SMITH/KOTZEN – Better Days …And Nights “Much Better Than We Anticipated”

September 15, 2022, 9 months ago

By Aaron Small

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SMITH/KOTZEN – Better Days …And Nights “Much Better Than We Anticipated”

Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith and fellow six-stringer/singer Richie Kotzen (The Winery Dogs, Mr. Big, Poison) released their brilliant self-titled debut album in March 2021 via BMG. That was followed by a fabulous, limited edition four song EP, Better Days, issued in November 2021 on 12” vinyl for Record Store Day. On September 16, Smith/Kotzen will release Better Days …And Nights, thereby making those four songs available on CD for the first time. And they’re paired with five previously unreleased live tracks recorded during Smith/Kotzen’s inaugural tour of The UK in February and March of 2022.

“We had two nights we set up to record in England, and we didn’t know what we were going to get,” recalls Richie Kotzen. “So, it was kind of… if we get something we like, maybe we can create this package out of it, and we did. We got some things that we thought represented the music quite well. So, there it is. Bruno Valverde played drums. My wife, Julia Lage, played bass; and they did a great job.”

Elaborating further, Richie says, “We recorded Wolverhampton (March 3rd at KK’s Steel Mill) and we did London (March 8th at Islington Assembly Hall). Four of the songs came from Wolverhampton, and ‘Running’ came from London.” If you listen closely, ‘Running’ does sound different to the other four live songs, you can tell it’s at a separate venue. “Yeah, I remember when I was mixing it, there was discussion about that. And finally, I said, ‘Listen, it’s going to sound different cause it’s a different room.’ And literally, it was the last song we played on the entire tour. Imagine the poor snare drum! It’s had the shit kicked out of it. So, I said, ‘Guys, it is going to sound different – not necessarily better or worse – but slightly different.’”

Richie mixed the live songs on Better Days …And Nights himself. However, it was Kevin “Caveman” Shirley (Aerosmith, Jackyl, Black Stone Cherry) who mixed the self-titled debut album from Smith/Kotzen. “He did such a good job on the studio tracks,” states Richie. “But he was in Australia when he mixed that for us. We produced it ourselves, and I engineered the album. Then I sent him the audio files, and just did a great job! But for the live thing, I knew the ins and outs of what we played so well, and there was so many nuances that I would have had to notate – can you turn this bit up here? Turn that bit down. There’s all these friggin’ moving parts. Because I was so familiar with it, we just had a chat – ‘Richie, why don’t you have at it? Give it a go.’ So, it just made sense. Adrian and I listened to it, and we were both kind of pleasantly surprised. It’s much better than what we anticipated. So, we just rolled with it that way. Given the circumstance and the timing, it’s just the way it went.” 

Having Richie’s wife Julia, who’s currently in Vixen, play bass in the Smith/Kotzen band was an obvious choice. But how did Bruno Valverde of Angra land the role of drummer? “Well, as you can imagine, being married to a Brazilian, we know a lot of Brazilian people. It’s like the Brazilian barbecues at my house, everyone’s there speaking Portuguese – and I still can’t figure out what the hell is going on. I know how to say all the bad words. A friend of mine, who’s a fine musician in his own right, had been telling me about Bruno Valverde and said, ‘You need to meet this kid, he’s really amazing.’ So, he came over for a Brazilian barbecue – it might even have been a Thanksgiving thing cause I know my friend Doug Pinnick from King’s X was at the house. We were all together and that was the first time I met Bruno, at my house. Then Julia was in talks with him to play on her solo stuff. When it came time for Smith/Kotzen, it kind of came together in a very interesting way because Adrian just happened to be in California for a period of time. And the talk was, ‘Hey, let’s get together and do some writing.’ And we did get together for two or three days and threw some ideas around. But then I said, ‘You’re here. Why don’t we do a gig?’ Literally, let’s do a show somewhere in LA. Then we thought, Julia, obviously, should play bass; she’s more than qualified. Then she was like, ‘Let’s see if Bruno could come in.’ Then that idea for one show turned into seven.”

Smith/Kotzen has released live videos for “Hate And Love” and “Got A Hold On Me” from Better Days …And Nights. Were all of the shows filmed? Is there a possible Blu-ray or DVD in the works? “No, no. We did not film an entire show in a proper manner. It was just, let’s get a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and see what we can put together.”

Comparing the studio versions and the live versions of the songs on Better Days …And Nights, all the live ones are longer than their studio counterparts. Some, not by much. ‘Running’ is only 33 seconds longer. But ‘You Don’t Know Me’ is two minutes and 20 seconds longer in concert, featuring a beautiful extended solo. Was that rehearsed ahead of time, or was it an impromptu on-stage jam? “Well, you know, we kind of took a page out of the Richie Kotzen approach to playing live,” admits Richie. “What I mean by that is, my trio… I have so many things that are unscripted as far as how long a section might be. I’ll play a solo and my band can kind of feel when it’s going to end. And I’ll kind of look and give a cue. Any of those solos can be any length on any given night. If I’m not feeling it, I’ll cut it short. Or I might go into what we call ‘The Zone’ and I don’t come out for quite some time. Then suddenly I’ve been playing that song for eight minutes. So, with regard to some of this stuff, I was like, ‘Adrian, you take the first solo.’ When he’s done it’ll be obvious and I’ll come in with the second one, and you’ll know when I’m finished. That song you’re talking about would be a different length every night. No one was counting bars – it wasn’t like ‘You do 32 measures and I’ll do 32 measures.’ It was all kind of open.”

At the beginning of “Got A Hold On Me” live, Adrian Smith addresses the crowd saying, “This one’s about the perils of alcohol, but enjoy your beer, you know what I mean.” Given that there really isn’t any onstage banter from Richie on Better Days …And Nights, it gives the appearance of Adrian as frontman. “Well, I think there’s a couple nights where I was given a look to stop talking, cause I could go on a rant myself,” explains Kotzen. “It just so happens that on the album, it played out the way it did. But we split the banter pretty evenly, and there was some pretty funny moments actually during the tour. What made it kind of interesting was that I hadn’t really been out. Everybody was locked in cause of the Covid thing. But I knew a lot my friends went out and toured right away. Then they had their tours taken down cause someone got sick, or this or that. I sat on the sidelines for quite some time. I think the first gig that I did was, I took my solo trio onto the Monsters Of Rock Cruise, and that went well for me. But with Smith/Kotzen, it was the first actual tour, the first time I got on a tour bus since Covid. So, everything was just kind of like finding our legs. There was certainly a bit of banter, but I did quite a bit of talking on the tour. I think we just captured that one moment you mentioned. We got lucky enough to capture that joke Adrian made.”

Going back to the studio songs on Better Days …And Nights, let’s put “Rise Again” features Richie’s drummer from The Winery Dogs, Mike Portnoy, behind the kit. “Yeah, and that song has a very interesting way that it came to be.” It is indeed interesting as Kotzen’s bass line sounds like something Billy Sheehan would play. So, it’s almost like a Winery Dogs song with Adrian Smith guesting on it. “Totally. I was full on going for a Billy Sheehan approach on the bass – no lie. Look, I’ve been playing with him for… I’ve known Billy since I was 19. We played in Mr. Big together, he did one of my solo tours when I opened for The Stones, we have The Winery Dogs. He and I are very well connected. On that tune, the way that came to be… during the pandemic, Mike had sent me… I gave Portnoy this idea. I said, ‘Since we’ve got nothing to do, send me a bunch of drum tracks. Take a form, like intro, verse, chorus, whatever. Pick a standardized form and just play through something as if it was a song; but the song doesn’t exist. And play to a click. He gave me five different tempos and five different feels. It’s like, woah! I never thought to do anything like that before. Now, I’ve done stuff like that before and turned it into songs; got behind the drums with a click and made songs out of it. I have a song called ‘What Is Life’ that was written that way. Literally behind a drum set imagining something that doesn’t exist; but recording the drums. So, he did that and sent them to me. One of the songs, during the pandemic I put a single out (‘Raise The Cain’); I wrote something to his drums and I made a little lyric video for it. So, when Adrian came around, I said, ‘I’ve got this crazy drum track that Portnoy did. Why don’t you try to write something to it?’ He put down that main guitar riff. It was like pieces. Then I got a hold of it and just embellished what he did. Then the other sections, I got all prog on it with some crazy bass lines and unison guitar stuff, just made it what it is. But that was actually written to Mike’s drum tracks, and I don’t know what was in Mike’s mind when he was cutting it – it could have been anything. It was just kind of a crazy way to write something; I thought it came out quite cool.”

“Rise Again” is almost a counterpart to “Solar Fire” from the self-titled debut album, which featured Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden playing drums. Now both Richie and Adrian have had their respective drummers from their other band make a guest appearance on a Smith/Kotzen song. “You know, as I’m talking to you, I’m realizing somewhere – and I’m the worst for keeping things organized. I can never find shit in my computer, it’s crazy. And I back stuff up all the time, but I’m always backing it up to a different drive. I’ve got to get that together. But where I’m going with this is I know, somewhere, on one of my computers, there are two or three other Mike Portnoy drum performances. Now I‘m thinking we should go back and find those, maybe there’s two more Smith/Kotzen songs that can come out of it.”

Richie is currently on a solo tour of The United States until September 25. Adrian is going around the world with Iron Maiden until the end of October. Could we see any Smith/Kotzen shows in November/December, or even January/February? “Yeah, what we’re talking about doing is getting together and doing some writing, cause we both would love to be able to put out a follow-up studio album – SK2, or whatever you want to call it. I think once we get back, we can get together and see what we’ve got.”

Kotzen’s last solo album, 50 For 50, was issued in 2020, and essentially amounted to five albums worth of music. Is there a new solo album on the horizon, or are you taking a rest from solo material after that monumental release? “It’s been a bit of a rest. I’ve got two songs actually that I completed last year that would be really great for a solo release – they’re quite unique actually, these two particular songs. There’s a couple other things lurking, so… But to answer your question, I don’t see me making a proper solo album for a while because the reality is, I just finished working on The Winery Dogs album that’s going to be released at the beginning of next year. And I’m quite excited about that! I think the three of us really outdid ourselves on this record. It’s been too long since the band has put something out.” Their last release, Dog Years, came out in 2017. “Next year I want to keep the focus on The Winery Dogs. And then I would imagine there will probably be more Smith/Kotzen stuff coming. So, being that I’m doing a solo tour now, I think it’ll be a minute before I actually put out a full-length album, but you never know. I might come off the road and say, ‘Wow, I’ve got ten songs all of a sudden.’ Who knows?”

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