Good music is like a fine wine, with a sound that is truly intoxicating. It is also said, such selections display character, noting the distinctive taste characteristics we may choose. But ultimately, it takes a good balance to infuse all the natural elements of good harmony. Yet for true wine/music connoisseurs, nothing common, (i.e… adequate, but ordinary) will appease that thirst for the extraordinary. Whether it be Merlot or music, the choices should be noble, superior and distinguished; not only possessing the right credentials, but boasting an impressive stature of its own. Like the finest wines, The Winery Dogs have the breed, finesse, complexity, and depth that distinguishes these three Dogs from the pack.
With a vintage of 2008, The Winery Dogs (TWD) consist of the following: vocals/guitar: Richie Kotzen, bass: Billy Sheehan and drums: Mike Portnoy.
Recently, on a warm Saturday afternoon, we had the opportunity to chat with singer/guitarist extraordinaire Richie Kotzen before a weekend sound-check. After our initial greetings, Kotzen immediately broke the ice with some insight into their unique namesake, explaining: “To be honest, the name was the hardest thing for us to decide on—we had already made the first record; it was already mixed and finished, and yet we were still debating on what the band name should be!” Luckily, that changed when Kotzen and a friend were out one night, and while discussing the dilemma, his friend suggested: “The Winery Dogs.” Kotzen exclaimed, “…I loved it,” stating, “it kinda reminded me of an old school, classic rock sounding band name– and when I presented it to the guys, they really liked it too.”
Interestingly, he said that winery dogs are in fact a “thing” too. According to Kotzen, “winery dogs are the dogs that were used to guard the vineyards in the past.” With a brief pause, he continued “…so, in a weird way, you could parallel that to our music and our approach; because we are one of the few, newer bands that doesn’t rely on samples or tricks like Autotune and that sort of thing.” Kotzen then pointed out how TWD “are sort of preserving the old-school way to make records, where you actually play the instruments.” Imagine that!
Some people are just born entertainers. They’re easy to spot early on, and are always singing and dancing as kids. Luckily, a family member recognized Kotzen’s blossoming talent, and suggested five-year old Kotzen take piano lessons. From there, Kotzen took lessons for the next couple of years. But his interest soon waned, prompting him to switch to the guitar at the age of seven. Yet what might have been regarded as a simple switch for another aspiring musician was destined to become a defining moment in Kotzen’s life. That creative spark had been lit, igniting a fire that will never be contained.
When asked about his earliest influences, he quickly replied, “as a little boy, I thought that KISS looked really cool.” Kotzen then shared the following: “I remember wanting to have a poster hung in my room, and my mother said, “jeeze, those guys look pretty scary, aren’t you going to be afraid them?” and I said, “no mom, that’s KISS! So that was the first band that I remember really resonating with.” But soon after, Kotzen explored more and more music, and reportedly started getting into his parent’s records as well. His voice softened, explaining: “my dad had a wide collection of R & B, so Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book was a record that I played over and over again.” Yet it appears that his mother was quite a rock fan herself, with a collection of records from the likes of The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and the Rolling Stones.
In fact, Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix was the first rock song Kotzen learned how to play. His mother was also a big Hendrix fan, and reportedly saw him live, multiple times. Kotzen then confided: “I remember she would listen to me play, and I would fight with my mom who would say: “you’re playing it wrong!” always saying it didn’t sound like Purple Haze. Kotzen even recalled becoming very upset because “I was playing the right notes, but I was playing them in the open position, so of course it didn’t sound like Hendrix.” Eventually he realized he was playing the right notes, in the wrong position, with the wrong attitude. But this only challenged young Kotzen, driving him to fine tune his skill all the more.
Now, fast forward several years into the future. Kotzen’s emerging talents did indeed get him noticed (and picked) when he was very young. He then reportedly got his first break in the form of a strictly instrumental record. But he soon realized he wanted to be both singing and making music with his songs, and that’s exactly what he’s done ever since.
In regards to TWD’s creative process, Kotzen had much to say, explaining: “on the first record, being that it was a new relationship, we had two formulas to play. A large amount of the compositions were written by us going into a room and just sharing musical ideas and recording them. Then at that point, I would develop them melodically and lyrically, and turn them into songs. On that record, there was also a component of me bringing finished material to the table, songs like: I’m No Angel, Regret, Damage, Elevate, were all previously written. Some of them were previously recorded too, so we just worked off that.” Speaking of song writing, Kotzen said he often utilizes keyboards/electric piano/piano as a writing tool, plays a bit of mandolin, and has fun playing drums on his records. Incidentally, he claims the drums are also the first thing he hears when he writes a song, stating: “I hear the melody, and then the drumbeat—when I’m recording, I’ll go in my studio, and just play the drums, and build the track from there…”
According to Kotzen, EVERYTHING on their newest album Hot Streak is brand new. He then exclaimed: “There is nothing on this album that was put together in the way I just described–everything started by us getting together in a room and sharing ideas, and compiling those ideas instrumentally. Then, at some point, I took those ideas and wrote the songs, and put the melodies and lyrics to it, and that’s how they ended up being what you hear now.” Yet for Kotzen, music is all about the creativity, insisting, “my entire purpose for playing music is for the creative process, I don’t necessarily ever need to step on stage again. I love going inside my head, hearing a musical idea, developing it, playing and recording it, then sharing it with people— that’s why I play the guitar, that’s why I sing.”
Interestingly, Kotzen even admitted to taking some notes from his dreams. He explained: “Some of the strangest songs were born out of my sleep; you know, that place where you go when you’re sleeping, and you’re starting to wake up, or you’re awake, and starting to go to sleep.” His voice deepened: “… there’s been times when I heard melodies, and I thought I’d remember them, but I don’t,” he complained. So thereafter, he contended: “I learned when that happens, if it’s something I really think is strong, I’ll wake myself up, and look for something to record with, then go back to bed, and work on it the next day.” Yet he’s also admittedly written songs while sitting in a restaurant. After hearing a melody in his head, he said he would run outside and sing into his phone to preserve it. But then sometimes, some “songs just write themselves,” said Kotzen: “I sit down at the piano or with the guitar, and it just comes out, it just flows.” So it’s important to always be prepared, so you won’t miss those opportunities advised Kotzen.
When asked to describe his bandmates, Kotzen smiled, and thoughtfully boasted: “Well you know, they’re both really accomplished guys- Portnoy has probably won every drum award you can imagine in progressive and hard rock, and he’s a very creative guy beyond the drums. A lot of people kinda focus on just their instrument, but he’s someone who has some very strong skills in arranging too. He’s just a fabulous guy to hang out with, and so is Sheehan.”
Speaking of Sheehan, Kotzen expressed his high regards for him as well, confessing: “Sheehan’s a musician who’s been playing live shows for 40 years, which is hard to comprehend to me. But he’s toured all over the world in every continent, and again, he’s a celebrated bass player, and he’s what I would call a ‘stylist.'” Kotzen then described Sheehan as “someone who actually invented a whole different way to approach the instrument. So we each bring our own thing to the table that adds a whole, different originality to the band.”
Originality, gives TWD yet another musical distinction. However, it’s also their pedigree as individuals, that collectively sets TWD apart from the pack. There is a decisive level of respect and camaraderie between these “dogs” that is best illustrated by the following statements: “Mike Portnoy is considered one of the greatest, progressive rock drummers of all time.” Kotzen expressed that Portnoy has likely received every accolade imaginable for his incredible skill. In regards to Billy Sheehan, Kotzen boasted Sheehan: “…is truly an innovator on his instrument. Nobody else has taken the approach to bass guitar that he has, and had success with that approach.” With a brief pause, Kotzen confesses: “Yet I’m probably the kinda guy who would put it all behind me to go live in a little, tiny town somewhere– where I would just creep around, write songs, and be the artist.” He then continued “so, I think when you have all those things come together, you have a unique band.” His voice steadied, saying: “we’re all bringing something really unique to the table, and we have our own sound because of that.” He concluded the thought, exclaiming: “those guys in the rhythm section are going to really lay down a foundation that is very specific and stylized, and I’m going to come in and do what I normally do, what I’ve always done in my writing— but I’m building it on the foundation they lay down and their creative input, and so it just takes on a different light.”
Though hesitant to name his favorite song, his favorite recording he’s ever done, that he felt “came together on every level, song wise, singing, guitar playing and production wise, is the song Fooled Again, that would be the version on the original, studio record Go Faster. Kotzen attests: This song encompasses the essence of what I do, and me doing it at my best, and if no one’s ever heard me do anything before, that would be the song to listen to first.” Incidentally, in regards to musical mishaps Kotzen’s response was this: “The right note is only a half-step up or down from the wrong note.” He adds: so, if you have that mentality, you can fix things relatively quickly, and sometimes even turn a mistake into something really cool.”
As far as the greatest challenge he has faced in his career, or one that could even derail it entirely, Kotzen replied, “creative challenges.” Expanding the thought, he confessed: “I never want to be in a position where I’m making music that I don’t love. I’ve done that before, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had that happen. But you know, when you have a situation where you have music, and there’s ways to make money in music, but the way you’re making money with your music isn’t necessarily true to your heart, that can be really dark. He continued: “A lot of people may be able to do that pretty easily, because they aren’t terribly creative people, or they are literally musicians, and I think musicians and artists are two different things.” Kotzen then elaborated even further: “I think a musician is someone who goes out and plays, he just plays music-and he can play a lot of different music with different people, in different styles, and he can be fulfilled and do very well.” Not Kotzen though, who confessed: “If you take me out of what I love, which is writing my songs and playing my songs, then suddenly, I’m out there playing music that I had very little (if any) creative input into, and that becomes very dark and unpleasant for me, and I would rather not play music at that point.”
Thankfully, his solo career has been very successful and for that, Kotzen is especially grateful. He then maintained “a lot of great things in my life that have happened were because of my solo work.” With a smile, Kotzen affectionately admitted that he really loves working with these guys, adding, “what I do with the Winery Dogs isn’t far off, or a stretch from what I do in my solo work, so it works out well.” His voice sharpened, exclaiming, “but I never want to be mad at music, or be in a position where I’m playing music because I have to. For me, that would be the biggest obstacle.” He also stated, “the minute you get involved in trends as what you’d call a ‘sell out,’ you’re not really an artist, you’re not really being creative.” Consequently, he also feels that today’s repackaging of artists has initiated the creative drought facing the music industry today. He then warned: “When artists focus on wealth; thinking of achievements and accolades, and looking at people with outwardly, celebrated successes to compare them self to, then you start sacrificing the art, and there’s going to be something insincere about it.”
Nowadays though, finding that proverbial “Golden Ticket” may call for bloodhounds. From the outside, traveling the globe on tour seems glamorous enough, but on the inside, it’s a blur of dark venues, crowded airport terminals and empty hotel rooms. Life on the the road can suck you up and spit you out, like a bad vintage of wine. One’s creative spark may literally burn out, before it even has a chance to fade away. So, when asked if he has ever considered quitting, Kotzen confessed: “Honestly, I consider quitting all the time, in every incarnation, of everything I’ve ever done. The thing is, if I don’t have that artistic connection to what I’m doing and I don’t feel fulfilled, then I don’t want to do it.” He explains: “That happens a lot, because you might have a night, where the sound is bad, or you might be playing with a bunch of musicians who don’t like what they’re doing, and those kind of things make you want to walk off the stage.” He continued: “Or, you may be on a plane for nine hours, and your next connection gets cancelled, so you’re stuck sleeping in an airport, because all the hotels are full. These are the kind of moments where you ask yourself, ‘do I really need to do this?'” Fortunately, the show must go on.
Though TWD know well the taste of sweet success, Kotzen laments that the rock industry is not what it once was. He explains: “I think the hardest thing for the entire music community, or for any act that isn’t ‘pop’ and producer designed, is how do you get known? In the old days, you’d get a record deal, they’d help you build your fan base, then you’d tour. Now though, you have social media, which is a huge help, if you’re already established.” So for someone like Kotzen with 20 years building his fan base, the Internet is great. However, for the unknown artists out there, it’s going to be a lot harder. Ever-evolving as an artist, Kotzen thoughtfully confides: “The people that listen to my music are growing along with me, and it’s almost like a big family, and we’re all connected through social media.”
Kotzen then drew attention to another shadow cast on the spotlight, stating: “Not as many people care about rock music as they did in 1970-1980, because there’s just too many distractions by the nature of technology. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just think it is what it is, it’s evolution.” With that, he remembers: “Back when I was a kid, there wasn’t much, there really wasn’t much. There was the radio, whatever was on TV, and there was going to a concert or a football game or movie. There really wasn’t that much else to do. But now, with social media, that knocks a lot of that out.” The sad truth, according to Kotzen is this: “A lot less people go to concerts, and people don’t even buy records because, well, they’re free now…” But forever the optimist, Kotzen then lightened the mood, insisting: “But I lived the old days and they were really great, now I want to see how great these new days can be.”
Parting words of advice for would-be musicians? Kotzen replied: “If you want output, you need input, you need to keep that wheel turning.” So he recommended artists take time alone, to get inside your own head. Without those moments of clarity, the only wheels spinning will always be the ones hitting the road, and the pace will run you dry.
Fortunately for this talented trio, their cup runneth over with creative juices, and today’s demanding connoisseurs are lapping them up. In 2016, their Hot Streak release will have The Winery Dogs on the move. So be sure to reserve your place at the table of a venue near you. Now, THAT ladies & gentlemen, will be something to celebrate. Cheers.