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Interview with Richie Kotzen


Interview by Mónica Castedo-López

In an unintentional bid to prove he is one of the most prolific artists out there, singer songwriter and guitar extraordinaire Richie Kotzen releases 50 new songs over 3 discs under the overall name '50 For 50'. He secretly created a challenge for himself to have the material ready for his 50th birthday on 3rd February and he unsurprisingly succeeded. With 22 records under his belt, including the latest in 2017, 'Salting Earth', Kotzen returns with a diversity of songs and styles that covers his whole career. A tour is confirmed in several parts of the globe starting in June and this would be a great opportunity to see how some of these new tracks work out in a live environment for this truly sensational American musician. A few days after an elaborate surprise birthday party thrown by his wife Julia Lage, you could feel the excitement about the release in the conversation he had with yours truly as we also touched briefly on his band with Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy, The Winery Dogs.

Richie Kotzen Rocktopia Interview Photo By Larry Dimarzio

Happy belated birthday and congratulations on the release of not just one or two, but three new albums under the name '50 For 50'. Why was it important to you to release 50 previously unreleased songs on your 50th birthday?

Initially It would have been a normal record but at some point last year I had finished what would have been my next record with 12 or 13 songs on it and I went on the road and took a hard drive with me that basically mirrored my studio at my house. I started going through some of the archives and I realised I had a lot of material that I never finished. Some things were very close to being done, others needed a bit more work, so I started taking notes and working on it and thinking that when I got back off the tour I wanted to finish this music. I didn't like the idea of all these songs sitting around incomplete. Then I started wondering if I could finish enough of these to the point where I would have 50 songs, including what was already done and instead of releasing a normal record I could have a 50-song album on my 50th birthday just because I don't know if it's ever been done and it sounded like an interesting talking point, nothing more than that. So I went home, started working and I got to the point where I had more than 30 songs finished and then I started hinting at it on my Instagram of what I was doing because I knew at that point I was probably going to reach my goal and get all the material done. And here we are! I pretty much pulled it off I suppose!

You did! Did you not go mental at some point thinking "It's too much, I can't write these many licks and these many lyrics"?

Obviously the lyrics are the most important thing. Basically what happened is once I started finishing some of these songs I started writing new stuff, so it was this weird snowball effect. Some of the songs were further along than others. For example, 'Mad Bazaar' lyrically was pretty much written but the reason I never finished it was the production – I couldn't decide on it years ago when I started it. There were some other songs where the music was done, like 'Same Old Town', which was recorded in the 'Peace Sign' sessions, but I never finished writing the lyrics for it. So there were some songs that really didn't require that much attention and then there were other ones that required a lot of attention. But I would work and if I hit a wall I would just leave the studio and go do something else, like go to the beach or go for a drive. I have to say it was a very easy process because I did not put the pressure on. In my mind I thought "If I don't get to 50 songs, it doesn't matter. No one is gonna know about it and it won't matter, and if I get there, great!" Initially I thought it was going to be a digital-only release because I thought that would give me enough time (if it's digital only I don't have to worry about producing the physical copies so that buys me a couple of extra months). Once October hit I realised that I was going to get to the end so then I knew I could do physical as well. The good news is now I don't ever have to worry about making another solo record ever again! I can just do singles for the rest of my life!

No! You will have to release more albums! We want to hear more music! Now, tell us about the lyrics of my favourite track, 'Let It Slide'.

I gotta be honest with you, that's one thing that might be tricky because I don't remember what is what at this point because there are 50 songs. I know the melody to that one [and he starts humming it], but I don't know the lyrics off the top of my head, can you believe that? There are other songs that I do know, like 'Devil's Hand' because I did the video for it. The interesting thing is that when I do this, and it's probably part of why I'm able to do it, is because once the song is written and recorded, most of the time I'd forget about it and move on. Certain songs stick in my mind and then other songs I write them and then I move on quickly. So it happens even in my old records I'd be out somewhere and a person would say "Hey, I love that song that you wrote called 'My Addiction'" and I'd go "Oh, I don't remember. Do I have a song named that?" Then they'd start singing it and I'd go "Oh, I remember it!"

Can you name two songs on the release that you think are the opposite?

I can easily do that and I'd say that happens on the first disc. If you listen to 'Stick The Knife' and then 'Innocuous' I think they're very different–, or to take it further, if you listen to 'Stick The Knife' and then the last song on the record, 'This House', they couldn't be any more opposite. The thing that I really love about the record is that it does expand the full gamut of what I do. Stylistically I've always been someone that has a broad palette. I never considered myself a one-dimensional artist. I think this record, out of all of them, really covers the essence of what it is that I do. That and finishing the records is what I'm most happy about.

You have two instrumental songs that are very different to anything you've done before, touching on the jazz fusion vibe.

There were a couple of things that I found on the hard drive and those are the ones that are instrumental songs. One of those songs started off with just a bass line and a click track and I remember going in and working on that one knowing all along that it would be an instrumental because of the crazy lines that are going on there. Then there's another song which is a faster instrumental, the drums are pretty simple but they're quick and is a blues boogie type song that I would think is more reminiscent of my earlier Shrapnel records. So it does cover the basis from as far back as what I was doing when I first started making records.

Did your band companions, bassist Dylan Wilson and drummer Mike Bennett, record the album with you?

No, I'm the only bass player on the record and I played drums on all but maybe three or four songs, and they are credited accordingly. Mike played on half of one song (if you can believe it; it's very strange!) and the other half is me. I'm pretty much the only guy on the record. Obviously I don't play the trumpet so there's a guy that played the trumpet solo on one song.

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When you ended up with 50 songs and decided to split them over three CDs, how did you work out which songs would go on which disc? Did you do it in chronological order?

No, I did not do it in chronological order. To be honest, the most difficult aspect of this album was the sequencing because first of all I had to think about what's going to fit on what disc. When I sequenced disc 1 initially I ended up with seven extra minutes and that screwed everything up across the board, so I tried again and I was over by five minutes. So it was very tricky to try and sequence it and at one point I thought "Forget it, I can't sequence this, it's not gonna work!" And then somehow I figured out what songs I wanted to start with and which ones I wanted to end with, and then I worked backwards from there. The other thing that I thought was that I wanted each record to open with two of the more up-tempo guitar-driven songs. If you notice in the first CD it's 'Stick The Knife' and 'As You Are' and then it kind of goes into some of the other stuff. Actually, the first CD has more of the funk-oriented stuff like 'Nickel Hustler' or 'Dirty Tricks' or 'Life Gonna Give It To Ya'. Then both discs 2 and 3 open with two of the heavier songs. One CD goes into more of a singer-songwriter mellow trip, and the other one has more of a classic rock thing. People often ask me "How shall I listen to it?" and think that the best way is from start to finish.

Having your own label Headroom Inc. and releasing the album on it you had all the liberty you wanted, and you've been doing that for the last few records.

Yes, I've been doing that since 'Into The Black' in 2006. I just like the idea that I can work at my own pace; more than anything that's what I like. I also like the idea that I don't have someone else giving me some kind of parameters. The great thing about working with a great record label is you get the machine behind you. I've been signed to major labels and unfortunately I never had all the gears turning in my favour, so I'm happy now that I have a fan base that I can sell direct to. One of the things I really like is I don't have that element of the record label putting up barriers and parameters artistically and that is something that was really frustrating: for many years I had to listen to business people telling me how I should write, what I should write, what I shouldn't, what I should look like, what I shouldn't. So since 'Into The Black' I've been really able to be myself and work at my own pace and I think it's paid off for me. I think it's been a blessing in disguise not being able to get re-signed when I was dropped from Geffen many years ago. I spent many years trying to get re-signed to a major label and it just didn't happen and I guess in retrospect if I look where I am now it's kind of a blessing.

I guess the dilemma you may have now is that you're going on tour from June covering the US, Mexico, Latin America, Europe and Japan. After releasing 50 new songs, how on earth are you going to decide on the setlist?

Believe it or not I think it's going to be easy for me because one of the things that I know is that when I go see a band – I like The Eagles – I'm curious to know what their new stuff is but in the end I want to hear 'Hotel California', the classic songs that I grew up listening to. And then I want to hear a taste of the new stuff. I think a lot of people are like that, so when I go out again I think I'm gonna play songs from the new record that are the ones that resonate with me the most, the songs that stick in my head. 'Devil's Hand', for example, we played recently and it went over well, so we'll definitely have that in the set. I'd like to do 'Stick The Knife', 'As You Are', I can picture 'Dogs' taking off and becoming a great one live but I don't feel the need to play 10 or 15 songs from the record. I think if we do four or five initially to get out there and get it going and then if the tour develops we can always swap things out and try new things. To me it's not about live as much as it is about creating because without music there is no show, so the first thing is making sure that I have materials that I love and that's what I did now, so next step is live and we'll see.

Hence you are not planning on having a longer set?

If it was physically possible I would but unfortunately at the level that I sing at, and what I mean by that is the range – a lot of the material that I write, and I guess I should stop doing it, I'm living in a G/G sharp, in that high register, and I have learned proper technique, but in the end to sing at that level for more than one hour/an hour and a half you're really asking for trouble. I know a lot of guys that do these long shows are usually guys that sing in a pretty low register so you can pull it off. But for this material it would be really difficult to play much longer than what I've been doing for the last 15 years or so. Actually, my set has got longer in the sense of our jams. I definitely have nights where I've been on the stage for two hours but that is because we would go off at some kind of Instrumental jazz odyssey.

Was the live show you were talking about earlier the Monsters of Rock Cruise pre-party?

Yes, we did the sail-off party in Miami, which was the first time I ever did that, and it was brilliant, I really enjoyed it. Then we did one show on the boat, which was really a lot of fun. A lot of my buddies showed up from all the different bands, so that was really nice. I like doing cruises and the people that go on the cruise are very respectful – they see you walking around and occasionally someone comes up and asks for a picture, which is great. Everybody is a little bit more calm; it's a mellow trip.

Do you want to specifically talk about any lyrics on any of the songs?

The thing is with all the songs is the lyrics. To me without the lyrics no matter how simple the lyric may be or how abstract it may be, without that you don't have a song in my opinion, in the kind of music that I'm involved in making. Even if it's a simple lyric, it doesn't have to be complex, but in the end most of my lyrics are what I would call conversational. They come from things that have happened to me, sometimes they've come from things that I've seen other people go through and sometimes, as any writer, you have the creativity to imagine a scenario and write about it, so there are many ways that lyrics come together. But in the end that to me is the song; that's the most important element and I say that with the caveat that it has a relation with the music that I make. If I was making instrumental music then there would be no lyrics, so obviously that wouldn't matter.

What is happening with the Winery Dogs at the moment?

We did an American tour last year in May and that was a lot of fun. We spent a month out on the road and we got along great. We discussed the idea of doing a third album and a third cycle, so it's possible. If I was betting I would say it's probably gonna happen in the foreseeable future. But for me I think if we're gonna do something, a good approach would be to get together and write first, and then once we know we've got 4-5 things that we're excited about then we can start talking about a release plan. And that's really what I did with my record, obviously more than 4-5 songs – once I knew I had 30 songs that I really loved, I started talking about a release plan. I think it's a better way to work in the sense of the quality of the work. As opposed to the old way of doing it where you might take an advance from the record label and the record label might say we need the record nine months from now and suddenly you're putting something out, you're working really quickly. I don't like the idea of working that way anymore, really because I don't have to but more importantly because I think the quality of what I do is much higher if I take my time. And that doesn't mean it's going to take a lot of time either.

Do you still see Billy Sheehan on a regular basis?

Not regularly because first of all he tours a lot, and he doesn't live in Los Angeles anymore. I don't see him or Mike very often but we do speak. I did go to the Sons of Apollo show when they played in Los Angeles and I enjoyed it very much. The three of us do stay in contact and share jokes here and there. So, everybody is on good terms for sure.

Interview by Mónica Castedo-López, artist photo by Larry Dimarzio

Richie Kotzen - 50 For 50

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