Richie Kotzen Interview

BMG Music

Richie Kotzen (The Winery Dogs) and Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden) have teamed up to form Smith/Kotzen. Their self-titled debut album was recently released. I spoke with Kotzen about how the collaboration started, the recording of their debut album, potential touring plans and other topics.

Chad Bowar: How did you and Adrian first meet?
Richie Kotzen: We’ve known each other for quite a while, maybe eight, nine years or so. We actually met through Natalie, his wife. Years ago I used to go to this place in L.A. It was a very small bar and there would be musicians in there, often popular bands, a couple of actors, and it was a cool place to go to hang out and run into people. One night I was in there and i got to talking and Natalie told me, “Oh, you’re a musician. My husband’s in a band.” And I said, “Oh, really, what band?” Then she said Iron Maiden. And I said, “Oh my God, it’s my favorite band from when I was a teenager.” One of my first concerts that I ever saw was the Piece Of Mind tour at like 13 or 14 or maybe even younger. I can’t remember exactly how old I was. But I said I’d love to meet Adrian, I’m a huge fan. And then she said, well, he’s coming to town, I’ll let you know, maybe we can get together.

And so that’s really how it started. And then basically they would have parties at the house, usually around the holidays. My wife Julia and I would go over there and end up in the jam room that he had. And we’d all play together. Julia played bass and I’d sing and play guitar, maybe jump on the drums for a song. Each year it would be a different crew in there, hanging out. And in more recent times, Natalie suggested that you and Adrian should try to write something together. Now, by now we’ve known each other for many years. And so we had the time and we got together. I think the first thing I remember us getting to a point where it was listenable would be “Running.” And then we thought, well, we’ve got a shot here to do something. And now here we are with the record.

How long did it take you to write everything before you felt comfortable with recording?
Some of the stuff was written during the process. For example, there’s a song on there called “I Wanna Stay.” And that melody, we were working on that down there in Turks and Caicos and I had that melody floating around for the chorus. And it literally was making me crazy. I’d go to bed with that melody in my head, I’d wake up to it. And then I said, at one point, man, this melody is making me crazy. And then it hit me, wait, I should use that in the chorus. So I ended up taking that phrase and working with that and coming up with the lyrics.

So, a lot of this stuff was coming together on the spot. The way that actually worked to pull that off, we have everything set up. A lot of times in the studio, guys will go ahead and put the drums up, mic them, get a tone and then do all the drums right away and then get the drums out of there. I don’t do that when I record. I set everything up and I leave everything up until the record is done. So what I was able to do a basic drum pass, maybe play four measures, make a loop out of it and make a beat that we could play to. And then we could work against that and write to it. And then once it was at a point where we had a form laid out that made sense, I could go back and replace the loop with a real drum pass. So it was a free flowing way of recording, a very fluid situation in the studio.

How do your and Adrian’s guitar styles complement each other?
We both have a similar thing in our playing where we love the classic rock, classic blues style guitar players. And so that’s a nice foundation for us, even with the singers that we both like. We love Paul Rodgers and guys like Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale and those guys. So we have a lot of similar tastes. And when it comes to playing, I have a bit of a fusiony kind of background from playing with Stanley Clarke for awhile and some other guys that I played with. So we have a little bit of that injected in the music.

And then Adrian, for years playing in a multiple guitar situation, he has a little bit of a different kind of perspective on things. For example, there were songs where I would do something and think, okay, well that’s done, let’s move on. And at the last minute he’d be like, no, no, no, wait, I’ve got an idea for a second guitar part, a counterpoint melody. And that’s something that probably came out of working in a multi guitar situation. But when he would come up with those lines, it really set the song to a different level. So that was something that I really enjoyed, his perspective on that level.

How did you go about splitting up vocal duties on the album?
That was pretty easy as well. For a lot of them, it was almost a thing where whoever wrote it would sing it. “Scars,” for example, he had that idea for the verse and came up with some words there. And then when that pre-chorus came, where I start singing, I I freestyled that first part. I got on the mic and kind of reacted to what he had sang. The first idea I had for a lyric on that song was, “Open your arms, I’ve been scarred. I hope you’ll help me mend.” That lyric came and that’s when the chorus came together. In that song, it was pretty much whoever wrote it would sing it, but then other songs were different.

“Glory Road,” Adrian had a real strong concept for that song melodically and he had the concept for the lyric. And so I kind of took his lead on that. Where do you want to go with it? And then we went back and forth and I ended up singing his melody on a couple of instances. Also, our ranges are a little different, so it became a little obvious who would sing what, based on that. But I think we’re equally represented really as a true collaboration. There was never a point where someone brought a song in from years ago that they didn’t know where to place it. We didn’t do any of that. We brought everything together.

Recording in a place Turks and Caicos, I’m guessing you’re able to focus more on the business at hand than you would have been going to a tropical paradise in your younger days.
I’d never been there before. So the first couple of days I didn’t want to be bothered with being inside the studio. So I was on the beach, you know, drinking whatever those drinks we were having down there. And then after a couple of days of that, it wore off. I got the picture here and let’s get to work. So it was a nice environment, I had never been there before. I came down from Miami. Julia and I and my solo band were in Miami and did a show for the Monsters of Rock cruise. We did what they call the sail away party. And then we got on the boat and then we went out to sea and then did a show out there. And right after that, I got on the plane and flew down to Turks. It was a nice long trip, almost like a vacation where you’re still working, but it’s in a nice environment. Good way to make the record.

And you finished just before the pandemic, right?
Yeah. We got lucky. Everything was done. And the funny thing is, our plan was to release in March, 2021, which didn’t change. And the reason was we had other things planned. I had four continents worth of shows booked for my record 50 For 50. I was going to go to Europe and North America, South America, Japan. So we picked March. And the original plan was to tour in April. Obviously that didn’t pan out, but we were able to keep the release date. So now the next thing is, we want to play this live, but obviously no one really knows how it’s going to go, but at some point we’re going to get out there and perform.

You played drums on several tracks on this album and you’ve done it on your solo albums. Which came first for you, learning guitar or learning drums when you were young?
The guitar for sure. The drumming thing is something that I picked up here and there, just from all the guys that I played with and watching them play. But guitar was my first instrument, guitar and voice. I don’t pull it apart. It’s what I do. I write songs and I sing them and the instrument that I’m most adept at, it would be the guitar, but I also love playing the bass. I’ve had the luxury of playing with some great bass players.

Do you play keyboards?.
Yeah, I do, to the degree that I can get my ideas across. I can do a little bit of improvising, but I don’t consider myself a piano player per se, but enough to be creative and make my music.

When you were finalizing the album, was there any struggle with track order?
That was tricky. It’s always tricky to do that because you have favorite songs but then you want to make it flow right. I think what made this a little easier to sequence is that we had the concept of vinyl. We were thinking more in terms of side one and side two. And so I think in the end, we came up with a great sequence. One of the things that I love about it is it really reminds me of one of those classic albums that I would have had when I was a kid. It’s not too long, it’s not overbearing, it’s a guitar driven classic hard rock guitar record. I think we really nailed it.

Did you keep all your vinyl from when you were young?
Sadly, no. When I moved out of my parents’ house when I was about 20 years old, I didn’t take much with me. I left all that stuff back there and I think it all got sold off. I had all these Maiden records and Beatles records and Stones records, a lot of classic Stevie Wonder, and they’re all gone. But, the reality is, I don’t even own a turntable. I don’t even have a CD player that functions in my house. I guess I’m more of a modern guy in the sense of how I listen to music. I just tell Alexa to play whatever I want to hear. I just stream the music. I don’t like having a lot of stuff and I somehow I do have a lot of stuff and it’s stressed me out. I got so many cables and wires and pedals and guitars and amps.

When I moved into the new house five years ago, I had all these boxes of CDs and I had them out in this little barn. One day I was like, let me get the CDs outta here. I’ll organize and clean them up and alphabetize and put them on a shelf or whatever. And I picked up one of the boxes and it must have got wet or something, and the whole bottom falls out. CDs spill all over the place. I had four or five more of these boxes and I literally backed my truck up and I got a shovel and I put them in the back of the truck and drove him down to the dumpster and I threw them all out. It was nerve wracking to me. I’ve got better things to do with my time than mess around with CDs that I haven’t listened to in 10 years that are taking up space. I know that sounds crazy to somebody, but I just don’t like dealing with a lot of things. It just distracts me. If I want to listen to something, I’ll pull it up online or download it, stream it, whatever I gotta do. I’m embracing the modern times that we live in.

What else have you been working on?
Obviously the Smith/Kotzen record is something that I’m really excited about, and that’s the only thing that I have plans to release. The other thing that we want to do is play live. That would be the next thing, to somehow find a way to get out there in front of people and perform this music. So hopefully that can can happen. Beyond that, I’ve got a couple of songs I wrote that I’m in the process of recording. I’m not in a real hurry for that. Stanley Clarke and I have been talking about maybe doing something and we’ve got a song that we’re throwing ideas around on. Maybe something will come out of that.

A lot of work went into 50 For 50. That’s a 50 song album, and I was really planning on touring that, and that got taken off the table. And then on top of it, we have the Smith/Kotzen record, which I’m really proud of. I want everyone to hear that. So I’d like to get out and play some shows with Smith/Kotzen and that’d be my priority. But if you look at my history, I’ll probably make another solo record at some point, I’d like to do another Smith/Kotzen record. I think now that we know how well we work together, I could see us doing a follow up at some point.

(interview published April 6, 2021)

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