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The Winery Dogs – Richie Kotzen

By: Lori Smerilson Carson

In the same way that it takes the right ingredients to create any baked or cooked masterpiece, The Winery Dogs have a combination of extraordinarily talented musicians, each with their own world-renown experience, that make an incredible band. Lead Vocalist/Guitarist Richie Kotzen, Bassist Billy Sheehan and Drummer Mike Portnoy enlightened the music industry in 2013 with their debut, self-titled album and then in 2015, they released HOT STREAK which charted # 2 on Billboard’s Top Current Alternative Albums, #5 on Top Current Hard Music and Top Hard Music Albums, #6 on Top Current Rock Albums, as well as several other Billboard charts. Their latest LP III will be released February 3rd on their Three Dog Music label, and then they will take this new music, along with their previous hits on the road. South Florida fans will have the opportunity to see their outstanding show on March 24th in St. Petersburg, FL at Jannus Live, March 25th in Fort Lauderdale, FL at the Culture Room and March 26th in Orlando, FL at The Plaza Live.

Catching up with Kotzen just prior to their tour, he revealed some details about the new show, a few of the songs from the new album III, a bit about his past and what fans can look forward to.

SFL Music: I just heard “Xanadu” and “Mad World” from the new record. You guys just came back from a seven-year lull and those songs are amazing! What inspired the new album?

Richie Kotzen: Well, I think basically just kind of feeding off of our energy, and it’s been like you said, a long time since we wrote new music. The last record came out in 2015 and we toured all the way into 2017 and then took a break, and then toured again in 2019. So, the idea was after that 2019 tour, to go in and write some more music, but obviously everyone got derailed with the pandemic. So, it was finally in 2021 in the summer that we were able to get together, and it kind of worked to our advantage taking that time off because once we got in there, the ideas really started coming and the way this band works is, any one of us will initiate an idea. Be it a drum beat, a melody, a bass line, a guitar progression, and then from there we kind of arrange things into a form of a would-be song. Then I’m left to turn that into an actual song with lyrics and what have you. So, our process is unique in that way and I think it was just perfect timing for us to really come together and do this.

SFL Music: What inspired “Xanadu”? I like the hard rock, melodic sound and the vocals.

Kotzen: Well, initially it was the music that led me to write the lyrics and sing it the way I did. It’s a rhythmic song. I mean, the chorus has more in common to me with maybe like a Parliament Funkadelic type tune than your obvious hard rock thing you know, just kind of funky and rhythmic, and it came really out of an improvisation. I was listening to the track and I just started singing, just kind of “Maybe I will, Maybe I won’t do. Maybe I’m getting lost in this Xanadu.” Every line I would sing was slightly different, and so I just started recording all this and I ended up being able to turn it into something that made sense. Then I wrote a story around it for the verses, but it’s never easy to pinpoint where the creative spark comes from because when it’s happening, you’re just in it and then all of the sudden its done and there’s a song (he laughed). Then typically after writing a song, I kind of fall into this weird kind of funk, like a bit of a depression. It’s like, all that excitement when you’re in it and your inspired and you’re recording it, but then eventually it just kind of all goes away when its finished and you’re left with your song. That’s about all I can say about it.

SFL Music: In your bio you were quoted as saying that you have the vision in your head, in your heart and your soul to come out of the speakers. Is that what you’re summarizing?

Kotzen: I think what happens is initially when I’m writing, I’ve got this connection to what I’m doing and there’s not much thinking going on. Then at some point in the process of recording, you start listening back and you start realizing, wow! This is in fact what I was hearing, like you just said in my head, and so now it’s coming to life, and for me that process is my favorite part of what I do. I love playing live. I love to gig, but there’s really nothing like having an idea for a song and then suddenly it’s finished and you can play it for someone and share. Whether they like it or not is beyond your control. Sometimes it doesn’t really even matter, but the actual process of getting from point A to point B is extremely rewarding.

SFL Music: That goes along with your other quote that you said you want to give people a truly pleasant listening experience. What I’ve heard, you’ve accomplished that!

Kotzen: That’s good. Awesome!

SFL Music: The song “Mad World” is about social connection. Your lyric “we got to help each other.” What inspired that? And the falsetto is amazing!

Kotzen: Oh thanks. I don’t really even know where that came from. It started with the opening line. I know that song was written from the beginning. Sometimes a song is written like from the chorus. You might have the chorus first like with “Xanadu” by way of example. I wrote that chorus first and then that led me into the verses, but with this one, I had that opening line you know, “get on the bus. Go do the exercise. You’d better bite your tongue so you sound the same.” That was really the line, the verse that set the tone, and I guess the tone is that we’re kind of being trained to go along with things. Don’t question. If you question anything, you’re gonna hear about it if it doesn’t fit into how certain people may want you to think as opposed to many years ago, you could actually have an opinion and not be taken to task for it. Now it just seems like everything is really extreme. And you got to be careful what you say. Who you say it to. I mean look, you don’t have to, but there’s a cost to every action. The song is kind of going in that place and ultimately there’s a line in the song “turn from a scar into a pearl” which basically is trying to show that there’s a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not all gloom and doom (he laughed).

SFL Music: Is that something similar to the song “Breakthrough”?

Kotzen: I don’t have the lyrics in front of me, but I think “Breakthrough” is more of a seduction song. Its more one of those songs for like you’re looking at a situation, a relationship and you know, you’re enamored with it and then once you get in there, into the situation, you realize oh, this is nothing like what I thought it was and now, how do I get out of this? It’s kind of is a song of seduction, but then also the other side of, you know.

SFL Music: What about “Red Wine”?

Kotzen: Oh, that’s a fun one. So, that song, when I heard the music, like I said, I’m left with these tracks and I’ve got to figure out where they’re gonna go. I thought to myself you know, I had this lyric (he sang) “I’m gonna keep on pouring the red wine” and I’m like, how can I tie that into a song and give us like an anthem? This is one of the rare occasions where in my writing, I was actually really thinking about writing a certain kind of a song. Whereas other songs, they kind of just come to me. With this one I was like, well I have this title, how can I turn this into literally like a party tune for our band because we don’t really have an anthem type song. So, I just kind of thought about it, and one thing led to another and it came together, but that one we’re gonna play live. I’m very much looking forward to doing that one.

SFL Music: That’s good for people to look forward to. What can fans look forward to with this tour?

Kotzen: Us getting back out there again, I think we’re gonna have a whole different attitude. Not to say we ever had the wrong attitude, but I think our level of let us get out there, let us do it. I think we’re more motivated than ever to get onstage together. We’ve got three albums now to pull from, so one of the things I talk about, a lot of bands they have, I’ll start it this way. Our band never really had what we would call a radio hit, and so the bands that do have that, they’re kind of expected to play certain songs regardless. So if you make a new album, often times you can only do one or two songs from the new album because people don’t really want to hear it. With us, I think we’re lucky to a degree that we can do five or six songs from each album and I think people will connect with it, and I would also think that anyone that comes to a Winery Dog show, probably already will have the new record and be familiar with the music. So, I think it’s gonna be a fun tour.

SFL Music: What would you say made you choose music as a career? Did you take professional lessons?

Kotzen: I think it chose me in a weird way. I mean, I was drawn towards music from the time I was a little kid. Before I understood the concept of learning an instrument, I would sing and dance and try to entertain family. I loved music, and so it just made sense. When I was of age, I started with piano lessons that quickly shifted into the guitar, and then after a while I wanted to write music. I wanted to write my own songs. I remember being really little trying to write a song and I had trouble writing lyrics and I would ask my, my mom would be sitting on the front porch reading the paper and I’d say, I want to write this song, and I’d have a couple little things scribbled down and then she would kind of help me. It was always really silly and nonsensical, but I was interested in that creative process from the time I was little and I was lucky enough to meet up with a kid in Junior High School. We put a band together when I was thirteen and started playing around. We did the High School dances and if there was an opening of a store, we’d try to get over there and see if we could set up and play a few songs. So, it all just kind of started rolling, and then I signed a record deal at the age of eighteen and came to California for the first, well not for the first time, but for the first time to actually work. When I was eighteen, I got signed to Shrapnel Records and came out to San Francisco to do my first album. So, it all just kind of happened. I’ve never done anything other than what I do.

SFL Music: What made you switch to guitar from piano?

Kotzen: It was a poster of the band Kiss, and I saw Gene Simmons and Paul (Stanley) and I didn’t realize that Gene was a bass player. I didn’t know the difference because I was very small, but I saw him breathing fire. It just looked very cool to my little eyes and so I just thought, I want to do that. Then we were at a yard sale and they had a guitar there, and I was kind of pointing and jumping up and down, and you know, please, please, please get this for me. So, they got the guitar and then we went to the local guitar teacher and he said, “listen, this guitar is not playable. This is garbage. You got to get him a real instrument” and I was lucky that my parents were taking me seriously about wanting to learn. So, they bought me a Gibson Marauder was my first guitar and that’s what I learned on.

SFL Music: What would you say inspires you when you write your music?

Kotzen: You know, it’s a case of input and output and what happens to me is, I will have massive phases where I don’t get near the guitar. I don’t think about writing music or anything like that and I’m out doing other things and at some point, it’ll click where I’ll get an idea for a song and then I can act on it. Then usually once I act on that, it kind of snowballs where one idea will turn into another and before you know it, I’m in the studio for a month and I’ve written ten songs, recorded them and I’ve got a record and it’s time to go tour. So, it’s that kind of cycle. I mean, there’s no definitive thing that I can say that inspires me to run out and write a song. I don’t even know if that exists or that I could define that, but when it happens, I’ve learned to act on it ‘cause you might wake up with a great idea or think, oh well, I’m gonna fall back to sleep. I guarantee you won’t remember it. So, I’ve woken up out of dead sleep and recorded an idea and then I don’t know, it’s just you never know when its gonna strike.

SFL Music: What would you recommend to an up-and-coming musician or band?

Kotzen: Well, I mean, I can only recommend to the folks that would have a similar realm of what I do meaning, playing the instruments because I know there’s all kinds of ways now to go about it. There’re great programmers out there. There’s social media. I’m from a different era, so my era, the way to do it was to get out and play live, and I don’t know if that’s as much of a thing anymore when you’re first starting out, but at least for the kind of music that I do, getting onstage and performing and playing I think is the most important thing. Getting people to see you, and I guess now social media’s a great way to do it. I think the only thing there, it’s so flooded. I wouldn’t know where to begin if I was starting out to try to engage someone and get their attention. It just seems very that, that challenge goes far beyond the challenge of connecting with your art. So, I’m probably not the best guy to give advice, but if I was forced to it, I would say getting out and performing in front of a live audience is very important.

SFL Music: That is great advice! Are there any new videos you guys have coming out?

Kotzen: We don’t have anything just yet, but we’re gonna be out there touring for a while and I would imagine it would be pretty easy for us to make a very cool video for one of the songs with some behind the scenes footage and that sort of thing maybe. I don’t know what song we would do a video for just yet, but we have these two. That’s all that exists now, but they were fun. The nice thing about a video is it draws attention to the song. People now can see what we look like. I also think a band like ours where you have Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan are legends and so powerful on their instruments. You can really get away with a video where it just shows us playing ‘cause I think a lot of folks want to see ok, well how’s Billy playing that bass line and his solo or whatever. So, there’s another element to the band that makes it kind of easy for us to do these performance videos.

SFL Music: I did notice at the end of “Xanadu” when Mike kind of tossed his sticks. That was cool!

Kotzen: Oh, and that was on the original recording. He did it a couple times, and at the end he played it and he did toss his sticks. That’s very real. You’re hearing that, and then at the end he says, “alright, let me come in and hear that” (he laughed). He was in the drum room. I have a very small facility at my house and he was in the room where the drums are, and it’s like “alright let me come up and listen to that.” So, we kept the drum stick drop and got rid of the little commentary, but it’s a very real moment, that’s for sure.

SFL Music: That’s a unique touch.

Kotzen: Yeah.

SFL Music: Was there anything else coming up that you want fans to know about?

Kotzen: Just our tour. We’re doing our own V.I.P. Meet and Greet packages which we’ve never done before and you can buy those right off the website. You’ll meet us. You’ll get to come in early and catch a bit of sound check, and other than that, keep an eye on the website. We’re gonna try to get to as many cities as we can. The first leg of dates is primarily the east coast. I think we go up into Texas and then after that run, we’re gonna come back and do the west coast as well.

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