The weight of the world rests upon his shoulders. He sits slumped over an old piano, head in his left hand looking down, sunglasses obscuring his eyes, with tousled hair and a three-day beard. A cigarette dangles from his right hand. Grim Teutonic font spells out his name, completing the image of a man lost in a deep depression.
Richie Kotzen laughs. “Well, you know it’s funny. That photo was taken in Germany, that piano was in an alley, and it was shot by our stage technician, who is also a photographer. We were getting a bunch of shots so we went outside and were taking photos in various positions and at one point I just kind of put my head down and I don’t recall if I was waiting for something or what, he just snapped the shot. When I sent photographs to the label to put together the package I actually had a different shot in mind for the cover and when they got a hold of it they kind of gravitated towards that one and decided to use it. When I saw it—I guess cause it’s me and I know what’s going on inside my brain–I can see how people say I looked depressed, but to me I look how I do when I’m sitting down at a piano trying to write a composition, just trying to figure out my ideas, so I liked it and we went with it.”
The Essential Richie Kotzen is a two CD/one DVD package that was put together by the songwriter/guitarist/vocalist as both an introduction for people not intimately familiar with his work as well as offering up something new to his existing fan base. “This record, it’s not meant to be a true retrospective or anything like that. It’s really designed to answer the questions that I get from a lot of people, and once people figure out that I’m a musician and I’ve got a lot of records out there the question is ‘what record do I buy? Where do I start?’ I guess there’s about 20 of them by now, solo records, the first one I recorded when I was 18. Obviously not all of them are relevant to the artist that I ended up becoming, so we kind of put this together to answer that question. The first CD is pretty much catalogue material with two brand new songs. I also wanted to include something for my fan base, for the people who have been following me. So I just kind of picked some songs that were special to me and reworked them into more stripped-down versions with less production; more focused on the actual song—the lyrics and the melody.”
Kotzen recently completed an extensive tour of Europe, Latin America and the U.S. in support of the album, his touring band consisting of Mike Bennett on drums and Dylan Wilson playing bass. “They’re great players,” says Kotzen, “and they’ve been playing together actually before I met them. They’re very rooted in jazz, and it’s kind of cool to have that element, especially in the improv sections where we kind of jam and go for it. They definitely push me in a cool direction that I normally wouldn’t go, because I’m not really rooted in jazz. I’m still pretty much a rock guy.”
“We’re not copying The Essential for the tour. I’m constantly touring with my band and we have a set that comprises material from that record, but we’re not doing the entire record. We’re actually doing a song that I have yet to release, which is kind of interesting, I’ve never done that before. I’ve got a new solo record coming out next year called Cannibals, and we’re doing the lead track for that record which is interesting because most of the people who come to my shows know my music but now they’re hearing something for the first time that they can only hear at the concerts. I’ve never done that before and it seems to be going over well.”
Two of the more interesting tracks on The Essential Richie Kotzen are the original demos for Regret and Damaged, songs which Kotzen wrote for the Winery Dogs debut album. For most creative types, a rough draft of an article or a rough cut of a film or a preliminary sketch of a painting or a demo of a song is something that is locked away after the finished product is released, and is normally not made available to the public, which is why these two songs are such a special treat. They show how a song is born and progresses from initial stages to finished product. In the case of Damaged, the demo is funkier, with almost a danceable drum track compared to the rock ballad version on the Winery Dogs album.
“A lot of people wouldn’t know it but when we cut that song, there was another version that was more of a rock type of approach that I did later. So the very first version I did is the one that’s on the Essential collection. Then I did another one, and it was the same lead vocal, and when the Winery Dogs cut that song Mike [Portnoy] actually cut his drums to my other demo, and so what ended up happening is the lead vocal that you hear on the Winery Dogs album is that some lead vocal that’s on the demo on the Essential collection, with the exception of a few lines that I went back and changed.”
That discussion segues into a related talk about how technology has changed the music industry. Whether for the better or the worse is a debate that will likely never be resolved, but there is no doubt that the change has been radical.
“With technology it’s crazy. You can pretty much do anything you want. A lot of people are making really successful records that translate well with the audience, and they would not be able to make records if it was 25 years ago. Because of computers and samples and the ability to move things around, some of them aren’t really musicians by the criteria you would need to have had 30 years ago. Young people are deciding what they want to listen to, and that’s fair. I’m not bothered by it only because I have the freedom to listen to, and create the kind of music I want to create. I think that everyone should be able to do what makes them happy, and that’s the beauty of the internet. You can go on there and search things out and find all kinds of cool obscure things, if that’s what you’re into.”
“That technology really changed my career. In the beginning, my first records came out in 1989, and I absolutely needed a record label, and I always had a label, and that’s how my music got heard. And then sometime in the mid 90’s I lost my deal and I was really kind of held hostage. I still wrote and recorded music and found ways to release it, but once I was literally able to distribute it to my fan base, once that happened it opened up a lot of doors for me and my career started to grow again and I was able to tour and go to other countries and people knew my songs. I know there’s a lot of negative frustration towards the internet for what it did to music for some artists, but for others it helped us and created situations where we actually had a voice and could get out there and be heard.”
Kotzen is a “musician’s musician,” a talent who is widely respected by both peers and weekend warriors alike. He’s one of those who can make everything look so deceptively easy. But even he acknowledges that looks aren’t necessarily so. “Some things are difficult, and I have to dissect them sometimes. When I write, I just write and record what I hear, and then I worry about live later, because I want the recording to be true and honest to what I’m hearing in my head. And so, anything that becomes a challenge, I’ll figure that out later. If you do have a complicated part you have to sing over, it’s just a matter of breaking it down, beat by beat, like what’s happening in this measure with the guitar, and what am I trying to fit phrase wise with my voice. And eventually, when you slow it down and comprehend what’s happening between your voice and your guitar, it kind of becomes like an instinct. Sometimes you do have to work through it. It’s not always easy.”
Intertwined with Kotzen’s solo career is his gig with the Winery Dogs, featuring bassist Billy Sheehan and the aforementioned Mike Portnoy on drums. Kotzen doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked if the Winery Dogs are still a viable project. “Absolutely. We are planning on getting together sometime next year and write some new music and we absolutely want to make another record. Our first record actually performed beyond—well, definitely beyond my expectations. I love the record, I think it’s really cool, I just figured it would be kind of a cool project. Get together, do a good record, get some key market venues and get some shows and just be done with it. Maybe circle back a few years later and do another one. But what happened is the record performed really well and kept us on the road for over a year. It turned into a real band. So it’s nice to have that…I haven’t been in a band in over ten years. So it’s a nice thing for me to go back to. I have my solo stuff, that’s always been my priority, and always will be, but it’s nice to have some guys I can collaborate with and do something a little different than what I do on my own.”
Search Google images for Richie Kotzen and the majority of the photos will be of a man with a guitar, unsmiling, serious, all business. While the images could be mistaken for attitude or ego, the reality is he’s what a fan would call “a pretty cool dude,” or what us journalists refer to as “an easy interview.”
Kotzen concurs. “I’m actually a fairly silly person. I’m kind of a ridiculous guy, but I always hear ‘you should smile more.’ Look–my mouth is going to have to move in a certain way to sing the lyrics, and I’m not gonna stand up there and sing a song like What Is with a big ol’ smile on my face. That doesn’t make any sense—I’ll look like a lunatic! I was using this app for a while called Vine, and if anyone wants an insight to my personality they can go on Vine and see some pretty fucked-up videos of day-to-day life and the lunatic that I really am. “
A good writer always does his homework, so the Vine app is added to the iPhone. There’s a famous quote about “the fine line between genius and insanity.” Kotzen wasn’t kidding…some of the stuff he’s posted is hysterical. Very intelligent, very dry sense of humor. Completely different from his onstage persona and publicity photographs. If you’re a fan of RK, do yourself a favor and check out his Vine videos…you will see the man in an entirely different light.