By Bradley Bambarger
Guitar-slinger Richie Kotzen has recorded more than 20 albums under his own name since his debut at age 19, evolving from metal whiz-kid to mature singer-songwriter. Kotzen, born in 1970 in Pennsylvania but a longtime resident of Los Angeles, was drafted for a bit into glam-metal MTV favorites Poison in the early-’90s and served a turn in L.A. hard-rock band Mr. Big around the turn of the century. As well as playing guitar and singing in the band Vertu alongside Jazz legends Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, he also impressed 6-string aficionados with a long string of solo ventures that touched on everything from metal to fusion. In 2012, Kotzen reunited with Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan for the power-trio Winery Dogs alongside ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy; the band recorded two studio albums and a live DVD. Over the past few years, Kotzen has re-focused on his solo albums, playing all the instruments for such studio releases as Cannibals and, most recently, Salting Earth. Kotzen has been touring the world fronting his trio with bassist Dylan Wilson and drummer Mike Bennett, and we caught up with him prior to a show in Connecticut.
You’re on tour. Which aspect of your vocation – playing concerts or writing and recording – do you enjoy most?
The road and the studio are the flip sides of each other, drawing different aspects from your creative self. There’s really nothing like following an idea for a song, from a notion in your head to a sound that comes out of the speakers – that’s why I do what I do. Of course, performing in front of people is its own special thrill, too. There are elements of Groundhog Day to touring, the same thing in a different town routine – all the travel, waking up on the bus, and so on. But the couple of hours you’re onstage makes all that worth it.
Salting Earth saw you on your own in home-studio conditions, doing most everything yourself and stretching stylistically.
I grew up playing guitar in rock bands, but I’ve been influenced a lot by R&B and soul music, particularly when it comes to singing. So, Salting Earth is a more diverse record for me, covering a broad spectrum of what I do. For instance, the ballad “My Rock” doesn’t have any guitars, just piano, bass, drums and vocals that you wouldn’t expect from someone who initially became known as a guitarist.
Who are some of the singers who have influenced you?
On the rock side, it was early Rod Stewart and Paul Rodgers of Bad Company, as well as David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes. But I’ve always loved Prince, too – he was such a hero for me when I was young. It was a real reality check when he passed. It’s hard to imagine the world without him in it… I suppose the biggest vocal influence for me was Terence Trent D’Arby, who seemed to me like the ultimate singer when his first record came out. He has that R&B sensibility plus a real raspy rock tone in his high register when he wants it. That really grabbed me as a young singer in my late teens.
On the road, you use the Samson Q8x as your main vocal microphone.
I’ve used Samson mics live on the road for years now – they really work for me. They have a certain response that I’ve become accustomed to. I hear my voice coming through that mic clearly and it sounds like me. That’s the most important thing about a microphone for me – that I sound like me. I’ve used that mic to record, too. I was in my hotel room on the road in Japan, and I was working on the bridge section to my song “I’ve Got You” from Salting Earth. I sang the lead and background vocals for that section on my Q8x Samson microphone with the intent to re-record them once I got back to the studio. Once I actually got in the studio with the tracks, I liked the way that section sounded being sung on the Samson microphone so I ended up keeping those hotel performances on the final version of the song that is on the record.
Your new single, “The Damned,” sees you switch from one-man-band mode in the studio to incorporating your road mates, bassist Dylan Wilson and drummer Mike Bennett.
I played all the instruments on Salting Earth because that’s the way it ended up happening.
It certainly was not planned that I would be the only guy on the record. It just came out that way. When I write music, I tend to hear it finished in my head so often times the song ends up complete and it just so happens that I’m the only guy on the recording. After seven years playing live with Dylan and Mike, I thought it would be nice to incorporate their performances in the studio. I recorded a live DVD in Japan with them in 2015, and you can hear how the songs evolved from the studio versions. Those guys are also such good listeners, and they really respond to what I’m doing. The process really worked on “The Damned,” which is the first of a sequence of singles I’m planning to release. As for a full record I’m not planning on it but if in the end we end up with enough singles then perhaps we can package something.
Your guitar technique has evolved, too, in that you no longer use a pick.
When I’m playing electric onstage, no – I just use my fingers. When I play acoustic, I use a pick because I just like the attack. And I still use a pick occasionally in the studio to get different sounds while playing electric. But what happened with the finger thing was that I was on tour in Brazil and feeling frustrated and uninspired. I had picked with just my fingers from time to time, but I decided to play a whole show without a pick. That forced me on the spot – in front of an audience – to play differently, to come at things from a new angle. That was inspiring for me. Somehow, I feel more connected to the instrument without the pick involved. Playing without the pick opened up some new techniques for me but I also lost a few. I eventually re-learned how to do some of things I’ve always done with a pick with my fingers like sweep picking for example. The biggest advantage to not using picks is that it’s one less thing I have to worry about having with me on the road.
Over the years, you’ve mentioned some of your main guitar influences – from Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Eddie Van Halen and Allan Holdsworth. Who are some guitarists who have inspired you lately?
Well, Jason Becker was another guitarist who was important for me early-on, as a player and producer. And I’m still inspired by Greg Howe, a brilliant, very special player I’ve collaborated with some. And I really like Mateus Asato, a young Brazilian guitarist – he’s very melodic, articulate, passionate.
You’ve had a fan base in Japan for years and were picked to open up for The Rolling Stones there on the band’s 2006 tour. Where else has your audience grown beyond the U.S.?
South America. The crowds are bigger – and louder. I guess it’s the culture. People are really passionate and expressive in Brazil – my wife’s from there – and Argentina, Chile, Peru, Columbia, Mexico. People there also seem to keep up with music through the Internet more, via YouTube and so on, instead of just the radio. There seem to be fewer industry “gatekeepers” there when it comes to music.
What are people reacting to most in the music, do you think?
It’s surprising. No matter where or what part of the world it is, people who come up to me after the shows don’t necessarily mention how fast the guitar was or how loud the drums were. They mention the words to the songs, how they’ve affected them in some way. I’ve met so many folks with my lyrics tattooed on them, which I find very touching. I tend to write from a personal, conversational place, so I suppose that may be what my audience is connecting to the most.