When embattled Glam/Hair Metal veterans Poison announced the addition of guitarist Richie Kotzen to their ranks following the unceremonious usurping of the often mercurial C.C. DeVille, many--myself most definitely included--wondered what would come of such a less-than-obvious union. While the resulting studio recording Native Tongue (1993) failed to match the critical and commercial successes of it's multi-Platinum predecessors, the genre-defying wares contained herein effectively served as a catalyst for the consummation of his soon-to-be prolific solo career. Recently, the fleet-fingered axeman, always a man of many words and interesting stories, was kind enough to speak with us regarding, among many other things, the release of his latest solo effort Salting Earth (2017) and the futurity of the Billy Sheehan/Mike Portnoy co-fueled 'Super Group' The Winery Dogs.
Todd: What was the inspiration behind the title Salting Earth? Was there a tie-in to the materials on the record?
Richie: “When I was thinking about making this record and thinking about a title for it, I was thinking about my past. Sometimes titles are simple and obvious because you have a song that leads off the tone of the record and the title of the song can tie it all together nicely. I didn't feel like I had that this time. I was reading my lyrics and there was a line in one the song “Earth Song” where I say “I'm salting a bit of earth”. I was thinking about what I meant with that and really, the meaning all ties into what you leave behind. Your time here, how relative and significant it may or may not be and the things that you do and the things that happen. ...It could happen being in the arts or other things like science. Hopefully, we're all Salting Earth and flavoring it with what we leave behind. That's the sentiment of the title. The fact that I've got so much music now behind me, from solo records and projects and other things, I thought it was an appropriate title. ...And it all came out of that line in the song.”
Todd: How did the songwriting processes for Salting Earth differ from your previous releases? Do you take a different approach with each new recordings? I would imagine they've changed as you developed as a musician.
Richie: “Actually, the songwriting process is different for every song. I can give you an interesting example as it relates to this record. First of all, the compositions that make up this record, if you really look at them, some of them existed ten years ago. They've been a work in progress for ten years. I'll elaborate on what I mean by that in a minute. Let's take the song “Grammy”, for example. That song literally came to me in my sleep. It was three thirty in the morning and suddenly I heard this melody and this vocal line 'They don't understand me like baby understands me'. I'm was singing that in my head, but I had the melody, too. I couldn't fall back asleep because of the melody and I thought 'You know what? Let me get up and document the idea'. So I went in the studio and something happened by seven thirty in the morning. I had a finished song written and recorded. The version you hear on the record is literally the recording I made the minute I wrote it. It's interesting because it all happened within the course of a few hours. On the other hand, you've got songs like “Make It Easy” where the drums and the guitars, and even the guitar solo, were recorded ten years ago. I stalled because I didn't have any ideas for lyrics. I put the song away and then went back to it last year. I went back to a lot of things that I never finished. When that came up, I suddenly had ideas for lyrics and I finished the song. They're all different. They all start and end so differently. Some happen instantly and some are stretched out over many, many years.”
Todd: Do you have a vault where you store your 'incomplete' thoughts? Do you keep everything on hard drives?
Richie: “I do. I have over one hundred hard drives in a room in my house. I am the worst record keeper. I don't really know what's where. ...Sometimes I have hard drives that are duplicates and sometimes I can't find certain things, but it just so happened I found the files for “Make It Easy”, which is a ProTools audio file. I also found the files for “Thunder”, which was an older file. It was incomplete, so I worked on that as well. There's also new songs as well. “Divine Power”, “End Of Earth”, “Meds” and “This Is Life”. They are all brand new songs.”
Richie: “They aren't really waiting to be released if I haven't released it, but there are certainly things that I have done that I haven't put out. And there are things that are in pieces that need some attention that could be put out. There are things that I started writing that I didn't finish. That's the great thing. ...When I start getting into a mode where I'm getting a lot of ideas, I start writing and then suddenly I've got three or four new songs and I feel like it might be time to start thinking about a record, I can go back in the archives and see if there's anything I've forgotten about and bring them out. That's kind of how it is. I take my time and I write whenever I feel like it. I can't set my time aside. You can't do that and still be the creative songwriter. ...It just doesn't work like that.”
Todd: How much of an impact did the introduction of ProTools have on how you cataloged your ideas? Is it easier to step into the studio and capture a fragment of a new composition now that everything is done digitally?
Richie: “ProTools was a huge game changer. ...I had a studio that had a tape machine that was a big pain in the ass to deal with. I was always having to align it and do all this different stuff for editing, ya know? You had to physically cut the tape if you wanted to do an edit. Then ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) came along. The theory of ADAT was great, but then when you needed more tracks, it became a nightmare because they wouldn't sync up. That was total chaos, so I jumped on the ProTools bandwagon right away. I absolutely love it. It became the industry standard and I can see why. It functions so well. When you get software, you can tell if someone that knows what they're doing designed it. For example, whoever designed ProTools had to have been a musician or at least be around enough musicians and had input from musicians to do it. It all makes sense. When you get into some of these other programs it's like 'Who the hell designed this?' The workflow isn't even related, especially when working with video. I learned how to use Final Cut years ago and then they changed it. I learned the new version and now it kind of makes sense, but back then I was like 'Why would they change this? It doesn't make any sense.' The thing that's great about ProTools is they didn't change it. They just made it faster, more versatile, and they improved it. That's the idea. That's why it's stayed here so long. I love ProTools.”
Todd: Once you immerse yourself within the digital recording process, are the differences massively noticeable?
Richie: “In the beginning, you definitely notice. What you notice, and I noticed first hand, between digital and analog, is when you record it on tape and you're in the studio, and you hit play back, it feels like you can see into the music. It's as if when I'm hearing the music, I feel like if I put my hand out in the middle between the two speakers, I can grab the bass line and squeeze it with my hands. That's the only way I can describe it. It's dimension and depth. In ProTools, or digital audio, rather, that is eliminated. Everything is a flat ...It's like looking at a flat screen as opposed to being in a three dimensional world. You're seeing everything on a flat screen, so the dimension is lost. At this stage of the game, I don't notice it anymore. I don't know if the reason I don't notice it is because they've improved it so much from back when I used to have a tape machine or if I don't notice it because my ears have adjusted and now the norm is what I'm hearing now in all the records. I really don't know. ...Back then when I had both, I had digital and I had a tape machine, I really noticed the difference.”
Todd: Did you experience a similar transitional phase once you stopped playing Ibanez guitars and Laney amplifiers? I would image making such a major change could have a very serious impact on your playing style?
Richie: “I haven't played Ibanez or Laney since 1990 and I'm forty-seven years old, so that's almost thirty years ago. Can you imagine thirty years ago? That's a very long time. Obviously, I've changed a lot. I started playing Fenders. Then Ibanez started making Fender copies in 1990 when I was endorsing them, so in 1991 I switched and went to Fender. The reason why is my style was evolving and I was very young. I was just a teenager back then. I was really discovering who I was as an artist. Somewhere along the line I realized that the sounds that I was hearing that I wanted to record. It wasn't possible to authenticate those sounds with the equipment I was using, so I bought a Telecaster and a Strat and started using them Finally, the Fender rep met with me and I signed with them and now I've got this signature model Telecaster that's been in production since 1996, which I love and that's my main guitar. As far as amplifiers are concerned, I've gone through a lot of different phases. Laney is a great company. I haven't worked with them in almost thirty years, but I do have a new signature model amp coming out of the UK from a company called Victory. It's a really fantastic amp. It's kind of a hybrid between a Marshall Plexi and a Fender Tweed Deluxe in some ways. It features a reverb, a tremolo circuit and a really gain stage where you can get enough lead tone where you don't need to carry a distortion pedal if you elect not to. ...Understandably, I'm excited about that. I'll be using that amp on the new tour that we'll be doing.”
Todd: You released Salting Earth via your own label Headroom, Inc. This has also been the case with several of your other solo efforts. At this point in your career, what is the advantage of releasing your material yourself?
Richie: “I've done fourteen, and that includes two DVDs, that I've released on my own. They're all self-released. ...At this stage in my career, it really doesn't make sense to do it any other way. What happened to the music business is that people don't buy records at the level that they used to. Streaming is more popular. Downloading and streaming. Let's be honest. If you're an artist that has a fan base, however many people it is, and you have a way for your music get direct to your base, why would you feel the need to be taxed on that? The argument would be that the label is going to spend money to promote you. The reality is, often times, the label asks you to promote yourself. For example, they'll be like 'Make sure you tweet this, make sure you tweet that'. Often times, the artist has more followers than the label. If you're dealing with an artist that has a track record of being successful to some degree, that artist probably has financial capital in which they can hire their own marketing people to promote themselves if they desire. My point is, the idea of a label for us folks doesn't make sense. If the label was going to come in and say 'We're going to broaden your base. We're going to put you on all these TV shows and do this and do that.' That costs one million dollars. If the label is going to put that kind of money into you, that's a whole different story. Even so, you would probably have to be young, probably nineteen, and be a Pop star. Folks like us don't have that as an option. ...I think the right options for us is what I'm doing now.”
Todd: When you've toured directly in support of Salting Earth, what type set list have you been working with?
Richie: “We did something interesting this time. A lot of times when I do a new record, I'll pick one or two songs from the new record and play them, but this time we're adding seven of the ten songs to the set list, which I'm excited about. I'm doing some more piano work, which means I have songs where I get behind the piano and do some things. We also have an acoustic section. I think we're putting together a much deeper show than we've ever done before. ...Our shows in the past have been kind of free and loose. We would do a lot of improv. There was a point where I wouldn't even make set lists. We would just call out tunes. In the dressing room, I'd say 'Okay, we're gonna open with “War Paint” and then we'll figure it out from there'. Now, we actually take the time and write a great set list. We're going to pull out a few songs that I've always wanted to play from the past.”
Todd: What musicians are you playing with? Are they the same bassist/drummer combo from your recent dates?
Richie: “My bassist and drummer have been with me now for about six years. Dylan Wilson is the bassist and Mike Bennett is the drummer. Those guys are a bit younger than me and actually came up playing jazz together. They have a whole other flavor that they add to the music. I really love the improv elements that we have in this band. When I go into a solo, because of their that jazz background, they have this thing where they listen and respond. It's one thing to listen, but it's another to respond the right way musically, to elevate a solo section. And they're just so good at that. I say I'm not a Jazz guy. I did play with (acclaimed Jazz bassist) Stanley Clarke in a band, so I did play some Jazz, but I don't consider myself a Jazz guy. I would imagine the ability to listen and respond comes from a Jazz background. I'm happy they are with me. They bring a whole new life to my music.”
Todd: When you've found yourself in search of new band members, has it been difficult to find the right people?
Richie: “It's been difficult for years. You go through personnel. Sometimes you find musicians that play great, but then once you get out on the road, there's personality problems. Other times, you find musicians that are a pleasure to do business with, but they just don't have the musical commonality that you're looking for. It's tricky, but when you find guys you like that have both, you hang onto them. That's probably why Dylan, Mike and I have been together for as long as we have. They go off and do other musical things because I am not active 24/7. ...We do really enjoy playing together. I take care of them and they take care of me. We have a great time.”
Todd: What was the primary motivation behind The Winery Dogs going on hiatus? Is everyone really burnt out?
Richie: “I'm not trying to say anything bad, but I wasn't looking to make a band. I wasn't looking to get married, I'll put it that way. I was coming off of a record, 24 Hours (2011), had done a long tour in Europe and was ending the cycle when the opportunity came to do a new collaborative effort. I figured we'd do a record and play some key markets like L.A., New York and Tokyo, spend a month playing and that would be it. Happily and surprisingly, it took off. People really liked the record (The Winery Dogs, 2013). We ended up staying on the road for a year or more, so it turned into this whole other thing. Even after that, my instinct was 'Alright. That was cool. Now I want to go back to doing what I've done for my whole life'. We agreed to go back to writing, make another record and then we did the same thing. I love The Winery Dog records that we made. I'm sure somewhere down the line, you know, never say never, we'll probably do something new, but for me, it's time to go back home, so to speak. ...Now I'm focused on doing what I've always done and I'm excited about it.”
Todd: Did you find having to work amid the traditional confine of a band environment to be creatively limiting?
Richie: “It's always like that when you're working in a band thing if you're accustomed to doing everything on your own terms. No matter who I would be working with, I would have to make an adjustment. In The Winery Dogs, there's much less stifling than any other situation I could imagine because I'm the guitar player, I'm the singer, I'm the lyricist and I'm the primary songwriter. You make mental adjustments. At the time The Winery Dogs happened, I was ready to do something where I would get some more input and those guys put in a lot to the record. A lot of great ideas came from Mike and Billy for many of those songs. In the end, when you look back on it, it was a lot of fun. It was successful and it was great, but at the same time, when you're someone that's been doing what I do for so long, it's like... How can you say it? I'm trying to think of an analogy because I love analogies, but I don't have one for it. It's much, much easier to deal with one person. ...I'll put it that way.”
Todd: Were the combined egos of the group ever an issue? I can imagine things getting very terse very quickly...
Richie: “Actually, in the creative process with them, there wasn't really much of that. Everybody kind of knew and recognized what the other person was bringing to the table. We didn't really have any of those problems, as you thought. Someone would look at the names and think 'Oh, this is gonna be a mess', but we didn't really have any real ego problems, thankfully. The first record was interesting because it was a hybrid of songs that we wrote together and songs that I wrote and brought into the band. On the later record (Hot Streak, 2015), we made the songs together and I later finished them. The second one was more collaborative than the first record.”
Todd: You've been a member of a chart-topping 'Hair Metal' band, a member of a Super Group and have had a successful solo career. In retrospect, did you foresee yourself embarking on so many different sonic adventures?
Richie: “I never thought about it. When you're young, you don't think about the future. I remember being young and making money. When I joined Poison, I was compensated very well and when I left Poison, I had a record deal and a publishing deal and things were really rolling. I never thought beyond that. I just figured it's always gonna be like that. It's always gonna get bigger and better. There was a period in the mid nineties where things did start going wrong. Up until then, any little goal I would set would happen, but somewhere around 1995 or 1996, the wheels started coming off a little bit and I started experiencing a lot of resistance. The nineties were really rough for me. Going back to what we talked about earlier, once the technology changed and I could make records and get them directly to my fans without having to go through a record company, I started to get my footing again. I started to develop my career and actually had to go back and re-pay my dues. I remember being in a van for hours on end driving across Europe. I spent a lot of time in Europe. We would tour there three times a year and go everywhere. That was the beginning of my career starting over. The future is hard to think about because you don't know what's gonna happen. You just don't know. It's always better to deal with what you're being dealt and make the most of it. You can plan some things, but you can't obsess over controlling the future.”
Salting Earth (2017)
Hot Streak (2015)
The Essential (2014)
The Winery Dogs (2013)
24 Hours (2011)
Peace Sign (2009)
Into The Black (2006)
Get Up (2004)
Acoustic Cuts (2003)
Break It All Down (1999)
Bi-Polar Blues (1999)
What Is... (1998)
Something To Say (1997)
Wave Of Emotion (1996)
The Inner Galactic Fusion Experience (1995)
Native Tongue (1993)
Electric Joy (1991)
Fever Dream (1990)
Richie Kotzen (1989)
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