When a 19-year-old guitarist named Richie Kotzen released his eponymous debut in 1989, the industry was dealt yet another ambitious player poised to turn heads with his blues-based burst of instrumental exertion.
His technique defied the issue of age, and his ability to compose mature pieces that carried more weight than the fruitless self-indulgence of the day meant that he would create distance between himself and others rather quickly.
Because he came of age at a time when shredding one’s heart out within the confines of a four-minute glam rock anthem translated to godlike status in the eyes of female admirers, the fact that he replaced C.C. DeVille in Poison two years later wasn’t surprising, but it did feel a bit premature.
Sure, the band’s 1993 album, “Native Tongue,” gave Kotzen an opportunity to showcase his songwriting and see the world on a major label’s dime, but let’s get real.
DeVille was never in Kotzen’s league as a guitarist and onlookers always knew that Richie deserved a better forum in which to become comfortable in his musical skin. He was onto something even then. He just needed the right people around him in order to avoid the drain known as complacency.
His new project, The Winery Dogs, could prove to be just the ticket, as he joins Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy for a cool-in-their-sleep power trio with nobody to please but themselves. Their songs are tight, their playing is fluid, and Richie’s vocal performance is one of the great surprises of 2013.
I spoke with Richie about how far he believes the band can go, as well as why it’s taken him so long to get the American recognition he deserves.
You can see for yourself why he’s for real when The Winery Dogs play the Hard Rock Café in Niagara Falls, NY on Oct. 26, but, in the meantime, let his own words convince you.
Question: How did the idea for The Winery Dogs initially come about?
Kotzen: It was actually the DJ Eddie Trunk who brought us together. I received a phone call saying that Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy were looking to start a power trio and needed someone to sing, so we came together to jam. The time was right for me, because I had just finished an album cycle and was ready to get involved in something else. We had seven or eight songs by the time our first meeting ended, which really got us going early on.
Question: Considering that you’re all masters of your instruments, do you feel that the collaboration brought out the best in everyone?
Kotzen: Well, if you know us or are familiar with our previous work as individuals, you’ll recognize that no identities are lost on this record. Sometimes you’ll have strong personalities clashing in cases such as this, but nothing got in the way with us. Our focus ultimately came down to writing and doing whatever was necessary to bring the songs to life, so anything ego-related was pushed aside. Given the type of music we play, I think each of our personal styles come through on every song.
Question: How do you think your past experiences in bands helped to prepare you for this project?
Kotzen: It’s not something I really think about, but there really is no substitute for experience. The most important thing for anyone in a band is to have an open mind, because you’re never done learning or embracing new approaches. I think when certain musicians admit that they’ve arrived, so to speak, the tendency to get stagnant grows and they stop evolving. Checking your ego at the door is critical to ensuring a band’s long-term success.
Question: Who were some of your vocal influences when you first started out?
Kotzen: Terence Trent D’Arby was the first singer I really got into, because he was just really soulful in the ‘80s. I also love early Rod Stewart, David Coverdale, Paul Rodgers, and Stevie Wonder.
Question: How have you evolved as a songwriter up to this point?
Kotzen: I definitely take a different approach now that I’m older, because, when I was younger, I often felt the need to force certain things rather than let them happen naturally. Now, I may be writing less than I did back then, but what I do write is more honest and true to where I am as an artist at this point in time. We had two formulas for making this record: One was sitting together in a room and throwing ideas around until something came together. Secondly, I was taking songs that I had already written or had sitting around on my hard drive for a while and seeing if the other guys wanted to use them.
Question: What song on the album do you consider to be the most personal for you?
Kotzen: They’re all personal, but the one that stands out to me is “Regret.” I just love the performance on that song. I used a typical 6/8 ballad style to create something that would alter outside perceptions of what type of musicians we are. Mike’s tone and fills on that song are almost like an R&B drummer, which isn’t indicative of his reputation as a progressive artist. We brought a lot of depth and things that people wouldn’t expect on that song, so hopefully listeners were surprised.
Question: How long do you envision the band continuing on?
Kotzen: When people look at our personal histories, I think the tendency is to say that we won’t be together very long, but I don’t think that’s the case, at all. Sure, we have a lot of things going on outside of The Winery Dogs, but we won’t stop due to personal matters. I’m sure Billy will do something else and Mike may make another progressive record, but, as long as we’re excited about the prospects of continuing, we definitely will.
Question: How have the crowds responded the live shows thus far?
Kotzen: Great, we’ve been really pleased with the energy so far. People always ask us to compare the crowds from every country we play, but the energy has been pretty consistent globally. We started in Japan and plan to play all across the world, so, no matter what your native tongue happens to be, the music speaks for itself.
Question: Where did the band name originate from?
Kotzen: I lobbied hard for the name, because, to me, it’s tied directly to the band’s sound. We sound like a band that could have been around during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the name is indicative of that era. Plus, winery dogs actually existed to guard the vineyards and keep pests away, so that element is cool, as well. There’s a parallel to our band, because we’ve spent a long time mastering our instruments and being able to play them at such a high level every night. What you’re hearing on the record is us as we really are, no frills or autotune needed. We learned the fundamentals early on and communicate really well as a band. I don’t mean to take anything away from today’s music industry, but, in a lot of cases, you don’t even need to be an accomplished musician to play music anymore, which is completely different from what we’re about.
Question: Both Billy and Mike have pretty much solidified their musical reputations here in the States. Do you think this band is giving people an opportunity to finally realize what you’re about as a musician?
Kotzen: I’m kind of in my own little world sometimes, so I don’t always think about it. I’ve definitely heard from people who didn’t even realize that I sang, which is great, because I’m able to reach a new audience. I’ve been making solo records since 1989, so it’s interesting to think about how many people in America are just discovering me as an artist. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of incredible artists through the years, and I enjoy altering people’s perceptions about me.
Question: What are your plans once the tour wraps up?
Kotzen: Well, I just did a solo acoustic tour, and then I picked up with The Winery Dogs. We won’t be finished until November. After that, I think some time to rest is necessary, because taking a break to recharge is always a good thing. As for future plans, I’m always writing, so I’m sure I’ll have something else coming soon enough.
Question: What type of activities do you engage in during your time away from music?
Kotzen: I’m really involved in remodeling my home and doing stuff around the house. I’m sure that I’ll run out of things to improve after a while, but, for now, that’s what I get into. I love spending time with my daughter when I’m home and I’ve also gotten into playing Texas Hold’em quite a bit. When you’re on the road so much, you can feel trapped at times, but, then again, when I’m home for too long, I feel the need to get back out on the road, so finding a balanced lifestyle is the key for me.