There are guitar guys that get tons of press and release really good discs – then you have guys like Richie Kotzen who pump out killer material on disc after disc under his own name as well as a multitude of bands and projects and get little to no press, yet continue to do so to help satisfy not only their own love of what they do, but also for their fanbase, regardless of its size. With Salting Earth ready to drop on his legions of fans, Richie jumped on the phone with us to discuss the new material, his own label, and much more…
Toddstar: Richie, thank you so much for taking time out for us man. We’re so excited to speak to you today.
Richie: Oh great. Well, thanks for the opportunity.
Toddstar: Well, let’s jump right into this. Salting Earth, the latest release from Richie Kotzen. What can you tell us about this disc that the fans might not catch first or second time through listening to it, Richie?
Richie: Well, let’s see. I have a pretty wide pendulum swing on this record, if you think about the opening track and where it ends. I’m sure they’ll catch it once they listen to it. This record, for me, it’s a deeper collection of songs in a sense. You’ve got songs like “Make It Easy,” which is a typical old school Richie Kotzen type rock song, but then you have some other things happening here on the record that are interesting when you put it next to that. For example, you have the song “This Is Life,” which is a very personal song. It’s more R&B driven, yet obviously has a guitar solo at the end. Then, you have songs like “Grammy,” which are very naked in the sense of the production. It’s just the guitar and a voice with a drum machine. Then, you have some more complex production in the opening track “End of Earth.” It’s a pretty deep record as far as delving into Richie Kotzen and looking at what I call the pendulum swing, what encompasses me as a writer and as a solo artist. I think this record really shows, really runs the gamut of what it is that I do. In the past I’ve had songs that were R&B oriented. In the past I’ve had songs that were heavy rock. This record, I think, there’s a bit of everything that I do, all within ten songs. It’s kind of exciting for me the way it came together.
Toddstar: Well, listening to it from top to bottom, I think this is a solid record. A lot of it comes across especially lyrically as a little more personal album. Is that something you intentionally did or is that just how the pieces fell together for you?
Richie: I would say it’s how the pieces fell together. I would also say, in general, my lyric writing style or the way that I write lyrics have always been more conversational. I’m not an abstract guy. I don’t write about UFO’s and aliens or things that are the unexplained. I’m writing about personal things. It might not be me, by the way. It might be somebody else. It might be a situation that I fabricated somehow, that I wrote about. If Quentin Tarantino writes a movie about vampires, it doesn’t mean that he’s really a vampire. Sometimes when you write songs you can envision situations or something you’ve observed and write about that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be directly about you. Sometimes songs are directly about the artist, when you have that luxury. In general, my lyrics are much more conversational, more people oriented I would say. More real life oriented. I think I’ve always been that way. Probably because the artists that I grew up listening to wrote from the same kind of a space, if you will. As far as the way the album ties together, it’s interesting. If you think about bands that do records, a lot of times a band will book a studio, go in, and bang record the record and move on. I don’t really work that way. I never really did. I’ve done that before on a couple of records, but my process is a little different. My process is more like, if I write a song I usually record it in that moment or I start recording it at least. If it’s something that I’m really inspired by, I’ll finish and then I’ll move on. Maybe a month or two will go by and I’ll have another idea for a song, and I’ll go record that one. Then when I get three or four or maybe five that I really, really like, then I’ll go into the studio on a more permanent basis and start going back to old ideas and seeing if I can develop them. I am assuming at this point I’m in some kind of inspired mode. That’s what I did with this record. I had “End Of Earth” that I wrote around the same time that I wrote “Divine Power,” around the same time that I wrote “Meds.” Then I started looking in the archives and I found some things. I found “Thunder,” which was a song that I started recording many years ago. I found “Make It Easy,” which is a song that was originally going to be on a record I put out in 2004. But, in 2004 I couldn’t write lyrics for it, so I found lyrics for it last year. I wrote them and I recorded them. That’s an interesting track because what you’re hearing is the bass, drums, and lead guitar from over ten years ago with keyboard added and new vocals added. Actually, I replayed the bass. Then you have songs that are completely brand new, 100%. I also have songs that I’ve re-recorded. My song “My Rock” was around for a while. That song has been around for a couple years. I went back. I found it. I didn’t like the way I recorded it. I redid everything, start to finish, and replaced everything. Now you have the version that is on the record. There’s all kinds of ways these things come together. I’ll wrap this up. The ultimate thing that happens is once you get all these songs, you have maybe fifteen or twenty, you pick the ten that you like the most that fit well together and there’s your record. That’s how I do it.
Toddstar: I love the insight. I really appreciate it. You hit on something and I would like to visit it. I’ve seen it in press releases but to get it from you would be something. You talk about being inspired and the story behind “Grammy” is amazing.
Richie: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Julia went up to Big Bear with her friends. She went up there to do a gig. She took her bass up there and they went to a pub up there and did some songs. I was home. I had I don’t know how many glasses of wine. Whatever, in my own world and I passed out on the sofa. Around 2:30-3:00 in the morning I woke up with this melody in my head. I was like, “I’ve got to do something with this.” I forced myself out of bed. I started messing around with the melody. Suddenly, I found myself recording the song. I did it all by the time 6:00-6:30 rolled around, everything was written and recorded. Now granted, it’s a drum machine, an acoustic guitar, and a vocal. I literally got off the sofa out of a dead sleep, went in, wrote the song, sang it, played it, and that’s it. I messed around with the idea of putting bass on it and replacing the drums with a real drummer. I remember picking up the bass at about 7:30 in the morning and I was messing with it. I’m like, “You know, if I start adding stuff to this, it’s going to destroy the charm of what’s making this track work for me.” At least in my taste. So, I left it alone. That’s the last track on the record. It’s got a very intimate vibe. The last line of the song is tongue and cheek. I think it’s cool. I think it’s funny. That I’m happy with the way that came out.
Toddstar: It’s funny to me that it closes the disc. To me the song could have just easily opened the disc. I love it.
Richie: Awesome. Great. Thank you.
Toddstar: You were able to go out this year and create your own custom label, Headroom-Inc. How much do you feel that freed you up from anything? Do you ever feel restricted, as far as what you’re going to write, record, and possibly put out? Whether or not it’s on your label or someone else’s?
Richie: I tell you what. In my experience, I’ve been signed to many, many record labels; majors, independents, across the board. I’ve had good experiences and I’ve had very, very bad experiences. One thing that I’ll say, even in the good experiences, when you’re signed to a record company and you have someone putting up money, putting up capital to invest in you to market the record and do all these things, they want to know that they’re going to get their money back; naturally. It’s business. It makes sense. In that process something happens for the artist that sometimes is not so healthy. You start getting in a position where you have people that are not necessarily creative people directing you one way or another because they’re worried that they may not get their investment back. They need you to fit into a marketable box. That’s very dangerous. That’s messed me up many, many times. I grew up listening to bands like Led Zeppelin for example. If you listen to your favorite Led Zeppelin album it’s very diverse. You have a song that has acoustics on it. You have a song where there’s piano. There’s so many things happening. Not every song is a loud guitar and Robert Plant screaming. There’s real depth there. Same thing with many other bands and many other artists. The thing that was always interesting… the problem I have with labels is I would write songs and they would say, “Well, you’re all over the place. This song is R&B, this song is rock, this song you have strings on, this song you have female background vocals.” I’m like, “Hey. Wait a minute. You want to sell me as a major artist. All the major artists I listen to are diverse artists. Queen. I’ll name twenty if I have to.” There’s always this weird thing with the label where I felt like I was getting screwed up. Trying to market me as something that I’m not. The minute I got free from that, which happened back in 2004 when I did the record Get Up. I don’t think I had a label involved back then either, other than myself. Certainly when I did Into The Black, which was one of the first ones that I did on my own as well. Then I did many, many more. The minute I opened that up, my whole career opened up. My fan base grew. They could finally see me for who I am, as opposed to seeing a tiny piece of the picture and then I’m not going to appeal to very many people. If people can see the artist, really who they are, then they can make a clear decision if they like them or not. Thankfully for me, by doing this on my own I’m not being beholden to a label. I’m able to grow artistically with my fan base and carry this even further. For me not having a label has worked out great. I don’t know if it’s for everybody.
Toddstar: Let’s be honest. In this day and age when music in my opinion, and I grew up with a lot of the same music you did, seems so disposable to grow with your fan base almost seems like a necessity anymore.
Richie: Yeah. It’s true. Let’s be even more honest. Artists like myself, I don’t think there’s a deal for me out there anyway because the fact of the matter is that the record labels now, from what I’m told, are doing these deals that they call 360 deals where they get a piece of everything. They get a piece of the touring. They get a piece of merchandise. They get a piece of endorsement money. That works for a pop star if you’re investing millions of dollars, but let’s face it I’m 47 years old. They’re not going to invest millions of dollars in Richie Kotzen. It works for the younger guys still. If you’re a pop star, it’s a machine that still works. Guys like me that are fortunate enough to have a fan base, I think we’re better off doing it ourselves.
Toddstar: True. Going over the song, again this is packed with just ten killer tracks, I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite or even a couple favorites. What songs from this disc do you think will fit best among your catalog when you take this out on the road next month?
Richie: Let me pull it out here, so I’m looking at it, so I know what I’m talking about. I’m going to tell you something right now as I look at this. This is the first time I’ve ever done this. We’re doing most of the record. Matter of fact, I think there’s only two songs that we’re not doing. We’re doing almost the whole record. I’ve never done that before. I believe in the record that much or I’m tired of the old songs. I don’t know what it means. We’re doing eight out of ten and I would bet at the end of the day we’ll probably add those other two into the set. I’ve been touring a lot too. We haven’t changed the set in quite a while. I think it’s time. Why not play the new stuff. It’s interesting. I’m going to put myself on the piano for three songs on this tour, which I think will be interesting. It’s the first time I did that actually, played this many new songs.
Toddstar: How different does it feel for you when you do take this stuff out on the road and you tour? So many of the songs are just you. When somebody gets the recorded version it’s Richie. You might have a backup singer. You might have someone who contributed drums to a track or two. A lot of this is you start to finish. How different does it feel when you’re hearing those songs and you’re hearing someone else fiddle with the bass a little bit or throwing a different drum fill?
Richie: That’s a great point. I’m glad you brought that up. The reality is, when I record these records, the last couple records, the last five or whatever, I’m getting inspired. I’m in a studio. I hear a drumbeat. I’ve laid down the drums. I have a bass line. I write the bass line, which kind of dictates how the song feels. All this stuff happens at the same time. Before you know it, it’s finished. I love the way it sounds. I’m happy with it. It’s what I heard in my head and I’m the only guy on the record. It’s not that I plan it that way. It just happens. Right? When we go out on tour, the songs then take on a whole new life, which is exciting. We did something last time that I really am happy we did. At the end of the last Richie Kotzen Solo Album Cycle… I think I had put out two records. I put out The Essential Collection and I put out Cannibals. We did a big tour, went all over. Then at the very end we did a show in Japan, which they were kind enough to film for me. So, I made a DVD. I made a live DVD. I was able to really sit back and see how some of these songs took on a new life. Some of them actually got better. There’s a song called “Fear” that’s from the Into The Black record. The way the band interpreted it, it turned into this whole other thing. It’s so much deeper than what I put on the record. It’s the same song, but just the passion, the way we’re playing it and the improv section we came up with. The same thing happened to another song called “Help Me.” The original record was really cool. It was several years ago, but I loved the record. When we played it live after playing it all over the world suddenly the song has this whole new feel behind it. Again, we created a whole new improv jam section. A lot of great things happened over the course of time. Songs evolve. Not all of them. Sometimes certain songs I don’t bother putting in a live set. I know without all the proper instrumentation it’s just not going to feel the same. Sometimes it gets better. It just depends.
Toddstar: Are there any songs that you want to play live that you’ve written and that you’re so proud of that just don’t seem to translate as well outside of the studio?
Richie: I’m trying to find ways to do that. There’s a song that I put out as a single, many years ago. A lot of people don’t even know about it, but the ones that do know about the song always say it’s their favorite Richie Kotzen song. It’s a song called “Angry Boy.” I think years ago I tried to put it into set and for some reason something about it didn’t work for me. Now I’m going back to it. I’m going to try to do it this time. I think this time we’ll be able to figure it out. There’s an example of something like that, that I try to do and it didn’t work, but now we’re going to try and do it again. There are certain other songs. There’s a song from Cannibals called “In An Instant.” It would be really fun to play live. Unfortunately, in my mind I really feel like I need a second guitar player to pull that off, either that or a keyboard player. One or the other. There’s essentially guitar and piano happening at the same time. For that particular song I think it would be really weird. Anything’s possible, but for that song that’s one I don’t do live that I would like to do, but I just don’t because I don’t know how to translate it.
Toddstar: Are there any songs Richie that you play year after year, tour after tour because you know the fans expect them but you just go through the motions because it might have lost that spark for you?
Richie: Not with my solo stuff. There’s been times in bands where I’m playing songs and I’m not as emotionally engaged in the song for whatever reason. With my solo stuff, there’s so much catalog material and it’s not like I ever had that one definitive song. One song that people seem to love probably is “You Can’t Save Me.” We don’t always play it. Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t. It really depends on how my voice feels because it’s not an easy song to sing. I don’t feel trapped that way. If I didn’t like the song, I wouldn’t put it on a record. Like I said, I never had a hit, a real hit. The closest thing I had to a hit song was the song I wrote when I was in Poison called “Stand.” I think we were on the top forty with that song. I never had a real hit. I don’t know. I don’t know any better. I just play my songs and I’m happy to be doing it.
Toddstar: Well, you mention that track and I do love that song. I really dug the version that you threw on The Essential Collection.
Richie: I’m trying to remember. What did I do? Did I do an acoustic version with that?
Toddstar: It was just stripped down. It was so soulful. It really stripped all the bullshit aside as far as I was concerned and just turned it into a soulful Richie Kotzen song.
Richie: Right on.
Toddstar: That said Richie, looking back over your career, you’ve had three lifetime’s careers in your years in music because you’ve done so many projects and so many albums and bands and stuff like that. Is there anything that you look back on as a missed op or something you would just like a re-do on?
Richie: Well, not really. I think that if you go back in time and change one little thing it’s going to fuck up the whole course of everything else. It might have some moments that are better, but in general I think that would be a dangerous thing to do. I don’t spend very much time dwelling on “What if I would have did this.” I don’t really think I have that in me, so to speak. It’s interesting, I don’t have a lot of memorabilia. Some of my friends have done a lot in the business. They have every copy of every single thing. They even save their backstage passes for example. I have a couple of things hanging around the house. Actually, I’m looking right now. In the main part of my house I don’t have anything. In my office I have a few things hanging and in one of the hallways I’ve got a few things. I don’t really keep a lot around. I don’t really live in the past is what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to do what I’m doing now, you know.
Toddstar: That’s awesome. It comes across in your music for sure. There’s always growth and the amount of depth that you’re able to pour into every album just amazes me. Every album seems to get more complex and deep without getting away from being simple, if you know what I mean. I know you’re a busy man. I’m going to cut you loose. I want to wish you well with the release of Salting Earth. You’ve got a tour coming up soon. I can’t wait to see you. I know you’re swinging through the Detroit area.
Richie: Yeah. I’m excited about that. It’s going to be great. We’ve got so many shows being added. Anybody that is interested, they can go to my website. They can follow, get notifications, and see if we’re coming close to them. I’ll be tweeting stuff too. We’ve got a lot of shows coming. I’m excited to come to your area.
Toddstar: Yeah. We’ll make sure everybody’s got the links for all the socials and your website, so they can keep in touch and make sure that they get their hands on the album when it comes out and they get the chance to come see you live.
Richie: Awesome. Thank you so much for calling me. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.
Toddstar: All right Richie. We’ll talk to you soon.
Richie: All right. Bye.
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