Richie Kotzen Discusses New 'Essential' Package and Memorable Moments from His Career

by James Wood
Posted Aug 21, 2014 at 4:26pm

With styles ranging from rock and blues to jazz and soul, Richie Kotzen has built an eclectic career as guitarist, singer and songwriter.

Over a period of 20 years, Kotzen has accumulated a loyal fan base and has consistently sold out shows throughout the world.

Still, there are many who question what Kotzen is capable of musically. Kotzen’s new Essential package is sure to answer that question.

The Essential Richie Kotzen — which is slated to be released September 2 — contains material curated from Kotzen’s entire career (which has spawned 18 solo albums), not including his work with Poison and the Winery Dogs.

The new package was purposely designed to give listeners the most comprehensive, concise introduction to Kotzen’s extensive body of work.

The Essential Richie Kotzen includes two CDs of classic Kotzen material as well as two new songs, along with a DVD of music videos, acoustic performances and bootleg material. It’s the ultimate collection of music for Kotzen fans.

I recently spoke with Kotzen about the Essential package, his upcoming solo album and some of the most memorable moments of his career.

GUITAR WORLD: What spawned your new Essential package?

It was an idea that actually came from the record label. I have a very nice fan base that's been great to me over the years and has allowed me to tour around the world. But there's also a huge community in the rock world that knows my name but has no idea what it is that I do musically. I remember when I was on tour with the Winery Dogs, people would often come up to me and say, "Man, I didn't know you sang like that and I just found out that you also have a solo career. What record should I get?"

I never knew what to say. I wrote my first record when I was 17 (and recorded it at 18), so a lot of time has passed. What we decided to do was make one package that would answer the question. I went through and picked out songs I like to play live and still represent who I am today. So for someone who is curious about what it is that I do, now there's an answer.

The package also includes two new tracks (“War Paint” and “Walk With Me”). What can you tell me about them?

Those were songs that would have eventually ended up on a solo album or maybe a Winery Dogs record. When I made this package, I knew I wanted to include two new songs, so I decided to put them on.

What made you decide to use a Theremin on “Walk With Me”?

When I was writing the song, I literally heard the sound of a Theremin playing in my head. So I went online and I bought one. At first, I couldn't do anything with it musically and it was the noisiest two weeks at my house [laughs]. Eventually, it got to a point to where I could play some melodies, so I set it up and ultimately got out what I was hearing in my head.

“Fooled Again” has always been one of my favorites. Can you give me a little back story on it?

That song definitely came from the riff. I know that when I recorded it, I really wanted that Curtis Mayfield kind of feeling. I love the way it turned out. It exceeded my expectations and a big part of it was because of Franklin Vanderbilt’s drumming and Arlan Schierbaum’s keyboard performance. They really brought the song to life.

Another cool thing about the package are the demo and acoustic performances. Particularly, the track “Until You Suffer Some (Fire and Ice)." Not many people realize your contribution to Poison. What can you tell me about that experience?

It was such a sideways move for me. Two years before I joined the band, my contract with Shrapnel was bought out by Interscope. That’s what brought me to California, and I spent about a year writing songs for what I thought was going to be my solo record. We really wanted to make this R&B, soul/rock record and even got the budget approved. Then at the last minute, the label said, "Wait a minute. I didn't sign you to do this kind of music. I need you to be a hard rock guy." I remember just losing my mind and insisted on being dropped — which they did.

At the same time they were dropping me, the A&R guy said, "You know, Bret Michaels just called me. They're interested in you. I think you should do it and then circle back after the album cycle." So I went out and met Bret and really liked what he had to say. They brought me in as a band member and writer and that song that you mentioned was one of the songs I brought in that would have been on that solo record. I never really played the song live and thought it made sense to do a version of me singing it. That's what's on the record.

Can you give me an update on your tour plans?

I'm going to Europe in September and then to South America and will spend the rest of the year touring the U.S.

What do you remember most about your Shrapnel experience?

As a teenager, getting into Mike Varney’s column became an obsession for me [laughs]. I had a four-song demo that I sent in a few times but never heard anything back. Then I thought maybe it was because Mike was listening to it for only 30 seconds and didn't hear anything that he liked. So I kept sending it to him but changing up the order of the songs.

I still never heard anything until finally one day my friend called me up and said, "Dude, what's wrong with you? You're in the column and you didn't tell me?" I was convinced he was lying until I ran to the newsstand. Sure enough, there was my picture along with a profile.

Shortly after that, I got a call from Mike saying that he wanted to do a record with me. Originally, the thought was to do an album with me and another guitar player, similar to what Jason Becker and Marty Friedman had done.

During the process, I started writing a lot and for every song that I would write with my partner, there would be five I would send to Mike that I had done on my own. Eventually, it got to the point where Mike started liking my own material and signed me.

What was it like opening for the Rolling Stones in 2006?

It was pretty surreal. There were six shows on that run and I remember purposely not telling anyone about it at first because in Japan, it’s not normal to have an opening act and from what I was told the Stones never had an opening act when they toured Japan. So I knew there might be a chance that it wouldn’t happen — but it did! After that first show I could say I opened for the Rolling Stones! It was an amazing experience!

What can you tell me about your new solo album?

It will be out by the end of January. The new CD is called Cannibals and will have 10 songs. One of the ones I'm really excited about is one I wrote with my daughter called "You." It’s a piano/voice piece where I actually play a little bit of Theremin again as well.

The song came about in a very interesting way. My daughter is 17 now but back when she was 14 she would often play this piece over and over at the piano. Finally, I asked her what it was she was playing and she said, "I don't know. It’s just something I wrote." It sounded really cool so we recorded a version of it and I filed it away. When I went back and started looking into the archives, I found it and decided to sing something over it. I wrote some words, sang it and it came out really cool. It’s something we did together and one of my favorite tracks on the album.

We’ve already mentioned a few memorable moments of your career. Are there any others that really stand out for you?

It would have to be the moment when I auditioned to join Stanley Clarke's band. I remember he put a sheet of music in front of me and I just started laughing. It was a funny moment. He asked me what I was laughing at and I told him that I hadn't read since I was a teenager. But then he sat down at the piano and proceeded to show me one of his songs and we spent the better part of the next three hours jamming together.

Afterwards, I remember saying, "I know that there's no way I'm going to get this gig but it's been an honor to play with you and I just wanted to thank you for your time." I left and went to a concert that night and when I got home there was a message on my answering machine saying that I got the gig.

That's a strong memory for me because it was so outside the realm of what I normally do. It educated me musically and I was really able to grow from the experience.

For more about Kotzen, visit richiekotzen.com.

James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.