by Alissa Ordabai
Currently touring England with his brand new album Peace Sign, Richie Kotzen played his first UK show at London’s Underworld club last Thursday. This is where Hardrock Haven caught up with him for comments on the new record as well as some illuminating observations on the nature of his craft and musicianship in general.
Backstage where Kotzen and I sit down for a chat, the atmosphere is austere. The Underworld’s dressing room looks stark and workman-like, for once devoid of its usual clutter of snacks, drinks, make-up and spare wardrobe. This rigour of purpose is perfectly mirrored by the sharply astute stance Kotzen assumes as an interviewee, his conversation style at times resembling the way he approaches guitar playing. Being able to sum up any idea in just a few succinct phrases, he can also expand on any offered theme further, spurred on by both intuition and logic, in the end presenting a unique insight into what being a real musician is all about.
“To me, the difference between being a solo artist and being in a band is like between being at home and staying in a hotel,” Kotzen states before developing the idea some more. “Sometimes the hotel is nice, they have a swimming pool there, but you know what, I have the swimming pool at home too and there is nothing like home. The normal situation for me is what I am doing here. Writing my songs, singing and playing. That’s what I’m happy with. The notion of the band thing has been fun, in my experience, for a period of time. But then it became where I went, ‘OK, I gotta go home now.’ And then I’d go back to making my own records. That’s what I like doing, that’s what I am.”
The new album, of course, supports this view perfectly. A finely wrought, nuanced record, it is all about Kotzen’s well-honed tunecraft, at the same time managing to make space for serious guitar extrapolations as well as to delve deeper for some true emotional depth. It continues in the vein of Kotzen’s trademark melting pot of the late 60s – early 70s styles ranging from blues-rock to funk: on the one hand – deeply routed in the tradition, and on the other – shaping those genres through the prism of his own vision.
This vision, in fact, is responsible for the album’s well-defined distinct atmosphere that only Kotzen is able to create. Peering through the perfectly conceived musical forms and the well-oiled, sleek manipulations of traditional compositional elements, on Peace Sign there is still that distinct sense of longing, at once poetic and disquieting, that deeply emotional undercurrent which has always been responsible for Kotzen’s finest moments – both in his guitar work and his singing.
Kotzen’s trademark combination of virtuosic guitar leads and a voice which can go from trebly quaver to earthy rasp makes tracks like “My Messiah” hit the jackpot, apart, of course, from the fact that they are all hooked to great melodies. After all, how can you have great guitar solos without great songs?
In regards to style and genre, Peace Sign does not trail too off far from the albums Kotzen began making ever since the Mother Heads Family Reunion which he to this day calls his first real record on which he finally found his voice. But in contrast to his previous 2007 studio album, Go Faster, the new album digs deeper. On standouts “Paying Dues” and “Your Entertainer” the effortless floatation of his guitar parts almost touches the ground he covered on Stanley Clarke’s 1999 album Vertu and shows that there has always been way more to Kotzen than perfect chops and polished tunecraft.
Wondering how he himself sees his most recent opus, I start by asking him about the record and the way in which he sees it now when it has finally gone on sale.
Hardrock Haven: Do you think enough time has passed since you have finished working on your new record for you to step back and take an objective view on it, or are you still very much attached to it?
Richie Kotzen: I think that it’s still fresh in my head and unfamiliar in some ways. It’s unfamiliar in that it’s so new. And I’m not the one to listen to stuff over and over. In having to learn the songs – going back and remembering what I did and stuff – it’s still very fresh that way.
HRH: Are you happy with the way the record has turned out?
RK: Yeah, I am. It’s interesting because I’m one of these people who always thinks that the latest thing I did is the most exciting and the best. Which I think is a good sign because it means that I’m current. I don’t really sit back and reminisce on old records. I’m always excited about the latest thing. When I did “Into the Black” I thought, “That’s the best record I’ve ever made,” and now with “Peace Sign” I’m thinking, “It’s the best record I ever did”, so I think as long as I feel excited like that, then I know I’m doing the right thing.
HRH: It seems to me there was also a Woodstock vibe to that record…
RK: Which one?
HRH: The first one, the 1969 one. Seems to me tracks like “Long Way from Home” have that vibe that is seeped in that atmosphere. Is that your way of commemorating the 40th anniversary of the event or is that vibe with you more or less permanently?
RK: I understand the connection you are making and I like that, I agree, it makes sense. But even in 1994 I did a record called “Mother Heads Family Reunion”…
HRH: Your fourth album, yes.
RK: And that was really in a lot of ways, even though, like you say, it was my fourth release, it was my first record in a lot of ways because I finally got comfortable with myself. My first record was an instrumental record, I was 18, on the next one I started singing… By the time I did that, I was 24, I’ve been living on my own for several years, had a lot of different experiences happening, and I think that record was the beginning for me. And there is a common thread between that record and every other record I’ve done which has that sound you are talking about. It comes from the fact that I grew up listening to those kinds of artists, the kind of Woodstock-era artists like Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the Rolling Stones. My mother had all those records, saw those bands when then all came to America when they were young, when they were fresh and exciting. So growing up, there were all those records playing in the house. And on the flipside, my dad was into soul music, so he had the Ottis Redding and those kinds of records would be played. So in my influences there was a balance between that era of rock’n’roll and also that soul music that I still love to this day.
HRH: And of course you went on the road with the Rolling Stones, didn’t you? Was there any particular musical experience while being on the road with them that stood out, something you perhaps did not expect?
RK: It was very interesting. I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it until after I played the first show. I was so nervous something would happen that I wouldn’t do it. Even when I was flying to Japan I thought that anything could go wrong, so I’d better keep my mouth shut. After I played the first show, then I wrote in my internet blog – I just opened for the Rolling Stones in Japan. I did the whole Japanese tour. We did three weeks, five shows. It was the easiest set of gigs I ever did in the sense that sound-check and everything else was perfect. It was like a machine. I walk in – everything is there, they treated me wonderful, their crew… There were a lot of guys in the crew that I was introduced to years earlier, so I had some familiar faces that immediately made me feel comfortable and at ease. And, of course, when the Stones played, there was nothing like it. And the last show I sat behind the guitar amp of Keith Richards and it was like the sound of the universe for me – hearing his guitar played and literally the amp was right there – I could touch it. Open-back Fender cabinet, sounded incredible. And it was a great experience. I got to meet the guys afterwards and they are all really warm guys, it was a great time.
HRH: Did you challenge yourself technically on this record? Were there any guitar parts that you had to practice several times or perhaps go over again and again before you actually went into the studio to record them?
RK: Well, I’ll tell you what happens to me in my style of playing. Usually the practising comes afterwards. In other words, when I’m in the studio, I go for stuff, right? So I might go for a lick – I know what I’m hearing in my head and play it. If I don’t execute it perfectly, in the studio you have an option to go back and try it again. So I do that, just like everybody else does it. But where I’m a little different is that I don’t work out stuff ahead of time – I create it on the spot. Because I like the idea of spontaneity and reacting on the spot, and being inspired, that’s the part of being inspired. Once I do that, then I gotta go back and listen, and go, “What the hell did I play there?” And oftentimes I find myself sitting back and go, “Wow, how did I do that? Oh, I remember how that is!” Then I have to practise it to get it under my fingers. So it almost comes in a backwards way. Going back and re-learning stuff and practising after I’ve done it.
HRH: How do you maintain your technique? Does it require everyday practice?
RK: No. No, because I don’t think in terms of technique. I’m not one of those players who thinks in terms of that. I think in terms of notes and melodies and musical terms. So what happens is, when I hear something in my head that I can’t make my fingers do, that’s when I sit down and figure it: “I can hear it, so how do I play it?” That’s when that comes into play. What I’ve noticed, because I’ve been playing the guitar since I was 7, and I’m 39 now – I’ve been playing for a long time – it’s not so much about practising as it is about time spent with the instrument in my hands. And what that means is that I can go for 3 days without playing and when I pick up the guitar, if I play it for 2 hours straight, I get into a mode where I can play pretty much what the hell I want. You know, it’s like riding a bike. It’s not like I’m going to sit down and relearn it, I just have to get re-acclimated. I was never much of a practice guy, I was more of a player. I just sit and play stuff and go over things, and if I was in trouble and there was something I couldn’t do, I’d play it repetitively till I could do it. But I never sat down and went, “OK, it’s practice time.” Because I never wanted to do that. It’s boring to me. I don’t wanna practice, I wanna play.
HRH: Do you think the nature of musicianship, as applicable to your instrument, has changed in any fundamental way since the time when you were growing up? Not in terms of technology or distribution, but in terms of pure craft, in terms of being a rock guitarist?
RK: I do. There was the time where musicians, like my generation of guys, we would sit down with a record and listen to it and try to figure out what people where playing. And develop our ears. And the other thing – if you got lucky, you’d buy a new guitar magazine that would have a guitar transcription in there that would be close, so you could see it as well. Maybe later on they started with instruction videos. But the point is – you had to sit and learn the instrument. You had to learn how to play. Nowadays it seems like you don’t have to do that as much and you can still make music. So what you have now is a situation where people who aren’t by nature music-makers are in a position where they can make music. Through technology. Through an the ability to sample something that was played many years ago perfectly and now incorporate that into something else, and they can talk over it, and they can yell over it, or whatever they do, but suddenly it becomes a creative thing. And it’s kind of interesting because you get this other perspective of people who aren’t necessarily musicians by nature, but they are using that as a creative outlet. I think that’s OK. The only downside is that I find there aren’t as many musicians like the kind of people that I play with in my band. There not so many young people around like that around. When I was a kid and I went to school, the guys that were into music where players. Now you get guys that are into music that are DJs and computer guys that are pulling stuff together. Some guys who are making records and making a lot of money – they can’t even play the drums. They are programming them and they are making beats, but they can’t play a beat. It’s kind of interesting, it’s kind of strange. But in a way, like I said, it’s good, it gives a different perspective. Where it will become bad is if we’ll run out of real guys to play the beats. And hopefully that doesn’t happen. I hope that doesn’t happen. I don’t think that’s gonna happen because guys still come up and there are young musicians who still play. But there is not as many.
HRH: Would you say that requirements are more lax these days as applicable to guitar players?
RK: The requirements are more lax?
HRH: Or, on the contrary, the requirements are tougher these days?
RK: What do you mean “lax”?
HRH: When you were growing up, for your generation – what a lot people are calling the post-Van Halen generation, people like Malmsteen and Vai – there was a necessary requirement to…
RK: To be able to play?
HRH: …to be able to play like a virtuoso. Do you think it still stands to this day? Do you think that requirement is still there?
RK: I don’t think that requirement was EVER there. I think there was a TREND. And I don’t think all those guys are virtuosos. The guys you’ve named are. But not all the guys who are thrown together in that basket are really what you call virtuosos. In other words, there was a movement in ROCK guitar to play really wild impossible licks, OK? Just because you can play those licks doesn’t mean you are a virtuoso in music or on your instrument, it means you can do that one thing. To me it’s a much broader scope. Stanley Clarke is a virtuoso. I played with him. And I see why from working with him, I understand the difference. Some of the other guys who excel at a certain thing which is valuable and comes from having put a lot of work in, which is important… But the thing about music, it’s not really relevant. You don’t need to be a virtuoso to touch people. The virtuoso musician could play something that could totally go over someone’s head – at least the guy you are calling a virtuoso – and the guy who only knows 5 or 6 chords can write a song that will move you way more. So I don’t know if any of that really means anything. The only thing that matters is what your objective is and what you are trying to create. So if you want to play a Paganini, you gonna have to have that kind of chops. You’re gonna spend that time to develop some chops. If you wanna play Bruce Springsteen’s songs, it’s a whole different avenue, but it’s a equally valuable development – you gonna have to learn how to take your life’s experiences and translate that into a simple way with lyrics that are heartfelt and still interesting. It’s an equally important talent, just a different focus. And to me music has always been something where there is a connection. It’s not like sports. It’s not like, “I’m gonna beat you at sports.” Music isn’t like that. I’m not gonna beat you at the guitar, I’m not gonna play faster than you. It’s about creating something and people either connect with it or not. And I think in that period of those names of people that vision kind of got lost. And for a minute guitar playing was like sports with all those guys trying to outplay each other and play faster and crazier. It was a fad, and like all fads, it goes away. And there is a couple of guys who are left who are actually making music and they are still around playing. Long-winded answer.
HRH: Yes… But talking about the nature of that fad – lots of young guys trying to be virtuosos – do you think it’s ultimately about domination? Where nothing is left that cannot be absorbed into your technique and that for them that became the nature of artistic fulfilment?
RK: No, because I don’t think a lot of these players were doing that. I think a lot of these players where doing the same thing over and over again. It’s just different guys doing it in a different way. There is not one of those guys that does what you are saying. In other words, each guy has their own style and their won thing which is really great, but there isn’t one guy who can play any type of guitar playing – any type of flamenco guitar playing, and then the blues shit really well, and then play the classical shit really well, and then the classical shit really well, and then the country stuff. It doesn’t exist. And if it does, then that guy can play all that stuff pretty good, but he’s not gonna play the flamenco stuff like the guy who grew up in South America who only ever played flamenco. It’s not gonna happen, it’s a cultural thing. It’s my opinion, but I haven’t seen it. The guy who does the great rock’n’roll guitar playing lives the rock’n’roll lifestyle. He wasn’t studying doing the jazz thing. He was on the streets playing dirty grungy rock’n’roll, living the lifestyle. The same way the guy that plays the jazz is coming up in the jazz circuit playing with horn players. You get guys that kind of play at different stuff, but ultimately people find comfort in a style and a sound and become to identify with it and that’s why you get these kind of artists who say, “This sounds like Jimi Hendrix.” Jimi Hendrix couldn’t play every style of music, he played Jimi Hendrix music, and that’s what he got to identify with. I’m not comparing myself with anybody, but I play my music. I play the guitar the way I play it which is a collection of my influences and then my perspective on it, so I’m at my best when I’m doing what Richie Kotzen does, which is what I’m doing tonight. That’s me at my best. Whatever that is, whatever you call it – rock, whatever it is, blues, metal, I don’t care what you call it. That’s kind of my take on that.
HRH: How do you manage on the one hand your amazing chops and at the same time being a composer and a songwriter?
RK: Well, it’s time, that’s what it is – it’s time. In other words, when I was 15, I wasn’t a very good composer, I wasn’t a very prolific composer, it was new to me, so like with anything, like with riding a bike, you have to do it enough to learn the craft. So during my teenage years I was focusing on playing the guitar and learning to play stuff that I heard other people do, and it was difficult back then. It wasn’t perceived by me as difficult because everyone else was doing it. I mean Greg Howe, Paul Gilbert, Jason Becker, all those guys were putting their records out post-Van Halen, so I was listening to that, thinking, “OK, those guys are doing it, that’s what guys like me are playing like,” so I started getting into it. So in that early time, I would say at 15, 16, 17, 18 in that period I was focusing on the guitar. I wasn’t singing, I wasn’t really writing songs, just playing the guitar. Constantly. So in those years I think is where I developed all the physicality of moving my hands. And then, I after I made my first record, I suddenly realised, “Well, OK, it’s kind of boring now. I did this, but I don’t want to keep doing the same thing.” And I thought, “What made me want to do this in the first place? It is music. What kind of music that I like? I like the Stones, I like the Beatles, I like Jimi Hendrix, I like Janis Joplin.” I started listening to their records and I started writing songs. I started writing songs that were similar to the artists that inspired me. On my second record I was singing. And then from there it’s a natural evolution, so you are looking at something that started at 18 when I made my first record, now I’m 38. It’s 20 years of consistently making records under my own name. Now I am who I am. I now have my own style, but it took 20 years to get there. Some people get there like that. (Snaps his fingers). I’m a lot slower. (Smiles).
HRH: Are you happier being a solo artist as opposed to being in a band scenario? Do you feel freer, you feel less restricted?
RK: Absolutely. To me, the difference between being a solo artist and being in a band is like between being at home and staying in a hotel. Sometimes the hotel is nice, they have a swimming pool there, and they have all that other stuff, but you know what, I have the swimming pool at home too and there is nothing like home. So I look at it like that. The normal situation for me is what I am doing here. Writing my songs, singing and playing. I don’t like dividing that. I don’t like just playing the guitar and don’t like just singing. I like it together as a circle. That’s what I’m happy with. And I like playing with guys who can bring life to my music and bring it to life on stage, and that’s what I’m doing with these guys here. But the notion of the band thing… It’s been fun, in my experience, for a period of time. In the 3 situations, as I’ve only really been in 3 bands publicly, it became where I went, “OK, I gotta go home now.” Do you know what I mean? And then I’d go back to making my own records. That’s what I like doing, that’s what I am.
HRH: Of all rock trios, the Jimi Hendrix Experience excluding, which one do you think has inspired you the most?
RK: I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I like Eric Clapton, I like Cream. I never really sat around and listened to too many Cream records, but I’m hearing stuff on the radio and it sounds great. I just like the trio format. It’s comfortable for me, there’s a lot of freedom in it. And I did tour with an organ player, but we didn’t tour, we did gigs in LA, but he was part of the group. And now it’s really fun too because we connected. But as a trio format is something that just makes a lot of sense. If I couldn’t sing, we’d be a four-piece, we’d have a lead singer. That’s the thing about trios and not a trio. If you get a band like the Who – he’s singing, or Led Zeppelin – he’s the singer, but if the other guys sang like that, he’d be gone, and they’d be a trio. So a trio format is a kind of like a standard rock thing: guitar, bass, and drums. And somebody singing – whether it’s one of the three or an extra dude. So it’s the same format to me.
HRH: I have one last question and it’s a bit goofy, I hope you don’t mind.
RK: OK, we’ll see.
HRH: If you were granted an answer to any question in the universe, what would you ask?
RK: I don’t have any questions, I think I have all the answers. I have every answer you can possibly imagine. (Smiles).
HRH: Steve Vai said exactly the same thing to me.
RK: Did he?
HRH: The only two musicians who have given me this same answer to this question are you and Steve Vai.
RK: Well, I’m number two. The thing that is funny about it is that I am not a person… I don’t want to go on a philosophical rant, but I get a feeling that I am here in this situation and that’s what my focus is always on. So I guess, in a weird way, there aren’t really any answers. I really think that if people spend a lot of time hung up on, “Why didn’t I make it? Why am I short? Why am I too tall? Why am I this, and why am I that?” and they don’t live their lives, you are what you are, make the best of it and do something functional with it, enjoy your time here. You really don’t know where you’re going. Everybody is going to the same place. When you’re dead, you’re dead. But I don’t really sit around asking questions, “Why this, why that?” I’m happy to live my life and be in the moment and enjoy myself. That’s really the way I look at it.