SMITH/KOTZEN – “We Were Really Free And Loose With It”

March 26, 2021, a year ago

By Aaron Small

feature hard rock heavy metal smith/kotzen

SMITH/KOTZEN – “We Were Really Free And Loose With It”

Bringing back bluesy classic rock, evocative of the sounds that dominated the FM airwaves in the ‘70s, peppered with a modern flair and plenty of hooks, Smith/Kotzen have released their eponymous album via BMG. 

As their namesake indicates, Smith is none other than Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith, and Kotzen is Richie Kotzen, known for his roles in The Winery Dogs, Mr. Big, and Poison, as well as a stellar solo career. Much more than just two high profile six-stringers getting together and jamming, Smith/Kotzen sees Adrian and Richie sharing lead vocals, with Richie also laying down the majority of bass and drum tracks across a beautiful selection of original songs that seamlessly meld hard rock with rhythm & blues.  

“I had a great time working on that,” exclaims Richie. “One of the things I really love about it, is it plays out, to my ear, like one of those old classic rock ‘n’ roll records that I grew up on. Back in the day, a record would be eight, nine songs. Then when the CD came out, everybody loaded them up with tons of songs. I like the flow of it, and the feel of it, being a classic length album. I’m happy with it all the way around.”

What a difference a year makes! In February 2020, Smith/Kotzen were in Turks & Caicos recording their self-titled debut. Then the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. “Yeah, and you know, it’s really odd if I think too much about it. I haven’t played a show, I haven’t got on stage in a year,” admits Kotzen. “It’s been a year since I was down in Miami, and my solo band did the Monsters Of Rock sail away party, then we played on the cruise, and that was the last time. Right after that, I went down to Turks & Caicos and started working on the record, with the intent of releasing it actually now when it’s coming out. Thankfully, we were able to stay on point. But our plan was to get out there and tour it around March / April. But now, like everybody else, we’re not able to do much of anything.”

“My plan was to go down to Turks and make the record, which I did. But then I had four continents worth of shows booked. My solo band was going to do a full North America run, we had Europe and South America put together, and Japan which would also lead to some other South East Asia shows. The whole thing, obviously, everything came down, and here we are. But like I said, the great news is that this Smith/Kotzen record did stay on course for the release.”

The exotic locale of Turks & Caicos is an unusual spot to record an album. “That’s a place that Adrian spends a lot of time; he loves to go fishing. That’s a spot that him and his wife have been going to for many, many years. To be honest, I didn’t even know about it. I’d never heard of Turks & Caicos until I met Adrian. Then I said, ‘Sure, let’s go. I’ll check it out.’ So, it was his idea. It’s a place he frequents quite a bit.” 

Was it at all distracting, recording in a tropical paradise? “I’ll tell ya,” laughs Kotzen. “The first day, I didn’t want to do much of anything except lay on the beach and have some cocktails; that’s pretty much what we did. But then, shortly after that, like the next day or so, we got into a nice groove and just focused on the record. But you get up in the morning – both of us get up pretty early. I’d go off, take a swim, do that sort of thing. Then get back into it, do the recording all day. At night, we’d get together for dinner with the wives, it was just a real cool vibe.”


Enthralling is certainly an appropriate adjective for Smith/Kotzen, but the question of, how did this come to be, forever lingers. “Well, I’ve been friends with Adrian for, it’s got to be about ten years; I’m the worst at the timeline stuff. But I think it’s about ten years or so,” says Richie. “We just hit it off right away. Living in L.A., you find yourselves in situations where you’re meeting people in the same field obviously, other musicians. If they don’t live here, they come in and out for one reason or another. So, we met and hit it off. The way it all really came together, is that he would have little get-togethers at his Los Angeles house, which is not so far from where I live. I got invited to a couple of these parties, then at some point, we’d all end up in a room where he has all the guitars and soundproofing, electronic drum set. So, we’d have these jam sessions year after year. One of these times, Adrian’s wife Natalie said, ‘You guys should try and write something.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’d be awesome!’ So, we threw some ideas around and obviously that led us into where we are today.”

By his own admission, Richie is a “massive” Iron Maiden fan. “Like a crazy Iron Maiden fan. When I was a kid, I had two t-shirts that I would wear to school. One was Number Of The Beast, and the other one was a Black Sabbath shirt. Almost every morning, it was either Sabbath or Maiden – ‘Woe to you oh earth and sea’ – the opening to that song would just be echoing through the house at seven in the morning, or whatever it was that I got up for school. So, yes, I’m a major Iron Maiden fan. Obviously now I’m a grown man, I can control myself. But every now and then I’m like – ‘Wow! You’re actually in a band with someone that totally influenced you; and is a member of one of your favorite bands ever.’ It’s all very surreal if I think too hard about it.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise about Smith/Kotzen is Adrian singing lead. He and Richie share the vocal duties pretty much 50/50. Everyone is used to hearing Bruce Dickinson’s voice overtop of Smith’s guitar; who knew that Adrian could sing? “Yeah, he sings great! And you know, that was one of the things that was really cool about this for me; it’s my first time where I’m sharing lead vocals and guitar. Cause all my other things that I’ve done, I’m the only guitar player. So that was interesting for me, and actually very enjoyable to have someone else there to kind of walk the dog every once in a while. The same thing with the vocals. Obviously, I’m singing on all my records, so this was nice for me to have some other kind of… to play a different role. Take on the lead role, but also lay back in the cut and take on a support role; I really liked it. I really liked the volley that we have going back and forth on the record.”

Adrian and Richie’s voices complement each other so well, as does their guitar playing. “It’s funny, sometimes when I listen, there’s certain things and I’m like, ‘Oh wait, is that him or is that me?’ Did I play that? That’s kind of interesting cause it just means that it’s flowing really well. It’s not like anything’s coming out of left field. I think we really complement each other very well. Even our singing style is similar enough, cause we have the same influences like Paul Rodgers, Coverdale-era Whitesnake. But at the same time, our voices are a little different range wise and tonality.”

How did you decide who would handle which part? “Oh, that’s a good question. It really kind of decided itself. It seems to me that there was a bit of a pattern on how these songs came to be. Adrian would usually come in with a riff; ‘I have this idea.’ From there, I’d usually take it and try to turn it into something, maybe write a chorus or a bridge. And we would go back and forth. Sometimes I would bring in an idea and he would have a way, a path to go with it. But as far as who did what, it almost was like… not in every song but in most of them, whoever wrote it would sing it. For example, in the song ‘Taking My Chances’, which everyone’s heard so far, Adrian wrote his verse. That’s his melody and his lyrics. Then I found a way to follow that, if you will. In the chorus, I believe I take the first one, then he comes in and harmonizes with me on the second one. By the third one, we’re going back and forth. We kind of built it up that way. But in general, it would kind of decide itself – what felt right for who to sing, based on who had the idea. Then the other part of it, with the playing, that was really free and loose. Some songs it was like, ‘I think we’ve got to put some fills in. Go ahead, do it.’ Or another song would be like, ‘I have an idea to enter into the first solo, but I have no idea how to get out of it, so let me take the first one, you take the second one.’ We were really free and loose with it.”

Smith/Kotzen is both immediately satisfying and equally rewarding on a deep listen; that can’t be said about a lot of new music these days. “I think that the one thing about the record, in being that we are known as guitar players that sing, or the singing guitar players, however you want to phrase it. The real focus on the record was the songs. We both come from a place of, the song is the most important thing. Without a song… if you’re a musician and you don’t have a song, you have nothing to play. I think that’s really the main thing about the record – we were focused on writing songs. If something wasn’t working or didn’t sound like it was a song; it might have been a cool riff, but if it isn’t a song, we’re not going to waste any time with it. We’ve got to develop these things into something that represents some kind of feeling that we’re having, an emotion or connection, whatever you want to call it. So, the focus was on the songs.” 

Did you ever consider a band name? Or was it always going to be Smith/Kotzen from the very beginning? “I think it was always going to be that. We threw around some ideas… we threw around some ideas for album names. I don’t remember ideas for band names. It might have happened; I just don’t remember it. But I do remember talking about, ‘What should we call the album?’ I always like the self-titled debut album, when an artist or a band would do that out of the gate. Then from there, you can name it something.”

There are a couple of guest appearances on the album. Most notably Nicko McBrain from Iron Maiden playing drums on “Solar Fire”, which certainly makes sense, seeing as he’s Adrian’s bandmate. “Yes, and that was such a great thing to have him get on there and do that. That song was recorded and written against a basic drum loop type situation. At the point of which that song was coming to life, we thought, I’ve already played drums on half of these things, what can we do here to do something a little different? He was the perfect guy for that – the high energy, great fills at the right time. He kind of moved the needle forward if you will. I’m really thrilled that he got involved and played on that song.”

Tal Bergman from Richie’s solo band, who’s also played with Billy Idol, is behind the kit on three songs: “You Don’t Know Me”, “I Wanna Stay’, and “’Til Tomorrow”. Again, it makes sense as Kotzen has performed with Bergman numerous times before. “Yeah, of course. Tal and I go way back. The first time I met him I was 26 (Richie’s currently 51). We were introduced, and we were part of a group that was going to be the house band for a new venue in Los Angeles called Billboard Live. They did this three times, and then something happened, and it all went sideways. But I was the guitar player / singer, Tal was the drummer, and there were two other guys. It was like this jam – name guys would come in. I think Jeff Beck came in one night, those kind of bigtime cats would come in and jam. That was a real popular thing back then in L.A., to have these jam nights with celebrity guests. That’s how we met. Then from there, I ended up getting the gig to open for The Rolling Stones in Japan in 2006. At the time, I didn’t have a group. I didn’t have a touring band. So, I grabbed Tal to play drums, and I grabbed my friend Billy Sheehan, and we went over there and did five or six shows opening for The Stones. So, Tal and I go way back, we have a lot of history.” That must have been awesome, opening for Mick and Keith. “Yeah, that was pretty cool. It was one of those situations where I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it until after I played the first show. I really had it in my head that there was a really good chance I’m going to get to Japan and they’re going to be like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ So, I made sure I didn’t say a word until I could say that I already did it. That’s how I played that.”

Aside from those four Smith/Kotzen songs, Richie plays drums on the remaining five, just as he does on his solo albums; proving how incredibly multi-talented he really is. “You know, it came out of just… either I do it this way, or I don’t do anything. A lot of times you have to really take the bull by the horns and be aggressive with finishing things. So many people have great ideas for songs, and then they just sit there on a reel of tape or a hard drive incomplete. From the very beginning, partially cause of where I grew up, and the way that I grew up, it was like, I want to do music. I have these ideas, I want to record these songs, I want to hear them finished. I want to get whatever’s in my head out of the speakers. And it wasn’t always reasonable for me to be able to get someone to come over to my house at any given time to play drums, or play bass, or do a piano part. So, over the years, I figured out how to get this stuff out on my own. Maybe I’m unique, but I’m one of these writers that when I hear a song, I can kind of envision everything in my head; it all comes to me. It starts with the melody. When I have the melodies, I immediately know what the drumbeat is, cause the melody and the drumbeat are directly connected, whether you like it or not. Then at that point, I usually can figure out what the bass is going to do, cause that’s usually something that involves a bit of counterpoint, and also drives the track. I’m breaking this down in an intellectual way; none of this is very intellectual. It’s a thing that just happens, and who knows where it comes from? That’s the real reason why I work that way.”

Richie significantly mentioned, “Cause of where I grew up, and the way that I grew up,” a statement which he elaborates upon. “I grew up outside of Philadelphia. I was far enough out in the country where it wasn’t necessarily like I could go anywhere until I could actually drive. Then I could drive to Philly and hang out on South Street and go to the spots. But for the longest time, I really was stuck. How do I get there? How do I meet these people? On top of it, my father was very influential as a role model, to the degree that he was a doer. He didn’t sit around and talk about stuff. You know how some people sit around and talk about how great they are, how great their ideas are, this and that. But then they don’t do anything, and they just kind of rot away. My father was one of those guys who never said a word, but shit was always happening. He was always doing stuff, and getting stuff done. So, I kind of took it upon myself, even though he isn’t a musician, to have that kind of mentality. The song isn’t going to write itself. At some point or another, I’ve got to either finish this thing, or forget about it altogether. That’s just my mentality.”

(Photo by John McMurtrie)

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