From an early age, Richie Kotzen was tagged as a virtuoso, a guitar hero, a shredder.
All true, of course, but with time, Kotzen proved to be so much more — a multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter who can play at the speed of light one minute and then do a complete turnaround with an acoustic guitar and ballad.
Kotzen covers that spectrum, and his wide range of influences, on his new album, 24 Hours, which he’ll debut at a CD release party on October 23 in Los Angeles and officially release on November 11. In this interview, he discusses the improvements to his craft as a result of taking full control of his career and what he looks for in the musicians who help translate the material live.
Going into this album, or any project, do you feel the weight of expectations from fans to do this, or play this way?
That’s something I fought for years, because when I write music, I just write what I write. I don’t write with the idea of being a certain kind of guy and thinking about my guitar playing. I just write songs. That’s why, if you listen to my new record or the one before it, there’s songs like “Bad Situation,” where the whole thing is the keyboard, and there’s some songs where the guitar takes a backseat. When I say I fought it is when I would deal with record companies.
The record companies always want to market you in a way they think they can get their money back, and when you start messing with an artist like that and say, “You have to write something that showcases your guitar playing,” suddenly your writing changes from being driven from a real emotional place that people can relate to, to something contrived. The minute that it gets into the world of contrived, people sense that and they don’t like it. It’s not pleasing, so they shy away from it.
So what happens with me before I make a record now — I don’t deal with record companies; I make records the way I want, and a whole year might go by and I might write 20 songs, but if I don’t have ten that I feel make sense to me on a record, I won’t make the record. A song like “24 Hours,” for example, clearly is a guitar-driven thing. It’s probably the most over-the-top thing that I’ve done in years as far as crazy guitar playing, but it’s something that just happened.
I wrote that riff quite some time ago and I developed it into a song almost a year later. That’s been lurking on my hard drive for a long time and suddenly I realized, There’s a song here. That’s a very organic way to work. It’s very heartfelt and very true. It’s not contrived or pre-thought. That’s the kind of thing I like, and I’ve kind of gotten into that luxury over the last five or six years when I started making my own records without having to deal with a label. I think my records got better.
You were a teenager when you got your break, and it happened because of a write-up in a print publication. With print basically dead, how would a young guitarist get his break now?
I guess they go on The X Factor. It depends on what you want to do. I guess if you want to be a teen pop star, there’s a path to that and it is those reality shows. You get famous in so many different ways now. Before, you got famous because you sang great or had a great song. Now a lot of people are getting famous just because, and “What can we do with this person?”
They’re famous and we can make money and what should we do? Should we put them in a movie? Should we try to make them a singer? It’s kind of a twisted thing. For people like me, who play guitar and sing and want to play rock, I think there’s still the whole thing of having a band, playing live, getting a following and your social networking and your fans can go to your website and buy your CDs. You build it from there.
I think it still comes from that grassroots thing of playing in front of people and getting people to come see you. That’s the one thing you can’t download. You can download a concert, but the notion of being at a venue, hearing a band and experiencing that is not something that you can steal on the Internet. You still have to go somewhere to do that, so I think that’s still very powerful.
What does it take to be a member of your band?
I’ve had this lineup for about two years. It’s interesting, because a lot of people would say, “You’ve got to be able to play a certain way,” but … obviously you’ve got to be able to play the music. And I think you have to understand where the music is coming from, because a lot of people could play the music, but I don’t think they understand the feel, the bass lines or the placement of the notes. It’s not just playing the lines; it’s your pocket. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, so a lot of the music I heard as a kid was soul music.
It has to be someone who understands that genre, but they obviously also need to have chops because there’s a lot of crazy lines that we play in the songs. So it’s kind of weird and not a lot of musicians are really qualified for that. Some guys have the feel but don’t have the chops and some guys have the chops but don’t have the feel, so it’s tricky finding players like that. That’s the music side of it.
The other side that’s equally important is the attitude, because there’s only three of us, so we need to be able to get along. We’re riding around in close quarters and weird things happen on the road, uncomfortable things happen on the road, we got robbed once on the road. All kinds of things go on. You have to be with people that can adapt. “Well, I wanted to eat this today,” or “I want to eat that,” and “No, we’re eating this because that’s the time that’s allotted and that’s the restaurant that’s open, so we’ve got to deal with it.” Those little things of how you see the big picture are very, very important.
I like treating people well and treating people like it’s a family, but they also need to understand that it’s my gig, I am the artist and I don’t have anything else. I don’t go out and do the so-and-so gig and then go out and play with this guy and then get picked up by such-and-such band. My whole world is being me and my music and my tours, so I don’t have anything else. I need people that take it seriously because my ass is on the line. I need people that get that, that are professional, and a lot of guys aren’t. A lot of guys think maybe they should be the man but it didn’t work out for them, so you get that kind of weird energy and it’s not productive.
I have my CD release party on October 23 at the House of Blues in Los Angeles and there’ll be four of us, a keyboard player I’ve known since I lived in Los Angeles. We worked together for the first time in the early ’90s. He plays with me on and off. He plays a Hammond B3 and refuses to play anything that isn’t the real instrument, if you know what I mean, so to take him on the road I’d have to have a truck just for him and a tech just for him!
You once stated in an interview that your guitar playing “stands out because of all the years I spent as a teenager shredding to learn Alan Holdsworth and Eddie Van Halen licks.” That was when radio was diverse, newsstands were full of music magazines, and kids bought albums as study guides. Now, you can listen to one type of music on satellite radio and look online for tab and video instructions. Is the spectrum of influences and education gone?
This is an interesting question and I think I have some insight on that because of my daughter. I have a 14-year-old daughter who has been in School of Rock and she’s surrounded by young people that are learning music. These kids are interested in all kinds of things, different genres, and some of them that play guitar are very versatile for their age.
They understand blues and can play some rock and jazz stuff, so I think that her generation, the 14- to 17-year-olds, really are digging, and in some ways digging deeper than I did when I was that age. It’s very interesting for me to watch and I’m very curious to see how see how these kids develop, the ones that stick with it. I think a handful of them will, and I’m very interested to see where they go.
— Alison Richter
Alison Richter interviews artists, producers, engineers and other music industry professionals for print and online publications. Read more of her interviews right here.