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Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan Talk Gear, Roots and The Winery Dogs' Stripped-Down Sound

Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan Talk Gear, Roots and The Winery Dogs' Stripped-Down Sound

As the Winery Dogs, Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy team up for some roof-raising improvisation on their self-titled debut.

“I’ve been playing in a trio format almost since I started playing guitar,” Richie Kotzen says.

“The key is listening, responding to what’s going on around you, and not being afraid of space. If you’re talking with someone, and you stop and take a breath, they might want to respond, and then you respond. And when you’re in a three-piece band doing that improvisational thing, it’s the same. It’s language, it’s talking. It’s conversation.”

There’s good conversation aplenty on The Winery Dogs, the self-titled debut from the new power trio featuring Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy.

After all, each of these guys has some remarkable credentials. Kotzen has handled guitar duties for Poison and Mr. Big, collaborated with everyone from Gene Simmons to Stanley Clarke, and pursued a prolific solo career.

Sheehan counts Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, Talas and jazz-rock-fusion trio Niacin among the many musical feathers in his cap, while Portnoy has co-founded prog-metal legends Dream Theater as well as progressive supergroups Transatlantic and Liquid Tension Experiment.

While their impressive résumés and even more impressive chops might lead you to expect a total shred-fest, The Winery Dogs is actually filled to the brim with sturdily constructed, hard-driving rock and roll. Tracks like “Elevate,” “The Other Side” and “Time Machine” contain their share of stunning interplay and jaw-dropping licks, but the emphasis throughout is placed firmly on groove and melody.

With Kotzen’s soulfully smoky pipes leading the charge, the overall effect is something like a proggier Grand Funk Railroad crossed with Soundgarden at their most accessible.

“Grand Funk is a good band to bring up,” Sheehan says. “I’m a huge Grand Funk fan, and I see some parallels. Like those guys, we got together in a room, with little amps and little drum kit, and made songs. Organic is definitely a word that applies here, in the sense that it grew on its own and we let nature take its course. There was no plan of, ‘We’ll get together and do this thing where it’s kind of soulful.’ We never did that. We just got together, and this is what happened.”

Sheehan and Portnoy had originally planned to form a power trio with former Whitesnake/Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes. After the attempt failed, the two men hooked up with Kotzen in early 2012. Their music already sounds as if they've been playing together for years—and, in a way, they have.

Kotzen first collaborated with Sheehan and Mr. Big drummer Pat Torpey on “Locked Out,” a song from his 1998 solo album What Is…, then joined Mr. Big for 2000’s Get Over It and 2001’s Actual Size LPs. “Billy and I have a pretty long history together,” Kotzen says. “A band can be a very fragile relationship, but we already know each other well and know how to deal with each other, and that’s important.”

Sheehan and Portnoy first played together on the 1996 album Working Man: A Tribute to Rush, then joined forces again a decade later for a Who tribute tour with Mr. Big guitarist Paul Gilbert and Extreme frontman Gary Cherone. The Winery Dogs marks the first time the bassist and drummer have really collaborated on original material, but the songs came quickly once Kotzen joined the party. “The first day we jammed together,” Sheehan says, “we came up with about four or five pieces of music that later ended up on the record.”

“One of us would start playing something, be it a drum beat or a bass line or a guitar riff,” Kotzen explains. “And then we’d jam together and make templates of instrumental pieces—verse, chorus, bridge, whatever—then later we worked out the melodies and vocals. And because the songs were written from the standpoint of focusing on the vocal, the shredding elements came into play wherever there was room for them to naturally evolve.

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