Interview and Photos Credit: © Robert Cavuoto
Guitar virtuoso Richie Kotzen has forged a remarkably 20-plus year career as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. Always challenging himself to find something completely new and different while breaking the conventional rules of guitar playing at every opportunity. Richie can now be added to everyone’s list of guitar virtuosos as he is finding that there are still walls to break down in guitar playing whether it’s in his solo career or with the Winery Dogs.
Richie and his solo band of Dylan Wilson on bass and Mike Bennett on drums, decided to film one of their last shows while on their 2014-2015 tour in Tokyo, Japan for DVD release – Richie Kotzen Live. It features some of his best work like, “You Can’t Save Me,” “Remember,” “Cannibals,” “War Paint,” and “Walk with Me.” The collection also includes off-the-chart improvisational solo sections between Richie and his rhythm section.
I caught up with Richie to discuss his new DVD, the essence of his songwriting, and his playing techniques!
Robert Cavuoto: What do you remember special about the day of filming?
Richie Kotzen: The only thing that I’m concerned with whenever I have the opportunity to film a show is whether we are going to play well! Most of the time we do, but you never know, a lot of things can go wrong during a show. I always try to think positively that things will work out well for us. I’ve never had a situation with my solo music where I can be filmed and recorded properly and I have been doing this since 1989. To finally get on stage and have great cameras and an audio crew was amazing. The best part of it is that we played really well. I’m happy with it and wanted to share with everyone.
Robert: Knowing that this was being filmed, was there any nervousness or concerns that if you didn’t nail it, you won’t have a DVD?
Richie Kotzen: If we didn’t nail it, we wouldn’t have release it! [laughing] A lot of bands who have developed great music get caught in a trap because they are tied to schedules and deadlines. Their success has to do with their great work and artistry not hitting a deadline. When you have business people involved, it ultimately adds pressure. That pressure is really dangerous. I’m lucky in the sense I don’t have to record until I feel I have something worth releasing. My solo work is consistent with who I am and where I am creatively. It’s the most important thing. Anything else is a bonus. If people buy it great, if they don’t it’s ok as I made something I’m proud of.
Robert: Did you do anything different from a preparation standpoint for this show?
Richie Kotzen: I made sure I had just the right amount of Jack Daniels in my system [laughing]. If I don’t have enough and want more, then I run the risk drinking too much. If I have too much, then it’s going to be a disaster. So maintaining just the right amount before I got on stage took the edge off in order to forget that I was being filmed. I don’t recommend this for everyone because sometimes it doesn’t work for me and things can go terribly wrong. That night it worked out!
Robert: What was the thought process to film the DVD in Japan?
Richie Kotzen: My solo music started taking off for me in Europe 10 years ago as I toured there extensively, spending almost half the year there. Japan is an interesting animal because in the 90s I would go over and do tours that consisted of 3 or 4 shows and then come home. After I opened for the Rolling Stones in 2006 I stopped going there and not really sure why. I just stopped getting offers as I thought it would have been the other way around. I didn’t go back to Japan until I started the Winery Dogs in 2012. The same team who did the Winery Dogs video offered to do this video. Without a real plan we did it in Japan as it happened to be the end of our tour. We were on tour for the Essential Collection CD which led into the Cannibals tour and that tour took us everywhere like China, Chile, South America, Mexica, US, and all over Europe.
Robert: How do the audiences in Japan compare to the rest of the world?
Richie Kotzen: I play a lot of shows in South America in some really big rooms where the audiences are just incredible. They not only sing the melody of the song but the guitar riff as well. It’s so electrifying there. In Japan it’s a different culture, they are very reserved, it doesn’t mean that they don’t get it or don’t like it, or that they aren’t having a great time. They are curious and what to see and hear everything. They don’t want to miss a thing. They really want to know what is going on at all times. At the end of day, I’m happy we did it there; it doesn’t matter where we did it. It could have been in Hell, as long as it was a good show [laughing].
Robert: I saw you perform in New York with the Winery Dogs and was amazed that you played the entire show without a guitar pick. Tell me about that style of playing and achieving your smooth tone with sharp attack?
Richie Kotzen: It came about while I was on tour during a run of shows in South America, I was really disgusted with the way I was playing and knew I had to change something and it wasn’t going to happen overnight. I wondered what I can do. I’ve got on stage for a song or two without a pick and did a few songs on records over the years without a pick to get that tone. I thought what if I did it for a whole show? Could I still be Richie Kotzen? Could I still play all my stuff, and still sound like me? I got on stage without a pick and it sounded the same. When I did some improvisations, I started playing different. A huge selection of my techniques went out the window like no alternative picking or sweep picking, which I like to do. My phrasing changed and everything sounded amazing. I had a great show. I felt re-inspired to playing the guitar. My manager at the time was excited and suggested that I keep doing it which I did. What happened next was I have this new technique and the old techniques came back as I figured out a way how to do it without a pick. It was a good move for me to re-ignite my fire to playing the guitar.
A lot of people don’t realize that before I abandoned the guitar pick I was still using my fingers to pull the strings. So not a lot has changed for me. The attack comes from plucking and striking the strings in almost a Flamingo style motion where you are hitting the string with the top of your nails. You have more tonal actions at your disposal. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m in the studio, if I need a certain sound, I’ll grab a guitar pick. For live situations I have adopted this style of not using the pick.
Robert: Tell me about the importance of guitar phrasing in your songwriting?
Richie Kotzen: With any instrument used to create music that’s what it’s all about. I look at music as a language. With a popular song, you are singing the melody and the phrasing. It’s only in the genre of hard rock and metal that new guys tend to abandon it. When you are learning to play and you get your fingers going really fast, it’s exciting. But not many people in the world are going to be excited to hear that. If it excites you, then you don’t have much else to do. Music is phrases and people connect with rhythmic phrases. To not know how to phrase is almost like someone who doesn’t know how to communicate. When I was learning to play the instrument, I wanted to write songs and perform them. That’s why I do it. Sometimes people forget why they are doing it.
Robert: When writing, how do you determine what to keep for your solo career vs. the Winery Dogs?
Richie Kotzen: With the first Winery Dogs record it was all new for us and the way we wrote was to get in a room together and jam ideas. I took those ideas and finished them on my own. Mike Portnoy also took one song and wrote the lyrics which came out great. That was our formula. The other half of the record was made up of songs that I had previously written or previously started writing and recorded. We did a hybrid of song done from us jamming and me finishing them to others that were mine that I brought in.
For the second record I decided that I’m not going to bring in songs that I wrote, because we know each other now. We know how we think, what we like and don’t like. We went into the studio and jammed a lot of ideas. I took those ideas and lived with them for 2 or 3 months and came up with lyric and melodies to present to the guys and then we recoded them.
Richie Kotzen: There is nothing bad about being a solo artist as I have been doing it since 1989 and that’s my bread and butter. It’s how I survived all these years. It’s the consistency of my life and the beauty of that is I’m sharing my perspective and music with people. It’s worked out great, I’m not a household name and I don’t need to be. It doesn’t matter to me, I have a great situation where I can make a record every year or every other year or tour the world to share my music. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
The band came together at a very interesting time, I can remember saying to one of my friends, “I’m getting tired and need a break from myself.” [laughing]. I don’t know if that means a long vacation or collaborating with other people. Oddly enough as soon as I said that, the phone rang and we started the Winery Dogs. It was started as a very casual thing. I thought it would be a cool project, because I’m not someone who needs to be in a band. I wasn’t in a band for more than a year as it didn’t last very long. I’m not a band guy due to my history. We got together and made a really special record and before I knew it, we did over 100 shows. Something that started off as a project was turning into something more. So now I have this great band with two amazing musicians. It’s similar to my solo music and sometimes different. I’m still being me within the context of what I collaborate on with Billy and Mike. Now we created a second record, Hot Streak, where I think we out did ourselves and people responded to it. So we will go out and do another 100 shows.
Robert: Tell me about Dylan and Mike in your solo band?
Richie Kotzen: I’m in a position that I can play with whoever I want on my music. They both do such a fantastic job and put a favorable spin on it. They are still playing my songs but have such great musicality, that it elevates. I told them for my next record I want to record it and not release it. Then have them learn it and tour for a year playing it live. At that point we record it maybe live then release it. Then release my version. It will be interesting because I do all this work and then we play it live and I go “I wish I would have recorded this or that instead.” They add so much character. They have a jazz background and grew up playing together so when I get in to my improvisational mode, they elevate it to another level. When someone is soloing you really have to pay attention and play something the soloist is doing. If you don’t, the soloist never reaches that nirvana and it just kind of sucks. These guys really know how to support a soloist. Its incredible valuable to have something like that and I’m luck to have these guys.