“It’s had a good response, I’m very happy,” enthused Richie Kotzen about his 22nd solo album, Salting Earth which was released in April.
“We’ve just finished touring in the United States, we did about five weeks and played a lot of material off the new record and people have been really excited about it and that makes me happy because it means I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m looking forward to coming to Australia in August. I’ve never played there before so it should be a great time.”
It’s not that Kotzen has avoided Australian audiences in the past, it’s more a case of availability and opportunities not lining up.
“Well you know, a lot of it is timing,” he stressed. “There were points where I had offers to go there and I was already booked somewhere else and this time I think the stars lined up and made sense. I was open and available. So much of that is out of my control. I always tell people that write to me, I say look, I’ll play everywhere but I don’t book myself (laughs). It’s not up to me, it’s up to what the agent can come up with and so we finally got all the stars to line up and I’m stoked to be finally coming down there.”
One positive out of not seeing Kotzen’s live performance previously is that the show will be a virtual open book for Australian fans, but Kotzen says in this day and age the avenues are available to people who really want to see the concert.
“It’s all over YouTube,” he laughed. “I could talk about the show but the reality is with today’s technology you can go on there and see everything. In 2015 we put out a DVD from Japan so the guys on stage there with me are the guys in my band still. We’ve been together now for about seven years almost the three of us, so we’ve got a great connection musically and just become friends over the years and because of our musical connection we’re able to do a lot of fun stuff on the fly like improvisation wise and so that’s an exciting element of the show, not only for the concert goers but for us as a band. Some of these songs are different every night. We don’t know; we don’t know what we’re gonna do from night to night. I’m also playing a lot more electric piano on this tour than I’ve ever done. I’m behind that piano on about four or five songs in the show so that’s a fun element and then the other thing we do on this tour – and we’re gonna do it in Australia as well – is we do an acoustic segment so that’s pretty cool because the drummer Mike Bennett plays Cajon, he’s a great Cajon player, and our bass player Dylan Wilson pulls out the upright bass. So I think this show… it’s kinda good that we’ve never been there because you’re getting us at our best at this point.”
Kotzen is not only an accomplished guitarist and vocalist but, as he did on Salting Earth, often plays every instrument on his solo albums. Not only does this give him complete creative control over the entire album, it also allows him the freedom to have each release sound exactly like it does in his head, a luxury not afforded to many musicians.
“I get my vision,” he affirmed. “I hear music in my mind and at the end of the day when it sounds that way coming out of the speakers I know I’m finished and whoever is playing on it is not so much the issue. A lot of times I am the only musician and other times I call in guys. As a matter of fact the new song I’m working on my intention is to have Dylan and Mike come in and play on it with me so I’m open to everything but a lot of times I get ideas and go in the studio and next thing you know it’s finished and I’m the only guy on the record (laughs).”
That’s not to say that Kotzen isn’t happy with the output from other members of his touring band, although he admits to having been selective in the past when it comes to who he is going to use to perform his parts live on stage.
“These guys have been with me for about seven years,” he reiterated, “so we really click and you’re right, it’s super important getting the right people. You’ve gotta have guys that have the right instincts for the music and the great thing about it is I can say with all the studio songs they take on a new life and in some ways they improve because these guys play so well together and in the end some of them actually sound better by the end of the tour cycle.
Before gaining recognition as a solo artist, Kotzen served his apprenticeship in glam metal band Poison and rock outfit Mr Big before more recently forming the hugely popular Winery Dogs, and says that creating and performing his own work gives a completely different feeling to performing as part of an established band.
“I don’t know, that’s a good question to ask,” he mused on what he gets out of solo albums that he doesn’t with bands. “Poison was over twenty years ago so my memory might be a little twisted (laughs) but I will say that was an important time in my life. I love the record we made which was a very special record at the time and I certainly learned a lot. It might not be obvious what I learned now but I know it certainly carved out a lot of things as far as how I perceive the business. Not so much music itself but back then how things work because I was coming out of a small independent label to suddenly being in one of the biggest rock bands in the U.S so it was a bit of a culture shock so that was an interesting scenario for me as a twenty-year-old guy. Mr Big happened much, much later in my life and that was crowned on another whole level but ultimately my thing which is what I’m doing when I’m making my Richie Kotzen record; that’s me being me so that’s me at 100% and those other scenarios are other influences which are great but it’s a different role. It’s almost like an ensemble thing rather than a monologue.”
Kotzen’s soulful rock voice is the cornerstone of his performances, but it wasn’t until his second solo album, Fever Dream, that he actually sang. His debut self-titled album featured instruments only, but Kotzen says that wasn’t because he wasn’t confident enough back then to sing on his albums but more a reflection of the period when the album came out.
“That was 1989 when that record came out and it was made of songs I had written when I was sixteen, seventeen years old,” he explained, “and back then it was a very focused thing. There was a whole movement happening with rock guitar that was very challenging and pushing the limits. At that point in my life, I was really obsessed with playing guitar at the level of many other people that were coming out on the scene so I deliberately made a record that fell into the category of the shredder guitar. We didn’t call it shred guitar back then -that’s something that somebody else invented many years later – I think we called it over the top guitar playing (laughs), but that was something that was very deliberate. After that first record came out I realised alright, I’ve done that, I’ve pushed those limits as far as I could push them for myself and I went right back to writing songs with lyrics and I sang on my second record and I think that somewhere around the time after that record… the following year or two I really started to progress and define myself as a singer. There’s a song that I did in ’91 that came out on the Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack and it was a song that was originally on my second record Fever Dream but my singing voice had changed so much in that year that I went back and re – sung it so it’s kind of an interesting thing for people to do. If they go and listen to the song Dream of a New Day from the Fever Dream record and then they get the soundtrack from the Bill and Ted movie and listen to the version on there you really hear a progression in less than a year of how my voice changed so that happens when you’re young and that’s a great thing. Having all these records out it’s almost like little snapshots of my life and development as an artist.”
More recently Kotzen has been a part of Winery Dogs which also features Mike Portnoy on drums and Billy Sheehan on bass, one of those rare bands that are tagged as a supergroup that actually lives up to the hype. Even still, Kotzen admits that the expectations for the band initially only centred around making the one album and the subsequent wave of hysteria that greeted its release forced a rethinking of plans.
“The thing with The Winery Dogs is we did that first record and I don’t know what everybody’s expectations were, but I figured we were going to make an amazing record because those guys are amazing musicians and we’re gonna do something special and do what we do as far as gigs go but it really turned into something much bigger than I expected,” he recalled.
“We went all over the world and did multiple tours so it made sense to dive back in and do another record and that was great but like I said for someone like myself that’s been making their own records their own way since 1989 certainly at some point you start to feel that you need to get back to what we’ve always done because that’s really who you are but that doesn’t undermine the fact that the Winery Dogs was a fantastic situation and also I’m sure we will do something again. Why not? I’m not one to put a hard period on anything when it comes to the creative process so I think as long as the other guys are excited and I’m excited then we can probably do something again in the foreseeable future.”
RICHIE KOTZEN TOUR DATES
Thursday, August 24: Max Watts, Brisbane
Friday, August 25: The Factory Theatre, Sydney
Saturday, August 26: Max Watts, Melbourne