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.

He points to the song “Not Hopeless” as an example. The song was begun from a riff that Sheehan started playing at one of the group’s jam sessions. “It’s pretty much a standard rock song,” Kotzen says.

“It’s not that elaborate. But in the middle of the song, there’s a long instrumental thing where the bass and drums are kind of dueling and moving together, and suddenly the guitar comes in and plays the unison.

"What happened was, Billy started going off, and Mike started responding to what Billy was doing. I was listening to it and decided that, in the second half of that break, I was going to double what Billy did there. It sounds like we went in and charted it out, but that’s really not how it worked at all.”

For the recording, Kotzen used his signature Fender Telecaster (which features a sanded neck, a Schaller D-Tuner on the low E, a DiMarzio Chopper T mini humbucker in the bridge position and a DiMarzio Twang King pickup in the neck position) strung with D’Addario EXL115s (.011–.049) and run through a variety of amplifiers.

“I used a Fender Custom Vibrolux and a Fender Vibro-King—I often had them linked—and I also sometimes had a Fender Bassman linked in with the Vibro-King,” he says. “Also, I have a 20-watt Marshall head that just has two knobs, tone and volume, and I used that with a 2x12 cabinet. And then, for some of the really heavy stuff—it’s stuff you don’t really hear, mostly for texture—I have a 100-watt Plexi, and I doubled certain things with it in the bigger choruses where I’m playing open, whole-note power chords.”

As befits the album’s live-in-the-studio vibe, Kotzen’s guitar tone is fat and natural sounding. All of the reverb and tremolo you hear comes from the Vibro-King. His bare-bones pedal board contains only a Sobot Drivebreaker 4 overdrive, a Tech 21 digital delay and a Dunlop Jerry Cantrell wah. “I also have a rotating speaker, a Mesa/Boogie Revolver cabinet,” he says. “It has a cool chorus sound, which I used in the song ‘One More Time.’ ” Sheehan played his signature Yamaha Attitude bass through his live rig: a Pearce pre-amp, an Ashly audio compressor, and Hartke LH 1000 and HA5500 heads.

According to Kotzen, the stripped-down, organic nature of the Winery Dogs’ sound—both in the studio and onstage—was one of the things that inspired the band’s name. “A winery dog is actually something real,” he explains. “They were used to guard the vineyards and chase the pests away that would spoil the vines and the grapes. So if the winery dogs were guarding the vineyards, you could say that we’re kind of guarding the old-school approach to making records and making music.

“There’s a lot of great modern music,” he continues, “but so much of it is made by people who aren’t really musicians. Technology has allowed them the creative freedom to make music, which is a beautiful thing. But the kind of music we play requires some degree of time alone with the instrument.

"I’m still learning to play, and I’ve been playing since I was seven, so let’s say you need a good five to 10 years with the guitar to really figure out how it works. You spend years learning the instrument, you play with other guys, and when you make the record, you’re in the room playing together. You’re not using a machine to create the art. I’m not dissing that technology; it’s just that this is what we do in the Winery Dogs.”

Photo: Larry Di Marzio

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