Interview and Live Photos by Robert Cavuoto
Guitar titans Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden and Richie Kotzen of The Winery Dogs have teamed up for a collaboration album of epic portions that’s due out March 26th.
The energy on this album is combustible, with these two guitarists trading riffs, leads, and vocals duties throughout the entire album. The songs explode with powerful melodies & harmonies, reminiscent of 70’s classic rock with some blues bravado, hard rock, and R&B thrown in for good measure. Adrian and Richie have forged nine well-crafted guitar-forward songs incorporating their combined talent, abilities, and chemistry. Their unique playing and singing give the songs the heft and propulsion to make them soar. As a bonus, these musicians also traded off on bass, and Richie played drums on five of the nine songs. It was recorded on the Turks & Caicos Islands in February 2020, produced by Richie and Adrian, and mixed by Kevin “Caveman” Shirley. Pre-orders for the album can be found here: https://smith-kotzen.lnk.to/albumPR
I spoke to Richie about the collaboration, how he and Adrian connected, the musical chemistry between the two of them, and when we can expect to see them together on tour.
Robert Cavuoto: I’m so excited for the release of this new album. From the three singles I’ve heard, it sounds fantastic.
Richie Kotzen: We had a great time working together. I keep telling people it was the easiest record that I have ever made. It almost made itself [laughing], but honestly, we put a lot of work into it. It was a pleasure to do it!
Robert Cavuoto: I’m intrigued about how you and Adrian connected; can you give us the back story?
Richie Kotzen: We have known each other for a while. We met in a very interesting way. There was a place in LA that I used to go to for years. It was a place that when you walk in, it was all musicians; all the guys in popular bands as well as actors that you would expect to see in a Hollywood bar. To get in, they had to know who you were. One night a friend of mine and I were driving around, so we went in to check the place out and have a drink. We ended up talking to this woman about music and guitar playing. She told us that her husband played in a band too. I asked who it was and she said, Adrian Smith! I instantly turned into a fanboy. I grew up a massive Iron Maiden fan. I told her that I would like to meet him. She said he would be in town soon. I gave her my info, and she said they would be in touch. Over the course of time, Adrian and Natalie, and my wife Julia and I became really good friends. Whenever they come to town, we all get together. They would have holiday parties at their house, and ultimately we would all end up in the music room jamming on cover tunes with Adrian and me taking turns singing. I would play guitar, bass, or drums. I believe it was Natalie who said that we should try and write something together. That how it started, and now we have a full record or songs.
Robert Cavuoto: There is no denying the chemistry between the two of you, guitar-wise and vocally. At the onset of this project, was there any hesitation that the collaboration might not work?
Richie Kotzen: No, just like with The Winery Dogs, my other collaboration, we just said, let’s see if we can write something. We didn’t have a deal, nor was there any pressure; it was just us trying it out to see if we have anything going on and if we can write a song. It was that simple. If we didn’t, then we wouldn’t have a record. “Running” was the first song we wrote. Adrian came in with the riff, I had the idea for the chorus, and then Adrian came up with the bridge section. It was like a friendly tennis match of volleying ideas back and forth to each other. We were in the same room doing it, as this wasn’t a COVID record where we sent each other ideas.
Robert Cavuoto: Was the entire record written at the studio in the Turks and Caicos?
Richie Kotzen: No, not all of it. Some of these songs were ideas I had. When I get an idea, I throw it onto my recorder or iPhone, and Adrian does something similar. We both brought ideas, but nobody brought in a finished song. Sometimes you work with people who say, “I have this finished song from three years ago and never did anything with. Maybe we can tweak it a little bit?” There wasn’t anything like that. This was all stuff we literally worked on together.
Robert Cavuoto: On the song “Taking My Chances,” your respective solos blend so nicely together to showcase your playing styles. It comes across effortlessly and seamlessly, like you have been playing in a band together for years.
Richie Kotzen: That comes from making records for so long and mutual respect for one another. There is an element of trust too. If Adrian says, “This is not quite where it needs to be.” I’m not going to debate it. I’m like, let’s just get it where it needs to be. We both have to be happy with it. It seemed like it was very easy for both of us to get to that point. We have similar taste in music and are influenced by a lot of the same artists, which made it easy. On the song “Running,” there is a solo at the end, which I told him to take along with the lead. I thought I’ll take the lead on a different song. We didn’t need to call out who was doing what; it was very easy.
Robert Cavuoto: You play without a pick while Adrian plays with one. Did that affect the guitar tones blending during the recording?
Richie Kotzen: When I play live, I play with my fingers almost exclusively. In the studio, I do whatever I have to do to make it sound the way I want. Many times I’ll grab a pick when I want a song to have a certain sound. I’m not restricted by the finger technique I developed for myself. I still use a pick for alternate picking and things like that. I don’t think that was a variable on the CD. When I listen back to the CD, I would have to dissect each song to tell you when I used a pick and when I’m not. So that really that didn’t come to play when recording between us. One of the things that I think is interesting was on the song “I Wanna Stay.” I played the solo using Adrian’s Jackson guitar, which has a floating tremolo. I abandoned those tremolos back when I was a teenager mainly out of frustration because they are such a pain in the ass to change strings. Everybody was using them, but I thought I didn’t need to impress myself, so I stopped using them. I did the solo on the Jackson and used the bar a lot. It sounds like a retro Richie Kotzen! It reminded me of the old days [laughing]. It was fun to hear the solo back; it was a side of me that I haven’t shown in quite a while.
Robert Cavuoto: I only heard the three singles on YouTube, which all have a consistent vibe. Is the rest of the record written in the same vein?
Richie Kotzen: It’s not one of these records where everything sounds the same. It definitely has a thread running through it or a personality. The songs are unique to themselves, as you heard with “Scars,” Running,” and “Taking My Chances.” They sound like they are by the same group. There are some tunes on there that are another side to what we do. Once you hear the music, you will get it. I think it is a great record that reminds me of something I would have had when I was a kid; guitar-forward classic rock!
Robert Cavuoto: Being a huge Iron Maiden fan, do you a personal favorite LP?
Richie Kotzen: Yes, Number of the Beast. That is one of my favorite records ever made. I had Number of The Beast, Killers, and Piece of Mind. Then something changed in me after listening to Piece of Mind; I started listening to different music like fusion stuff. I recall having a few albums by Allan Holdsworth and Dixie Dregs, and Steve Morse. I went to a whole other genre of music. During that metal period of time, I was into those three Maiden records plus Black Sabbath and Ozzy. Those were my big three big bands.
Robert Cavuoto: When you first met Adrian, what were some of the things you spoke about?
Richie Kotzen: We talked about music, and I was a big fan of his band. General conversation, and we just hit it off. Shortly after that, we started jamming together at their house. Once we got in there and play, I realized that Adrian’s singing style was similar to the guys who influenced me.
Robert Cavuoto: When you are able to start to touring again, do you have a bass player and drummer in mind, or will you hold auditions?
Richie Kotzen: We probably won’t audition. We know musicians and need to talk about what we want to do. We need guys that can pull the music off and who are easy to get along with. You know how it is, a guy could play anything you could imagine, but on the road, he is a pain in the ass! When you pick band members, you have players with abilities, but you also have to think about the personalities. You have to remember your house is your bus and you are married to your crew for however long you are out. So you have to know them. You hear all these horror stories of people getting screwed up or in fights. We haven’t got deep into it, but at some point, we want to get into a room and play some of this stuff. We are still a little bit away from having to figure it out until people start going out and touring. I don’t want to be the first guy out; on a bus, then someone gets sick, or shows get canceled. I’m going to wait as long as I can to make sure we are safe health-wise. Also, to make sure all the other things surrounding the business, like booking shows, are happening, so we don’t have to take them down again.
Robert Cavuoto: Just like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai, your playing style is quite unique, with blending blues, R&B, funk, and classic rock together. Tell me about the freedom to express yourself in that playing style.
Richie Kotzen: Thank you. To me, that was always the most important thing to be true to my vision of a song. People always try to compare who is a better singer or guitarist. I don’t think that is the right move. The right move is for a guitarist or singer to have their own voice. That’s what makes Joe and Steve so special. They have a lot of abilities, but they also have the personality. Thanks for putting me over with them, as it has always been my focus. I always wanted to be me. I don’t want to have to conform. Just let me do what I’m doing, and if people respond, then great.
Robert Cavuoto: You never run out of inspiration when writing emotional and impactful songs. What do you attribute that to?
Richie Kotzen: I talk about input and output a lot. I have been doing this for so long; people always seem to think I’m in the studio writing. I’m actually not! I take long breaks where I don’t do anything musically. That is what I call the input phase; I get out there do things like live my life, get into different situations, talk to people, and meet new people. I try to have different experiences. What typically happens along the way while working on some projects around the house, like building a shed for my tools, is I’ll be in the middle of cutting a piece of lumber, and I’ll have an idea for a song [laughing]. A great example of this was when I worked on my last solo CD, 50 for 50. I had 15 songs done. I suddenly thought I have all these other ideas for songs. Some were taken as far as adding drums and bass, and some needed to have a verse tweaked, while others were not more than a riff. As I started assessing this unfinished material which I had around for years, I started getting ideas for new songs. What seems to happen to me when I take that long break away from writing and being in the studio, my mind starts to churn like a machine. I went into work on one idea and now I have three more. In the old days, I used to put a bit of pressure on myself; I would think, “A week has gone by, and I haven’t written anything,” and I would get nervous. Thank God, I don’t feel that way now. I’ve found peace, and I trust when something needs to be written, it will happen. I’ve done enough work which I feel represents me artistically on many levels, whether with Stanley Clarke or my solo records that show me at my best. Thankfully I don’t have that anxiety that I did when I was 20-something. Back then, I had this weird energy which was part of the drive, but it’s changed. I still have the drive and get inspired; it’s just different. I just finished a song a week ago that sounds nothing like anything I have ever recorded. There is always something new that can happen at this point. I just have to maintain what I created and hopefully don’t fuck it up [laughing].