PODCAST: Richie Kotzen of The Winery Dogs

My favorite band of the last five years is far and away The Winery Dogs. We classify them as a classic rock band but they are fusing so many musical styles into one creating something that we can’t describe. They’re back with a brand new record entitled “Hot Streak.” This time around the album is more of a group effort as opposed to a Richie Kotzen project. Musically you can hear Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan’s influence. From a vocal and melody stand point it’s still The Winery Dogs though. If you like the first album you’re going to like the second album. Which one do I like better? I don’t know I’ve spent a lot more time with that first album but if you ask Richie Kotzen he’s going to tell you “Hot Streak.” How do I know this? Well I asked him as you’ll be able to read below.

You can also listen to the interview as part of The Nothing Shocking Podcast. The interview starts at the 54 minute and 24 second mark and can be found right here.

Bob Zerull (BZ): Thank you so much for taking the time. I’m loving the new album so far. It’s got a newer vibe than your debut album. All three of you have made reference to moving forward. Was that a conscious decision or did you guys just naturally write in a way that moved the band forward?

Richie Kotzen (RK): You know. It really just happened in a natural way. Basically there is a formula that we implement with our writings thats very simple. We get together and we sit in a room and we really just jam on ideas. All of us present ideas, and out of those ideas we put together arrangements in song forms without melodies and lyrics, just instrumentally. Then once we have enough of those, I live with that for a couple of months and it’s my role to turn those ideas into completed songs, which means I have to write lyrics and melodies. Sometimes some of the arrangements will get changed, but in general, that’s the process. So this time around, we had a bunch of interesting ideas, but I think the record, at least to me, is a deeper record. Really it has a lot to do with the lyrics I wrote this time. I think I was a little more connected, I had more to say lyrically. On a production level, there were some more interesting things. We took more chances. It’s a cool situation because this record really captures everything that made the band unique and special on the first record. I think we actually evolved into another level. It’s more interesting for me, anyway.

BZ: When you’re in that room, and you’re jamming, and you bring an idea to the table, and I’m assuming you have an idea already, if Mike or Billy play something different behind that idea, is it hard to let go of what you initially hear?

RK: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Everything comes down to the vocal and the melody, and so if I’ve got something that I feel is really strong, then I will pretty much try to keep that intact. But, if I’m still kind of searching, then I don’t really hold onto things too much. It just depends on the situation. I am an instinct guy. I don’t question things. I don’t analyze things. I’m not an analyzer. Either I like it or I don’t. It’s something that I can feel instantly. It’s almost like you’re looking at a car and you say “wow, thats a cool care.” You know right away. You don’t have to do any kind of research to just decide if you like it. It is something you feel. For me music is the same way. If I hear a drum beat or a bass line or a vocal melody, and it hits me and it grabs me, and I feel excited about it, thats all I need. I don’t need to sit around an analyze it and say “what if this” and “what if that?” For me that kind of kills the inspiration. It’s a pretty easy process. Part of being in a band is a give and take. It’s a very fragile relationship, being in a band. I’m very accustomed to not being in a band. I’ve spend most of my musical career not being in a band. So, sometimes I have to remember that there are two other guys here. So, I have to have that compromise. But, I think that in our situation, it worked out really well. The record would have never existed had it not been for everyone’s input. Even though I might be the one that’s doing the majority of the actual writing, in the end all of our contributions are equally important. It’s just a band that really works well together.


BZ: Do you share a lot of the same instincts then? Are there any struggles to get through certain songs and riffs and what-not?

RK: Well there are struggles. My background is very different than Mike and Billy’s and vice versa. I love R&B music. I love old school disco music. I love the R&B singers from back in the day, like Sam Moore. I love Stevie Wonder. The first concert I ever went to was Stevie Wonder. Then the following year I went to see George Benson. That’s kind of where my roots lie. It just so happens that I am a rock guitar player, so I also love bands like The Who and Bad Company. We have this element of things that maybe I love and the other guys don’t really care about so much and vice versa, but then we also have a common ground. We all agree that The Who is one of the greatest bands of all time. We love The Who or Led Zeppelin, or I could name ten other band. That’s the glue that ties us together. The common tastes that we have. Generally we do have very different tastes. But, I think that’s a good thing because that helps give the band a unique sound. If we all had the exact same taste, then we might sound like five other bands that have already come out. In my opinion there hasn’t been any other band that existed that sounds like this band. It’s a very unique sounding band. 

BZ: Yeah, the cool thing too is that not only are you a unique sound, your sound is so broad that you could play with literally anybody. You could play with some heavy bands, you could play with mellow bands, and that’s a great thing for a live show.

RK: I think so, and I think our live shows are exciting for people. It’s not like we get up there and we’re just standing around. There is a lot happening on stage. Mike is one of the most exciting drummers to watch. Billy is a monster on stage and he’s doing all kinds of crazy antics on the bass. It’s exciting! We made a really big strong record, so what’s really going to be great is getting out there and playing this live. That’s what I am looking forward to the most.

BZ: I have seen you guys live twice already on the first album cycle, and you don’t know who to look at. Even when you or Billy, or even Mike are soloing, you still want to look at the other two guys because all three of you demand attention. Is that something you kind of take pride in as a band? Or, do you try to give each other your moments on stage?

RK: I don’t think anyone really thinks about it. My focus is always the music. I’ve had people say to me “Richie, you should smile more.” It’s actually the dumbest thing anyone could say, so yeah, I’m singing a song called “Regret” and you want me to just sit here at the piano and smile like a fucking idiot, because smiling has nothing to do with what I’m singing about and I’m in character. I’m singing the lyrics to a song that means something and doesn’t have anything to do with an emotion that would cause me to smile, so fuck you! There’s that kind of thing, but you have the other guys, Mike and Billy that are they’re like the class clowns no matter what’s going on. I’m kind of the guy that tries to be in the moment. And if a song’s serious it’s serious. If a song’s crazy and tense, and I feel pumped up and got a lot of energy, then maybe I’ll throw my guitar around my back or throw it into the audience or do something crazy. But, my focal point is the song. I’m always in the song. In the lyrics. so that’s why my stage presence is directly related to what I’m singing and connected that way. It would be completely insincere for me to be singing the song “Damaged” and then laughing and smiling and pointing at people in the audience. That would be pretty ridiculous. I literally am tied into the song and the lyrics that I’m singing.

BZ: In this album you said that you’re even more connected than you were with the last album. What was different this time around that made you, or were you just more inspired lyrically?

RK: Yeah, I think I was a little more inspired. There was an interesting thing that happened on the last record. I had a bunch of songs that were already written that were on my hard drive that I brought into the band that became Winery Dogs. Songs like “I’m no Angel,” “Damaged,” and those songs were finished. They were my songs completely. The band decided to adopt them. On this record none of that happened. On this record everything that is on the record started from the three of us in that room, and that was deliberant for me. I did not want to bring in songs that I wrote alone to the Winery Dogs. I think songs that I wrote alone are my songs. I’m going to leave them to me, and if the Winery Dogs are going to make a record then it needs to be a record that is something we all work on together, on a writing level. So, that worked out really well. I think now we have a situation where every song, musically, is coming from the three of us. And then of course I go and I do what I do and I write the lyrics and I write the melodies and I finish the writing process. But the initial launch point from where the band starts is more sincere on this record than it was on the first record. There was a lot of me in the first record and a lot of my initial ideas, and even some of the licks that stood out. This time it’s not like that. There’s a lot of me on this record too because I am doing the majority of the writing, but there’s more of the other guys in this record. I think it makes it a little more special. 

BZ: It’s weird because from a media and fan perspective of when this band started, we knew Mike and Billy were working on something, and you were kind of the other guy, but really you were the main guy. Did you ever feel like the other guy in the band? Or, was it always equal?

RK: No. I don’t really get into all that. It’s kind of comical because, I have to be careful what I say because I don’t want to insult anyone or undermine anyone, but at the end of the day, I’m the guy that is kind of making the record happen. I’m singing it, I’m playing guitar, I’m writing the lyrics, I’m writing the melodies, and I’m really kind of coloring the sound of the band, just by nature of the fact that I’m the guitar player and the singer and I’m writing. It happened the same exact way when I joined Poison, to be honest. I was the new guy, but if you listen to “Native Tongue,” it sounds like a Richie Kotzen solo record, and in my opinion if you listen to The Winery Dogs, and then you run out and you buy my record “24 Hours” or my record “Peace Sign,” yeah, it’s pretty much the same guy, only we’ve got an amazing rhythm section on this record on the Winery Dogs, as opposed to me playing everything myself. So, it never really bothered me. It never really crossed my mind. It was clear to me how the record was being made. I never got into the record business for accolades. I guess if you look at it from the outside, I guess I thought it should be obvious. I don’t think any of us did any music that sounds like this before, except for me. So, I guess I thought it was pretty obvious and it never really crossed my mind. I do know that Mike is more famous than me in the heavy metal circles. He’s way more known than me. He’s got so many followers. I mean two million followers on Facebook. That’s more than some people that make movies, so that’s a great thing. You know, it doesn’t really apply, I’m a musician, I’m a recording artist at heart. That’s my focal point is writing songs and trying to do my best at that and be transparent and be real. It’s a good situation. The last thing, I’ll say this, people ask, how long is the band going to stay together? Or, how many records are you going to make? My answer’s always the same. As long as we enjoy what we are doing together, we’ll keep doing it. If it becomes laboring or unpleasant, then we stop. I don’t ever want to be mad at music.

BZ: Do you think all these side projects that people are doing, and you guys too, you’ve got your own side projects, Portnoy’s got like fifteen, do you think that keeps this fresh and makes it more fun?

RK: I have to say this, just so the perception is clear, I have not been in a band in over ten years. I have not had a side project in that long. So, I don;t really do side projects. I don’t have any. I did Forty Deuce in 2005, which was a hard rock band that I formed with some fans. That was a side project that was a lot of fun. That was the last band thing that I did. And now, here we are in 2015. So, Ritchie Kotzen, does Ritchie Kotzen. I put out a record a year. I have the luxury of now having a great band with the Winery Dogs that gives me the opportunity to escape myself a little bit. I have some other guys that are involved. It takes a ton of the weight off my shoulders. It’s not like Mike’s sitting around in the studio like me making songs. I mean, I sit around constantly at the piano or with my acoustic guitar and I turn my pro tools on. I’m recording songs. I might write who knows how many songs in a month and I am constantly putting out ideas and writing and sitting there and creating. So, I personally don’t look forward to going on tour. I look forward to the next thing I am going to write and the next creative moment. The next song that I’m going to be able to sing. Mike likes to tour, he likes to play, he likes to get on stage, he likes all of that. I like it too, but not as much. He needs to be out there doing all these things and I personally don’t think it matters at all because I think that people that like the Winery Dogs, likes the Winery Dogs because it’s Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan, and Ritchie Kotzen, and they like what we sound like and they like the songs that we’re creating together. I don’t think that whether he runs off and does a month with a metal tribute band or goes off for a month and does a prog rock record, I don’t think that that really matters. It doesn’t matter to me. It might matter to somebody, but I don’t think it matters.

BZ: I read an interview a while back about Slash, and how he was saying there’s a million great technical guitar players, but really the best guitar players develop their own style. I think that kind of goes for every instrument. All three of you guys are stand-out in your instruments. How do you reign each other in or do you?

RK: I am probably the least likely musician in my genre to overplay. I’ve never been that kind of player. I’ve always been a listener. I’ll be the first guy to not do a solo and let somebody else do it. It’s just the nature of my personality. I think that really comes from the fact that I sing. When I’m doing my own thing, I’m singing a lead vocal and playing guitar at the same time, so it’s really impossible for me to overplay because I would be competing with myself and that would be insane. It’s virtually impossible for me to overplay. in this band because I’m doing two jobs at once. I’m singing and I’m playing. I think Mike and Billy, so much of what they do, their legacies is their style. Those guys are stylish in my opinion. So when people come to a concert, they want to see Mike Portnoy be Mike Portnoy. They want Billy Sheehan, be Billy Sheehan. That element is at play. It just kind of is what it is. The Winery Dogs is a unique band because we have songs that, when you’re listen to the record, really resonate with people and you can sing them and you can feel them. And you feel the lyrics and the emotion, but then you come to a concert and it’s a whole other thing. It’s definitely more of a show. I think by nature of the pedigree of the other two guys, that the people expect that. They want to see that. It’s exciting. I think that I balance it out. I’m the one that’s on stage that is really making choices that I think are the best choices for the song. I know Billy and Mike are playing the songs, but they’re also entertainers and they want people to be dazzled. We have that element and I think it works well. I think we are a nice contrast, the three of us. It’s what people expect when they come see a Winery Dogs show.

BZ: Last question. You’ve been labeled kind of a classic rock band more or less, for lack of a better phrase. Classic rock radio only play old classic rock. The newer rock stations don’t really exist anymore. You guys keep getting bigger. What’s the key? Playing live and word of mouth?

RK: I don’t know. I think radio your right, radio is not what it was for guys like us. It has not been for a long time. That first record, I think a lot of people were very curious. Was not necessarily in the spot light. I have my fan base that I have cultivated over many years, and I tour all the time. I go all over the world as Ritchie Kotzen, and I do very well. I’m very thankful. I wouldn’t change a thing, but when the Winery Dogs formed, I had my fan base, but the other guys had huge fan bases as well in the heavy metal circuits, so when that press release came out that we were forming a band, a lot of people were really curious. what’s this going to be? And, some of the people in the heavy metal world really hadn’t been following me, so they didn’t know what to expect from me. They know Mike from his progressive rock roots. People were very curious and somehow that record really resonated with people. It was not because of radio because we didn’t get air play. So if anything it was just based on the fact that people were curious. And then once they got the record, they liked the songs, and we thought maybe we could go tour for a month or two and we ended up touring for over a year. Over a hundred shows because when people came to the shows, they were excited and the band was excited. I think it’s fun to play in this band. I think it’s fun for people to watch it. So, I just think that is how the band grew. It’s just by curiosity from our past efforts combined with getting out and touring, with the underlying thing that the record resonated with people. Now, who know what’s going to happen this time. Personally, I think this is a better record. That’s up for other people to decide. As long as we have people who want to hear us play and enjoy the show and as long as we are having fun, we will keep doing it.

BZ: Awesome! Thanks so much for the time. I’m a big fan and can’t wait to see you guys later in October.

 RK: Right on!

 BYLINE: Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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