All images courtesy of Funhouse PR
He came up in the late-80s shred era and was a member of Poison and Mr. Big in the ’90s, but these days, Richie Kotzen is focused on making inventive guitar music for the modern age.
By Andrew DiCecco
Through his vision and commitment, Richie Kotzen has forged a successful music career spanning over thirty years.
As a child prodigy, Kotzen learned the piano and electric guitar early on. Though rooted in rock ‘n’ roll, Kotzen broadened his musical horizons through watching Stevie Wonder perform at a local Valley Forge, Pennsylvania venue and diving deep into the world of jazz guitarist George Benson.
“The first concert that I remember was at that Valley Forge venue – it was a circular stage – and it was Stevie Wonder,” Kotzen recalled. “And then, shortly after that, it was George Benson. So, although I loved rock ‘n’ roll, I just had this R&B, and soul thing pounded into me, just by the nature of what I heard on the radio. My influence kind of falls somewhere – it sounds bizarre to say – but somewhere between R&B and George Benson. That’s the way the pendulum swings as far as my influences.”
Over the years, Kotzen has covered a vast musical spectrum while demonstrating a skill set that incredulously includes everything from playing guitar and singing to producing. Kotzen’s latest venture, Smith/Kotzen – in collaboration with Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith – fuses many of Kotzen’s influences, including blues, rock, and R&B.
After releasing their self-titled debut in March 2021 and generating an overwhelmingly positive response – coupled with successful releases thereafter – the Smith/Kotzen juggernaut is equipped to take the music world by storm in 2023.
From the road, Kotzen took some time to speak about the latest Smith/Kotzen release, Better Days… And Nights, his musical upbringing and formative years, Native Tongue era of Poison, and more.
How did Better Days… And Nights come to be?
Well, we had done the EP with four songs [Better Days]. So, when we went over to England to do a few live shows, we decided to record a few of the shows. And out of that, we picked out five tunes that we thought translated pretty well and decided to mix them and re-release the other four studio tracks, along with these five live recordings, and brand it Better Days… And Nights. I’m pretty sure the EP was only released on vinyl, so now this will actually be released on all formats. So, people who still buy CDs can get it, and of course, streaming and vinyl, I’d also imagine.
What perspective did recording at Windermere, in Turks and Caicos, give you creatively?
Well, being in the Caribbean is just a different mentality. I have a hard time leaving the beach when I’m down there. [Laughs]. So, it was definitely another way of going about things. I did quite a bit of work on the album in my studio, as well; we did a chunk of it there, and then we took the masters back to my place and did some of my overdubs and what have you. It was different because I’m much more accustomed to working in a traditional studio or my studio at my house.
How do you and Adrian complement one another creatively?
Quite well. We both love old-school classic rock bands like Free, The Who, and that sort of thing. We had that in common, so that’s the root of our actions. I tend to go more into the R&B and fusion side of things, and Adrian leans more into the heavier side of things than I do. So, those three variables kind of spell out the tonality of the record and how we write. We never got in there and discussed what we were gonna do; it was just a matter of, “Let’s try this and see how it comes together.” Luckily, we came up with music that we both feel strongly about. We didn’t have to work so hard; it came very naturally.
What did the mixing and engineering process look like for this record?
Once we finished recording, we sent it to Kevin [Shirley] to mix. I engineered it, Kevin mixed it, and he did a fantastic job. That was the first time I got to work with him. We just sent him what we recorded; he’s got one of those old-school, proper mixing consoles, and so it had a great analog sound when it came back. We’ll probably do the same formula here on the next record, where Adrian and I will produce it ourselves, and I’ll engineer it. Then, we’ll send it off to be mixed. It seemed to work well the first time.
How has your approach to the guitar changed over the years?
I’ve changed quite a bit from when I did my first record; it’s a thirty-year span or more. I look at my albums like little dairies because I was eighteen when the first record came out. The difference between the first and second albums is quite significant. The first album was an instrumental, kind of shredding guitar madness-type riffing. Then the second record, I’m singing, so that was a big jump. It’s hard for me to literally dissect how and why I play the way I do – I couldn’t tell you – but my attitude has always been, “It’s all about the song.” So, as long as I’m able to write new music, I’ll continue to evolve as a writer and as a player. But the thing I love most is the creative process; writing songs is really what it’s all about.
And how has your songwriting evolved?
It evolves, I guess, through life experiences. I have the analogy that I always talk about, which is input versus output. So, in order to write, you have to have input; you have to experience things. You have to have things happen in life. Maybe they don’t happen to you; you observe them happening to other people, which becomes a little more interesting sometimes because of the perspective that someone else is going through something. And you take your perspective and maybe write about it or imagine a fantasy scenario and write about that.
There are all kinds of ways to do it. Some people think that when an artist writes a song, it happens to that person that way. That’s not always the case. I always use the analogy; if I’m writing about vampires, it doesn’t mean that I’m really a vampire. I don’t have to be a vampire to write a story about vampires, or werewolves, for example. So, the writing process comes from all over the place; you never know when it’s gonna strike, and that’s why I always have a recorder with me, so I can just kind of sing my ideas into my phone.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, what sort of music scene were you exposed to?
It was a great place to come up because there were a lot of bands around and a lot of places to play. We had three or four really strong venues. I remember the Silo; major bands would come through and play there. It was quite the scene. The element of cover music, that was the thing back then – cover bands – and you could make quite a bit of money going through the Tri-State area.
So, we’d be out in P.A., Delaware, and New Jersey, and I started doing that when I was fifteen. The rest of the band were in their early twenties, so as long as I had a legal guardian present – which would be my father – I could play in the bars. So, I learned a lot, and I got a lot of shows under my belt. I was much more of a showman back then than a player. [Laughs]. I was throwing the guitar in the air, throwing it around my back, and doing splits. Those years were critical and helped carve out who I am as a musician.
What was your practice regimen like as you were coming up?
When I was a teenager, I was obsessive-compulsive on the guitar, to the degree that I would listen to a guitar player and think, “What is he doing? How do I learn that?” Then I would learn that, but never quite right. I’d get the idea, then move on to the next thing. I think there were a lot of players that would actually learn stuff, and it would sound exact. If they knew a Van Halen lick, it would sound like Van Halen. Where if I learned a Van Halen lick, it would sound like somebody trying to play a Van Halen lick.
Weirdly, the lack of perfection, I believe, helped me to develop my style and sound, which is how and why I got signed to Shrapnel Records when I was eighteen. Back then, you had to kind of have your own spin on things and your voice, so to speak. I think that’s how that developed; out of laziness when I was learning to do some of these riffs … “Well, that’s close enough.” That was my attitude.
Walk me through how Mike Varney ultimately discovered you.
I was discovered because Mike had a column in Guitar Player Magazine called “Spotlight for New Talent.” And that was the same column where a lot of his other players came out of. I know Vinnie Moore was in there; Greg Howe; I know Mike discovered Yngwie [Malmsteen], and I would imagine he was probably in the “Spotlight.” So, that was the way in. And I would send my demos in hopes he would do a story on me, and ultimately, he did.
And then, after the story ran, for whatever reason, I kept sending him music because I wanted to make an album; I wanted to try to get a record deal. According to Mike Varney, I was so – I guess prolific is the word – and every week, he’d have three new songs from Richie Kotzen. And so, he thought, “Well, I gotta look into this guy,” because a lot of people were trying to get signed. The constant writing caused him to think, “Well, let me give this guy a shot.” So, he flew me to San Francisco, and we made the first album.
How did you first appear on Poison’s radar?
I had done three albums with Shrapnel, so I had already been on the cover of one of the guitar magazines a couple of times. At that point, I had completely abandoned the instrumental guitar scene, and I was writing songs in which I was singing. I had signed to Interscope Records – they bought my contract from Shrapnel – and I was in L.A. and going to make what would have been my major label debut album, and I found myself at odds with the record company. So, it didn’t fare well for me, and I was released from my contract because I was so stubborn in the direction I wanted to go versus where the label wanted to go.
During that process, the label – they were great people – and they understood that I was really, really young. Their attitude was, “We’re gonna let this kid out of his contract so he can go figure it out because we’re not gonna be able to work with him.” And during that time, Bret Michaels was calling Tom Walley, who was the president of Interscope and the person who signed me to the label. They were interested in me joining the band, so they came to me because I was already known, and I think they knew that I was from P.A. So, I went to Bret’s house in Calabasas, had a meeting, and hit it off.
Is it fair that the band allowed you plenty of room to express yourself creatively?
Yeah, that’s what they wanted. Bret had explained that they wanted a songwriter and that he liked the songs I was writing, so that’s how it happened. Whoever they got, they wanted that person to have a musical voice and direction. They wanted a strong personality because C.C. [DeVille] is a writer and a stylist and has a strong personality, so that’s what they wanted. They did not want just some random guy to come in and play parts. They wanted writers.
What are you able to recall from the Native Tongue sessions?
There were a handful of songs that I had already written for the most part, and that would be a song called “Stand,” another called “Fire and Ice,” and “7 Days Over You.” And there was a song called “Body Talk;” those four songs were pretty much done, and then when I brought them in. And Bret is very creative, so he changed some lyrics to make them more suited to his point of view.
So, I remember coming in with “Stand” with one set of lyrics in the verses, and we worked together to change a few things. We did the same thing on the song “Fire and Ice.” As for “7 Days Over You,” I think that was pretty much unchanged. And then there were a few songs that he brought in that he had written; a song called “Theater of the Soul” and another one was “Strike Up the Band.” Then the others came out of us jamming, and Bret and I did the lyrics together.
Is there anyone you’d like to collaborate with who you haven’t already?
The reality is, I don’t think in those terms. There are people that I grew up listening to that I love what they do, but I don’t necessarily think, “I wanna go collaborate.” I’m not wired that way. When I get into a creative mode, I’ll pick up the guitar or pen and paper and start writing some things. So, I don’t sit around and think, “Wouldn’t it be fun if so-and-so and I write something?” That’s not in my train of thought.
It goes back to Smith and Kotzen; it was suggested, “Why don’t you guys write a song together?” because we were jamming at his house at a party, and it sounded great, and we hit it off. And we said, “Okay, well, how about next Tuesday, come over to the house, and we’ll throw some ideas around?” So, that turned into three songs in one week. And then we thought, “Wow, these three songs are really cool. We might be on to something here, so let’s try and keep going.” So, that’s how natural – and I hate using the word organic because it’s overused – but that’s what it is. That’s the vibe.
In addition to the Ozzy [Osbourne] audition, were there any other notable opportunities you came across before joining Mr. Big?
No, I focused on doing my own thing and honing my craft. It was difficult because the labels were very stuck on what you had done in the past, and then they would paint that brush as it related to the present. So, coming out of Poison and trying to get back on my feet was challenging because, at the time, it wasn’t the coolest thing to be involved in. So much of that stuff was based on nonsense; what’s cool, what’s not. MTV deciding what’s cool. It was a bizarre period.
I think it’s much better now that you can put your stuff without having people tell you what’s cool. And most of these people that are talking about it couldn’t even tune a guitar, much less tell you what’s a cool lick to play. Now, at least, it’s a different game. At least now you can have your own voice without having to answer to somebody. The trick now is to let people know that it exists, but back then, you couldn’t even do a record because you needed the label to finance it.
What can you tell us about the new Winery Digs record slated for 2023? Will it be closer in sound to the first or second album?
I think it stands on its own. But I guess closer to the first one because the second album was probably more produced, with overdubs and stuff. So, on this new album, there’s less of that; it’s more conducive to the power trio. But it kind of stands on its own; it’s definitely its own thing. I’m pretty proud of it, so I hope it’s received well.
– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor for vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org