s Family Reunion album – I really think that should be classified as my first record because that’s where I really started to sound like an individual artist.
People remember you from where they were in their lives, and if they don’t follow you over the years and they’re not with you and listen to every single record that you put out, they lose track, and they’re left with a perception of what you may have been in 1989 vs. now we’re in 2017 and here you are still making records somehow! But there’s growth and there’s evolution, and that’s the thing that I think is the most unique thing about my career is that is what I like to call an open diary, little snapshots all the time.
To call your discography breathtaking would be an understatement: 21 records just of your own stuff, not counting all the other albums you’ve made or played on. You certainly have amassed a large body of work.
I’ve always loved the idea of creating something out of nothing, and it goes far beyond music for me. I’m not a great carpenter, but I’ve done so much work on my house that hopefully it doesn’t fall down on my head someday. I love creating stuff. That’s the thing about music – beyond being a player, I love hearing something in my head, and hearing it as a song and figuring out how to bring that to life so other people can hear it. That’s been a consistent driving force for me.
You’ve also been very lucky to work with an amazing list of talented people over the years too.
I’ve been very fortunate. Even when I was a teenager living back in Pennsylvania, I was very young and I got in with this group of guys who were much older than me, more seasoned, more knowledgeable and I really learned a lot from getting out and playing live in front of people. There’s two things that I think are very important. One, playing live, and playing with other people, especially people who have different interests to me. That’s really how you grow, how I decide what I like, what I don’t like and that’s always been really important to me.
Obviously you have a small army of dedicated fans, but you are probably still known best for that Poison record you made. You were very young then; what was it like for you to step into a band that was very well established, extremely well known?
It was an interesting time for me and I’ll tell a story that I’ve told before but I don’t think a lot of people know it. Around that time I had already done three solo records, so I was fairly well known in the musician community. I was signed to a major recording contract with a major label and they were prepared to put me in a studio and do what would have been my first major label release. At the time, I really thought I had it all figured out. I wrote a bunch of songs that I loved and they were in a very soulful, r n’b way but still in a rocking way. I don’t know if you can imagine Daryl Hall, but with an electric guitar! I was twenty years old.
And we had a famous producer involved who was going to do the record with me. He had just done a huge Don Henley record and I was super excited, and at the last minute the record company pulled the plug and said, “We signed you to be a hard rock act, and I’m not going to allow you to do the record and be a balladeer”. And I was devastated, because I had written songs and I had been in LA for a year writing and I really thought that I was going to make this record that I really wanted to make. So I ended up losing my deal because I refused to make a hard rock record at the time.
Ironically enough, the same people who knocked me out of my contract told me, “Hey listen, Bret Michaels has been calling, he’s interested in you to join Poison.” And my first record was, “Are you kidding me? That’s the exact opposite of what I’ve been telling you I wanna do!” And he said, “Nonetheless, I think it would be in your best interests to go meet with him.” Oddly enough, I went out to Bret’s house and had a meeting and we immediately hit it off. He’s from Pennsylvania, as am I, so we had a bunch of inside jokes about how it used to be back there and about how people think from that region, and so we hit it off! He sold me. He said, “Look, I don’t want you to come in and be CC Deville. I want you to come in and be you. I’m looking for a solo artist to collaborate with” and all these great things. We hit it off, and we made that record. I think we made a really really good record, and I think to this day that we made a really great record.
You mentioned that you were devastated by your album being canned. What effect did that have on your faith in the music industry after that?
At that point I had a lot of faith in the record industry. It wasn’t until I left the band and did my solo record that I realised the music industry is controlled by a bunch of lunatics. I’m not going to get into those details, but there were so many crazy things that I heard people say from people in power that I couldn’t believe any great records were made. And certainly that whole era really imploded on itself. It was driven by that whole 80s mentality and the money really killed what made rock n roll so special in the 60s and 70s. Look at Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin.
There was a thing that happened in the record business where it really had a lot of people that heard the phrase ‘music business’ but the word ‘music’ didn’t really register in their mind, and they certainly didn’t equate the word ‘music’ to art. Thankfully now, when I look at the last few years and look back – and I don’t look back very often unless I think about it in a conversation like this – one of the things that I think is very cool is that technology has opened the door for artists to finally take control and be able present their music the way they want, when they want without any kind of other influence. So I like the idea of live by the sword, die by the sword, but I want to be able to put out my vision without any kind of outside influences. That’s the good thing about where we’re at today.
So you find it much easier the way things are now?
I can’t speak for anybody else, because everybody’s in a different position. And I think the guys that are much, much more famous than me and are accustomed to selling millions and million of records probably see this as being a disaster! For someone like me, who’s always struggled in dealing with record labels, under the thumb… literally, in the 90s I couldn’t get anything done. For me it’s great! I found a way to survive in a way that I do instinctively. For me it works, but for other people, I don’t know. For somebody that is just starting out, just trying to get known, I don’t know. I have no idea. But certainly for me, someone who has a name and is somewhat known, it’s a great thing. I can go into a studio tonight and write a song and in three days put it out and people can hear it. I love that.
As we’ve pointed out, you have a vast catalogue behind you now. How do you decide what you’re going to play for us when you get to Australia in August?
Well this time I start with the new record. I’m doing more songs off the new record than I’ve done on any other tour for a new record. In the past I might do three songs and then go back to the back catalogue. This time I’m doing maybe six or seven, and then there’s one song we’re going to play, and I don’t want to give away the surprise, that we’ve never played live before. We’re going to do that one. We’re digging back as far as the Mother Head record and we’ve got an acoustic section where the bass player comes out with the upright bass, so we’ve got a pretty eclectic show. So this is the best time to come to Australia. We’ve had offers before that didn’t materialise because of scheduling or one thing or another, and this time everything seems to make sense. My band is playing better than we ever have. It’s perfect timing.
24/8: Max Watts, Brisbane QLD
25/8: Factory Theatre, Sydney NSW
26/8: Max Watts, Melbourne VIC