In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, guitarist extraordinaire Richie Kotzen has built an impressive resume of albums that showcase his unique shredding prowess, vocals, songwriting and vast musical knowledge.
On Kotzen’s recently released 20th solo album, 2015's Cannibals, we find the guitarist exploring some interesting new territory.
“In an Instant” and “Come on Free” offer a tasty, Seventies-AOR sound, while “The Enemy” showcase Kotzen’s slide guitar skills. Kotzen also makes the new album a multi-generational affair by including his daughter’s piano-driven song, “You.”
I recently spoke with Kotzen about Cannibals, his songwriting and his current gear setup. He also provides an update on the next Winery Dogs projects and more.
GUITAR WORLD: Lately, you’ve been busy with the Winery Dogs and releasing a compilation package called The Essential Richie Kotzen. What made you decide to release a new solo album?
I felt like it was time. I really had not released a new solo record since 2011. I remember saying to myself around that time that I'd like to take a break from myself and do a collaborative project. The Winery Dogs came at a very good time because the songs I was working on at the time, “Elevate,” “Damaged,” “I'm No Angel” and “Regret,” all ended up on that record.
They were things that we either finished or ideas that were started that ended up on the record. Plus we all wrote new material. After spending the last year and a half doing the band, I really wanted to get back to what it was I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. So I went back into the archives and found some songs I started writing many years ago. There also are brand-new songs, like "Cannibals," on there too.
This is one of those records where I did what I felt and one that creatively and artistically was true and accurate. I don't like having to meet a deadline or live up to someone else's expectations. I'm at my best when I'm left to my own devices.
What’s your songwriting process like these days?
I don't believe in consciously setting aside a time to write. For me, writing is an emotional, creative thing that requires a lot of variables to line up. To write a real song, there are a lot of things that have to go on emotionally. In my experience, the most truthful material I’ve written comes from unexpected moments. Ideas will come at you many different times and in many different ways. You just have to be prepared to recognize that inspiration and roll with it.
I’d like to ask you about few tracks from the new album and get your thoughts on them. Let's start with the title track, "Cannibals."
I was out one night at a restaurant and I heard that melody in my head and simultaneously had the concept of the lyric. It was a metaphor in the sense of how people are willing to step on each other to get ahead without any regard. It was really one of those songs that wrote itself, which is the best thing that can happen.
"Come on Free" has a cool Seventies-AOR sound.
That track is an old song I recorded back around 2002 but never knew what to do with. It actually sat on my hard drive for years until one day I brought it back up and decided to update the mix. I thought now was the time to release it because it seemed to fit in well with the "Cannibals" motif and the R&B-tinged things that were going on.
The time was right. What’s interesting is that while I was working on it, I had a bunch of people from Brazil over and they were listening to it and loved it. They started singing this little chant to it, which I thought was so cool. So I literally hooked up a live mic and we had a party. At the end of the song, you can hear that chant happening.
"In an Instant"
I already had the opening intro to that song, and a lot of what you hear from the bass and guitars in the intro and pre-chorus was actually recorded many years ago. It was an interesting way of writing. It’s not something I do all of the time, but the end result is a song I really like.
That’s one of my favorite songs on the album. I very rarely play slide guitar and on that song I decided to do a slide solo.
One of the coolest songs on the album, “You,” actually has nothing to do with guitar. What can you tell me about that track?
That’s my proudest moment of the record. “You” is a song that originated from my daughter. Years ago, she was playing this three-section piano piece over and over. It was so cool that I recorded her playing it for about seven minutes. Then I ended up forgetting about it and it stayed on my hard drive for many years. When I was in the process of compiling the record, I found it again, finished it up and put words to it. I'm really happy with the way it turned out.
What's the latest with the Winery Dogs?
That’s the next thing I’ll be doing creatively. Billy [Sheehan], Mike [Portnoy] and I got together recently and threw around some ideas. Now it’s time to for me to write some lyrics and melodies and turn them into songs. That’s the next phase. A realistic goal would be for us to release a new album on or around the end of the summer. I love playing with those guys.
Will you also be doing the Dog Camp again this summer?
Yes, we have that going again this year too. Last year was a lot of fun. You never know what to expect being up in the woods with people who are very familiar with your music and playing style. But it was very enlightening, enjoyable and quite peaceful. I’m looking forward to that, for sure!
What’s your setup like these days?
I’m still using my Signature Fender Telecaster. My amp thing is a revolving door. I’ve been using a lot of different things, depending on what it is I’m after. At one point, I was touring with the Vibro Kings; then I went back to the Marshall Plexis. More recently, I did a month of dates where I used the Bogner Goldfinger. Another one of my favorite amps is that little Marshall 1974X 18-watt that has a volume knob and a tone knob. It’s impossible to make that amp sound bad. When I’m touring, the last thing I want to do is have to think about gear. I just want to play.
What do you like most about your Tech 21 Signature RK5 Fly Rig?
The fact that it's my personal overdrive design and that it's so small and convenient. It really is about convenience. I've never been a big pedal board guy. I've always liked to keep things simple so that I can focus on the music and not have to worry about being on stage doing a tap dance when I'm trying to connect emotionally to the song. The Fly Rig gives me the essentials I need. There's reverb, delay and a two-stage overdrive. It's small and compact. It's perfect.
What is it that drives you about music and playing guitar?
I learned this in the weirdest way when I was building a deck at my house. After I had finished, I was standing there looking at my work and it was the same feeling I would have after I had written and recorded a song. I had accomplished something and it felt like I had purpose and meaning.
In that moment, I discovered that what really drives me isn’t the gig or going on tour or having people tell me they like my legato technique. None of that is important. What’s important is feeling as if I have purpose, and for me, that comes from creativity.
For more about Kotzen, visit richiekotzen.com.
Photo: Greg VorobiovJames Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.