Richie Kotzen (The Winery Dogs) Interview

By: Dee Haley
Wednesday, September 18, 2013 recently had the opportunity to talk with singer, songwriter and guitar aficionado Richie Kotzen (Poison and Mr. Big). Richie is bringing his talent to the table with Billy Sheehan on bass (Mr. Big, David Lee Roth, Talas) and Mike Portnoy on the drums (Dream Theater, Adrenaline Mob, Avenged Sevenfold) as one third of the power trio known as "The Winery Dogs," who have released a self-titled debut album.

The band is currently on tour in support of the album and Richie gave us the inside scoop on how this supergroup got together, the making of the album and how the band was named. We talked about all that and whole lot more. Don't take it from me, see for yourself what Richie had to say and be on the lookout for tour stop near you!

Dee: Hi Richie! Welcome to

Richie: Hi there! Thanks for having me.

Dee: The Winery Dogs is a new thing you have going on and you recently released a self-titled debut. I listened to it and it's quite the power trio. I am based in Buffalo, which is Billy Sheehan’s hometown. You’ve got this project with Billy and Mike Portnoy and I am really excited, it’s like a supergroup. How did you get this whole thing together?

Richie: Well actually, it really came through the DJ Eddie Trunk, for those of you who aren’t familiar with Eddie, he has a show on VH1 called That Metal Show and also has a radio show based out of New York City. We have been friends for a few years now, Eddie and I. Just out of the blue he sent me a text message and said hey call me when you’re free, I've got to run something by you. So I called him and he basically said Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan were looking to form a new band, they wanted to do like a power trio and they wanted to find a guitar player that was known, someone who could sing and play and write songs. Eddie suggested me for the project. I talked to him about it briefly and I said tell Mike or Billy to call me and we can take it from there. Really almost immediately after that the phone rang, it was Mike Portnoy, who I didn’t really know very well at the time, we talked for a while and hit it off on that conversation. We decided to get together, he had plans for coming to Los Angeles and thats where I live and Billy lives here in L.A. as well. We got together at my house and did some initial writing, we didn’t get too deep into it but we did write a couple of skeletons for what later became completed songs. Once we realized we had some songs we kind of got excited about the idea of making a record. Before you knew it, we had put down 14 songs and things being mixed and now here we are.

Dee: I think that it's great! The three of you as musicians don’t seem to have boundaries when it comes to your playing styles, you really seem to work well together. The first song "Elevate" does seem to have a Mr. Big-ish sound and you have worked with Billy Sheehan before. How did the dynamics of The Winery Dogs differ from say Mr. Big or the other bands that you have been in?

Richie: The dynamics between me and Billy have always been kind of consistent, we did the Mr. Big thing together and there was a period of time when Billy and Pat Torpey and I were working together with thoughts of maybe doing a project but that never happened. They ended up playing on one of my solo records. Billy and I connected again and I took him with me to Japan when I had the opportunity to open for the Rolling Stones. Billy and I have a lot of history and not just playing together, we like each other and we’re friends, it's a good vibe there, so to work with him is easy. He knows how to communicate with me and I know how to communicate with him and we get it done. With the Winery Dog record it was an interesting process in writing, it was kind of two (2) separate formulas really at play. The first thing was half the record was written in such a way that we would literally get in a room and just jam ideas, whether it started from a bass riff that Billy had or a guitar riff that I had or a drum beat, we would just kind of mess around and end up with these little skeletons of songs where you have a verse and a chorus, or a chord, maybe a bridge or solo section and that sort of thing. We recorded all of those in a very quick way. Nothing that was done proper, just a couple microphones and get it going. Those guys went on the road for a while with another project they had so I kind of laid back and threw around some melody ideas and lyric ideas and I pretty much finished those songs. Some of those songs were "Time Machine" and one called "Criminal" but there's a bunch of them that we did that way. I would record some vocals and send them off and they would make comments on them. We like that or we don’t like that, can we keep this, can we keep that. That was kind of how a lot of the record was written. The rest of the songs were songs that really I brought in towards the end. Songs like "Regret" or "Damaged" or "I’m No Angel," even "Elevate." Those were songs that I had originally had demoed in my studio. I remember there was a couple of days that I was kind of pulling up songs and said hey, what do you think about this? Do you want to make it into a Winery Dogs song? So the ones that ended up on the record were the ones that I had mentioned and then together we sat down and fine tuned those and made them into a little more fitting in with what the Winery Dogs are about. That was really the process. We ended up with 14 songs but unfortunately we had to save one for a bonus track in Japan and the other for a bonus track in the U.S. There are two (2) different versions of the record floating around. So people who want to hear everything might have to do a little bit of research to get all of the material but when you come see us live you will hear all 14 songs.

Dee: You mentioned the song "Regret," do you play piano on that one?

Richie: Yeah! I play piano, organ, and guitar, nothing else weird on that song.

Dee: I liked it and I’ll tell you, when I was listening to the CD I was missing the old liner notes you would get with albums. I was hearing different things and wanting to know a little more about it.

Richie: The old days! We were just in a record store in New Jersey and it was loaded with albums. There was an old KISS album there that brought back memories. It was one that used to have tattoos in it. I remember when I was a kid I made my grandmother buy it twice because I wanted another set of tattoos. I think I told some kind of lie, that I lost it or something. It was cool back then that you got all kinds of extra goodies.

Dee: I was reading that KISS was one of your greatest influences and you worked with Gene Simmons on a solo effort years ago, with KISS being one of your favorite bands, how was it working with him?

Richie: It was fun. I don’t remember how that all started but I owned a recording studio back then and he was looking for a place to record. I don’t remember how he was recommended to my studio but he turned up one day with an old cassette tape that he had all these ideas on but it was a format that nobody really used anymore. He said ok I want to listen to my ideas and me and the engineer looked at each other panicked and said "oh no! We got Gene here and we can’t play his ideas, he’s going to go crazy and yell at us." The first time he is in my studio and I had to scramble to find one of these machines, luckily there was a rental place in town. They brought it in and set it up for us. From there he started recording his solo record and he did most of it in my studio. I remember playing drums on a song for some reason but I don’t know that he ever used my performance, maybe that was for the demo. I played guitar on a song. I don’t know if I did any background vocals, but I definitely did some guitar work that I think he might have used. A solo or some rhythm stuff. He is just a cool guy and someone that really influenced me to even play music just based on what KISS represented to me and most of my friends back then when we were all kids. The band inspired a lot of guys so it was very cool to have him in my studio recording and all that stuff. We became friends from that point on.

Dee: In listening to the Winery Dogs album, I really liked the way the harmonies were between your voice and guitar, I thought the blending was brilliant. Based on the fact that you have had your own studio, how involved were you in the production and the engineering of the Winery Dogs album?

Richie: I was very involved. In the beginning, I have an engineer that I work with by the name of Alex Todorov, he is a great engineer. He used to work for me at the old studio that I was talking about. Since then I moved that studio, so it's all the same equipment just a different location. Alex came in and did the drums for us so we could just focus on playing. He also was there for Billy when Billy did his bass, but then everything else I did alone. I was here for about a month. Billy and Mike were out on another project they have. I really spent that time doing my guitars and doing all my vocal performances, all that stuff. When they came back they went into the studio and put their harmony vocals on and Mike laid down percussion and we finished the record. The entire time of me doing guitars and vocals I was here alone engineering and recording myself, but that is kind of how I like to work. I’m one of those guys who doesn’t sit up the night before and write parts. I like to go in and write in real time so that's a process that when you have an audience, it can be really a nightmare. They don’t understand how you work and you’re formulating ideas and for me I know myself better than anyone, so I know when I hit something or am falling short so you need that space to be alone and let those ideas come out. Once you lay down your concept and it sounds the way you envisioned it, at that point you can open the door up if you’re in a band and say, hey guys is this cool with everybody or you want me to change something? That initial creative process of formulating ideas is something for me that I really need to be alone. I have been in situations in a studio where I literally maybe do one pass at a guitar solo and suddenly I have an engineer or producer making suggestions. I’m like Dude, let me get to a point and then you can make your suggestions. I’m very happy with the Winery Dog record because we were all able to do things the way we do them. When Mike did his drum tracks he has a way that he approaches things and I knew to leave the room, leave him alone when he’s listening back and he is deciding what takes he wants to use. The thing about a band is it's a fragile relationship, you’ve got to have that situation where you allow that space for the other guys to work and do what they do but at the same time you have to be able to listen and take advice and work together. You’re not making a solo record, it’s a collaborative record and you want everyone to walk away feeling equally excited about it as you are.

Dee: You have been consistently releasing solo records since the late 80s, so it’s interesting that you are able to work in a solo capacity but bring it all together. I think that really works for you.

Richie: The timing was good for me. Like you said, I’ve been making solo records for a long time. It's not like I sit around and waiting for my opportunity to make my solo record. I’ve only really made solo records. I had a stint with Poison and a stint with Mr. Big but really from 1989 on I’m averaging a record a year and that's pretty much what I’ve always done. In coming in to a Winery Dogs situation where its more of a band vibe, the timing was great it was something I welcomed. I’m not in the band suddenly trying to monopolize anything. I can do that on my own. I’m in the Winery Dogs and I’m still being Richie Kotzen but I’m also collaborating and working and taking suggestions from two (2) other guys. That's the idea behind it. By the time that work is out, we can go back and make our solo records and everything will be fine. I think it's a great opportunity.

Dee: What was the timeline in creating this record? I know you had done an acoustic tour before this came out.

Richie: That tour was already booked and in the works prior to the completion of the Winery Dogs record so that was already something I knew I was going to be doing. As far as the actual timeline, we had gotten together and Mike Portnoy was the one who really has this engraved in his head, but to my memory we got together the initial time and we came up with maybe 4 or 5 ideas and I remember going back and finishing the songs, putting vocals on and sending off what I did to the guys, I think I finished 2 of them. We got together again and came up with another batch and at some point we demoed these songs and I went in and sang on these demos and came up with whatever melodies I wanted to sing and lyric ideas. There was one of them that Mike did lyrics on, he demoed it. So then we had maybe 7 or 8 of these songs that existed and we got together at that point to try to start cutting the record. In that process is where I played some of the songs I had laying around and presented them and they became Winery Dogs songs as well, which were songs I mentioned earlier. In the end, we had 14 songs to cut drums to so we did all that in about two (2) weeks and they took off. I went in and did guitars and vocals. They came back and fine tuned everything. They did background vocals, percussion, a couple little lyric tweaks here and there. We sent it off to Jay Ruston to get mixed and we ended up with our record.

Dee: You had mentioned you had some of the songs, did you have the music to the songs or the lyrics too? Did you write them together?

Richie: "Regret" and "Damaged." I have a demo of "Damaged" and it really sounds like a disco song. I have to dig it up one day and put it on a B side. "I’m No Angel" was done, although it was called Misfortune and we changed the title. "Elevate" was done in the sense that the chorus existed with the lyrics and the melody and so did the verse, but in two (2) different songs. Originally, that riff and that verse I had in another song with a whole other chorus. It was Mike who decided to put that verse with the chorus that you hear now. When we did that idea, when we put them together, there was a key issue, the verse and the chorus, they sounded weird at first. I remember Billy and I spent a lot of time on that song reconfiguring the bass line and the guitar to make it a smooth transit and that's how that song came to be. "We Are One" was a song that I had the music to all written out and I had the melodies, but the chord progression was different so Billy and I ended up rewriting that as well. There was a lot of skeletons we dealt with and threw some meat on them. There were some that were finished. The ones that were the most finished would be "Damaged," "Regret" and "I’m No Angel" as far as the ones I brought in. The other ones were in different stages of work.

Dee: I really like the flow when you listen from beginning to end. I’m curious as to how much effort you put in to the placement of the songs?

Richie: That's all Mike Portnoy. I had a concept of what I thought should be a lead track and what I thought should be the ending track but he loves to do that, so I kind of backed out on that. I think he did a good sequence.

Dee: I definitely like the way it flows together, its very cohesive. Who came up with the name Winery Dogs?

Richie: That came through me, actually through a friend of mine indirectly. I fought hard for that name. We had a list of band names and for whatever reason, that was the hardest thing to come up with. They had tons of names and I was probably the biggest problem in naming the band. For whatever reason, I didn’t connect with any of them, even the ones I suggested. It was a process that I wanted to forget and move on from. Every time a name came up someone said, "ah, I don’t like that." I don’t know if you realize there are some performance videos on the internet we did and shot in one day. The record was done, mixed and a release date was in the works and we were making this electronic press kit and we still didn’t have a name. That day we agreed on the name, obviously, the Winery Dogs. It was a name that I just really loved and I thought it made sense for us because we have this kind of late 60s, early 70s' rock kind of sound in my opinion. It sounds like a name that could have been one of those bands from back then. So finally I got everybody to agree to it so we are the Winery Dogs.

Dee: You have a little bit of everything in there! It's several genres put together and it really works.

Richie: Thanks!

Dee: You have a couple of Fender signature models out and I was wondering why they were released by Fender Japan instead of USA and if they are available everywhere now?

Richie: As of the beginning of this year the guitars became available globally which is something that I’ve been kind of fighting for, for a long time. That's the actual guitar I play. If somebody buys it, they’re buying the same instrument that I’m playing. When I get a new guitar from Fender, I sand off the finish on the neck and that's pretty much it. I have a little tuning device that I install as well, which is an aftermarket piece. Other than that, it's the same guitar you buy off the rack.

Dee: I really like the sound of it.

Richie: One of the other choices, the actual size of the neck is larger than most Telecasters and the wood is a specific blend.

Dee: I noticed that it actually has a "bigger/fatter" sound than most other Teles. One more question: When can we expect to see the Winery Dogs live?

Richie: We'll be heading to Europe in September and then back to United States, starting on the West Coast and then across the country.

Dee: Personally, I'll be waiting for the East Coast portion of the tour. We appreciate that you took the time to talk with us today. Thank you Richie!

Richie: Thanks Dee, for having me on your site.

We would like to thank Amanda Cagan from ABC Public Relations for setting up the interview with Richie. For more information on The Winery Dogs including their new CD and current tour, please go to: The Winery Dogs.

For more information on just Richie himself, you can visit his website here: Richie Kotzen.

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