When Richie Kotzen plays his guitar, you know it’s him. The guitar virtuoso, singer and songwriter possesses an inimitable style that’s both instantly recognizable and immediately striking. This unique style courses through ‘The Essential Richie Kotzen,’ a career retrospective collection set for release September 2 on Loud & Proud Records. The album encompasses this iconic talent’s entire career of his most essential work and includes two CDs of classic material, acoustic performances, bootleg material and two brand new songs (“War Paint” and “Walk With Me”), and a DVD of music videos, acoustic performances and bootleg material. A three-song sampler, including the two new songs along with “Lie To Me,” is being serviced to rock radio stations later this month. Fans can pre-order the album at this location – click here.
Kotzen personally curated ‘The Essential Richie Kotzen’ from his 18 solo albums in order to give listeners the most comprehensive, cohesive and concise introduction to his extensive body of work. With his guitar styles ranging from rock, blues, jazz and fusion to pop and soul, Richie Kotzen has built a remarkably diverse 20 year career as a guitarist, singer and songwriter. During that span, Kotzen toured with his trio extensively outside the United States, building a loyal fan base and selling out shows throughout Europe, Latin America, and Japan. In 1996, Fender guitars honored him with not one, but two signature model guitars. His signature model Telecaster is available worldwide and continues to be a top seller for the brand. In 2006, Kotzen received one of his biggest personal honors when The Rolling Stones chose him to open up a string of Japanese shows placing him in front of some of his biggest crowds to date. He has not only built an incredibly successful solo career, but has also found himself writing, recording and playing live with a variety of different artists, including Jazz legends Stanley Clarke and Lenny White. He currently plays guitar and fronts the band The Winery Dogs with bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy (the band’s self-titled debut album debuted at #27 on the Billboard “Top 200 Albums” chart). With his 20th full-length solo album on the horizon for 2015 as well as countless gigs, Richie Kotzen’s legacy is only continuing to expand.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Richie Kotzen to discuss his musical roots, his evolution as an artist through the years, his defining moments in the music industry and what the future holds for him in both the short and long term.
It is obvious music played a huge role in your life. What are some of your first musical memories?
I have a lot of memories because I have been doing this for a long time! Some of the memories are faded and some of them are clear. In the very beginning, I remember just loving the notion of entertaining my family as a little kid. As a little 4- or 5-year-old kid, I would be constantly singing, dancing and trying to entertain my family through music. Someone finally suggested that I take piano lessons. There was a piano in the house that just sat there. My brother and I started taking piano lessons at the same time together. I guess my family thought that if he was doing it than I would be more interested. Fortunately, I didn’t really take to the piano lessons right away but about a year later I saw a guitar at a yard sale. I remember that clearly! I flipped out about wanting to be a guitar player. My family bought me this cheap $20 guitar and took me to the local teacher. He said, “If your son wants to play, I can certainly teach him but not on this instrument. This is firewood.” We went to the local music store that night and my parents bought me a Gibson Marauder and that was the guitar I learned on.
That leads me to your influences. Who were some of the artists who impacted you?
I have three vivid memories of my first concerts. The first concert I ever remember going to was Stevie Wonder at the Valley Forge Music Fair, which is just outside Philadelphia. The stage was a big circle and it would turn during the performance. That is a very vivid memory for me. Shortly after that, it must have been the same year, we went and saw George Benson. Those two concerts really got me hooked on the notion of what you could do with music and propelled me forward. Shortly after that, I went to an Iron Maiden concert! My influences were very opposed, if you think about it. I had a lot of R&B influences. My father’s album collection was loaded with R&B singers from Al Green to Stevie Wonder. You name it and he had the record. On the other hand, my mom was a product of rock ‘n’ roll. She saw the Beatles the first time they came to The States. She saw The Who and Jimi Hendrix multiple times and in her collection were all those records. That is what I grew up hearing. Those were the two genres that were blasted in the house when I was a young child. I think that really helped to carve out who I became as a musician later on.
Was there a particular moment when you knew pursuing a career in music was what you needed to do, as opposed to going a different route?
As a young child, I obviously never thought about my career. As a teenager, you hit 16 or 17 and the word college starts coming up a lot in conversation. Back then, I was playing in a full-time bar band and we played four nights a week. I was on a work study program from school. Rather than come home at 12:30 in the afternoon and go to my job, I was coming home and going to bed. I would wake up later on, go to the nightclub, do a show, get home at 4 in the morning and rest before I left for school. I was on a crazy schedule back then! The idea of graduating high school and entering into another form of school was a nightmare to me. I remember my mom was always talking about college. My grandfather finally said to her, “He is doing something he loves. Let him pursue it. If he doesn’t want to go to college, don’t force it on him.” I am glad she listened to him. When I graduated from high school, rather than go on to college, I got a record deal. I went to San Francisco and started my career there.
Did you have any idea when you headed out west with your guitar that this career path would take you to the heights it has?
When you are young you have a lot of dreams and goals. I had an interesting path because initially I would set these goals for myself and, fortunately, for a period of time I was able to achieve them. One of my first goals, when I was 17, was to get into the columns of “Guitar Player” magazine. All of the hot guitar players that I knew about at the time, at one point or another, were featured in that magazine. It was my obsession and somehow it happened. They selected me and did a brief write up on me. My next obsession became trying to get signed to Shrapnel Records, which somehow I was able to do. Those little goals I would set for myself and work towards happened for a period of time. Then suddenly, I got into the real record business. I got signed to a major label when I was 19. Interscope bought my contract from Shrapnel Records. At that point, I started to wake up to the reality of how the music business actually worked. It wasn’t necessarily about how well you sing, how well you play or the songs you write. There are a lot of variables and components that are implemented on you where you become a product that they need to know how to sell and market. That kind of negated the artistic drive I had up until that point. I really learned some lessons about how things worked. Many years later I discovered that my focus needed to go back to what it was as a child, the simple joy of playing, performing, writing and what have you. If you are an artist and staying true to your artistic vision, you can find real happiness. I think when you start adding the exterior components that you can’t control, like celebrated success or monetary value, you start setting yourself for a lot of disappointment. You can definitely position yourself for those things but your focus and your joy must come out of your artistic output, whether three people listen to it or 3 million listen to it.
You have seen many changes in the music industry along the way. Are there still surprises out there for you as an artist?
The most recent surprise is the success of The Winery Dogs. When we got together, I will be dead honest, in my mind I was thinking it would be a cool diversion from what I have been doing lately. I thought perhaps we will make a cool record. Perhaps we will do a handful of key market shows in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, London or what have you and that would be the end of it. I thought after it was over I would go back to what I was doing and a few years later we would reconvene and do something else. I remember we were making a connection from Japan to somewhere in Latin America and when we got off the plane there was an email from our manager that said our record just charted on the Top 200 at number 27. All of us were blown away! None of us expected that! Apparently, there was an iTunes Rock Chart where the Rolling Stones were at number one and we were at number two. Needless to say, we were all shocked and surprised by this! From there, we started to get some amazing touring offers and opportunities. Here we are a year later and it has really become a real band that is a priority for all three of us moving forward. That has been a huge surprise for me and a good surprise.
When it comes to The Winery Dogs, what do you have in store for us both short and long term? What is your vision for the band?
I don’t think in terms of vision for the band because life for me is moment by moment. Right now, I am about to go out on tour with my solo band. We will be touring for a few months behind my new release. In the first quarter of next year, I will be releasing a new solo album and I intend on doing some shows in support of that. At the same time, I anticipate writing songs for the new Winery Dogs record and the goal I have is that we can release a brand new record by the summertime of 2015 and we would be touring in support of that release. I look at this as a big wheel that can keep turning.
Let’s talk a little bit about this new release, “The Essential Richie Kotzen.” You have quite an impressive back catalog. Was it a challenge to put this collection together?
Believe it or not, it was fairly simple for me to put this collection together. The idea came from the record label. Basically, they acknowledge the fact that I do have a fan base, I am able to tour as a solo artist and I have been doing this for many years. There is a considerable amount of people in the rock community who know my name from the past but they don’t necessarily know what it is that I do. Some of these people might be curious once they realize that this guy has over 20 records out and might say, “Where do I start?” The real idea here was to put together a package so that someone can go out and get one thing to get turned on to who I am and what it is that I do. I think we achieved that. In picking the songs, I chose songs I felt were relevant from my past but were also relative to who I am today. Some of these are older songs that I still perform live. I actually took it upon myself to re-record some of these older songs in a completely broken down format, just a voice and guitar, to really put the spotlight on the songs themselves and not so much the production.
In looking back at your career so far, what stands out as your biggest evolution as an artist?
I think the entire journey is a continuous evolution. I look at my career as an open diary. You have a person who released their first record with material that was written when they were 17 years old and then, if you look through the course of time, you can say there is an average of one record per year released by me of original compositions in the form of a band or solo artist. When you look at that across the board, you see a natural evolution into what it is I have become as a grown man. I look at music as a continual evolution. Specifically as a guitar player, there is so much I don’t know and so many places I could go with the instrument if I am willing to put the work into it. That is the beautiful thing about music. A lot of guys who get into it get stagnate and to get out of those ruts you really need to look at the big picture and not be afraid to step outside the norm. That is something I did years ago. For example, years ago I was on tour in the middle of a cycle of an album and I did not like the way I was playing. I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t practice enough in my hotel room the night before to change everything. I thought, “What can I do to force myself into a different direction?” I tried to perform the entire show without a guitar pick. It eliminated a huge section of my vocabulary as a guitar player but it also opened up some other creative doors for me. Suddenly, I found myself re-inspired playing the same old songs I was playing in the past. That is a good example of not being afraid to step outside what you normally do.
What can you tell us about your songwriting process and how it changed through the years?
The process has evolved as I have become more confident. The more you do it and the more familiar you are with the architecture of what you are doing, so there’s that element. The songwriting process is always different yet there are elements that always remain the same. What the differences are is where the inspiration comes from. To break it down in a literal sense, I can have an idea for a song while I am sleeping. I have woken myself up and forced myself to document the idea out of a dead sleep. The reason I have done that is because I have lost ideas because I was too lazy to force myself to get up and document. On the other hand, I could be sitting in a restaurant and someone could say something that spawns a lyrical idea. Suddenly, a melody appears in my head and I have to run outside and record the idea on my phone. Other times I will be sitting around randomly noodling on the piano and will come across a chord progression and suddenly a song appears. It really is all random. I think the key is being able to identify that this is the moment where you have the inspiration and, even if you are in the position where you can’t write the entire song in that moment, at least document the initial spark of the idea. You can always come back to it later and complete it.
Is there musical ground you are anxious to explore?
In the short term, my focus is on touring for this new album. A little longer short term is the plan I am implementing through the next solo release that is going to come out in January. All the plans I make are directly connected to what is happening around me right now. Those plans are literally just focused around touring at the moment as all the recording is finished. I am not one of those guys that looks into the future and fantasizes about where I want to go. I guess because of my past experience, I have a certain calmness about my overall view of everything. As long as I feel fulfilled and happy with what I am doing then I am meeting my immediate goal.
You mentioned you focus on touring. Tell us a little about the guys you are taking out with you to bring this music to the fans.
I have been touring for the past few years with Dillon Wilson and Mike Bennett. Dillon plays bass and Mike plays drums. They’re fabulous musicians! Both of them have a very deep background in jazz. Dillon is a fabulous upright bass player and Mike is a great jazz drummer but also a great rock drummer. They are extremely versatile guys. What is really cool for me is that Dillon has such a great feel for R&B and funk. Both Dillon and Mike have amazing time. That is musical terminology but when you have a rhythm section that understands time the way they do, it opens up so many doors for improvisation. Over the years, we have done so many shows together, it is almost like we play as one musician. I can be in a solo and I just have to turn my head a certain way and they know where to go. It is really fabulous when you get to that point. I think a lot of it has to do with that jazz background because the music is based on listening, knowing how to play off one another, creating space in the right time and knowing when to elevate a soloist. It is just a way of playing that comes from a certain kind of experience and kind of background, if you know what I am saying. That is an element I love about the band. You have to realize too, that this is a situation where these guys are playing my music. If I didn’t like the way they were playing, I would have to find other people to bring the music to life but they do a fantastic job!
What do you consider some of your most defining moments of your career to date? What stands out as milestones?
I think there are several. My first record deal with Shrapnel Records was a milestone for me, to have the opportunity to record an album on such a prestigious label. Shrapnel was at the top of the guitar food chain as it related to the kinds of playing I was doing, so that was a huge thing for me. Singing my first major label deal. Even though we never actually made a record, that experience of the year I spent here in Los Angeles, co-writing and being in that environment was a huge education for me. Obviously, touring with Poison was a milestone. There were a lot of great things with that along with a lot of negative things after that with the music industry. Unfortunately, there was a lot of blowback for anyone who had any kind of affiliation with any band from the ‘80s. That really stalled my career for a big part of the ‘90s. I think the internet coming around and creating a situation where an artist like myself could make music and make it available directly to my fan base changed everything for the better for me specifically, so that was a milestone. I could go on and on and on. Obviously, The Winery Dogs is a great thing. I hadn’t been in a band since 2002, so I think that is a terrific surprise, our success is amazing and I am thrilled with that. There are a lot of key moments I can go back and look at if I wanted to.
As you said, you hadn’t been in a band for a while prior to The Winery Dogs. Was that a difficult transition to make?
Not really. The reason it is not is because I am not giving anything up in order to play with The Winery Dogs. I would never do that. The fact of the matter is that the timing was perfect for me. I had just finished an album cycle and I had even said to one of my friends, “Ya know, I still want to do music but I feel like taking a break from Richie Kotzen.” No sooner did I say that then The Winery Dogs were formed, so the timing was actually perfect. Now, we did a great album cycle, very successful, and I am back to what I have always done. I am very comfortable with it. By the time I wrap up what I am doing now, I will be ready to do another Winery Dogs record. It is all good stuff and as long as I am making music I believe in, I will continue to do it.
You have many years under your belt in the music industry and I imagine you have a tale or two to tell. Is there any interest on your part in one day creating an autobiography?
I don’t think I am that interesting for that. I haven’t got to the point where I think I am that fabulous to write a book about myself. Perhaps I will when I am an old guy sitting somewhere and maybe I will have a perspective that is worth doing. For me now, I don’t know, I am not comfortable to sit down and do that. I know a lot of people who have written some great books and I love hearing stories about what someone like Keith Richards was up to when he was a young guy. I don’t think I am anywhere near the stories he had, so I can’t picture me writing a book. Maybe I could write a pamphlet! [laughs] Maybe I could put out a four page flyer! [laughs] It would be a good starting point!
Is there anything you would change in your career, given the chance or are you more of a no regrets kind of guy?
I guess I’m a no regrets type of guy because I am very happy with where I am. I am thankful for everything that has happened for me. All I have ever done is play music and somehow I have managed to live this way my whole life, so I am thankful for that. No, I don’t want to change anything but I will say I would be really curious to see what would have happened when I was signed to Interscope, before I got into Poison, if things would have went in another direction. When I was signed to them after I first moved to LA, I would love to see what would have happened if I would not have fought with them about my musical direction. Back then, I wanted to make a R&B rock record and they insisted upon me making a hard rock album, which I refused to do. After a year of fighting, I lost my record deal. I’m curious to know what would have happened if I had made the record they wanted me to make. Would it have worked? Would I have gone on to make a second album or would it have been the only thing I ever did? If I was going to rewind, not change anything, but look and see what would have happened if I had gone down a different road, I think that would be interesting. I certainly don’t have regrets and I am very happy with every choice I have made that has brought me to the place I am at now.
What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to aspiring musicians looking to make a career in the music industry in today’s climate?
First and foremost, once you get to the point where you have confidence enough to say that you know your artistic direction, once you have reached that point, stay true to that. If you want to play jazz, play jazz and absorb that. Staying true to your identity once you have established that and have learned who you are is very important. The second thing is more career related than an artistic thing. I think it is for young people to do, I know firsthand, but when a door opens for you that you understand what is happening and know how to enter and take advantage of the situation, even if it is not exactly on your terms. Every now and then in your career, you will get to a point where something will happen and it could be a really big thing. It might not be the way you want it or the way you envisioned it but it might be an option that if pursued will lead to other things down the road that will put you exactly where you want to be. A lot of times, young people tend to think that these options are always going to be there. “I am talented. I have this gift. People are going to love me and I will always have these great opportunities.” That is simply not the case. You have a window and you can count them on your hand, once you get to the point that I have gotten, and you have to know how to deal with that. I don’t know if I am being as clear as I want to be but that is definitely a valuable piece of advice.
Excellent advice for anyone, Richie. I really want to thank you for your time today. It has been a pleasure and we can wait to see what you have in store for us in the years to come! Keep up the tremendous work!
Thank you, Jason! I appreciate your time!
For the latest news and tour dates for Richie Kotzen, visit his official website at www.richiekotzen.com. Connect with him on social media on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. ‘The Essential Richie Kotzen’ hits stores on September 2nd via Loud & Proud Records.