Singer/songwriter/guitarist Richie Kotzen is well-known to many hard rock fans for his bluesy, soulful body of work, which includes a plethora of solo releases as well as albums and tours with the likes of Mr. Big and Poison and numerous collaborative efforts. He co-wrote one of the more intriguing Mr. Big numbers, "Shine" (from 2001's Actual Size), which played during the closing credits in the Japanese anime series "Hellsing." Kotzen's solo song "Dream Of A New Day" (from his 1990 sophomore effort Fever Dream) appeared on the soundtrack to the 1991 comedy Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey.
His latest powerhouse collaboration is the Winery Dogs, a power trio featuring bassist Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, Steve Vai) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), whose self-titled debut album combines Kotzen's emotive vocal and guitar style with Sheehan and Portnoy's collective talents without sounding like a muso free-for-all. From the stomping anthem "I'm No Angel" to the contemplative ballad "You Saved Me," the threesome explore a range of musical colors that keeps you listening from start to finish.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Kotzen discussed forming the Winery Dogs, his favorite song from their forthcoming debut album and his other creative aspirations, including home remodeling.
You use blues and soul as a starting point on The Winery Dogs. How does each member's various backgrounds come together on the album?
What's interesting about the band is that we all have our backgrounds. We each have different things that we're into that the other guy might not be as hip to, but we do have that common ground, which for us is the fact that we all love that late '60s [and] early '70s classic rock. That's the thing we connect on, and then as individuals we all have our different things that we bring to the table. Mike has the heavier, metal/progressive thing, and Billy invented his own kind of bass playing. I have the more Philly R&B elements going on, so I think that's what makes the record interesting. You've got a definitive-sounding record, but the thing is none of us got lost. You still hear Mike Portnoy's style, you still hear my style and you still hear Billy's style.
How long have you all known each other, and how long did it take for you to finally decide to make an album?
Billy and I have known each other since I first moved to L.A. [more than 20 years ago]. It may have even been before I moved here. For some reason, I think I met Billy when I was 19 somewhere with [Shrapnel Records Group founder] Mike Varney when I was making my second Shrapnel record. I just met Mike recently through [radio/TV personality] Eddie Trunk and "That Metal Show." Eddie was the one [who] put us together. He called me and said Billy and Mike were looking to do this band and needed someone who could sing and play guitar, and he thought of me. That's how it got started.
As time goes on, do you feel you are becoming more open to new opportunities in music?
As I get older, I don't want to do anything I don't want to do. I don't want to do anything that I'm not excited about musically, even with this band. If there had been any moment that was too much of a hassle, I wouldn't have done it. The situation I'm in is a little different from other people in that I've been self-contained now for over 10 years. I make solo records, I go out, I tour and have my base. And I enjoy that and love doing that. I'm not [asking myself], "What can I do next? I've got to do something different." I already am that and am happy with it. So anything I do beyond that has to be in addition to. I'm pretty content. Not that I feel like I can't improve, but just in the sense of what music represents is more about the creative process and less about music.
I can live without music [but] I can't live without being creative. To make a point out of that, I do work on my house. I built a deck outside my kitchen. It took me a month and a half to build. I did everything, and that feeling I had when I finished the deck was very similar to the feeling I have when I write a song. It's the creativity [that] gets me … it's not necessarily Friday night being onstage playing cover tunes. I wouldn't do that. The creative process of being in the studio and having a lyric idea and a drumbeat and developing that into a song, and two days later hearing it through the speakers the way I heard it in my head, that's the part of music that I love.
What would you say is the most personal song on this album for you and why?
My favorite song on the album is "Regret" for a lot of reasons. Stylistically, that's really where my heart is, in that kind of realm. I just really love when there's a lot of space in a song and you can really hear what the instruments are doing. It allows the singer to just relax and be able to sing and not have to fight a distorted guitar or have to scream over a riff. I just find that I'm at my best on songs like that, like "Regret" or "Damaged." "I'm No Angel" is a good example because it's still a hard song, but there's a lot of space in it. There's not a lot of [competition] to try to be heard. That's the most frustrating thing as a singer, when you can't hear yourself or you're fighting to occupy musical space.
It's interesting that you talk about space because you're in a band with two musicians who are known for often filling it.
That's what was cool about when we tracked the ballad "Regret" because they really played it the way that it needs to be played, which I thought was impressive.
What do you think you've learned playing with the Winery Dogs?
I don't know that I necessarily learned a lesson. The reality is that this record isn't too far off of what I normally do anyway, so it wasn't really a stretch for me. I could pull four or five songs off of this record and put them with four or five other songs, and it would sound like the follow-up to my last solo record, which is cool. I like that because I'm being me. I do think I was reminded of the difference [between being] a solo artist and [having] total control versus collaborating with somebody. I've seen the upside of it and the frustrating side of it, and in the end what's cool is I can look at this and say it sometimes was easy and sometimes was a struggle, but I've got a great record with great musicians that wouldn't be this way had we not collaborated. I'll give you an example. I told you that my favorite song on the record is "Regret." That's a song that I brought into the band. I played it for Billy one day on the piano and there was another part of the song that sounded like a chorus, but I didn't know if that chorus was better than the one I was using. So, I played it for him and he said, "They're both good, I'd use both of them." And he walked out of the room. So I decided to use the other chorus as an outro. When you hear the song, it goes to a whole other part that sounds like an outro. It is totally powerful and totally works and was a great idea. It was just something that I didn't think in that moment to do, and to him it was so obvious.
Are there other things that help you be creative outside of music and help you recharge your batteries?
For years, my house has been a project, but now I've done so much to it that I've run out of things to do. I had a recording studio for a while that was in a building I bought. I [remodeled] it and did a lot of construction, so that was a project. I really like those kinds of projects. I play cards with my friends, I love basketball. I put a half-court in my yard just because I'm obsessed with that. I have to have a balance. If I just finished making a record, I don't immediately want to start another one. I want to take a break.
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)