Interview: Richie Kotzen of Winery Dogs

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It’s rare to find a band that’s comprised of three musicians who are regarded as the best at their respective instrument.

The Winery Dogs, a power trio comprised of drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Adrenaline Mob, Avenged Sevenfold), Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, David Lee Roth) and Richie Kotzen (Poision, Mr. Big), are universally regarded as some of the most talented and charismatic musicians at their respective instruments.

From the moment they formed the power trio the hard rock and heavy metal world were abuzz with unbridled anticipation at seeing these three monsters of rock performing on stage together. To no one’s surprise their initial run of live shows from earlier this year were met with rave reviews.

Yet, what did come to a surprise to the world of rock (and even the band itself) is that their self-titled debut record blew up the Billboard charts over the summer. Out of nowhere the record debuted at #27 on the Top 200 and #5 on the rock charts.

Now, months after the summer release the band is doing what they do best, tearing up concert venues across the U.S. Pop-Break recently caught up with Richie Kotzen, the band’s lead singer and one of the most underappreciated guitarists to ever live, as the band prepares to roll into The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on Tuesday October 29th.

Photo Credit: Markus Cuff
Photo Credit: Markus Cuff

Pop-Break: I interviewed Eddie Trunk a few months ago right before the 2013 summer premiere of That Metal Show. He said that he “had a hand in putting together.” So when Eddie approached you about the concept, did it take a lot of convincing for you to join this band?

Richie Kotzen: It wasn’t like me joining anything. Eddie called and said, “Hey, Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy want to do a power trio.” They were originally working with John Sykes and it never got off the ground — they never wrote any songs with him or went anywhere with it. So they got discouraged and decided “Fuck it let’s see if we can find somebody else to get involved.” So Eddie called me out of the blue and asked me if I would be interested in doing this and getting together with them. I’ve known Billy for 20 years, but I didn’t really know Mike. The funny thing was he was coming out for the NAMM show in L.A. and we got together at my house and we starting jamming. I had this riff for this song called “One More Time” and I started playing that riff…so that was the first thing we wrote together. Then we rattled off three to five different ideas which eventually became songs.

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PB: This might seem like a silly question, but you were stepping into a band with two musicians who are some the very best at the instruments they play, were there any butterflies or nerves walking into rehearsal with them?

RK: Not to sound like a dick but I’ve been performing with musicians of that caliber my whole career. When you think about I did a record with Jeff Berlin and Greg Bissonette; I was in a band with Stanley Clarke and Lenny White and Rachel Z and Karen Briggs; I did a tour with Will Calhoun on drums. I’ve been lucky that my whole thing has been playing with amazing musicians. The thing that is great about that, especially when you’re young, even me at 15 in Reading, Pennsylvania, I was in a band with the guys who were all older than me — some of them were even in their late 20s.

I tell a lot of young musicians that if you can find your way into a position where you can play with guys with more experience than you — you’re going to grow faster. When I was a teenager I was lucky to be in that position. When I got older I had already had a certain level of maturity that a lot of guys my age didn’t have. It makes it easy to have that kind of history. It’s funny even when I was in Poison, who weren’t known for their musicianship, there were still things to be learned. That’s the great thing about music you can pick something up from anyone at anytime — it’s always evolving.

PB: The one thing that’s very apparent on this record is that you guys all seem very much at ease with each other, like you’ve been playing together forever. Take me inside that first jam with the band — what made it click inside your head that you had something special with them?

RK: The thing about music, and I think this goes back to history and playing in so many bands, is being able to listen. Every one of us in the band has their own style and signature sound but when you play with someone like Mike and Billy where they have their own distinct voice on the instruments, they’re capable for listening and allowing space for others to exist. That’s the most important thing about this record, the way it was recorded, was that no one gets lost. You can tell it’s Mike Portnoy on the drums, you can tell it’s Billy Sheehan on the bass and if you know my music, you know it’s me singing and playing guitar. Yet there’s room for all of us. Music really is like a language — you’re communicating with the people you’re playing with through notes and rhythms.

PB: I know the Billboard charts don’t mean as much in the music world as they did maybe 10-15 years ago. With that being said, I know I was personally stoked about how well your debut record did in its first week — #27 on the Top 200 and the #5 overall rock record. Were you guys, as a collective, taken back with how many people really were into this band?

RK: Yeah, I was really shocked. I remember we were in South America on our way to go our gig and we got word that it was going to chart, which was surprising. Then we found out the position and were like, “Really?! Are you kidding, me?” It was really, really great news. No, we weren’t expecting it. We made a rock record and I didn’t do anything that I didn’t normally do on any other record. I came in, I played, I wrote some songs, I did some solos, I did some vocals. Really what I think is going in the U.S. is that there’s still a lot of people who love rock ‘n’ roll…but more like what rock ‘n’ roll used to be. What it is now is great but it’s a different thing with computers with revolutionary software-based instruments. The Winery Dogs are guys playing music like it was in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s. We were just playing our instruments and there are people that miss that. Overseas it’s a lot more common. I’ve been touring in Europe and Latin America for the last 10 years with my solo records and I’ve been doing great but I haven’t done as well in the United States. Now, with The Winery Dogs the initial shows we did in New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Pennsylvania, I can really see there’s an audience for we do. It’s inspiring to know that that exists.

PB: You’ve done great work throughout your career and you’ve had tremendous success in Japan, Europe and South America. With the success of this Winery Dog’s record, do you feel a sense of satisfaction that a record of yours is receiving critical praise and commercial success in your home country?

Photo Credit: Travis Shinn
Photo Credit: Travis Shinn

RK: That’s the the great thing. When you make music you never think of the response — you go in, you sing, you play, you record and it’s done. In the end when you’re doing what you’ve always done and people are responding, it’s definitely a cool thing. It felt great, especially when we did the gig in Pennsylvania. We were in a small town called Lancaster, not far from where I was born in Reading. It was a venue I never knew existed and it was in the middle of nowhere but the place was packed. It was a three-level building and people knew the songs and were into them. I thought, “Man this is great to be doing this on my home turf,” especially when you’ve been doing it so long…it was cool to come back to the United States and have people respond.

PB: Speaking of you, the solo musician, what would you suggest as a great solo record from your catalog for people to check out if they’ve never listened to you before?

RK: I think if someone wanted to get into me and hadn’t heard of me before, I think the Go Faster record is a good one. It has a lot of common threads with what the Winery Dogs are doing. Another record that I was going to say, which is a fan favorite, is Into the Black. I think that someone that doesn’t know anything about me, Go Faster is definitely the best one to start with. After check out Peace Sign or 24 Hours.

Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy AKA The Winery Dogs will hit The Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ on Tuesday October 29th. Click here for tickets.

Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

4 COMMENTS

  1. I think he is with this record, at least as much as he ever does. I was stoked to learn about the project back when Sykes was “on board”, way more stoked when I found out it was going to be Richie. I’ve always thought it sad that the guys in Poison are famous, and not a lot of people in America (who don’t play guitar) know who Richie is. He has more talent while asleep than the guys in Poison have ever had. I think it’s great that the WD record is opening people’s eyes to just how amazing Richie is. Just saw WD in Sacramento a couple of weeks ago. It was all I could do to not call in sick for the week and follow them through the west coast. Amazing!

    • Your last comment about calling in sick cracked me up. I was thinking the same thing on the east coast. That’s so funny!

  2. Richie hits the nail on the head with his answer to the second question. He is just as much a master of his instrument as Billy and Mike. Not very many players out there that play sans a pick and then tear it up on the level that Mr. Kotzen does!! Live in Sau Paulo is a great introduction to his masterful playing as well.

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