As a life-long practitioner of the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal genres, my haphazardly-assembled barrage of 'critique diarrhea' often results from me wearing my heart on my sleeve. In fact, more often than not, I find myself championing an inane array of artists and groups from both my youth and the various current scene(s) that I honestly continue to feel deserve further or renewed attention. Frequently subjecting those kind enough to read and/or listen to my painfully-exhaustive diatribes regarding Joey Belladonna era Anthrax, Black Label Society, Iron Maiden and post-Metal Health Quiet Riot, my rants are likely to continue largely unabated. Accordingly, when presented with an opportunity to speak with former Mr. Big and Poison guitarist Richie Kotzen regarding Hot Streak, the genre-defying sophomore effort from The Winery Dogs, I was only more than happy to overindulge.
Todd: Were you surprised by the success of The Winery Dogs (2013)? Were the figures what you had expected?
Richie: “I didn't know what to expect, really. I didn't have many expectations. I thought we made a really interesting record, a really honest record. I liked it when it was finished and I liked it enough to release it. I figured from the beginning this band would have been a very cool project to join up with some known guys, make a record and do a couple of shows. I was very surprised that very quickly it started to resonate with people. It turned into a couple of shows to a whole year plus of touring. It did very well, and I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't have any expectations and that's good because then I won't worry about feeling disappointed.”
Todd: How did you approach the 'processes' for the new record? Is it different from what you do as a solo artist?
Richie: “To be honest, the writing and recording process isn't too terribly different from what I do on my own. The big variable that's different is that you're together in a room and you throw ideas around, which is anything from guitar riffs, bass riffs and drum beats. ...We then turn those into the skeletons of songs, which are basically incomplete beyond the arrangement. I then take them home and live with them for however long it takes. In this case, it's a couple of months while I write the lyrics and melodies. I'm the guy who comes in and finishes the songs. The three of us start them, but I finish them. That finishing process isn't any different than what I do on my own. If I go in and have a riff, I put it on my hard drive and I write to it. Usually, when I'm on my own, I write everything at the same time, so it's just a different kind of process in that regard. In general, I'm wearing the same hat, only I have the luxuries of having a very famous rhythm section contributing to all of the writing.”
Todd: Musically speaking, once Hot Streak (2015) was Mixed, Mastered and otherwise fully completed, what differences did you notice between the two releases? Were there a lot of new nuances and stylistic explorations?
Richie: “When you listen to the record, you'll notice that the record does have a much broader musical stroke. We're not really sure how that happened. It wasn't intentional. It was nothing we discussed, but it did happened. It really comes down to time, the passage of time and the experiences that you go through during that time. I think what had happened for us is that the band really grew and we became more comfortable with our roles and that process led us to a much more diverse sounding record. What's really cool about this record is that we maintain some of the things that people latched onto like “Elevate” and “Oblivion”. You can definitely draw some parallels there with those songs, but we definitely stepped into some different territory that wasn't on the first record. For example, on the song “Spiral”, (drummer) Mike Portnoy really goes back to the roots and plays basic time, which is something you never hear him do. He's always doing something way more complex, so that simplicity opened up some other doors for me as a singer. Even with the Production values, it allows you to go to so many more places and be so much more creative, so that exists on this record. I don't think we had that element on the first record. For me, I think this is a deeper record and I think we took a step forward creatively.”
Todd: Do you feel as if Hot Streak is a more cohesive record than your debut? While the complexity and virtuosity of the the debut is certainly undeniable, it seems as if everyone is now operating at a far higher level...
Richie: “I don't know if cohesive is the right word, because that would insinuate that something on the first record was disjointed and I don't think anything was. ...You've got songs on this record like “The Devil You Know” and “Oblivion” that really seem like they could have been off the first record, but then when you get into songs like “Ghost Town”, it's such a different sound for us. To me, it's not a foreign sound for me because I've done songs like that in the past, but for the Winery Dogs, it's a simpler kind of approach. When you do that, it really opens up a lot of doors in Production choices and also as a singer. The less there is going on to distract the lead vocal, the bigger the song will often sounds. A case in point is a song like “Captain Love”. It's a very simple song. We're playing power chords, open ringing chords, and the drums are playing a very simple beat, but it's one of the biggest sounding songs on the record. It sounds really big and the reason is because it's really simple. Everyone's playing really simple and that's why when you're listen to one of my favorite bands, Alice in Chains, they have a huge sound. Part of it's because they've tuned down, but the other part of it is that they're playing really simple. The base lines are really, really simple and the drum parts are also really, really simple and that's why it sounds so huge because it gives the guitars a chance to really ring out. If you listen to a song like “Oblivion”, it doesn't sound so huge, but it's really fast and it has a whole other kind of energy. If you listen to “Captain Love”, it's got a huge sound because of its simplicity. And that's another element that we didn't have on the first record. On the first record, we had a lot more complex things happening everywhere. Everything was done at a much faster pace. ...Overall, I think this record has a much broader musical palette than our first.”
Todd: Do you think touring in support of The Winery Dogs assisted the group in the 'reforging' of relationships?
Richie: “I think so. I think the real thing that helped was more of an element of trust. Being able to know what Billy is probably going to play and how he's probably going to interpret it and knowing what Mike is probably going to do and how he's probably going to interpret it. On the first record, we would come up with an idea and then not have a clue as to where we were going to go once we started playing it. This time, we had the knowledge and familiarity with each other as musicians. That definitely contributes to the sounds of the record.”
Todd: Was Hot Streak recorded using analog or digital equipment? At this point, which method do you prefer? Is it easier to work with programs like Pro Tools or is working with physical tape still your preferential method?
Richie: “It's all Pro Tools. I used to have an analog machine many years ago in my study and I did a couple of my solo records on two inch tape. It's a great sound. When I went from two inch tape to digital, it was a real shock. Now, nobody really notices. Nobody knows anymore because a lot of what you hear is digital, but in the old days, when I would record to tape and then play it back, the only way I could describe it is I felt like I could see into the music. The two speakers had a dimension that I could almost see into and feel. With digital, everything's flat. It's just in your face and there's no third dimension there. When I first made that transition, it was disturbing. It was really, really disturbing. I felt like some of the soul was taken out of the recordings. Then, over the years, I think two things happened. I think people got used to it. Everyone's ears adjusted and then, the other thing that happened is the digital medium got better. In the early days, the sample rates were much lower and now they're getting higher and higher, so everything's getting faster and faster. It does sound better than it used to. They've improved it and now that everything is digital, you don't really notice it anymore. In the end, it's squashed down into a small format and most people listen to music on their ear buds while they're working out, so they probably wouldn't notice by the time it gets squashed. On some level, I definitely always miss the sound of tape, but I don't miss the aggravations. I love the conveniences of digital, so there's a certain trade off.”
Todd: What can you tell us about the recording process for Hot Streak? Was it done with everyone together in the same room or was everything recorded individually and then completely reassembled by you at a later date?
Richie: “The main objective when we recorded both records was to get a great drum performance for each song. That's the first objective. We set the drums up an we get a great tone out of the drums. Billy has his bass rig there and I have a very small guitar rig there, knowing that Mike focuses on getting a great performance for himself and doesn't worry too much about anything that I'm doing. Once we get Mike recorded and we get a great performance from him on all of the songs, then Billy goes in and does his parts to Mike's perfected parts. But before Billy does that, I have what I call a scratch guitar laid down and a scratch vocal. Some of the scratch guitar and scratch vocals actually ended up on the record. On the song “Spiral”, that's the original guitar that I tracked the record with and then I overdubbed some extra guitars on top of it to make it sound beefier. Some of the lead vocals are the originals as well, so I did keep some things, but in general, the focus is to get a great performance from Mike, then Billy can do his bass parts and then I can take over and do what I do. Actually, interestingly enough, on the first record, it was the exact opposite. The drums were recorded, then I did all of my parts and then, after my parts were done, Billy came in and did the bass. I spent about two months working on the record alone because I had so much to do with guitars, keyboards and vocals. Even some of the writing was still happening as I was overdubbing. It's a long process. It wasn't until July that it was finished and mixed.”
Todd: Are you utilizing the same guitar and amplifier rig for the Hot Streak tour as you did to 'make' the record?
Richie: “On The Winery Dogs record I went through a lot of amps. I tried a lot of different things and used some different amps for layering. I did use some different things in different sections, but in general, for the main sound of that record, I went back to what I was using in 2004, which is an amp that I'd personally designed with Cornford Amplification in England. It's called the RK100. We released that amp commercially in 2004, but it was a limited run, so I don't think we produced more than a hundred amps. I plugged it in and it just sounded amazing, so I used it on most of the record. Almost all of it, really. I would say ninety percent of that record was done with that amp and that's exactly what I'm doing. I've got the amps I used on the record with me right now.”
Todd: How did the songwriting hierarchy for Hot Streak differ from the methods the group used for The Winery Dogs? With everyone being so prolific, I would imagine there was a lot of 'outside' material that could be used...
Richie: “I made a conscious decision on this record. With the first record, the band was new, we had a handful of ideas we really liked and we went in and we wrote a few more things together. That's when we decided to start recording the record even though at that point, we didn't have all the songs. I started pulling songs off my hard drive like “Damaged”, “Elevate”, “I'm No Angel”, “Regret” and “We Are One”. These were all songs that I had lurking either in my brain or on my hard drive. In fact, “Damaged” and “I'm No Angel” we're actually cut to the basic tracks of my original demos. That element existed on the first record, but on the second record, I made a conscious decision that I wasn't going to bring in anything other than raw ideas like chord progression, a guitar riff or a melody because I wanted everything in this record to really stem from the band. Everything that's on this record, with the exception of “Fire” came from us messing around in a room, coming up with ideas. Billy had a lot of great ideas that he brought in that we ended up turning into songs. I keep talking about the song “Spiral” because that started as a bass exercise that he would warm up to. He was playing it in my studio and I said 'Wow, that's really cool. Let's write something off of that'. I think the foundation of this record is cool because it really came out from the three of us. Then of course, I would take the stuff and finish it and turn them into actual songs, but it all started out very organic, just the three of us in my garage. ...We did that for the first record, but for this record, we went to Serenity studios in Hollywood and did the drums and bass there. Then, after the drums and bass were finished, I took the files to my studios, locked myself in and finished everything.”
Todd: How easy it for you to balance your role within The Winery Dogs with your solo career? Is it difficult for you to devote the requisite amount of time for each project? The workload must feel so insurmountable at times.
Richie: “It couldn't be easier because I've always been a solo artist and I always will be. That's who I am. That's not going anywhere. That's my therapy. That's how I bought my house, how I survived and how I raised my daughter. It's my art, it's what I love and it's not going anywhere. It's easy to ping-pong back and forth because they don't interfere. When I started The Winery Dogs with Mike and Billy, I'd just finished a campaign for my record 24 Hours (2011). We went to Europe three times on that record. We also went to South America and we did some shows in the United States. We did a lot of touring for that and at the end of it, I wanted a break. I remember saying to somebody 'I've done ten solo records in a row. I've spent a lot of time touring Europe. I'm tired of being Richie Kotzen. I'd like a break. I'd like to work with some other people." Right when that happened, I got the call from Mike Portnoy wondering if I'd be willing to jam with him and Billy, so The Winery Dogs were formed at a perfect time. We did that album cycle and people loved the record. We stayed out for over a year on and off. We did over one hundred shows and by the time we did the hundredth show, I was like 'I need a break. I love these guys, but now I've got to get away from them'. That's how it is. It's like family. I took a break and released some solo things. I did a retrospective (The Essential, 2014), and did a new solo record Cannibals (2015) I went back out with my band and we toured China, Europe and South America. We did a month in Europe and we also did a month in the United States and ended everything in Japan. We filmed the last show, so right now, even though Hot Streak is out, I've also got a live DVD that just came out and it's probably the best show I've recorded in my life. Everything just lined up for us that night. We played great and we had a great time. It was just fantastic and I knew that would be the end of the solo cycle, so I said 'Okay, I'm ready. I'm ready to go back to The Winery Dogs'. It's like a pendulum that swings. With The Winery Dogs, after a while, you start to get tired of each other and you want to take a break, so I go back and make another record. Mike does the same thing. Mike's always extremely active. He's more active than any of us. He's in five different bands at any given time. The question is how does he do it? That's what I'd really like to know.”
Todd: With that in mind, what can you tell us about your latest solo effort Cannibals? Am I correct in understanding you utilized unfinished material that was as much as ten years old? How do you co-ordinate that?
Richie: “It's a really cool record because the opening track “Cannibals” is brand new and there were a couple of other things there that were brand new as well. Once I write a new song, I'm in my studio, so I always go back and look at other things that I never finished. I've found some things from ten years ago that I completely forgot about. “In An Instant” (from Cannibals) is a perfect example and there are three or four other songs like that as well. I said 'Wow, that's a great performance of a pre-chorus. The intro is fantastic, but I don't really like the verse so much and I don't really like the chorus'. So I brought then into the sessions and I rewrote certain things. When you listen to the track, there's actually vocals on there from ten years ago and also from today. It's a really cool hybrid and it worked perfectly. I think that song is one of the coolest things I ever recorded. That was a different approach. We're not taking old ideas. We're taking actual recordings that I never finished and then finishing them many years later. It's funny because you can have ideas and just not be ready to take them to completion. It takes time. Sometimes a song writes itself within five minutes and sometimes it takes you years.”
Todd: In hindsight, how do you view you tenures as members of Poison and Mr. Big? Although I initially though you were an unusual choice for Poison, it made perfect sense when you were 'recruited' to join Mr. Big...
Richie: “Being a member of Poison was a very important thing for me because I was having some problems back then. I had just signed a major recording contract with Interscope (Records) as a solo artist. I was nineteen or twenty years old and they had moved me out to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania. I was really poised to make a great record. We had Danny Corsmar ready to Produce it and I was very excited. I had this whole concept of doing something true to my roots. It was going to be a very soulful, R&B-driven record, but obviously heavier. If you can imagine (legendary Hall & Oates vocalist) Darryl Hall with an electric guitar. Not too far off from what I did on Cannibals, to be honest. At the last minute, the label pulled the plug and said 'We don't want you to make this kind of record. We signed you expecting a Hard Rock album'. I pretty much snapped because I had no interest in making a Hard Rock record. I wasn't into that style of music. I had absolutely no affinity to the genre, so I insisted to be dropped because my attitude was 'I'm young, I believe in myself and somebody else will pick me up'. They let me out of the contract and during that time, I was approached by (vocalist/guitarist) Bret Michaels from Poison, who had seen me on the cover of Guitar World and at the time, wanted to meet me. Once I met him, I really took a liking to him and through our conversations, I realized that they really wanted to change the band. They wanted someone that they thought would be more credible from a musicians point of view and they wanted someone that was a writer. At the time, I had some really interesting songs that I had written, one of which was called “Stand”, which we ended up putting on the record along with a few others that I had written. Bret and I really hit it off. We made a great record. I loved the record we made. Unfortunately, by the time we got on the road the climate was changing in that particular scene and things didn't go nearly as well as they did in the beginning. I moved on, but it was a great time for me. I learned a lot and I think I made a fantastic record with them. Mr. Big was also an interesting time in my life because I was going through a lot personally. I was also in a band and had done two solo records that year. I did a record called Break It All Down (1999) and I did a Blues record (Bi-Polar Blues, 1999) for my old label Shrapnel, so there was a lot happening. I was also in a band with Stanley Clark. We were making a record together for Sony. I was approached by Mr. Big to replace Paul Gilbert. I had been friends with (vocalist) Eric (Martin) for many years and friends with Billy for many years. My initial instinct was to not do it. I took a lot of heat when I left Poison. When I came back into the record business, I had a lot of problems because I had this stamp from being in an '80's Metal band. Unfortunately, in the '90's, that wasn't considered the cool thing. Even though we made a fantastic record, it was a bad stigma. Initially, when I was asked to join Mr. Big, I said no. Then we got together, and I realized that it would be a lot of fun. Back then, Mr. Big was really only active in Japan. Being in Mr. Big really only took two months out of my life. One month to make the record and one month to go to Japan and then it was over. It was fun and I think we made some cool music together. It was a different process and a different type of energy. I was at a different point in my life, so it wasn't quite as thrilling as being in Poison was, but I still think we made some great music together. The back story that nobody knows is that two years prior to me joining Mr. Big when Mr. Big technically didn't exist, Billy Sheehan and (Mr. Big drummer) Pat Torpey and I were writing together and we were going to do a trio. It would have been another power trio, not unlike The Winery Dogs back in the '90s, but it never came together. We did end up writing some music and one of the songs is called “Locked Out” on my solo record What Is... (1998) and they play on it. ...That might have been the original trio.”
Todd: Personally, I never thought Native Tongue sounded like a 'traditional' Poison record. It's so very different.
Richie: “You know, it doesn't. This is not meant to sound obnoxious, but it's almost like one of my solo records with Bret Michaels singing on it. That's really what it feels like to me, and I think he would probably admit that. He and I wrote a lot of that music together. We wrote all of it together along with a couple of songs I brought in that were mine and even on those songs, he and I sat down and changed things. They wanted some fresh blood. They wanted a different sound and they knew the only way that they would remain relevant would be to grow, so I was the only answer for them. I think we made a really cool record. A lot of those bands from that era disappeared instantly, but when our record came out, it shipped Gold and eventually went platinum. Our first single did very well, but unfortunately, by the time we got on the road, it was to the point where MTV had stopped supporting us. It was unfortunate, but we came out of the gate strong and I still think the record's great.”
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