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Power Trio: An Exclusive Interview With Richie Kotzen Of THE WINERY DOGS

By Becky Dorsett, Houston Contributor
Monday, May 19, 2014 @ 4:48 PM

"Whatís great about the record, when you listen to it, you never get lost as far as who wrote what."

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What happens when you put three musical titans together? Pure genius, thatís what! Power trio THE WINERY DOGS is made up of Mike Portnoy (DREAM THEATER, AVENGED SEVENFOLD), Billy Sheehan (MR. BIG) and Richie Kotzen (MR. BIG, POISON). Three instantly recognizable names in Rock and Roll, have come together and are taking us down a path of musical mastery. I was lucky enough to get to interview Richie Kotzen before seeing them on May 23, 2014 at The Scout Bar here in Houston, TX.

KNAC.COM: With THE WINERY DOGS being described as the power trio, what do you feel that you are contributing to the fold?

KOTZEN: Well, the power trio format has been my format forever. When I make my records, itís me, a drummer, and a bass player. So, doing this with Billy and Mike is very natural for me and very comfortable. Basically, when the band formed, they had approached me through a friend of ours, Eddie Trunk. Eddie told me that they were looking to do a power trio, and they wanted to find a guitar player that sang lead vocals, who played guitar, and was also a writer. So, Eddie suggested me for this. I got a call from Mike Portnoy and we got together and talked. There was a chemistry there. We came up with a couple of songs and I ended up doing my thing. They liked what I did, so they decided to move forward and now here we are with a record. For me, Iím just doing what I normally do with a different cast of characters, but what is great about it is that these guys have such strong identities as individuals and their instruments. Whatís great about the record, when you listen to it, you never get lost as far as who wrote what. When you hear the bass, you know it is Billy Sheehan. When you hear the drums, you know it is Mike Portnoy playing. I think that is very cool. It is a record with three individuals, and nobody really gets lost. Everybodyís identity is still intact.

KNAC.COM: What makes THE WINERY DOGS different from other projects youíve been involved with?

KOTZEN: Well, the reality is that Iím not really a project guy. Over the past 10 years, the only records I put out were my records. The 10 years prior to that, it was the same thing. The only difference is that I did have a stint with MR. BIG. I did two records with them. Over the past 20 years, Iíve been averaging a record a year. I donít find myself in situations where I have projects outside of just writing music and performing it. So, this is a departure for me. The interesting thing is that six months before I got the phone call from Eddie Trunk, I was talking to my friends and said, ďI really love what I do and Iím not wanting to change anything, but I think it might be a good time to take a break from myself and get some other guys and write music with some other people Ė try something different.Ē No sooner than I say that, I get this phone call. It was actually perfect timing.

KNAC.COM: In your press releases you all are referred to as ďveteran rockersĒ. Do you think of yourself in this way?

KOTZEN: That means old, basically. I look in the mirror, my hair is getting gray. My beard is gray. I canít turn my neck a certain way. I have some sort of ache in my shoulder. I have to watch what I eat, because I get a little heavy around the waist. It means that I can still rock, but Iím just fucking old.

KNAC.COM: How do you balance your professional and personal lives Ė between your music and otherwise?

KOTZEN: Wow, thatís a good question! Itís very weird, because as a musician Iím in a position where this became my livelihood. It was never the intent. As a little kid I became interested in the guitar. When I became a teenager, and somebody told me that I had to pay bills and make a living, luckily I was able to do that just by playing the guitar. Iím very thankful for that. The thing that becomes weird, when you talk about personal life and professional life, is that balance. Iím in a position where I can go make a record and tour it for three to four months out of the year. I do it in little shots. I go to Europe maybe twice a year, do a tour cycle in South America, a couple of shows here and there sprinkled around the United States. So, four months out of the year I might tour, but then I have all this downtime. When youíre on tour, all I can think about is being away from home and how I want to stop living out of my suitcase, stop moving every day Ė I just want to go home and wake up in my own bed, and get with my daughter and just kick it. Then you get home and itís great, and then time goes by and you get bored. You really do! You donít get up. You donít go to work. You donít have a routine. You are in this floating ďIíll get up wheneverĒ. Aside from having to take my daughter somewhere or have dinner with my friends, I have all this freedom, but it can turn into madness. You have too much free time. Itís weird. Then you realize itís time to go back again, and start the cycle again. You need that balance. I canít be on the road all the time. I start to hate it. At the same point in time, I canít just sit at home and do nothing. You really have to have some kind of sense of balance so that you donít lose your mind. (laughs)

Itís all a little different. As a songwriter, that is a different animal. Itís not something that I can control. I have to be in the right mindset, which means clearing your head. You donít have deadlines. You donít have to be somewhere. You canít have pressure. Right now, I couldnít write a song. Every day I wake up, I have an agenda. I have a list of interviews that I need to do. I have to be at rehearsals at a certain time. I have things to do. So, my brain is occupied, and I donít have the freedom to be able to write. The writing happens when you have that freedom. As far as the physical aspect of performing, being a singer, health is a big thing. Thatís rest: when youíre on the road getting enough sleep and not abusing your body. All those things come into play. Traveling is hard. Thatís challenging and something that you have to adjust to. Everybodyís different. As a guitar player, thatís the easiest thing, because you can sit down anywhere and suddenly hours pass, youíve been playing for hours, and discovering new things. Out of everything, thatís the easiest thing to deal with.

KNAC.COM: In reading other interviews about THE WINERY DOGS, many compliments have been given to the storytelling quality of the layout of the songs on this latest album. How did you all decide to organize the songs in this fashion?

KOTZEN: We let Mike do that. It was his idea. He likes to do that sort of stuff. For me, most of my energy is exhausted in singing, writing lyrics, and melodies Ė that sort of thing. I had a concept as how I thought it should be sequenced as well, but he said he wanted to do it. There were maybe one or two suggestions that one of us had to change it, but I thought it was a great sequence. I thought opening with ďElevateĒ made sense. I wanted to close the record with ďRegretĒ, which he instinctively suggested. Iím happy with the sequence. As far as the songs telling a story in that sequence, if that is true, that is just very coincidental, because it was never written as a concept album or storytelling album. Each song is individual to itself.

KNAC.COM: How long did it take from start to finish to make the album?

KOTZEN: If you added all the time together, maybe three months; it was staggered though. Mike came in and did drums over the course of 15 days. Then I came in while they worked on another project, and I worked on it for about a month on guitars and vocals. Then Billy came in and dealt with the bass. Then I came back in and did what I needed to do. We had another meeting with the three of us, where we added background vocals and percussion. If you added all the time together, it would be about three months.

KNAC.COM: Is that typical?

KOTZEN: I think so. I think it was really relaxed. There was no deadline or rush. On some records, the band can go in and cut a record in a couple of weeks. It depends on the kind of record we are making, but the reality is, for us, is that weíre spread out. Mike is on the East Coast. Iím here. At the time we all got together, we had prior commitments. I was in the middle of a tour campaign with my last solo record which led me to do two European legs. I also had some other dates booked. I know the other two had other bands they were working with. They were all doing stuff, as was I, so our time was divided. I donít think it affected anything in a negative way.

KNAC.COM: In retrospect would you have done anything differently?

KOTZEN: No, because Iím extremely satisfied with how the record came out. I really didnít know how this was going to end, and the fact that I can listen to this record and not wish that somebody did something other than what they played is a great thing. I would not, for any reason, go back and meddle with it. With ďRegretĒ, Iíve written that song probably a million times, with different lyrics and different chords. Itís just my thing. I love that kind of slower 6/8 tempo. There is comfort in singing in that way for me. It is the easiest way for me to sing it. Itís the most natural way for me to sing, because there is space. When you have that kind of space, as a singer, it allows you to relax, whereas in an aggressive song, sometimes you lose yourself and you find yourself screaming, and you lose your voice. I like songs like that, ďDamagedĒ, ďDesireĒ. ďIím No AngelĒ fits into that too. Itís a slower song,Ē and the vocals and riffs just fit together.

KNAC.COM: Have you ever had a conflict with the other two members of THE WINERY DOGS?

KOTZEN: The only conflict we have ever had is coming up with the name of the band. There were 53 names on a list and we finally narrowed it down and when looking at the last few THE WINERY DOGS because it was most evident as the name for the band. You see Winery Dogs were actual dogs that guarded vineyards and they protected the vines from predators. We see ourselves as Winery Dogs because we are protecting music by playing the way everything used to be. We arenít using any new technology or recording in a ďspecialĒ way. We are recording just as we are playing, nothing but us as musicians and our art!

Grab a copy of THE WINERY DOGS debut CD in the KNAC.COM More Store right HERE.

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