RICHIE KOTZEN Talks Essential Collection, New Solo Album Cannibals – “A Little Creepy But Interesting”

August 26, 2014, 21 days ago

Aaron Small

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RICHIE KOTZEN Talks Essential Collection, New Solo Album Cannibals – “A Little Creepy But Interesting”

“I had a lot of fun putting that together,” admits guitar guru Richie Kotzen when asked about the triple disc (two CDs, one DVD) collection that is ever so appropriately named The Essential Richie Kotzen. Due in stores September 2nd, this is officially endorsed by Kotzen, not some record company cash grab. “Yeah, that’s happened to me before. You do these licenced deals and people get rights to your music; suddenly they put these compilations out with unauthorized album titles – a lot of crazy shit can happen in the music business! Thank God I’ve got a great team with Loud & Proud Records behind me. They did a fabulous job with The Winery Dogs, and really, this actually came out of the Japanese division of our record label. The consensus was, a lot of people are aware of Richie Kotzen; you’ve got your fan base, which is wonderful. But, there is a demographic in the rock community that isn’t aware of what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years. Some of those people hear my name and think of an 18-year old guitar guy that made an instrumental album for Shrapnel Records in 1989. Obviously many, many years later, I’ve been making records the entire time. This is a perfect thing for someone that’s curious to know, who is Richie Kotzen? What does he do? We figured we would make a package that spelt that out. If somebody grabs this out of curiosity and they like it, there’s a whole back catalogue of music there to wrap your head around.”
 
If you go back to the very beginning of Richie’s musical career, which started with Arthurs Museum in 1988, up until The Winery Dogs, who released their eponymous debut disc last year; Kotzen has 26 studio albums to his credit – including titles with Mr. Big, Forty Deuce, and Poison – not just solo material. Given the plethora of songs that encompasses, selecting the 23 songs and 11 videos that comprise The Esssential Richie Kotzen couldn’t have been an easy task. “Well I’m glad somebody was able to do the math, ‘cause every time I try to figure out what I did I get lost, so thank you for that,” says Richie. “It was a little challenging, but it was also easy in the sense that I picked songs that I still remember, and songs that I still perform live. In my mind, I put this package together thinking, if somebody never heard me before… I want to define, on some level, what it is that I do. That was the main focus in selecting the music.”

The artwork that adorns The Essential Richie Kotzen is a great photograph of the Pennsylvania native seated at a piano, appearing to pull his hair out in search of that last elusive sequence of notes needed to complete a song – so close but yet so far. “It was such a random thing, that photo. I was on tour with The Winery Dogs and my guitar technician John is not only a great guitar player, but a fabulous photographer. So while he was on the road, when he wasn’t dealing with my guitars or Billy (Sheehan)’s basses, he would be taking pictures. We were in Germany – I don’t remember the city – but outside, in this random place, for whatever reason, there was an old piano sitting there. He said, ‘just go sit at the piano.’ There might be a series of 12 pictures of me sitting there. But in that one photo, I’m sitting there smoking a cigarette, and I just happened to put my head down, and he snapped the shot. Like you said, it shows the songwriter sitting there, trying to finish an idea, looking for the right lyric or the right note to play; however you want to put it. We liked it, so we ran with it.” The aforementioned cigarette in Kotzen’s hand could potentially cause strife among the uptight, politically correct decision makers at Wal-Mart and other similarly minded retailers. “It crossed my mind and I actually mentioned it to the folks at Loud & Proud, and they said it doesn’t matter; it should be fine. I guess we could have air-brushed it out, but we left it in there. I could have been holding a pistol dressed up like a cowboy, would they stock that record?”
 
Disc 1 of The Essential Richie Kotzen starts with two never-before released songs, “War Paint” and “Walk With Me”. However, never-before released doesn’t necessarily equate to brand new; were those songs written and recorded in 2014, or were they sitting in the vaults for a while? “Good question, ‘War Paint’ and ‘Walk With Me’ are brand new songs. I actually wrote those songs when I was out on the road on one of our tour legs, in a hotel room. Came home on a break, demoed them; and then on another break I came back to them and finished them.” Inspiration can strike anytime, anyplace. “That’s how it works man. I’ve learned over the years, if I have a song idea; in a restaurant or if I’m sleeping and woken from a dream, and I don’t document it in that moment – and that doesn’t mean record the entire piece – but certainly grab my iPhone, open the recorder app and sing along. If I don’t do that, then I forget it and it’s lost forever. I’ve actually written songs on airplanes, pulled out my computer and typed lyrics out; there’s all kinds of ways you can get your ideas out.” With the advent of technology, no longer are you forced to scribble on a cocktail napkin at the bar. “Well, you can do that too. There’s no one definitive way to write a song. You follow the creative flow, the only judgement is at the end of the day when you listen to the speakers… if what you’re hearing is what you heard in your head and you want to play that song 20 times in a row, you know you nailed it.”
 
On both “War Paint” and “Walk With Me”, Richie is personally responsible for every note heard; he sings, plays guitar, bass, and drums. “Yeah, I’m playing all the instruments. For ‘War Paint’, I really wanted that song to have the feeling of a live band playing. In order to pull that off, one of the approaches was in the overdubs of the song. If you listen to that, you’ll realize there’s only one guitar track. The tone changes throughout the song, but that’s because I’m purposely implementing various effect pedals for different sections. But it’s one guitar path, one vocal, obviously the drums are there. I really wanted a live feel on that, and I think I accomplished it. ‘Walk With Me’ was a slightly different animal. Obviously there’s overdubs involved, it’s more of a traditional approach to recording. But, from the beginning I heard a Theremin playing the lead instrumental part, rather than a guitar. So I went online and bought a Theremin – for those of you who don’t know what it is, you can Google it. I set it up, tried to play the thing, couldn’t. After two weeks of messing with it, I finally got to a point where I could play some melodies that I was hearing in my head. So that’s the crazy instrument you hear – it’s a 1920s oscillation based instrument; I think it’s really effective for the track.”
 
Disc 2 is definitely a lot mellower than Disc 1. It consists of four re-recordings that were done this year, followed by four acoustic versions, and two demos. “What I ended up doing was going back and picking songs I thought could have been done justice by a more simple approach and production. For example, the song ‘What Is’ was originally released in 1998, and recorded prior to that. I’ve always loved that song and it’s always included when I do my acoustic performances. So I thought why not break down some of these songs to a guitar and voice, or piano and voice, and shed a new light on them. Even a song like ‘Damaged’, which appears on The Winery Dogs record, that’s a song that had been lurking on my hard drive for a long time and we resurrected it. I found that demo that I did with a drum machine – with a way different approach – some interesting trivia is that vocal performance, 80% of it is the actual vocal that was used on The Winery Dogs master. When we cut the song, we actually cut it to a click track and my original guide vocal, which is what you hear on the version of ‘Damaged’ that is included on The Essential Collection.”

 

Also Included on Disc 2 is an acoustic rendition of a Poison song, “Until You Suffer Some (Fire And Ice)”, co-written by Richie. It seems a lifetime ago that he belonged to the glam rockers; 21 back then; Kotzen is now 44 years old. People generally don’t attribute Poison to musical brilliance, but RK’s dazzling talents are undeniable. As such, the fit was a little different, and ultimately short-lived. The one Poison album Richie played on, 1993’s Native Tongue, certainly stands out from the rest of the band’s discography. “I personally loved the Poison record that I made with those guys. Like the Forty Deuce experience, that was a great time for me. Specifically when we were in the studio recording, and prior to that in pre-production; I have a lot of great memories from that period. There are several songs on that album, similar to The Winery Dogs, that I had previously written that would have ended up on a solo record. I was signed to Interscope back then as a solo artist, and unfortunately after a year on the label, we determined that we couldn’t agree on my direction musically. So I left the label and had the opportunity to team up with Poison; it made sense to me at the time. But ‘7 Days Over You’ for example, ‘Stand’, and ‘Fire And Ice’ were songs that I had brought into the band. Bret (Michaels, vocalist) and I sat down together and tweaked the lyrics to his liking, ‘cause obviously he has to sing it. But the majority of the content lyrically and musically initially came from me. So I have a very strong emotional attachment to those songs. ‘Stand’ is a song I’ve played countless times in my live show; there’s plenty of bootleg recordings out there (it even appears on Unleashed In Japan – the bonus disc included in the special edition of The Winery Dogs self-titled album). But there’s really not very many documentations of me doing ‘Fire And Ice’, so I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to record a version of that song; again broken down without any production added, just the voice and guitar.”
 
Looking at Poison after Kotzen’s tenure in the band, guitarist C.C. DeVille eventually returned and a few more albums were released – the last being 2011’s Double Dose: Ultimate Hits. They played a bunch of summer shed tours with other ‘80s bands including Cinderella and Dokken. Then Bret switched gears, focusing on his own solo career. He was on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice television show; he’s even launched a line of dog accessories dubbed Pets Rock. Kotzen shares his thoughts on the current activities of his former bandmate. “He’s a grown man with his own free will and he can do whatever he chooses; and good for him. I think he’s a smart man; he’s become a household name in certain circles. Hopefully he’s happy and he’s fulfilling his dreams and his goals. I have no comment on the other members and what they feel or think ‘cause I just don’t know. People grow and change in life, that’s just the way it is.”
 
Ultimately, The Essential Richie Kotzen is a career retrospective – yet his career is by no means over. However, opening for The Rolling Stones in Japan in 2006 must have been jaw dropping. “It was a very surreal scenario back then. I was involved with a Japanese production company that had contracted me to re-record and actually rewrite several Japanese animation compositions. They wanted to make this record of an American guy singing in English, re-interpreting these popular Japanese songs. So I did this record for them. Around the same time, they were talking about how they acquired the rights to promote The Rolling Stones on their Bigger Bang Tour. During a conversation in a hotel room, I said to them, the timing of this could work out perfectly if somehow you could get me an opening slot on one of those shows. I think that would be great to both promote the record and promote Richie Kotzen. For some reason, this never crossed their mind. It was like, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea!’ Thank you. I thought it was obvious. So they approached The Rolling Stones camp and sent them to my website, sent them some music; and they agreed to allow me to open up the entire tour. In Japan, that was the first time The Rolling Stones ever had an opening act. As a touring market, it’s not the norm to have openers. Typically, when people go to a concert in Japan, they go to see the headline act and that’s the only act that performs. So this was kind of a new approach for Japanese shows. The funny thing is, until I actually arrived in Japan and performed the first show – once that show was over, then I accepted the fact that I was opening for The Stones. I actually called home and told some friends where I was and what I did, because I just couldn’t believe it was going to happen. The whole time, even on the plane, I pictured getting over there and they’d be like – What? Who’s opening? Who’s this guy? But luckily, thankfully I was wrong. There were six shows on that run, and it actually happened!”

 

Solo album #20 from Richie Kotzen will be released in 2015. “I just finished it last week. That will be released at the beginning of next year. I’m shooting a video for one of the songs, it’s not the lead track per say, but it’s a song that I wrote with my daughter which is a really cool piece titled ‘You’. She wrote the music to this song when she was roughly 14 or 15. She would sit at the piano and just play this piece. I as ked her, what is that you’re always playing? She said, ‘I don’t know, it’s something I wrote.’ So I set up the mics and recorded it ‘cause I really liked it. It lived on my hard drive for a few years. When I make a new record, I always go back and look at my old ideas. I discovered this and decided to write some lyrics for it. I’m excited that it came together and it’s going to be on the record; I think it’s a really cool recording. There’s some other things on the record, I have one song that I actually play nylon string guitar on, which I don’t do a lot of. I think it’s a nice departure for me. There’s some production values I’ve done in the past that people haven’t heard me do in a while; some of the more up-tempo songs are kind of a throwback to almost a ‘70s R&B style. I really like the record! It’s ten songs; it’s going to be called Cannibals. It should be out in Canada sometime in January.” As far as the inspiration for the title Cannibals goes… “I wrote this song, and basically it deals with people in society who will step on each other to get ahead, without any real concern for anything other than getting in the position they want to be in. So lyrically, it’s kind of a play on words. When you look at the storyline, it’s kind of an interesting perspective on the human condition.” The title Cannibals opens up a realm of possibilities for the artwork. “Oh yeah, I have a cover already done that I think is pretty interesting; a little creepy but interesting.”
 
In closing, writing for the second Winery Dogs album is slated to begin at year’s end, with recording commencing in January. “I think the ultimate goal, whether we literally start writing in December which was talked about… but there’s the reality that we’re all doing other things, and some of us might want to rest the bones for a moment. In a perfect world, The Winery Dogs record would be completed in time for a summer (2015) release. That I think is 100% realistic and something we’re all working towards. I'm sure once we get in the room the ideas are going to start flowing as they did last time, so it should be an exciting record."

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