The Supergroup is an interesting concept in rock music. Some hit, some miss, some hit on record, but make no waves with the public. So what’s the verdict on The Winery Dogs, the latest project from Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan, and Mike Portnoy?
A hit – across the board. And guitarist and vocalist Kotzen couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said the former member of Poison and Mr. Big. “We didn’t know what to expect and we went into the studio without any expectations. The only thing we did have on our minds was making sure we got our ideas across and we’re happy with the end result, which we were. And we were excited to share it with everybody, but once it’s out, we were already out on tour and we were notified that we entered the Billboard Top 200 at 27, and on some of the other charts our numbers were high, and we were really thrilled with that. We didn’t expect to get such a great response.”
Continuing to bring their music to the masses on a tour that will hit the New York / New Jersey area on Tuesday (Sayreville’s Starland Ballroom) and Wednesday (Patchogue’s The Emporium), the secret of the trio’s success shouldn’t be a secret at all: don’t just focus on the virtuosity of the talents on board, but on the songs. And that’s what Kotzen and company have done. That doesn’t mean the boys in the band don’t show off their shredding, but it’s not the focal point here.
“I can speak for myself, but I also think I can speak for Billy and Mike on this – we’ve all been in enough musical situations where we’ve made our statements, so it’s not like we feel like we need to show off or prove to anyone what we can do on our instruments,” said Kotzen, 43. “That was never really the idea for me when I was learning to play. The idea for me was to learn an instrument and then create music and be creative. And when you’re doing that in this style, it really comes down to the vocals, and that’s where the song lies: the melody and of course the lyrics. That’s what people sing. And everything that happens around that needs to support that. Mike and Billy have a tremendous facility on their instruments and I can stretch out and play as well, so where there were moments to do that and explore that, we did it. But our primary focus was making sure that whatever we did was a choice that was made to support the song.”
While completely modern in sound and content, the band is a throwback to the 70-80s glory days of hard rock, a welcome development for fans of the genre. So is the success of The Winery Dogs a harbinger of good things to come?
“There’s a group of people that love the kind of music that we play, but the reality is that the trend is not necessarily in favor of that, so what you hear most of the time on the radio and the mainstream channels is something different, which is still good,” said Kotzen. “I like a lot of the new music and it’s really creative and there are some great writers out there. But there’s an element of music making that’s been lost in the sense of just the old-school approach of just guys going into the studio with their instruments and just playing. We’re not doing anything that hasn’t been done before; it’s just that not a lot of people do it anymore. Most people, when they make records, are using computers and it has created a situation where a lot of people making records are not necessarily musicians by the standards of years ago. They’re still creative people, but to do what we’re doing requires a certain level of time put in as it relates to learning the instrument and playing live. So the fact that we’re doing this now kind of makes us stand out a little bit. I’m not claiming that we’re reinventing anything, because we’re really not, but we’re doing what we’ve always done, which is collaborate and play music and now we’re doing it together for the first time.”
I guess we can call that a prime example of the adage ‘better late than never.’ Also better late than never is the reality that a wider audience is finally getting up to speed on the reality that as good as Kotzen is on his guitar, he is just as impressive on the microphone, with his vocals the true engine that fires this band up. Yet after 20 years of not just band, but solo work to his name, he finds it amusing that some folks didn’t know that he can sing.
“People that follow me and know my records, I’ve put out over 20 records by now under my name, and they know what I do,” he said. “They come to my solo shows and sing along to my songs, and they’re completely aware of what it is that I’m about. But there is that group of people that didn’t follow what I’ve done over the years that really know my name from 20 years ago, when I made my first record for Shrapnel, and that was a different time. So it’s kind of interesting to talk to people and hear them say ‘oh, I never knew you sang.’ In my mind, I’m thinking ‘well, I’ve been singing like this for 20 years.’ (Laughs) But it’s cool. It’s great when you have the opportunity to reach out and reach new people with your music.”
And at long last, Kotzen, Sheehan, and Portnoy have that opportunity to reach some people they never have before. For hard working road warriors, it’s an opportunity well-deserved. But as far as Kotzen is concerned, he’s appreciative, but focusing on anything but the music will never be part of his M.O.
“It’s a journey, that’s for sure,” he said of his career. “When you’re a young musician you have a lot of ideas and your motivations are different. And as you grow, your perspective changes. For me, many years ago, I came to the point where it really became clear to me why I do what I do. And it’s definitely not to be noticed or have people talk about me. It’s just about the fact that I love being in creative environments. And playing the guitar and singing, those are the tools I use to be creative. That’s how I write a song, and the thing that’s most rewarding is going in the studio and recording something that I wrote, and hearing it back and saying ‘yeah, that’s what I envisioned in my mind and now I made it a reality.’ And that’s the ultimate goal and the ultimate reward. Everything else that happens outside of that is an upside and it’s a great thing, but in the end, it can never be the motivation. The minute you make something that you can’t control your motivation or goal, artistically you’re going to suffer.”