By Carol Anne Szel
Richie Kotzen is perhaps the most underrated guitarists of anyone. He’s played with some of the best, very successfully tours the world and is a guitar legend, singer, songwriter whose style is immediately recognizable.
Based in classic rock and old school soul sound, Kotzen was signed with Shrapnel Records as a teenager at the young age of 18 with his debut in 1989, then signed with Interscope Records in 1991 reaching an even wider audience as he moved to LA that same year.
He replaced Paul Gilbert in Mr. Big in 1999 for a brief stint, and in a bold move replaced C.C. DeVille at the 1991-1993 peak of the mega band Poison for an album and tour.
Releasing The Essential Richie Kotzen with material from his 18 solo albums giving listeners the most comprehensive view of his music last fall, Richie is also the ultimate road dog with tours incessantly hitting the states and around the world playing his music to a multitude of fans.
I had the chance to catch up with Richie on one of his few breaks in touring as he was in between shows on the tour bus, and this is the rock view from the road that ensued.
Carol Anne Szel: You were only 18 years old when you had your debut album, what did that feel like back then?
Richie Kotzen: It was an exciting time. You know that first record was done, recorded with songs I actually wrote when I was 17, so obviously at 44 now I’ve evolved and grown with each record. But back then the focus was kind of trying to get out of a small town and get some recognition as a musician. And I had the opportunity to sign with Schrapnel Records and I went with it. It was a very important time for me back then, and a great opportunity. And here I am now, many years later, still making records.
CAS: Tell me about the Winery Dogs, I’m a huge fan. How did that come about?
RK: Billy Sheehan and Mark Portnoy had been playing with a few different projects and at some point they decided they wanted to try to do something with a three piece sort of a throwback vibe. So Eddie Trunk had recommended that they call me to see if I would be interested. So we got together at my house and recorded a few ideas that later were turned into songs and from there it led to making a record. So it was a fun project and the record did way better than I think any of us anticipated. I really thought it would be a quick release and we’d go out and do a short tour, but we ended up being on the road for over a year. And it was very well received.
CAS: What does the future hold for Winery Dogs?
RK: The plan is next year to go back and do some more writing and hopefully we’ll release another record. Right now I’m on the road touring with my solo band, so my focus right now is with my solo work. So like I said, next year at some point we will all get together and see what can be written and hopefully we will have something recorded and finished sometime in mid-year.
CAS: What do you think about the trend of music going back to be pressed as Vinyl again?
RK: Well, I know a lot of people are fans of Vinyl. I grew up with it obviously. And I remember when they introduced the CD I was panicking when I did my first record because I didn’t know anything about CDs and for a moment there was talk about not putting my record out on Vinyl and only doing it on CD. And I was panicking! I didn’t understand what it was!
Obviously now it’s evolved into MP3s and everyone is listening on their phones. For me, I just love the convenience of having music in a device. And not having to store records or CDs and all that stuff. And I understand the nostalgia arguments and that’s all valid, but I don’t have a record player, I don’t even use my CD player anymore! Everything is in my computer or my phone. Obviously when you’re in the studio it’s a different animal because you’re recording with a professional system and you’re listening back with real pro speakers and everything. But when the product is done, most people are listening on their devices.
CAS: Now getting over to playing live, what do you think about when you’re on stage?
RK: The best place to be when you’re playing live is to absolutely have nothing on your mind. Sometimes when you play you get distracted by something, if it’s the sound or something weird with the lights, you know? And when you start thinking about things you’re removing yourself from what you’re doing which is delivering your music. For me, the best moments are when you’re really not thinking anything. You don’t really know where you are, literally. It’s just a state of mind of just calmness, almost like channeling your energy. And in order to really do that in a fierce way, you’re not going to be thinking about what you had for dinner for example. You know, you want your mind to be pretty much empty.
CAS: How do you prepare to go on stage?
RK: Well, seeing that I have been doing this so long, it’s almost a subconscious thing that you just get up there and go. And it just comes together. There are some physical things. Being that I’m a singer, your instrument is your body literally. You might have to warm up your voice and do some basic kind of exercises so you loosen your muscles in your throat and so you don’t hurt yourself when you go onstage. Without warming up you run the risk of ruining your voice, you know. So there’s that element of things.
But in general, it just seems like I fall into that zone naturally when I get up and play.
CAS: You’re very popular all over the world; do you enjoy playing in the States or other countries more?
RK: Being home in the States is just convenient being in your own country. Speaking your language and being able to use your phone and all those sorts of things. That’s really the only benefit. The audiences are amazing all over the world! You know, the people who are coming to your show are familiar with your work, so I’m just thankful I get to play anywhere to be honest. I spend a lot of time overseas and we play many shows here in the United States. It’s just the fact that I can just play my songs, play my music, and exist. It’s a great thing and I’m very thankful for that. As long as the wheel keeps turning, I’m happy!
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